A Real Yankee Doodle D
A birthday/memorial tribute to Bill Niemann by his kid sister – Marilyn Kinsella
April 22, 2007
My brother Bill was a true patriot. He loved his country and loved his job with the US Air Force. Thankfully, he never had to see combat, but worked hard at the various jobs he held in America and abroad. He was a 20-year man and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He always looked so handsome in his uniform.
His love of the military started as young boy. One of the earliest and cutest pictures of Bill is of him and his younger brother Chris (circa 1944) in little boy military attire. They stand at attention in this black and white photo.
Even as a tyke (left)), he looked handsome in a uniform.
When they were young, they had a set of green military men that were always in some kind of strategic battle. They lined up the platoons along backyard hillsides to attack and counter-attack. Somehow, they were always on the winning side.
Now the men lie buried under a make-shift bunker in the Fields of Fairview
When they got too old for playing with toys, they took notebook paper and, with pencil in hand, drew elaborate battle scenes. They sat hunkered over a table drawing tanks, airplanes, warships, and little men getting blown in the air. Now, all this came with sound effects…as they drew, you could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the plane’s gunner, the explosion of grenades on the ground, and bazookas blasting over the hill as the enemy approached. (Pics from the book "They Still Draw Pictures")
There were bloody cries of men getting hit on the battlefield – dying valiantly for their country.
We had an old black and white TV set. Often, there were war movies from the 40’s playing. Bill never missed a one - Dive Bomber, A Yank in the R.A.F., Wake Island, Guadalcanal Diary , Bataan, Winged Victory, Sergeant York…the list goes on. Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, and, the duke himself - John Wayne were his all-time heroes. As Bill and Chris sat there watching the action, they commented on certain types of aircraft or decisions that were made.
Don’t even think of turning a channel, when there was a war to be won!
It wasn’t until I was about 10 years old …so Bill would have been about 18 that we got our first hi-fi set. Until then we had a small record player that played 45’s. Bill was the one who actually bought the hi-fi, and I remember he was so proud of the diamond needle that he bought. He belonged to a record club and bought a lot of different LP’s, but one of his first purchases was the complete set of Victory at Sea albums.
He loved the military…even in his choice of music!
Our family was so proud when Bill was accepted for officer’s training. Mom was upset that he had to move to Wichita Falls, TX. But, I guess it was fate because that’s where he met Pat. Mom knew right away that she was the one. Mom kept the home fires burning as Bill and Pat were transferred from state to state. It was always joyous when Bill and Pat and their growing family “came home.”
Mom’s special treat was to make a big batch of rice pudding. Bill loved her rice pudding. I remember the times he came home unexpected, too. Those were such special moments. My dad, who rarely smiled, always had a big grin on his face as Bill walked in. Soon, they put up a card table and shuffled the cards, and the bridge game was on….Bill was home to win!
As the family got older, Bill was so proud of his kids. He may have not let them know it – I think he was a bit like our father in that way. We heard from others how proud my dad was, but he wouldn’t tell us! Maybe it was a German thing…who knows. Whenever one of his kids chose to take the military path, Bill beamed. I remember some stories he told me about Trista when she was in training or Shawn while he was practicing medicine.
Bill, with Pat at his side, faced many uphill battles raising eight wonderful, bright, loving kids. At times his work could get to him, but he used his strategy to bring himself back up. He was a fierce warrior on the tennis and racquetball courts as well as at the bridge table. But, there was one final battle that he lost, the one to cancer. Again, I admired the way he gracefully accepted his fate - choosing to put his faith in God’s hands.
I believe that God chose to take Bill on the Fourth of July for a reason. The Commander-in Chief called him home to receive his just reward for his faithful service to God, his family…and his country.
Lieutenant-Colonel William Joseph Niemann, I salute you!
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There were such wonderful stories and anecdotes that the Niemann Family shared on April 23, 2007, that I have included them below:
Shawn Niemann: When we would play Trivial Pursuit, and we would argue over something, and Dad would say "It don't come with explanations!!" and then make a ruling that would benefit, oh I don't know... him.
