There is one family story that I never get tired of hearing. This is it.
My dad and his brothers grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Several wrong sides, in fact. My dad was born in Detroit, then moved to East St. Louis, and finally ended up in South Central LA for the rest of his childhood. Despite this, all three are fully independent and have never spent any time in state prisons.
My Uncle Ben is the first born. He’s brash and active, a consummate businessman and religious follower. He married a high-strung woman, had lots of kids, and then settled back to watch his high-strung offspring do their thing. He had his first job long before he could drive and didn’t retire until well into his sixties.
My dad is the youngest, not loud but not quiet, either. He can tell a mean story. He was an MP in the Air Force, volunteered three times for Vietnam (and was fatefully spared three times, but that’s another story), and was invited to be a member of the security police that guard Air Force One. He’s also a great runner and a gentle and wise soul.
However, this story is really about the middle brother, my Uncle Ed (whose full name on his birth certificate reads Eddie Lee – oh, the Ozark names!). Where Ben is loud and my father, James, is a mixture, Uncle Ed is the quiet, sensitive one. His manner is never overbearing, he talks in a low, quiet voice and his laugh is a chuckle that can barely be heard. Yet underneath all this he has a wicked sense of humour and a red-hot temper, which brings us to the story in question.
By the time my Uncle Ed reaches high school, my father’s family has moved from St. Louis to a tiny house in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. Ben is out of the house at this point, leaving my dad and Eddie Lee to the LA school system where they are pretty much out of their element.
While my dad is battling it out in the junior high, my Uncle Ed is left alone to fend for himself in a violent high school. Being the shy, quiet kid that he is, he has opted to take art class instead of shop and is hard at work on his masterpiece during the pottery portion of the semester.
He has just finished his ashtray (it’s mid-century, remember? My dad probably could have used it back then). It’s ready for glaze and a trip to the kiln when, out of nowhere, a hand comes down on his pottery wheel and smashes the ashtray into a lopsided lump of grey clay. Now, though Uncle Ed has a notoriously red-hot temper it is just as equally notorious for it’s long fuse. Bear in mind, also, that Eddie Lee was also the brother who punched his cousin Lenora in the face so hard she flew off the front porch. I think Lenora had been torturing the dog. No one knows what set off this episode – maybe the stress had just been building up for a long time – but when that hand came down on that wet clay, something snapped.
Without batting an eye, my Uncle Ed reached for the sharp pottery knife lying beside his pottery wheel, brought it down on the perpetrator’s offending appendage and pinned his hand to the crushed ashtray and pottery wheel.
Note: I heard this story recently, direct from my Uncle’s lips. He’s been living in North Carolina a long time (the original family seat, by the way. I am a Daughter of the Revolution!… but also a Daughter of the Confederacy, so I can’t get too uppity). An addendum to the ashtray story I never heard: he was promptly punched after the stabbing, which… you would figure. But kudos to the other guy for landing a cross with your off hand!