Thursday, March 15, 2007

RIP, Uncle Herman

My uncle was murdered a few weeks ago. He was 67. He was on his way into the kitchen to make a sandwich when his best friend shot him in the back. Nobody seems to know why. The friend was arrested by the local SWAT team after holing up in the house for a few hours. His attempt to commit "suicide by cop" failed when the police knocked him down with their beanbag guns.

I didn't know Uncle Herman well. I hadn't seen him for years -- for decades in fact. He was the youngest of my mother's three brothers. He was sort of the black sheep of the family, and the only one of my mother's siblings who lived in America (they're German by birth), but my mother didn't really want him around. He'd caused some problems for her by giving her name to creditors and stuff like that. I'm actually a little vague on why exactly she decided to keep her distance a little bit, but she thought he was kind of bad news.

Uncle Herman led a pretty colorful life, I guess. He was a US Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne for awhile as a young man. I don't know what he did for a living for the next 10 or 12 years after that -- there was even some vague talk about gangsters in Vegas, where he lived for a long time -- but eventually, according to my mother, he became more or less some sort of gigolo. Apparently he shacked up with a series of wealthy women and sponged off of them. He spent 10 or 20 years doing that, I guess. Nice work, if you can get it.

There are two stories about him that I think kind of sum him up from my mother's point of view. The first is from when they were children right after World War II. The children had been sent to the country to live during the war to avoid the bombing. When the family finally all got back together, times were hard. Food was short. The family had some seed potatoes or whatever they're called. They're little potatoes that you plant, and in a few months they grow into big potatoes that you eat. Uncle Herman used to dig up the little potatoes and eat them. He couldn't wait for them to get big enough to feed the whole family. He was hungry, so he ate them. Of course, he was only a little kid at the time, just six or seven, but to my mother that seemed sort of characteristic of his whole life.

The other story is similar in a way, but nastier. When my grandmother died, Uncle Herman went to the funeral. While he was there in Germany, apparently he took some of my grandmother's jewels and gave them to the "floozy" he took with him. No talking it over with the family, no who wants what for what sentimental or even financial reasons, no "what would Mother have wanted," no concern for anyone. He wanted to take the jewels and give them to his woman, so he did. End of story.

But my own impressions of Uncle Herman were somewhat different. When I was a child, I saw him quite often. I thought he was pretty cool. First, there was his name. I didn't know anyone else named Herman. (I think I still haven't ever known another one.) The only Herman I knew was Herman Munster. I enjoyed that show a lot, and whenever Herman Munster's niece called him "Uncle Herman," I'd think "I have an Uncle Herman too." I liked that.

Another thing I liked about him was the way he blew smoke out of his nose when he smoked a cigarette. My mom smoked too back then -- most people did in those days, I suppose -- but she always blew her smoke out of her mouth. I thought blowing smoke out your nose was the coolest thing.

(A little digression here -- that may be what kept me from ever becoming a smoker. When I was 12 or 13, I'd steal cigarettes from my mom once in awhile. I figured out how to light them, but I didn't actually inhale. I'd just suck the smoke into my mouth and blow it out and feel cool for doing something forbidden and grownup. But one day I decided that I was going to really go for it and inhale. So I lit up my stolen ciggy and took a long pull and Crap! COUGH! HACK! COUGH-COUGH-cough-hack-hack! Damn. But I wasn't easily deterred. I decided that the next puff I was going to blow out my nose like Uncle Herman. Thinking that I could beat the coughing that way, I inhaled fast and blew it out hard through my nose and Oh. Shit. OW! IT BURNS! IT BURNS! OW-OW-OW! Cough-cough-cough-hack-hack! Ow! Cough! Crap. So before my eyes even stopped watering, I decided that this smoking thing wasn't all it was cracked up to be. That was pretty much the end of my smoking career.)

Anyway, this is getting too long, so I'm going to wrap it up. Even though I also saw glimpses of a darker side to Uncle Herman -- even as a child I noticed that he wasn't a particularly attentive father sometimes -- and I heard all kinds of stuff from my mom, my childhood impressions of him never really went away. When I was working on my novel that I don't expect to ever finish, I found myself giving the protagonist his own "Uncle Herman" as a sort of mentor in coolness during his boyhood. I suppose I must have had some sort of longing for a real relationship with him. Now that he's gone, I find myself wondering how -- if -- we would have gotten along as adults. Me the straight-arrow family man and him the Vegas libertine. Maybe we could have taught each other a few things. I'd like to think so. Rest in peace, Uncle Herman.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds as though Uncle Herman taught you that smoking, and perhaps some other things, are not as glamorous as they might seem. Not a bad bit of wisdom to pass along, even if you don't do it intentionally.



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