Everyone seems to have an oddball uncle. Not me. My uncles were all great. There were a lot of them. Between Mom and Dad, I had 13 aunts and uncles, and marriage nearly doubled that.
From the time I was born in 1930, until 1935, we lived in the flat above my grandparents, near Northampton and Fillmore. Three of my uncles were in the house.
Uncle Donnie was the youngest. He taught me about firecrackers and how to expedite a sandwich; just fold your baloney inside a piece of bread. When he went off to World War II, he gave me his record player and collection, featuring songs like “Malagueña,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Long Ago and Far Away.” I played them incessantly and feared he’d want them back. He brought home a beautiful Parisian wife and never mentioned the records.
Uncle Harold and Uncle Howard were tool and die maker apprentices. They had a wonderful machine shop in Grampa’s basement that I was not allowed near. They roared in and out of our alley on a two-seater motorcycle that left me wide-eyed and envious.
Uncle Howard was interested in everything. He became an amateur farmer, raised a pig and, using his universal solution, went to the library for a book to look up pig slaughtering. Dad had a rural background, so he and I went along and helped murder that poor pig.
Uncle Harold was a careful mechanic. Cousin Harold said, “Dad taught me, when you take apart the brake on a car, do one wheel at a time, so you have the other to show how it goes back together.”
Cousin Art and I were fascinated with model airplanes. Uncle George was an expert with them and was building real airplanes at Bell Aircraft. Later on he told us, “We built the XP-59A jet fighter at the old Ford plant on Main Street. Someone read a blueprint upside down and backward. We spent the night reinstalling a wing component so I signed my initials to it. That ship is now hanging in the Smithsonian.”
Art’s dad left the restaurant business for better money building airplanes. He’d had his eye on a sleek motor launch, parked behind a gas station. It had been a rum-runner during Prohibition.
“I got the boat at a good price,” he said. “We had it running out in Buffalo Harbor. This wise guy, in a little outboard, started doing circles around us. I floored it. We took off flying. It was a wood boat and I hadn’t let it soak. Vibrations opened up the seams. We sunk.”
Dad’s younger brother was in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. His pay was lifesaving for Dad’s folks, and Uncle Bernie enjoyed it, too. He was humor editor for the camp newspaper.
Uncle Raymond, Dad’s older brother, grew up big and rough on Grampa’s lumber camp. Aunt Rita complained, “We were playing cowboys and Indians. He tied me to a tree. Then he built a real fire around me.”
Raymond on a bet once picked up the front end of a Model T. He matured into a no-nonsense immigration officer.
According to Ancestry.com my 12th great-uncle, John Howland, came to America aboard the Mayflower. He must have been horsing around, like Raymond, because he was washed overboard. But strong, resourceful and lucky, like Uncle Ray, he grabbed hold of a trailing topsail halyard, got boat-hooked aboard and lived to be an upstanding Pilgrim.