On Thursday, Holmes announced that we have declared March 12 to be Aunts and Uncles Day to recognize those amazing, irreplaceable people who love us and guide us outside the parent/child relationship. Last week, he introduced us to Aunt Lily. This week, Holmes tells us about Uncle Tony and asks that you please tell us about the special uncles in your life.
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By Jay Holmes
Tony wasn’t an uncle, but he was the best uncle a boy ever dreamed of having. Tony and I were connected two ways. The first was that he married my biological father’s cousin, Maria. Since Tony was from a family of Italian descent, that made me his nephew. I was also connected to Tony in another, more complex way. He and my father had had similar experiences in combat in the Pacific in the Second World War. They were close in a quiet way.
Tony had a construction business and a sheet metal fabrication shop. I remember getting my first visit to his shop. I was in love. What a place! So many machines, cutting torches, welding equipment, metal, wood to saw, nails to hammer—I could make anything. I had found my place at last. Tony and my father knew the shop would have that effect on me. They must have been pleased that it did.
As a child, I often hopped a train to the northern outskirts of New York City, and Tony or someone from his family or shop would pick me up. I worked long hours helping with anything that I could, which wasn’t much the first few times. Tony treated me with tremendous patience. He always encouraged me, no matter how poor a product I turned out. He always tried to make me feel like the smartest guy in the world.
In the construction industry in his area, he was well liked and respected. He always introduced me to his friends, customers, and fellow construction workers as his nephew and Godson. I was, in fact, not his Godson. I can’t remember who my Godfather had been. But Tony wanted everyone to know that I was special, and that I was with him so he used the term “Godson.” I felt like I had been promoted to the top of the world. I was like the second coolest person in the universe. I was Tony’s Godson. Life could hardly get any better.
Tony always worried that I was a little bit overly reactive, and that I was prone to taking insults and threats too seriously. He constantly tried to figure out how to teach me to calm down a little and to not respond to insults. He wanted me to understand that “not all enemies needed to be taken seriously.” He wanted me to learn how to turn enemies into friends.
One Saturday when I was twelve, Tony and I were working on a job site without the rest of his crew. There were two electricians working on the other side of the room. The job had been delayed due to one of the other crews, and the owners “guy” was in a bad mood. He came in and started arguing with Tony.
The guy was huge and about ten years younger than Tony. Against that, Tony was a Marine, a qualified boxing instructor, and strong as a bull. The angry guy moved past me and was getting too loud and too close to my uncle. I picked up my roofing hammer.
Tony never knew why I insisted on buying and carrying a long-handled roofing hammer, and he had argued against the useless extra weight in my tool kit. This was why I had a roofing hammer.
I positioned myself well for an effective strike should said goon take a swing at Tony. Tony stayed calm, Goon didn’t swing, and I didn’t whack Goon with the roofing hammer. When Goon turned to leave, he realized that my hammer and I had been behind him the entire time, waiting to swing. Goon turned white and looked at my uncle and started to say something, failed to complete the sentence, and left.
Tony realized that I had been waiting quietly to whack the goon, and he was somewhat stunned. He paused a moment and then reasoned with me calmly.
Tony: “You can’t hit people in the head with a roofing hammer. You’ll accidentally kill them.”
Me: “No. I wasn’t going to kill him. I was going to hit him with the flat side. It would only knock him out, or if it didn’t, I’d beat the hell out of him while he was stunned.”
Tony: “You can’t hit people with roofing hammers…”
Me: “Sure I can. That fangul had no idea….”
Tony: “Okay, look. I appreciate you backing me up. There’s nobody I’d rather have with me in a fight than you, but you don’t always have to back me up. I settled it with words. Nobody got hurt. That wasn’t a life and death situation…”
Me: “For him it was. If I turn the hammer this way…”
Tony: “Okay, look we’ll talk about this later…”
He realized my adrenalin was still too high. Later after dinner, we talked about it. I wasn’t always the easiest student for “alternatives to violence” training, but he managed to get through to me. He treated me like an equal, and he trusted me completely. I loved him, and I never wanted to betray that trust so his words mattered to me. I didn’t believe most of what most adults said. I believed everything that he said, and I had to take him seriously. I did, and I learned.
My willingness to whack someone in the back of the head concerned Tony. That night, he called my father and begged him to just let me live with him and my aunt full time rather having to return to the violence in the city. My father would not agree to it, but he did agree that on weekends and all holidays, I would stay with Tony. To my delight, I got to spend more time with Tony and his large extended family.
That was one of the great things about being Tony’s Godson. I inherited his entire Italian family and all of their multi-ethnic appendages. Even remote cousins of his that had never met my father treated me like their nephew or cousin. I was Tony’s nephew so I was their nephew.
