Uncle Hank

This man was not just my first crush, he was one of the great loves of my life. If I saw him again, I’d know there was a Heaven because he’d be there (with all my dogs, but Cody O’Dog would be right beside him).

Uncle Hank

Uncle Hank at his 50th wedding anniversary dinner. He and my Aunt Jo celebrated sixteen more anniversaries. ❤

I always adored him because he was so beautiful and he was also so nice to me. I remember once arriving in Montana and feeling shy and little — I suppose I was 5 — and Hank taking me outside with him to help him finish stretching a fence. I wasn’t any help, but I felt much better outdoors with Hank than I did inside with all the people and the noise. If he talked to me, it was like I had an opinion about things or he was just quiet, sometimes telling me what to do.

Over the years things like this happened hundreds of times. The most dramatic was the afternoon in 1996 when I learned from my mom’s doctor two sad facts. First, that my mom could never go home again and second, that she had been an alcoholic. I did not know the second thing though I guess it was in plain sight for years. I am a pretty emotional person and I started to cry. Our family’s “cowboy mentality” spoke up in my Aunt Martha’s voice, “Quitcher crying. You have work to do.” I was so bewildered by that; I knew I had work to do and I knew I would do it, but that moment I hurt like I do not think I ever hurt before. The depth of my mother’s betrayal took me years to contend with.

I couldn’t cry (I wanted to) but I knew I could just go outside and DO something so I went to the garage and got a snow shovel and went out to Jo’s driveway (Foster Lane — the house to the left facing you in the photo above. Hank built both these houses.) and started to work. I looked up and Hank was there. He wanted to be with me, to be my pal and to share my sadness and that was the best way he knew. I didn’t want him to. He’d had a heart attack not long before, so I hurried and shoveled a walkway to the cars and said, “That’s good enough, don’t you think?” and he said, “I think so.” And we came in. I still needed to get rid of all that emotional energy and I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t shovel and I did not know what to do. I decided to go out and see the hawks the vet had. I headed out the back door and started to run across the pasture but when I looked up, Hank was coming. I went back to him (he couldn’t see very well) and said, “I’m going to go look at the hawks.” Hank said, “That sounds like a good idea. Hang on a minute.” There was no escaping this man. Though it worried me, it also made me happy. He knew how sad and scared I was, and he was not going to leave me all alone with my feelings.

When I was five and my brother just three, my dad’s father died. There were two flights each day  — Denver to Billings and back. My dad drove us all to the airport to meet the plane Hank came in on. My dad got on that very plane and went back to Billings to be with my grandmother. Hank drove us home, we packed the car, headed to Billings to join my dad, driving all night in a 1949 Ford. Hank was tired, my mom was scared, Kirk and I were confused, it wasn’t easy to find an open gas station in the middle of the night in Wyoming, but in Wheatland Hank was able to wake up a gas station owner and fill the tank. We got to Grandma Beall’s very early the next morning.  Before Jo took Hank to the airport in Billings, they’d gotten White House Ice Cream — my favorite — and put it in Grandma’s freezer. Before my brother and I crawled into grandma’s bed, Hank gave me a bowl of my favorite ice cream for being a good girl on the trip.

A couple years later, Kirk and I went to live for three+ months with Hank, Jo, David and Greg. It was wonderful, but naturally I missed my parents. It was different having two older brothers. David was a pestilence, Greg was my best friend and angel. Kirk was wild. There were three steers in the pasture between my grandma’s and Jo’s house. I thought they were “Bret, Bart, Hobie and Chester” but I later learned their names were “Bret, Bart, Hobart and Festus” — named from TV westerns. They were calves then big cows, pets and later meat for someone. One of our adventures was all of us getting into the back of Hank’s black pick-up (early 50’s late 40’s Chevy, probably) and heading out of town to pick up dried corn stalks and ears that had fallen in the harvest.

It was a great golden Montana fall day, unforgettable. The brown pasture dirt, the big sky, the Big Horns and Bear Tooths in the distance, the golden beams of the sun setting behind the mountains, the light — the particular light of sunset Montana ANY time of year. I felt all these things already then when I was just a kid. A gift from my dad or my blood; I don’t know. I remember standing on that pasture looking at the sky until someone said, “What are you doing, Martha Ann?” Probably Aunt Jo. We loaded up the foraged steer food and went home. It was dusk when we got there. Dave and Greg unloaded the truck. Jo made steak, fried potatoes and onions for dinner. It was a great afternoon. The rest of that fall we picked up sugar beets from the side of the road where they’d been dropped by trucks and loaded them into the feed shed for the steers. We took a couple of runs in the pick-up to the railroad tracks to gather sugar beets that had fallen from the train.

