“Local Legend Transcends Technology”
Jack Donio is not only Hammonton’s Fire Chief for fifteen years but also the good-hearted citizen is a local living legend and a favorite hero of area mythology. Move over Jersey Devil. If big Jack Donio happened to be an American Indian, he would more-than-likely carry the name Chief Big-Heart. His widespread reputation is not only because of his extraordinary volunteer service to his town. You’ll soon know why.
All kinds of fascinating tales abound about “Big Jack.” For some inexplicable reason I always want to believe these incredible stories, no matter how exaggerated their redundancy may sound. Having a literature background, this former English teacher enjoys myths and relishes their perpetuation.
One popular tale has Jack Donio on his former Winslow farm surrounded by fifty silent and obedient migrant workers. Without making any announcement in either Spanish or English Jack holds two huge sledgehammers perpendicular to the ground. Standing erect, the mammoth man casually twists his wrists upward and the dual sledgehammers instantly rise to waist level right before his very amazed and spellbound audience. Then Big Jack Donio casually drops the dual heavy objects to the ground and departs the barn area in a nonchalant gait as the impressed and astounded farm employees chatter amongst themselves.
A garrulous farmer (of some credibility) had once told me that he had witnessed Big Jack pull into Folsom's C&E Cannery with an enormous load of Jersey tomatoes stacked in “five-eights’ bushel baskets.” The back tailgate load was so large that when Big Jack stepped down from the cab, the truck’s front tires immediately rose two inches above the asphalt. I don’t care if it sounds too sensational and exaggerated to believe. The story propagates and verifies the behemoth’s remarkable legend, which quite incidentally I too am guilty of perpetuating.
I could mentally picture Big Jack arm wrestling King Kong Bundy for hours over whose head was balder, and the intense contest would naturally end in a draw because the smoky bar they were in had to finally close down for the night. That’s the kind of bizarre stuff my fertile mind imagines whenever I meet and converse with Big Jack Donio.
One particular Saturday night in late July of 2001 my wife Joanne and I and friends Mac and Denise Fascetta drove eight miles from Hammonton out to Sweetwater Casino for dinner. After enjoying a terrific meal and some interesting conversation while seated at a table overlooking the historic Mullica River, the four of us had to exit the South Jersey establishment through an adjoining dining room. My perceptive eyes immediately observed stocky brothers Jack and Joe Donio seated at a table having dinner with wives Eugenia and Roseann.
“Uncle John,” Joe enthusiastically greeted me in his familiar affable tone of voice, “how the heck are ya’ doin’?”
“Great Uncle Joe,” I returned, implementing our typically predictable salutation. “It’s great to see two local farmers out feasting and enjoying themselves during the height of the summer harvest season.”
“Sir,” Jack said as he nearly disintegrated my right head in a firm handshake, “it’s always an honor and a privilege to see you,” the likeable giant stated rising from his seat while all four of our wives chuckled.
I was extremely flattered because the local legend Fire Chief regarded former English teacher John Wiessner as an important member of his community. Overcome by curiosity and desiring to learn some gossip, I inquired about the validity of one of his many adventures.
“Jack,” I deviously began, “is the fantastic story true that you used to take two heavy sledgehammers on your Winslow farm and...”
“Forget about that trivia,” the awesome hero politely interrupted with noteworthy authority. “That’s history if ya’ know what I mean. Here’s a new story.”
Big Jack told me that on one recent occasion he had been summoned to a massive local fire. The Chief felt sick, weak and dizzy after arriving at the scene of conflagration. Upon exiting his vehicle and stepping towards the blazing warehouse, Big Jack nearly collapsed to the ground. The Hammonton Rescue Squad arrived and immediately transported the afflicted Fire Chief to Kessler Memorial Hospital. Everyone present during the emergency suspected that Big Jack Donio had suffered a heart attack.
“Wow!” I loudly exclaimed inside the handsomely decorated Sweetwater dining room. “Obviously you’ve survived your ordeal. What happened next?”
Big Jack took a deep breath to effectively heighten my suspense and then he dramatically explained that the hospital doctors told him his heart had lost its rhythm. It was fluttering and beating irregularly and had to be stabilized. ‘The rhythm must have sounded like a really bad rap song,’ I thought but dared not comment.
“The doctors in the Emergency Room said that three things could happen to me,” Big Jack nonchalantly emphasized. “And I’ll always remember them.”
“What were they?” I curiously asked. “I’m always interested in learning new information.”
“Nothing would happen, I could live, or I could die,” Donio tersely replied quite matter-of-factly. “They then said they had to use a ....”
“A defibrillator?” I interrupted as I inserted a direct object into his declarative sentence. “The medical device you’re referring to is called a defibrillator.”
“Yeah, that’s it,” Big Jack concurred with my accurate nomenclature, “they wanted to give me a powerful electric shock to get my heart workin’ right again.”
Big Jack next informed me that the concerned doctors then professionally administered several hard electric jolts to his immense sternum. Donio’s huge barrel-shaped-chest did not respond to the potent stimulation and his body did not react by heaving up from the hospital table like viewers always see on TV hospital shows. “I stayed in the hospital for a full week but my damned heart never regained its proper rhythm,” Big Jack stated in a feigned melancholy tone of voice.
“Well, how did you ever get it beating back to normal?” I inquisitively wanted to know as I glanced down at the gigantic steak that looked like half a cow lying in the center of Big Jack’s dish.
“I went back to work as a wintertime highway supervisor. I was at a construction scene,” Big Jack proceeded to elaborate, “so bein’ bored I grabbed a jackhammer from a guy and started riveting concrete non-stop for six hours. Then I went back to the doctors at the hospital for a scheduled checkup, and they were astonished and said that my heart problem had miraculously been cured.”
As I drove from the rustic Sweetwater Casino Restaurant back to Hammonton I thought about Jack’s new tale and about my fantasy of him arm-wrestling King Kong Bundy for hours in that splendid imaginary smoky barroom. I then thought about the lyrics to a Jim Croce song.
“He’s badder than old King Kong, meaner than a junkyard dog.” Then while driving south past several expansive blueberry plantations I chuckled at my mind’s fantasy. The pro’ wrestler King Kong Bundy’s family owned a South Jersey junkyard and they probably have several vicious mongrel dogs diligently protecting the premises. ‘Heaven rest Leroy Brown and Jim Croce’s souls,’ I mused, ‘and long live King Kong Bundy and Hammonton’s Chief Big-Heart. Now I know why the riveting road-shattering device is called a Jack- hammer,' I concluded with a smile.
“Keep your eyes on this winding road,” my wife imperatively ordered. “How come you’re smiling and giggling?”
“I don’t know!” I prevaricated. “Sometimes I just simply enjoy acting stupid!”
Jay Dubya (author of 41 books)