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So Long Big Brother

Joe Knapik RIP

My big brother died on the weekend. Joey – he was always Joey to us – was a dozen years older than me and I always looked up to him. I recall as a kid I was always fascinated by his fly tying desk, which always seemed to have something or other coming to life in the vice. It was like he had the key to some kind of special and exotic kingdom. I thought, one day I’m going to do that, and I did.

One of my earliest memories took place in my dad’s old station wagon the day he and Joey decided I was old enough to come along on a fishing trip. I was in the back seat as the wagon shot north at alarming speeds, headed for some trout spot somewhere. Joey and my dad were in the front seat, my dad driving, and they were singing The Wreck of the Ol’ 97 at the top of their lungs. They preferred the way Hank Snow did the song. I learned it on the spot and sang along, and to this day I’ve not forgotten the lyrics.

They gave him his orders at Monroe Virginia, said Steve, you’re way behind time.
This ain’t the 38, it’s the ol’ 97. Put her into Spencer on time.

Then he turned around and said to his black, greasy fireman, Hey, shovel on a little more coal.
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain, watch Ol’ 97 roll.

He was a-goin’ down grade, makin’ 90 mile an hour, when the whistle broke into a scream.
He was found in the wreck with his hands on the throttle, scalded to death by the steam

A telegram came from Washington Station and this is how it read.
That brave engineer aboard Ol’ 97 is a-lyin’ in old Danville dead.

Now all you ladies, you’d better heed my warning, from this time on and learn,
Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband, he might leave you and never return.

I trace my love for old time music to that moment.

When Joey was a boy, Grandpa gave him an old German fiddle he had fixed up. Mom sent Joey for lessons. Joey claimed the teacher was a sadist who rapped his knuckles when he made mistakes. He stopped playing early on but he kept that violin stored away. One day he told me he was going to sell it. Don’t do that, I’ll learn to play it. That got me going trying to learn fiddle in my 60s. Perhaps it’s my folly, but I’m having a blast.

My brother loved the outdoors and especially fishing. He was an expert with a spinning rod. Many years ago Joey came up with a rig for drifting for walleye. He would start with one of those little fly-rod sized, super-light Williams Wablers. He’d remove the treble hook and replace it with a foot of leader, to which he’d tie a bait hook and a couple split shot a foot above the Williams. Yes, he was an unrepentant bank-napping bait plonker, just like our dad. To fish this rig, he would bait the hook with a big dew worm and he would drift holding the line with his bail open. When he detected a walleye, he would release the line for a second, then close the bail and wait for a second hit. For a number of years Joey and his wife Susan had a little cottage on a lake in the Parry Sound area. For walleye, he out-fished everyone on the lake every time.

Joey got me started foraging for edible mushrooms many years ago. He taught them to me one or two a day as different mushrooms were fruiting. I worked at improving my mushroom ID skills and even took a course in it, but my skill at identifying mushrooms was nowhere near Joey’s. He found and shared with me many special spots, especially for morels, chanterelles and lobster mushrooms, places I still go today. To me they will always be his spots.

Our shared love for the outdoors (a gift from our father to be sure) and our interest in foraging and in old time music, bonded us together, though in almost every other way, including politically, we were so different it’s a wonder we got along at all. When he would phone, I’d find a comfy chair and we would talk for hours, telling one another all the old stories we both knew plenty well. Storytelling came easy for us both. We both preferred talking over listening so often our conversations were loud and full of interruptions.

I miss him. I wish we could tell each other all the old stories one more time.


  1. Anonymous

    My condolences on the loss of your brother. Big brothers are the best, and it’s great that you have so many wonderful memories of him.


  2. Thank you for introducing me to your brother. Harlan Ellison once said “no one should go down into the dark with too few words,” and I have always tried to honor that. I am glad whenever I see that someone else has too.

    You may recall that I live in Virginia — where I am, it’s really more suburban DC — but I’ve passed by and through old Danville a few times, mainly as a child when my father always want to go “for a drive” that could end up anywhere in the state. I’ve heard many versions of that song too but had forgotten the town was mentioned.

    Every time you play that fiddle of his, he’ll be making music with you and it’ll be another one in the eye for the teacher who got in the way of his joy.

    I send a virtual hug.

  3. Luke Gregory

    So sorry to hear this Uncle Eugene. That was a nice story about your brother on that fishing trip, thanks for sharing it and the song too.

  4. John Caines

    So sorry for your loss. It sounds like you had a special bond. My sincere condolences.

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