Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday It Is!

Have I ever mentioned my Uncle Pete, the Plumber?

I doubt it. I have to be pretty far into my cups to bring up Pete. Or be introduced to a funny story that includes plumbing of some sort.

Then I bring up Uncle Pete. He was my great-uncle really. Well, he was married to my Great-Aunt Polly, but she wasn't really my great-aunt, either. She was the widow of my Great-Uncle Paul, who was a step-brother to my Grandad on my Mom's side. Except that ain't quite right either, since Grandad  was really my Mom's step-dad. Mom was was my real Mom though.

At least, as far as I know.

But if Pete had been blood kin he would have been my great-uncle. Pete used to drive a Pontiac, which was a good choice for a plumber. At least that's what he always said. Plumbers drive Pontiacs; butchers drive Buicks; carpenters drive Chevys and farmers drive Fords. He would always say that same thing when ever he was asked why he drove a Pontiac. I asked him one time why doctors drove Cadillacs and not Dodges. He called me a snot-nosed kid and took a swing at me.

Luckily he had a few trips to the barn to 'see the bull' and he missed. Otherwise I might not be here to tell you about Uncle Pete the plumber. Pete was a plumber back in the day; back when bathtubs were made of cast iron and not fiberglass. Back when pipe was cast iron, and ditches for pipe were dug with a shovel, not a tractor. Pete could dang near lift his Pontiac.

Pete usually saw the bull a lot when he was out at the farm. He lived in the city, and I guess they didn't have bulls there. Used to be the whole family gathered at the farm on Sundays. Grandma's family and Grandpa's family; cousins, uncles, aunts and who all knows. The women would gather near the kitchen, cooking Sunday lunch, swapping recipes, baked goods and rumors. The men would gather in the driveway commenting on everybody's cars, swapping rumors and lies and visiting the barn, to see the bull.

I wasn't allowed in the barn on Sundays. I was allowed in the other 6 days, but never did find the bull. Grandpa used to get upset with me, and Mom would laugh, when I would asked him about the bull, especially when Grandma was around. Grandma wasn't  a big fan or having the bull around, and told Grandpa so in no uncertain terms every time I would ask about the bull in the barn. She seemed especially upset that Grandpa would have the bull in the barn on a Sunday.

It was years later that I found out the truth about the bull in the barn. And it was Uncle Pete the plumber who let the cat out of the bag. In between talking bad about Uncle Ned's Nash (he was a newspaperman; funny how that worked out) and and running down the height of Grandpa's corn, Pete headed to the barn to see the bull. I snuck along behind him all the way to the barn and first he knew I was there was when he opened the door and I stepped in in front of him. He seemed surprised, and asked me what I was doing.

Why, says I, with all the confidence my 13 year-old voice could muster, I'm here to see the bull. Imagine my surprise when instead of heading toward the stalls, he headed toward the harness room. Once in the harness room he headed straight to the old bin we kept the head collars in; the ones we hadn't used since the tractor came around. I was even more surprised when he reached deep into the far right corner and came up with a earthenware jug, stoppered with an old corn ear.

Pete cradled that jug in the crook of his elbow, popped the corn ear and used his elbow to hoist the jug high talking a long, slow sip of what smelled like Grandma's liniment. Your turn to see the bull he said, handing me the jug.

Well, thought I, looks simple enough. And it was. Until the harsh country whiskey hit my lips and mouth like Sherman took Atlanta. To this day I can't say how much I actually swallowed, or even how much actually entered my mouth. I do know I inhaled a couple of lung fulls of those hot vapors and thought I had died. Pete grabbed the jug before I dropped it and did his best to stop me from dancing around the room like my ass was on fire, gasping for air and looking for water; banging off of, knocking over or at least causing a ruckus out of everything in the room.

Of course the noise drew attention, and before I could catch a whole breath the harness room was full of menfolk. Pete was caught red-handed, more or less, with the uncorked jug of pop-skull and me breathing as deep as I could through my nose and leaping from corner to corner like a cat in a kennel.

Then the laughter started. It started slow, with a half smothered snicker from Uncle Ned, and a stifled giggle from Uncle  Louis (he was a lawyer; drove a Lincoln) and built slowly when Grandpa let go a quick, sharp guffaw and Dad started to let a smile slowly creep up from under his mustache like speckled fawn's first appearance out of the honeysuckle. 

I was just starting to recover my health about the time the whole crew began to laugh out load, and was about to join in the mirth, when the room got as quiet as the first few minutes of a funeral. Apparently when all of the menfolk disappeared at once, Grandma got suspicious, and decided to check on the health of the bull herself.

And caught Uncle Pete with the uncorked jug, her half grown grandson red in the face from his first taste of liquor and every man in the family laughing like he'd lost what little sense God had granted him. Grandpa started to explain, but got cut down with a stare as dark and cutting as a midnight wind in January (in later tellings of the story he would swear that look gave him frostbite). Her look broke up that meeting of the bovine lover's society.

Uncle Pete and Aunt Polly missed the next few Sundays; the bull missed the next 48. It was the following Fourth of July before Grandma consented to overlook the jug 'hidden' in the barn.

I'd love to say that that day made a teetotaler out of me, but it didn't. Although it was many a year before I hoisted a jug again. It took my first broken heart to see if the bull was still in the barn. He was.

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