Many and long are the tales we could spin about an old uncle of mine (a great uncle, actually). His life did have certain elements that excited the imagination and made one cringe, like being from Bowlegs, Oklahoma, for one. Second, he was named for his mother’s former lover, not the current husband who fathered him—like I said….
His first wife was actually the one I was kin to. She was my blood great aunt. She was rough, bordering on mean, a chronic cheat (yes, I mean an adulteress), cursed worse than her husband, and was addicted to gambling and prescription drugs. Her dark, soulless eyes would bore right through you, and her wrinkled lips would curl up while she asked, “Sugar, do you want a piece of pie?” in that heavy smoker’s voice. (I can talk about my aunt that way, but you can’t.) She could make an awesome pecan pie though.
For many years, they worked together in Alaska hauling oil field equipment. He drove the truck, and she drove the pilot vehicle. Both were tough and would have rivaled the cast of any modern day reality show. After a half century of marriage (you can imagine the dish throwing sessions), they called it quits by filing for divorce. Broke, but able to retain the family homestead, old Uncle sank into self pity. My aunt admitted herself to a retirement home and lived out her days in the care of her daughter.
Old Uncle wasn’t beat yet. In the back of his mind, he recalled a sweet young thing who had been his eighth grade sweetheart. Not sure what his motives were, but he called her up. She was recently widowed and rather loaded. She was the antithesis of my old aunt. This sweet woman was a former social worker, Sunday School teacher, and of the inner circle of the lady’s clubs of genteel society. He told her all his woes. In bleeding heart fashion, she glided down from Oklahoma with the intent of rescuing him from his penniless fate, and taking him back to Oklahoma to live out his days in relative ease. Only, she didn’t count on crafty old Uncle. He wooed her, showed her the ranch and prevailed upon her heart to ditch suburban life and become a ranch wife (or rather benefactor who would save the ranch, with the grand title of “wife” besides).
After the divorce from my aunt and subsequent remarriage to his Oklahoma sweetheart, it never occurred to me not to retain him as Uncle. After all, I had known him my whole life, and it never dawned on me that we weren’t really kin. So, we happily partook in his remarriage plans. At the celebration, he demanded that his mules, Mabel and Sam, be saddled. He and his bride were going to ride across the pasture. Mabel was an ornery old mare, and Sam was a gentle gelding. At ages seventy-eight and eighty, the newlyweds mounted their steeds.
Mabel was outraged. She stampeded with the new bride astride her bony back, while Sam just stood in bewilderment and refused to go anywhere. Assuredly, he was wondering why he had been re-enlisted after six years of retirement. The new bride suffered a broken hip and a rather battered face. They spent their honeymoon in the hospital. Her grown children looked at us with accusatory faces, as if we could have stopped Uncle from his determined attempt to relive his glory days and to demonstrate his former rodeo skills.
Undeterred, the plucky new bride (after months of recovery) found a solution to the deflated pride of her groom who still wanted to be able to ride in style once again. Instead of riding mules, they would buy a draft horse and wagon. Together, they would ride over the 500 acre ranch, checking on the cattle, goats, geese, ducks, and llamas. Yes, they did.
It worked for a while, then the newness wore off, and they didn’t use the horse for months at a time. After about six months of being left alone in a pasture, the draft horse was roped and hooked up to the wagon. At first, he responded, but then, he seemed to have had enough of the nonsense. He shook his head and seemed to have a bright idea: if he refused to acknowledge the tug on the reigns, what exactly were they going to do about it? He picked up more and more speed. As the giant horse hurtled toward the open gate, all seemed lost. Uncle and bride were holding on for dear life when they were suddenly arrested by a friendly neighbor who had witnessed the debacle. Not long after that, the draft horse and the wagon went up for sale.
The influx of income from Oklahoma got the ranch rolling once again. Soon, Uncle was back in good form. And, in truth, they were very happy, and everyone could see it (he hadn’t just married her for her money). We welcomed them with open arms. They often visited our home and decided that they would start attending the small community church where we were members. Their time in our community rendered to many members their own tales of Uncle. He is rather notorious in these parts.
