photos of my Great Uncle Ted, Great Uncle Bob, and Grandpa Ham
Linking up this story by my Dad to Sian's Story Telling Sunday which occurs on the first Sunday of each month. Big thanks for hosting us Sian!
The Uncles I Grew By
by Bruce H. Mero
My extended family was pretty close during my early years. I was routinely in the company of many of my adult relatives in my adolescent, pre-teen and early teenage years, by virtue of multiple proximities. All of my Mom and Dad's parents and siblings lived within a half-dozen miles of where we lived while I was growing up. They all liked each other as well, consequently they spent a great deal of time in one another's company. With the exception of my Grandfathers, all of the adult male kin I spent time with growing up were WWII veterans. That fact alone accounts for much the closeness of my family, I think, in those Post-war years. All of the boys enlisted, all were deployed either in Europe or in the Pacific during the war, all survived and all came home. To a young boy, these guys were all heroes; my Dad and his two brothers, Bob and Ted and my Uncles Don and Joe, my Mom's twin sister's husbands. I now know they were all heroes in everyone's else's eyes too.
All are gone now...with the wonderful exception of my Uncle Bob, my Dad's younger brother. He is still going very strong in his late-80's, still celebrating life with my lovely Aunt Maryellen. Uncle Bob did admit in a recent conversation, that my cousins will not allow him to climb up a ladder and onto his roof to fix the leaks any longer... reluctantly he now leaves that chore to his 64 year-old son, my cousin Mike to do. He called a while ago to tell me that he had been cast as an extra in a movie about bootleggers. He played a moonshine-drinking old timer in the film. Seems fitting...the old-timer part, that is. More about Uncle Bob later.
My Grandpa Theodore died when I was very young. I don't remember him much. He was a smoker, that I do remember and that probably contributed to his early departure from my world. My Uncle Don also left us earlier than he should have. He died in a bar. Heart attack. Not such a great end for a Navy war hero, unfortunately, but Uncle Don fancied his beer. I was very young when my Grandpa Ted died and have few memories of my Uncle Don. The rest of these guys, however, I do remember...and well.
Uncle Ted was my Dad's older brother, by a year or so. Uncle Ted was a confirmed bachelor...one very close call at the altar of St. Agatha's Catholic Church cured him forever of marriage, so he boasted. Ted lived with my Grandma Mero in the family house in Canastota until she died in the late 1960' or early 1970's. I have fleeting memories of rolling pie dough and making cookies with her Saturday mornings when my Dad would drop me off to spend time with her. When there wasn't pie dough to roll out or when the cookies had been baked, Grandma would put me in a chair in her living room to string buttons from a tin box which held a thousand loose buttons. Sometimes she would release a string so that I could re-string them all over, saying that whomever did it the last time did it in the wrong order and that she knew I would do it correctly this time. TV hadn't been invented, so she found cleaver ways to keep a young boy entertained. I liked making pies and cookies. I did eventually grow weary of the button stringing thing. I did love to sneak upstairs and look things over in my Uncle Ted's bedroom. He had all sorts of things I found interesting there...like a furry deer skin at the base of his bed. a stuffed squirrel on his dresser and a stuffed duck hanging off a nail in his wall. There was a cabinet full of rifles in one corner that he never kept locked. I would just crack open the door a little to look...I'd never dream of touching any of his guns. There were boxes of shotgun shells and various other cartridges atop the cabinet. His room smelled manly.
I learned to say my first dirty word at Grandmas' house. I said the word BASTARD one time in her company. Grandma Mero was a very proper lady and of course she was horrified at my language and demanded to know where I'd learned such a thing to say. I told her, (it's the truth, I swear) that I heard her parakeet, Blue Boy say the word. She was incredulous and somewhat disbelieving.
"Where did Blue Boy hear such a thing?" she demanded to know. She then pieced the evidence together. She knew that Uncle Ted had a propensity to use that word (and a few others that she didn't like to hear) to describe most everything and surmised that the parakeet had heard BASTARD said enough times by her eldest son to be able to learn and speak the word. The bird then taught me, somehow knowing that Grandma would not approve, so did the teaching surreptitiously, when Grandma's ears were not near. I offered supporting evidence of the fact that I'd learned it from the bird by walking up to the cage and saying the nasty word to Blue Boy. As if on cue, Blue Boy repeated "bastard, bastard, bastard, bastard"...a dozen times. Grandma was horrified and left the room. I had been exonerated. The lesson I drew from that experience was that some words I heard Uncle Ted say were bad and especially to avoid repeating them in Grandma's company.
