Coffee House Musings


Collage Building in a Local Coffeehouse

After a few hours of scribbling in my journal, and concluding that nothing I wrote this morning was worthy of a blog, I then went into my computer files to look over years of writing that I have preserved, and found a story I wrote years ago about my late Uncle Paul. I revised it thoroughly, and decided to put it up on the blog. I hope some of you will find something positive in it, as the story continues to take on new meaning for me.

Uncle Paul’s Legacy

Boarding Amtrak on a chilly October afternoon in Fort Worth, I embarked on the sixteen-hour journey to St. Louis to pay tribute to my Uncle Paul who had recently passed away.  He was ninety-one.  His ashes would be interred at the Indian Creek Cemetery in rural Jackson, Missouri.  There was a memorial scheduled at a local funeral home. Sitting in coach and rolling late into the night, my heart began to overflow with vignettes of Paul’s legacy.

Uncle Paul was one of thirteen siblings born to tenant farmer parents in southeast Missouri.  Educated in a one-room schoolhouse until he was old enough to work the fields, Paul did the things farm boys did in those days until World War II came calling.  Finishing his service, he chose not to return to his humble southeast Missouri roots, and instead moved to the West Coast in search of a better life.

Paul landed a position with Greyhound Lines, and stayed with the company twenty-five years, promoting to supervisory status, and choosing to work night shifts so he could have sufficient quiet and space to pursue his real interests—writing and story-telling.

Extending the Mark Twain/Will Rogers tradition, Paul developed a love of humor and stories covering country life.  He carefully researched the history of rural Jackson, Missouri, recorded his personal memories, listened in on the reminiscences of others who grew up there, and carefully committed these stories to print after telling and re-telling them to anyone who would listen.

Growing up, all I knew was that Uncle Paul was special.  On the rare occasions that he made the excursion from California to Southeast Missouri, all the Tripps would gather to greet him, and sit in the living rooms until late at night, drinking beer, listening and laughing as he spun his humorous tales and smoked his White Owl cigars.  Personally, I felt that I was re-living the days when people gathered to listen to and laugh at the humor of Mark Twain.

By the time I grew into my teens, the Uncle Paul events had transferred from the indoor parlors to wiener roasts along the banks of Indian Creek.  My Uncle Bus and Aunt Bea lived in a ramshackle house on the banks of the creek, and Paul chose to roost with them every time he came home.  There was one problem–Bea and Bus were early risers and preferred retiring to bed early.  They came to resent these all-night parties.  As the years wore on, they began leveling their protests, but Paul had a tin ear.

I still recall the day Aunt Bea put her foot down and swore there would not be a wiener-roast this time.  “We’re turnin’ in early tonight—no wiener-roast.”  By mid-afternoon, cars began pulling into the driveway.

–Why’s everyone comin’ here?

–The wiener-roast.

–Oh no!  There ain’t no wiener-roast tonight!  I said so.  Where’s Paul?

–At the store buyin’ wieners and buns.

–No, no!  We’re not havin’ a wiener-roast!

Children were dragging up driftwood and tree limbs from creekside for the bonfire.

–Stop draggin’ that stuff up here!  There ain’t no wiener-roast tonight!

Coolers of beer were hauled out of car trunks.  Folding lawn chairs appeared, arranged in ranks around the pile of timber.

Get that shit outta here! There ain’t gonna be no wiener-roast!  Do it somewhere else!  We’re goin’ to bed!

Paul squirted lighter fluid on the timbers, produced a match, and the blaze went up.  Bea yawned.  Bus mumbled that it was getting dark and time for bed.  People dragged up chairs.  Children cut tree limbs to support wieners and marshmallows for the roast.  The guitars came out.  Music filled the air.  Beer bottles clanked. The wiener roast was on.  And soon Paul would be holding court.

Around 2:00 in the morning, all grew quiet.  Having had his fill of cold beer, Paul was out of stories.  People were dozing in their lawn chairs, having pulled blankets and sleeping bags over them.  The guitars had stopped.  Scattered, intermittent conversations were still softly emerging.  At one point, Paul turned to me.  I was seventeen and in awe of him.  “You have a good vocabulary,” he observed.  I was startled.  “You should write.  There aren’t enough people writing these days.  People want stories.  You can provide them.  You have a good vocabulary.  You should write.”

Drawing out his wallet, Paul removed a folded piece of paper.  That strange lighter-fluid smell emanated from the slick paper as he unfolded a “Xerox copy” (remember how those smelled in the mid-1970s?) of a check in the amount of $75 he had been paid by a West-Coast magazine for one of his stories.  “There’s money in this,” Paul mumbled, “but you’re too good to write this kind of stuff.”  Looking up from the check, I could not contain my amazement: “Seventy-five dollars for a funny story?”  “Not funny; a scrounge story.  I wrote it in one night in the office while on shift at Greyhound. You know—the story of the boy coming out of the country and screwing the high-society girl.”

I knew Paul was full of stories.  I knew he had the gift to deliver humor before a live audience.  What I didn’t know was that Paul wrote stories for porno magazines and collected good sums of money over the years.  “You don’t need that,” he advised me, “You have much more going for you.  You should write, and write about things that matter.”

That night beside the fire I experienced a teachable moment.  Forty-three years later, as Amtrak carried me back to Fort Worth late in the night, I continued to think about that intimate conversation.  Relatives that took Paul with a grain of salt remarked that he was only about himself, his stories, his need for an audience, his practice of holding court.  But I remember the night Paul turned his attention on me for a few minutes and delivered a life-transforming Word, an Oracle.  Paul, I never forgot that moment.  Thank you for your compliment, for your encouragement.  I love to write.  I have found ways to weave this passion into my teaching profession, am proud to have been published a few times, still enjoy keeping an old-fashioned journal and now love to weave words and put them on a blog.  And I am grateful to have readers the same way you were grateful to have listeners.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.


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