When it’s just me at the end of the verbiage line, I take changes, I push boundaries, I experiment with voice and tone. Lately from time to time I’ve been writing about family members in an intimate way. (I wrote about my grandma here.)
All this contributes to what I write for you.
This is what I wrote on September 23rd, 2014:
Today is my Uncle Bob’s birthday. He would have been 84. I’m going to chat about him, but I’m not promising that I’ll address the rumor that he bailed me out of jail once when I was in college.
Uncle Bob was “rich” Uncle Bob. He was “Kansas City” Uncle Bob because he lived in Kansas City that, in the 70s, was an exotic locale to a 10-year-old.
Bob was born second to my Mom, Jean, on this day in 1930. His father, a Scotch-Irish cop, was kind of an asshole, minus the “kind of” part. When Bob was 15, he came in announced he had lied about his age and enlisted in the Marines, you know, in time for Korea. My grandfather said something to the effect of, “you’re not man enough” though much more colorful as in using a word that might bring to mind a kitten. My grandmother, Rose Thelma, was horrified. (It turned out part of Bob’s motivation was that, in his words, he “hung around” some kids who “might have been stealing cars” and the heat, the coppers, the paddys, were hot on his trail so getting out of town however might have been prudent.)
Bob and a buddy had found a courthouse in Arkansas that had burnt down, and claimed their birth certificates had fueled the fire. Nudge nudge, wink wink, and they were instantly Marines three years younger than they should have been. Off to war he went!
Funny thing about that. He finished basic, and was in line to be shipped out. Like standing in line to get on the boat destination the Korean “Police Action.” At the last minute, a sergeant yelled out, “Do any of you men have cooking experience?” Bob, the wiseass, muttered, “I had a job sweeping the floor of a bakery once.” The sergeant called him out. He was now in the kitchen at the base while his fellow recruits marched off to glorious battle.
He was pissed.
The war had expanded at the moment to China (New! Improved! 25 percent more war!). The weather was significantly colder, and they threw that group of young men, sans Bob, into battle. Their M1s froze up. All of them were killed. Gunned down like a ducks at a cheap county fair arcade game. Lives. Wasted.
Bob still regretted not being there.
He became a decent baker, and then a decent cook. Twice more he would eagerly be in line for battle, and twice more he would be pulled out of line, his rifle replaced with a spatula. He wanted to prove something to his father, and to himself, and of course being a man of the time, wanted to be in the fight. How did his military career end? As the cook for a General. In college (Kansas City Conservatory), I would sit on his couch, drink his scotch while he smoked his apple-scented tobacco in that really cool pipe and listen to these stories. He would laugh at this part. He worked three days a week. “Me and my buddy would get a car somehow” (hmmm…) and we’d drive down to LA from San Diego to sell these watches. We made a bunch of money on them and we had a really good time!”
My mother, his older sister, would insist on marrying my father on the unlikely date of December 28th because “that was the only day my baby brother could come to the wedding.” In addition to his marriage, December 28th marked the beginning of along resentment my father would have toward Uncle Bob, and Uncle Bob’s long held opinion that his sister could have done better.
After the war, Bob took advantage of the GI bill and got himself one of them college education that everyone was talking about in the 1950s. He went into banking, and he married Doris.
About Doris: Divorcee. Had kid! Fathered by a guy who got lost quicker than Even older than him! Bob did not give a shit about any of that, and fell in love with her anyway.
Bob did not give a shit. He fell in love with this single Mom in the 1950s when that was totally not cool. But she was different, she was funny, she had opinions. Sadly, she also had brain cancer in the early 1970s and in those primitive days, the surgery was dicey. She physically survived it, but was never quite the same, and a long fight with intense, immobilizing depression began (I remember the story being that when they had her “head open” on the operating table, one of the surgery accidentally “touched her brain” but then again I was 10).
They had three kids at this point, though at seven years apart each, one was out of the house (the youngest was just a few months older than me and we’ve always been close, cut from the same cloth as it were). Dorie was always different, but always good to me.
When I got to Kansas City to the conservatory, I’d often go over and play Bob’s baby grand piano and drink from his well-stocked liquor cabinet. He was generous in spirit and full of advice and like my father, not crazy I was majoring in music. (“What’s your ‘plan b’?” he would ask.) But I loved to talk to him and hear his stories and I have many fond memories of sitting on his couch drinking his Scotch asking him what a bond salesman does, or something about the market, and generally anything financial because if I didn’t ask he’d start telling me anyway. (Besides, avoiding politics was a must.)
Besides banking, and woodworking, his passion was the Kansas City Scottish Rite. He was a purple proud 32 Degree Mason and loved everything about that secretive institution. As I got a little older (I did go to college for six years, having dropped out for two to play in an alt rock band in Tulsa), late in the evening he would start to talk to me into joining the Masons.
“Now your father will tell you we’re anti-Catholic, but that’s not true!” he said once. “We have several Catholic members now.”
I looked at him and said, “Great, Bob, how you doing with the Blacks? How many Black members in your lodge?”
He shook his head, admitting, “Well, you’re right, we have some ways to go on that ….”
I was always impressed with the way he carried himself, the way he was a gentleman, the old school good manners that he imbued. His generosity was unending, always letting me stay at his home if I was between mouse-invested apartments in college, and always giving me his hand-me-down sport coats, which classed up this scraggy college student more then I deserved. He was so kind to all my friends and all my wives.
And as my father was bald with a death-defying comb over when he was my age, perhaps most of all, I am most grateful for his great hair.
Happy birthday, Bob. Thanks for everything, especially being the kind of Uncle that if hypothetically speaking one needed to be bailed out of jail, one would do so and never tell Mom.