In her later years Grandma had a housekeeper, Mrs. Raymond, come to the house to "tidy up" every Saturday. She paid the lady $5 each week she cleaned. After Granma died, Uncle Ted still insisted that the cleaning lady still come to tidy-up every Saturday. He asserted that $5 was a handsome sum to pay for that kind of work and refused to pay any more. After Mrs. Raymond passed (she was in her 80's when she died and had cleaned the house the Saturday prior), Uncle Ted never found another housekeeper. It might have been the $5 salary cap that deterred prospective employees or, more likely, Ted's propensity for leaving a recently killed grouse or mallard duck on his kitchen table for a few days to allow them to "cure" before being plucked and eviscerated, cooked and dined upon. Whatever the case, Uncle Ted never replaced Mrs. Raymond, or for that matter ever "tidied up" again. Uncle Ted refused to waste his time cleaning up his house. That had always been his mother's responsibility, or Mrs. Raymond's. Since he had been unable to hire a housekeeper after both ladies had gone, he simply gave up cleaning his house. Why bother? Who cares?
Two things I remember from that house while Uncle Ted was its sole occupant. The first was when he was much later in his years. Gretchen and I visited in the early evening. He greeted us at the back door and led us into what had been Grandma Mero's formal parlor, where he had been watching the TV. We passed through the dining room on the way. I noticed that the plaster had fallen from the wall in a spot two or three feet square on the outside wall and the old lath was exposed. Both of us mentioned it to my Uncle. No problem, he said...it's been that way for a long time. He watched the TV as we chatted. In the room suddenly we both saw what we thought were flying shadows, eventually recognizing those shadows as bats flying around the parlor. We were horrified, of course, but Uncle Ted told us that these guys were nightly visitors, that they'd come down from the attic and into the room though the holes in the plaster we'd observed earlier. Once they realized where they were and the fact that there were no bugs here for them to eat, they'll go outside. Eventually the bats went elsewhere. That wall was still unrepaired when my Dad sold the house after Uncle Ted's death. Presumably, the bats were still nightly visitors.
The second memorable thing we discovered in the house when Uncle Ted had been hospitalized for a heart condition a couple of years before he died. My Mom decided that it was her responsibility to clean Uncle Ted's house while he was recuperating. As always, the backdoor key was hidden on a hook under an ancient mop head near the screen door, so we came and went as we wished. We cleaned, Mom, Gretchen and I for days, it seems, remembering that the last cleaning was twenty years or more prior. A couple of days before Uncle Ted was to be released from the hospital, I went into the cellar to recover and dispose of several hundred jars of canned fruit and vegetables that Grandma Mero had put up during WWII. Uncle Ted had bragged that he was still eating those fruits and vegetables...40 years after they had been canned. Common sense dictated that that eating forty year-old canned goods was probably not a really good practice, so the jars, contents and all went into the trash, though admittedly, those canned peaches looked as good after forty years as they did the day Grandma put them up. During one of my trips into the cellar, I noticed a thin extension cord plugged into a light socket and the light bulb in that socket was lit. I thought it a waste, so I unscrewed the bulb and pulled the extension cord from the receptacle. Unbeknownst to me, and not discovered until Uncle Ted's return to the house was the fact that the electrical socket into which the kitchen refrigerator was plugged had failed a number of years prior. Ted had drilled a hole in the floor behind the "Fridge" and fished an extension cord through the hole and into the cellar. He then plugged the extension cord into a receptacle screwed into that light socket. The refrigerator ran so Uncle Ted was satisfied that he'd solved the problem. I'd messed it all up by pulling that extension cord from the socket. Of course, the refrigerator cooled, defrosted and everything inside spoiled. The contents of the refrigerator had to be discarded, though Uncle Ted sniffed every item before it went into the garbage to be sure that nothing was still edible. He was very pissed with me that all of Grandma's canned goods were gone from his larder. He was particularly fond of those forty year-old canned peaches.
Long before that time, I learned to hunt small game with Uncle Ted, ducks and squirrels mostly. He'd drive us south of town on a Saturday afternoon and decide to hunt in one of several places we usually frequented. He always hunted squirrels with a 16 ga. shotgun, I used a Target Master .22 ga. Fall was the best time to hunt for gray squirrels and when the trees began dropping dry leaves, ideal. His technique always worked. He'd tell me to make as much noise as I could while we walked to his favorite spot, rustling the dry leaves and loudly talking. Once we had reached our hunting spot, we'd sit against a giant Maple tree and be absolutely still, quietly surveying the tree canopy. All of the noise we'd made shuffling through the leaves had spooked the squirrels and they hid as we approached. Our silence, however was unnerving... to their undoing. Within a couple of minutes of quiet, their curiosity would prevail and they would stir from their hiding places in the branches to check us out and of course, reveal themselves. It worked every time. We'd take turns shooting. Uncle Ted was deadly with his shotgun, so I learned early that I'd best make good use of my shots if I wanted to get a kill. We never went into the woods using Uncle Ted's technique without coming home with a couple of gray squirrels in our quarry bag.
