A common repast to the hell that was my childhood household were my summer visits to my aunt and uncle in Oregon. By the time I was old enough to visit, first with my brother and sister, then my sister, then on my own, my aunt and uncle lived in a small town called Myrtle Creek. There was one stop light.
On my auntie Sue and Uncle Don’s property, there was a house, a barn, a farm, an orchard, a chicken coup and a tractor. While Sue was short, quick tempered, controlling, blond and beautiful with the eyes of a hawk able to spot a porcupine feeding on cherry tree bark in the orchard in the dead of night or a rattlesnake sprawled out on the front yard from 100 feet away (one she quickly killed by prancing over its extended body and decapitating it with a spade), Don was curious, kind, easy going, slow to anger, silly, playful and wise. He’s also the only man I know who could look good with a comb over. While I shave to conceal my thinning hair, Don grows his dark (now grey) side hair long and combs it over the top. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine him doing anything else. He wouldn’t look like my dear uncle Don. And that he still has more hair at his age than I have at mine, is a source of envy, I assure you. What else I can’t imagine when I think of Don is him without worn, saw dust covered brown shoes, denim jeans, a blue Buffalo Chips Saloon t-shirt (one he doesn’t even remember owning and hasn’t worn for over 30 years) and a curious interest in Linda Ronstadt and Neil Diamond. He introduced me to them on 8-track. If you don’t know what that is, think Thomas Edison and his first phonograph. It’s about the same.
Along with those oddities, my uncle has one other quality worth mentioning, he was industrious, a craftsman always keeping busy. He still is. He was always working on improving some piece of the property; the home, the garage, the land, the animals. My uncle has a knack for making everything he touches better. It’s as though he is Midas turning ordinary objects into the world’s gold. He also does this with people. He’s certainly done it with me.
He takes empty and unproductive lands and turns them into pastures. He takes houses and turns them into homes. He takes left-over pieces of broken glass and turns them into beautiful stained-glass windows. He takes battered and tar stained railroad ties and turns them into charming ceiling beams. He takes garbage and refuse and turns it into chickens and their eggs. And he took a beaten and abused little boy and turned me into a man.
While my father saw me as a curse and an inconvenient object meant only to receive his anger and frustration, my uncle Don saw me as a boy desperately needing guidance, gifts and love. He gave me all three. Demonstrating this, he and Sue would drive over a thousand miles, thinking nothing of traveling for two days, and pick my sister and me up in their Datsun (now “Nissan”) truck equipped with camper shell and take us from LA to Oregon. I still remember lying on the bed, looking out the bubble window in the camper’s attic shouting state names with my sister every time we saw an out of state license plate. Sensing our difficulty in recognizing and remembering color schemes for each state’s plate, one year for Christmas Don made us a board containing miniature license plates from all fifty states that we could use as a reference. At that age, with that gift, we were overjoyed! As memorable and educational a gift as as that might be (it was tops in my mind for many years and I still might have it), Don’s given me even better.
Once I was old enough to fly alone, from his own pocket, Don would pay for my plane ticket each year. As disturbed a child as I was, my aunt and uncle opened their home to me every year regardless of my defiant behavior. That my aunt and I have for years mixed as well as oil and water, was no deterrent. Though the momma of this household wasn’t always happy with my being there, Don and I always were. That Sue continued to welcome me year after year of friction and backtalk speaks volumes of her patience and love even to me, her most challenging and ungrateful nephew. I owe her a debt. My uncle Don pays it.
As often as Sue and I would get into it, Don would get us out. Don’s always been that way, a consensus builder, a harmony seeker, graceful, practical, and prudent. I’ve never been any of these. I’m a shit stirer, direct, undiplomatic, abrasive, impulsive and impudent. Despite Don being a fine example, I am my own man and Don has never suggested I be anything but. Instead, he’ll offer gentle but constructive solutions and, to my amazement, as much as I envy Don’s gentlemanly approach, he sometimes admires mine. He even tells me about it. Still 45 years my senior, he’s not shy about sharing his pride in me, his most difficult student.
Boys have a few basic milestones. Like it or not, whether we grow up into artist or architect we all share a number of natural hallmarks or “rites of passage” on our journey into manhood. Learning how to shave is one. Just as girls long for the day they can apply lipstick like their mother, boys long for the day they can shave.
Though my uncle didn’t teach me this (my brother, taking the place of my father, did), Don did teach me two other achievements…(blackberry picking notwithstanding) how to fish and how to fire a gun.
