"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding metaphors and journalism and art, for readers in 150 countries.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Uncles are special

Uncles are special.
Oh, aunts are too, but to a boy, uncles--your dad's brothers--fill a special place in a young life, more perhaps than they realized.
When you’re the first nephew in a large family, uncles become part-time parents, and their letters and phone calls over the miles and years to the home place are always welcome, enjoyed and anticipated.
But their visits were the highlights, because it meant the family together once again, despite the war, or the miles, or the years.
Stop and recall the memories, the influences, the happy times uncles bring into your life. The more you think, the more comes flooding back.
Your earliest memories include uncles visiting the house during Christmas or Thanksgiving, family reunions at home or at the grandparents during the hot summers, special words of advice, and trips together.
Uncle Mike and terry--at Bandelier, N.M.
You always remember a gift from Japan or Korea from the favorite uncle in the Navy--a model, motorized balsawood PT boat--having him home from Korea to help teach you how to kick a football, watching him sleep on the couch with his head propped up on one arm, the way they did in the Navy on the LSTs to get another moment or so of sleep.
In later years he was a teacher, a world traveler. His trips home would mean long-past-midnight sessions listening to stories, eating scrambled eggs and bacon, watching slides of faraway places like Machu Pichu and Tunisia. I'd go through the Indian southwest with him, a special trip to a pueblo in a land he adopted at home. Years later, as an adult, you could always call and find safe haven for a night’s rest in Santa Fe, a good steak, and more stories.
The youngest uncle, the first you can remember with a car, driving down the road at night in between him and your dad, watching your reflections in the vertical chrome strips on the dashboard, hearing him tell--between puffs on a cigarette--never to smoke. And you never did.
In later years you went trout fishing with him when Red River, New Mexico, was still a wilderness, before the ski rage destroyed the country.
He was a salesman, and a good one too, and you vividly remember him getting on a plane at an airport, wondering if you’d ever fly or do exciting things like that.
This uncle--the baby of the family--was the one who last saw your father alive. He was a spitting image of grandfather, and had a hearty laugh that you still imitate. He died from too much smoking.
Another uncle was most distant, with all the cousins your age, a professor who drove old cars, and quoted poetry and chemistry. You rarely saw him because he was, well a genius and sort of out to lunch--except during brief summertime visits to college towns. You wrote letters to all the cousins before you lost track of them forever.
The fourth uncle was a military man who didn’t seem military at all, but one you remember for his broad grin and laughing eyes. It was an adventure traveling with him on a genealogical hunt in the Texas back county, having Thanksgiving dinner on a patio at San Antonio with banana and fig trees still green, seeing slide shows of life in the Army in Hawaii. Tall and straight and balding. When he died several years ago, an unselfish source of cheer departed the world.
Once dad died, these men are the only living images of him. You see their faces and see their eldest brother all over again, and a lifetime comes back, a lifetime of good times, of years gone by never more to be relived. Now though, you only seem to see relatives at funerals.
Improbable lives as five boys spread out across the world from a small red-dirt southern Oklahoma town, touching lives all around them, leaving their imprint on you forever.
I don't see old men.
Other people may just see old men, but not you. You see bright smiles, wavy hair, sharp military uniforms, people who lived and loved life, people from the depths of your memories, including black and white snapshots with you when you were too young to remember.
Much of my November and early December has been caring for the last uncle, 88-year-old Michael Henry Clark. Dad thought so much of him that he gave me his middle name. The old WWII and Korean War Navy combat veteran had docked his ship in Santa Fe for the past 40 years. It's become my home away from home especially the last 10 years. But now thanks to the VA, he's been moved to a VA home in Colorado. He's mobile and alert, but is frail and has trouble navigating.
Grandmother used to say, like she was talking of race horses: “You Clark boys come from good stock.”
When I last saw Mike in early November, we laughed and told stories and drank and had a good time, right before he went to the hospital. When I think of him and my other uncles and look in his eyes, and hear his voice, and when I remember what they mean to me, I know what she meant.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I have a great collection of uncles. All but one has passed away. They were wonderful guys.

    ReplyDelete