Uncle Bill Stephen: “Not Done Yet”
October 9, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
The 2006 Ford from Hertz had that new car smell. The morning after my 45th high school reunion, I stayed an extra day to visit Uncle Bill and Aunt Josephine in the hills of southeastern Ohio, two hours south of Columbus. He was over eighty and escaped death after several health crises.
My earliest memories include my family’s visits to their farm. I spent one or two weeks there during several summers, playing with my cousins, helping with daily chores, and putting hay in the barn. After grade school, my visits were limited by my paper route, caddying and other jobs.
Route 33 was now a four-lane highway with a grassy median, not the narrow, two-lane road I remembered from the back seat of the ’49 Chevy and later the ’53 Pontiac. In my memory, a baby seat was always hung on the front bench seat, canvas on a metal frame with a tray for snacks and toys.
The back seat became increasingly crowded as Steve and then Margy outgrew the baby seat and squeezed into the back seat with Kathy and me. Someone wiggled once too often and got an elbow in the ribs. The wriggler appealed to the front seat for justice, and the other countered “They started it.” At first, Mom adjudicated these disputes, but soon resorted to blanket indictments and putting all of us on probation. The threatened penalties for repeat offenders escalated during the trip, particularly when Dad weighed in.
Dad told all the suitable jokes he heard recently until a chorus rose from the back seat, “You told us that one already.” Mom began a game of Twenty Questions, and we all shouted, “Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” This occupied Kathy and me for a while, but not the younger ones.
Dad liked to sing and would encourage all of us to join in as he belted out his favorite military songs. He was in the artillery division, so he began with “It’s Hi Hi Hee, in the Field Artillery. Where e’re you go, you will always know that those caissons are rolling along.” Another favorite was the Air Force’s rousing theme “Off we go, climbing into the wild blue yonder…” Repeating these lines occupied us for a while, but it was a two-hour ride. The Notre Dame and Ohio State fight songs were the only other numbers in Dad’s repertory. Then he would start over.
I was glad to see that Jimmie’s Drive-In was still next to the highway as I approached Lancaster. The neon lights traveled up the curved sign to the arrow and flashed as always. I first discovered sesame seeds on hamburger buns at Jimmie’s.
In the middle of town, the road overlooked Memorial Park, a landmark that always caught our attention. Kids in the glowing, blue-green swimming pool and Little League games underway on fan-shaped fields that shared deep center field. The faded outline of a football field could also be discerned in center field. It all looked the same except for the soccer nets beneath the football goal posts.
I continued toward the small town of Logan, named for Chief Logan, an Iroquois leader who fought rear guard battles against the settlers and their descendants much later lionized as a noble chieftain. The glaciated plains gave way to hills and hollows. I saw a red, rock-faced cliff that I once romanticized as the “badlands” in cowboy movies. Not nearly as high now as I remembered.
A faded, green building sat behind a shallow, gravel parking area just beyond the sign that read “Town of Gore.” The Postal Service’s newest logo was mounted above one door near a flagpole flying a large American flag. In a window next door, a red neon sign flashed “open”. I pulled my Ford up to the building. When I pulled open the screen door, the stuffy smell of old wax was faintly familiar. The worn wood floors, crudely built shelves, and open crates of unshucked corn, cucumbers, and squash were next to a large tub of watermelons. Memories of the Gore General Store surfaced. I approached the older woman with her hair pulled back and told her of my boyhood memories of buying groceries with the Stephens family and mailing letters home in the store. I even remembered the proprietor’s name, Miss Terrill.
She smiled and nodded, and said, “Mister, Miss Terrill was before my time. I’ve been told she used these here shelves for sorting mail,” motioning toward wooden cubicles that now held cigarettes. I fished a cold root beer from icy water in the vintage Coca-Cola case, used the opener on the case, and said goodbye to the clerk as I paid.
I turned onto County 45 just past Gore, following the directions my cousin gave me over the phone. I was surprised to see blacktop instead of a dusty gravel over clay, but soon the pavement ended and I was on a hardpan gravel road. My rearview mirror was a brownout.
When I rounded a curve, I saw a red truck coming fast followed by its rooster tail of swirling dust. I slowed and moved as close as I dared to the roadside ditch, but the truck sped toward me. I gripped the steering wheel tightly when the truck roared past throwing small stones against my windshield and fenders. A cloud of dust enveloped me. I came to a complete stop, exhaled, and waited for daylight. I turned on my emergency blinkers and windshield wipers. Finally I drove forward slowly.