Their family was my family. Their home was my home. Nobody asked for an explanation of who was who on their family tree. None was needed. There were no second cousins in the family. No “once removed.” Nobody got removed. Everybody was safe and okay right where they were and didn’t need any “removing.”
We didn’t all always agree. There were arguments and debates, but we all went to bed understanding that when the argument was over, it didn’t matter much, and we were all still family.
Then there was the cancer. He had been diagnosed when I was a toddler. I found out when I was five or six, when someone explained the scars on his face to me. He had had tumors in his sinuses. The doctors had told him it would kill him in six months. He laughed at them. He had survived a bullet wound on Guadalcanal. He should never have made it off the island alive. He did. He got better and went back to the Pacific. He was one of the first people to land on Okinawa the night before the main invasion. He survived ugly battles on Okinawa, as well.
image from historylearningsite.co.uk
He wasn’t going to let the cancer win. Not just yet. Two years ago (over a half a century after his scheduled funeral that he refused to show up for) the cancer came back. We talked about it. He laughed it off. I told him how much I loved him, and how important he was to me. I told him how lucky I felt to have him as my uncle. I told him how proud of him I was for what he had done in the war and in his life. I told him that he was the best Godfather that ever walked the earth.
He told me that he was the lucky one, and told me that my father would have been proud of my career and my family. He said he almost never prayed, but that he prayed hard for me every day each time I left the country, and how grateful he was each time I got back to an airport in the States and called him.
In my mind, I can still hear the concern he tried to mask when he would say, “Call me when you get back.” I can still hear the happiness in his voice each time I returned. He told me he had always been proud of me, and always knew from the first time that he held me as a baby that I was “special.” To him, I was, and to me, he was and always will be.
Now it’s your turn. Who are the special uncles in your life?
What a fangul. Great telling Holmes. I’ve missed your tales during my recent hiatus. But if I ever get into a fight I’m calling you. Bring that hammer. I never had an uncle although I called my one friend’s dad that. He took us to see the first R rated film I caught in theaters which happened to be Terminator 2. Speaking of movies Holmes, why don’t you hop over to eduClaytion and take one of the last few spot in the Movie Madness as Piper defends her title?
Going to pit partner against partner? Lol. Bring it on. 🙂
Hi Clay. It’s good to see you (or at lease your avatar). If you ever get in a fight with enough forewarning to call me I’ll help you figure out how to beat them or divert them before the fight starts. Never let it get to a fight if you can avoid it. But you already knew that that’s why you haven’t been in any fights lately.
I will look for your movie madness today.
Great idea! I always think of my Uncle Tim, my mom’s youngest brother. He’s the most thoughtful, intelligent person I know, and yet he lives a quiet life without any drama. He’s the kind of person I wish I could be more like.
Hi Heather. I’m glad you have your uncle Tim. Thoughtfulness is not an easy skill to learn. Most modern people never learn it. Give him a hug and tell him how you feel while you still can.
Wow, what an awesome post. My Uncle Joe was the go-to guy in our family, one all the kiddos went to with secrets and stories and madcap ideas.
Hi Amy. Thank you for the compliment. I’m glad you had your Uncle Joe. Life is always easier with a little extended family.
My Uncle Gene was a quiet, very laconic farmer in the midwest. He and my father were partners on the family farm, but his job during the week was selling and repairing office equipment. I always assumed that he had never done much other than farm.
It came as a surprise to me a few years ago when I learned that he had been a flight engineer during WWII carrying cargo througout the south Pacific and had landed on nearly every godforsaken chunk of coral in the region. Most intriguing was the mission he flew from Pearl to San Francisco in which the only cargo was a Colonel with handcuffed briefcase and sidearm. The Colonel was flying from Japan to DC non-stop (or as close as the technology of the day would allow). Although my Uncle only made the connection later, it was only hours after the treaty ending the Pacific War had been signed. Later he speculated that the real cargo might have been the signed treaty itself.
My Uncle Gene passed several years ago after a long life, but his quiet steadiness is sorely missed.
Hi Dave. I’m glad that you had your uncle Gene. Imagine the adventures he had flying around the Pacific in WW II. I wish more people like him had written about those adventures. The mysterious man with the brief case and the .045 caliber side arm was Colonel Bernard Thielen. He carried the documents to the war department and then the Joint Chiefs of staff presented them to President Truman on 7 September 1945. They were entered into the national Archives on 1 October 1945.
The legend has it that Thielen was ordered by MacArthur to bypass the war department and and as his personal courier then present the documents directly to the President. Some history records report that it happened that way. Pentagon records indicate that it did not. MacArthur followed proper protocol and dispatched Col.Thielin to report to general George C. Marshall.
