Uncle Pete slammed his cards down on the unyielding concrete steps beneath him and raised his half-empty can of Miller to his mouth. The fact that he could drink beer, retain a filterless Camel in the corner of his mouth, and curse all at the same time was enough to cause me to wonder why Ed Sullivan had yet to display my uncle’s talents for the whole world to see.
“Dangblastedjaps!” As Uncle Pete repeated his mantra his eyes looked not so much at me as through me.
I looked past his cataract shrouds and realized for the first time how little there was inside those eyes. “What’s wrong Uncle Pete?”
My question was both innocent and brave. My grandmother had warned me on numerous occasions to, in her words, “leave poor old Pete be.” Such warnings only fueled my fascination with this withered man who seemingly lived on the back stoop of Aunt Betty’s house. In all the years I had made this visit with my grandmother here I had never once seen him anywhere but sitting on his concrete throne with his Miller scepter in hand.
Uncle Pete picked up his dog-eared cards one at a time without ever looking my way. “You wouldn’t understand boy …. Not for boys to understand.”
As I wandered through Aunt Betty’s house I tried to understand what had happened to Uncle Pete. Why he was the way he was. Maybe he had been banished to the back porch for daring to touch one of Aunt Betty’s thousands of trinkets, dolls, pots, or knick-knacks. There certainly had been times I feared the same fate. My aunt’s modest home was so filled with stuff I often imagined the whole place exploding after the addition of one too many china dolls. It was one gigantic ten-year-old nightmare.
I looked out the window, observing Uncle Pete lighting up another Camel and wondered how long the poor man had been living his exiled existence. Did he slip in at night and sleep beneath the piles of handmade quilts in the back room? Did he eat? And what was a dangblastedjap?”
Of all the places in Aunt Betty’s house there was only one room not off-limits. In this room lay piles of musty and yellowed National Geographics. Each of the haphazardly placed magazines, its place in history marked by the price on the top right corner, was like a magic mirror with which one could peer into another time.
I plowed through another pile of the fragile tomes and came across a box containing one solitary magazine. The cover was dated 1945 and every article within was about a war. WWII, my grandfather always called it. With hesitant fingers I opened the old magazine and a tarnished medal with a ragged ribbon attached clanked to the hardwood floor. As I held the medal in my hand I read about some place called New Guinea and the Japanese soldiers who refused to leave their caves. How American GI’s had to use flame throwers to force them out.
The medal and magazine joined each other on the dusty floor as I whirled around. Uncle Pete knelt beside me and ran a crooked finger across the medal on the floor. Tears streamed from his clouded eyes as he sat on the floor beside me.
“Why do you hate them so Uncle Pete?” I startled myself with the audacity of the question.
“Hate them,” he whispered. “Most of them were boys, not so much older than you. I didn’t hate them boy. I tried to warn them. Told them if they would just come out and quit shooting they could go home. We could all go home. I begged them fellows to come out and go home. But they wouldn’t. Just kept popping out at night and shooting. And then …. Oh dear God … I didn’t want to do it.”
For the briefest moment my childish eyes saw through Uncle Pete’s and I didn’t like what I saw. Uncle Pete was right. It wasn’t for boys to understand. After he died I used to sit on his stoop and try to sort it all out. And on certain quite evenings, as the world went to sleep, I could hear his faint whisper, “I told them we could all go home.”
My father said Uncle Pete found peace before he went on. I prayed he was right. I prayed Uncle Pete was finally home.
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