I started school in Billings that fall. I can’t say I liked it (I didn’t; it’s never easy being a “temporary” student), but I liked that summer. I liked playing croquet on the front lawn after supper, catching snails from the irrigation ditch, the exotic expeditions to open the “big ditch” to water the pasture, the treehouse in the cottonwood where I was not supposed to go (because I am a girl), the picnics in the backyard with all the family — my grandmother so nearby. I loved the way Hank and Jo were with each other; they were playful and affectionate and silly.

Later, 1979, I got my MA at the University of Denver. In all honesty, for a long time I didn’t understand why Hank and Jo came. I didn’t feel then that my MA was worth anyone’s 12 hour car drive just to watch me walk across a stage. I hadn’t “done well” in grad school. Lots of things happened that were not pleasant and not fair. I was anxious to get out. I didn’t even let my department keep a copy of my thesis in the department. I was a misfit and was all but thrown out. It was impossible not to buy in — a little bit — to their assessment of me. But the day of the ceremony, Hank and Jo were there and went with my mom and Aunt Martha. They yelled “Yee–HA!” as I crossed the stage. Not all that long ago, maybe 7 or 8 years ago, Hank explained to me that he was so proud of me and what I had accomplished. He said, “I never wanted to tell you, honey, because I don’t want you to be ashamed of me, but I didn’t finish high school. Your Aunt Jo and I are very proud of you. We wouldn’t have missed your big day.”

Sometime after — the following summer — my mom (who still lived in Denver) went up to spend a couple weeks with her family in Montana. I went up to spend 4th of July weekend. Back then, people smoked on planes and it was a nightmare for someone like me who is sensitive to cigarette smoke. I got off the plane miserable to be miserable some more with my mom’s cigarettes, but… We went to Fort Smith, near the Little Bighorn River, the Yellowtail Dam where Hank and Jo had a trailer they used for a summer cabin. Down the “road” were tee-pees set up for the same purpose by some Crow Indians. Though this would sound exotic to many people it was normal for us. Hank still had a boat and still liked to fish, but the really large trout that appeared before the dam could be caught only by the Crow.

It was lovely being there. We drove around (new pick up truck, a Chevy, copper colored and white) and looked for rocks, picked wild-plums and chokecherries and then, one evening, Hank said to me, “Get your Aunt Jo’s clubs. I’m going to teach you to play golf.”

The golf course at Fort Smith was all rough. The greens were cut a little closer and some were gravel. The 7th hole was not played because it has a rattlesnake nest. Hank showed me how to hold a club, how to lean over the ball, how to hit. He did not know — and I did not know either — that my years of playing baseball were about to play off in a big way. I’d spent MANY summers staring at the moving wonder of a speeding white ball hurtling at me and then hitting it. I very seldom missed. There was a connection there that had not become conscious (but was about to). I leaned over the golf ball and prepared to make my first drive. “Don’t be nervous,” he said. “You’ll do OK.”<

I lifted back my club (years of field hockey made my swing a little odd) and took a swing, and drove the ball EXACTLY where it was supposed to go. I ended up my first hole a stroke under-par with NO handicap. This happened over and over. It was the same as baseball. It was the whole world vanishing in the moment of hitting a small white sphere. By the time we got to the 6th hole, my Uncle Hank was mad. I was ahead something like nine strokes. We walked toward the hole, Hank suddenly said, “It’s too dark to play.” He grabbed Aunt Jo’s clubs, turned around and headed home.

He went inside, fixed himself some coffee and disappeared. Jo and I sat on the porch looking for Sputnik.

In the year after my mother died (1996), and while my Aunt Martha was living in Billings (until 2008) I spent holidays and some of summer in Montana. Hank told me a lot of stories. He told me his and Jo’s love story, about Christmas Eve and running five miles to keep his promise to be with her before midnight that night. I am happy to have heard them. I love their love story. I think it’s romantic and sweet and the way it worked out is inspiring. But as Jo said, the thing that made it work is that Hank respected her and admired her; they were real partners and had what it took to stick it out in hard times.

His obituary didn’t tell his story. It didn’t tell of him being stationed on an island in the Pacific that supplied the men fighting Guadalcanal; it doesn’t tell about his dengue fever or the kid sitting near him watching a movie outside who’d chosen to sit on a bomb that blew up, killing him. It doesn’t show him as the handsome escort to Aunt Jo when she was Worthy Matron at Eastern Star. It doesn’t show him coming home from work on a Friday night loaded up with Shasta sodas. It doesn’t show him and Uncle Bob cutting the grass in grandma’s pasture using push mowers, or the day he had to kill at least a dozen bunnies who’d gotten out of the hutch and were trampled by the horses. It doesn’t show him running around that dirt paddock with a shovel, crying and banging in their heads. There was nothing else to do, still, it was a horror. It doesn’t show him carrying my dad into a movie theater to watch the last movie my dad ever watched that wasn’t on TV. It doesn’t tell of his great love for Jo, or how he grabbed and snuggled her when he came home for lunch from the auto mechanic job. It doesn’t tell how the smells of a garage still make me happy because they remind me of Hank. It doesn’t show him in the garage trying to teach his boys to build a bird house — Cub Scout project. It doesn’t show him standing on a dirt crossroads with my dad and Uncle Bob surrounded by little kids — me, my brother, David, Greg, Paul and Tom. Hank, my dad and Stocky (Uncle Bob) had driven to Sheridan, Wyoming, to buy real fire-crackers, illegal in Montana. They wanted us to have the fun of firecrackers. None of us thought they were that great, but those three young men — all in their 30‘s — were beautiful in their white t-shirts, their khaki pants, their Lucky Strikes.

