Uncle John

Uncle John Pierson was an incurable dreamer.

That was the heart of him. The rest of his character grew out of his fantasies as foisted on his fellow man, which meant that Uncle John had to keep moving to stay ahead of the growing posse of men and women who had set a bounty on his hapless hide. I say hapless instead of ornery because Uncle John wasn’t onerous out of ill intent. He meant well even when he wreaked havoc, which was most of the time.

Part of the problem was his charm. At first blush women loved him. He approached young and old with equal gallantry, and broke many a heart when they realized he was here today and gone tomorrow. Among men he mixed well. On those smalltown sidewalk Saturdays he could be courtly as a colonel to the promenading ladies, and then duck into the poolhall, take up a cue stick, and casually cuss with the best. And of course he always had a proposition, a little something for everyone, a side deal here and a big deal there. The war was on abroad, and although we weren’t in it yet, we were already feeling the pinch of shortages and hearing talk of rationing. If your lady didn’t like nylons, Uncle John could get her silk. In a dry county he knew the bootlegger, in a tight country the black market.

It was just such a spirit of shady enterprise that brought Uncle John into our lives early in 1941. You see, he didn’t belong to us by blood. He came home with Daddy from the poolhall one day. Daddy was all aglow with liquor and the likelihood that at last, after all the years of living from payday to payday, we were about to come into a small fortune. Daddy went directly to his closet and brought out his only inheritance – a fiddle from his father, a dull red jewel that grandfather had inherited from his father.

Grandpa Porterfield had been a stern and patriarchal fanner who thrashed and worked his kids when they were rambunctious. At dusk, however, when they were milk-sopped and subdued, he softened and played them ballads and jigs on the fiddle. Out of all the boys, Daddy had gotten the violin because he was the only one willing to learn the art. Now that his own squaredance-calling days were over, it lay in its case in the closet, gathering neglect. One day I had come home from school convinced that Grandpa’s fiddle was worth more than sentimental value. I had been reading in an encyclopedia about the great Italian violinmaker, Antonio Stradivari. Wasn’t that the name carved into the pegbox of Grandpa’s instrument? Daddy got it out. It was true! The paper inside matched the Stradivarius label that had been in the encyclopedia. A true Strad would, be worth thousands. Was it possible?

“I don’t know,” Daddy had said. “All I know is that Dad always said this fiddle was older’n he was.”

“Well let’s check her out,” I had urged, but Daddy squelched me quickly. “Don’t be crazy, boy! We can’t claim nuthin Eye-talian right now with old Mussolini joined up the way he is with Hitler and Hirohito.”

Daddy’s word was law. Still, none of us could resist, from time to time, bragging about our masterpiece. Apparently Daddy had given the full treatment to John Pierson at the poolhall. Now, looking back on it all, remembering the expression in John’s face when he took up the fiddle, perhaps it had been the other way around. For John Pierson was eloquent. We had a Stradivarius. No doubt about it! He looked at it as a connoisseur – lovingly, as though it were alive, a fine, long-lost friend. He ran his fingers along its lines, held it to the light and plucked its strings. He sniffed the varnish and tapped the wood, noting the detail of design. He explained to us why it was not an Amati or a Guarnerius or a Guadagnini or a Bergonzi and why it was not a copy. Beyond a doubt, a Strad! There were only 540 of them in the world. No telling what we could get if we handled it shrewdly, and of course, John was the man for the job, our agent as it were.

He tightened the strings, put the fiddle to his chin and drew the bow across the gut. Ah! The big warm tones. Unique to the master. He was almost tempted, he whispered, to play his own concerto upon it.

“Play,” he was urged. “Play a little of your own music.”

“No,” he sighed, “It has been so many years I forget Pierson. Beethoven I know better.”

He swung into what he said was the D Major concerto, but then stopped abruptly, for Daddy was on his feet hushing him.

“Don’t play no German music!” the old man shouted. “Good God, John, we’re just about at war with them!”