One late afternoon we'd been successful in the woods and Uncle Ted wanted to check-out a spot we sometimes went when we hunted for ducks. We parked the car on the shoulder of the road and started to cross a mowed hay field, heading to a small pond. A noisy pair of Canada Geese flushed off the pond and flew in our direction. Not hesitating, Uncle Ted pulled up and fired one round from his shotgun. To my amazement, the lead goose slumped and dropped instantly to the ground in a thump, nearly at our feet. The hunt was over. The goose went into the trunk of the car. We went into town to buy a Waterfowl Stamp for Uncle Ted's hunting license. He didn't see the necessity to purchase a $3 Waterfowl Stamp in advance, until he actually needed one. It now appeared that he needed one, he had a dead goose in his trunk. Of course, the Conservation Department required that the stamp be secured before hunting ducks or geese, but that seemed just a formality to Uncle Ted, arguing that it would have been a waste of his time and his $3 to get a stamp before it was actually needed. I understood his logic, but also knew that he was playing a little loose and free with State Conservation Law. The goose went from the trunk of the car and onto the kitchen table, fully feathered, for a couple of days before becoming dinner and leftovers.
I learned to hunt for White Tail deer using an ancient 8mm German Mauser that Uncle Ted brought back from WWII as war booty. He loaned me the gun and a box of shells for my first deer hunts. In this case, however, it was my Uncle Bob who was my mentor.
We were deep in the woods several miles south of Limekiln Lake, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, hunting on property belonging to a family friend who I called Uncle Pete. Arthur Ellis, a.k.a. Pete, or Uncle Pete to me, was a childhood friend of the Mero brothers. Pete had been successful in business and owned a large tract of several thousand acres of forestland in the Adirondacks. He shared his good fortune and the bounty of his woods with my Dad and my uncles. He'd built a plush hunting lodge a couple of miles off the paved road and we were often his guests.
I was 14 at the time and a brand new big-game hunter. One Saturday morning, Uncle Bob was arranging a deer drive and setting spotters. He set me atop a granite boulder and gave me my instructions. He then took a small bottle from his vest pocket and began sprinkling drops of liquid from the bottle on the rock. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that the stuff in the bottle was an extract from the musk gland of a female deer and if there were any bucks in the area they would be attracted by the smell of the stuff and come running. It was called buck lure. A friend had given it to him and he wasn’t sure how much to use so he put the entire contents of the bottle on the rock. He figured that if a little was good, a lot was better. He said that he would be close by and would be watching to see if the stuff worked and that if it looked like I was in trouble, he’d shoot at anything trying to get to me on that rock.
“If I was in trouble? What the heck does that mean,” I asked him?
“Well,” he smiled, “I hear this stuff makes bucks go crazy and want to screw everything. When they get a whiff of this stuff they may decide that you look like a doe and try something. Sometimes a whole herd of bucks are attracted to the scent and they may fight each other to get a chance at you.”
He suggested that I keep my thumb on the safety of my gun so that I’d be ready to fire in case one of them tried to climb the rock. He chuckled as he left.
Needless to say, that scared the crap out of me and for the next couple of hours, I pissed in my pants each time I heard a twig snap in the woods. We never saw a deer that morning, but I’d had an experience that I’d remember forever.
I did eventually get a deer that fall using that ancient gun of Uncle Ted's. I didn't know I'd even hit the first one I shot at...that Mauser had such a violent kick that it spun me around and knocked me onto the ground when I pulled the trigger. I had a sore shoulder for a week from the recoil on that rifle. It was Uncle Bob that told me that I'd bagged a real trophy, a slight exaggeration on his part. The deer was a young doe and hardly weighed a hundred pounds. It was my first deer, however and Uncle Bob made a big deal of it on my behalf. We used the venison from that doe as camp meat most of that fall and Uncle Bob always told whomever was eating it just who was behind bringing it to the table.
