Cry Uncle

I grew up in a violent world.  Boys do that, everywhere, like it or not.  But I had a particular problem growing up a lonely Jewish kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s in a working-class section of an East Tennessee town.  My closest relatives lived 750 miles north.  Summers down south were languorous, a sweet and lazy time to relax, reading books and swatting flies, collecting pop bottles returns from roadside ditches for two cents plain.  As a grade school kid I had no schedule: from June until Labor Day I did as I pleased.  Out I went, early morning, into the woods with my little brother and our two close friends.  Building dams in the creeks and catching crawdads, we wandered the day away, nary a care.  But sunny afternoons were a living hell. 

The family’s postage stamp backyard was unusually level, a precious commodity in our Tobacco Road ‘hood.  I dreaded the door knocks on those sultry days.  James or Dwight or Larry or Don: sons of our neighbors, men who worked as coal miners, filling-station attendants, body-shop workers.  A nasal-hick accent would greet me at the door.  It was more of a threat than an invitation.   Ya’ll come on out and play BALL, Benjy!  Go run and get Robby and com’ on, ok? 
My parents had a rule, no games in the backyard unless we were present, so every day Robby and I were press-ganged out the door.  There on the crabgrass we were despised little creatures, last to be chosen and last to bat.  The neighbor boys made us mincemeat in whatever the game.  A disputed call would lead to the inevitable, while the neighbors’ hound-dogs howled from their broken-down pens one yard over.  Hot and stupid, out came the insults.  Faggot, queer, from pre-pubescent mouths.  Those who spoke them and those who endured, hadn’ t a clue of what the words meant.  All we knew was that these were bad words, insults to one’s as-of-yet-unrealized manhood.  Good enough for a bloody nose.  Little hands were clenched into fists.  Lying on the ground I heard the words, one among them, I knew so well:  Say it, you pussy – Cry uncle, you little jew boy !”  My lips would part.  I didn’t like getting hurt.
It took me years to grasp the reasons why my Philadelphia-born parents had stayed down South after the War.  Bit by bit I pieced together the chaos and discord that informed their young lives and made them incapable of arming me.  To what use, though, could such understanding have been put by a nine-year old victim, threatened by violence day to day?  I needed protectors, men who’d stand up for me, show me fighting ways.  But neither my father, may his gentle soul rest in peace, nor my older brother paid attention, stepped into the breach.  Daddy was no fighter, often deeply depressed, and my older brother, six years apart, was off doing his own thing, seldom (and in the case of my father, never) taking time to throw a ball with me, teach me how to ride a bicycle, how to avoid being a victim of the ruthless bullies who dogged my feet.  Were my extended family living closer, uncles might have stepped in, flexing their muscles, scaring away the night. In my case, thank God, they were far away.
Male role models of toughness and conviviality were limited in my parents’ circle of Jewish friends.  The men were scientists, brainy engineering souls.  So I developed a strange substitute connection.  Every summer, we’d pile into our station wagon, five kids and our parents, and drive two days straight up north for the obligatory two-week long visit.  Along the road, plastered on some billboards, I spied what I needed. Salvation resided in three shining faces. I wanted men in my life like Manny, Moe and Jack.
The Pep Boys were a piece of Madison Avenue boosterism cooked up by three Jewish guys trying to make a living selling auto parts circa 1921.  Bright college days of raccoon coats and leather-helmeted pigskin gridiron contests in second-string boola-boola land gave way to the rough business of real life, to be wrestled with and mastered.  These three seemed the uncles I wished I had.

