Bud

 

I was eight years old when my mom first took me to see my uncle Bud: his given name was Joe Smith, which may explain why he went by “Bud” - the sole male role model of my misspent youth. He had been a merchant seaman all his life, and told me stories of his adventures in South America that made me howl with laughter. He had a dry, deadpan humor my mom shared, and I have inherited to some extent. He sent wonderful, oversize illustrated books when I was born: Aesop’s Fables, Alices Adventures in Wonderland, Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and Just So Stories, a collection of A.A. Milne’s Pooh stories, and Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel. (Mehitabel would be the name of each of my first nine cats: the tenth was ‘not Mehitabel’ - another story for another time.) Our first communication was a letter he sent from India two month’s before, possibly delivered by overland tortoise. At this particular juncture, Mom had not heard from him in five years. Typically laconic, it read Have you ever tried Harvey’s Bristol Creme? Take the advice of your worldly wise brother and don’t. The postscript hit me like a thunderbolt: I  am sending a table from India with elephants dancing around the rim. Look for it in another three months. In prescience of The Secret Life of James Thurber, I attempted to imagine how they could deliver a table and elephants waltzing around it’s periphery. I waited in a panic of anticipation, and the realization elephants were embossed on the table helped prepare me for further exposes concerning Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.


I remember sitting with him on our sofa, watching the Chicago White Sox play. An advertisement appeared exhorting us to Drink Canada Dry!


Hell,” he grunted. “I haven’t finished with this country, yet.


Bud was missing one eye, one lung, one rib and two and a half fingers. In later years I would associate him with Mark Twain’s story about a man who lost various parts of his body. (In the words of Groucho Marx: “ Excuse me while I have a strange interlude.”) In Twain’s parody of an advice column, he pens a letter purportedly from a woman engaged to a hapless man who has lost in separate accidents: one eye, one arm, one ear, his nose and his scalp. Distraught, she beseeches “Should I marry him?” Twain’s response begins: “This is a serious question. It involves the lifelong happiness of a woman and nearly two thirds of a man.”) Bud’s fingers were lost muddy drunk on shipboard courtesy of rodents; the rib and the eye from a barroom brawl in India - cancer took the lung.


(This story was told at his memorial service - he donated his body to medical research “so they could figure out how I lived this long.” ) While recovering from the removal of his lung he applied for a position as chief engineer, as the only duties associated with that office were to deal with extraordinary emergencies: sinking, for example - which actually happened. One level headed person aboard yelled “Man the lifeboats!” Mindful of his duties as chief engineer, Bud bellowed - here the storyteller turned to the presiding minister in a quick aside : “‘Scuze me, parson.” - “The hell with that! Where are the overtime pay forms?” My family is not above embellishing a story if it improves the narrative. Bud told this as a true story, and - I believed him. But there’s that nagging kernel of skepticism. He said, for example, one of his friends was eaten by an anaconda when he was swimming in the delta of the Amazon. Anyway...


The interview for his chief engineer position progressed without incident until the captain asked, “Do you drink?


Bud examined the captain and attempted to clarify. “Is that an academic question or an an invitation?


Once the lung was removed his bladder function increased to such an extent, he once confided to me “The only emergency I could have handled would have been putting out a small fire.” It would be no exaggeration to say I worshipped him, and thought him fearless and godlike in all respects. He lived half a mile from the Gulf of Mexico in Crystal Beach, Texas - northeast and across the bay from Galveston.

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To return to my visitation odyssey, age eight: Mom and I headed south on the highway, before there were interstates. The plan was to visit relatives along the way: my maternal grandmother was living atop Lookout Mountain with her oldest and youngest daughters (Leila and Myrtice) and two further generations of Smiths, including my cousin Denise. In hindsight I realize my grandmother was not at all well, and would die within a year’s time. Not that my mother would ever let that enter my consciousness.


We drove south through most of Indiana and some of Kentucky, about which I remember only a roadside stand that sold panda bear head-sized lollipops in psychedelic swirls. I proceeded to cover our car in sucrose adhesives.


Several days later, Mom and I entered the great wide state of Texas, talking mostly about the chances of me seeing a snake. Most male children go through an unaccountable attraction to reptiles about age six, shortly after they realize they have zero chance of seeing a living dinosaur. Texas is renowned for having huge, vicious examples. As we approached Bud’s house, directly in front and stretched across the highway with it’s neck cocked at an abrupt angle, as if it had been run over, was the biggest snake I had ever seen. Much longer than I was tall, bigger around than my thigh, it was covered from head to tail with large, irregularly shaped rhombi. At the tail - had I taken time to notice - were eight pairs of rattles. I leapt out of the car and was within three feet of the giant pit viper when Mom called out to me.


Wait! Cal - are you sure it’s dead?


I waved my hand in a dismissive gesture: moms’ worry so much. “Aww, sure, mom.” Suddenly, perhaps aroused by the sound of my voice, the snake lifted it’s triangular head and rapidly tested the dank Texas air with it’s tongue. Big brave me actually did knock my mother down diving back into the car, ignoring the door entirely and slithering through the window. Mom was almost unable to move, from laughing so hard.


At length, when I had finished shaking, I peered furtively out the near window. No serpent in sight. So I opened the door and sprinted to the house to petition my fearless Uncle Bud to kill the big evil snake. Avuncular Bud was just barely dragged from his abode by a small, eight year old whirlwind. Expending more calories than I currently ingest in a day, he was finally dragged within missile range of the road where the reptile was leisurely sliding into the undergrowth to the west. We must have looked like the Three Stooges: Mom bent over in front; me, looking over her shoulder from behind; and Bud in the back, facing away and looking over his, Mom’s and my shoulder - ready to run like hell if any change in direction was indicted by the rattler.


At last, finding my voice, I called encouragingly “Kill it, Uncle Bud!


With an affected nonchalance that was almost painful to behold, he drawled “Well, sure, Cal. You wouldn’t have a hand grenade on you, would you?

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I’ll let a man shit on my head and rub it in. But don’t laugh at me for smelling funny.” JS/1908-1971