This has been passed down to my kids now, and when we play a family game someone will always yell this, even when it doesn't make any sense....
Kristin points out to me that the funniest story she heard is when Dad came home one day, went to the bathroom, and then came out and said "Pat, why is there a chicken in a box in my bathroom?". Because Mom had rescued a chicken and was keeping it in the bathroom. Makes perfect sense.
Three generations of Niemanns
I was lucky to have the start of an adult relationship with Dad before he died. This story is the moment it dawned on Dad that I was all grown up.
I was a new 2nd Lt in the Air Force, doing my Undergraduate Space Training at Lowry AFB in Denver, Co. Dad was in town for a few hours. After I picked him up from the airport, we went on to Lowry to tour the base.
We were in my VW Fox and having a nice conversation as we stopped at the gate. After the guard checked the sticker on my car, he saluted smartly. Dad and I snapped back a salute at the same time in that cramped little car. I laughed and started driving onto the base. Dad said, "Oh, that was meant for you." in a soft voice. I smiled and from that moment on, he saw me in a new light. As a fellow officer, fellow adult, fellow professional...not just as his daughter.Not everything I did made Dad proud. I made a lot of mistakes growing up and one of his sayings was, "Even if you shoot the Pope, you can come home." Not sure I actually ever believed that we'd be welcome home after shooting the Bishop of Rome, but we knew what he meant-- that his home was always our home.
When visiting me in Nashville.while I was in graduate school, Dad let me know he disapproved of one of my choices. "You're making a mistake" he said. And the next words out of his mouth were, "Grab your stuff, let's go play racquetball." He let me know how he felt but he didn't shun me or shut me out.I didn't want to follow in Dad's footsteps. People said I looked and acted just like Dad. I didn't like that and certainly didn't want to be bald, or have people assuming I was going to have an Air Force career just to copy Dad. But, the Army scholarship didn't pan out (thank goodness) so I was left with the AF option.Imagine my surprise when I got my second assignment and it was at Las Angeles Air Force Base.where Dad was stationed in the 70s. When I got to LA in 1992, I was assigned to the same Project Office Dad left in 1980. There were still civilian employees who had worked with Dad and who stopped me in the halls to ask me if I was related to Bill Niemann. Small world indeed. When Dad got sick, one his old co-workers wrote him a letter reminiscing the old days of bridge at lunch, racquetball matches, eating out, etc. (Does it sound like much work was being done? Maybe that's why the same project office was still around in the 90s!) After Dad passed away, I was taking a Systems Acquisitions class and part of the course material was a paper Dad wrote while at Fort Belvoir's Defense Systems Management College. I still have copies of the paper if anyone is interested. And it's still being used for training those in the Air Force acquisition world.Looking back, it's not so bad that I followed Dad's footsteps as I was able to connect with him and with people who knew him. I'd say I was pretty lucky indeed.Happy Earthday, Happy Birthday, Dad.
Jennifer Martin:Uncle memories (would be in ode format if my brain was still able) instead stream of conscience:
- Food -NY-style cheesecake always bought from Beyersdorfer's bakery when he was in Fairview
- rice pudding; 'his" famous cheese dip; his everything in the kitchen sink waffles
- His size... always so much taller than me, him nicknaming Sister Mary Midget
- His love/hate relationship with cats and garage sales
- He & my mom always going to the movies
- He, Aunt Pat and my dad playing bridge.
- The excitement of everyone when he was coming to St. Louis
- Meeting him at Scott for stopovers in the middle of the night( in pjs) to say hi/hang out till fly out
- Taking me in biplane? in Cal.
- Him putting me on the plane from Cal back home with a cat (Foxface)
- Him playing tennis, and then racquetball (traitor) in poly shorts and high socks
- In DC he would set up tennis matches with some of the retirees- me against 2 of them at a time
- Him taking us to a French restaurant (the first really nice restaurant). I think it was just the girls.
- Sailing on the Potomac.
- Reading in a chair.
