Uncle Oakley

Uncle Oakley

 

 

Johnny is a joker (he’s a bird)

A very funny joker (he’s a bird)

But when he jokes my honey (he’s a dog)

His jokin’ ain’t so funny (what a dog)

Johnny is a joker that’s a tryin’ to steal my baby (he’s a bird dog)

Hey bird dog, keep away from my quail.

Hey bird dog, you’re on the wrong trail.

Bird dog, you better find a chicken little of your own.

(The Everly Brothers)

 

 

My mother’s sister Pauline was also addicted to weekly hair frying rituals at the beauty shop, consequently suffering the same chronic results wreaked on my mother’s follicles. At some ill-defined point in their lives, with the single exception of a considerable weight differential, they began to look like the fried-hair twins.

Pauline, or Polly, who lived in Richmond, Virginia, was married to a man named Oakley Oran. He was born in West Virginia and had become a Pharmacist. Oakley had moved to Virginia, but in his heart and soul was still a good old West Virginia boy, while in his yet bigger heart and soul, was a good old true blue son of the South. I never knew why none of the adults ever called him Oakley or Oak but always referred to him rather as ‘Vaughan’, which in fact was his last name.

He met Polly at the same military base where my parents met and because they double dated the sisters, my father and Vaughan became good friends. This kinship was helped considerably by the fact that the two men shared the same passion for the game of golf that they could enjoy while the women stayed home and gossiped.

When I was a child I could not pronounce his name after which my adulterated moniker, “Uncle Oaps,” then became an identity that stuck to him for the rest of his life. The adults called him Vaughan and the children called him “Oaps.” Oak and Polly eventually had two children, Shirley and Byron.

Oakley was one of the most naturally funny men I have ever met and I always eagerly anticipated our annual visits to see him. He saw humor in everything, joked constantly and hardly ever lost his temper, which was in sharp contrast to his puritanically humorless wife. He had a passion for hunting and fishing, owned and trained his own bird dogs, as well as a thirty-six foot cabin cruiser, which he kept at a dock in Norfolk. Also being a great history buff, he specialized in the history of the Civil War, or at least his version of it, with his favorite General being P.G.T. Beauregard.

Beauregard was the man who had helped defend Richmond in the early days of the contest and when he spoke of him, Oakley would drag out the pronunciation of the name, which resulted in a lengthy drawling:

  • The great General Pee Tee Gee Beau—Ree—Guard.

Whenever we visited in Richmond, Uncle Oak would take Byron, me and my brother down to the boat for a weekend of fishing. These trips were my first ever bachelor adventures which allowed the three of us to delight in leaving our mothers behind along with their numerous house rules and my cousin Shirley with her numerous dolls and her all too numerous Cootie bugs.

Oakley too, was one of those die hard southerners who believed the South would have been a lot better off without the North and still regretted the tragic loss of the Civil War. On the hundred mile trip down to the boat from Richmond to Norfolk we would get a running commentary about the battles or battlefields of Virginia always with just a little pinch of Southern bias thrown in for good measure along with a few good curses about’ them damn Yankees.’ He did say, however, that my brother and I were an exception to that rule because we were only “half Yankees.”

The fishing trips were great, including the added feature of simply loitering around the docks along with other ‘boat people’, then to live and sleep on the boat. The atmosphere was peacefully laid back with the best part being that we did not have to be neat, we did not have to take baths, and we did not have to follow the ordinary and every day rules of maternally expected behavior. In fact Oakley said that if anyone had ever wanted to spend a weekend on the boat, he had better expect everyone else who came with him to be on the best of “fartin’ terms.”

For us, we were just little boys being big men doing big men’s stuff.

However there was a small price to pay for it every now and then. For example if we asked for pancakes, Uncle Oak would just drop the entire batch of batter into the frying pan, literally making one giant cake, which he then hacked into four pieces before he served it. Flipping this giant wad of batter always presented a problem, which usually made the concoction come out like it had been thrown around the room or scraped off the floor. Dismissively ignoring any and all complaints, the chef said we were lucky to have anything to eat at all, and who cared what it looked like because it still tasted like it should.

Then every morning as we set off in search of fish, Oakley would sit in the flying bridge atop his yacht, and every time as we put out to sea while simply being happy to be away from the grinding drudge of the pharmacy, without fail would then turn around, look down on the deck below to bark out:

  • Well boys. I wonder what the poor people are doin’ today.

We would then spend the day on long excursions cruising around the Chesapeake Bay in search of fish. Although I do not remember ever being too successful at it, the day would frequently be punctuated with screams of “Birds, birds” or “Blues, blues” or “Fish, fish,” coming from the top deck as Ahab Vaughan plied the waves chasing both real and imaginary pelagic species while periodically making us set out our trolling lines in areas he thought to be promising. Most of the time; however we never even caught a single fish.

