My Little Town 20110511: Uncle Dan

(9 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile of so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River.  It was a redneck sort of place, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

I never write about living people except with their express permission, but since he is long gone, he is fair game.  He was not really an uncle, but I shall explain that later.  I knew him pretty well, and also his son, Tim, who as far as I know still is living.  He is sort of a nefarious character, so no mention other than this about him.

Uncle Dan Shrum was really about a second cousin to me.  The culture in which I was raised pretty much required older relatives to be addressed as “Aunt xyz” for a female or as “Uncle xyz” for a male.  I kept with that tradition.  Uncle Dan was a nice person, and was never anything less than kind to me.

But Uncle Dan had a problem.  My parents called him, phonetically, “a drankin’ man”.  Uncle Dan was a hardcore alcoholic, to be blunt.  I never remember seeing him sober, and he lived until I was an adult.

I do not know how he made money, but he did.  He always, or almost always, had a car and a place to live.  I never saw his home, so I can not give any report about what it was like.  I remember him from a very early age, and he caught my eye not only because of his irregular manner of walking (most would say staggering, now), but also that he literally, and I am not exaggerating at all, had hair in the palms of his hands!

It turns out the Uncle Dan had a condition that caused the tendons in the palms of his hands to contract, thus drawing his fingers into a useless configuration.  Imagine closing your palm over a tennis ball and not being able to release it.  That is how his hands were before the operations.  I have never seen a link about alcohol abuse and this condition, so I suspect that it was idiopathic.  Any medical folks reading are encouraged to tell more about the condition.

At the time, the only treatment was to use surgery to open the palm and cut the tendons enough to release the spasmodic condition.  At the cusp of the late 1950s and the early 1960s surgery was not like it is now.  They had to remove quite a bit of his palm skin to get to the tendons, and had to do a skin graft to replace it.  At the time, the most easily harvested skin was from the upper thighs and lower buttocks, so they used that.  Apparently Uncle Dan was pretty hairy in these regions.

I guess that I was around six or seven when first I met him, and my parents had taught me to shake hands with new people that I met.  I was dumbstruck when I saw his right palm, but shook it anyway.  Remember, I was born a scientist, so I asked him why he had hairy palms (I was much too little to have heard the tales about masturbation causing them, by the way).  He told me what happened, in sort of slurred way.  We became friends then, and always liked each other.

I guess that Uncle Dan was about the same age of my parents, but do not know that for sure.  He looked sort of weatherbeaten.  Here are two stories from my parents about him.

One has to do with a radio.  This was back before electricity was universal, and Uncle Dan wanted to listen to music.  He was drunk, and the battery for the radio in the house (he was rooming with my parents) was dead.  He started, unsteadily, to remove the battery from Dad’s car to take it in to play the radio.  You “youngins” do not remember that vacuum tube radios sucked a LOT of power, and “AA” cells were not enough to power them.  Dad caught him and stopped him from taking out the car battery, and made Uncle Dan go to his room.

Another story from my parents has to do with Uncle Dan on his annual Christmas visits (which he did almost every year, even when I got big, but I was not present for this one).  Uncle Dan knocked at the door, and they let him in, because he was family, and harmless.  He had a fifth of Bourbon whiskey, unusual for him, since he usually could only afford fortified wine.  As Dad told it, he (Dad) started to talk Uncle Dan out of drinking, and Uncle Dan agreed.  Uncle Dan gave Dad the bottle, and Dad went to the sink and started to pour it down the drain.  Uncle Dan sat at the table, getting more worked up as the bottle became more empty.  When the bottle just had one or two more drinks in it, Uncle Dan changed his mind and grabbed it from Dad.  His sobriety latesd about 20 seconds.

Then Uncle Dan looked down into the sink and saw that Dad had poured it into a clean bowl, so that none was wasted.  According to Dad, Uncle Dan hugged him and said, “Thank you, you son of a bitch!”  Dad found a funnel and replaced the whiskey into the bottle and Uncle Dan was off for the season.

Those are stories that were told to me, but I have no reason to question their credibility.  Now come ones that I remember personally.  I already told you about his palms, which was a personal experience.

