Another Kind of Spotlight

I wrote about Uncle Claude here recently and how he was a major influence in AD’s life. As such, we often talk about him and we often talk about him to Sean.

Oral tradition, the telling of and retelling of family stories, connects us to those who came before us, those who had a hand in shaping us in some way.  Their stories are our stories and our stories are our history.  It is the through the knowledge of history that we know from whence we came, and to some degree, for better or worse, who we are.  (And perhaps it is why I love history so much.)

We tell Sean about how Uncle Claude would quietly go around town doing nice things for others, mowing lawns and fixing things. We tell him how he and Aunt Jean took in AD and his mother and brothers for a time after AD’s father died.  We tell him how he served our country and how he was a war hero. We tell these stories so that he might have an understanding of who Uncle Claude was, how he shaped us for the better and how he was, in our eyes, a great man.

But he’s only six. We don’t really know how much of these stories he absorbs and remembers.

But, truth be told, maybe we tell our family stories because we need to tell them moreso than because he needs to hear them.

Be that as it may, late last week Sean and AD were sitting together on the sofa and the evening news was on in the background.  A segment came on enumerating all the famous people who had died in 2009 — everyone from Walter Conkrite to Soupy Sales.  When it was over, Sean turned to AD and said, “I guess we missed the part where they talked about Uncle Claude.”

I had to laugh, not just at the idea that the national news would mark the passing of our beloved uncle, but also because Uncle Claude died before Sean was born.

But I did pause to ponder what the news would be like if they did more stories on ordinary people doing good things and less stories on famous people doing bad things.  Wouldn’t that make the world a nicer place? I think so.

But then again, Uncle Claude would never seek nor accept the spotlight or the applause of human hands. And that’s part of what made him so great.  He spent his life seeking another kind of applause, another kind of spotlight, another kind of reward.

I like to think that one day in heaven, on the nightly news, there was this story:

“Today in the greater Tuna metroplex, a man who goes by the name of Uncle Claude went on a goodness spree.  After tossing the football with a fatherless boy, he mowed the grass at the church.  Later he fixed a broken screen door for a widow lady. There were no eye witnesses.  He was last seen driving a 1977 Ranchero.  Back to you in the studio, Gabe.”

An American Hero

Uncle Claude was already in his late 70s when I came into the family about 13 years ago.  He passed away about a year or so before Sean was born.  Many things bring Uncle Claude to mind, but nothing more so than Veteran’s Day.

The first time I met him was on a warm November afternoon.  AD had taken me to Tuna to meet the family for the first time and one of the first people he wanted me to meet was his Uncle Claude, the man who had been like a father to him after his own father died when he was a young boy.

That afternoon, the three of us took off and played a round of golf and what I learned about him that day was that he was a quiet man loathe to draw attention to himself, that he played a mean game of golf and that he had a razor sharp dry wit to the delight of those agile enough to keep pace.

What I didn’t know about him on that particular day was that he had hoped to play professional baseball before he was called away to serve in World War II when he was eighteen.

I didn’t know that as a 19-year-old boy, he had survived the D-Day invasion on Omaha Beach at Normandy and then later the Battle of the Bulge – two of the most horrifically bloody and casualty-laden battles in American military history.

I didn’t know that later he had ridden through the streets of Paris with de Gaulle as Parisians cheered for her liberators. I didn’t know that he had received a Purple Heart after an enemy’s bullet left him with a shattered elbow and unable to fully extend his right arm for the rest of his life.

And I will never know the horror and hardship he suffered without complaint for my freedom.

Claude lived his life in such a way that very few people knew that he had served America with such honor and valor. He returned home and quietly carried on.


Uncle Claude was not just a hero to a young fatherless boy, but he was a genuine American hero, and remains so to all who enjoy her freedoms.

Mover, Shaker, Biker?

At age 90, my Aunt Jean is a mover. Not a shaker though, because that would be undignified. 


