(Uncle Rick, in the middle of two of his daughters, Francine and Lauren)
I went out to eat on Friday night with MY WIFE, my Mom, my stepfather Bill and my Uncle Rick. As I may have mentioned a couple of hundred times, I turned 50 on Friday. The dinner was a double-birthday celebration, however. My Uncle, Rick Drown, had turned 70 just three days earlier.
I was dumbfounded when I heard that number. I had no idea. I assumed he was 63 or 64 at most - and he doesn’t even look that old. I mean, his age makes sense, as he’s my Mom’s younger brother and she’s a couple of years north of 70, but she doesn’t look her age, either. Everybody on that side of the family, with a large helping of my grandmother’s Barcello blood, looks great and lives forever.
(If I’ve inherited those genes, I could be here for another 60 or 70 years, so I should probably start taking some retirement planning into consideration. If I have more of the Sullivan genes, though, I might check out next week. In that case, it’s time to party and to hell with the bills, except for my stepfather, who’s a real nice guy.)
(See what I did there? Hah! My stepfather’s NAME is Bill, but I was talking about those things that come in the mail once a month. What a joke! That’s called “wit,” which rhymes with... well, you know.)
I never realized until this year that Uncle Rick is almost exactly twenty years older than I am. As I said earlier, he doesn’t look it. At the rate I'm aging, he’ll look younger than me in about five years - if I’m still around.
Uncle Ricky is an interesting guy. He’s a private detective. He used to be a commercial airline pilot. In his spare time, he’s a marvelous woodworker and carpenter - good enough to make his living that way, which he also did for a while. He’s easy-going and quiet, but he has an affable sarcasm going for him, too. I like him a lot.
The youngest of three children, he was born on February 27th of 1937, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. He still lives there, helping to take care of his mother - my grandmother - who was 101 last year.
(Damn, I like being a Sullivan, but I’ll change my name to Drown in a New York second if it will guarantee me those genes.)
Anyway, he takes care of the house and all of that. Since he’s so handy with tools, it’s a good set-up. I said he was 70, right? Just this past year he re-built the garage, constructing an entirely new roof, replacing the doors, and... well, considering how much of the old structure is left, let’s just say he built a garage. He also added an attached tool shed to the house. He did these things from scratch, by himself – no outside help whatsoever - one man with a hammer and a saw.
(Stuff like that amazes me. The best thing I ever made with my hands is a clay turtle I fashioned in the second grade. I’ve still got it. It still looks like a turtle to me, but not to anyone else. My Uncle Ricky makes actual buildings that you could live in, in his spare time. You could give me fifteen years and I couldn’t make a freakin’ birdhouse.)
(As a matter of fact, MY WIFE could attest to that very fact. She gave me a kit for one, plans included, back in the early 90’s. It still sits in our basement, unfinished. And if I was a bird, I’d be grateful for that, too.)
(Uncle Rick, Grandma, Mom - From the styles, I'd say late 1970's)When I say that Rick lives with his mother, I might be giving you the wrong impression. He’s been married, four children (one deceased) and six grandchildren, so he hasn’t lived with his mom his whole life. As a matter of fact, he left home quite early.
He joined the army at the age of 17. He was stationed in Germany and he loved being there. To this day, he has a great fondness for just about any movie about the army - especially those concerning World War Two – and he’s quite the amateur historian concerning that conflict.
When he got out of the army, at age 21, that’s when he became a carpenter.
(It’s in the blood, apparently, but somehow I missed my share of it. Not only is Uncle Rick a fine woodworker, so was my grandfather and so is my cousin, Scott. Me? The only wood I know how to work... no, let’s not go there.)
Not satisfied by being great at one thing, he decided to learn how to fly. He became a pilot, a captain for Air New England, a regional carrier based on Nantucket. He did that for quite a few years. Then, just so he could have something else EXTREMELY INTERESTING to talk about, he became an actual honest-to-goodness private investigator, which he has been for perhaps 16 or 17 years now, as I recall.
Oh, did I mention that he taught himself how to speak both Spanish and German? And that he’s a ham radio operator, with many contacts spanning the globe? And, while he had a few spare moments, he traced one side of our family tree back to colonial times and the other back to Spain?
(I think I said earlier that I like him a lot. I do, but the man sets the bar pretty damned high for the rest of us rapscallions and scullery maids. I might have to re-think my position if he takes up, say, brain surgery next.)
