Sometimes it’s when I smell gun oil, or when I watch my daughter skillfully handle her pony as she leads him along the wooded path above her grandparent’s pond, or when the forest slowly comes to life as the dawn creeps in during the first day of deer season.
Uncle Frank married my aunt Peg – my mom’s sister. He was the most masculine man I’ve ever known. His house had what seemed like endless land around it. It was the abode of big, friendly dogs with names like Laddie and Rags who could do tricks and seemed as wonderful and heroic as any TV canine. Animals who were missed and remembered with headstones made of rocks when they were gone.
There was a mounted deer head on the wall of the living room, but never talk of killing for killings sake. The deer would wear a red nose during Christmas. He wasn’t a nameless trophy. He was part of the family.
Uncle Frank’s basement was dimly lit but too mysterious to avoid. It had barbells and the metal spring contraptions that men used back in the day as exercise equipment, left by my older cousins. Try as I might, I never could budge the weights or make the springs stretch. Boxes of treasures were in every corner. They contained the odd toy soldier, plastic horses, cowboys and a miniature stage-coach with a missing door.
I remember uncle Frank smiling down at me, his eyes shining behind his black-rimmed glasses, looking wide and strong in his white t-shirt as he stood in front of his grill. I was a scrawny, spoiled, kid of six who had a vivacious mom, bookish father and two older sisters who were endlessly patient with me. I was a picky eater but I can still taste the hunks of raw hot dog Uncle Frank would slip to me when nobody was looking. If uncle Frank offered it, it had to be good.
I’m sure I pestered and pestered and pestered my parents, but one day Uncle Frank took me hunting. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. What he did was take me for a long walk in the woods near his home, just the two of us.
Since we were “hunting” I wanted to carry a gun. Likely I whined about that, too. I was that kind of kid.
He handed me an ancient cap-pistol. Not a revolver, cowboy-type, shooting iron, but a sleek metal gun, a stubby 1911 style pistol that you might see on the hip of a soldier on the TV show Combat. One of the grip covers pivoted. You could shift it and put in a roll of caps. It was silver but that might have been because all the paint had worn off years ago after endless hours of play.
I had seen plenty of cap guns. I had a small arsenal of faux weapons that would make many of today’s parents cringe. It never occurred to me to call the weapon offered to me a fake. Uncle Frank handed it to me. It was a gun as far as I was concerned. I stuffed it in my pocket as best I could, feeling very grown up, and followed him into the wilderness.
I trailed him into the shadowy, cool of the woods. It seemed we walked a long way but likely it was a short jaunt. I could see my uncle Frank ahead of me, moving with the surety that comes with decades spent outdoors. I lagged behind, small and more accustomed to watching Ultraman on TV than actual hikes. He never hurried me, but he never coddled me either.
He led me further into the forest. I followed.
I was never concerned he was too far ahead or I was too far behind. Though I loved heroes and stories of adventure, I was easily spooked. But I was with Uncle Frank – fear never entered the equation.
I don’t think he was a tall man but to me he seemed like a giant as he walked through the high grass in an open field we came across. The grass seemed like a jungle to me but I could see Uncle Frank ahead of me as the sun started to go down, turning the grass golden, as he waded through grass like a man moving into the surf.
I can still see him.
Sometimes I wonder who I’ll see first when I get to the other side.
I figure it could be my mom waiting there, telling me the water for my tea is boiling. Or, maybe my father offering me a ride in one of those big tuna boat-sized cars he favored, the radio tuned to one of his favorite stations, likely Roberta Flack murmuring through the speakers.
Other times, I think I may see my old pal Ed, a friend from my first days in the Society for Creative Anachronism. It’ll be a perfect spring morning and he’ll be in that Japanese armor of his that made him sound like a wind-chime when he walked. He’ll grin, ask me what took me so long, and toss me a duffel bag stuffed with gear and tell me to armour up.
More and more, I think it will be Uncle Frank I see first when I get to Heaven.
He’ll be there, his dark hair gleaming, his glasses sparkling, filling out a white t-shirt that never gets dingy.
If God is good, and He is, Uncle Frank will hand me an old cap pistol. I’ll stuff it in my pocket.
We’ll stroll through cool woods and gleaming fields, side by side.
I’ll tell him about my wife and how Aunt Peg was clearly amazed at how beautiful and charming she was when they first met. Like I might have kidnapped her or something.
I’ll tell him about my daughter, how she’s so capable, and kind. That she loves animals, is a good friend, and a keen shot.
And I’ll tell him thanks for that walk long ago and that I hope I made him proud.