jcbellah


The Uncles
March 12, 2012, 3:11 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

There has been a debate for centuries regarding the effects of nature vs. nurture.  I read once that some German Baron in the Middle Ages conducted an experiment on the subject.  He took several newborn babies from their mothers and had them raised with a minimum of human touch or even contact to see how that affected them.  The results weren’t in the article, but I can imagine.

Personally, I believe that some people are just born without any empathy for others and will do whatever they think they can get away with to satisfy their own desires.  I ran into a few in my years of police work and criminal investigation.  But I think most people are influenced by their parents and other adults in their lives.  This also makes me wonder about the amount of dysfunction in my mother’s family.

Uncle Johnny was the oldest.  I never got the impression he was a good man.  Dad dropped tidbits over the years about him building up debts and then defaulting.  Usually that was in the context of wondering why banks and such continued to do business with him.  Mother just described him as mean and I believe it.  I have a couple of pictures of him as a teenager and he had an angry scowl in both, the kind of kid you avoid having eye contact with in the school hall.  I had as little to do with him as I possibly could when I was growing up.  What was odd was that he ignored me for the most part until I became a teenager, but then suddenly started going out of his way to be nice to me.  I mentioned this was a crazy family, didn’t I?

One instance I remember when I was about 17 or so.  We were all at my grandmother’s and he came in a new Mercury Comet Caliente, a compact car with a big engine, bucket seats (still a novelty at that time) and floor gear shift, another thing not on many cars.  Of course, at that age I’m fascinated by cars and I walk out and start drooling over it.  Uncle Johnny apparently saw me through the window and came out and handed me the keys!  He told me to take it for a drive.  I was floored!  I didn’t know anybody that would have trusted me with a car like that, probably not even my own parents.  I just drove it a few blocks and brought it back, mostly because I was concerned about my Dad’s reaction.

Years later, I was talking to Dad about it and he said that he didn’t understand it either.  He did make the observation that he seemed to like me more than he liked his own kids.  When I got married to my girls’ mother, Uncle Johnny sent me a wedding card.  It was a 50th anniversary card, not a wedding one.  He was just starting to suffer from dementia so there was no doubt that he had picked it out himself.

The second oldest was Chalmers.  He hated that name and told all the nieces and nephews to call him “Unk”.  Unk had about a 7 section (a section is a square mile) ranch outside of Aspermont, Texas.  He bought it in the Depression under some farm loan program instituted by FDR.  It was big, but not very productive.  He had created some watering holes for cattle by damming up gullies so they would catch and retain rain water.  They were big ponds, small lakes referred to as “tanks”.  But it was really lousy land and couldn’t support many cattle.

The significant thing about Unk was that he was a miser.  He was the last one to get a telephone, the last to buy and air conditioner for the house, worried constantly about spending money.  When I was in high school, they found oil on his property and that was became a redneck joke.  Being a Depression survivor, he didn’t trust banks so he would only put $100,000 in each bank because that was the maximum amount the FDIC would insure the account for. He would put the money in checking accounts because if they were in savings, they would get interest and there would be more than $100,000.  Get the drift?  When he died, his son had quite a time trying to run down all the accounts he’d created in all the little Texas banks.  It was mostly all there though, Unk spent very little of all that money he had coming in.

But again, although Mother never said a nice word about him, he was nice to me when I was growing up.  Dad had no interest in fishing or hunting at all, but Unk would invite me to stay with him and Aunt Teeny (real name Christine) several weeks during the summer.  In fact, it was several weeks, several times each year and he would take me fishing and hunting on his place everyday.  The tanks were stocked with bass and catfish and I have some of the best memories of my childhood hanging out with him.

But I could always see a dark side too.  Again, he treated me better than he treated his own boy and girl who were quite a bit older and had been out of the house for a long time.  I don’t think he ever got mad at me although there were some times he certainly should have, I could see a bad temper there.  Like my mother, he didn’t suffer fools and had a lot of anger underneath the skin.  Looking back on it, maybe because I had grown reasonably adept at dealing with my mother, I instinctively knew how to avoid setting him off.  But again, Dad mentioned to me once when I was grown that he never understood why Unk was so nice to me either, but ignored all the other cousins.  I was the only one ever invited to hunt and fish with him.  I wonder if there was some guilt involved with him and Uncle Johnny that drove them try to make some sort of amends to my mother through me.  Another possibility is I know that growing up with my mother, I had learned how to appease crazy, angry people.  That skill certainly helped me in my profession, I’m positive of that.

The youngest was Uncle Joe, called J. B. by the rest of the family.  As I’ve said before, Mother just adored him and talked fondly of them going to school together and hanging out.   His personal life was a disaster.  He married a woman he met while working in a CCC camp during the Depression.  She was a piece of work.   It was common knowledge in the family that she was screwing around on him while he was in the Army during WWII.  Last year I was visiting the only cousin I have contact with, his daughter and she told me that our grandmother caught Uncle Johnny and her mother having sex.

I don’t know if she left him or vice versa, but they did divorce.  They had three children, a boy, a girl and then a boy two years younger than me.  The daughter came to live with us off and on as she was growing up.  The first time was when I was in the second grade and she stayed until I was in the fourth or fifth and then she left abruptly and moved back with her Dad and his new wife.  That didn’t last too long for her, she finally moved in with her mother which wasn’t much of an environment either.

The new wife was nothing to write home about.  She hated his kids and wouldn’t even sit at the table with them to eat.  Uncle Joe was a nice man by all appearances, but he had lousy tastes in women.  Mother never said much, but I could tell that it really made her angry the way he sacrificed his kids for her.  I have to say that even as a kid, I shared a lot of feeling too.

As I said, I spent several days with my cousin in Texas last year.  It was wonderful.  We had lost contact for decades and had a lot of catching up to do.  Neither of us was told why she was taken from us, we don’t know if it was my parents or her dad that made the decision.  It was too bad; she would have had a much better start in life if she’s stayed with us.

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