Thursday, December 27, 2007

Uncle John

My Uncle John, my father's younger brother, died this past November. He was close to 90 when he succumbed to congestive heart failure. His mother lived to be 102. Of the three brothers - Lou, Frank and John (in that order), Uncle John lived the longest. Their father died and my grandmother re-married when the three of them were little. She had two more sons, my uncles Steve and Joe. These latter two are still alive and both are in their late 80's.

I took three days bereavement leave from work and drove down to Baltimore to attend the funeral. I spoke at the funeral and said that it was better to remember Uncle John when he was alive and to keep those kinds of memories than it was to mourn his passing.

Uncle John was a big guy, probably 6'02" and around 210 pounds. He was a standout high school athlete and had been drafted by the New York Yankees. Unfortunately, his arm went up (which would have been a repairable injury today) ending his baseball career.

I have lots of fond memories of him. He was a kidder and loved to play small, non-harmful, practical jokes. He had an easy smile. Once, when my kids were little he asked them if they wanted some ice cream. Just a little bit, they said. So he put a teaspoonful of ice cream in a bowl and handed it to them, asking if that was enough. The looks on their faces was priceless. He then, of course, gave them as much as they wanted.

Uncle John had been a merchent seaman during world war 2. He was on the north Atlantic run. Supply ships made that run from America's east coast, especially out of Baltimore, over to northern Europe, throughout the war. These un-armed merchent ships were easy prey for the German U-boats and many were sunk. Uncle John was never on a ship that was hit by a torpedo but apparently saw other ships in the convoy suddenly explode. It must have been a horrific feeling to be out there in the middle of the ocean, knowing that at any unexpected moment he could have been sent to the bottom of the Atlantic.

After the war he worked at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant but was blackballed for union organizing. He never talked about that but did talk about working there. One story I remember his telling was about the guys, and I'm sure him included, that worked in the open hearth.

The open hearth was where steel was made. It was where iron ore was heated to beyond the melting point. The liquid was then poured into molds and turned into ingots of steel. I'm sure it was hot beyond belief in there.

Uncle John would say that the men worked twelve hour shifts. Every week they switched from day to night shift, in order to be fair. On the day they switched shifts, I think it was on a Saturday, they worked twenty-four hours.

Often times the guys would pass out from the heat. They would be hauled out of the area in a wheel barrow and dumped outside in a field. If they could get back up and go back to work, they'd keep their jobs and get paid.

Later on he worked for General Motors in the maintenance department as a painter. He never talked much to me about it, except to say he was all over the plant painting walls while standing on or hanging off scaffolding.

I remember that he used to hang out at O'Connors a lot. He would go to a place, a club I guess, that was above the O'Connors bar. As kids we were never allowed to go there but I think it was a place where he and his buddies could go and drink, smoke cigars and play cards in peace.

When ever I think about Uncle John, there's a certain image that always comes to mind. I see him down in the basement kitchen of my grandmother's house in Highlandtown. He's standing there, seemingly as tall as the ceiling. He has a full head of silver-gray hair, a smile on his face and an unlit cigar in his mouth. He's wearing a flannel shirt, khaki pants and has slippers on his feet. He also has an apron tied around his waist and a dish towel over his arm.

All my life, it seemed, whenever I went to my grandmothers to see her and Uncle John, he'd say to me when I came down the steps into the kitchen of the house, cigar clamped firmly between his teeth, "Hey, Frankie. How are ya? How ya feelin'? Howz everyone? Okay? That's good. Yeah, that's real good. Ma, let him get his coat off first, then he'll have something to eat. Frankie, whaddya want to eat?"


Anonymous Barb said...

Good post.

9:29 AM  

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