More Than 100 Words – The Story of John William Achnitz

My Trip to Kensico Cemetery

Valhalla, New York

One of the many things I remember my grandfather always telling me that I will never forget was, “If I ever said more than 100 words to my father, it was a long conversation.”

Suffice it to say, they were not close.

Despite having a rough childhood, and I mean rough childhood, my grandfather always loved his father even though there was plenty there to hate him for.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it because my grandfather wasn’t the type to be overly affectionate or sentimental. He was a man’s man. However, despite his rough exterior, I will also never forget the glowing nature of how he spoke about others. My grandfather would never tell you that he was proud of you to your face but you could bet your bottom dollar that he would tell the rest of the world.

I remember hearing my grandfather speak with pride about how his father was a respected police officer for the New York Police Department. I remember him bragging about how his father was the President of the NYPD Holy Name Society. I remember him talking about how his father would host bigwigs for dinner, from the respective realms of the good, bad, and the ugly.

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From: Spring 3100 – A Magazine For Policemen

I also remember that there wasn’t much more than that. The stuff he didn’t speak about was painful to even think about. I heard bits and drabs over the years from my grandmother, my father, and my aunt. However, my grandfather’s disdain for his father was more than apparent.

“If I spoke more than 100 words to my father, it was a long conversation.”

At this point, you’ve read 275 words.

I think you can get the picture.

As a kid, my image of my great-grandfather was purely negative. He was described to me numerous times as a drunk, a womanizer, and a violent man…someone to not be proud of. In fact, the only story my father really recalls about his grandfather John William Achnitz is that he tried to give him a hug at the time when his wife (my father’s grandmother) passed away. John said, “Billy, I am your grandfather.” My dad replied, “No, my grandfather died 4 years ago,” referring to his other grandfather on his mother’s side.

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My father with his grandfather Martin Burns – circa 1974-75

Naturally, I understood why my father didn’t like his grandfather and in reality why he didn’t even recognize him as his grandfather. My dad hated seeing his father hurt. And like any son, he was going to stand by his father. In a way, my grandfather was robbed of that same opportunity. He never really got the chance to stand by his father although I know deep down my grandfather always loved his father.

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My Grandpa with my Dad – circa 1983

Despite all of John’s faults and indiscretions though, I came to see him in a much different light by learning more about him through genealogical research. In fact, I can distinctly remember the day that my grandfather discovered a New York Times article from 1902 about the death of John’s half-brother William Achnitz just by googling his own name. At the time, he had no clue who this William was and I don’t think John ever knew about him either.

This tragic event, which I’ve posted about before, was the key to John’s existence. It is the key to my existence. In fact, everyone alive today that is descended from John is only alive because of William’s death.

I know that sounds like a terrible thing to say, but it’s true. John’s life, and hence my own is predicated on this one event taking place, for after that event, John’s father, the very first William Achnitz, not only lost his youngest child (at the time) to a tragic train accident, but his wife with their 3 remaining children and a coworker of William’s all disappeared. Turns out they all went to Australia and there is no telling whether William ever figured that out. For all he knew, they could have all died.

Nevertheless, he lost it all. He lost his business, he lost his wife, he lost his son, and he lost his other children. He lost his entire family and potentially he could have lost his sense of self and purpose too.

He went from owning his own industrial-scale bakery on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan to working the rest of his life as a janitor. He did remarry though. In 1905, he married my great-great grandmother Katherine Achnitz. In 1906, they had their first and only child together John (although he was born with the name William, which he later used as a middle name). I’ve often wondered if John did this as a result of finding out the real story behind his father’s first family. I could definitely understand the possibility that he may not have liked the fact that he was clearly named after his half-sibling that had passed away 4 years before he was born.

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John Achnitz was actually born William Achnitz on February 18, 1906 in Manhattan, New York. He later used the name John with William as his middle name.

Wondering how John became the father that he was, I often wondered what John’s relationship was like with his father, William. It was certainly short-lived as John lost his father in 1923 at the young age of 17. Did William losing his family and his business turn him into a monster of a person? Was he already a monster of a person and that’s why his family left him in the first place? Whatever the answer is, John was clearly not prepared to be the best father that he could have been.

Perhaps, John thought that it was best for him to be as absent as possible. In a way, thinking that this would be the best way that he could be a father to my grandfather and his brothers. Certainly, he wouldn’t have been the first father to ever do this.

