114th Year, 10th Issue Thursday, October 17, 2002 Sparta, North Carolina

REALITY CHECK

Thoughts about old gloves and late uncles

by Coby LaRue

I have some potatoes to move today before the freeze comes. With the way the weather is turning now, it won't be long.

When I got ready to put on my old battered work gloves, I thought about my uncle, who died a few years ago. The gloves, which I still use today, were a gift from him. He never had much, but when he gave you something, it was usually something of good quality. He liked to work outside, cutting brush and firewood with a crosscut saw or bush axe, so he knew the value of good gloves.

I had a number of uncles on my father's side of the family, as my grandmother had six sons. The uncle of whom I was thinking, Fred, lived at my grandmother's house for as long as I knew him, occasionally taking off on odd adventures to veteran's hospitals here and there around the country. The hospitals never seemed to do anything for him, but still he kept going, unable to afford care at a private hospital. He was partially disabled in the military and drew a meager pension of one sort or another.

As I recall, he was wounded in a firefight in Korea when enemy artillery killed everyone in his platoon. He was left for dead by the enemy and somehow survived to return to base alone. After healing in the hospital with almost enough shrapnel in his back to make him clank when he walked, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant and returned to combat. Probably not an extraordinary story, as far as war stories go, but I realized not long ago that I never heard that story from the horse's mouth. I think my father told me what happened to his brother, for some reason. He wasn't a big talker.

After returning home, he spent some time with his whereabouts unknown to the family and then returned to care for his elderly mother. If he ever had a wife or children, I never met them. He truly was a solitary personality, for the most part. He was also a pretty good-sized fellow, with a strong build even later in life. When he got home from the army, he was a bit of a rebel rouser type, from what I understand. So were most of he other men in the family.

I remember him better as an older, more calm, man. A man who isolated himself from society during the last few years of his life. He still lived the old lifestyle, the same as he had lived growing up. Until the day she died, my grandmother never had plumbing in her house and my uncle continued the same way until he died, other than the spring-fed water line that always fed the kitchen sink.

My late uncle and grandmother chose to live like that for most of their lives, accepting the familiar in lieu of the convenient. I don't think either suffered for their choice exceedingly.

There was the exception of a few minor intrusions from modern society, like refrigeration thru an ancient rounded steel ‘icebox,' television and electricity. My grandmother couldn't seem to live without her daily dose of The Price Is Right. Bob Barker was like an old friend visiting at lunch.

After my grandmother died, my uncle was even more withdrawn. I must admit that when I did have contact with him, he seemed somewhat distant. He sometimes came to my parents house for Sunday dinner, but after eating, he would always be ready to head for home. I think part of that had to do with a lack of social interaction. Before, he at least interacted with my grandmother and those who came to visit with her. When she was gone, the visitors were mostly gone as well. However, more of it had to do with personality and life experience. The job of caring for your mother is apparently a thankless one. He went on for years without pay and with little thanks or help. Of course, I feel sure my grandmother appreciated him. She came to stay with us at our house once, but within a few days she was ready to return home. We had running water, home-cooked food and a nice warm house. She still preferred the old homeplace and her favorite chair and the couch she slept on for at least 20 years. She had a bed, but said the couch was easier on her back. I really think it was because it was next to the wood stove.

As for my uncle, he preferred everyone just leave him be, and most folks did. I remember taking him a load of firewood about two months before he died. After we unloaded, he said farewell and went back into the house. I didn't go in. That was the last time I ever saw him alive.

I was supposed to take another load of wood to him after that, but I didn't get around to it in time. I remember looking sheepishly into the woodshed after he died to make sure he wasn't out of wood. Other people in the family, including at least one of his brothers, also took him wood. He used it for heat, hot water and cooking. His own death was without fanfare, much like his mother's. He died of a heart attack in his house alone, after which he returned to the earth from whence he came via a very small funeral with a preacher he probably never met. In the end, we all end up equal.

But that's probably enough of the thinking for today — a dozen bushels of potatoes won't unload themselves.

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