by Monika Ingeborg Maeckle Rivard
My father was a bastard child from a farming village in war-torn Germany who came to the United States in 1953 and personified the American Dream. He died at 93 on August 2, 2015, after a long battle with dementia.
With seven years of grade school, a monumental work ethic, and a mischievous stubborn streak that worked for and against him, John Maeckle built a new life for himself and our family after a rough start in the Schwabian hills of pre-World War II Germany.
Born to Anna Duckeck and fathered by Daniel Lang, or “Uncle Dan” as we knew him, Johannes Maeckle was begrudgingly adopted by Michael Maeckle in 1921 when an already pregnant Anna was forced to marry Maeckle to keep the farm in the family. Anna’s older sister had been married to Michael and died in childbirth.
To keep the small estate intact, the Duckeck family insisted that her sister Anna marry Maeckle. She did–even though she loved Daniel Lang, a carpenter, and the father of the child she was carrying. Lang, from the neighboring village of Dietingen, left Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1922.
My father, Johannes, Hanne–“Johnny” in English–was born into these unwelcoming circumstances. They shaped him. Disproving his status as the bastard child of a father who begrudged his existence would drive him to success.
Johannes worked on the family farm in Markbronn, a village outside Ulm-on-the-Danube, shoveling manure, planting crops, milking cows, and working fields in between riding his bicycle to Blaubeuren 11 kilometers away, where he apprenticed as a woodworker. From age 14 – 17, he learned the trade of woodworking by day and came home to a second shift on the farm.
By the time he was 19, Germany was at war (again) and all young men would be drafted or could volunteer. Tired of the grind of farm life and hoping to avoid being sent to the Russian front as a soldier, he signed up for the Reichsarbeitsdienst in 1940. Volunteering for the compulsory state labor service allowed him to choose his service: army, navy or airforce.
He had his eye on the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. He hoped to become a paratrooper, but flunked the eye exam. Instead, he became a pilot by memorizing the letters on the eye test. His basic training began in 1941, but he didn’t fly his first mission–one of only three–until 1944.
Why? Because my father’s drive to prove himself to the village sometimes clouded his judgement and made him a troublemaker. After flight training, he and a flying buddy, Willi Rossner, pulled pranks on Markbronn, buzzing the farming village in their airplanes, performing formation flying stunts, diving to dangerous lows that made chickens fly, cows run and girls wave from farm house windows.
That prank ended in tragedy when Rossner crashed and died in Markbronn.
“…All of a sudden, I was watching him, he buzzed something and then he pulled up, you know, real steep, just waving down to the girls not watching, and the plane tilted and got in a spin, and he couldn’t get it out, and he just spinned and hit the ground,” my father told me in an oral history in 1978.
“Right behind (my sister) Babette’s house out there a little bit further. And of course the damn thing was burning like hell and when I saw that, I took off. Just hooked it. Well sure I felt guilty but there not a damn thing I can do about it.”
Maeckle hightailed it back to base in Nurnberg, and when questioned, feigned ignorance but eventually confessed.
The incident landed him in the military penitentiary for 218 days. When released, he trained further to become a night fighter pilot. and flew two more missions.
His final mission, on July 12, 1944, delivered a primo JU-88 with the latest radar technology to the British. Assigned to patrol the English Channel and intercept allied bombers bound for Germany, pilot John Maeckle lost radio contact with his base and was running low on fuel. He was forced to put the plane down through heavy cloud cover after his flight engineer resisted a directive to bail out because he had not packed his parachute.
When they cleared the clouds, a well-lighted airport runway was visible, which seemed miraculous until Maeckle set his craft down and noticed P-51 Mustangs and Spitfires lining the airstrip. He had landed the plane in Woodbridge, England.
All three crew members were taken prisoners of war. My father was jailed and placed in solitary confinement. Later, he was assigned forest protection and game warden duties on a royal estate in Scotland. He was not released from the POW camp until 1947.
The incident became a storied World War II tale, detailed in several history books and Air Classics Magazine. One historian said the capture of my dad’s plane saved thousands of lives because the radar discovery was so valuable to the British, it helped end the war earlier.
Maeckle returned to Markbronn in late 1947. “Hell, there was no work, I didn’t have any transportation, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any clothes. Came home with nothin’ to nothin’,” he said. “Twenty-eight years old, wanted to have fun with the girls, go out dancing and smoke and buy clothes. Couldn’t find a job, my brother just died, then you feel like you better stay around and comfort your mother, work on the farm, but that just won’t cut it.”
He met my mother shortly thereafter. Hildegard Pfeffer was only 17 when she met the returning Luftwaffe pilot. Johannes had dated her sister and my namesake, Ingeborg, before leaving for flight training, but Inge died of what was thought to be cancer at the young age of 19.
Johann and Hilde soon became an item–enjoying skiing, motorcycle rides, and my mother’s first bicycle, which my father bought her. The bike was reconstructed from salvaged parts and was especially prized, my mother recalls. “It was new to me,” she said.
In 1951, they married. Two years later, they decided to immigrate to the United States and join other Germans in East Texas where they found work and an opportunity “to make a million bucks,” my father would always say.
They boarded a freighter named the Jesse Lykes in Bremerhafen in mid-November 1953 and disembarked December 2 in Tampa, Florida. My older brother, John Michael Maeckle, was conceived onboard.
