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It took a village of good uncles

One of the sadder realities of growing older is the loss of so many people who played an important role in your life.

When I was a kid I had 16 uncles. Today, I’m down to just one. Uncle Ron, my father’s youngest brother, is only 11 years older than I am. He’s a fascinating guy who has seen more of the world than I ever will.

My mother was one of 12 children and Dad was one of six so I had more uncles and aunts than many folks have cousins. My mother’s three younger sisters are all that remain in her family.

Family gatherings were always good times and our uncles were an important component of those good times.

I was born on Uncle Leonard’s birthday and we were especially close over the years. A carpenter and cabinet maker, Uncle Leonard brought me a box of wood scraps to play with when I was about six years old.

A few days later he mailed me a bill for the wood. After Mom explained what a bill was I became indignant. Leonard was kidding, of course, but he never let me forget my tightwad tantrum.

Uncle Harold told great stories of his growing up years and, like most of my uncles, he loved to tease. He did so often when I was a kid but he also knew when to be sensitive. As a youngster I had a problem with homesickness. Several times I planned to spend a night on Uncle Harold’s farm but around sunset a lump would form in my throat and, with tears and embarrassment, I’d beg to go home. Each time, Uncle Harold kindly drove me home without a taunt or a discouraging word.

Uncle Gerrit delighted in telling my wife about the time he set me straight. I was six-years-old and we were staying at his house in Des Moines while Dad was a patient at the VA hospital. As Uncle Gerrit told it, I had been a real brat and my exasperated mother asked him to “have a word” with me. After he gave me a strong scolding, he claimed, I not only started obeying my mother but I picked up every toy in the yard and asked him if there was anything else I could do to help him.

Uncle Floyd was the guy who got me hooked on electronic toys. An electronics enthusiast himself, Floyd introduced me to a wire recorder in the early ’50s, to shortwave radio in the mid ’50s, to CB radio in the late ’50s and to stereophonic recordings in the early ’60s. He also played the Hawaiian steel guitar but, alas, it would take a lot more than enthusiasm to make a musician out of me.

Uncle Sterling drove fast cars with loud mufflers. On a gravel road near my grandparents’ farm in Kossuth county there was what we called “Rainbow Bridge”– a small bridge with concrete arches for bridge rails. Uncle Sterling convinced a few of us nephews that by pushing a button on his car’s dash the wheels would extend outward to allow us to ride over the arches like a roller coaster. We never got a “roller coaster” ride, of course, but Uncle Sterling had a great time making us look forward to it.

I bought my first shotgun from Uncle Frank and my first car from Uncle Dick. Uncle Stoffer liked to tease me about girls and Uncle Irvin just liked to tease. Uncle Ron was a college student in Chicago in the late 1950s and Uncle Darold lived in the Twin Cities; in each case I was impressed.

Uncle Hank’s farm had the best sledding hill in Hancock County and Uncle Bud was the best painter and wallpaper hanger in Grundy County. Both judgements are subjective, I admit, but I am confident in my opinions.

Uncle Bob, when he was a vacuum cleaner salesman, hired me to ride along and show him where prospects lived in our little town. My other Uncle Bob was a sailor and told great stories about his Navy career. My sailor Uncle Bob died quite young and my Aunt Fannie remarried. Her new husband was Uncle Carroll, a retired San Diego County (California) deputy sheriff.

That leaves an uncle I never knew – Uncle Arnold who was killed in World War II. From the stories his family told, I know I would have loved him, too.

There’s an old adage that says it takes a village to raise a child. That a collection of wonderful uncles.

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