“I am very rusty,” John said impatiently, “so it’s just as well. I abuse both the work of the German and the instrument of the Italian.”

After that performance, John Pierson was the star boarder at our house. He stayed a week, fattening up on Mother’s cooking and drinking Daddy’s medicinal whiskey for his coughs. We all competed for him. Daddy wanted John to join him out in the boondocks on some drilling rig floor; John, of course, diplomatically declined. He did show up at school one afternoon, to my delight, when we were jock deep in P.E., and stunned us all by clearing the high jump at six feet. If we had had the Father and Son banquet then, I would have preferred Pierson to Pa, but that dilemma never presented itself. I did get him to cub scouts one afternoon, but most of the time he remained at home with Mother, helping with the meals and housework and fixing things around the place that Daddy hadn’t gotten around to. He trimmed the trees and repaired the washing machine wringer, all the while keeping Mother company. He gossiped with her in a way Daddy never did, complimented her every other minute, did her hair (of all things), and crowned the week by accompanying Mother and me to church, where he somehow convinced Brother Reid to take a respite while he, John Pierson, a pool-playing profane drifter, delivered the damndest sermon we had ever heard. It was in the form of a eulogy to his dear departed mother. He took the story of Sodom and Lot’s wife and transformed sodium chloride into a metaphor for Christian virtue. His mother, he said, was the salt of the earth. That was the highest accolade he could think of to bestow on a mortal Christian. Mrs. Pierson may not have been a saint, but who among us was? We were all frail, yea, below Jesus. But by God his mother was salty!

“Now if the Salt has lost its saving power,” he shouted, “it is good for nothing but to be cast out, trodden under the feet of men! But my mother was good Christian salt, and she did not lose her saving power.”

Every child of God was a lump of salt. Everytime you prayed, you salted somebody. Every song you sang, you salted someone. Every home you visited, you salted a sick one. Mrs. Pierson went all over her county sprinkling salt.

Now. Natural salt killed insects and snakes. Epsom salt killed infection. Spiritual salt, friends, spiritual salt killed sin! That was the message his mother was sending us from the grave. Get out and sprinkle a little salt on someone. He made it a sing-song. Sprinkle a little salt on someone. Brother Reid sang it. We all sang it. The churchhouse shook under our stamping feet, and in our hearts and above our hymning heads haloes shone.

Monday, Mother went down to the bank and borrowed a hundred dollars and gave it to John.

Daddy’s enthusiasm for John began to pale, and he said as much in a subdued, troubled way, but Mother wouldn’t hear it. She packed the old man off to work, and then, as she drove me to school, we dropped John out on the highway, suitcase in one hand and fiddlecase in the other. He would thumb his way to Chicago, where a Greek he knew would find a bigtime buyer to relieve us of the Stradivarius.

Uncle John never made it to Chicago. He sent periodic postcards from places like Earline’s Truck Stop in Evening Shade, Arkansas. That’s on Highway 167 between Bald Knob and Thayer. The reason I know is because Daddy traced it on the map, his big finger angry and shaking like a guy wire in the wind. He wanted John Pierson’s neck and he wanted his fiddle back. Mother never said a word, but I noticed she began putting extra sweets in Daddy’s lunch sack, and she took to rubbing his back at night. We got several cheery notes from Evening Shade because John had fallen in love with Earline. Daddy seemed to forgive him, and even laughed at his cards.

Next we heard from John that summer. He was back in Texas, without Earline, running Captain John’s Cowboy Village on Highway 71 between Smithville and La Grange, kind of a miniature frontier town tourist attraction. Well, knock off the last two words. Hardly any tourists were attracted. We drove to see him one Sunday. Mother and I thought his place was kind of cute. He had cigar store Indians grouped around some tin teepees, and he sat whittling in front of a Roy Bean-like shack, wearing an old cavalry uniform. He’d bought department store dummies and had dressed them up like cowboys and Lily Langtrys, and they were inside with what-nots he had for sale – the kind of junk you see now in Stuckey’s.