Uncle Bob was responsible for organizing an annual spring trout fishing expedition at a place called Beaver Meadow on Uncle Pete's property. It was always something I looked forward to with great anticipation. I loved to fish for trout, but my Dad wasn't too keen on it, so at home, either I went fishing alone or with kids my own age, or I did something else with my time. The yearly fishing trip to Uncle Pete's place was a whole lot better. Uncle Bob would plan it in conjunction with a holiday so that we'd have a three day weekend to fish. Usually my cousin Mike and I were able to each invite a friend to go with us and we always stayed overnight in Uncle Pete's cabin. The fishing spot was about a mile further into the woods from the cabin and the walk on a footpath through the woods to get there was a part of the adventure. The trail crossed a small, crystal-clear creek a number of times near the fishing spot, it was this creek the beavers had dammed-up to make the ponds in Beaver Meadow. We kids would clatter down the mossy path carrying fishing poles, nets and cans of night crawlers for the fishing. Uncle Bob would carry down a frying pan, a stick of butter, cooking utensils and mess kits. My Dad carried the requisite six-pack of beer (for the adults) and a set of paddles for the leaky old row boat someone had dragged to the pond and left there many years before. Fishing in Beaver Meadow was a great time. We built a campfire in a clearing next to the pond and if we were lucky enough to catch fish by lunch time, Uncle Bob would fry up a couple of trout for our lunch.
We'd take turns with the row boat, negotiating around sunken logs, islands of floating cranberries and standing dead trees not yet fallen into the water. The fishing was just as good from the shore. If we were particularly intrepid, we'd walk atop the beaver dam to find the best fishing spots in the deeper water. We always caught fish. The smaller trout would be tossed back, anything 10 inches or longer went into a creel or onto a stringer in anticipation of a later feast. It never failed that either Mike or me or one of our friends would get so caught-up with a trout on our line that we'd step in the slippery mud atop the beaver dam and slide into the pond. That too was a part of the fun, of course.
By the end of day we (all of us kids, that is) were wet, muddy, sunburned, mosquito bitten and dog tired, but eager to do it all again the next day. We'd haul our bounty of trout and the rest of our stuff back to the cabin. It was a rule that we leave nothing in the woods. We'd even bring the paddles for the boat back each night. Once we left them under the boat overnight and a porcupine ate them both down to little stubs. No boat that day. Once we left a can of night crawlers with the boat, but by the time we returned the next morning, a raccoon had found them and eaten them all. My Dad hiked back to the cabin, then drove into Old Forge and bought more worms at the unheard-of price of 4 cents each.
As tired and dirty and sore as we all were, the anticipation of repeating the process the next morning revived us. Fresh trout for dinner was the best. Of course, Uncle Bob was the chef. We kids got the clean-up detail and complained that Uncle Bob always used every pot in the kitchen to make dinner.
At noon, or thereabouts on the third day, we had to stop fishing and pack our belongings into the cars we arrived in. It was also a rule that we all had to take a shower before we left for home. The showers were for self-defense, reasoned Uncle Bob...either for the drivers of smelly kids cooped-up in the car for the three hour ride back home or to fend-off our Mom's disgust at our appearance as we disembarked from the cars at home. The more experienced of us got into the shower first...the hot water tank was shut off prior to our departure and the last of the kid showers were usually performed in cold water. Once I was in the shower and Uncle Pete shut down the generator, which not only turned off the hot water heater but also the water pump...just as I was soaping up. I had to rinse off with the cold water left over in the tea kettle, accompanied by the humiliating laughter of my Cousin Mike and our pals.
We kids slept most of the trip home.
I had the opportunity to re-live the tales of some of those fishing experiences when Gretchen and I spent a week in a beach house in South Carolina with Uncle Bob and Aunt Maryellen a summer or two ago. It was then he introduced us to a new type of fishing...crabbing. It involves sticking a chunk of raw chicken neck onto a huge safety pin tied to thirty feet of string. One tosses out the bait and Blue crabs grab on and the crabber gently pulls the string toward shore until the crab can be netted. Great fun.
My Dad built houses when I was a kid. Uncle Ted and Uncle Bob both helped. All were skilled builders...masons, carpenters, roofers. Early in life, both Cousin Mike and I were conscripted as laborers. We screened sand, mixed concrete and mortar, carried blocks and re-bar, fetched tools and boards, carried bundles of shingles, varnished boards, spackled sheetrock and a hundred other chores that were needed by the builders. Both Mike and I hated the work at the time, but both of us have realized in subsequent years that those hours and days of laboring with our Dad's and Uncle Ted were invaluable. We assimilated skills that we both took into our adult lives, skills and the confidence that we could do anything, fix or build from scratch everything we needed. What a legacy.
One of the houses my Dad helped to build was a new house for my Uncle Joe and Aunt Jeanne. I guess I was eight or ten at the time the project started. The new house was located in the country, a couple of miles out of town on a lot in the bend of a creek. Before that, Uncle Joe and Aunt Jeanne lived in a second floor apartment in the same house my Mom and Dad lived in at the time. The house was owned by my Grandpa Curt.