- Being tough, but fun not wanting to disappoint.
- He and Aunt Pat playfully bickering back and forth. (usually about garage sales and cats)
- Going to church
- Fourth of July (don't know why?)
- Going to eat at officer's club
- Sad things like the back of His head at Skyler's funeral.
- Last memory Him at my wedding and our fun dance.All for now, If more come will sendI wish you enoughJennifer
Tory Niemann via Sasha:
Sunday: a Memory
Stained-glass sunlight lay like a quilt across the pews and families. The depictions in the nearest window were of symbolic items: cup, sword, washbowl. I liked the clean lines of the sword in glass and leaned to inspect the next pane’s icon. Mom had said the thing was a farming tool from Biblical times, but it reminded me of the alien weapons I saw watching Star Trek with Dad. I thought about how heavy it would be and how you would swing it.
“Sit up,” Mom said, barely above a mumble. “Pay attention.”
Dad, sitting to her other side, would have heard. He did not look or frown, but I knew he heard.
The homily went on. My brother and sister and I went to mass twice during the week as a part of school, and those homilies were easier to follow. The priest would come down from the podium and talk like a person, but on Sundays when the adults were there he spoke longer and wider. The sentences made sense individually, but trying to connect them made my mind swim. At my right, Parker listened or pretended to listen. He was good at such things, and whenever we played superheroes, he was always the hero. My twin sister, Sasha, was on the other side of our parents, probably fussing with her braids. Kids at school joked that when our older siblings were home and we all went to the same mass, we took up a whole pew. It was true.
Kids at school also talked about troubles on Sunday mornings, not wanting to go to church and wanting to sleep in instead. I stayed out of these conversations. For the Niemann family, there was no discussion, debate, or mention of other possibilities. You went to church on Sunday like you ate meals or went to sleep. There was never any question of whether one wanted to our not. You did it.
I tried to be attentive and listen again. The homily was on the presence of God the Father in our lives. Catholic schooling had imparted a solid base of theology, but the person of God the Father was a gray area. Jesus was easy. Most of mass and religion class was about Jesus, his life, his message, his smile and outstretched hole-y hands. I knew Jesus, and the Holy Spirit was supposed to be mysterious, but Jesus’ Dad was sort of a blank for me. The priest this morning was talking about the Father’s love and guidance, but the ideas rolled past me. I could visualize them no more than love from the sky or guidance from the earth under my feet.
Mom slapped my hands without looking. “Don’t crack your knuckles.” I had been. The habit had been passed on from my sister Tatjana, who was old enough to go to different a mass.
This time Dad did look and did frown. His glances carried the weight of whole conversations, encoded like radio signals. There was no violence in him, but we feared his wrathful countenance more than any of Mom’s actual punishments. He would say things once and let the look repeat it later. He would tell us “get your hands out of your pockets, you look like you just fell off the turnip truck,” and he would say it again with his set jaw and lowered eyebrow. He was a mysterious presence to me, rarely at home and never talkative. I had only the vaguest notions about his job and personal tastes. Occasionally we’d watch TV together: westerns, science fiction, or, his favorite, war movies. I kept quiet, but he knew when I didn’t understand things and would try to explain in few words. “He’s talking about the Civil War.” “They’re already in space.” “That one’s a spy.”
The priest continued his sermon on the subtleties of the Father’s grace and love. My back hurt from the wood pew and my feet ached from the polished shoes that no longer fit. They had been Parker’s, hand-me-downs like most of my wardrobe, but I was already outgrowing them. Mom had been on the lookout for shoes during her weekly garage sale ventures. I knew not to complain about hand-me-downs and garage sale finds. The rewards of complaining were lectures about counting one’s blessing and all the hungry and/or naked people in the world. Worse were the shorter lectures about the costs of sending us to private schools and how our father’s hard-earned money went there instead of to anything he wanted.