Mid-20th century logo

On visits up north in the late 50s and early 60s I marveled at the big red signs of their auto parts stores, a bigger-than-life taste of Jewish Men-in-Business.  Semites like these were rara avis in my hometown.  99% of the members of our little congregation were men and women like my mom and dad from northeastern ghettos, kids from City College or its equivalents in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore.  The men were chemists and physicists, drafted into the Army and assigned to the S.E.D., a code name for the thousands of G.I.s in the Special Engineering Detachment who boarded trains to an unknown destination in Eastern Tennessee where a city was created in 1942 to build the A-bomb.
Sputnik was a godsend to the Oak Ridge National Lab.  Jobs were plentiful:  for years there was no need to strive, to compete (and perhaps fail).  Once a year my parents paid their dues, shleppingthe five kids in our ’53 Ford nine-seater two days up through Virginia, telling wide-eyed motel-keepers we were Mormons when they questioned the 5-child size of a family that rented one room with two double beds and three rollaways to save a few bucks.  By Hagerstown, Maryland the Pep Boys’ signs would start to appear, and I (who felt he had nothing up north to run from) could start to kvel, to feel a connection.  Something I wanted was getting closer with each click of the analog odometer: Manny, Moe and Jack were coming on board.
How I fantasized about having uncles like these men, men who partnered with each other, who laughed and cried and fought and made-up.  Who did business together, took risks, played the horses, had a drink.  Loved women, stuck together, took care of their moms when they were left widows.  Unfortunately, my real uncles fell a teensy bit short.
We’d show up at my mother’s older sister’s place, an ex-urban village west of Philly, high on a hill in the middle of nowhere.  Aunt Syl and Uncle Ralph cobbled together some kind of living from her kindergarten teaching, his music lessons and running a college boardinghouse in the next-door town, plus a summer day camp whose session had just ended when we showed up late each August.  The teeter-totter, swimming pool and leftover giant cans of food-service fruit cocktail were heaven to us kids.  The trips to Center City were our Disneyland.  At Leary’s Used Books and the philately stores, in Chinatown and on South Street I got my chance, once a year, to be in places that had some tam, some taste, a chance to chew on crusty un-white bread.  I knew I wanted it since I was little: to be among these urban Jews, to visit with the rest of the brothers and sisters, the ones who stuck close to their roots.  But then the truth reared its ugly head.
One night out at Cherrydale Camp the party was on: relatives from both sides of my family were always invited, my mother’s two younger brothers and my father’s sister and brother, all unmarried except for Dad’s sister Estelle.  We ate and drank until late at night.  Then Uncle Ots put on a show.  Right in front of his nieces and nephews, off came his shoes and then his pants.  Shades of Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee: Ots just had to show us how a strip-tease was done.  Complete with balloons and a capella song, his twisted need was bumped and ground.  Our host Uncle Ralph was no stranger to Ots’ behavior.  His days blowing horn with Tommy Dorsey at the Steel Pier and more risqué venues had inured him to his brother-in-law’s antics .  Ralph’s guffaws filled the room, blotting out the shame, my parents’ protestations.  My father’s balding Anglophile brother, S. Newton, sat there, silently choking, his sense of propriety gruesomely maimed.
Ots’ mother had lived a life of misery, keeping a valise packed and ready to go in their attic, with money purloined from her balebosteh’s sugar-bowl, a housewife’s safekeeping for the day when her Otshik would spirit her away.  Her jewel, her prize, her one salvation: Ots would save her from life in the ghetto: her unforgiving parents, her crude Ukrainian husband. Ots was in his early 30s when I first came to know him well.  Never a mention of a girlfriend or lover.  Women played no part in his domestic life.  I thought nothing of it, same with Newton.  Quiet, mostly gentle, they were hardly pep boys. 
At the start of the summer (several years later), the earth yawned open, assisted handily by my librarian Uncle Ots.  Once in a while we’d be blessed by a Tennessee visit, a week of unbearably outrageous shenanigans.  He’d worn out many welcomes and had almost no friends.  My mother put on her game face and we all endured.  Ots would talk to me, all friendly and privately.  I was fourteen, and he sensed my desire for city life, that burning in my eyes, an adolescent curiosity for unknown things. 
One day we were alone in the back of the kitchen, the nook where the washer and dryer stood.  Here was his chance to fill me in, to let me know how big the world was. He inquired with a suggestive, libertine tone in his voice:  You’re going to New York next week to visit Uncle Newton? You know there’s a lot of different people there… I didn’t respond, so he kept on.  I still can’t believe what happened next.  When you go in the men’s room in the subway, some guys might look at you and want to touch… Ots was off on his own little trip.  It’s really ok, there’s nothing wrong.  Then out came his hand and he tickled my balls.  A little fooling around, it never hurts.  See if you like it.  I love New York. 
This wasn’t Manny.  It sure wasn’t Jack.  Moe wouldn’t have done it.  My Uncle Ots did.
Proper Uncle 2 was S. Newton Feldman, nicknamed Tinney since childhood.  Even younger than my father when his mom was hospitalized for depression, Tinney was the one who never went out without an umbrella neatly folded, a pocket handkerchief clean at the ready.  Uniforms and propriety kept his demons away.  First MIT, then the Navy, then Harvard Business School.  His mother after whom I’m named, was away for many months in a mental hospital when Tinney was quite young.  He spent the rest of his life in desperate repair.
Red yidish, trog British (speak, and think like a Jew, but dress like a Brit) might as well have been invented for him.  Tinney’s Anglophilia knew no bounds.  He made a hard pass at being normal during the War. A girl from Fort Smith, Arkansas, took a shine one USO evening to a gentle sailor boy.  By letter they courted for months on end.  Finally Ensign Feldman traveled south to meet her folks.  A three-day journey by any measure, S. Newton drove down, filled with hope.  Tourist cabins and ticky-tack souvenir shops led to where he might be a hero, a genteel Hebrew come a’courtin’ on a white horse. 