(Speaking of his genealogy work, that side of my family has some interesting bloodlines – Spanish, French and Yankee. One of our ancestors was Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. Another was the fellow who crafted the grasshopper weathervane that sits atop Fanieul Hall in Boston to this day. His name was Shem Drowne. Somewhere along the way to us, the “e” was dropped from the end of the family name. Knowing my fondness for The Three Stooges, MY WIFE says that there must have been a “p” dropped from that fellow’s first name, but that’s purely conjecture on her part.)
(With Grandchildren Camille & Casey)With all that I’ve said concerning my uncle’s endeavors, it should come as no surprise that he likes to play games that challenge the mind – puzzles and the like – and he’s damned good at them. If you want to see the mental equivalent of a pitbull, just give my Uncle Rick a riddle to solve. He won’t set it aside until he’s figured it out.
I have a special fondness for another small hobby of his – magic. The first magic trick I remember being amazed at, and determined to learn, was often done by him to amuse me as a small child. What he did was to take a heavy object, say a can of vegetables, and make it appear to go through a table, leaving no indication behind of where it might have gone through. He’d take the can, along with a sheet of newspaper, and wrap the can in the newspaper. Once he had done so, BAM! He’d slam his fist down on the newspaper-wrapped can on the table. The newspaper was flattened, the can had hit the floor, and there was no hole in the table.
(I could tell you how that trick is done, because my Uncle Ricky is always willing to explain a trick – after he’s first amazed you with it a few hundred times. He wants to give you a chance to figure it out for yourself because that’s what he enjoys doing – figuring things out – and he’d like you to have the same pleasure. Once you say that you’ve had enough, he’ll take great delight in explaining the technique.
While we were at dinner Friday night, he showed me another one involving toothpicks and dinner napkins. I gave up and he revealed the secret. We then returned to my Mom’s house for some coffee and conversation. While there, he taught me two new card tricks – but only after I had partially figured them out myself during his repeated befuddlement of all gathered at the table.)
So, he’s a pretty smart guy and a nice fellow. In the best journalistic tradition of the modern age, now that I’ve built him up, it’s time to tell a few stories from his childhood and tear him down.
(Grandpa Francis Drown, with my Mom (Connie), Uncle Rick and my Aunt Jeanne)When Rick was about nine, his family moved to a new house in Weymouth. On the very first day in the new house, he was swinging on a water pipe in the cellar and broke it. My grandmother sent him outside to play while they tried to clean up the mess he had made. No sooner was he outside than he threw a ball and broke one of the windows.
(This is the same house he and my grandmother still live in, so all of the repair work he now does around the house seems to be delayed justice.)
Then there was the time he and my Aunt Jeanne (the oldest of the siblings) had a good little scam going - until they were found out. There had been a huge snowstorm and there were drifts a few feet high. They had neighborhood kids come into the house and they were charging them a nickel apiece for the pleasure of jumping out of the second-story bedroom window into the snow below.
(As legend has it, my grandmother had a paint stirrer she used to occasionally spank the three kids. I guess in Ricky’s case it was more than an occasional use. My Aunt Jeanne used her woodburning set to write “Ricky’s Paddle” on that paint stirrer. There has never been any indication given that my grandmother objected to this naming of the implement.)
And now, I’ll just plain embarrass him. My Mom tells me that he really, really liked Gene Autry. He would dress in cowboy shirt and hat, etc., and go around singing the following song, which I guess he had heard Gene Autry sing:
Wherever you are dear
On land or on sea
If you really love me
Be honest with me
Well, that sort of thing NEVER looks good on your resume.
I’ve got one last cute story, this one from a more recent date.
The first time Rick met MY WIFE (she was MY FUTURE WIFE at the time) we had had dinner and now we were gathered around a table and playing Monopoly. MY FUTURE WIFE volunteered to be the banker. Rick was sitting directly to her right. After a bit, Rick wasn’t doing too well. His cash reserves were low and he didn’t have any considerable holdings in real estate, either.
After taking a couple of surreptitious glances to either side, he tapped MY FUTURE WIFE on the leg and passed her a note under the table. She didn’t know what to make of this. She had just met him, after all. Was he making some sort of a pass at her, right in front of everybody? She read the note, with some trepidation, but then began laughing. It said, “This is a stick up!”
(On the occasion of Grandma's 100th birthday - Mom, Grandma, Uncle Rick)
I may have forgotten some instance during my childhood, but I can’t recall ever telling my Uncle Rick “I love you.” I guess this is as good a time as any to rectify that. I love you, Uncle Rick. So do a whole bunch of other folks who may not always put it into words. We all do. Just take it for granted.
Happy 70th Birthday, Uncle Rick. Many, many more.