Daddy showed such a great interest in the merchandise that it was easy to tell he was searching for his fiddle.

But Pa never brought it up, I guess because he felt as sorry for Uncle John as Mother and me. John was only charging a dime to see the whole village, but nobody stopped that day. We sat out front sipping lemonade and listening to the bugs frying. We counted thousands. The sun was so hot it melted the asphalt in the road, and grasshoppers would stick in it and scald. John had a radio in the window and even the news was depressing.

FDR that very day had returned from a secret shipboard meeting in the North Atlantic with Winston Churchill, and the networks were full of war talk. No way we could stay out of it, Daddy guessed. Hell, the Germans occupied the Balkans, the Netherlands, most of Scandinavia, France, and now they were blitzing the British. The Japs were in the Pacific, most of China and Indochina, and aiming at the Philippines and the East Indies. We were all

up on our strategic geography in those days, but none of us would have dreamed that at that very moment Japanese aircraft carriers were being primed to sail boldly toward Pearl Harbor.

Mother shuddered and turned the dial to some music.

“Now the Rawlson is a Swedish town,

“The Rillerah is a stream,

“The brawla is the boy and girl,

“The Hut-Sut is their dream…”

“I’ll swan,” Mother sang through her nose. “I can’t for the life of me figure out what that means.”

“Some war code,” Uncle John said glumly.

Daddy scratched his head.

“I’ll tell you this,” Uncle John said emphatically, a new resolution stirring him. “I’m tired of watching grasshop-peradie out there on that sorry excuse for a highway.”

“There ain’t much traffic,” Daddy agreed.

“And what there is isn’t giving me the time of the day,” Uncle John went on. He shook his head and grinned. “It’s all going to Miss Jessie’s down there past the railroad trestle.”

“You talkin’ about the Chicken Ranch,” Daddy whispered, eyeing Mother to see if she was onto them, which she wasn’t.

“I could’ve sworn I saw the governor out there the other day,” John said.

“You mean Coke or Pappy?”

“Naw, not Coke. Pappy. Least it looked like him.”

It didn’t surprise me at all that the governor, or rather the ex-governor and new U.S. Senator from Texas, would be hanging around a chicken farm, if indeed Uncle John was right, which he probably wasn’t. But it made sense to my adolescent imagination. Wilbert Lee O’Daniel, or Pappy Lee as we called him, was the kind of country boy who was more at home among hayseeds than he was among the high-muckety-mucks that hung around the statehouse up the road in Austin. I could just see Pappy and the Light Crust Doughboys out at the Chicken Ranch, stroking their fiddles and selling Hillbilly Flour to beat the band, singing,

“Chicken in the breadpan, scratching up the dough, “Mama in the kitchen saying, ’No, child, no.’”

On the way home that night we crossed the Colorado River so many times I thought we were circling back on ourselves. Daddy grew glum in the gloom and now and then I would hear him stomp the floorboard of the Terra-plane Hudson and swear. He had let Uncle John off the hook on the whereabouts of Grandpa’s fiddle, and now it was haunting him. Someday, Daddy swore, he would settle with John, one way or the other. In the meantime, we were not to mention his name.

The old man’s resolve lasted little more than three months. December came with a double-barreled clout. First word came from the family farm in Oklahoma that Granny was dying, and so in spite of gas rationing and retread tires, Mother and Daddy took off for the badlands, leaving me behind to take the Continental Trailways to Uncle John’s for the holidays. He had given up on his cowboy village and was running a service station down at Sarita, which was one gas pump and four Mexican shacks on the highway between Kingsville and Raymondville, in deep south Texas.

It occurred to me as I got off the bus that Uncle John seemed to set himself at many a crossroads in life, but never at a crowded one. It was so quiet out there you could hear the highline wires humming all the way to the Mexican border. The Pierson Petroleum Company was the last gas stop for 89 miles, and it was 89 miles of lonesome country, nothing but mesquite and cactus and rattlesnakes and a thirsty cowpoke or trucker now and then.