Whatever was going on in their heads at the time, I like to think that John did the best he could given the cards that he was dealt with as a child. The analogy that I like to use to describe the Achnitz men is that each Achnitz generation has been dealt a better hand over time. And as an avid poker player, I know that my grandfather would really appreciate that analogy. He was certainly dealt a slightly better hand than John. My father was definitely dealt a better hand than my Grandpa. I’ve definitely been dealt a better hand than my Dad. And it is my hope that my kids one day will be dealt a Royal Flush.

I honestly never thought that I would end up visiting my great-grandfather John. And I don’t think anyone in my family has ever visited him. In fact, they didn’t even know that he had died at first. My grandfather found out several months after the fact after his second wife Blanche had told one of my grandfather’s brothers. This absolutely tore my grandfather up inside. I don’t even think that my grandfather ever even got to visit his dad’s gravesite.

So, in a way, I felt like this was my opportunity to make amends and forgive him for any and all mistakes that he had made in his life not to mention, pay my respects.

I sat down in the grass right next to his headstone for about 30 minutes and just prayed.

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John William Achnitz died on October 26, 1985 and was buried with his second wife Blanche in Valhalla, New York.

I prayed that he was in a better place and I prayed that he was somehow able to be the father to my grandfather that he always wanted him to be. I remember the sun shining brighter in that moment and I remember getting a warm sensation throughout my body. It’s moments like that that have made me believe in something deeper than life.

I told him about myself. I told him about how I was on my way up to Buffalo to watch my wife graduate with her Master’s degree. I told him what I knew about him. I told him how I was the only one that had figured things out about him that perhaps no one else had figured out. I asked him to always be a part of me, which after thinking about it further, I realized he’s always going to be a part of me.

I just hoped that in some way, both him and my grandfather were truly at peace. Sons may end up having issues with their fathers in life and all of us may have to live with the sins of our fathers. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make every effort to have the best relationship possible with them. That’s what I certainly strive for with my own father.

 

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Three generations of William Peter Achnitz – circa 1991

 

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John, his wife Veronica, and three youngest sons: my Grandpa (standing in back), Frank aka Spike (in middle), and Bobby (to the right). This photo was taken at their oldest brother Jack’s wedding on May 21, 1950.

This is why I love genealogy. You uncover stories and you can truly learn about yourself in the process.

If you are related to John William Achnitz, he is buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Until next time, keep on digging.

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#52Ancestors – Week 6 – William Peter Achnitz Sr.

William Peter Achnitz – That is my name.
I carry that name with a tremendous amount of pride – the name that was given to my grandfather, William Peter Achnitz Sr., who then gave that name to his son, William Peter Achnitz Jr., who then gave that name to me, William Peter Achnitz III.

Now growing up, as one could imagine, got pretty hectic with three Billy’s in the house. There was of course “Grandpa” or “Dad” for my father and Aunt Tracy. There was “Dad” for me who was also “Uncle Billy” to my cousins. And of course me, who for me was just “Billy.” However, for my Grandmother, there was Billy the husband, Billy the son, and Billy the grandson. Who do you think ended up becoming known as Little Billy?

Who can envision me raising my hand right now?

It’s funny…Even to this day, my cousins refer to me as Little Billy. They don’t address me as Little Billy but when referring to me in a conversation with somebody else in the family I have always been and always will be known as Little Billy. As a kid, I hated this. I didn’t understand it because I was the oldest grandchild. In my mind, I should have been the last person to be called “Little” because everyone else was little to me.

I always said to myself: “This isn’t fair! How can I be the oldest grandchild and be the only one to have the word ‘Little’ precede my name?”

Reflecting back on it now though, I have come to embrace the name because after all it did effectively identify me as the Billy in question. I can remember many funny instances where people would say something shocking about a “Billy” and the response would always be “Not Little Billy, right?” as if I was this perfect, “little” human being incapable of doing any wrong. That reputation always provided for an extra shock though when the shocking news was indeed about me.

Although I did not live with my grandfather like my cousins Paige and Shane, I did spend a great deal of time with him growing up. I hold so many dear memories close to my heart of the days that I spent visiting my grandparent’s 3-story townhome in Palm Harbor, Florida. To me, that house was like a castle. It was tremendous and I remember there were 3 entire floors to play hide-and-seek on. No chance of being bored in a house of that size!

I remember also that it wasn’t a sweet victory unless those trips were capped with an overnight stay at Grandma and Grandpa’s as it was nearly inevitable for me to make the request to sleep over. Almost always I got my way and some of my fondest memories in life in general come from spending time with my grandparents in that townhome.

