The famous Uncle Herman

When I was a little girl, I remember hearing stories about this “famous guy” named Uncle Herman.

Uncle Herman Scheyer.

Apparently, Uncle Herman was famous because he was a writer.

“A real writer?” I asked.

“A real writer,” my mother would say. “He writes a newspaper column and now he even has a book.”

“Wow!” I’d marvel.

I was related to someone famous.

Oh, and did I mention that he lived in California? Ah, yes, he lived where all the movie stars and famous people were, away from the rest of us common folk. At least that’s what I pictured — he lived in that faraway place of fantasy and indulgent lifestyles. I assumed that just being in California meant he was dining from dishes made of gold and riding in cars worth more than our house.

I’d never met Uncle Herman. I heard stories about how he married my Grandpa Pete’s sister. I couldn’t fathom how on earth a girl from rural Elgin could possibly meet a man in California . . . after all, it was a million miles away! Plus, how did she fit in with all the superstars and all?

The folks said Uncle Herman was “extremely German.” Apparently Uncle Herman spoke and wrote in both German and English, which I guess was part of his appeal with readers.

The man’s specialty was poetry – not deeply artistic stuff, but rather rhyming four-line stanzas that could be funny, sad, poignant, ironic. I’d actually seen some of the stuff, typed out and mailed all the way to Grandpa Pete’s house. Uncle Herman would talk about the weather being cold (a tragic 70 degrees) and how expensive parking was in Los Angeles (here we just parked where the pickup stopped).

I was thrilled when we heard the news that the celebrity would be coming for a visit to Nebraska! I wondered what we were supposed to wear in such a presence. What were we going to give him to eat? Did we have to buy new furniture?

My childish fantasy grew as I imagined what he would be like . . . surely a handsome man straight from the movie screen, with a romantic tone and dashing demeanor.

Finally the day came. We anxiously waited as the famous Uncle Herman made his whirlwind tour to Grandpa’s house, my aunt’s house and then ours.

I was shocked to see a brown, four-door car in a dust cloud as he arrived. There was no gold limousine like I’d envisioned. I held my breath as the door opened . . . and there he was.

Uncle Herman was a little guy. He spoke softly and gently hugged my mother in the driveway.

“This must be Melanie,” he said, holding out his hand for a good old fashioned shake. I was terrified, but I shook it anyway.

He asked me a question but I went blank because it was like meeting the president or maybe even the pope.

He said he liked the curtains my mother made and was thrilled to get a piece of apple pie.

I have to admit, I became a little bored. There was no pomp and circumstance, no band was playing, he wasn’t handing out diamonds.

Unfortunately, he was just a normal guy.

I grew tired of the grown-up talk and decided to go outside for kids’ stuff . . .

Until . . .

“Anyway, I have a gift for you,” he said in his broken English. “Do you have a pen?”

“Oh, Herman, it’s one of your books!” my mother exclaimed.

He had my attention again. I watched as he opened the front cover of a brown, hard-backed book and wrote in it.

“I hope you like it,” he said. “It’s just some stuff I’ve scratched out over the years. And . . .”

Then he turned and smiled at me, realizing he had his audience back.

“And, young Melanie, your name is in here,” he whispered, knowing it wasn’t a big deal, but to me, with my young thoughts of grandeur, it would be major. “Come look.”

I barely knew how to read, but I knew what my name looked like.

“See, there it is,” he whispered to me, touching his skinny, aged finger to the page.

Sure enough. It was my name.

“Read it to us,” I said, squeaking out my first words to the man I decided was again the famous Uncle Herman.

And so he read, “A Letter to Cheri,” written to my mother.

“Before me lies your letter,

Its date spells out:

November nine.

Which tells me that I better

Keep busy writing you a line.

So let me just be writing

Of what your letter brought to me.

It sure was quite exciting

To hear of your expectancy.”

It was good to hear someone was excited about the common occurrence in our household called pregnancy.

He addressed things going on in life and congratulated us for getting a television set (he didn’t know it was pretty much a plastic box because we found we had no reception).

And then . . . came the good part.

“A lot of fun was hidden

In your description of about.

It sure was nicely written . . .

That story about your sauerkraut.

And also very funny

Was what was said by Melanie.

‘I don’t have any money’

Brought to the church some comedy.”

Apparently, my frank and honest response to the collection plate brought a chuckle among the Catholics.

The poem went on. Its lyrics talked about the extended family and the bonds between whimsical California and ordinary Nebraska.

And then, he was off. We bid Uncle Herman good-bye and he went back to the land of the rich and famous.

Mom kept in touch with him and I kept in touch with the book. I would read it regularly . . . well, at least the portions that were in English.

I loved that Uncle Herman wrote a real book . . . with real characters, including me (although it was only a couple lines about something stupid I did in church).

My mother kept the book in the same place on her bookshelf. Eventually, the bookshelf was moved from the old house to the new . . . and the book, entitled “Straight From the Heart,” stayed in the same slot.

Life went on, decades passed. It was Christmas, many years ago, when I had a strange, sudden thought.

Where was Uncle Herman’s book? My brother and his wife, Jody, had lived in the family house for nearly 20 years at that point and of course, changes were made along the way.

“Jody, this is the strangest question,” I said, feeling bad to bother her with something so strange. “There was this book, it’s a brown hard-covered book by a guy named Herman Scheyer. It was back in the bookshelf, in the office . . . do you remember ever seeing it?”

“I got rid of all those books a million years ago,” she said, and I remember she gave me the ones in the best condition.

I sighed, realizing Herman’s book probably fell apart and was taken to the trash.

“Oh, that’s fine,” I said. “I feel like a fool asking. I’d just love to see it again.”

She suggested we go back to the area of the old book case to look.

“I know it’s not back there, because it’s all bank stuff now,” Jody said. “But it can’t hurt to check.”

There was my mother’s big book case . . . and like Jody said, it was dominated by documents from the livestock industry. I ran my hand over its designated spot.

“It was always kept in this corner,” I said. “I feel so stupid . . .”

And then I stopped. She stared at me.

“I think it slipped back here, for real,” I said, shocked and elated.

“Are you serious?” she exclaimed, almost more excited than I was.

I pulled on the cover and there in my hands was the treasured Uncle Herman book. It was dusty, the pages were yellowed, but the condition was quite stellar.

It’s been mine ever since.

At this very moment, that book is housed in the left-hand drawer of my desk at the newspaper. I don’t look at it often, but it is close by if I need inspiration.

I don’t have any fantasies, now, about Uncle Herman being superhuman . . . but I still love to read his artistic renderings about life.

“It sure makes me happy to be able to give you this book. I hope you like it,” says his handwriting inside the cover.

We did. I still do.

To rest of the world, Uncle Herman may have been ordinary. But to me, he’ll remain famous.

 

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