His stay was a short one, though, his reception a cool one.  By the time he got home, a letter had arrived.  A double-sided page of pale blue note paper with a red border was filled with Miss Jean Roberts’ best curlicue cursive.  Hardly the news he wanted to hear.

            Dear Tinney,                                                               May 30, 1945
            Fate works in strange ways at times, doesn’t it?  For several years now we’ve gone on – living on the strength of one meeting and just a hope and a dream for the future.  Many times I’ve wondered why it was going, and just where it would end.  Sometimes I thought I knew – we’ve had such a little to work with over such a long period of time.  And yet, no sooner would the thought come when something would happen to make me think – well, maybe it could work out at that.  But strangely enough – and is so often the case – my first hunch was right.
            Tinney, I wouldn’t say for the world those three years were wasted.  I know myself that I have benefited in many ways from them, and perhaps in still more ways that I do not know about yet.  I can only hope that maybe you have too.
            I’m grateful to you for taking so much time from your last and most precious leave, as well as the money I’m sure you must have spent to come all this way, so that we might know once and for all.  And I’m only sorry that you couldn’t have been rewarded and repaid in a much better way.  But then, it is worth something, I’m sure you will agree, to at last know what we now know.
            It needn’t mean that we’ve lost a friendship, because, on the contrary, I think we’ve gained a very dear one – through understanding of one another, while at the same time, we’ve both found now a certain freedom that I’m sure neither of us could have had before this.  And Tinney, you can believe this – I would never have considered another boy seriously as long as we held that one hope between us…
            I wish you would drop me a line sometimes to let me know how you are getting along.  I’ll always be interested.  And Tinney, thanks again for being an awfully swell person about everything.
Even in America’s post-War boom, Tinney’s chosen career in the securities business sputtered and failed amidst the overwhelming anti-Semitism.  Though asked politely, Bernard Baruch extended no hand.  I have the letters, the curt one from B.B.’s office, a draft note to Mr. Rockefeller, a yellowed list of Our Crowd names upon whom to call.  Nothing worked, but he found self-esteem on a different path, befriending the horse cops among New York’s finest while he held down low-level positions on Wall Street for years.  In the company of men who knew order, Tinney gained acceptance.  He could shine and be loved.  His closet was filled with be-spoke tweeds and police paraphernalia, crowding out the other psychic occupants who hung there silently, waiting for the next dress parade. 
In later years, Tinney’s best friend George from Harvard B. School was cuckolded by his wife.  Evidence was needed for a divorce complaint. My uncle was comfortable in the dark, where he could peer and wonder what life held for those who dared.  Tinney did his friend’s desperate bidding.  (Would Manny have done it for his brother Jack ?)  While Mrs. George was out one morning, Tinney let himself in by the kitchen door.  Into the bedroom closet he snuck, a keyhole camera in his pocket.  It was stuffy and dark, but what are friends for?  By lunchtime he heard them, tripping light fantastic.  Mirth and laughter filled the boudoir.  Oh Joyce, you fox ! her lover cried as she slipped his slacks down below his waist. With his fingers tingling, Tinney pressed the cable release, each click a revenge for his private hurt.  The slimy deed was done and over.  Serves her right – they’re all the same.  Jean was no different.  Now I know it’s true, for sure.   Out the lovers went and Tinney stayed flaccid.  Moe, he wasn’t.  Nor Manny nor Jack.
Lenny (Uncle 3) was the saddest case, a gentle soul and lover of pussy-cats.  I never was clear how much he ran with his older brother.  I heard of crazy weekends in Greenwich Village after the War, 75 miles from Philly, where no one knew.  Whatever his leanings were kept a close secret.  All we kids saw was that he was the sweet one, never creepy, kind and gentle.  Years later we all got a big surprise.  Uncle Lenny, age 48, was going to marry.  His chivalric side had finally shown.  His bride, 19, was Irish Catholic, the eldest daughter of a violent alcoholic father and a frightened mother, Sally found her olive-skinned Lancelot, kinky hair and all.  We were thrilled, though flabbergasted.  Two sons followed in short order, after Sally’s dad died from liver disease.  The couple managed to buy a very modest row house in an all-white blue-collar Philly ex-urb.  Things seemed peaceful, the two of them content. 
One morning though, Len’s commute to the Frankford Arsenal was unusually short.  Standing on the platform on the Broad Street line, my uncle waited patiently as the train approached.  Other passengers said they saw him put down his briefcase, slowly and carefully, back from the edge, then step forward as the first car approached.  He hung by thread, comatose for three days.  Two pre-teen boys and a desperate wife were left with nothing but memories.  That poor dear fellow  Will he ever be forgiven?  Moe wouldn’t have done it, nor Manny nor Jack.


