Sunday, December 24, 2006

Red toy car

One of my earliest Christmas memories is playing with a red and white toy car. It was a 1958 Ford convertible that the top went up and down on as you rolled it across the floor. My Uncle Burt had given one each to my brother John and I.

Burt was my mother’s brother. He came up from Connecticut every weekend to spend the weekends with us, as well as holidays. He was divorced and I think had pretty limited access to his 2 sons, who he adored. The visiting arrangement was not one I think my father was very happy with. In later years talking with my mother, she told me of how as children, Burt who was older than her had always looked out for her, so as adults she felt she had to look out for him.

Burt had served in WWII as a radioman on a bomber. He had been stationed in England and flew some impossible number of missions over Germany. One night he was pulled off of duty because he had a cold that was affecting his middle ear. If you fly in a marginally pressurized airplane you can’t expect to be able to hear if your Eustachian tubes are blocked. That night the crew he had flown with every mission was lost over Germany. My mom said after that he was never the same.

According to my mother, before the war Burt had been “full if the devil”. He was someone always ready to go out dancing and have a good time, funny and with a wicked sense of humor and always ready for a joke. I would not have recognized this man. My Uncle Burt was to be succinct a bit nuts. He was so full of tics and rituals that it is a miracle that he ever made it through a day. Among the childhood memories my brothers and I share are Uncle Burt hogging the bathroom while we were hopping outside the bathroom door in desperate need of relief. He had the same toothbrush for years. “The bristles on new toothbrushes are too stiff. They’ll just wear the enamel right off your teeth, this one I have broken in just right.” Once when Mike and I were in the kitchen peeling oranges he came in and flew into a panic. “Always use a spoon to peel an orange! They are just full of acid and if it gets under your nails it will just eat it’s way right down to the bone!” He was as eccentric as a cage full of monkeys on hard drugs, and yet an incredibly kind man and he loved us. I think if he were diagnosed now, he would be described as suffering from PTSD and obsessive compulsive disorder. Back in the 60’s he was merely nutty. Among Burt’s obsessions were, an encyclopedic knowledge of every automobile ever manufactured by Ford Motor Company, the big bands and Gilbert & Sullivan operas. In short he was the perfect uncle for a young homo.

In a lot of ways Uncle Burt was my savior. My father loathed me as a child. I was not a real little boy. I liked to read, draw and watch movies My interest in wildlife was to study it or try and draw it, not blast it off the landscape with a gun. I was more interested in the musicals of the golden age of Hollywood than any sports. Probably the only male interest I had as a kid was automobiles which fascinated me, but since my old man didn’t share that obsession, it didn’t count. All in all I was a thorough sissy, which ultimately resulted in my serving the purpose of emotional and physical punching bag for the old man. Dad was an alcoholic and a bully. If he spotted a weakness, he would exploit it. His idea of a joke was to expose you to something which terrified you and then laugh at your reaction. If you didn’t think it was the funniest thing in the world you had no sense of humor, and if you continued to be frightened, you were just a big sissy. Either way, he became angry with you and it was your fault for making him angry. I managed to earn regular thrashings over the years in this way. I know that a lot of kids that grow up like this spend their entire childhood trying to win the love and approval of this kind of father. I don’t know if I had a shallower learning curve than most, but by the time I was 11, I hated my father as much as he hated me and spent the next 7 years of my life trying to avoid contact with him as much as possible. The fact that avoidance was an option became clear to me because of the boat.

One of my father’s friends had a boat that he kept all summer at the lake. He gave Dad the keys and permission with the boathouse so that the old man could use the boat any time he wanted when Mr. Bran was not using it. So every weekend during the summer we would go out in the boat. I hated it. I am still not comfortable around water. It probably goes back to the time that my older sister pushed me off a diving board and if my cousin Buster hadn’t pulled me out, I probably would have drowned. I am not a strong swimmer and tend to sink like a rock rather than float. Whatever the reason, I, did not then and to this day, do not like being on the water. But as I was saying, after downing a 6 pack, the old man would load the family into the car and off to the lake we went, and then Mom, my brothers, more beer and I would get into the boat for a relaxing afternoon of my father attempting daredevil stunts with the boat and me clinging face down to the deck whimpering and on occasion screaming. Among his favorite things was on days when the lake was rough, to turn into the waves and gun the boat eventually getting it to skip from crest to crest. Then the cycle would begin. Having reduced me to near pant wetting terror because he found it so funny, he would then become infuriated with my cowardice. Finally, my mother couldn’t stand the conflicts any longer and she made arrangements for me to be dropped off with grandma while they went off to the lake.

