Just before Christmas, Cocke County, my Papa Rob and I lost a good man and friend to many. Because of how this type of loss affects humans, and this one really has made Papa sad, I am going to tell the story of a man I called my Uncle John. I have sniffed out some more of his friends and my Uncles, and each has a memory of him that will help others learn about my Uncle John Cahill.
My Papa and Mama Katie moved to our home in Cosby about a year before I was even born. Papa had been a life member of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) for over 30 years, so he transferred to Newport’s Chapter 102. That’s where he met John Cahill, another disabled Veteran.
I don’t remember the exact date, I was just nine months old, but it was just before my first Christmas when Papa and I took a ride into town. We were driving along, and Papa laughed and said, “Molly, look there is Santa Claus, and you need to meet him so you can tell him what you want for Christmas.” I didn’t know what a Santa Claus was but if he could bring me more treats then he was definitely someone I wanted to meet.
There was a small store just before we got to a place called the Jackass Farm that Papa pulled into where a big round-man with a long white beard, in a red suit was waving at traffic. Papa said, “Well I’ll be, that’s John Cahill,” and got out to talk with him. After a few minutes Papa came back and rolled down the back window of the truck so I could get a sniff of this big fella.
At first when this big red ball of fur got close to the truck, I was really leery of him, but he just looked at me and laughed. He then said, “ho, ho, ho”, and stuck out his hand for me to smell. Papa told me that it was a man people called Santa Claus and he was a good man, so I inched closer until I got his scent. He smelled really good so I licked his gloved hand and it tasted like candy. I knew right then he was someone I needed to make friends with.
Since Papa had adopted me and started me in training, I had learned some of Papa’s words and he seemed to be learning what my barks meant. As I licked and “spoke” to this Santa fella Papa translated for me. He told Santa that I had been very good and that I would like some new treats and a big bone for Christmas. Papa was right on with the translation because I had been dreaming of a big, big bone and I hoped this fella would get one for me.
Well about three weeks later Christmas came and I got a great big bone, a new collar, a sweater and more treats. This was one of the best bunch of things I had gotten at one time. I knew that this Santa guy was one that I needed to be really good friends with. Papa told me Santa only comes once each year and I needed to be a good puppy until then. So, I worked hard to be the best dog and learn how I could help my Papa overcome his disabilities.
My first Christmas was in 2015 and I have got to meet this Santa fella every year at the beginning of December except this past one, in 2021.
Papa worked at the DAV as a Service Officer and beginning in January he started going up to the Chapter every Wednesday. Since I was always with him, I got to meet all the people that would come there. Some would come for help but since there was always coffee and doughnuts many of the Veterans were there to share stories.
When we went the first time Papa let me smell everyone and let them pet me. I got one scent I remembered and looked the person over to see who it was. I looked up to see the big-bearded man I had met back before Christmas, Santa, but he wasn’t dressed in red. Papa saw I was confused and laughed. He explained that this man was John Cahill who helps Santa out around Christmas. Uncle Albert said that, “John used to have some great Santa stories and always was happy to take Veterans and their families shopping when the DAV would fund the money.”
I watched this man the rest of the year as he volunteered to help other Veterans in the community. Because of his big voice and always being happy and helping, he and I became friends, and he became my Uncle John.
I found out a lot about Uncle John on those Wednesday’s at all the fundraisers, and at the monthly meetings, he was always there. He was born in Kansas but was raised in Wisconsin. After he graduated High School in 1968, he was drafted into the Marine Corps. Papa said Uncle John worked doing maintenance on the vehicles just off the shore of Vietnam. He said John had worked on dirty vehicles and had health problems from a thing called Agent Orange. This Agent Orange stuff had caused Uncle John’s diabetes and other health issues.
After Uncle John got out of the service he went back to Wisconsin and got a job at a cat food plant, Friskies (He liked me a lot more than any cat). One thing Uncle John talked about a lot was his working for the Johnson Creek Volunteer Fire Department. He had worked there over 25 years and got to be an arson inspector. There were lots of stories about how he figured out the causes of fires and he found many that were arson. After he retired from the fire department he moved to Newport, Tennessee.
There are some things I have dug up that may explain why Uncle John picked Newport to move to. The area he was from in Wisconsin had towns that were just like here. He lived just outside of the place, Watertown, WI, which was not to far from Newport, WI. The fire department he volunteered at for all those years was at Johnson Creek and Uncle John always went to the Johnson City Veterans Affairs Hospital.
Uncle John would go back to Wisconsin a couple times a year to visit with his kids and grandkids. He always talked about the great times he had when he returned. He always brought everyone back some of the Wisconsin cheese he also loved. That was a bond he shared with another friend, my Uncle Andy.
Uncle Andy was raised in Chicago, so he and Uncle John always had a team dispute. Uncle John was a Green Bay Fan and Uncle Andy was a Bears fan. Uncle Andy said, “John and I always had a good time together except for when anything that had to do with his Green Bay Packers affected my Chicago Bears team, especially any game between them. We would rag each other for the week before the game, then since John’s team usually won, I heard him bragging all the next week.
“The few times my team won he said it was just luck and wouldn’t talk about it anymore. One big thing we had in common though was the Wisconsin cheese he always brought me from his trips west. John was a big grizzly bear on the outside but on the inside, he was a just a teddy bear. John brought some color into my somewhat black and white life.”
Another one of Uncle John’s friends is Jeff Brown, the Commandant of the TN Smoky Mtn Detachment #1206 Marine Corps League. Jeff said, “John was a life member of our Marine Corps League. I am also from WI. We had a lot in common. I had never met a drafted Marine before. He was proud and had pretty sarcastic memories of his time served. We used to be at Bass Pro with our Rose program. This is similar to the poppy program the Legion does and is our major fundraiser. Covid has stopped this. John was usually there in his wheelchair, being his normal sarcastic self. I will miss him.”
One part of this that makes Papa the saddest is where we live there is not much cell phone signal and he doesn’t get messages, sometimes for days. This was one of those times. On Monday, December 6, Papa received a message from John who had called on Saturday night the 4th. Uncle John had always called Papa when he was at the VA hospital so he could let others know. His message said that he had gone to the VA on Saturday and in the Emergency Room he had a major heart attack, but he was ok and in intensive care, but would be in the hospital for a while.
Papa called Uncle John and got his son Chris. It seems after Uncle John had called Papa his phone broke. To help his dad Chris had bought him a new phone on Sunday and was to ship it to him on Monday. Chris received a call from the Johnson City VA on Sunday evening that his Father had another heart attack and had passed away. Papa was really hurt to know he had missed John’s last call.
There are many people who live in our community that will remember my Uncle John. Papa has talked with Uncle John’s family in Wisconsin, and they will be holding a Celebration of his Life in April or May, here in Newport. Papa promises to keep everyone posted about when it will be happening.
NEWS OF NOTE
AMVETS Post 75 – Rescheduled their meeting due to weather reports. They will meet Thursday, January 20 at the Tanner Building 115 Mulberry Street, Suite 102 beginning at 6 p.m. You can contact the Commander, Rob Watkins at 423-721-8918 for directions or more information.
Molly Thunderpaws is the Service Dog for her Papa Rob Watkins and has authored three other columns. She has been with her Papa since 2015 and is his Brace, Support and Mobility partner. Molly is known throughout the community and is an Ambassador for the Cocke County Partnership.
Please send information, and dates for events, two weeks in advance, questions or suggestion by mail to Rob Watkins 565 Caney Creek Road Cosby, TN 37722 or c/o Newport Plain Talk, email; firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook/View from the Bunker, or call 423-721-8918, please leave a message.