Uncle Mike MemoriesUncle Mike has been gone for months now, and still I think of him often. I've been meaning to record my thoughts and memories of him, especially the important ones, and now that I have a place to display them, here they are. I was gone from Michigan more than I was there, so my recollections are disjointed and scattered. Because of the fleeting nature of my memories, this tribute will be a kind of stream-of-consciousness.
Probably my earliest memory of Uncle Mike takes place in Birch Run. It was when he and Aunt Nan got married. I don’t know the exact date, but I must have been 9 or 10 years old, so I would place the timeframe around 1966, give or take a year or two. The wedding and all the post-wedding fun took place (at least in my memory), first at the old Sacred Heart Catholic Church, now destroyed, but still standing in my mind. The wedding seems like any other, but the post wedding shenanigans at Aunt Nan’s parent’s house was really cool to the little guy I was back then. I couldn’t believe grownups could be so lively and childish! They put saran wrap and Vaseline over the young couple’s toilet; they strung the obligatory cans off the rear bumper of the newlywed’s car along with the “Just Married!” sign; and the men grabbed Uncle Mike and rolled him down the Bell’s long sidewalk and then along the street in a red wheelbarrow. I guess that crazy tradition comes from our Irish roots. Later, from 1971 until 1975, I delivered newspapers to the Bell’s, and everyday, riding my 3-speed down their sidewalk, I was reminded of Uncle Mike’s zigzagging wheelbarrow ride. He took it good-naturedly, and I still see his big grin as he joyously enjoyed being the butt of the festivities.
When I was in high school, I began a short-lived interest in chess. I read every book in the school library on the game, and played solitary matches to try out the various methods and strategies I learned in the books. One afternoon, we visited Uncle Mike and Aunt Nan. Uncle Mike had a chessboard out, and he asked me if I wanted to play. He didn’t know how immersed I was on the subject and I didn’t tell him. We settled into our game. I proceeded to win, and about as quickly as one can in chess. He hid his emotions like he tended to, but I sensed his tenseness. Immediately, he set the pieces up for another game. In short order I beat him again, and again, and again. I was 15 years old or so, and I was an insensitive jerk (just ask my sister). I should have let him win, at least once, but I didn’t know how to lose on purpose. That sort of virtuous deceit wasn’t in me yet. I don’t know how many games I won, but it got very late, and still I beat him, and easily. Even when I tried to play sloppily I couldn’t lose. Uncle Mike had an intensity about him that would not let him quit. I think he was determined to find the key so he could win at least one game, but it was not to be. Finally, my mom insisted that it was late and we had to go. I never played him again after that, and I’m not sure he ever forgave me. I wish like crazy that I had thrown a game, but I was just as stubborn as he was. Unfortunately, Spear’s hate to lose too! I feel terrible about it to this day.
Another “Uncle Mike moment” stays with me. We had just returned from Turkey and we were staying with Grandma and Uncle Bill. It was early in 1971; the war in Vietnam was still raging. I had set up a desk and reading lamp under the stairs in the tiny sump pump room, and I could hear my dad and Uncle Mike clump down the stairs above me. They were talking about the war. They didn’t know I was in my tiny private “study” working on a school report, and I enjoyed being able to eavesdrop on the excited grownups as they argued. I don’t remember my dad’s side, except that it was more or less opposed to my uncle’s, but I vividly remember the passion and fear in Uncle Mike’s voice. My cousin, Little Mike, was just a tadpole back then, and Uncle Mike was worried about his young son’s future. He wanted his boy to grow up in a world where he didn’t have to worry about having to serve in a war that might kill or wound him. He was so impassioned and concerned for his boy, and I had never heard a grownup sound that way before. It was very touching, and affected me deeply. I remember that it made me determined to join the military so someone else’s boy wouldn’t have to. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but its true.
This is my fondest image of Uncle Mike: We had just driven up from San Antonio, Texas to Birch Run, Michigan in our VW camper; we were visiting Grandma and family before we were to head back overseas to Karamursel AFB, Turkey. Uncle Mike had agreed to watch Buster, our little brown dachshund, until we returned. Then, tragedy struck. Buster had a horrible epileptic fit and it was shattering. The fit happened during a party while we were all outside, playing horseshoes and whiffle ball. Buster was happily running around the yard when a horseshoe accidentally glanced off his head. I cringed as he yelped in surprise, and then the glancing blow seemed to set off his epilepsy. Or maybe he was already having a fit, and then wondered into horseshoe range and got beaned, regardless, his epileptic gyrations were horrible to watch for a young boy in love with his dog. When he came out of the seizure, he was so addled that he blindly charged into a chain link fence. He rebounded in terror and took off running, only to fall, then up into a staggering run, before tripping and falling again. In this agonizing fashion he took off across the bean field that used to spread off into the distance behind Grandma’s house. All the men went after him, everyone but me. I couldn’t bear to. My dad said he’d have to be put to sleep, and my knees were jellied after that. Finally, Buster was corralled and brought back to the house wrapped in a blanket. It was too dangerous to carry him; the little fella, normally sweet-natured and friendly, growled and snapped at anyone who came near. Then Uncle Mike spoke up: “It’s no problem, I’ll take care of him.” For a brief time, I took heart. At that moment, Uncle Mike was my hero! He saw my agony and sadness and wanted to ease my pain. I’ll always love him for that . Even though Buster was put down before we left, Uncle Mike was willing to take on an unpleasant task for family. I’ll forever treasure him for it.
I have many other recollections of my uncle, but I think I’ve captured his spirit and why I loved him with the few stories I’ve already put together. But I do recall a number of other moments, days, and exploits involving him. I recall the winter when he bought the big white Polaris snowmobiles and all the family adventures and “misadventures” those smoking, roaring monsters spawned. His passion for “toys” continued on with the purchase of his big lake boat. We had a wonderful day on Lake Huron when he invited our entire family out on the water. And finally, I remember how he worked his butt off for months on end, turning the ancient old farmhouse on Burt Road into an absolutely lovely home for his family. He and Aunt Nan stripped and tossed out every piece of original wall lathing, and shoveled out all the decades-old plaster and resulting dust. What a mess, but what results! Before he started, he knew virtually nothing about building and remodeling, but boy did he learn! He poured himself into that house like he poured himself into everything he did. One of my regrets is that I didn’t talk my parents into keeping the old front door my dad salvaged from Uncle Mike’s place. It was made of solid hard wood with handcarved scrollwork topped off with a translucent window. My dad showed me how to strip off the many layers of old paint, and then I sanded and varnished it to match the green walls of my bedroom, where it became MY door. I would love to have that 100 year-old door right now. It would be a nice way to remember my Uncle Mike. He’s gone, but no one truly leaves us as long as we cherish them. With that being so, Uncle Mike will be with us for a very long time to come.