Monday, April 19, 2010
This morning we went to The Diner for breakfast. Through the window, we saw the cook step outside to smoke. To our surprise, he proceeded to roll his own cigarette. I didn't know people still did that. He poured just the right amount of loose tobacco into a thin, white paper. Jiggled it around to even things out, rolled it, licked the edge of the paper, sealed it deftly and settled down for a few moments of bliss. Many a time I watched Uncle Earl do this very thing when I was a kid.
What a character.
He and "Cousin Carl" lived at "Whitehaven," the farm my natural mother's parents bought during the Depression. Aunt Nancy said, "I never thought anything about it. I thought everyone kept a couple of freaks around the house."
Freaks? That seems a bit harsh. Earl and Carl both drank. My grandfather took them in, hoping to keep them out of trouble. It didn't work for Carl, but Uncle Earl did fine, as long as he didn't go to town.
Uncle Earl was a frail, little old man with a fringe of white hair. He slept in a monks' cell of a bedroom on the first floor near the kitchen. He'd spend hours in his room, playing solitaire on a rickety, blue table with scorch marks along the edge, where he'd set countless hand-rolled cigarettes. He never had much to say, other than to good-naturedly call my sister and me "a couple of bad eggs." Sitting on the covered radiator in the "breakfast room," smoking one of his cigarettes, he'd churn butter in a gallon-sized glass jug fitted out with a crank. He'd crank and crank until butter began to appear on the paddles. One thing that Uncle Earl took great pride in was his beautiful vegetable garden. He wouldn't pick the corn until Grandmother had the water boiling.
Grandmother said that Uncle Earl was awfully smart. She told me that, at Allegheny College, Uncle Earl often took exams for a lazy classmate who later became a judge in Crawford County. Unfortunately, Uncle Earl didn't graduate. Something about getting drunk and putting a cow in the bell tower of Alden Hall. I wish now that I'd listened more carefully to Grandmother's stories.
Who knows how close he came to ruin before he tried a "geographical cure?' What happened to Uncle Earl when he went to town? One time he accompanied Grandmother to Cambridge Springs on a grocery-shopping trip. He was supposed to drop off the vacuum cleaner at the repair shop. Not only did he drop it off, but he also dropped out of sight for two or three weeks. That's what could happen when Uncle Earl went to to town.