From there, Albert Lang and Jack Sanders, both kin to “Uncle Dan,” picked them up for the long drive to Jacksonville, Texas, where Albert, my father’s cousin and childhood friend, had settled in as a carpenter. His glowing letters of the good life in the U.S. were responsible for my parents leaving Germany for Texas. My brother was born in Jacksonville in 1954 and I came in 1956.
Our family soon joined Albert Lang in the Dallas suburbs to share a house in the growing suburb of Richardson, Texas, and enjoy the lucrative opportunities for German craftsmen in a post-WWII building boom. Together they launched L&M Construction Company in the late 1950s. My mother served as bookkeeper and chief taskmaster.
Maeckle and Lang started out as freelance carpenters, but soon realized their excellent building skills could be leveraged as a small business. They began building custom spec homes. While my dad had only seven years of formal schooling, he had an equal amount of trade education–via pilot training and his woodworking apprenticeship in Germany. By the time he immigrated to the States, John Maeckle was a “Master cabinet-maker” a skill his son John Michael Maeckle and grandson Nicolas Maeckle Rivard carry on today. And because of his time as a POW in England, he spoke the language.
In the 1970s, my dad spun off on his own custom home business, John Maeckle Construction Company, with my able mother minding the books. He built hundreds of custom homes in the Dallas area, making it possible for my brother and me to grow up in the lap of middle class security in a custom home he built on Dumont Drive.
We lived across the street from Cottonwood Park, spent summers exploring the creek and swimming at the community pool, took annual road trips to California, the Gulf Coast, and ski trips to Colorado, as well occasional journeys to Germany. Blessed, frugal and thoughtful about spending money, our family was not extravagant, but we lived well, never wanting for any physical need. My attendance at the University of Texas at Austin resulted in the first college degree earned by any Maeckle.
My father loved animals and was an avid outdoorsman and hunter. He was especially proud of his “trophy room,” our converted garage that housed not only the drafting table where he drew up plans for future projects, but also his “whopper bucks” and the American Black bear and Kodiak Island bear he shot in Alaska on my birthday in 1966. His love of the outdoors transferred to many of us, and he taught my brother, husband and children how to hunt. Remarkably, he and his hunting buddies participated in a deer lease on the Llano River for more than 30 years just 12 miles downstream from the Maeckle-Rivard family’s Lucky Boy Ranch.
In their retirement, my parents traversed the country in an Airstream trailer in a quest to see all 50 states (they made it to 42) with their beloved yellow-naped Amazon parrot, Bismarck. They settled into a hilltop home on Inks Lake near Marble Falls in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. For about 10 years, “Opa” as he was known by then, applied his woodworking skills to become an award-winning duck carver. He crafted more than 80 ducks, several geese and a swan, a cigar humidor for my husband, and many beautiful jewelry boxes and keepsakes for family and friends. He won dozens of blue ribbons and carving awards.
All of us learned so much from my father. He taught me to water ski, to fish, change a flat tire, and hunt for arrowheads. My love of the outdoors comes from weekends at “the farm,” our 60-acre plot in Van Alstyne, Texas, where my dad lead us in building fences, gigging frogs, feeding cows and tending tomatoes and a radish patch cultivated from German radish seeds.
He was tough on my brother and fair-but-firm with me. Thanks to Opa, I learned to work hard and take pride in it. I also learned that “Life is full of compromises.”
And a most important lesson: celebrate life and don’t look back.
Our garage-turned-trophy room was the essence of that. The large room hosted many great parties in our family–gatherings that included live accordion oom-pah musik, dancing, platters of German cold cuts and “Stinkkaese,” my father’s preferred stinky Limburger cheese, and doses of
beer, Chivas Regal, and Schladerer Kirschwasser, a special German cherry Schnapps that my dad liked to drink to “cut the grease.” He would often prepare for such evenings by slathering a piece of rye bread with at least a quarter-inch of unsalted butter, consuming it before guests arrived in anticipation of likely overindulgence.
Opa’s creed: Eat, drink, be merry, and occasionally, dress up in costume. I owe him my love of Halloween.
By the time he reached his late 70s, dementia began to steal my father. The disease gnawed on him slowly but surely, taking his mind first, and eventually, his body. We lost him one small piece at a time, but we cherished every day with him and what he gave us.
We miss you, beloved Opa. You will be forever loved, always missed, never forgotten.
John Maeckle is survived by his wife, Hilde Maeckle, daughter Monika Maeckle, son-in-law Robert Rivard and grandsons Nicolas and Alexander Rivard of San Antonio; John Michael Maeckle and Vicki Yantis Maeckle of Whitefish, Montana; granddaughter Melinda Maeckle Martin, son-in-law Robert Martin, great grandchildren Amara and Aleric Martin of San Antonio; grandson Christopher Maeckle and family of Dallas; and grandson Daniel Maeckle and family of Spokane, Washington.
Family and friends will celebrate John Maeckle’s life with Kirschwasser, beer, and the release of 93 butterflies at 5 PM on Friday, August 7, at 310 East Arsenal St., San Antonio, Texas, 78204. In lieu of flowers, donations to the San Antonio Food Bank or Humane Society of San Antonio would be welcomed.