Ten or twelve of the usual suspects were making party noises downstairs in the dining room, the kitchen, and the pantry. Banished hours earlier but lurking on the landing, I heard one voice rise above the clamorous chat and clinking ice. A guest wanted to know whether my Uncle Fred had a problem with authority. “Usually they beat me to it,” Fred replied glibly, and there was another brief ripple of sourmash-enhanced laughter.
The remark went over my head, but I was familiar with the story Fred related next, an account of how he served his country in the Second World War.
Recognizing that the alternatives were cannon-fodder duty in the African desert or the trenches of occupied France, Fred elected to enlist in the Navy. Early in the induction process, he seemed a promising prospect — sharp-witted, decent family, couple years of college. Then they had him fill out a questionnaire which inquired, among other things, what position or responsibility this candidate envisioned for himself on the high seas.
Fred said he aspired to be a “cush-maker.” The ensign assigned to review the document was unfamiliar with that job description, and asked Fred to clarify.
“Ahh, you know,” my uncle elaborated. “I want to be the guy standing out there on the forward deck smoking cigarettes and flicking 'em into the ocean, to hear them go ‘cush’.”
His reward for that answer was unlimited access to a generous expanse of frozen tundra. Stationed in the Aleutian Islands for the duration, he seldom warmed up enough to concentrate on the supposed job at hand — cracking Japanese codes.
Appreciative murmurs and a bray or two were issued as Fred wound up the tale. The audience knew he took the world — not to mention himself — very seriously, but that he had a smart-ass streak that simply wouldn't quit. Ergo, an Aleutian assignment.
The kitchen crew got looser as I listened from the landing. No coterie or salon held sway in our stolid slate-colored house — a dwelling Fred had branded the Lead Lump — but his associates comprised a shifting assortment of malcontents and outcasts. There were commercial artists, journalists, and union organizers; a skinny nervous guy who played the oboe in the symphony downtown; a pair of widely-traveled but tight-lipped government officials; civil rights activists; a fully-certified chiropractor who was also a wholesale only philatelist; and one defrocked (disrobed?) Buddhist monk.
Crouching on the stairs, I worried whether my family members socialized too much with drunks and weirdoes. Like many pups squeezed out while Ike snoozed and hit the links, I was a strict conformist in my youth. It was clear that suburban New York in the late 30s/early 60s, unlike Manhattan, didn't encourage Bohemians, much less harbor beatniks. So far as I could see, there was no immediate problem, because Uncle Fred wasn't going around banging on bongos, toking reefers, or reciting poetry (that didn't even rhyme) in public. Still, I had to face it. He was well outside the mold of your typical gray flannel Westchester wage slave.
Long before I had worked out the distinctions that separated mainstream from fringe (or had even considered that “normal” might be a pejorative), I saw that the world according to Uncle Fred was, at the least, divergent. Of course, the last thing I desired in my life back then was a relative who people perceived as a nut.
There was a homeowner two blocks over from us who not only got divorced but also muttered to himself and on more than one occasion appeared out of doors clad in pajamas. What was worse, he sported unflattering and ratty-looking sleepwear. Such behavior constituted an affront to one and all, without doubt, which was why it was left politely undiscussed.
Fred, it comforted me to note, wasn't bust-out goofy like the muttering pajama guy. My uncle's attire, for instance, was restrained and unremarkable, with the exception of a fuzzy cobalt wool beret — manufactured, he stressed, not in a French factory, but rather by Basque separatists, toiling on some primitive Pyrenees production line. In Andorra, I believe.
Having been served curious cultural canapés like that by my uncle, it's no wonder I developed an appetite for the arcane. When you were on Fred's turf, he alone waved the imperious baton, and the program was invariably heavy on odd-ball obsessions and eccentric exercises.
Fred would sip hard-to-find imported lagers and puff gilded-filter cocoa-colored tar-bars while he stained his thumbs on poorly printed, limited-circulation periodicals. Transcriptions of crafty chess openings or elegant end-games could hold his interest for hours, and he didn't need to bring out any pieces.
One afternoon, I found him hunkered down in the yard, drizzling a honey trail between rival colonies of red and black ants, a note-pad handy to record behavior patterns of the warriors.
Fred's employment history was erratic and his resume spotty, not surprising since somewhere along the way he'd managed to learn to paint (photo-realistically), play the piano (concert quality), and write (involuted, dense, and not for everyone).
Even for Fred, who possessed a bottomless tolerance for his own excesses, these warring talents could create conflict.
Midway through a novel whose primary plot-line was intended to be presented in footnotes, rather than text, he abruptly abandoned the typewriter, took up the brush, and executed back-to-back three-foot-square portraits of Samuel Beckett and Amos Alonzo Stagg (long-time U. of Chi. coach who pioneered the man-in-motion and introduced the end-around).
Before Fred could revisit the book-in-progress, or its protagonist, the legendary priest/king and Asian adventurer Prester John, he fell victim to another compulsion: construction of an accurate, to-scale model of the Eiffel Tower, using magnums of Elmer's Glue and several thousand toothpicks.
Fascinating as these undertakings were, for personal reasons I found it gratifying that Fred kept most of them inside and under wraps. The neighborhood did witness one outdoor avuncular display, however. My uncle had purchased, by mail order from a military surplus outlet, an enormous weather balloon. Since it must have measured at least 25 feet in diameter, the front yard was the only place it could be laid out.
A crowd assembled as Fred and several juvenile minions smoothed out the folds of this giant mustard-colored latex bladder. No one had a clue as to how Dr. Science proposed to inflate it.
Once prep work was complete, Fred loped into the Lead Lump and came back out with a vacuum cleaner on a long extension cord. He gazed serenely at the rubber-neckers surrounding the balloon in our front yard. “You didn't know these things have a reverse switch?” he asked.
It was a classic moment. Fred couldn't reattach an air filter to a carburetor on a bet, or replace a burnt-out fuse. Nonetheless, he knew how to make a vacuum blow instead of suck. I'm sure he would have been the Navy's most accomplished cush-maker, perhaps a medalist, even though he over-inflated and popped that big balloon, in front of everyone.