Now for the bad news. I hate to brake the news to you but In Uncle Gene’s absence you have been nominated for the position of “Calm Reasonable Voice”. I’m sorry. It’s a difficult, inglorious, and thankless task but you were the obvious candidate.
“Calm Reasonable Voice”… I think that’s how he got stuck with the two of us. 🙂
Oops…I checked with my mom and got a couple of details wrong. She has his hand-written notes describing his memories of the war. He picked up the Colonel at Hamilton Field and flew non-stop to Washington, DC. He had been in the flight center for other reasons. They needed a flight engineer and he didn’t have anything else to do so he volunteered. I’m sure the trip paid off, as they picked up a load of WAVE’s to deliver on the return flight.
When I think “calm, reasonable voice”, I think of HAL in 2001, A Space Odyssey. Hopefully, I’m not running around killing off the crew… 🙂
“Take a stress pill, Dave.” ~ Hal
I love my Uncle Jay. He’s always there for me. He’s sort of a cross between a father figure and Chuck Norris. He makes me feel safe. ~ E
Hi kido. You always brighten my day and my cantankerous disposition. All the flowers shine a bit more brightly when you are around. I love you.
I love the way my Uncle Jay is incredibly humorous. I enjoy reloading with him and learning about karate and stuff.
My Uncle Jay takes me out clubbing. It isn’t actually clubbing because we just walk around and look at the people going in and out of clubs and watch what the drunk people do. And laugh.
I love going shooting with him. He knows a lot about shooting and he has cool stories and he’s always really funny. I love the jokes we make together. Too bad I can’t repeat any of them here.
I feel like I’m not the only person on the planet who’s like me because I know him. He’s an all around decent human being. ~ A
Hi big guy. Thank you for not repeating those jokes within earshot of your mom, sister, and a couple billion ladies. I’m going to load some 9mm for us this week.
Clubbing is a scary enterprise and I prefer to only go when we have you along on the team. I’m still laughing about that particularly interesting woman we saw at the back entrance to that one club.
Oh, God! That was interesting. She had definitely had one too many hits of something. ~ A
I remember my Uncle Jerry. His family came to the U.S. from Naples. He got a chance to go back during WWII. He saw combat and came home in one piece. When I was adopted he and my Aunt Sophie became my godparents. They doted on me. When I left the service and had spent two years in college I needed a job. I went to Fafnir Bearing Co. and camped out in the personnel office and endured turn-down after turn-down. My Aunt Sophie said I should ask my uncle to put a good word for me. So I went to the Spartan’s Club AC and asked him. So I went and asked. He told me, “See that guy down the end of the bar? Buy him a drink and tell him you need a job.” I did and the next Thursday when I was in personnel the guy came downstairs and told the interviewer “This guy’s my cousin. He needs a job.” I was hired. I later found out the guy was the Union president. My uncle worked in Fafnir for thirty five years and retired. He stayed active in his club and finally cancer got the best of him. I still miss him. The legacy he left me was his mother’s recipe for red sauce that I still use. The aroma of garlic sauteeing in olive oil brings back memories.
Hi tomwisk. Thanks for sharing a great memory. Some times family is everything. Keep making that Red sauce. It’s a bit like having him over for dinner.
Interesting story. My uncles and aunts are more of the kindly and old mould. They’ve steadfastly represented the Welsh part of my family and given my daughter no end of fun, thankfully without hammers!
Hi Nigel. I never underestimate the subversive power of a Welshman. Welsh aunts and uncles might have been teaching Your children how to revolt against the crown without you even knowing. Don’t assume that that bit of trouble with King Edward Long shanks is over.
Great telling, Holmes.
It’s making me think of my uncles. One I don’t know as well is my Uncle Cliff. My dad has four brothers and Cliff is what my dad would have been had he gone to college. My dad stayed on the family farm long enough to put Cliff through college, and then my dad started his own grain farm. Cliff visited me when I lived in Thailand (something my dad wouldn’t do). Somehow, I saw Bangkok through the eyes of my father when Cliff was there.
Hi Leanne. Cliff must like you an awful lot if he went all the way to Thailand to visit you. Send your uncles a “hello” this week.
Wonderful, wonderful story, Holmes. I’m grateful that you had Uncle Tony, and that he had you. And I’m loving the comments, too, and getting a little jealous of all that red sauce. I love being Irish (and German, Welsh, Scots, and Chicasaw) but I’ve often wished I could convert to Italian.
Thanks for the post, and for the comments. This has been a perfect day. 🙂
Great story, Holmes. I lived across the country from my uncles and never really got to know them. It makes me want to be a better aunt. But distance is still causing problems.
Hi Marianne. I’m sorry that distance is leaving you ripped off from the fun of being an aunt/uncle. I hope that your family’s little ones get a chance to visit you.