As the oldest grandchild, I remember watching everyone else enter into life. I remember watching my cousin Paige sleep in her bassinet when she was only an infant. I remember when just the two of us played together before our next playmate arrived. I remember touching my Aunt Tracy’s stomach and her explaining to me that my new cousin would soon be joining me and Paige because her tummy would no longer be his permanent place of residence. I remember that with Shane now in our lives, that I had a boy to play with, so often times Paige ended up being overruled because after all “Boys ruled, and girls drooled.” I remember that for whatever reason me, Paige, and Shane would always build these elaborate forts out of blankets, sheets, and towels with absolutely no objections from my grandmother or grandfather.

I remember playing Super Nintendo for hours with the two of them. I remember every time that we went over, amazing food would be eaten because nobody cooked better than my grandmother. I remember that for some portion of my childhood I was actually hesitant to approach my grandfather because quite frequently my cousins and I would become victims of “The Claw” as my Grandpa would drive his knuckles into that soft spot between your neck and collarbone. No one escaped the wrath of “The Claw.”

I remember running across the street barefoot chanting “hot feet, hot feet, hot feet” in unison with my cousins before finally cooling them off in the neighborhood pool. This phrase was often echoed by my Grandpa too as he ran with us back and forth between the pool and the house. I can remember my grandfather teaching me how to swim. In fact, he taught every single one of his grandchildren how to swim. Quite distinctly, I can remember him teaching me how to plug my nose, bend my head back under the water, and come back up that way the water would get the hair out of my face. I still do that same exact motion every time I go into the water.

I remember when my brother Zachary and sister Amber finally came along. I remember the 5 of us altogether on Christmas Eve where Santa would come to visit us each year, Santa meaning either Grandpa or my Dad. I remember every grandkid would get to open at least 1 Christmas present each on Christmas Eve. I remember all of the smiles that my Grandpa had when looking at any of his grandkids. I remember the pride he took in being a grandfather as he would brag about all of us to anybody that he came across. I remember his laughs and his jokes and all the smiles that those provided the 5 of us.

I remember him coming to my football games, my baseball games, Paige’s softball games, Shane’s baseball games, Zachary’s baseball games, Zachary’s football games, Amber’s pageants. I remember how much he enjoyed going out to eat at a restaurant. No matter how great my grandmother cooked, I always felt like for him there was nothing better than taking his entire family out to a nice restaurant.

I remember when my Grandpa owned a NASCAR collectible shop called Thundershoppes. I remember visiting and running around his store, admiring the insane amount of toy cars that were upon me. I remember always getting to pick out a race car from one of his display cases to take home with me. I remember rooting for Dale Earnhardt during the Daytona 500 just because that was his favorite driver. I remember how upset he and my father were when he died in that tragic car accident in 2001. I can remember how excited and happy they both were though when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 for the first time in 2004, and how emotional that moment was for the two of them. It was like their mutual love for NASCAR and their combined aficionado for another father-son team led to this incredible bonding experience that ultimately brought them closer together.

I remember there were times that my grandfather didn’t get along very well with my Dad. I remember hearing the both of them talk about the differences they had with each other. I remember there was some harsh language being spit from both sides that I knew I would never want to repeat with my father.

I remember they always made up though. My father idolized his father. If there is one thing I will always remember my father saying about his father, it was this:

“I wouldn’t care if my father was a Garbage Man, I would still be proud of him.”

I remember that these moments were filled with passion. I remember my father would say this statement in a very emotional state of mind. I remember trying so hard to not laugh at the phrase “garbage man” that sometimes I just couldn’t help myself. I would blurt out laughing and you know what so would my Dad.

My grandfather wasn’t a simple man. He lived a really rough life. And when I started getting into family history, I realized there wasn’t much for him to tell when it came to his father (my great-grandfather).

A quote I will never forget him saying is:

“Billy, if I said more than 100 words to my father in a conversation, that was a lot.”

My grandfather was born on February 26, 1940 in the Bronx. His father was John William Achnitz and his mother was Veronica Catherine Donnelly. He went to 4 different high schools, all at the same time. Literally, he wasn’t enrolled in any of them. He just went because he felt like it. So, suffice to say, he didn’t exactly walk away from the American education system with any real documentation that he was even part of it.