Uncle John greeted me with the news that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese, and we hung by the radio until President Roosevelt declared war the next day. Granny hung on too, for dear life, and kept Mother and Daddy up in Oklahoma for what seemed like the duration. Uncle John enrolled me in the all-Mexican one-room school taught by Rosa Cardenas, and while I learned Spanish the country mobilized with a patriotic fervor.

There would be no siesta for Sarita as long as Major John Pierson guarded the homefront. He organized himself and the four Mexican families into what he thought was a crack civilian defense outfit, and every night went from door to door checking to see that the eight lights were dimmed and the sixteen curtains closed. He wore a hard hat with insignia and trained his eyes upon the skies for enemy aircraft. Why he thought anyone would bomb Sarita I can’t imagine, and what he and Jose and Jiminez and Jesus would have done about it is the fantasy of a fine comic novel I’ll never get around to writing. Suffice to say they went around saluting each other until the women were sick of it.

The trip to Granny’s bedside turned into a year’s vigil for my folks, with Daddy doing the farm chores and Mother nursing our matriarch. I lived for their letters and the Saturday Evening Post that came in the mail with the war news. The advertisements were as inspiring as the features, full of war fever and slogans, and old jingoist Uncle John loved them. He drove a Nash car, and the Nash Kel-vinator ads were so stirring, in a martial way, that Uncle John would stiffen and almost salute as we read them, “Peacetime makers of automobiles and refrigerators!. Now devoted 100 percent to the job of making America Supreme in the air.” Elsie the Borden Cow would say, “What’s a war without shortages?” and Uncle John would not take cream or sugar in his coffee. He drank R.C. Colas with a passion because they featured in their ads patriots on the homefront – women who were plane spotters, shoemakers who made boots for paratroopers. Surely, someday, the R.C. Cola man assured us, Uncle John would make the roll call. In the meantime, Uncle John gave special attention to Studebaker cars that came into the station, gave them a little extra service because “for the sixth time since 1852, Studebaker was supplying transports for the Armed Forces.”

Ma Bell was saying: “Please don’t call long distance this Christmas.”

“Stout-hearted, shot to hell, but heading home,” was the Bendix Aviation motto.

And the war plants urged their workers on with this cry. “A slow down may mean bare hands against bayonets!”

It was a strange time, when love and hate fought for possession of your heart. One general, I think it was McNair, was quoted as saying, “We must lust for battle; our object in life must be to kill. There need be no pangs of conscience, for our enemy has lighted the way to faster, surer, crueler killing.”

And then your heart would melt at something like General Electric’s Christmas message of ’42:

“Christmas is a light no war will dim. It glows in the heart of every man in the armed forces of the United States; it glows in the hearts of those who gather scrap, who use less sugar and coffee and tea and meat, who walk to save gasoline and tires, who keep on buying more war bonds.”

It was during the Fall of ’43 that Uncle John, in a cagey burst of patriotism, made a decision that would cost him and the Pierson Petroleum Company dearly. He decided to give a break on gas to all the boys in uniform, to sell any G.I. Joe or flyboy or whatever a fillup at cost during the month of March. Within the confines of Sarita it seemed a safe enough gesture for Uncle John to crow about. He figured to get a lot of mileage out of it. Hell, the nearest military installation we knew anything about was in Corpus Christi, 50 miles up the coast, and you never saw any of the sailors as far out in the brush as we were. Occasionally you’d see a youngster in uniform hitchhiking, but that was about it. Well, the first day Uncle John put his bargain boast on the line with a big banner, we had to hire Jesus La Parra to help pump gas. Military men seemed to come out of the chaparral faster than roadrunners. Stacked up ten cars deep in the driveway. Unbeknownst to us, Uncle Sam had slipped into Kingsville and had, almost overnight it seemed, thrown up a naval air station. To make matters worse, some of the ROTC boys out of A&I College were suiting up to make the run our way. Uncle John could not go back on his word; he had made too much of it. For a month he had to siphon out 6000 gallons of gasoline to 600 servicemen without ringing up a penny of profit. It amounted to a loss of more than $1000, not counting the piddling amount he paid Jesus for his help that month. In a marginal operation like the Pierson Petroleum Company, such a loss seemed insurmountable. Uncle John had to act decisively, and he did.

Aside from a good rain and a cold beer, he figured what that country most wanted was a good-looking, traffic-stopping woman who would take on all comers. One day he went to San Antonio and came back with Ya Ya del Barrio. She was a sexy little thing, especially within the context of Kenedy County. Uncle John put her up in a pink little shack behind a board fence behind the gas station, and pretty soon the airmen and the college boys from Kingsville were wearing ruts all around the place. It was late in the spring, after the rains when the Christweeds were wet with their bloody blooms, before the word worked itself up to Oklahoma and Mother. I’m guessing it was my teacher, Miz Cardenas, who saved me from sin. All I knew was that one day I was on the bus to Oklahoma, where the mention of Uncle John’s name was a crime.

Daddy told me later that Uncle John had gone out of business in Sarita and had been transferred to Huntsville. Of course, I knew that Huntsville was home of the state prison. And I worried a while. But then I forgot John. After all, puberty was launching a pimply and full-scaled assault on my adolescence, just about the time the war in Europe and Asia was winding down. Granny survived – still survives! – and we finally got back to Texas.

Then one day a letter came from the prison. Uncle John was dead. He had gotten the October flu while announcing at the prison rodeo, and it had developed into pneumonia. He had scribbled a last note to my dad. It went:

“Tice, the collector who has your fiddle is John Cokinis on State Street in Chicago. He’s holding it in your name, having tried to sell it all these years. You can get it back by writing him. It looks like he isn’t having much luck selling it. I’m not having much luck myself. Good fortune to you and Janavee and Billy Mack, and remember me kindly, if you can.

Affectionately, John.”

Daddy wrote for the fiddle and got it back, in better shape than it had been before. Cokinis apparently had kept it oiled and tuned all that time. Now Daddy put it back in the closet to remain silent and gather dust.

I grew up, somewhat, and became a newspaperman, and found myself, 17 years later, working in Chicago for the Daily News. One afternoon I looked up John’ Cokinis. State Street was not stately where the old Greek kept his shop. You would expect to find Maria Lott, the storefront Masseuse, or the House of Crazy Tacos there, but what concertmaster in his right mind would go shopping in Cokinis’s for a Stradivarius? The truth was that not many had, and that was why John lived in the back and counted his pennies and ruefully admitted that his fiddles, which he had spent a lifetime collecting, had become a bittersweet burden.

“It is a great irony, no?” he said. “Here I have a treasure in Italian masterpieces-12 Stradivarius, three Guarnerius, a Guadagnini, two Bergonzi – about 30 rare violins in all, worth perhaps $200,000 – and I can’t sell them. I have to repair cheap fiddles and sell guitars to pay the rent.”

He reached into the safe and brought out a fiddlecase. He opened it carefully, as if it were a delicate hope chest. Then, from a bed of faded blue velvet, he lifted out the instrument and held it to the light.

“This is a Stradivarius,” he said reverently. “Notice the golden yellow of the wood, the lovely grace of its lines. Very old this, and listen to it sing!”

He bowed the strings.

“You hear? The big warm tones? Unique to the master!”

“Play,” I urged him. “Play something.”

“My concerto?” he asked.

“Yours? Of course, yours!”

“Ah,” he sighed, “It has been so many years I forget Cokinis. Beethoven I know better.”

He swung into the D Major concerto, but stopped.

“I am very rusty,” he said impatiently. “I abuse both the work of the German and the instrument of the Italian.”

I smiled, remembering the other John, and left.


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