Aunt Jean is always on the go, on various committees, visiting folks in the hospital, looking in on the elderly her nieces and nephews and does it all with a quick step and in stylish attire.


Every month, the church she attends arranges for the seniors to go out for dinner together at a local dining establishment where Christian fellowship and merriment commence therein.


Last month, the senior coordinator selected a new place in town called Luce Wheels.


Cousin Cheryl, who lives in Tuna and is about my age, sometimes goes with Aunt Jean to these senior dinners using the excuse that she will drive her home after dark, but really we all know it’s because Aunt Jean is fun to hang out with.


When the seniors arrive at this new establishment, it turns out to be a biker bar. 


No matter.  All the seniors go in and enjoy a meal and then later some of the tattooed patrons were nice enough to show them how to play shuffleboard.


About 7:00pm, Cousin Cheryl turns to Aunt Jean, yawns pointedly and says, “Well, it’s getting late, I guess I better be getting you home.”


“Oh no,” Aunt Jean says, “I think I’d like to stay. The band is about to start.”


On second thought, maybe Aunt Jean is a shaker.


Millie Conway

In our family, we celebrate Easter and our risen Lord as we do any other holy day – by racing home from church and eating entirely too much. And then complaining about how full we are as we waddle off to check out the dessert table.

And after all that eating, nothing much else can be done except to sit around the table and talk trash before going back for another piece of pie. When my mother-in-law Cleo and her siblings get together, talk inevitably turns to Millie Conway. After 70 or more years, it’s still Millie Conway. If you have ever wondered how long one can harbor sour feelings, it’s at least 70 years.

In case you are wondering, Millie Conway was a girl that Cleo and her older sisters grew up with. As legend has it, Millie had the good fortune of being an only child and consequently was afforded a few luxuries – new clothes, an occasional Coke or a bologna sandwich all to herself. In Cleo’s family there were seven children and no such luxuries. If Cleo were to have to choose a last meal, I can tell you right now it would be a sandwich of thick cut bologna with real mayo and a Coke. The contentious feelings towards Millie wasn’t borne out of the fact that she had so much and that Cleo and her sisters had so little, but that Millie was the original Nellie Oleson.

After a round table rehashing of Millie’s many acts of evil against the sisters, each one reported as though it had never been told before, one of the siblings will say of their oldest sister, “You know, Fanny always wanted to hit Millie but mama wouldn’t let her,” and then almost piously, “Mama never let us hit anybody or anything like that.”

And then someone will say, “Poor Fanny went to her grave wanting to hit Millie and never got the chance.” And then we all hang our heads in a moment of silence for Aunt Fanny and her unrequited and unopened can of whoop ass.

“Whatever happened to Millie Conway anyway?” someone asked.

“Oh she died some years back,” Cleo says.

Everyone paused to consider this.

Then Antique Daddy adds triumphantly, “Well, I bet the first thing Aunt Fanny did when she got to heaven was kick Millie Conway’s butt.”

And if there is any image that will convey the true meaning of Easter, it’s two old ladies in a throw down at the Pearly Gates.

The Broker

My father-in-law George is a sweet and gentle man with a heart as big as the ocean. He never raises his voice. If he’s really really mad, he might say “damn”. That’s the only way you know he’s really mad because he doesn’t raise his voice. And let me add that in the eleven years I’ve known him, I’ve only heard him utter that word one time. Truly, he is a servant of God who looks after widows and orphans in their distress. But don’t mess with him.

A while back George took his car to be washed. When it was done, he got back into his car to find that a roll of quarters was missing from the glove box. George went inside and spoke to the manager and politely asked for his quarters back. George is not a big guy. With a head of thick silver hair and a cane, he’s not an imposing presence. I’m sure when the carwash manager saw George, he figured he would blow him off like a ripe dandelion.

