Uncle Johnny’s

 

Summer is finally here, and that means summer vacations, right? Actually, I’m taking a pass this year, and aside from a couple of long weekends, I won’t be doing too much traveling this year. I will probably hit the road again in 2015. I usually only take a really long trip every other year.

I had the privilege growing up of having folks that could afford to take us on a family vacation every other year, much the same way I do now. The off summers were spent doing chores, doing odd jobs around town to score some extra cash, reading, maybe if we’d been good a weekend camping trip or two. Family vacation years tended to be pretty good – I have to give my folks credit there. They took us on some pretty darned neat summer vacations for a family trying to make ends meet in Northern Wyoming in the 70s and 80s. I do realize that not all of the kids in town got to do such things – Disneyland, Alberta Canada, Denver, Mount Rushmore, Custer’s Battlefield, as well as Los Angeles several times to visit family there, yeah, my folks took us on some pretty darned cool summer vacations growing up.

Even southern Missouri for two weeks.

Wait, what? What was that last one? Southern Missouri, you heard me. Little town (and by little I mean population 10 – the town’s main building was a combination General Store / Mechanics Shop) of Couch, Missouri, just about halfway between Kentucky and Oklahoma, and just 11 miles from the Arkansas border. Cool. I had never been to the South. Turned out we had a long lost-great uncle there who had invited us out. Turned out further that he’d been given notice by his doctor that he was on the escalator to the next world, and there wasn’t any going back. Doc said he had between six months and a year left. So, in a strange sort of backwoods family reunion, with a somber overtone that us kids didn’t quite realize was there, we made plans to set out for the deep South.

July, 1976. I was 7. So off we went in our 1973 two door Chevy Impala. Puke green. Hey, we went First Class, man. This was two years before we purchased our new Chevy Suburban, and it was what we had. To make things even more special the thing broke down twice on the trip, first time was the power steering in Kansas City, and was luckily just a matter of a pump and a belt (cars back then were stupid easy to fix yourself) so we were back on the road in no time. Second time was the air conditioning, and that was probably going to have to stay broken until we got home. Great.

Well, along the way, my dad forgot (innocent mistake, really – my dad would not do this on purpose) to pay for a tank of gas at a Stuckey’s, a fairly popular chain at the time in the heartland, I’m given to understand, and we got to see up close and personal the great states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. The old joke is that you’d never want to live any place where the prominent geographical feature is the horizon, and let me tell you something – it’s not that funny. It’s darned near the truth in those states.

But, as always, we got where we were going, or at least within a few miles of it. Following the directions “Uncle Johnny” had given us over the telephone, we wound up in a field on a dirt farm road, in a dirty ’73 Impala with three overheated kids in the back and a bad oil leak. My dad pulled up to a man in overalls who appeared to be sticking a pitchfork in loose piles of hay, and against his principles, my dad asked for directions to Uncle Johnny’s place.

“You’s kin?” came the reply.

No – we’re the tax collectors, what does it look like, bubba? Of course no one said that, but they really should have.

After the formalities were out of the way, we were given the directions. Follow this farm road, turn right, then go to this next field and turn left at the swamp, and there you are. Or words to that effect, anyway.

Uncle Johnny actually had a pretty nice spread. A large barn served as his garage, he had two houses on the property, or rather the main two-story Walton-esque house and a shed with a tin roof and a loft made up real nice for Johnny’s daughters, our second cousins. We had two other male second cousins that lived “just up the road” that visited a lot as well, and visited the two female cousins in the loft all night most of the time we were visiting. I’m not saying anything more than that. I’m sure it was all, um, perfectly innocent. Anyway.

Uncle Johnny seemed to like me a lot. He could be a real grump too, but he was mostly a man with a heart of gold, I learned. And he looked almost exactly like Colonel Sanders without the tie. The only time he got grumpy with me was when I landed my die-cast Boeing 727 on his countertop, complete with the bark of the wheels hitting the runway, and the thrust reversers.

