Thursday, June 21, 2012

My Uncle Wayne

“Go get us a couple of popsicles Bobby” my uncle commanded.  I dutifully took a break from the heat of the roof on his house on American Ave and completed the assignment…Just like a 100 times before.  We sat in the shade and enjoyed the cool refreshing treat and didn’t say a word to each other.  Once we finished it was back up the ladder to pour more hot tar on that July day.  I am not sure if popsicles were a lifelong obsession with Wayne, but, that summer of 1977 we went through several packs a day.  As for the conversation (or lack thereof)?   If you asked that, you really didn’t know my uncle.  He and I communicated on many levels…words were not one of them. 

Life is funny. Sometimes, random memories of the departed come back and remind us of important people in our lives. 

My Uncle was an important man in my life.  My father passed when I was 14 of heart disease.  A disease I battle today.  As a maturing teenager, I worked for my uncle that summer and learned valuable lessons about being a man. Lessons I didn’t realize till later in my life, but lessons I value and try to emulate every day.

 TV at the Goff house consisted of John Wayne and sports.  I truly believed that Wayne’s TV set only had those 2 channels.  My Uncle loved the Duke.  So much so I thought his gait was right out of “The searchers” or “Rio Bravo”.  With a cowboy hat and boots, the transformation was complete.

On occasion, he would buy a huge roast beef carved to his specifications by the local butcher and invite the entire family to a backyard BBQ.  He fashioned a rotisserie, and the slow roasted over coals beef was delicious. Plates overflowing with salads, chips and countless other side dishes made for a perfect afternoon.  Everyone left the event full of food and great memories that can only happen when families celebrate life together.

My uncle was not a religious man so he really turned my world upside down when he showed me his BYU Cougar Club plaque.  However, he was a huge Jim McMahon fan and I guess the chance to buy better seats in cougar stadium overcame any feelings he may have had about contributing to “another nonprofit institution” He loved watching McMahon and the cougar’s play so much he invited me to join him and his son Marty to travel to the Holiday bowl.  Of course in typical Uncle Wayne fashion…all expenses paid.

On the 12 hour drive from Provo to San Diego, My uncle shared with Marty and I some of his experiences in the pacific during WWII.  I vividly recall the stories of death and destruction he endured on those hot bug invested islands.  I shall never forget the troubled, sad expression on his face as he shared these nightmares with us.  It seemed to be a cathartic moment for him because the rest of the trip he was like a young school boy freed from some terrible secret.  I never knew of him to mention his war experiences again.  As with many in the greatest generation, he never thought himself a hero…he was just doing his job.

The next morning, we drove to Tijuana. At the border, Wayne insisted that I drive the new Chrysler Le Baron into Mexico because “I knew the language”.  I somehow survived the drive to a parking garage and after a gratuity to the attendant to ensure the vehicle was there when we returned we walked along the market street vendors and looked for souvenirs.  Suddenly Wayne’s eyes lit up and his face beamed ear to ear with a huge smile. He slowly lifted a buckskin “Kit Carson” scout jacket. As  we examined the coat sparkling with rhinestones and tasseled sleeves, memories of a childhood long forgotten must have flooded his mind because he determined he must have that jacket. I dutifully engaged the shop owner in price negotiations and after 10 minutes was unable to get him to budge on the price…I guess he could also see the glint of childhood Wayne’s eyes and felt he had a sure sale.  We left and returned twice over the next 3 hours to renegotiate and after moving the price from $80 to $20 dollars My uncle returned to adulthood and said….what do I need a “Kit Carson” jacket for? The owner followed us for two blocks screaming every profanity in the Spanish language at us….Wayne just chuckled as I tried to calm the man….In retrospect,  I think he just enjoyed listening to me speak a foreign language.

The Holiday Bowl was great and “Jimbo” and the cougars won so the long drive home was enjoyable.  After a food stop in Las Vegas he played blackjack and won $500.  Unlike me, He always seemed to win at the tables.

One of best memories and the most important lesson I learned from my Uncle happened during a family vacation.  In 1984, I had just returned from Army Basic Training and decided to take my young family to Disneyland.  On the drive home an ominous blue smoke began to trail the old Toyota Corona. With little money remaining and no credit card, I stopped, bought a case of oil and decided drive straight through to Utah to get the worn out car home.  We had to stop twice on the drive from LA to Barstow to refill the oil and wait for the engine to cool down.  A normal 90 minute drive stretched into 5 hours as we hobbled across the desert.

Our luck turned worse in Barstow as flash floods had closed I-15 from Barstow to Las Vegas leaving two solutions, spend the night and try to cross the desert during the heat of the next day or take s a 4 hour detour thru Needles, Lake Havasu and Boulder to Vegas.  Knowing we were out of money and a surety the car would not make across the desert in daylight, we turned south towards Needles.

Fifty miles, stop, add two quarts of oil, repeat had become the pattern.  At a gas station somewhere on the way I sent my wife and my young daughter Betsy in with a few remaining dollars to buy some drinks and oil…hopefully enough to complete the trip.

Imagine my surprise when she returned with my Uncle Wayne and Aunt Effie following them.  Wayne knew we were out of money he immediately said “we are following you till you get home”.  He didn’t judge.  He didn’t ask how or why, he just stepped in and helped

We made it to Vegas, Wayne paid for our room.  The car died, he called and paid for the tow service.  I told him I had no idea how I was ever going to pay him for all the money he had just laid out on my behalf…He looked deeply into my eyes and said “I don’t want to hear another word about it..Everyone has hard times and it’s up to family to help you out if they can…”

I have tried to calculate the odds of meeting them at a random gas station on  a detour at 11:00PM at night…you can’t.  My Aunt said they didn’t really need to stop for anything…they just did…Maybe my uncle was more in tune with spiritual things than I realized...

Time finally caught up with my Uncle and Alzheimer’s began to take its vicious toll. I do not think I have recovered from his death but I am grateful he didn’t have to deal with that terrible disease any longer. Somehow through the last stage of his life… He still managed to keep his dignity.  It was difficult to watch a man who worked every day of his life and always put his family first lose touch with reality.

Yet there were a few precious moments, when lucidity returned and that gleam returned to his eyes..I could almost hear home barking out “Go get us a couple of popsicles Bobby”