Good folks, like water, are missed when they’re gone

BY BOB WACHS, Columnist
Posted 5/1/20

One of the advantages of my life here is that I’ve been blessed to have lived in several communities across the county.

With that has come the opportunity through the years to know countless …

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Good folks, like water, are missed when they’re gone

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One of the advantages of my life here is that I’ve been blessed to have lived in several communities across the county.

With that has come the opportunity through the years to know countless folks. Most have been pretty good salt-of-the-earth people, a few others maybe not so salty. But still there have been shared experiences and lessons from them all.

From time to time, it’s been my privilege and good fortune to mention a few of them in this space. Most of the time that’s been when they’ve crossed the Great Divide that separates this life from the next and I realize just how much they meant to me — and many others — and that we’re going to miss them. A lot.

Permit me now, if you will, a few moments and a few lines to mention someone who falls into that category, someone you don’t know — my Uncle Sam — and what I learned from him. My parents had sizable numbers of brothers and sisters – Mama, 11 and Dad, six. Until a few days ago, both groups had one member still with us. Now there’s only one, my mama’s baby sister Rachel, a spry 92. Dad’s remaining sibling, Uncle Sam, slipped away a week ago when his big heart gave out.

I can remember conversations with folks through the years when we’d name our relatives. When I’d say, “I’ve got an Uncle Sam,” often my conversation partner would say something like, “Well, I do, too — the USA.” To that, I’d say, “No, I’ve got a real-life Uncle Sam.”

The only problem with my real Uncle Sam was that he — and his family — were in Alabama and I wasn’t.

In my youth, about every other summer, we’d load up our family ride — I especially remember a ’56 Ford — and head out from Pittsboro to Montgomery for a week or so with that part of my family, which included Grandma and Grandpa, a retired railroad man who had been up and down the east coast with the Atlantic Coast Line before settling in and retiring in Montgomery.

In those days, there was little or no Interstate 85. It was 500 miles straight down U.S. 1 through every little village and town God created in the southeast. Like clockwork, around 8 a.m. we’d stop in Columbia, S.C., for breakfast at a pancake house Dad had discovered called “Mammy’s Shanty.” Then it was drive and drive and ride some more, stopping only for gas, the restroom and a roadside picnic table for lunch Mama had packed. If you, especially any of the younger generation, can believe it, there were no Golden Arches or Cracker Barrels, except the real ones in country stores.

Truth be told, I wasn’t a terrible car companion until it got to be around six o’clock. But by then we were usually passing through Phenix City on the Georgia-Alabama line, my clue that it wouldn’t be long.

Simply put, the ride was worth it.

There we’d spend quality time with numerous folks. In addition to Uncle Sam and his family, there was Uncle Jack and his crowd. He worked for an outfit called Florida Fish Corporation. It was standard procedure that for supper one night he would bring in a truckload and a half of shrimp for Grandpa to boil and create his sauce and in the process, we joked, use every pot and pan in the kitchen. It was an impressive sight to see a dining room table beg for mercy under the weight of that much shrimp.

While there, we’d do other things, especially when my aunts Lydia, Betty and Ruth Ellen and their families would come. There was a city park just down the street — Oak Park — and it had swings and slides and a zoo — notably Monkey Island — that easily occupied a young boy’s attention. We’d usually have a big cookout there, as well.

Sometimes Uncle Sam would take me and anybody else who wanted to go downtown to Chris’ Hot Dogs where they put Texas Pete in the chili. Visits such as those and the cookouts at Oak Park went a long way toward creating my physique which led Uncle Sam to start calling me “Tiny,” after Li’l Abner’s brother in the comics. Once he took me home with him and let me play in the dirt and “help” him as he planted flowers around his house. At just the right time, a neighbor girl showed up and Uncle Sam, noticing my distress at not knowing what to say, pointed out to her, as I remember, “He’s from North Carolina and isn’t usually this dirty.”

The time spent there made a big impression on a little boy, namely me. Part of the proof is that 60 years later I still remember and talk — and write — about it. But it wasn’t just boyhood dreams and memories. There were adult versions, as well.

When Shirley finally succeeded in convincing me we should sign on the dotted line for life, Uncle Sam, Aunt June and Cynthia and Tommy reversed the trip I’d made many times as a youngster. In our wedding photo album is a picture of our receiving line showing Uncle Sam’s family coming through while I’m turned around watching my buddies “decorate” my Mustang.

Then there was the time my dad was in the hospital with a heart attack and we weren’t sure he was going to hang around. Somehow the Alabama brothers found a friend with a private airplane who flew them up. Years later when he had such an incident from which he didn’t make it, the brothers and some sisters showed up for the proceedings

Some few years ago, our daughter, her family and us made the trip south in our van, spending several good days there with uncles and aunts and cousins. We did some of the history stuff related to the War Between the States, saw a pair of Geronimo’s moccasins in the museum, took in a minor league baseball game and took my grandson to Chris’ for a hot dog like my grandpa took his grandson — me — years ago.

Uncle Sam turned 90 in 2018. Cynthia and Tommy planned a big birthday bash at the care facility where he and Aunt June were living. I was going, all but bought the train tickets — the fruit didn’t fall far from Grandpa’s tree — to Birmingham, as far as Amtrak went, with plans for us to rent a car and make the hundred-mile drive to Montgomery. But my heart doctor said, “Nah. You’re not going. You need this unexpected triple-bypass surgery instead.”

Other planned trips afterwards also got cancelled in favor of me getting a new hip, a new shoulder and something called coronavirus. Two Sundays ago, as I sat outside in the sunshine with grandchildren playing around us, my daughter in-law got him on her phone that’s smarter than mine. He had been in the hospital, dealing with congestive heart failure. As the connection was made, part of my grandchildren brood greeted him. When Amanda handed me the phone and we saw each other, his first words were “There’s somebody ugly. How are you, Tiny?” I’ll always be grateful for those few minutes.

I have a memento from him, something to remind me of his kindness. When I was barely out of diapers, he visited my folks and me while he was in the Army. On that visit, he gave me the inside liner of his helmet — not the heavy metal pot but the lighter inside. It’s the best rainhat you’d ever want. Every time I wear it, I think of him.

I remember thinking I wanted to grow up to be like him — and Uncle Jack, men of character and principle and kindness and strength and faith.

Cynthia told me on the phone the other day that it was those qualities that made me want to be around him.

I wish I could have done it more.

If there’s an Uncle Sam in your life, don’t let this happen to you.


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