When I was growing up, I attracted the attention of a meddlesome uncle who felt obligated to teach me everything he thought I’d missed from not having my father around. My parents were divorced and I lived with my mother. The divorce happened not long after I was born. They said my father could not stand it when I cried and screamed. He was an author and a good one I’m told but I never read anything he wrote nor wanted to. It wasn’t that he didn’t love me. He just wasn’t the family type.
His brother, my uncle, his name was Ned, he was definitely the family type. I’m pretty sure he was sweet on my mother but she wasn’t interested. He showed up with gifts and hope. I was amused at his persistence.
Uncle Ned was in his sixties when I got to know him. He was a large man, over six feet, probably 300 pounds, and nearly bald. What he lacked in looks he made up for with his friendly personality, his outgoing nature, and an astute business sense.
He showed up when I started high school and we did things together. We hunted. We fished. These were things I was not very good at but I understood they were things that, as a boy, I should know about. Uncle Ned thought so too.
I remember a time when he invited me to hunt ducks. He and two other men, John and Jim, were partners in a small duck hunting club on the north side of the Sutter Buttes. It was an old house with a wood stove and garage with an ingenious duck feather plucking machine, a motor attached to a metal rod with rubber strips glued on. The rubber strips flipped around rapidly when the machine was on and pulled the feathers from the duck without damaging the meat. There was a pond close by that attracted the ducks flying overhead through a popular flyway.
My Uncle bought me rubber waders. The pond had three islands and blinds made of old metal fuel barrels sunk into the dirt surrounded by tall grass. We walked through the pond to the islands and climbed into the blinds while it was still dark. The ice on the top of the pond cracked under our feet as we walked in. It was late winter and very cold. We lighted coffee cans of charcoal to keep us warm. You could hear the ducks above in the black sky.
I learned how to call the ducks down with a whistle that made duck quacking sounds. Uncle Ned showed me how to hold a shotgun, how to aim, how to lead the ducks. I remember the first duck I killed. It fell out of the sky into the pond but it wasn’t dead, just wounded. Uncle Ned told me to climb out of the blind and go after it. The ducks wing was broken. When I reached the poor creature, Uncle Ned yelled to me to grab it and break its neck. I suppose that was the humane thing to do but I will never forget the terrified look in the eyes of that duck. I got sick to my stomach but didn’t let Uncle Ned see me toss my breakfast into the pond.
Uncle Ned said I was a good shot, a natural. Nothing about killing felt natural. I knew immediately that to hunt was not for me. I didn’t tell Uncle Ned. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He thought he was doing something special for me and he was. I just didn’t like it.
Because of his bulk it was difficult for Uncle Ned to climb into and out of the blind. I stood in the pond to wait while he climbed out. He used his unloaded gun as a crutch. He sneezed and the gun slipped and he fell into the freezing water. Jim and John sloshed over in their boots as fast as they could. We managed to lift Uncle Ned out of the water. John and I helped my uncle across the pond and into the car while Jim retrieved the gun.
Poor Uncle Ned sneezed and shivered. “God damn it, what an ass I’ve made of myself.” He bellowed like an old bull.
When we got back to the house, Uncle Ned went right to the shower while Jim cleaned and oiled Uncle Ned’s gun. It worked out eventually but Uncle Ned lost his enthusiasm for duck hunting and we left the next morning.
During the night the three men sat by the wood stove, played cards and exchanged stories. I went to bed but I could hear them talking. Their voices carried down the hall. They talked about a naked girl in a barrel at a bar they had visited some time ago. She occasionally jumped up and down and the patrons caught glimpses of her if they were looking at the right time. John said you could pay a quarter to go up and stand over the barrel and Jim said quite a few quarters were collected that night. Uncle Ned agreed it was some spectacle.
On the way back home we stopped to shop for groceries. Uncle Ned wanted to cook dinner. When we arrived home, I saw the look on my mother’s face. I knew what she was thinking. Uncle Ned fancied himself a great chef. He had a restaurant but he didn’t know anything about cooking. He picked up just enough to get by from the chefs he hired. My mother told me that whenever he cooked Uncle Ned got every pot and pan in the kitchen dirty and never washed a single dish. We put up with it because he meant well, he was lonely, and he was generous. I didn’t know at the time how much my mother depended on the money he gave her quietly and without expecting anything in return. Or, at least nothing I knew about. I saw them hugging in the hallway one night but nothing more.