The manager all but said I don’t have your quarters old man and why don’t you scram. But George wouldn’t budge. George said that was fine, that he would just hang around and talk to all the customers until he got his quarters back. In about ten minutes the manager handed him his roll of quarters. George thanked him very much and went on about his business. George brokered a deal for everyone to do the right thing without causing a stink and that’s a quality in him that I really admire.

Across the street from my in-laws house is a park that covers one city block. It is filled with big gnarly twisting ancient oaks which shade the 1950’s space age inspired playground equipment, a basketball court, a picnic area and lots of open space to run and play.

In the middle of the park is a large granite stone that is engraved with the message that the park was donated to the children of Tuna in 1947 in memory of Janis by her mother. I don’t know what happened to Janis or how old she was when she died, but it’s touching to think of all the children that have played in that park under the shade of those trees, whose children now play in that park and even grandchildren, Sean included.

Recently a big cell phone service provider came through Tuna and decided that a good place to erect a cell tower would be smack dab in the middle of the park, leveling most of the ancient oaks, leaving only the margins of the park and thusly rendering it no longer a park for all intents and purposes.

In exchange for obliterating the park, the generous BCS (big corporate schmucks) were willing to compensate Tuna with rent of about $1000 a month. It is my impression that the Tuna powers-that-be were salivating at the thought of all that money pouring into the city coffers and maybe even the idea that they would no longer have to maintain the park. And certainly the dumb people of Tuna would go for that. The notice of their intent and the date of the hearing was surreptitiously buried in the back of the local newspaper. Unfortunately for them, not much gets by George and he was on the case.

George was the only one who showed up at the hearing. When BCS saw the sight of an unassuming elderly man leaning on his cane, they probably figured they had a ripe dandelion in their sights. But like the car wash manager, they would be wrong. George stood up and made his case on behalf of the children of Tuna. And whatever he said, it was enough to convince the board to kill the issue. For the time being or until they figured George had forgotten about it.

Across the street from the park is a building that used to be owned by the Baptist church which moved to a new and larger location several years ago. The property is currently owned by another religious organization whose primary purpose is to house a food bank for the needy. After the meeting, George visited with the pastor of the church/food bank and told him that if he were willing, he could rent his parking lot to BCS for over $1000 a month, income the food bank sorely needs. Within a few days, the deal was inked.

Thanks to George’s brokering skills, BCS will plant their cell tower in an unused parking lot, the food bank will earn some much needed income and the giant oaks will continue to shade the children of Tuna as they play in the park and little Janis will continue to rest in peace – a win-win-win-win deal for all parties.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.Matthew 5:9

UPDATE:  It is one year later and George reports that the cell tower was finally installed and that the church is now able to provide groceries for 50 families every Monday. This is a congregation of about 50 people feeding 50 families every Monday. I think that is amazing. And I’m so proud of my Papa George and they way he goes about quietly ministering to people behind the scenes.

Limit Two Protocol

When I was at my Aunt Jean’s house a while back, I noticed that while she didn’t keep canned goods in the bathroom, she did have a stash of probably 25 or 30 giant Snickers bars. In the kitchen that is, not the bathroom. And it wasn’t even Halloween.

It was surprising to see so many candy bars because you never see her eat anything like that. Aunt Jean is tall and thin and regal and dignified and not given to self-indulgence. When I asked her about them, she said that when she was growing up, one of the oldest of seven very poor children, all she ever wanted was a big old candy bar all to her self. And now that she can afford them, she buys them because she can. But only when they are on sale.

Let me just stop here and say I would never have a stash of Snickers. Not because I’m not one to “stock up” on a commodity as precious as that, but because in order to have a stash I would have to have at least enough restraint not to eat them all. Whenever I get my hands on a Snickers bar, I chew off the paper with my teeth and then I toss it up in the air. And then I roll on it until I get the scent of Snickers on my neck. And then finally, I lay on the floor on my tummy with my feet out behind me and I gnaw on it and growl at anyone who looks my direction. So when she offered me one, I declined just to avoid that whole scene.