To ease my spine, I sat sideways and stretched my arm across the back of the pew behind my Mom. On her other side, Dad was sitting in a similar posture, but with his elbow slung over the back of the pew. The sermon went on, touching on the power of God the Father, which I found easier to understand. I’d always thought the story of creation interesting and digestible. I could create things too, albeit with Legos and couch cushions, but it was an act I got. That God would wish to take chaos and make something good made sense, but to care about it afterward didn’t. My Lego inventions returned to the box by suppertime and the couch cushion forts had to come down before the Cosby Show.
Mom adjusted her hair. She always wore her long, dark hair up in a bun. We only saw her hair down when someone was sick and needed tending in the middle of the night. She would descend to the children’s rooms in her nightgown to administer the cure for head aches, fevers, or ear aches: two crushed aspirins in a large spoon with sugar water. Her hair unbound and clouding her face, she would wait until you drank it all. You could feel the rough edges of the metal spoon against your teeth and lips. Awakening the next morning, all better, you would only half-remember the sweet-bitter of aspirin and the mysterious hair. In daylight, Mom was sensible and kept her hair out of the way.
The sermon glided on. The homily, I’d calculated, was the halfway point of a mass. Afterward we would stand briefly for a creed and the “Lord, here our prayer” part. We’d sit for the collection and after that came what I called the First Stand. Then we’d kneel while the priest did his thing with the bread and wine. After that we’d be up, the Second Stand, for the Our Father and the Sign of Peace. Kneel again. Then back up for the communion line, technically the Third Stand even if we were moving. After that the mass would be practically done, with only the final blessing and sundry songs left. The art of subdividing time had been a major discovery for me and made any event tolerable. I learned to worry only about getting through each particular unit of time.
To pass this unit of time, I had the hand-imal. The hand-imal was an animal of one hand: the middle finger was its head, thumb and pinkie hind legs, and index and ring finger the fore. The hand-imal would wander about, sniff things with its fingernail snout and generally explore its miniature environment. This particular hand-imal was interested in the cliff that was the back of the pew behind Mom. The sheer drop would surely kill it (or at least disturb the people in the pew behind us), so it had to be careful navigating with its awkward gait.
Dad clamped his hand over mine, trapping it. He was a huge man, tall and wide, and the weight of his hand was enough to keep mine from moving. Dad’s attention was still on the sermon and his face was expressionless, like he didn’t know that he had grabbed my hand at all. Or perhaps his expression was a slowly building one, I thought, an anger so hefty it took time to unfurl. I waited, but nothing happened. Mom didn’t seem to notice either.
Then my hand was released. The hand-imal was free once again. Dad gave me a look, one I hadn’t seen much before, and a shadow of a grin. I withdrew my hand but his pounced on it again. He squeezed and released, this time his hand scampered back like a tarantula spider.
I could feel the grin spreading on my face and I sent the hand-imal to investigate. The larger creature, which had seemed just a landscape feature before, sprang into action again, moving with its own cadence. My Dad’s smile was more than a shadow now and, POUNCE, his hand had captured mine again.
We had never played many games. He often insisted on taking Parker and me to racquetball with him (his favored social sport) and occasionally tried to teach us his more involved board games (most involving global warfare and long-term strategy). Parker had been better at both. I was too quickly frustrated and Dad didn’t have the patience to put up with me. But this was something different; he was engaging in a game on my terms. He was entering my world instead of permitting me into his.
The hand animals tussled again and I chuckled. Then Mom shhhed me and gave me a look of her own that plainly said “behave.” Dad shifted his posture and moved his hand, and the spell of the moment was broken. I returned to being a child waiting for the sermon to be over. I hadn’t been listening to all of it, but I felt like I understood an important part of what the priest was saying. Somewhere in the expanse of the church, a baby cried and a parent pacified.
The dappled light from the windows had moved, changing the colors allocated to each father, mother, and child. I rarely noticed then, and still rarely notice now, how the light moves slowly over time. But when you look away for a time and then look back, you will find that everything is different.
Memories of Dad
I am sitting down to write this at 10:30 pm—it has been one hell of a busy day, but a fruitful one, as we just sold our house! Sheer exhaustion will be my excuse for what will most likely be a tangential mishmash of tales.
The stories that have been sent out so far have been simply incredible. I love reading about the qualities and quirks that made Dad, well, Dad. One thing I did notice is that people seem to remember those qualities about Dad that are present in themselves. And my short stories no doubt highlight those characteristics of Dad that I see in myself.
(1) One thing about Dad is that he loved food. And that was great for us kids, because when we were with him, we got to enjoy food too. This was never more apparent than when we went on road trips with Dad and got to eat fast food. Perhaps dialogue can best highlight the differences between eating at a fast food restaurant with Mom and eating at a fast food restaurant with Dad:
Mom: “I’ll have one hamburger, but no mustard or ketchup if that costs extra.”
McD Worker: “No ma’am, the condiments are free.”
Mom: “Ok. I’ll also have a small cup of water with three extra cups- do the extra cups cost anything?”
McD Worker: “No ma’am, no charge for the extra cups.”
Mom, to us three little kids: “Alright, you can order now. Keep in mind we have $2.35 to pay for all our meals today.”
Dad: “I’ll take 3 Double Bacon Cheeseburger meals, all with large fries and large cokes.”
McD Worker: “Will that be all?”
Dad: “Ahhh, and also 3 ice cream sundaes.”
Tory, whining: “But I don’t want bacon on my Double Bacon Cheeseburger!”
Dad: “What? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Parker: “Ha! What’s wrong with you?”
Tory: Exasperated look, soon replaced by look of satisfaction after discovering that he was, indeed, being stupid for not wanting delicious bacon on his burger.
(2) Another food story. And this story DID happen, although it was on a roadtrip with Mom, Dad, Tory, Sasha and myself, so I may be the only one that remembers this.
As with all road trips with Mom, we tried to save money. So for one of our dinners we stopped at a Krogers to get lunch meat, cheese and bread to make sandwiches. And for some reason, Dad decided to get ice cream sandwiches. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP! So Dad and all the kids got ice cream sandwiches, and there were still more than half a box left. Of course Mom was furious. I think Dad ate like 4 of these ice cream sandwiches to save some face, but he still had to throw more than half away due to one small detail- we didn’t have a FREEZER in the car.
As I reflect on this story, I think it stayed with me because I could see myself easily doing this. Shopping at Krogers on a roadtrip, and, what’s this? Ice cream sandwiches? Why didn’t I think of this before? This is a great idea! Only to have your dream crushed by a rightly infuriated wife and 80 degree weather.
(3) The last memory has nothing to do with food. Ok, maybe a little: the experience often occurred at Mr Gatti’s (pizza place) and other restaurants. It was Dad’s ability to change from a quiet, somewhat irritable disciplinarian, into a comedian, or maybe heckler is a better term. I can remember being at Mr Gatti’s, it was crowded, and the big screen TV had a commercial about Rogaine. And Dad yelled out “Ahh, give a guy a break, that guy looks great” eliciting chuckles from surrounding tables, and eventually even from me when I realized he wasn’t actually mad.
Even worse, one time at a Rotary Club luncheon (why did we have to go to those things anyway? Were we being punished for something?) the guest speaker was a scientist. He started off by saying “some of you may know about this project currently underway, the human genome project?” And dad yells out, very loudly and very sarcastically “Ha! Yeah, I think we’ve heard of that.” I just sat there looking at my melting ice tea, still trying to figure what exactly it was that the Rotary club did or stood for.
Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon for me to think of these instances shortly after yelling something out in a group of people in an effort to be funny.
Shawn Niemann: (inspired by sibs to write more)
Dad would take anyone he could find to go play racquetball with him. I
can remember back in Huntington Beach, he first played at an old style,
outdoors, 3 wall court. I'm pretty sure he brought the kids just to have
someone to go get the balls when they would travel out of bounds and
into the neighboring tennis courts. Then he joined a racquetball place
down the street from there. It had one court with a glass wall, which at
the time (late 1970's), seemed like something out of the far future
(late 1990's). Usually, after playing, we would stop at a 7-11 and get
Slurpees. There is nothing like a near-death experience (see below) to
make you appreciate a Slurpee.