He must have learned something in school though because if there is one quality that I know my grandfather had it was determination. That man knew how to make money. No matter what he was going to put a roof over your head and put food on your table. And whether it was by selling cars, furniture, or picture frames, that man at the end of the day was an entrepreneur. He also claims to have done some muscle work for an Italian organization that’s name shall not be mentioned.

My grandfather also served this great country. He was a Green Beret Special Forces from 1962-1965 and he served in Panama as well. He was also a paratrooper and I’ll never forget the story he told me about throwing some guy out of a plane (hopefully he was wearing a parachute).

My Grandpa was an awesome guy. And anybody that knew him would agree with me. He raised two kids and was an amazing grandfather to 5 kids. He loved my Grandmother and was actually the first man to marry his bride at St. Rose of Lima Church in Massapequa, New York. He impacted a lot of other kids as he coached my cousin Shane’s baseball team for a number of years and volunteered as an umpire at Oldsmar Little League. For a somewhat hard-nosed tough guy, he also probably loved our dogs more than anyone else in the family as I remember him cuddling with practically every dog we had ever owned.

I remember right after my junior year in high school, my Grandpa started to get sick. I had come to learn that he was diagnosed with diabetes and like many other people with it was at risk to lose a limb. Luckily, only a few toes had to go and he never was unable to walk.

I remember the pain that his pain brought to the rest of the family. Nobody wanted to see him like that. I remember how worried everybody got after each hospital visit. But like I said if there was one quality that I know my grandfather had it was determination. My grandfather was a survivor of 2 open-heart surgeries. One happened before I was born and I believe the other happened when I was really young. But I always remember being fascinated by the giant scar that ran down his chest where they cut him open.

He exuded no shame. That man walked around without his shirt on more than any other man I know. As many would want to hide a scar like that, he proudly displayed it as if it were a reminder that he beat the odds – A reminder to him that he would live life to the fullest and live on yet another day.

He did just that. He lived for us. He lived for his kids. He lived for his wife. He lived for his grandkids. He battled up until the very second he passed away on February 14, 2010 (just a couple weeks before his 70th birthday).

There is no other memory that I treasure more than the times that I spent talking with him, sitting on the adjacent couch, during my breaks from college in New York. Those last few summer and winter vacations…there was nothing more that I wanted to do than just sit down and absorb as much wisdom as possible from this man that had lived one heck of a life. I could only aspire to one day be able to do the exact same thing with grandchildren of my own.

I’ll never forget, one of the last things he ever said to me was:

“You get a minute a pray, only a second to die.”

I was in New York the day it happened. My father told me about how he was with him when he took his last breath. He said he was quiet for a minute, he took his last breath, and that was it.

When I heard him tell me that, my mind immediately diverted to that phrase. My grandfather said his final prayer and then that was it.

And as somebody who has struggled with their faith, which I’m sure is a struggle that a lot of people face, I know that he’s in a better place. I have faith because of my grandfather.

Naturally, I took it really hard especially with not being able to be there when it happened. I almost felt like I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t get that opportunity to have another final conversation with him. It was like I was kind of left wondering a lot of things. But I have faith because he’s come to me twice in dreams.

The first time, he looked just like I remember him except he was in incredible shape. His shirt was off as usual and I could clearly see the scar on his chest, but the only way I can describe his stature is to compare it to a Greek God. He just looked incredibly healthy and incredibly in shape. However, his face looked just as I remember it. He didn’t say anything to me, but I remember he just stared and smiled. And I remember there was just this overwhelming sense that he was proud of me.

The second time, which actually just happened a couple weeks ago, I was in one of those bad dreams where you’re being chased, like you’re running away from somebody trying to attack you. Somehow, the setting of the dream ends up in a restaurant. I’m no longer being chased by anybody, but the paranoia is still there, like the person who was chasing me was going to come into the restaurant to get me.

I remember I was walking past table after table and all of a sudden I see my grandfather sitting at a table alone. I said, “Grandpa?!”

He said, “You wanna sit down and eat with me?”

I said, “Of course.”

I gave him a hug and sat down. And then I really don’t remember exactly what he said next, but it was something to the effect that he wishes he could eat with me more often.

I woke up at that point and like after any dream, especially one that felt as real as that, you have a hard time remembering everything that was going on.

Nevertheless, I was happy to have seen my grandfather again, even if it was just for a little bit. He gives me faith and I will always look forward to the times that he visits me.

May we all one day eat again, certainly the restaurants in Heaven are much nicer.