Because we lived in the same house for a number of years, I was exposed to my Uncle Joe a lot. He was in my life from my first recollections.
Uncle Joe was a US Marine in WWII, which means, you know, he was always a Marine. I thought every little kid knew the Marine Corps song. I sang it from memory before I’d learned Little Teapot and Old McDonald’s Farm. Uncle Joe knew more old songs than anyone else I knew did. He loved to get people singing and he always sang the loudest. My first memory of getting a spanking was from Uncle Joe. My cousin Tari and I had done something for which a spanking was apparently deserved and a simultaneous spanking we got. Uncle Joe administered it. We were in the back of Grandpa Curt's shop...I remember it as if it were yesterday.
Uncle Joe cut hair while he was in the Marines, consequently all of us cousins got haircuts from him. He must have given me dozens of haircuts. Usually, haircut night was a communal affair, all of the male cousins in the family showed up on the same night for the ritual. I knew enough to volunteer to go first if there were others in line. Uncle Joe always drank beer when he cut hair, which he always shared with whomever was in the hair-cutting chair. My first taste of beer was from a bottle Uncle Joe was drinking from during a haircut. Going first for a haircut meant less slobber on the beer bottle. It also meant a better haircut. By the time Uncle Joe was on his second beer or third or fourth haircut he was usually singing and paying less attention to the hair being cut.
He once gave me a whole bottle of beer to drink and a cigarette to smoke. I was probably about five (if my mom is reading this it is a revelation to her!). I think I drank about half of the beer, but the cigarette lasted no longer than the first puff after he lit it for me. He told me to suck hard on the cigarette and to inhale the smoke. Of course I coughed and choked. Uncle Joe laughed and laughed…he knew he’d cured me of smoking.
Uncle Joe taught me how to ride down the back stairs in the house in Oneida. There was no access into the cellar from the outside of the house, so Grandpa Curt designed and built a system whereby the stairs to the second floor apartment would part in the middle, and with the assistance of a counterweight, lift to access the cellar. Uncle Joe would push them up and then have me jump on them from above, gently riding the arc to the bottom. It was great fun, but something Uncle Joe asked us not to do when either Aunt Jean or Grandpa Curt was around.
He helped my Dad and me build a tree house in the apple tree in the back yard at the house in Oneida. He had the great idea of borrowing a steel ladder from Grandpa Curt to get really high in the tree. Eventually, this ladder was the only way to get to the tree house, but neither Uncle Joe nor my Dad had bothered to ask Grandpa Curt if they could use his ladder. I caught the wrath-of-Grandpa when he found out, but Uncle Joe smoothed things over.
Uncle Joe set the siding on Grandpa Curt’s house on fire while he was using a blowtorch to peel off the old paint. It was our secret, though, as there was no one else around at the time that saw him do it. He was on a ladder about fifteen feet above the ground when the wood under the paint ignited. He tried spitting on the flames to put them out but this would not work, so he threw the torch onto the lawn, scrambled down the ladder, ran for the hose and squirted the flames with water. He looked around after to see if anyone had witnessed the incident and I had. He swore me to secrecy with a wink, a handshake and a salute. Many years later he confessed that he actually thought of peeing on the burning paint, but saw me watching out of the corner of his eye and thought better of that pursuit.
He parked his car at the top of the upper driveway at the house in Oneida one snowy afternoon because it was too icy to drive it down the driveway. He got out and started to walk to the house when the car passed him skidding down across the lawn and smacking against the house. It hit the house a few feet from the spot Uncle Joe had set the siding on fire a few months earlier. A similar thing happened in the driveway in our Canastota house. The driveway was too slippery to make it with his car all of the way to the top, so Uncle Joe parked it midway and started walking to the house. The driverless car slid down the hill and collided with another car attempting to come up. It was my Mom in the second car. She was not amused.
At their new house in the country, the creek which delineated the lot was a popular attraction for us kids, Uncle Joe was no exception. One time he put me on his back for a horsy ride and then told me to hold my breath and hang on tightly. He then dove into the creek and swam underwater as far as he could until the shallow bottom forced him to surface. It felt like we were underwater for an hour. My Mom was hopping mad, I wasn’t wearing a bathing suit and still had my sneakers on.
I could speak much more about Uncle Joe. I have more to tell about Uncle Ted and Uncle Bob as well. I love those guys. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child and I couldn't agree more. My Dad and Grandpa Curt were the Alpha males in my life and I'll have more to say about them at another time. My three uncles all played tremendously instrumental roles in my upbringing and are responsible in a huge way for the adult I became. Their influence is still felt and appreciated every day.