One day he called us and said that he needed to move his cattle from one pasture to another, but his hired hands were on family emergency leave, and would we come help him? Of course we would. When we arrived, my dad was also there. We hadn’t known he was coming. We were slightly confused because he was in a cast and on crutches. How was he going to help move cattle? “He can drive the truck,” Uncle said. He gave some rather blanket and generic instructions, then we all headed to the vehicles. I espied the tires on his cattle trailer and said, “These won’t hold up. How long since this thing has been moved?”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” I was told. “It’ll hold up. That trailer has been around longer than you have.” That’s what I was worried about. It hadn’t been moved in years, and I suspected that the tires had sun rot.
On the way to the pasture where the cattle were, we blew out two tires on the trailer. Uncle said, “Don’t worry. There are six tires. We still have four. We’re good.”
“Where are these cattle?” I asked when I began to realize that we were leaving Uncle’s property and were headed across into a neighbor’s pasture.
“They are over here. I was helping my neighbor with his grazing. He had too much grass.” I swallowed hard. I just hoped that this neighbor was out of town. “And, these ARE your cattle?” I asked, afraid of the answer. I got the look that said, “I should slap you, but I won’t.”
“Of course, they are my cattle, but they are in the neighbor’s pasture.” The story finally came out. Uncle had been “helping” his neighbor graze down the pasture while the neighbor had been gone for nearly a year, blissfully unaware; and, now that the neighbor was returning (he had courteously informed Uncle of his return), it was time to move the cattle.
What ensued was a momentous occasion permanently imprinted in my brain. Uncle dropped off dad by an open gate and told him not to allow the cattle to go through that gate. I hesitated and said, “I thought dad was driving the truck?”
“Naw. I’ll drive. He is better used here.” Dad hobbles to the gate and stands guard. I began to wonder about the second gate that stood open, about fifty yards from the first gate.
“What about that gate?” I asked.
“The cattle know not to go through that gate. They never go through that gate. It’ll be alright. I’ll park the trailer here. You go on up the hill and drive the cattle down here. They’ll load right up.” I had my doubts. How long since he had worked these cattle? Did they even remember what a human being looked like?
I begin my trek on foot up the hill some half mile away. The cattle see me coming and don’t like it. I make it around and behind the cattle and begin my drive, slowly raising my arms and bellowing at the cattle, but not too wildly, so they don’t spook, but just so they are motivated to get up and move down the hill. I think all is going well and continue my walk. I crest the hill and look down toward the trailer. Uncle is waving his arms wildly and screaming at dad, “The other gate! The other gate! Don’t let them go through that other gate!” Dad responds by grabbing his crutches and hobbling as fast as he can over cacti and rocks to close the gap between him and the other gate. Too late. In their haste, the cattle didn’t remember that they weren’t supposed to go through that gate. Four hours later, they were finally loaded onto the trailer and deposited back on Uncle’s property.
By this time, I was so thirsty, I thought I could drink anything. After seeing his water jug, that he so generously offered me, my thirst was quenched without even taking a drop. The tobacco juice all over the spout quenched my thirst better than a cold Gatorade.
The trip back home was agonizingly slow, like 10 mph, because we only had four tires and two rims by now. But, the good news was that dad was no worse for the wear, although, one of his crutches did fall prey to the stampeding hooves of an angry heifer.
It was about ninety-eight degrees outside by that time and we were exhausted and not in very good humor. The lunch hour had long ago come and gone; nonetheless, Uncle invites us in for a very late lunch. Laying out on the bar are hotdogs, mayonnaise and various other lunch items. I look at them in dismay. They were the same items I had seen laying out on the bar early that morning, and I began to suspect that they had been there yesterday, too. Uncle grabs one (without washing his hands) and asks if I am hungry. “Not very,” I manage. I realized that today I was going to fast.
It wasn’t long after this, that one day while at church, Uncle grabs me by the neck and pulls me down so he can whisper in my ear (very loudly, which everyone heard), “I think someone is trying to poison me.” My eyebrows shot up. I pulled away and looked at him questioningly. “I keep getting sick. I think someone is doing something to my food.” I decided it was time to go to Uncle’s house and clean out his refrigerator. After that, there were no more episodes of someone trying to kill him.
