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June 9, 2011

From Fly Creek: You go figure ...

My great-uncle Tom, who weighed about three hundred, looked like an owl. His legs were skinny and short, but his body was as round as a horned owl with its plumage fluffed.

And Tom, Grandpa Sam’s brother, had an owl’s visage, too. He was jowly, and his nose, to a small kid, certainly looked like a beak.

He was also silent as a roosting owl. As you know, owls tend toward silent, brooding dignity unless you really upset them. Then, watch out! I never saw Great Uncle Tom upset, but if he’d gotten all that weight moving, I’d have jumped clear.

He and his wife Lillian would “come up from the country” to visit his brother’s widow, my Grandma Anna Maud.

Lillian was a heavyweight, too, though she was no match for Tom. She was a great talker, but it was all Shady Side news for Grandma’s benefit.

Throughout her newscasts, Great Uncle Tom would be sunk deep into an armchair; lost, it seemed, in weighty thought. But if Lillian raised some puzzlement from recent Shady Side history, he would make a declaration. Perhaps she’d mentioned a theft from the general store, or maybe a chicken born with three wings.

“Nobody knowed what to think of it!” Lillian would  burble, and then Tom wouldclear his throat.

“Wall, guess they don’t.” he’d say mysteriously, inferring he was the only one who had things figured out. And he’d fall silent again.

I’ve remembered his ploy all my days, and it’s served me well many times.

On the family’s other side was a great-uncle who matched Tom’s air of mystery, at least with kids. With a bunch of us sitting wide-eyed around him, this gent would lay out an elaborate, often scary tale. The high point would often be a life-or-death dilemma, and there he’d stop, often to relight his pipe. After a puff or two, he’d shake his head slowly and stand up. “You go figure,” he’d say, and that was that. Another great technique that I’ve often used. Folks of that generation, I think, loved to seem knowing and mysterious.

One more example of mystery, this from my Grandma Geraci. Her Italian surname was Grandpa Angelo’s, but her maiden name was Colburn.

She carried the Irish’s elemental belief in wraiths and leprechauns and hidden forces in nature.

I thought of her when this spring’s first heavy thunder drowned out sound of the spring peepers. If Grandma had been in Fly Creek to hear that thunder and to witness the wild lightning and downpour, I know what she’d have said.

“Ah, dear, a spring thunder storm! That’s to wake up the snakes, you know!” And if you asked how she knew, she’d just smile and nod. “Wait and see.” And of course we’d soon start seeing garter snakes.

That, of course, is what logicians call the “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” fallacy. Just because a first thing comes before a second doesn’t mean it causes the second. The example the logic texts always give is, “The rooster crows and the sun rises. Therefore the rooster’s crow makes the sun come up.” Well, of course that’s a fallacy! Anne and I have a  rooster that crows all day;and yet the sky’s not full of multiple suns.

But I’m still holding for Grandma Geraci. I know that when the skunk cabbage appears down by the creek, I’ll soon smell skunks in our yard. The skunk cabbage wakes them up, you see, just as the thunder does the snakes.

Right on, Grandma!

I didn’t sense that mysterious knowingness as much in my father’s generation. Pop’s great entertainment was characters, and, like me, he collected them to himself. I do it on paper, but Pop watched for them on the street, and some he invited into our home.

Tuesday night at our house was always Ham and Eggs night, for two visitors always showed up around seventhirty to spend that evening in talk. Bachelor brothers, their names were Hammond and Phelps Elliott. But because, early on, the first was nicknamed “Ham,” cronies soon called the other one “Eggs.” It stuck.

You’d have thought that Ham, retired editor of the local daily, would have been the talkative one. But he could sit for most of the evening like Great Uncle Tom, just listening.

When he did enter into the talk, however, he revealed an amazingly well-furnished mind and a keen sense of world affairs.

Ham deeply impressed my older brother and me, but we delighted in Eggs, the raconteur.

Retired Navy, as were half of Annapolis’ older men, Eggs had traveled the world and had stories to prove it. Some of his best, though, were jokes on himself. And I’d bet money that my brother remembers this one:

Eggs got himself rocking with laughter on the sofa one evening, recounting an adventure on Annapolis’ Main Street. (My mother, fearing for the Duncan Phyfe couch, always kept a stack of “National Geographics” wedged next to the curved pedestal under Eggs.) His adventure followed over-eating at an Italian restaurant. Too much pasta and rich olive oil had resulted in fierce rumblings, and then with a stomach so bloated that Eggs was afraid he’d be lifted off the ground.

And, to my brother’s and my delight, he said he almost was—not by contained gas, but by an unstoppable and prolonged release of it.

Eggs, red-faced, was turning heads as he walked along. Finally he backed up against a storefront to wait out the siege.

But no end came. As Eggs nodded, smiled, and tipped his hat to passersby, his diesel-horn blast continued, minute after minute. I know that’s hard to believe, but my brother and I were nine and fifteen. We were dead ready to believe the whole thing, just because it was such a great story.

Eggs claimed his diesel blast only tapered off after four minutes. So be it, I say. Now why, I wonder, did those memories come together so that I could share them with you? You go Figure.

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