The obituary didn’t tell about the last time I saw my cousin Greg. It was winter and snowy. The family was sitting in Jo’s living room, the women in what seemed to be gigantic and hideous Christmas sweatshirts, all arguing about what they would each do if they had a million dollars. Greg and I were going nuts. He had a book — Thomas Carlyle — that had belonged to our grandfather Beall. I love Carlyle and was very happy to know my grandfather — who died when I was 5 — had loved Carlyle too. I said to Greg, “You want to go see the hawks?” The vet who had his office behind my aunt and uncle’s house kept wounded wild birds in cages and used them to teach kids not to shoot them. Many were returned to the wild. There were often bald eagles and sometimes owls. At that moment, there was a snowy owl with some rapidly-growing chicks. “Where?” asked Greg. He didn’t know! So we got up, put on our coats, and went across the snowy pasture in which we’d played as kids. We both remarked on Grandma’s old house, the trees had grown, some other random and passing memories. We got to the hawks and were still talking when I looked up and here was Uncle Hank trudging out to join us. He didn’t see well and it worried me, so I went back to give him a hand. The three of us stood in the snow a long time and talked. I cannot think of many things in my life — a life that’s been filled with beauty — more lovely than those moments. My cousin Greg died soon after of self-destruction; the same illness that took my brother.

The obituary written for Hank in the paper didn’t show Hank riding around with me in his twenty-year old (1980s) Dodge (Mitsubishi) truck, Little Red, shopping for Christmas presents for Aunt Jo, or pushing a cart in Target, both of us laughing at gargantuan red bras and saying, “What about?” (I can say that; I’ve inherited Aunt Jo’s physique.) It doesn’t show us goofing at the supper table and making Jo mad. Sometimes, if Hank laughed too hard, she’d send him outside. It doesn’t show us on long rides out of town imagining a farm I would buy, one with a small house and slightly larger barn and a painted horse. It doesn’t show driving to see the Christmas lights at the zoo and on to Laurel where they still have — and use — the decorations that they had when I was a kid in the ’50’s. It doesn’t show him standing by the baggage carousel at the airport, leaning on his cane — his horse — with Aunt Jo, waiting for me.

The obituary didn’t show us helping each other rehab — him from a stroke, me from hip surgery — taking walks with our matching canes. Hank would tell me stories and ask if he got the facts right. We talked for hours rebuilding and reawakening his memories. He liked the books I gave him and we had lots of chances to talk about Barbara Tuchman’s writing which we both loved.

And, it doesn’t show the hard things he overcame. Life hit him with hard things; no mom, his oldest son was gay, his second son married a Japanese girl. For me — and many of my generation — these would be nothing, but for my uncle, from his moment and place in time, they were almost unbearable, but he did more than bear them. He overcame them and as much as he was able, he accepted his gay son. He adored his granddaughters and their children.

He ended his life friends with the world and his fate. We do look at the older generation for lessons and the real ones we get are not from what they do right or what comes easy for them; certainly they seldom come from what they tell us; the real lessons come from keeping our eyes open and seeing how they struggle and overcome life’s puzzling, personal challenges.

Last time I was in Montana was July 2010. I drove up the route we took in 1957 and I stopped in Wheatland and Chugwater knowing that I may never pass that way again. My dog, Cody, a Siberian husky, traveled with me. Cody was a special dog and he really took to Hank — and Hank to him. When the time came for me to head back to San Diego (actually 3 years ago to the day Hank died — Hank died on July 30, 2013; I last saw him July 30, 2010) I put Cody in the back seat of my red Focus and opened the garage door. Hank came out and said, “I want to say goodbye to my pal.” He opened the door, leaned into my car, gave my big dog a hug and said, “It was nice knowing you, buddy.” I was pretty teared up. I gave Hank a hug and told him I loved him and backed out of the garage. He stood in front of the garage door and saluted us as we drove away and that’s the last sight I had of my very precious Uncle Hank.

Cody O’Dog died the following April and I wondered if he hadn’t gone to keep Hank company.
Cody O'Dog

Cody O’Dog

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13 thoughts on “Uncle Hank

  1. He sounds like a sweetheart.
    Was your aunt Jo a JoAnn? My mom had friends named Hank and JoAnn, when I was little. Wouldn’t it be funny if….
    Naw.
    It couldn’t be.

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