One day, his wife called and said that their dog, Jody, a very large Pyrenees sheepherding dog, had puppies in the garage. I smiled and said, “That’s great.” She said yes, it was wonderful, and could I help her find homes for them all. I said I would be happy to. The next weekend, I drove out their way to see the puppies and to do some odds and ends for them around the place. I saw the puppies and was slightly perplexed. I had presumed that the father would also have been a Pyrenees, or something of similar breed/stature. The puppies were quite small and spotted. I asked, “What kind of dog was Jody bred to?”
“Oh, she wasn’t supposed to do that,” I was told. “It was the neighbor’s bird dog/rat terrier cross.” Oh boy, I thought. How was I going to advertise homes for that? I thought of a good line: “Wanted–good homes for sheepherding bird dogs that chase rats.”
Jody was their outside dog. They had five little inside dogs (poodles and Pomeranians). Jody stayed on the place (unless visiting the neighbor), but the little dogs went everywhere that Uncle went—including church and, of course, our house. These little dogs were my nemeses. I hated them. One day while at church, Uncle left the truck running so the dogs could have air conditioning. During the Invitation, we suddenly heard a yowling and gurgling of intense proportions. Some of us rushed outside to see what murder was taking place. One of the little dogs had mashed the window button and rolled himself up and was choking. Unfortunately, he survived. Uncle was so relieved that his favorite poodle hadn’t killed itself, that he swaggered back into the church and sat down in what he thought was his seat…right on top of my brand new cowboy hat. Squished it flatter than flat. The preacher, bless his longsuffering soul, finally finished that Invitation.
It was pretty typical to have an unannounced visit by Uncle about once a week. The little dogs always accompanied these occasions. They would rush out of the truck and toward the house. If we happened to be enjoying the weather and had the doors open, they would not wait for us to open the screen doors. They would simply create little doggy doors. Once inside, they would initiate new turf, including table legs, the corners of the bar, etc. We would chase after them with a spray bottle of Lysol and a rag. We fixed the screen doors many times. One day, we had simply had enough, and we asked Uncle not to allow his little dogs out of the truck when they came to visit. This suggestion hurt his feelings so badly, that he didn’t come see us for months.
On their fourth anniversary of wedded bliss, he called us. They were coming back from Oklahoma where they had been to celebrate, and they wanted to stop in. We said, “Of course.” We had supper waiting and prepared for a visit. When they arrived, they were pulling a small trailer loaded with containers of food—most of which had lost their lids, somewhere between here and Oklahoma. Most notably was a large pot of beans and some kind of green jello, pudding. They eagerly unloaded their goods and brought their offerings into the house, proclaiming that they had brought supper. Seeing as the temperatures were hovering in the high nineties, and the food had been unrefrigerated and uncovered for who knows how long, we were very sincere in asking of the Lord’s blessing over the food as they ladled large portions onto our plates. We graciously declined the more risky dishes, such as the cole slaw, potato salad, deviled eggs and anything containing chicken.
After supper, Uncle excused himself and went out onto the porch. I had a slight red flag raise in my mind, because Uncle didn’t smoke, but I thought that perhaps he just needed to stretch his legs after his long drive and might be enjoying the evening view. After a few minutes, we heard a heart wrenching, “Awwwkkk!” and then an ominous thud. I had a sinking feeling. Outside, we found Uncle on the ground entangled in a yellow rose bush that had been growing beside the porch. His pants were unzipped, and a body part, bleeding profusely, was protruding from his britches. He had been peeing off the porch onto the yellow rose bush when he lost his balance. He was moaning and thrashing about. We grabbed towels and got the bleeding stopped (he was on blood thinners, so it was no easy task). We got him upright and bandaged up. The death of the rose bush ensued, because he had crushed it. But, this event did inspire me to put up rails on the porch, even though the porch was barely six inches off the ground.