On occasion he would change tactics for a try at catching a Cobia near a partially sunk wreck that the Air Force was using for bombing and strafing practice. As he pulled the boat near the wreck, he would always tell us about what a great fighting fish the Cobia was or about the proverbial big one that got away when no one else was there as an eye witness. While he put the boat near the wreck to idle the engine, he would direct us to be on the lookout for Air Force fighter jets. If we then saw anything potentially menacing, we would shout out so he could properly ‘skedaddle’ while always being cajoled not to ever tell our mothers we were fishing in restricted military live fire zones.

On any particularly bad fishing day, we would reel in the lines and motor over to the Maryland side of the Chesapeake to get some fresh crabs at a local dockside restaurant. Because he craved fresh Maryland crabs, and no matter that it took the entire day to get there and back, the culinary reward usually made up for the lack of a fresh catch making it well worth the time.

While cruising back to the dock late in the day he would never fail to look at the flagpole to predictably announce cocktail hour by asking the pre-prompted query:

  • Hey boys. The sun is just going down over the yardarm. And you know what that means
  • Yes sir, Captain Oak. It must be time to splice the main brace. How many fingers of rum should we pour?
  • Make it bourbon today, boys. Some good old fashioned Tennessee bourbon whiskey. Have a shot yourselves and grow some hair on your balls.

Since we were away from our mothers, we could regress to levels of vulgarity that would ordinarily be punished at home. We took particular delight in trying to make loud farts, because we knew that every time he heard one, Uncle Oak would shout out: ”Twenty-twenty. English Bummy,” which would make all of us laugh hysterically at its absurd predictability.

He explained that he had learned this phrase in the war from the British soldiers and that it was applied as the appropriate response one man makes to another when the latter creates an absolutely perfect noise with his flapping butt cheeks: A twenty-twenty perfect fart.

Addressing another vulgar habit we had of peeing outside or peeing overboard, Oak never tired of telling us the potential hazard of exposing ourselves in public by repeatedly recounting one of his favorite jokes. His method of scolding was infinitely more entertaining than what we would potentially get at home.

  • Boys, did I ever tell you about the man who had to pee while he was driving down the highway so he pulled over to a roadside billboard and tryin’ to hide what he was doing, stuck his tally-whacker through a hole in the sign. A Hobo, sleeping on the other side of the sign was shocked awake by the shower and screamed, “Snake. Snake;” just before he jumped up and whacked the man’s pud with a baseball bat. “Hit him again. Hit him again” the peeing man said. “I think he just bit me.”

Wherever we went or whatever we did, Oakley was enormously generous about buying us things. This was particularly true when we visited his Pharmacy, which was the old-fashioned style drug store that stocked toys, nick-knacks, and model airplanes; while also featuring a soda fountain with a short order hamburger grill. We would load up on Cokes and burgers, and then head out the door carrying a new model to build while he yelled out after us from behind the pharmacy window:

  • I don’t know why I let y’all boys come in here anyway. Y’all eat faster than Grant went though Richmond, then all you do is pluck me like a goose and watch my feathers fly.

He always said it with a big grin on his face as we happily scampered, guilt free, to the car with the loot. I never did go bird hunting with him, because I was too young, but did come to learn a lot from him about dogs and how to love and care for animals. He usually had at least two bird dogs at any one time, which he kept in pens behind his house. He trained them, exercised them, loved them to death such that by osmosis that I came to learn something about the fine art and sport of bird hunting.

These dogs fall into the three categories of Pointer, Setter, or Retriever obviously being named after the job they perform in the field. Most people forget that thousands of years of breeding and training are the result of what one sees in the modern day finished product known as the “show-dog,” but not that the original purpose of the dog breeding exercise was to put the animals through a beauty contest to win medals, but was rather intended to actually expedite and to assist human survival.

More importantly is the fact that the dogs are bred to do these jobs and solely exist for the days they can get out into the field and work. At one time Oakley had a beautiful setter named Bonnie, a sweet, gentle animal, and a real favorite who broke his heart when she died. He was so fond of her he had her portrait done which he hung it over his fireplace mantle: a painting that was a far more palatably genteel living room decoration than was the roving, judgmental, and all seeing eyes of the spy-cam portrait of my father’s sister Rose.

There was only one dog he ever really gave up on; a pointer named Lucky. Excessive in-breeding made the dog un-trainable, uncontrollable, and refractory to education to the point that Oakley eventually had to give him away. Every time Oak would go in the back of the house to hose down Lucky’s pen he would predictably carbon copy state:

  • That Lucky dog is just plain crazy. All he’s good for is eatin’ and poopin’. And I ain’t never seen a damn dog like him that ever’ damn day of his life can eat a quart then poop a peck.