The directions led me to an opening in the fence around a pasture. A small trailer rested on cement blocks. I parked behind a weathered, red pickup truck. Aunt Josephine came to me with open arms. Bill stood in the doorway grinning. After a long hug, Josepine held me at arms length by my shoulders and said, “When did you get so gray?”
“Like Mom and Bill, I guess,” I responded with a glance at Bill. I wrapped my arm around Bill’s bony shoulder and gave him a gentle embrace.
“You and I go back a long way, don’t we Michael?” he said, his dark eyes shining and his entire face smiling.
“You’re right about that. I still remember you tickling me when I was little and we lived on Stimmel Road.”
Bill nodded slowly and said, “I loved to make you laugh. If I kept it up too long, your Mom made me stop.”
“When I got up, you would be having breakfast, arguing with Dad about something—Dad said you would be against anything he was for, just because you liked to argue,” I recalled.
“Your dad liked to argue, too. But let me tell you, he was a good man.”
Bill tottered toward the living room putting weight on his cane. His grey ponytail was tied with a red kerchief. A minimal kitchen separated the living room from a bedroom in the small trailer. On the counter was a cherry pie crisscrossed with strips of golden brown crust and a large pan with a mound of meatloaf surrounded by carrots, onions, and potatoes.
“I remembered that cherry pie was your favorite. You asked your mom to make one for your birthday instead of a cake,” said Josephine.
“You’re right. I almost forgot that. I love meatloaf, too. Sure smells good,” I replied.
When Bill turned to sit in his recliner, I noticed the plastic tube and the bulge beneath his shirttail. He followed my eyes, and said, “Doc up in Columbus hooked me up to this damn thing,” and pulled up his shirt to reveal a plastic bag half full of urine. “Not sure when he’ll let me get rid of it. Soon, I hope.”
“When did you move here?” I asked, changing the subject.
“It will be three years ago in November. Jo wanted to have one more Thanksgiving in the old farmhouse, but the chimney blew over in a storm and she couldn’t use the cookstove anymore,” he explained with upturned hands. “We’re on the power line here, everything electric,” he added with a shrug.
“That big iron stove in the old house was always burning in the winter. Grandpa banked the coals at night and put fresh coal on in the morning before his chores. Josephine fixed great dinners for us when we came in from the hayfields,” I said loud enough for Josephine to hear.
“Do you remember when we had horses pulling the hay wagon to the barn?“
“Sure, Dolly, an old black mare, and Prince, the big stallion, a palomino like Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger,” I replied like a pupil in grammar school.
“Yeah, Michael, you were on the farm from the beginning. Your Grandpa liked to tell about the time you were three years old, following him when he plowed the field next to the house. Dollie pulled the plow, and Dad walked behind the plow with you following him. He got to the tree line, turned around and he could barely see your red knit hat. You were pinned down in the furrow by a turned up mud that rolled onto your leg. Not crying, just waiting for him to come back. He loved to tell that story,” said Bill.
Josephine unfolded three TV trays with paper napkins and utensils. She returned with plates heaped with meatloaf and steaming vegetables and glasses of ice water. I raved about the dinner, and she said, “You used to help your Grandma with her big kitchen garden, picking tomatoes and beans before she couldn’t keep it up.”
We reminisced about Grandma’s roasted rhubarb from the garden that sent me to the outhouse repeatedly, my first and only experience with that vegetable. That led to the story about how Tom and I climbed the mulberry tree and consumed too many berries with the same result. The conversation moved on to milking cows in the barn, gathering eggs in the henhouse, and slopping hogs.
After we caught up on kids and grandchildren and lingered over cherry pie and coffee, we returned to stories about the farm. I asked about the Marino sheep that Bill hoped would become a herd and learned that a virus wiped them out all eight that he bought. He spoke wistfully about his ideas for raising minks and even ostriches. He said, “It’s hard to support a family with a farm, but I’d do it again. I had to learn everything since I grew up in Columbus, but I liked figuring things out for myself. Jo stuck with me.” He glanced appreciatively toward his wife of more than fifty years.
After I went to work at the Carborundum plant in Logan, I bought an old Harley-Davidson and restored it. I rebuilt the engine the year I retired. When the doc let’s me get rid of this,” he said pointing to the bag on his belt, “Jo and I are going cruising. There’s rides I’ve plotted on maps in the Smokey Mountains, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and maybe we’ll go all the way to Alaska someday. I’m not done yet.”