One of the downsides to calling distant relatives (or relatives who are distant) during the holidays is you find they have died.
After leaving messages throughout December, on a hunch late on Christmas day, I decided to call the manager of the mobile home community where my uncle lived to see if he was off gallivanting in Mexico, as he often did, because we hadn't heard from him.
That's when I learned he was no longer among the living. In the next days I learned that he was going to be buried as an indigent and they were going to auction of his few belongings to reimburse the county for his burial.
Needless to say, I took off a few days later to take of his affairs. Normally my uncle prepared for life calamities but he didn't lay the ground work for this eventuality. He was a fiercely independant man, and he fought his battles without ever asking for help.
Going through his papers and journals I saw that he was logging his workouts at the gym and as a fit 82 year old he put this youngster to shame with his the amount of weight he worked out with. As his neighbor said, it appears he didn't plan on giving up anytime soon. Although he did get closer to his catholic upbring and had sevaral catecism tracts and rosaries spread throughout his house. But that didn't stop him from chasing, as he would say, after the senoritas
in his twilight years.
It's amazing how one can piece together a life from the documents left behind. They answered questions he never would. Like, "what happened to you in WWII?" Something he rarely talked about.
Let me back up for a moment to paint a picture of this man:
Born in Oakland, CA, in 1925 as the result of beautiful love story between a Hungarian immigrant and a Scotch-Irish suffergette, who met working at Sherman & Clay, then a sheet music shop, in the heady days of rag-time jazz. (As defacto family historian, I must say, the grandparent's love letters I've seen were quite passionate, if somwhat chaste, but with incredible penmanship). He was my mother's older brother by 5 years.
My family left the Bay Area and moved to Hawaii in 1940 and was there during the attack on Pearl Harbor. I have picture of my uncle with a long board that is twice his his height and another with his arm around his little sister. It was in Hawaii that he tried to become a jockey, which led him to join the calvary. Yes, the army still had a calvary and fought some of its first battles in the Pacific with horses included.
Dropping out of high school he enlisted and served as rifleman in the First Calvary Division. He fought in the Admiralty Island Campaign. He never talked about it, but my my mom told me once that it was horrific jungle figting that left my uncle changed as one of survivors of his platoon.
Yet he would never talk or brag about it.
Returning from the disruption of war he got his high school diploma at the age of 20 and went on to graduate from USF with a BS.
He worked as a forest ranger in Yosemite for few years and then got his contractor's license. He constucted custom homes from Marin to Tahoe; if had held on to any of them he would have been a millionaire. As my mom once told him while he was in one of his funks, "with the houses you've built, you are a millionaire many times over." I don't think it helped...
My earliest memory of my uncle was an outing on his yacht when I was 6 year old. I was trussed up in a harness so I wouldn't fall oveboard. Yet my brother, the teenager, was allowed to drink beer, got drunk, and went into the drink once we got back to the dock. That is also when he promised me he would bring me back an elephant from Thailand as that was his next construction gig - back when the US was still winning the war in Vietnam.
From Thailand he sent postcards, gifts, but no elephants. When he returned he told me that he tried to get the baby elephant up the gang plank on to his yatch but it broke and the baby elephant had to stay behind. I remember crystal clear that lie - the adults laughing at the presumptuous child who dared ask for his promised elephant -once again on the yacht, everyone drinking, and in hindsight this is the first time in my life I know I'm being lied to! The big-beyond-belief kind of lie! And all the adults in the conspiracy, laugh and lie to a child. (It is was unfair, but hey, life goes on...)
Some of the first jobs I ever had were due to my uncle. They were construction jobs. Carry supplies, dig a ditch, pack that fiberglass insulation in the attic. Hard sweaty jobs that every pre-teen should do to learn what the future holds: life-long physical work leads to bad backs and hip-replacements. That's something I did learn from my uncle.
Throughout his life he was an unyielding man, very old school with the inherent racism of his generation. Suffice to say he was not enamored with the changing demographics in California. Yet he was married for 25 years to a woman born in Mexico and loved her deeply. She passed away eight years ago after they moved down to the desert near Palm Springs. He still kept the ashes and they will be buried together.
I was not as close to my uncle as I wish. In my adult years we spoke about all the places we had been in the world (he was well travelled) and compared notes on what we'd seen, although there was about 20 years difference in when I finally got to those places. My brother was closer and is also more distraught we didn't have a chance to say our final good-byes.
Rest in Peace, Uncle Phil. Rest in peace...