As I mentioned, Uncle was on blood thinners. He had already suffered a few heart attacks. We were cognizant of the fact that at any moment, he could “go”, as we like to say. I had been concerned about his eternal reward for some time. He just seemed to live a bit on the edge, in my opinion. One day, while he was visiting our home, I asked him if he “knew our Lord” and/or was “ready” for when that time would come. He was duly offended and shouted, “Of course, I know the Lord. How do you think it would feel if someone questioned YOUR Christianity!?” I shook my head and said, “Well, I think I’d be honored that they cared enough about me to question it.” He blustered, “Well, I’m not honored, you little #$%^@#.” He dusted off his hat and left in a huff. It was some time before we saw him again after that.
When he came back around and forgave us for our audacity, we began to suspect that he was getting unsafe behind the wheel. His brand new, pristine, double cab F-250 looked like it had been in a demolition derby. We asked him what had happened. He said, “Every time I go to Walmart or the grocery store, somebody hits me. I come out and see more dents.” The fact that at church, nobody parked within thirty yards of him (or even his parking spot, if he wasn’t there yet), was somewhat of an indication of what was going on.
His driving would have to be addressed soon. One day he pulled up to the gate at the ranch. His wife got out to open the gate. The truck rolled forward and hit her, knocking her down. Thankfully, it didn’t run over her. He was so upset about it, that he refused to let her open the gate after that. He insisted on doing it himself. One day, he thought he put the truck in park and got out to open the gate himself. The truck rolled forward and did, actually, run right over him. He was once again rescued by the same neighbor who had stopped the runaway wagon ride. But, to add to his wounded pride at running over himself, Uncle suffered a torn off left ear and tire marks across his chest and shoulder. He survived but was hospitalized in a trauma unit about one hundred miles from where he lived.
Everything was about 100 miles from where he lived on his ranch in rural central Texas. On these occasions of medical emergencies, it was not just a hop and a skip to the nearest hospital. It took planning to accommodate such episodes, so we often offered to take his wife to see him at regular intervals. During this time, we realized that her mental capacities had progressed to the point that she needed supervision, so we did not leave her at the hospital when we took her to visit her husband, but stayed for several days with her in hotel rooms, until she was ready to go home again. It came to the point, however, that we needed to notify her children of her condition. They had careers and children and grandchildren of their own and needed some time to arrange their schedules before they could come and take care of her, so, at one point, our constant care of her extended to a two-week interval. During this time, she would have various mental breakdowns (I think because of the stress of her husband’s condition), and she would become impatient with us for not letting her walk-about at will or for not letting her take her car and go shopping by herself. One day, she called her daughter and said that we had kidnapped her and stolen her car and wouldn’t give it back. We were honored, to say the least, to have been implicated in such an outlaw plot. After that, the daughter arrived and kindly took over her mother’s care until Uncle recovered.
Months after that, Uncle resumed his residence at the ranch. But, those heart attacks did continue. After another heart episode that occurred at church, after we picked him up off the floor (he was a rather large individual), he said, “There is no need to call the ambulance this time. Just take me home.” Prior to this, he had been transported twice from the church to the hospital for heart related issues. We said, “No, we’d better get you to the emergency room.” We transported him by private vehicle. He was well acquainted with the medical personnel by this point and couldn’t resist poking at the nurses and female paramedics.
After a few days, he was declared fit enough to leave the hospital. We, along with several family members, were at the hospital to see him and hopefully drive him home. Against the doctor’s advice, Uncle was intent on driving himself home (the doctor had just finished privately instructing us not to let either Uncle or his wife drive home). Uncle suspected that we were plotting against him driving himself and bellowed that he had driven a truck for fifty years, and he was still good behind the wheel. The doctor just shook his head. Uncle was rolled out in his wheelchair, and several folk gathered around to pat him and speak with him. Someone in the family asked how he was. He answered, “I’m fit as a fiddle! Ha! A little old heart attack isn’t going to do me in! You’ll see. I’m going to live a lot longer than this!” He hiccupped and swallowed, then hiccupped again. Then, his face turned a different shade, and we all realized that we were looking at a dead man. He had died right there, in his chair, telling us how long he was going to live.