© 2021 by Larry F. Sommers
Read Time: 10 minutes.
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MOM BROUGHT UNCLE MAX HOME FROM THE STATION.
He stepped through the front door, looked around, smiled at me and Dad. He seemed less tall than I remembered, hunched forward a little, with the collar of his overcoat turned up against the cold. The forelock of dark hair pointed down to his eyes, which nested among dark lines and baggy skin I had not seen before.
“Hello, Bob.” He dropped his kit bag on the floor and stuck out a hand.
Dad shook it. “Nice to see you, Max.”
I rushed forward. “Hi, Uncle Max.”
“Hello, kid.” It was like a slap in the face. I had been about to hug him.
Mom pushed from behind. “Don’t just stand here letting the cold air in. Come on, out of the way. Shoo, shoo.”
Dad, Uncle Max, and I made way for the boss. She closed the front door, took off her coat, and started fussing over her kid brother. “You’ll have to wait to hear the latest adventures. He’s tired from his trip, aren’t you, Max?”
He gave her a grateful look. “Tired,” he said.
She took him to the guest room.
Later, at supper, Uncle Max talked. Not his usual line of chatter about hunting and fishing, wrangling horses or exploring the Australian outback. No long recollections of the time he worked his way across the Atlantic on a cattle boat, or the sharpshooting competition he won. Still, he was more like his usual self. Better rested, anyhow. “That’s great meat loaf, Doris. You can’t get chow like that out in the boondocks, where I’ve been.”
“Then you might honor the cook by eating more than one or two bites.”
“So, Max,” said Dad. “To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?”
“Oh . . . I’m kind of in between things right now.” He shook a Camel out of its pack.
“Not in here, you don’t,” said Mom. “No smoking in my house.”
Max frowned. Not guilt or even shame, but of frustration.
He smiled, slid the cigarette back down, and returned the pack to his pocket. “Sorry, Sis. I forgot. I s’pose you’re teetotalers, too.”
Mom said nothing.
Dad handed Max a bowl of mixed nuts from the buffet. “You were saying, ‘in between things’?”
Max took a couple of walnuts. “Air transport business isn’t what it used to be.” He pulled the little chrome nutcracker out of the bowl and besieged a walnut.
“You’re no longer with Clancy?”
“All this globe-trotting. Grain for starving villagers, Kalashnikovs for mercenaries. No good for a man. I’ve been thinking about settling down.” He fumbled the nutcracker. Mom snatched it from his hands and cracked the nut for him.
Uncle Max laughed. “Thank you, Dorrie. You always had a way with hand tools.” He looked over at Dad. “I’ve got a job out west. Chance to settle down in a nice part of the country.”
“Ahh?” said Dad.
“Working for an FBO.”
Mom squinted. “FBO?”
“Fixed base operator. I’ll be the manager of ground operations.”
Dad raised his eyebrows. Mom scratched her chin.
“Course, it doesn’t pay near what I’ve been making, but the cost of living’s cheap out there, and there’s lots of fish and game.”
“Sounds like an opportunity to me,” Mom said. “What kind of work is it?”
“Like running a filling station for airplanes.” He gave a snarky grin, the first time since he walked in the door that I recognized my uncle. “Hello, Mister Pilot, Sir. Top her up with jet fuel? Can I check your oil? Rotate your tires? Rent you a little hangar space?” He looked at me and winked like he was letting me in on a joke. Just Uncle Max and me, like the old days.
“Oh, it’s perfect,” said Mom. “Good honest work, in one place.”
Max got the other nut loose by himself. “You understand, I’d be the executive in charge of the service operation. We got other guys for grease monkeys.”
“Of course,” said Dad, nodding wisely as if accountants automatically knew all about airport operations.
After supper, Uncle Max put on his coat and took his pack of cigarettes to the backyard. I grabbed my parka and followed him.
He sat balanced on the edge of our snow-covered picnic table. “Jim, boy! You’re a sight for sore eyes. How are things in school?” A wisp of smoke rose from the glowing tip of his Camel.
“Uh . . . okay, I guess.”
“Those girls gettin’ after you?” He sniggered like there was some deep male knowledge between us. There wasn’t, at least on my part, but this at least was the Uncle Max I knew.
“Not half the problem for me as they are for you,” I said. This was nothing but sass. Since he was the only one in our family to be married and divorced three times, I figured I could get away with saying it.
He blew out a cloud of smoke. “Don’t let them get the better of you. That was always my problem. They get you where they want you, then you gotta cut them loose. And you pay.”
This was too deep for me. I looked at my feet. “Tell me about your new job.”
He threw his cig on the ground and lit a new one immediately. “Nothing to tell, really. Guy I know from the war runs the whole operation—Grand Tetons Aviation. Said I could work for him.”
“How long will you be staying here with us?”
“I got a week before I have to report out there. Tell you the truth, it’ll be like boot camp for me.”
“You know your mom. She went through my bag and confiscated my nice silver flask. Don’t matter, it was empty anyhow.”
Could I picture Mom putting Uncle Max through such humiliation? Sure I could.
“It’s okay,” said Uncle Max. “I’ve been through boot camp before.”
We all accompanied him to the station. He stepped onto the platform to meet the train, a different man from the one who had slinked in the door a week before.
He was all jaunty fedora and shiny new wingtips, and everything in between had been remodeled. Mom had taken him downtown on a shopping expedition Wednesday. Under his new tan trench coat he wore a gray suit and striped tie. His bulky aviator’s watch had been replaced by a slim gold Bulova with a matching expansion band.
Even the comma of greasy-looking hair was gone, the lines and eyebags banished as if they had been massaged away. Maybe he had gained a few pounds.
He set down his brownSamsonite suitcase, yanked the leather glove off his right fist, and shook my fourteen-year-old hand just like I was a grown man. “So long, Jim. Come on out and see me. I’ll take a few days off and we’ll go bag ourselves one of those bighorn sheep on a mountaintop.”
“I’d like that,” I said.
He shook Dad’s hand likewise, then turned to Mom. “Thank you, Dorrie, for all the good food. And, well, for everything.” He leaned in to hug her.
“Just go make that airport hum. Make us all proud.”
“Airports don’t hum, Sis. They buzz.” He looked embarrassed at the lame joke. “But yes. I will, Sis. I will.”
I wondered who had paid for all this new clothing and luggage, his fresh haircut and nice-smelling cologne—him, or Mom? At no time in the past week had Uncle Max taken us all out for a big restaurant dinner, as on past occasions. He always enjoyed putting on a show and being extravagant, if he could.
Then the train came. Uncle Max stepped up into a gleaming car and was on his way to Wyoming.
A few years later, after he was well settled, we paid him a visit. It would turn out to be the last time I saw him.
He had married a fourth time, to Ruthie, a woman who looked like a better match than his other wives had been.
He showed me the camping and sporting gear he had collected: hunting rifles, fishing rods and reels, nifty little tents and camp stoves and backpacks. It was great equipment and well used. But he did not take me out in the wilds to hunt or fish with him.
“Sorry, Jim,” he said. “I’ve just got too much work to do at the airport.”
“That’s all right, Uncle Max.” By that time, I had other things on my mind, anyway.
He looked over at Mom. “Always remember how important your family is, Jim. Someday you’ll need them, and they’ll come through for you.”
I didn’t know what to say. Mom’s boot camp must have been a success.
He died a year or two later, from too much hard living, and left Ruthie a nice house and a modest pension.
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Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)