For a boy’s journey into adulthood, these are gigantic. These, like shaving, are monuments toward manhood. But they are more than that. They are practical and primal, instinctive perhaps. Learning how to protect and provide is a man’s first introduction into what gives him purpose. Fishing and weapon wielding (whether for hunting or self-defense) represent this. It was my uncle Don who taught me both. I remember lying on the hillside with whom may have been my cousin while my Uncle Don instructed us on how to shoot a .22 caliber rifle. While we were worried about the recoil, Don impressed upon us the lethality of it, that a gun was not a toy. He taught us to respect it and treat it with the utmost caution and concern. At the same time, he allowed us to enjoy the unparalleled thrill of firing a gun. Because, let’s face it, firing a gun is fun. Don made sure we understood and appreciated all of it. And through Don’s belief in me, that I could be trusted with such a powerful responsibility at such a young age, I was probably less than ten, I started to believe in myself. Though demonstrating this level of trust can be worrisome to any parent, I’m sure, it’s immensely character building in the child. If I’m ever a parent, I hope to remember that.
Fishing. Baiting a hook, dropping it into the water, watching it disappear into the mystery below, tugging and reeling at the first sign of a bite, my uncle taught me that too. First, it was perch from the dock, then it was blue gill from the boat. We’d set anchor, sit and fish. Fishing is always good, though catching may not be, fishing certainly is.
Fishing is a lot of sitting and a lot of waiting. For a child, that’s particularly challenging but, it too, offers unsuspecting benefits…patience for one, hope for another. Hoping to get a nibble, hoping to get a bite, and hoping to get it on board. My first fish I lost. Once I got it near the boat, I pulled it clean out of the water thinking it best to bring it on board as quickly as I could. The fish thrashed and spit the hook. My dream of catching my first fish was dashed. Don taught me afterward the importance of keeping the fish in the water until it could be retrieved with a net. Fish can’t thrash as easily when they’re submerged. You can bet I didn’t make that mistake again. One loss was all it took for me to learn that lesson, a lesson of listening. I didn’t know it at the time, and Don might not have either, but through fishing he was instilling values and virtues. He was taking a boy and making me better. He was transforming me into a man. Not only was I picking up some admirable qualities, I was also learning something immensely practical. Imagine a boy not knowing how to fish. No Tom Sawyer. No Huck Finn. And no day filled visits to the creek. Somehow, I think a boy is less of a boy if that boy was never taught to fish, kind of like a child who doesn’t know how to read. Some skills seem to make us better, fishing, just like reading, is one of them.
Fishing taught me patience, hope, the value of listening, and it also taught me responsibility. After a catch, it was my responsibility to kill it, scale it, clean it and cook it. We ate our catch and we ate good because freshly caught perch? In a pan? On the campfire? With a bit of butter? Well, there’s not much better than that fine, mild, flaky fare. It doesn’t taste like fish. It tastes like freedom. And of that freedom, we ate our fill.
On the farm, along with cows, goats, chickens and a rooster I was terrified of, there was also the tractor I mentioned earlier. Innocent as it was, looking old, weathered and gray, it kept a secret. For reasons I don’t understand, maybe in an effort to build further my sense of responsibility, Don trusted me to ride it on my own. Without ever intending to, I made him pay. One day out on the hillside, while I was riding the tractor and Don was instructing me, he slipped, I swerved and rather than roll past him, I rolled over him. The big, black, large-toothed rear wheel caught Don in the thigh. I remember he whelped in pain. He stopped, staggered up and braced himself. Much the way my aunt Carol didn’t scold me for dousing her with pepper (see My Other Mother), Don didn’t yell at me for my mishap. Instead, he made a pact, one I’m about to break…Knowing Sue would have both our hides, me for rolling over my uncle and Don for allowing me to drive, he swore me to secrecy and pledged to keep us safe from Sue’s wrath in the process. To this day, I don’t know how he hid the enormous black bruise, but I do know Sue never knew. Keeping that secret forged a union with my uncle that’s always made an impression on me. It’s as though rather than two competing forces looking to point a finger and avoid blame, we were a team who had been through a common catastrophe. There’s something about two friends committing a small “crime“ together. There’s equal incentive to keep it to themselves and it’s that secret that seems to create a bond. I think Don will forgive me for spilling it nearly forty years later, and I think that in so doing, that bond of ours might be made unbreakable.
Who would guess two things as simple as fishing and firing a gun would teach a boy so much about becoming man? I certainly didn’t, Don certainly did.
At 92, Don has slowed down a bit. He is now nearing the twilight of his life. He no longer lives in Oregon (they retired to Santa Barbara years ago). He no longer does woodworking (but does still do stained-glass). He gardens, raising flowers instead of cattle, and he still makes time for me. Even Sue has mellowed; no longer is there friction and fire between us, but warmth. I’m sometimes tempted to think Don will always be around. I take comfort in this thought but I know it’s not realistic. As much as I might like my uncle to live forever and always be my guide, I learned when my mother died that’s childhood fantasy and not adult reality. If Don’s taught me to do anything (aside from fishing and firing a gun), he’s taught me to accept reality, stand on my own two feet, take responsibility for my own actions (even if we did keep a little secret), treat others the way I want to be treated and leave this life a little better than I found it. In other words, Don has taught me to do exactly what he’s done for me.