A Loving Tribute to a Story-Teller

fieplace

Uncle Paul Holds Court

On this New Years Day 2016, I’ve successfully built and maintained a fire in the fireplace, and have spent the winter morning soaked in primal feelings while gazing into its flames, listening to the crackle and reliving years of memories beside a bonfire, listening to my Uncle Paul.  My father’s older brother always believed that he was better than the life offered him in rural southeast Missouri—a Mississippi River tenant farm culture.  He served in the Navy during World War II, and when discharged in 1945, chose not to return to the farm, but to continue serving the Navy as a civilian for another nine years, living in Guam.  Once that connection dried up, he returned to the United States, but chose to begin life anew in San Mateo, California.  Fancying himself as a writer, he managed to freelance and publish for magazines while opening an automotive repair shop, and then later entered the employment of Greyhound where he worked his way up to night manager, and remained till retirement.  He never stopped writing.

Paul came home to southeast Missouri once a year, traveling free on a Greyhound bus, and taking up residence as a guest in the squat little house of his sister Bea and her husband Bus, overlooking Little Indian Creek rolling by below.  Paul had become a celebrity to the rest of the Tripp clan, consisting of his eleven siblings along with their children and grandchildren, a number increasing to scores of people pouring into that little house.  Paul had developed quite an art to humor and storytelling in the grand manner of Mark Twain.  His snarly, nasal voice sounded like William Burroughs, and Uncle Paul acquired the persona of a sage.  His annual arrival eventually morphed into an event–a bonfire/wienie roast at Bea and Bus’s.  This became the ideal forum for Paul to launch his stories.

Paul’s visits have now commingled with my own special teenage memories of hiking and fishing Little Indian Creek all day and returning to Bea and Bus’s house at sunset, sunburned, with a stringer of bluegill, catfish and memories of the day.  The driveway already filled with cars, I knew what I was going to encounter when entering through that kitchen door: a living room packed with uncles, aunts and cousins, and a cigar-chewing Uncle Paul seated before them all, clutching his can of beer, and holding court with his stories and anecdotes.  And what I noticed from the start is that Paul never spoke to anyone—he spoke to everyone.  Paul never showed interest in engagement; he only wanted an audience.  The evening would always be a sustained roar of laughter, fueled by cases of beer and soda.  Once it grew dark outside, it was time to withdraw to the bonfire and wienie roast.  Uncle Paul was just getting warmed up for his Second Act.  The curtain would always close around 4:00 a.m.

  1. My senior year in high school. My final bonfire with Uncle Paul.  Bea and Bus were older now, retiring to bed at twilight, and no longer tolerant of Uncle Paul’s late nights.  When the day arrived for Uncle Paul to visit, they announced the close of an era.  No wienie roast this time.  No bonfire.  Not here.  We’re going to bed.  Paul arrived around noon.  He was told the news.  One hour later, cars began pulling into the driveway.

“Why is everyone coming?”

“Wienie roast.”

“No!” said Bea firmly.  “Not this time.”  More stations wagons arrived, and Tripps were discharged.

“Where’s Uncle Paul?”

“Down at the creek, cuttin’ limbs for the wienies.”

“No!” shouted Bus.  “We’re not doin’ that this time!”

“Where’s Uncle Ralph?”

“Gettin’ wood for the bonfire.”
“No!” repeated Bea. “We’re not havin’ a fire tonight!  We’re goin’ to bed this time.”

More cars arrived.  Trunks opened.  Crates of beer and soda were unloaded.

“Might as well pack ‘em back up!” drawled Bus.  “We’re not partyin’ tonight.”

“Where’s Denzil?”

“Gone to the store to get wienies.”

“Wienies?!” cried Bea.  “We’re not havin’ a wienie roast!”

The skies darkened.  The fire ignited.  Dozens of Tripps skewered their wienies and approached the altar.  Libations were poured.  Bea and Bus yawned loudly enough for all to hear and ignore.  And Uncle Paul’s stories began.

4:00 a.m.  Everything has grown deliciously quiet save for the sounds of tree frogs overhead and the crackling dying embers of the fire in front.  Paul has gotten quieter, more reflective.  Only a few of us are still there, staring quietly into the fire.

“You have a fine vocabulary.”  Paul was talking to me.  For the first time.  Ever.  “You should write.”

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4 Responses to “A Loving Tribute to a Story-Teller”

  1. Michael Richards (certainline) Says:

    How moving.

    Like

  2. Linda Says:

    Pictures in my mind, memories of a youthful moments in Nebraska in the presence of three storytelling uncles, a priest, a rancher and a gambler…no joke! Miss you, David. Write on!

    Like

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