Usually, Dad would warm up with me on one of the lesser courts, and then
we would walk (Dad would limp) over to the glass court. Dad would knock
on the door, interrupt two younger guys playing, and ask if they wanted
to play. They'd look at each other, and say only if he could find
someone to play doubles. At which point Dad would point me out and say
"He'll play on my team". Too late, the opposition realized they had
fallen in a trap, and were stuck playing doubles with an older guy, with
a limp, and his half-awake son. They'd mumble "OK", and as Dad stepped
on the court, his limp would disappear and he'd mention casually that
"winner gets court, right?" which of course, was the REAL trap.
My job now was to stay out of the way, and only if the ball
came directly at my face (which it always did) was I to hit the ball.
Between Dad's momentum, the subsonic little blue racquetball, and two
younger guys careening around doing everything they could to not lose
their court to an OLD guy and his ineffective son, it was quite the
exercise in physics and angles. Eventually, Dad would win, the other
team slunk away, and I got my reward- the chance to play racquetball
alone with Dad, but on a court with a glass wall so everyone could see
For those of you that never had this experience, you can simulate it at
HOW TO SIMULATE PLAYING RACQUETBALL WITH BILL NIEMANN
You will need:
1 Medium sized rhinoceros (ask your local zoo if you can borrow it)
1 small, angry monkey (if the zoo will give you a rhinoceros, they'll
give you a monkey)
1 large stick
1 three day old wet beach towel
A hive of bees
1 1975 Dodge conversion van
Remove the furniture and carpet from your living room. Place all above
objects, except the beach towel and van, inside the room. Block all
Glue the monkey to the rhino. Take the stick, hit the beehive, and then
give the stick to the monkey. Now run.
The rhino plays the part of Dad. He is not actually angry, but have you
ever seen a rhinoceros that DIDN'T look angry? He can't see real well,
and the bees and monkey are exciting him, so you better stay out of his
way. The bees play the part of the racquetball- you WILL get stung, and
it WILL hurt for a few days. The monkey with the stick is equivalent to
Dad's racquet hitting you occasionally. Hiding in a corner won't work,
so your best bet is stay behind the rhino, out of reach of the monkey,
and just accept the bee stings. You can keep score if you want, but no
matter how you look at it, you lose. Eventually, the rhino will squash
the monkey (Dad breaks his racquet against the wall), and curious
neighbors will open a door, letting everyone go free. Now take the beach
towel, and because you forgot to bring a workout towel with you again,
you get to use Dad's.
Walk to the van, dig out $1.59 in change from under the floor mats, and
drive to the nearest 7-11.
You can get yourself a small Slurpee, any flavor, but Dad likes
A large, of course.
Somehow even though I can distinctly remember Dad, it is hard for me to pull out one single memory. What I remember most about Dad was his Saturday racquetball. How both parents ever got out of the house at the same time baffles me (mom always had her garage sales on Saturday remember). One Saturday, Maia and I were left to do the dishes. We were out of dishwasher soap so we decided to use Palmolive in the dishwasher.
Well.....by the time we went back upstairs there were bubbles everywhere, flowing down the stairs even. We started cleaning up immediately, scared to death of which parent would find out first! It was Dad. He came in took one look around and said, "better get that cleaned up." He didn't even crack a smile; how could he not have laughed?
I also remember thinking of him as so unapproachable when I was little. Being sent downstairs to Dad for homework help often resulted in me just doing it myself because I didn't want to disturb his "TV time." By the time I was in high school it often became habit for Dad and me to go to the movies together. It was just a treat at first, eating at the snack bar and having cokes (!), but later I realized he was trying to connect with me and it worked. I loved listening to his kind of music and chatting about what was going on in the world or at school.
The very last memory I have of him is when he was in the hospital. It didn't seem possible that he was the same man I had known growing up, once so strong and tall and now so weak and frail.
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