George was not a relative of mine, but a life-long friend of my Dad. Both men were raised on the south side of the city. My father went on to college, to Medical School and practiced medicine his entire adult life with time out for service in the Army Air Corps during World War II. George did not continue his schooling beyond high school, but ran a grocery store on Shelby Street where he was a skilled butcher throughout his lifetime.
The Pieper and Wilkens families were constant friends for over seventy years. George, his two sisters and assorted family members were as much a part of our family as any close relatives. Along with an assortment of other south side friends and business associates, Saturday evenings were reserved for get-togethers with the Pieper/Wilkens clans being the catalyst to bring the various members together. The parties would move from home to home and the hosts would provide food and libation for all attending. Once or twice a year, usually at Christmas and during the summer, the groups were enlarged with the younger generations which included my sister and me. I always looked forward to these outings because it gave me an opportunity to enjoy the companionship of a group of wonderful folks.
George was always somewhere in my life. He was a presence in my boyhood, and was certainly as much a part of my daily existence as any individual I had known. He bought my first Red Ryder Air Rifle for me. He must have done a lot of talking to convince my mother that I was of an age to properly handle the BB gun experience. My Mom was certainly not encouraging that boyhood step. George then proceeded to teach me how to aim and fire the rifle properly which lent some comfort to discussions of my owning such a weapon.
Then, George felt it was time for me to take some responsibility for a pet that would pay dividends. He purchased a Dutch Doe Rabbit for me and helped my Dad build a cage and house for the mother rabbit and offspring. When the broods had grown to proper size, he instructed me on the handling and selling of the babies in the neighborhood. I didn’t want to know how the neighbors enjoyed them. I was too attached to each of them by name. When we moved from a rural home location to a city site, George once again helped build a housing structure for two more rabbits that I continued to care for through my high school days.
In my family, George was known as the “Outdoors Man.” He was the hunter and fisherman supreme. My Dad was good at fishing, but not at hunting. He owned guns, but rarely took his shotgun or rifle out of their protective cases. George, on the other hand, was a great camper, fisherman and hunter. Some of the most memorable and enjoyable outings of my young life involved George. Whether it was an overnight fishing trip to Tippecanoe River, or a shooting expedition for target practice, George would provide all the details and handling. He knew how to keep a young man’s interest at a high level.
The most significant case in point, happened when I was a recent graduate of high school before entering college. I had a job at a Guarantee Auto Store during that summer, but I had been promised a three day fishing trip to Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee as a “rite of passage” to adulthood. My Dad along with George and other south side friends had been going to Reelfoot every spring for a week-long fishing trip. Their exploits were famous and the catches were phenomenal. George always provided the food for these excursions along with securing the guides and cabin. To say I was looking forward to the trip with George and my Dad hardly covers my enthusiasm.
About ten days before we were to leave, George was involved in an auto accident. He was injured enough that the trip was in jeopardy. My Dad thought it would be a good idea if I would visit George in the hospital. I bought some new lures I thought he would enjoy, and went to his bedside. He certainly didn’t appear as if he would make a recovery, but in a few days, he was able to leave the hospital and told my Dad he wanted to make sure he was a part of my first experience in Tennessee.
George drove most of the night from Indy to Reelfoot. I remember it was important for me to drive a section of the trip to share that part of the experience. I didn’t sleep the entire trip and talked with George during his time at the wheel. My Dad did sleep, and he took the last leg of the trip. We arrived just in time to eat breakfast and secure guides for the lake experience. George did the cooking that morning, and every morning we were there.
My most memorable part of the trip happened the first afternoon we were fishing. We had come in for lunch and a bit of rest before heading back out for the afternoon session. I had fished for Bream (Blue Gills) most of the morning and was looking forward to using some new casting equipment – rod and reel – I had purchased at Guarantee. My guide and I had just pulled away from the dock and he had not even started the motor. I decided since there were some lily pads at the edge of some open water, I wanted to test my accuracy and casting arm to see if I could put the plug where I wanted it. The bait had hardly touched the water, when the explosion hit my lure. All I could think was, “Please don’t let me mess this up!” George and my Dad were in their boats not more than a few feet away. They could see my action and I could hear their comments, though I was far too busy to add to the discussion.
When I succeeded in landing a three and a half pound small mouth bass on my first cast at Reelfoot, George was the first to give a rousing cheer of approval. I know most people in that part of the lake heard his exclamation. If that had been the only fish I caught that trip, it would have sufficed in that I knew George thought it was worthwhile.
My Dad and George are both gone now. As a family, we attended George’s funeral. My Dad couldn’t sit in the funeral parlor, but stood in the doorway throughout the ceremony. He didn’t talk about George much after that. It was too personal and there were too many memories through the years. However, I know that both are still enjoying being together – sharing the boyhood dreams and adult experiences of a lifetime of friendship. I was happy to have been a small part of them.