31 October 2011

Something 4 My Uncle

My uncle Phil passed away Saturday morning at the age of 69 after a two year battle with lung cancer, although it appears he might have actually died when he tried getting out of bed and subsequently fell and hit his head on the edge of the nightstand.

Here's what I can tell you about my uncle Phil, and rest assured there are a number of "secrets", juicy as they may be, that I can never share out of respect:

My dad and uncle Phil were foster kids who were eventually adopted together by grandma and grandpa Mohaski. They were two of 14 kids that my paternal grandma birthed by several different men, and over the years, my dad and uncle were able to find and reconnect with five or six of them. Yes, my real grandma was a bonafide bar skank up in Antigo, which I've long maintained is the center of the universe. I'll maybe explain that theory another time...

Growing up, my dad and uncle excelled at baseball, and were also mechanically inclined. By their teenaged years, their interests lay mainly with hot rods and motorcycles, which they would build, rebuild, sell and race, sometimes for money, sometimes for titles. While my dad worked at a service station and finished high school, my uncle dropped out, started committing petty crimes, and got into drinking. Both ended up in the army.

After the army, my uncle was covered in tattoos he had acquired all over Asia and the South Pacific, and began his civilian life as a bricklayer, a mason. He built smokestacks, specificially, hanging from a rope a couple hundred feet above the ground. He got hazardous duty pay, and as legend had it, he swung around up there like Tarzan.

He got married, had four kids, and drank himself into full-blown alcoholism. I remember the afternoon he sat at our kitchen table waiting for my dad to get home from work, when he proceeded to empty an entire quart of gin in less than half an hour. It was another year or two after that, when all his bank accounts were empty and his job was gone, that he finally got clean. That was thirty years ago.

Other than the drinking, he was a good man. Hell, he was a fun drunk. He and my dad always had an arsenal of jokes, each one funnier, and often dirtier than the last, and at parties and family functions, at some point they would trade jokes back and forth, like a comedy team.

He was also the strongest man I've ever known, and he always said that my cousin Chico and I wouldn't be men until we beat him at arm-wrestling. To this day, neither of us are men, I guess.

He was an outstanding poker player, nearly as good as my dad at cribbage, and maybe better than my dad at sheepshead. For the past 20 years they've been partners in a Horseshoe league, and have won the league's title seven or eight times.

Him and my cousin Chico were also hunters, and along with me and my dad, would go hunting up in Brillion, staying with very distant relatives on a small horse farm, and I've got enough stories from that place and time to write at least a book or two, but I will leave you with this story...

About one hundred yards from the farmhouse, across the road, there was a small grove of about eight or ten apple trees, and almost every evening, about half an hour before sunset, a small herd of about six or seven whitetail deer would wander beneath those trees to eat fallen apples. My uncle one afternoon, got the bright idea that he would wait up in one of those trees with a very large knife, and when the herd stopped by to forage, he would jump down out of the tree and plunge that very large knife into the neck of one of those deer, preferably the buck of the herd, which appeared to be about a eight-pointer through the binoculars.

And so my uncle Phil did just that. After about an hour of waiting up in one of those apple trees, sure enough, the herd shows up, and my uncle's quiet enough, and above their scents, to be able to wait long enough for the buck to get right under him.

And my uncle jumps, and he lands on the back of the buck, and the buck kicks and snorts and barks and swings his antlers around, trying to knock my uncle off his back. And one of the antlers DOES nail my uncle in the arm, and it does knock him off balance, and somewhere along his way to the ground, the very large knife slashes across one of his arms, and all we see is the commotion of six or seven deer, including the buck, sprinting away from the apple trees as my uncle wails and moans.

Crazy Richard drove my uncle to the hospital. Between the antler and the knife, he ended up with about 90 stitches, and one of the better stories that got told and retold over the intervening years.

Anyways, he and my dad were also huge country music fans, especially the so-called "Outlaw Country". Willie Nelson was my uncle's favorite.

Rest in peace, uncle Phil. All in all, yours was a good and interesting life.


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