(I have always had a very strange relationship with aviation my entire life – as a child I knew about thrust reversers and flaps, and would even yell “rotate!” on takeoff. Perhaps I got those things from television, perhaps not. Mom is to this day convinced I was a pilot in a previous life, but I digress……)

Anyway, one night I was awakened by the sound of the whippoorwills. Their sound is actually very soothing, it’s just that I wasn’t used to night birds, except maybe for the occasional owl in Wyoming. Whippoorwills are small, brown and gray nocturnal birds that emit this strange, rolling, soothing sound for which they are named. It kind of sounds like they are saying softly, “whippoorwill, whippoorwill, whippoorwill….” The whippoorwills were easily my favorite thing about Missouri.

So I get up, and find Uncle Johnny sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cocktail. Hardly surprising – he was dying due to a failing liver at the age of 63 – Uncle Johnny had long been an alcoholic. He held his liquor though, and was calm, clear, and personable. He opened a cold bottle of Coke for me from the refrigerator and invited me to sit at the table with him. I drank four more Cokes as we talked for three hours into the early dawn. I have always been a night owl myself, so this wasn’t the first time I had stayed up practically all night like this. I actually don’t remember all of the exact contents of our conversation, but I do remember that he asked me if I liked my life, my siblings, my parents, and he told me he was dying, and that he was scared. Pretty heavy stuff for a seven year old. I told him I thought it would be okay, that maybe it would be like taking a jet plane somewhere, only you didn’t know where you were going to land. Not bad for a 7 year old, if I do say so myself. Uncle Johnny smiled, and told me I was a good kid.

* * *

The next day I was a bit sluggish for some reason, so I just ate breakfast and took a mid-morning nap as the southern Missouri summer sun began its humid assault on the swamp-ridden landscape.

That afternoon our cousins all invited us kids to go with them (one of them was 15, old enough to drive Johnny’s tan 1974 Ford F150 on the dirt back roads) to the local swimming hole. These folks had a somewhat different idea of what a swimming hole was than I did – I picture a clear, cold mountain pool in a wide spot in a stream – but this was a tree and thicket-lined swamp with water the color of chocolate milk. Not exactly my idea of the perfect swimming hole, but, when in Rome, right? So we jumped in and I had only been in the water a few minutes when I felt something large and scaly deliberately wrap itself around my right calf. I said as much, and Tony, the eldest cousin, told me to freeze – “Don’t move a muscle and don’t tense up – just stand there like a statue. Don’t move even one little bit.” Just as quickly as it had started, the thing on my leg loosened and slithered away. I was told to slowly make my way back towards shore and the truck. When it seemed I was clear and close enough to the truck, Tony yelled at the top of his lungs, “Everyone out NOW!!! COTTONMOUTH!!!!!”

Cottonmouths, more commonly known as Water Moccasins, are large, long black venomous snakes of the viper family. They are exceedingly poisonous; bites are fatal, especially in children, without immediate hospitalization. The closest town to Couch is Alton, 20 miles away. It would have been dicey at best. Luckily, I wasn’t bitten, and that was my last venture to the local “swimming hole.” I forgot to mention too the leeches, but they peel off easily and leave bloody little sucker marks on your body, inconsequential compared to my brush with the Cottonmouth.

The last couple of days at Uncle Johnny’s were spent uneventfully, except for avoiding the wasp and locust swarms, a Copperhead in the back yard (another lethal viper that is everywhere in Missouri) and chasing fireflies with a jar at night with the whippoorwills cooing softly in the background. I found that though I was enchanted by the fireflies and whippoorwills, on the whole I just didn’t care that much for Missouri – I was, and always will be at heart, a mountain country boy.

The day before we left, Uncle Johnny pulled our Impala into the barn and checked the repair that had been done in Kansas City on our power steering pump, then he and Tony fixed the oil leak with a new gasket and fixed the air conditioner, replacing the blown compressor with a used one that worked fine and a new belt, and the next day we were back on the road, headed home. Dad tried to pay Johnny, but Johnny just held up his hand in protest, explaining simply that, “No sir, that’s just what kin do.”

Turned out we had to ask directions out of there too, but by that time, practically everyone in the county, which was really just a handful of people, knew exactly who we were, a few of them waving to us as our Impala slowly sought out pavement and civilization, as it were, once again.

* * *

One winter evening later that year, our telephone rang. Uncle Johnny had passed away quietly in his sleep.

I got out my die-cast Boeing 727, started the takeoff roll, and wished him a safe trip.

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