One day I was playing (I call it “exploring” because I knew of a sassafras tree nearby, remember, I was born a scientist and wanted to see it in full leaf, since it had just gotten warm for the season), and ran into a man on the back steps of one of the old buildings in Hackett.  He did not see me, and took a long pull off of a bottle.  He put it back down, and then I recognized him.  Since I liked him, I walked up to him and said, “Hi, Uncle Dan, whacha drinking?”  Long silence from him.  He finally said, “Hi, Davy!  I’m ahaving me some grape juice”.  

Well, even at that age I knew that grape juice did not come in flat hip flasks, but did not say anything.  “OK, Uncle Dan, do you know where that sassafras tree is?”  “No, Davy, but show it to me if you find it.”

It was just behind him, but my family had told me by that time to be nice to him and just get away.  I say this in all honesty:  they were NEVER worried that he might molest me (not anything that the gentle man would do), but actually were afraid that he might FALL on me and injure me that way.

Looking back, that bottle of grape juice was a pint of MD 20.  He was a serious alcoholic.

A few years later, when I fancied myself as a Christian (still keeping to my culture), a big group of us went caroling around my little town.  It had to be no more than a week before Christmas (our congregation did not carol afterwards, but a week before was OK), and went up to start on the extreme north part of town.  I shall now date myself.

Betwixt carols, we sang Maggie May, the Rod Stewart song, popular at the time.  So when was I caroling?  Most of the bunch of us said that I did a pretty good imitation.  Just then there was a car crash, and we all ran to the site.  We had just gotten a county ambulance service, and they came pretty fast, only nine miles away.

It was Uncle Dan!  He had run his car off of the bridge and down into the rocky creek.  Fortunately for him, he missed the concrete barrier by a large margin, just propelling him and the car down into the creek bed.  The paramedics rescued him, with a skull fracture.  He was OK after a few days in hospital.  In those days DUI was not nearly as serious as it is now.

Another time I remember him visiting, bringing the police with him.  I guess that I was around 13 then, give or take.  They stopped him in our driveway, and took his Gatorade bottle, filled with liquor.  For some reason they did not take him to jail.  I think it was because Dad talked with the officers and promised not to let him drive until he was sober.  Uncle Dan was really aggravated about losing his liquor.

The last time that I should have seen Uncle Dan I did not.  This piece of his memory still sort of gives me tears.  I shall continue.  Remember, I said that he always visited for Christmas, and what I forgot to add was that he would sing Jingle Bells until Dad poured him a couple of drinks.  He was not a very good singer.

I do not mention the former Mrs. Translator in these posts very often, per her request, but it would be impossible to finish the story without her.  One Thanksgiving, my parents were away in Texas at a Razorback football game.  It must have been an important one, to have Thanksgiving play.

I am guessing that I was 18, and the former Mrs. Translator 17.  We would take any opportunity for a party, young as we were, and had one at the essentially empty house.  Our friends, Roger and Shawn (his mate, with long, dark hair) were there, as was my mate (also with long, dark hair), and Mike, a really nice guy.  The former Mrs. Translator and I had walked up to Ma’s house to eat some Thanksgiving Dinner with her.  We had a nice dinner, and the former Mrs. Translator has NAILED Ma’s dressing recipe!

We walked back to the house, and Mike was talking.  “Dave, some crazy old coot came up here and started singing Jingle Bells and asking for a drink!  Then he started stroking Shawn’s hair and calling her [the former Mrs. Translator’s first name]!  We gave him a drink and he drove off.”

I knew who it was, and so did the former Mrs. Translator.  Uncle Dan liked her very much, because she is a kind person, and extremely beautiful.  Shawn was not nearly as attractive (but certainly not unattractive), but they both shared long, dark hair.

Uncle Dan never made it to the next Christmas.  He died before the holiday.  I can only think that the early performance was somehow locked into his mind.  At least he THOUGHT that he was in contact with family.

As I look back, I feel sorry for Uncle Dan.  He was smart, an electrician as I recall, but was a horrible addict to alcohol, one of the most destructive materials known.  But he was not a bad person.  I NEVER saw him violent, nor abusive either physically nor verbally.  He was just had an extremely difficult to treat medical condition that finally killed him.

If you have recollections about your young days, whether or not spent in a little town, please feel free to use the comments to report them.  Did any of you have an Uncle Dan?

Warmest regards,

Doc

1 comment

  1. distant memories?

    Warmest regards,

    Doc

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