Once he took me to Hawaii with my sister and my niece. My father was much older than my mother. She was his second wife. My sister Norma was some twenty years older than me. My niece was a year older than I was. Her name was Norma Jean. My mother’s name was Jean so my niece was named after my sister and my mother but everyone thought she was named after Marilyn Monroe. It made sense if you knew her. From what I’ve heard of Marilyn Monroe, my niece was a lot like her. Norma Jean and I were great friends and were always getting into trouble.
Once she offered to drive me to a ranch outside Winnemucca to see a friend. As soon as we left the house, her boyfriend showed up. She got into the car with her boyfriend and told me to follow them in her father’s truck. I didn’t have my license and had little experience driving. We turned onto a dusty dirt road surrounded by sagebrush. I followed too close. When they stopped unexpectedly, I rammed into the back of the car wrecking both vehicles. Another time we got caught skinny dipping in her father’s pool. Uncle Ned always stood up for us in these situations and miraculously we got off without any serious punishment.
Uncle Ned lived in Marysville. He liked to take the California Zephyr through the Feather River Canyon all the way to Winnemucca to visit my sister. Once I traveled with him. I was reading Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. Uncle Ned told me I shouldn’t waste my time on trashy novels. I tried to explain that it was literature but he wouldn’t have it. He made me put the book away and took me to the dining car where he ordered me a glass of wine. I was only 15 but I didn’t say anything.
That train ride was a turning point in our relationship. I think Uncle Ned knew his time was about up and he wanted to unload a stack of memories on me as if telling me about his life would somehow immortalize it.
He told me to reach into my pocket and to pull out the first coin I touched. It was a dime. “Give it to me,” he said. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocket knife. “Here, this is yours now,” and he gave me the knife.
“But, Uncle Ned, that knife’s worth much more than a dime,” I said.
“That’s not the point, son. I got that knife from an old friend the same way you got it from me. He told me the less I paid for the knife, the longer our friendship would last. Friendship is more important than money. Don’t ever forget that.” Years later I’d forgotten all about that knife until I pulled it unexpectedly out of a drawer. Then all the stories he told me on that train ride came back.
He told me a lot of things like how he was raised by a Mormon family after his parents died. He and his brothers and sisters split up and he wandered around until he found a family to take him in. He had a lot of respect for Mormons but much as he tried he couldn’t accept their religion. The one area where he disagreed with my mother was her Catholic religion. He worried that I’d be hoodwinked. “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man,” he’d say quoting a Jesuit priest. My mother just shook her head but she didn’t say anything in response. I don’t think that Jesuit priest was as smart as he thought he was. I lapsed from the church as soon as I left high school. But I didn’t tell Uncle Ned or my mother.
He told me how he walked the tracks for the Southern Pacific in Idaho when he was fifteen. He had to carry a gun in case he came across a mountain lion or some other wild animal. He said he gambled a bit, told me it was okay but never to get carried away. “I’ve seen fortunes lost by those addicted to gambling,” he said. “It’s as bad as drugs and you stay away from those too, you hear me?” I shook my head in agreement. He liked to bet on the fights but never on a particular boxer. He bet on either the black trunks or the white trunks alternating from time to time at random. In those days television screens were black and white.
“Always be on your guard,” he warned me. He had a story about how he’d been drugged in a bar and barely got out without being robbed. “But, don’t loose your faith in people,” he said. “Treat everyone with respect, especially those who have less than you do. You never know which way the world will turn.”
He had very strong ideas on some things like lamb raised on sagebrush tastes better than lamb raised on grass and other plants or that Ally Oop was the best newspaper cartoon.
While he was a careful man, Uncle Ned was prone to a few hair brained speculations from time to time like buying a ghost town and old gold mine outside Washington, California. He supported a family for a year or two hoping the mine wasn’t played out. Later he bought a run down ranch near Battle Mountain, Nevada where his plan to raise cattle was thwarted when they all got sick and died.
For a few years after the train ride I didn’t see him as much as I used to. I was busy with college. I usually visited him once around Christmas and once in the summer. I was with him once when he shot a rattlesnake with a shotgun on his front porch. It made a helluva mess and I had to clean it up. “A little hard work never hurt anyone,” he said, and I guess he was right because I got the rattles out of the deal and used them to scare buddies when we were out in the woods.
I got a call from my sister when Uncle Ned had his heart attack. I didn’t make it to him in time to say goodbye. I thought of some things when he died. He told me often that rules were made to be broken yet he lived largely by rules. I wondered if he ever found the love he so deserved. I realized the pocket knife I thought I’d found was lost again. And then I saw those terrified eyes on that duck when I broke its neck and realized that life would never be the same.