He kept his bird rifles around the house, was a great advocate of gun care, gun safety and wild life conservation, never killing a bird he did not clean or dress out in the field, and then bring home to eat. Of course, Aunt Polly would certainly rather fry a chicken than to bake wild Quail which subsequently subjected everyone to the risk of losing a filling or cracking a tooth on a crunchy bite of buck shot left inside the bird.  She also deplored the gamy rangy taste of the birds and the fact that by the time one was actually cooked it was nothing but skin and bones.

Nevertheless Uncle Oakley loved to take his hunting expeditions to the great conclusive finish line of the stove-pot, the oven and then to the dining room table. 

One Sunday afternoon when he’d had perhaps one too many Wild Turkey Bourbons and fell asleep by himself in front of the T.V.; his war instincts got the better of him when they unexpectedly took over in a reflexive knee jerk reaction. My Aunt and cousins were out of the house while Oakley had fallen asleep in the den in his favorite easy chair.

He was startled by a commotion in the fireplace that awakened him to the noise of the window blinds being rattled and shaken by some unseen entity. Thinking he was under assault by a robber, or an enemy Japanese platoon or some other unknown alien force, he jumped up, quick-loaded a shotgun, then peppered his den with two blasts of buckshot.

Polly came home to see the mess in the foxhole along with Oakley running around the house swatting at something with a broom.

It seems that a squirrel had come down the chimney and tried to escape through a shut window while the old soldier was off dreaming of some battle. Then because it had taken a trifle too long time to shake off the reverie and become re-oriented to reality, his instincts simply dictated that he should blast the squeaking little furry enemy into oblivion.

After that the gun racks were removed from the den and the weapons were put a little further out of immediate reach.

Later in life he developed atrial fibrillation that required a cardiac pacemaker implant. But he was a terrible patient and never had the device checked to even assess if it had any current left in it, much less to know if it was even working properly. Nor would he take blood thinners to treat the same heart rhythm problem and to abort the same risk of stroke that had killed my paternal grandfather.  In not liking the idea of the concurrent risk of bleeding associated with the drugs while similar to the ladies under the dryer at the hair salon, he probably suffered from the syndrome of knowing just enough to qualify him as really knowing a bit too little.

The first sign of trouble came when he was in his early eighties. While playing golf with his son in law, Bob he suddenly began to behave in a relatively nonspecific, but at the same time a very peculiar manner. Bob told him he was acting funny and when he asked him if anything was wrong, Oakley turned to Bob and said:

  • Where are my car keys?
  • Bob asked why he needed them in the middle of a round of golf, at which point Oakley apparently having thought he found them, held up an invisible set of keys in front of his face, then started shaking his hand up and down while repeating over and over and over again:
  • Jingle, jingle, jingle. Jingle, jingle, jingle.

Bob took him off the course, but he refused hospital care. After several hours the little brain clot that had caused his echolalia broke up and Oakley was miraculously back to normal again.

Not too long after that, again while playing golf with my father in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, my father watched him go up to the Seventeenth tee only to fall down several times on his left side as he tried to lean over to get the ball teed up. He stood up three times, bent over three times and fell down three times because he had partially lost motor strength in his left side. He was in the midst of having a transient or warning stroke but by ignoring the whole episode, and fighting through it or more likely just ignoring the paralysis, he was still determined to play on. Taking it a few minutes for him to realize something was drastically wrong with his brother in law, my father said Oak just kept flopping down like a wounded bird

Being a man who usually suffers from terminal constipation, my father rushed Oakley back to their motel, stating that he was so frightened by the incident he had crapped his pants while driving them back together in the golf cart. Then when he finally did get Oakley situated in bed, he said that he was going to call the ambulance.

Once again Oakley steadfastly refused hospitalization, asked for a large glass of Wild Turkey Bourbon, drank it, went to sleep, and woke up the next day fully recovered ready to play golf again. He eventually capitulated by agreeing to take blood thinners, after which time the stuttering stroke syndrome was successfully arrested.

One night when he mistakenly telephoned my house looking for my parents, I asked him how it felt to be the world’s best golfer. Wanting to know what I meant by that, I replied that he had played two all time record low-scoring rounds of golf. He said:

  • What exactly is that supposed to mean?

I said:

  • Well, the first round you managed to play with only one stroke, but the next day you bettered that score by playing it with no strokes at all.

It was probably the only time in my life I ever had the opportunity to joke him before he joked me.

At exactly the time of this writing, I received a phone call from my cousin Byron to let me know his father had just passed away. Apparently Oakley had developed a rapidly progressive lung tumor, which literally killed him in a matter of weeks. At the end game, being the man’s man that he always had been, he reluctantly agreed to take just enough morphine to dull the terminal pain; but not enough to put him to sleep.  He was eighty-nine years old.

uncle oak

 

 “I wonder what the poor people are doing today.” 

(Uncle Oakley: Every kid should know one)

 

 

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