The uncles are all dead. They were a hearty lot, the Paulsons. Lived into their nineties most of them, as did their sister, my mom. The last of them died recently and it got me thinking about my favorite, Uncle Harry, who passed on several years ago.
I lost my own dad when I was five. I probably know him best from family stories; sometimes I don’t know if my memories are of the stories told about him or are actually memories of him. My favorite story/memory is of us both sick, me in one bedroom and him across the hallway in another. My mom set up a series of mirrors opposite our beds reflecting off a common mirror in the hallway so that we could look at one another. My dad had these wonderful big ears. I remember him waving at me one morning, his ears seeming to hover around his head like a lopsided halo.
He died the next day.
And then, after we moved West, my Uncle Harry filled a bit of the void created by that loss. Harry’s life had been changed by an incident that was straight out of a magical realist’s novel. As a young man living on the Oregon coast, he was fond of his drink. He and friends would hop in jalopies and drive to Astoria, exchange drink for drink with the Finnish fishermen there, and then make their way back down the coast to Seaside. I do not find such behavior more acceptable simply because it was in the past, but the one thing in their favor was that there were far fewer cars on the roads then than now.
One inebriated night, my uncle and fellow revelers raided every flower stand between Astoria and Seaside. Awakening in the morning to a pounding in his temples and a mouth that tasted like a cat’s bottom, my uncle discovered his body covered in flowers from head to foot: a friendly prank from his posse.
Harry was a literalist. He sat bolt upright in his single bed, day lilies flying about the room like damp Roman candles.
“Jesus Christ, I’m dead!” he shouted loud enough to awaken same.
He never touched a drop of liquor after that night, but it did turn him into a very impatient man. “Gotta go,” was his usual tag line pronounced shortly after arriving at any social function.
Harry was made momentarily famous by a writer for the Saturday Evening Post who used his barber shop as the setting for a number of short stories. Harry’s shop was the clearing house for local gossip–a sort of informal men’s club with three chairs and a cavernous backroom which Harry had adapted as an indoor driving range–a surefire attraction on the wet Oregon coast.
By the time I came to Seaside, Harry’s shop had shrunk to a one-man show, but he still had the driving range in back. These were the years of the crew cut, and the fellows who came to Harry’s shop–my brother and me included out of family caveat–did not have much hair to cut. The men’s club was getting aged; I remember Harry passing those electric clippers about half an inch above the cowering stubble left atop some of these old timers.
They were there for what the Irish call good crack, and not for cosmetics.
The driving range was no accident. Harry was an inveterate golfer. He had one of the sweetest swings I’ve ever seen, and he taught that swing to me and my brother; one of his truly wonderful gifts. For a decade or so as a kid golf was everything to me–until a shank broke the fragile truce between me and my temper.
Harry would come over to our house on occasion, sometimes dragged there by his wife, at other times looking for someone to play nine holes with. He would get in the door, never sit, just prowl the precincts of the living room that was so cluttered with chairs and doodads that you would bark your shins as likely as not. And then he’d say it, the words we all knew were coming: