Riding with Uncle Jim

 

When Uncle Jim was born his older brother looked at him & shook his head saying “Druther had a goat”, and there were many times all thru Jim’s long life that the rest of his family felt like he got one. His closest sister, closest by virtue of having lived longer than the others, observed of her brother “… he’s the homeliest man I’ve ever seen… but he carries himself well.”

And carry himself well he did, in a 1947 Chrysler, long past the year of our Lord 1947, or ’57 for that matter. Cousin Carolyn used to let us know Uncle Jim would be picking her up to go to the store in his car “…with the lacework floor.” We kids thought it was fascinating to be able to look down at the floor and see the road going by, and we were fortunate enough to get to ride in it to school every rainy day. I never did know how Uncle Jim could figure out from his home in the next little town, with no phone calls having been made (in those days something actually had to be happening to qualify for a phone call. Perhaps if the rain had been a hurricane…*) that we were going to arrive at school looking like a bunch of drowned rats if we didn’t have a driver. Anyway, he would signal to turn in our drive and pull up at the house on his way to work at the Post Office, have a swallow of coffee time permitting, then drive us slowly and with great dignity the five city blocks to school, signal blinker still flashing the entire way and water splashing merrily up thru the lacework floorboards.

We didn’t get rides home. U. J. was still at work, and anyhow, it was okay to get home looking like a drowned rat…

 

Once in a while, for one reason or another, we’d ride in Uncle Jim’s car in nice weather, and that was when travel with him became hazardous. In nice weather we weren’t just avoiding rain, we were Going Somewhere, windows rolled down, usually on the open highway at 45 mph or (gasp) more. Under these conditions, the person sitting behind Jim had to be the fastest & most agile of the passengers, because every now and then, without any warning at all, Jim would rear back and spit right out the window and yes, into the wind. Today, thanks to Jim Croce, we all know not to tug on Superman’s cape or spit into the wind; but to Croce-deprived generations, it was all in being vigilant and quick to duck.

I have mentioned this to lots of my peers over the years, and have concluded that a whole generation of us was traumatized by that first generation of tobacco spitting drivers. I expect it made us better than most at ducking & dodging (good training for the politically bent)… and also quick to get dibs on the front passenger seat; but I can’t help but wonder about the rest of the story. When air-conditioned vehicles became the norm, did that whole generation of trauma-inducers become the traumatized? Did they just haul off & spit anyway, as they were wont to do, only to discover the window was rolled shut? I like to think so…

 

*Or if Lawrence Welk was on TV. Jim always called us for that, and four out of five of us would emit a collective groan.

 

Much of the lacework in Uncle Jim’s car can be attributed to his love for taking it “down the Beach”. In the late forties & fifties it was possible (and legal) to drive from Virginia Beach to Nag’s Head, time & tides permitting, and if they didn’t permit, an overnight stay at the Little Island Coast Guard Station was in order. Uncle Jim seemed to know every one of the coast guardsmen. Once he took the old Chrysler all the way to Ocracoke, telling the family he’d been 75 miles down the beach and 150 miles up and down bouncing over the dunes. He always loved visiting the folks of Knotts Island, who had their own delightful dialect, one piece of which I have clung to as being so descriptive of a particular kind of soul that it just can’t be outdone… that is, describing a hateful person as “… meaner i’God than a striped snake.” , and that’s striped with the full two syllables. Could you get meaner than that?