Anyway, apparently Aunt Jean really wanted her own liter of Diet Cherry 7-Up when she was growing too because when she sent me out to the garage to get something out of the extra refrigerator, I was confronted with an imposing wall of Diet Cherry 7-Up. When I asked her about it she said that Albertson’s had a super duper sale on them a while back, but it was limit two. “My goodness!” I said, “Limit two!? How on earth did you get so many?”

“Well, you know,” she said her voice trailing off. “I went to the store and I bought two.” She paused here to lightly pat her hair into place and then stretched her neck as though working out a kink. And then she evasively looked up and off to the left at nothing in particular. “And?” I asked. “Well, then I went home and…. I chaaaaanged clothes…. (cough) andthenIwentbackfortwomore (cough).”

In case you didn’t know, it’s in the fine print on the back of the bottles. In order to legally purchase two additional liters of Limit Two soda, you must have changed clothes. And not just in the car either. You must go home and change into a completely different color blouse. If we were to look at the grocery store surveillance video the week Diet Cherry 7-Up is on sale we would see my good and proper Aunt Jean wearing dark sunglasses, going in and out of the store carrying two liters of Diet Cherry 7-Up at a time. And you might think the video was on a loop until upon closer inspection you would see that she had changed clothes making it totally legal.

I then did a quick calculation in my head — four trips a day, four changes of clothes for seven days at which time limit two expires. And sure enough it adds up to a stash of enough Diet Cherry 7-Up that should last until the rapture at which time we will all be caught up in the air toasting the brethren with Diet Cherry 7-Up and Snickers.

And oh what a day of rejoicing it will be.

Canned Peaches

At what point in life do you start keeping canned peaches in the bathroom? And what does it mean?

a) Collecting canned goods is my hobby
b) I spend way too much time at the grocery store
c) Sometimes I crave peaches at the mostly unlikely of times
d) All of the above.

On a recent visit to Tuna, I opened the linen closet in my father-in-law’s bathroom expecting to find, oh I don’t know, a washcloth or a towel or maybe even a Q-Tip. But no. Out rolled a #10 can of peaches onto my foot.

Given that, I couldn’t resist the urge to snoop see what else might be lurking therein. Sure enough, there was a cache of Christmas presents dating back to 1998 (an impressive museum of Ronco gadgets, World’s Best Dad statues and soap on a rope) as well as a case of Allen’s green beans. It was like a little mini-convenience store. I almost expected to find a man named Apu and a Slurpee machine in the back.

In the same way that life is about the journey and not the destination, and as hunting is about the thrill of the chase and not the catch, Papa George, my father-in-law, is not so much about the procurement of edibles, but about the bargain. And ladies, you yourself know that when you find a bargain, the first thing you want to do is burn up the phone lines to spread the good news. Papa George is no different. Except that for him it’s about canned goods and not shoes.

AM: Hello.
PG: Kroger got purple hull peas on three for 39.
AM: Oh. Hi George. How ya doin’?
PG: Smithfield bone-in ham, 99 cents a pound.
AM: Oh me? I’m fine. My throat is a little sore. Thinking about seeing a doctor.
PG: Allen green beans, the big cans, 49, usually 69.
AM: Sean’s fine too. He’s at school today.
PG: Love ya. Bye.
AM: Love ya too Papa George. Bye.

It’s Papa George’s own sort of love language. If he’s not calling to give you the market report, he doesn’t like you that much.

But I digress. We were talking about peaches. It’s hard to imagine how one could wander off a topic as fascinating as that.

Yes. So then. In case there is a quiz later, the answers to the original questions.

From what I can surmise, the point in life at which one starts keeping peaches in the bathroom is about the same time the social security checks start rolling in. Now I know what you’re thinking – I would never keep peaches in my bathroom. Just wait until you get that AARP invitation before you start making judgements.

And what does it mean? I don’t know. But, it’s really convenient when you get a hankerin’ for peaches while taking a bubble bath.