My Uncle Paul died today. He was 78 and it was not unexpected. In fact it was always surprising that he lived this long.
Born in 1934 in the midst of the depression on the 25 acres that my grandfather farmed, things were never easy but I never heard any of them complain about it. It was all they knew. With his mother, an older brother and sister to take care of him, my grandfather would spend extended time away on WPA projects. The farm wasn’t all that profitable and it was the only job available.
Paul didn’t graduate from high school, he kicked around in odd jobs for a few years and joined the army in 1954. Honorably discharged in 1958 he came home, married his sweetheart ‘Dimple’ and started having kids. Steady jobs were not his strong point and for reasons unknown he then joined the Air Force which went well. He and Dimple always wanted a girl but after 5 boys they gave up.
Before he went to the Air Force, he gave my mother for safekeeping his prized possessions, a box of 78 records and a couple of boxes of books. I was always thankful for those. The records were mostly Hank Williams and some ‘uptown’ songs that the only one I remember was “Strolling on 5th Avenue.” I played all of them countless times. It was the books that had the biggest effect. Most of them were what I now call pulp science fiction paperbacks, sort of clones of 1984 and Brave New World written by hacks but I loved them all, immersing myself in a genre that I probably would never have known otherwise.
Back home after his second stint in the service he continued his ways of going from job to job and moving often but always in the immediate area of home. We visited often and with 5 boys to play with, it was never a dull time.
Things took a downturn when he was working construction and the scaffold he was on 15 feet above concrete collapsed. He landed on his feet but virtually every bone in his feet and ankles were broken. Surgery and recovery that went slow and it was almost a year before he was able to go back to work. Poor times but with help the family didn’t starve or go homeless.
It was then back to work and he built himself a small house on my grandparents land but the worst was yet to come.
A construction job took Paul to Alabama staying at a motel with the rest of the crew where he made a decision that changed his life forever. He and another guy went to a bar and poolroom where he stepped in to stop a fight and got a pool cue upside his head and crashed the other side into a block wall. Skull fractures and what we found out soon was brain damage and it was irreversible.
Paul could somewhat function but was very difficult to get along with. Dimple left him and we never blamed her. It was what she had to do. The boys stayed with my grandmother, my grandfather had already died, and she did the best she could with them. Only the oldest graduated from high school and the others fended for themselves the best they could until they got old enough to leave.and never had much to do with their father after that. They loved their granny though and always stayed in touch up until she died.
Paul was all alone in his little house. He couldn’t work, no one would hire him and eventually with help from my mother and a lawyer he got a small disability check which paid the utility bills. He did maintain a drivers license and managed to keep some kind of junk car going. He sometimes would go into town and wander the streets, getting picked up by the police on occasion because they would think he was drunk due to his condition and somewhat slurred speech even when he was not. They all got to know him which may have saved his life later but I’ll get to that.
My dad had a 61 Chevy he had just repainted and reupholstered and some kids at his work tried to hot wire it and steal it. Instead they set it on fire. It was ruined but did run but only in reverse. My dad said Paul could have it if he could get it home so he drove it 18 miles in reverse to get it there. It was a sight to see. Not long after that Paul was driving his old car to town and crashed into our brick mailbox totaling the car. What were the odds of that happening? Only with Paul.
Yes, Paul was off but he had his creative ways. People would give him things when he asked and he started collecting car and home radios of all kinds. He probably had 15 of them all around his living room and every one of them hooked into a switch board so he could have them all on different stations and use the switches to turn to whatever one he wanted. Sometimes several at the same time. It was pretty cool.
He had a set of World Book encyclopedias and studied them. One time he became obsessed with the windmills he read about. He built one out of wood about 15 feet tall with some large blades that would spin good in the wind. Visiting him one day I mentioned how if he somehow connected the blades with some kind of belt to a car alternator he could charge his batteries with them. By golly he figured it out and did just that. I was impressed.
That windmill eventually rotted and fell but he was determined to build one bigger and better. Someone gave him a bunch of old re-bar and access to a welder and he proceeded to build one about thirty feet tall. I just happened to be at his house the day he dug the holes for the feet and we used a borrowed tractor to set it in place. It lasted for several years until a big storm blew it over.
Paul was no stranger to whiskey and did not eat much and kept getting, for lack of better words, crazier and crazier. He was finally talked into going to the VA psychiatric hospital where he had a few stays.With three meals a day and vitamin shots he got much better. The hospital was not far from where I lived and I visited him regularly. At that time there were a number of Vietnam vet patients in his ward and despite the problems Paul had, he was better off than several of them.
Paul’s house started falling apart and he moved in with my grandmother. That helped but he didn’t kick the whiskey and she couldn’t stop him. When drinking he got things on his mind. The neighbor’s drive bordered their property and they were continually turning in to it about 2 feet on on the wrong side of the property line. This didn’t sit well with Paul. He got drunk one day, got in his car with my grandfather’s Remington Sweet 16 shotgun and started circling round and round the yard with the gun hanging out the window yelling at the neighbor to stay off his property. They called the law and a couple of Sheriff’s deputy’s came out to see what was going on. They knew him and his condition so just waited until he stopped the car. He got out and no one will ever know if he was going to shoot at them but he did lower the gun toward them. All they could do was shoot first and they did, blowing his leg half off. They later said it was the first person they had shot in over 20 years. He was taken to the VA hospital where he stayed for almost 6 months.
Paul was never charged with the incident but the police did confiscate the shotgun. My brother-in-law did get it back and gave it to me. We never told Paul and that was probably for the best.
Paul eventually walked again, came back home and to the best of my knowledge never drank another drop.
After my grandmother died Paul stayed in the house but became reclusive. He had about 6 stray dogs with him at all times and they had run of the house which progressively fell apart. For about 10 years he never would allow anyone in, always coming outside the door to talk with people. We later found out why.
Several years ago Paul was getting bad off and couldn’t take care of himself so he was finally taken to a nursing home where they took good care of him.
We found the house to be in unlivable condition, floors caved in and the roof had leaked for years. My sister salvaged what could be including my great grandfather’s 150 year old banjo which she so graciously gave to me.
Due to complaints from neighbors to the county about the house it was torn down and buried. There was not much else to do and we never told Paul.
I visited Paul a number of times at the nursing home, taking him cigarettes which he appreciated but it was my sister who always looked in on him. She was his angel in his last years.
There won’t be many at his graveside service. Just a few of us. We don’t even know where any of his sons live. It’s a shame but that’s how it is. There will be a couple of veterans there to give him a last salute.
I always liked Paul. He was never anything but friendly and kind to me. He lived a very up and down life, strange most of the time but what can one say or do except to tell part of his tale.
Thanks for the memories Paul. You will be missed.