Uncle W. G. was a memorable person. He was one of my father’s three older brothers. He was about five feet ten inches tall, I would guess. He was portly, neatly dressed, and bald, with deep and distinctive lines in his round face that would deepen every time he laughed. He had a keen sense of humor, a quick mind, a generous spirit, and a happy countenance. There never was a time I did not enjoy seeing him.
He ran a rural grocery store along Highway 13 about a mile south of our farm from sometime in the 1940s to the late 1950s. He also was an Allis-Chalmers tractor salesman for a time, and a mule trader. He was always viewed by our family as a very prosperous man. But he didn’t act like he was, except that he always drove a nicer car than about anybody in the neighborhood.
My earliest, best, and most enduring images of Uncle W. G. were centered around my time with him in his grocery store. He wasn’t always there, often hiring neighbors to run the store while he was selling tractors in town or trading mules in the vicinity. I began to do light farm work as a small boy in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, and would be taken to the store to get a candy bar or a Moon Pie and a Coke. When he was there, there was always some kind of fireworks going off between Uncle W. G. and me. He always seemed to be picking on me, telling jokes or funny stories, or laughing about something. After a while, I got the hang of it, and began to pick on Uncle W. G., too.
I don’t recall him ever embarrassing me or hurting my feelings. If I ever made him angry–and I’m not sure I did–it never lasted more than a few seconds. He might show some quick emotion at some prank I would play on him, but in the process we would end up in side-splitting laughter or good-natured tussling with each other.
I will recount two examples of pranks I played on Uncle W. G. Both involved elements of surprise and fright. He had an exceptional fear of bugs, snakes, and the like.
One was when I was about eight years old. Daddy, my brother Nolen Robert, and I had been working on my grandparents’ farm just behind Uncle W. G.’s store. It was late spring and we were preparing to plant corn in a field across the creek. I spotted a mouse running over the tilled soil in the middle of the field, and I killed it with my foot. I picked up the dead mouse by the tail and put it in the back of our pick-up truck. A while later, my dad said we would drive up to the store for a break. When we arrived, I put the dead mouse in my pocket.
As we walked in, we noticed that Uncle W. G. had very recently applied a fresh coat of oily wood treatment to the wide pine boards on the wood floor, and that he had otherwise spiffed up the place a bit. I picked up a Snickers bar and walked up to the counter where Uncle W. G. was standing talking to my dad and brother. With the Snickers bar in my left hand, I held out my right hand like I had coins in it. When Uncle W. G. held out his hand to take my money, I dropped the dead mouse in his hand. He let out a blood-curdling scream and yelled, “You little shit!” as I ran for the door.
There was a lot of commotion behind me, and from the corner of my eye I could see that Uncle W. G. was chasing me. Just before he grabbed me, I turned a corner around a wire rack of potato chips and other snacks. My feet slipped out from under me on the newly-oiled floor and I hit the upper left side of my forehead on the front door at full speed with a loud bang. By this time Uncle W. G. grabbed me and we were both laughing so hard, we were unable to speak as he helped me to my feet. Putting my hand to my forehead, there was a fresh, throbbing lump there about half the size of the dead mouse I had just put in Uncle W. G.’s hand. Justice had come to me in a hurry.
The other prank I’ll describe was a year or so later when I bought a cheap plastic knife at a Woolworth’s store in nearby Clarksville. The toy knife was light gray, about the color of steel. The handle was about five inches long, with a four-inch plastic blade that recessed into the handle when the blade pressed against something.
I walked into my uncle’s store and he was behind the counter, just as he had been when I handed him the mouse many months earlier. I sauntered up to him, and Uncle W. G. looked at me as if to say, “What’s up?” At that point, I pulled the knife out of my pocket, held it out in front of Uncle W. G. so he could see the extended blade, and made a quick stab gesture to his chest right over his heart. The blade disappeared into the handle. Uncle W. G. thought the blade went deep into his chest, and he yelled in horror and brushed frantically at his chest with his hand. Using my old getaway path, I ran for the front door, this time without falling, and out toward the Gulf gas pumps. I looked back toward the store and Uncle W. G. was standing in the door laughing hard and I laughed hard with him. Why he didn’t beat me to a pulp with an ax handle remains a mystery.
Regrets Came Later
I don’t remember pulling any more pranks on Uncle W. G. after that. Somehow, in the middle of this one, I sensed I was doing something really cruel. In retelling this story the day after a June 2010 family wedding in Clarksville at a luncheon that several of my cousins, including Uncle W. G.’s daughter Bettye, organized, I felt a little embarrassed telling it and more embarrassed after I thought about it a few days later. And I’m embarrassed to be telling it here, actually.
But the worst thing I ever did to Uncle W. G. was after he died, years later in December 1977. I was 33 years old, with a young family of my own, living in Ohio, working at Ohio State University. My brother Nolen Robert phoned on Thursday night to tell me Uncle W. G. had died. He apparently had a heart attack behind the wheel, and his Cadillac veered head-on into a tractor-trailer truck on Highway 13 just a short distance from the store where I had so many fond memories of him. People at the scene of the wreck reported that Uncle W. G. did not bleed from his injuries, indicating that his heart had stopped before impact. His funeral would be on Saturday. In an instant I made a terrible decision. I told my brother I had to leave early the next morning on a plane to Atlantic City to present a research paper at a conference on Saturday. My brother’s voice dropped and he said he understood. As it turned out, I presented the paper at about the same time that Uncle W. G.’s funeral was being conducted. This was one of the most unhappy and regretted days of my life.
Why didn’t I have someone present the paper in my absence and go to the funeral? I easily could have. Did I not go to the funeral because I was ashamed of what I had done to Uncle W. G. with my cruel “pranks” as a child? Did I want grieving family members to think I was a hotshot academic, too busy to come home for my favorite Uncle W. G.? I’m still really sorry, and will remain so for this.
Postscript: After writing this story initially, I sent a copy to my cousin, Bettye Russell Tidwell, Uncle W. G.’s daughter. She responded with a beautiful letter. Regarding the regrets I expressed in the story, she wrote, “Don’t beat yourself up over this. I understand and Daddy would have too. He would have said, ‘Boy, forget it!’” I can still hear his soothing voice in those last three words, and I feel a calm smile come over me.