Out at the Walmart near my upstate getaway, I unloaded my shopping cart this past autumn.  The outlying shopping centers in Hudson, New York redux Oak Ridge Tennessee in 1961.  The ghosts of my departed uncles, and the void of childhood non-protection span the physical and temporal boundaries, a half-century later.  All’s the same.  A few miles away from the predominantly gay town center, filled with antique dealers and outré boutiques, these parking lots are populated with beaters and pickups.  Local folks ape their Southern Appalachian heroes.  Poor diets, obesity and empty purses are everywhere.  Tea Party and NASCAR decals are signs of the cross.
Hundreds of vacant spaces surrounded my Honda van as I finished unloading, my pony-tailed balding head bare to the breeze.  Leaving my cart in the wide open around my car, I took two sacks and opened the driver’s door.  Suddenly I noticed behind me a late model 4X4 pulling into a nearby space.  I paid it no mind as I put the key in my door lock, but the driver got out and spoke right away.  The voices that greeted me in my nine-year old backyard echoed loudly.  I froze in place, no father, no brother, no uncles around. Sixty years old, with a military demeanor, this solid built citizen had what to say.  His son or grandson of fifteen stood beside him silently as the driver showed his young charge how to be a man.  “Hey there !,” the fellow called out to me, in his camouflage hunter’s T-shirt.  “You’re the kinda guy who leaves his cart in the lot to scratch up other people’s vehicles, aren’t you?”
Wheeling, I bristled, caught red-handed in a petty crime against society, I instantly grokked what this was all about.  Jew, pinko, homo, fag: I looked like all of them in this blind man’s rage.  “I’ll take the cart back, don’t worry,” I offered meekly.  “I was just putting bags in the front of my car.”
My excuse was rejected.  Rambo wanted combat.  My pony-tailed looks had ignited him, sure as I breathe.  “No, you won’t.  I’ll return it” he retorted, trying to take the upper hand. “Excuse me, I can’t hear you,” I tried to deflect the blow.  Mr. Marine Corps walked away towards the store doors, frustrated at his inability to precipitate a swing.  “I can’t hear you,” he replied, and then came the zinger.  “If you’d take that dick out of your mouth, I could hear you better.”
I thought I would choke, but I held back my temper.  In a fight he would take me, I knew that for sure.  Maybe one day I’ll find men to help me: my long-lost other relatives, men who stood upright and gave up no ground.  ‘Til then, though, I’m stuck with my unpleasant memories, my Dad’s depression and three sad-sack ucles. I still need the Pep Boys.  Then I can be born.
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