Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My Uncle Bill Webb

Why am I not surprised that I cannot precisely nail down when my Uncle Bill was born or died?

I have tentatively decided it must be from 19 April 1914 to 1 July 1985 (Dear cousins: Please correct me if I am wrong….). That would have made him 71 when he died, which should be about right and 26 when WW2 swept the world.

And it would make him about 3 years younger than Bea, our aunt who became his wife.

Bea, according to my perhaps not so accurate notes, was born on 26 February 1911 and died 14 October 2005 at the age of 94; outliving Bill by 20 years.

The ladies of the family are a long lived bunch -- accidents and strange seizure related ailments notwithstanding. That my Uncle Earl lived only into his 80s seems most likely the result of a decade of strain coping with the aftermath of his wife Margaret’s stroke.

But I was speaking of Uncle Bill. Image a man of medium height, well rounded and sliding toward baldness. He always seemed old to me (consider that I was a baby when we first met and from that perspective everybody looks old), but oddly enough I can’t quite remember him seeming at any time older. In my memory, he seems to have frozen in time, old perhaps, but never actually aging.

Bill had a few eccentricities that made him ‘interesting.’

He was really loud. And by that I mean, LOUD!

He was pretty deaf -- which I suppose relates to being loud….

He had really strange feet.

And, he never gave much thought for politics. And that was REALLY strange in the 60s and 70s (I mean, there was Nixon, Viet Nam, guys with long hair, Nixon, Mrs. E. Wyatt Payne, and… hmm, did I mention Nixon?).

But he did do some really nifty things.

He was the first person I know to fish for squirrels.

Yea, I know…. But it’s still true.

He would sit in the apartment where he and Bea lived (this was after they had lost their house and before they managed to regroup and move to their little cottage in Chesapeake, just across the Ohio River from Huntington). And, seated in more or less comfort (a foot often elevated), he would tie a bit of bread or perhaps a peanut onto the string of his fishing rod.

He began by casting out the open window -- the one facing the big tree just outside -- and slowly lure a squirrel toward the window. It took a while, but he eventually managed to get the critters close enough to begin the next part -- where the magic began.

By the time he had finished, he could open the window and hand feed the squirrels from a bowl of critter food (which looked a lot like people food) he kept near the window.

I once saw a squirrel tap on the window for a snack….

Anyway, did I say he was really LOUD? But for some reason neither the squirrels nor our Aunt Bea seemed to mind.

And he liked to be warm. Really warm. Some might even call the temperatures he enjoyed, hot.

But then he did spent a couple of years basking in the sun and surf of the Solomon Islands back in the ‘40s.

Of course, during the 1940s the Solomon Islands were the site of some of the nastiest, most bloody, most awful fighting during WW2. And Uncle Bill took part in a good bit of it. More than he would have liked. Sun and surf indeed!

He never talked much about it. At least not to me…. Of course, I was not only just a kid, but a bit of a jerky kid who knew it all -- or thought I did… but, wait, this isn’t supposed to be about me.

Bill served in the island hopping campaigns of WW2. During that time, he spend days, perhaps weeks, without dry feet. And wet feet and fungus go hand in hand.

And then there were all those unpleasant people spending a good deal of time trying to kill him! And all those gun shots going on around him all the time.

So he ended up deaf (and LOUD) and had ‘funny’ feet most of his life. The Veteran’s Administration doctors did what they could, but they really had nothing that got rid of the fungus (or managed to regrow blown out ears). At least not for most of Bill’s life. He did seem to have a bit of relief during his last decade, so perhaps science finally caught up with his needs.

And then there’s that political thing….

This was a guy who didn’t give a rat’s ass about politics. Well, OK, maybe he did, but I never noticed. I don’t even know if or how he voted….

…. Hmm, I’m having a problem forming my thoughts here. I know what I want to get across, but I’m struggling to come to grips with how to present it…. You see, Bill supported his country. He came from that generation when a fellow just went off to fight when they told him he was needed. It wasn’t something that fellows like Bill thought much about.

Reminds me of my friend Jim Buckley (... Hey, Buck). Different generation, same set of feelings.

Now back in the day, this being the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, most folks had strong feelings about the romp going on in Viet Nam. Nobody liked it, but some folks thought it important to just go and do as the country -- as the politicos -- said. Others didn’t exactly think that was such a good thing. I fell into the latter category.

Now back then I was in college and full of myself. I had friends who understood the world pretty much as I did, but the rest of the world of Huntington didn’t exactly agree. And so, with a belly full of 3.2 beer or perhaps a bit of bootleg whisky, hippy baiting became not just entertainment but a way of defining how much one loved his country…. Evening and weekend recreation for the good ole boys! One of their more interesting variants was to lean out the car window, wave a large knife toward a guy with long hair and shout, with more or less clarity, “Get a haircut, hippy, or I’ll cut it for ya.”

Happened to me at least twice. And each time I gave the proper response, “Thanks, I’m just on my way to the barber,” followed by a wave of the hand and a cheery smile.

Sheer cowardice, of course.

But, then, would you really want to get in a street shouting match with a drunk waving a (large) knife at you from a car window?

But anyway, my Uncle Bill….

I didn’t visit Bill and Bea much. I mean he was LOUD…. And then there was that strange thing with his feet…. And Bea’s elbow…. I’ll get to the elbow later (maybe…).

I sure did have a bunch of reasons.

Oh, and he kept the place too hot.

And since he’s that LOUD, he must be dumb. Aren’t loud people always dumb?

Lots of reasons….

Now, of course… I’d give a good bit to sit and have a nice talk with Bill, he’d only be in his mid 90s, if he were still here….

First, I’d ask him about the squirrels.

And then, I’d ask if he’d let me listen to a few of those old 78s he and Bea collected. I heard a few, but not enough. Not enough….

And I’d surely not refuse a slice of Bea’s pie -- she made damn fine pie.

And eventually I’d get around to asking just why he never got onto me about my hair or the business about Viet Nam.

But maybe I understand now, a little bit at least,

Maybe he just thought it didn’t matter that much.

You see, he saw friends die in WW2 and maybe it was just enough to be alive (deaf and LOUD and foot fungus and all…) and to have a few friends and,,,,

Here it gets difficult since I know nothing about this…. Sorry.

But maybe it’s just that people like my Uncle Bill just understand things too well -- at that level I’d like to be able to get to someday -- to let themselves be too critical of someone else.

Hell, I don’t know.

Maybe he just liked me…