Around 1962, Uncle Burt bought a house about a mile away from us. He moved my much loved grandmother and my very scary town drunk of a grandfather into it and after that, continued to come back to Vermont from Connecticut every weekend, but now to his house, though at least for us kids it was never Uncle Burt’s house it was Grandma’s. From then on after the mandatory 6 pack, the rest of the family went off to the lake, and I was dropped off at Grandma’s. Those were quiet Sundays, and I remember Grandma having me read poetry aloud from her collection of books in her little bookcase, but what I also remember was Uncle Burt taking me up to his room where he had his stereo and playing music for me. Why I am not now an expert on the bands of the 40’s I don’t know. I heard more Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bennie Goodman and Glenn Miller than probably anyone born after the end of the Second World War. If that portion of my childhood had a sound track, it would feature “String of Pearls”. He was always buying more music, adding to what in the end was an incredible collection of the music from that era. Now in case some of you are slow on the uptake, my Uncle Burt was a closet case. If you are waiting to hear a lurid tale about how he took advantage of my youth and innocence you are only setting yourself up for disappointment. Burt’s tragedy was perhaps even sadder in it’s own lonely way. He was, I think, so repressed that he completely sublimated any sexuality he had and put all of that pent up energy into his obsessions. In a way, while we were small children it gave him some means of communication, because he was one of those people who knew how to talk to little kids. If he provided a safe haven for me, then we boys gave him some hold on the world, a human contact that most people have with other adults in a harsh real world. Burt lived in a world of his own construction and it hadn’t changed since he had gone dancing with his little sister and his friends to the big bands playing at the Casino out on the lake before the war.

Time however marches on, and the 60’s steamrolled over us all. The ramifications of assassinations, the Viet Nam war, and social upheaval were felt everywhere, even in our sleepy little part of the world. Adolescence hit the Pelletier boys at the same time and if the world seemed to be going up in flames our family also was in an upheaval that none of us survived unscathed. Uncle Burt was good with small kids, but was clueless about teenagers, and had no insight into how to deal with the churning emotions that make up that transition in a persons life. So it was that we started to grow apart. And so it was that Burt began to retreat more into himself. Then his younger son was drafted, shipped off to Viet Nam and returned home a heroin addict. Burt didn’t have the emotional equipment to deal effectively with the crisis but he tried. His older son, always a bit of an emotional basket case, started to turn into a pale and even sadder form of his father. So his children slowly at first, then quickly and deliberately began to drift away from him. Burt’s reaction was to become even more obsessive and for lack of a better word crazy. I somehow made it through the 4 years that was a combination of bullying and boredom that was high school. I went to college for a year, dropped out and moved to Boston. As I began to bloom in more fertile new ground, Burt went into a downward spiral. The drug addict son kicked his addiction, found Jesus and excluded his father from his life. The other son went on his way, only maintaining contact with his father when he needed financial assistance.

In those sad years my mother fell into more and more of a role as caretaker of Burt. Things finally reached their nadir when my mother received a call from a mental institution in Connecticut. Burt who had become increasingly erratic had been sending letters to his boss. They were as it turned out odd and rambling, but the boss had found them threatening. I am not entirely sure about the content of these missives but whatever they contained they got Burt dismissed from his job. Burt then sent the boss a letter telling him he would be coming to settle matters. Whatever was in the letter, it was enough to convince the police that they would be there to meet Burt when he arrived and take him off to the booby hatch. So it was that Mom got a call from Burt, telling her where he was. It took a few phone calls and some threats on my mothers part with legal action to get Burt sprung. The situation was further hampered because Burt was determined to stay put until he convinced the doctors that he was not disturbed. If ever the adage that a lawyer who represents himself has fool for a client was applicable this would be an outstanding example. I have to hand it to Mom, she got him out and that was the beginning of Burt’s retirement. After that he moved to Vermont premanently and began life driving my poor grandmother crazy on a full time basis.

After that things quieted down a lot for Uncle Burt. He spent more time with his siblings, and his cars, and fretting about his health and everyone else’s, dispensing crazy advice and making pronouncements on the best way to treat or avoid illness. Grandma went into the hospital to be operated on for stomach cancer, had a stroke after the surgery and never went home. After she died, the house, which I think Burt kept against the day when he hoped his mother would return, began to seem too big. He sold the house and moved to a retirement community which had been developed only about a 10 minute walk from my parents and he would come to visit even more frequently to advise my mother on the error of her ways, which was anything that she happened to be doing at the time that Burt felt with his greater experience of the world, she could be doing in a manner more acceptable to him. It drove Mom sort of crazy, but she also would laugh about it. His ideas and rules had developed into such an arcane fetish, that there was no way to take offense, or at least to stay angry for too long. Then Burt, who had never drunk or smoked developed stomach cancer. He had one surgery, and then another. During the ordeal Burt remained the same. As his illness progressed he developed theories about the accuracy of his diagnosis, his treatment and whether his own cures which he developed by a means and reference known only to him would be more efficacious than anything medical science had developed. It was a cruel death after such a hard an unhappy life. As the disease reached it’s late stages Burt started to waste away and became even more difficult. My mother, never the most patient of people somehow managed to maintain her patience with Burt. Selfish as Mom can be, she truly loved her brother and he was probably one of the few people she has ever allowed herself to be close to and she at the end was all he had left.

When he died the funeral arrangements and burial were left to my mother. His sons came, cleaned out his place and left, and that was the end of Burt. My mother is now the only one left in her family and I think it has turned out to be as lonely of a life for her now as it had been for Burt. I rarely go to visit, though when I do more often than not we will talk about Uncle Burt. If Mom is having a good day, the conversation will turn to when they were young and what they did. How they would get into and out of trouble and it will be all sunny summer days in a world of radio programs and boys who wore short pants and Christmas trees that had real candles on them.

As for me, every Christmas I think of this man who must have struggled every day to get on in a hostile world, but who was able to give me a red toy car which after nearly 50 years I still remember with such joy and who for a while anyway provided me with a safe place to be.