Ron Karpinski ©1996
Uncle Joe used to pop in from time to time. He could show up at the front door, unannounced, just in time for dinner and stay three days -– or three weeks. We should all have an Uncle Joe in our lives.
Actually, my family had two Uncle Joes. Dad's younger brother, Joe, lived in Chicago; and Mom's older brother, Joe, well, he had lived in a lot of places.
Talking about the two of them could get confusing. To sort it out, we called one "Chicago Joe" and the other "Eureka Joe." This story is about Eureka Joe.
* * * * *
In the early 1950's, my family lived in Long Beach, California. The Kaczmareks lived in nearby Lynwood, and the Plummers were in Whittier. On weekends, one house or the other hosted a get-together.
Nine young cousins raced about, playing cowboys and Indians. Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, television icons of the day, were our idols. They sat tall in the saddle, always on the right side of the law.
For hours at a time, the kids romped through the magic realm of make believe. As Hoppy and the fabled masked man, we fought crime and brought justice to the land. An old mop, stick, or broom could make a fine horse. Gee up!
While the kids roamed the sidewalks on horseback, the adults sat around the house all day and gabbed. From what we could see, they were just swapping lies -– telling tall tales. Each yarn seemed a bit more far-fetched than the last one.
Sitting on my horse outside the window, I listened in on dozens of stories from "the old days" in Chicago and World War II. One after the other, Dad, Uncle Charley, and Uncle Joe each tried to outdo the last one; but, when it came down to it, no one could tell a story better than Uncle Joe. He always got the most laughs.
As darkness fell, the kids came indoors and washed off the trail dust. Then the whole group sat down to dinner. Afterwards, Aunt Virginia rolled back the carpets and threw a 78-RPM polka record on the phonograph.
Everyone took a twirl across the polished hardwood floor. Grownups danced the polka. We little people just spun around in circles, got dizzy, and fell down.
Soon, the party broke into small groups. A few of us moved over to the dining room table for a game of pinochle. Television had not yet taken over our lives.
At five years old, I had become a pinochle whiz of sorts; but my hands were too small to hold all twelve cards. Uncle Joe, a keen judge of talent, built a velvet-covered card holder to solve the problem.
A flat board about a foot square, it stood upright on the table in front of me. The cards fit into four rows of slots on the board, one for each suit. With the cards neatly arranged on the board, I could see them all at once –- and not tip my hand.
Long after the others had gone to bed, Mom, Uncle Joe, and I stayed up playing pinochle. All night long, Joe honed my skills.
* * * * *
When the summer of 1959 arrived, so did Uncle Joe, bag in hand. By that time, he lived in Eureka, California. He and his wife, Devina, had agreed that he should take leave of Eureka and go south for a while. Marriage is like that sometimes.
Joe just showed up one day, and Mom and Dad announced that he would be staying for a while. Joe, a seasoned traveler, knew how to fit in without causing a fuss. His tooth brush lay on a bathroom shelf, and a new towel hung on the wall, no more.
I turned twelve years old that June, and my final season of little league baseball had begun. My father had no interest in baseball and hadn't attended a single game in four years. Uncle Joe, on the other hand, was a lifelong fan of the great game of baseball. Fate had denied him a son, however, with whom to share his love of The Game.
He and Aunt Devina had four daughters, each a picture of Irish loveliness and grace -– traits inherited from their mother's side; but, not a boy in the bunch. So, Uncle Joe and I teamed up that summer to work on baseball . . . and my card skills.
* * * * *
My father may not have cared much for sports, but he had a passion for projects. His garage held all the latest in metal and wood working tools. Each year, he labored over a new blueprint -– gleaned from the pages of Popular Mechanics Magazine.
Few of his projects ever made it to fruition, much less looked like the ones in the book. Dad thought he could do a better job of it, so he kept changing the plans. In the end, most of his efforts ended up on the scrap heap.
The spring of 1959 brought an exception, however. By the end of march, a homemade pop-top camping trailer sat in the middle of our quarter-acre back yard. It even looked like the one in the book, sort of. You could tell Dad was proud.
He had used the same materials as always -- a stack of plywood, a few odd pieces of angle iron, army surplus canvas, and the rear axle from a 1942 Plymouth. The sides and top were painted "dusk pearl," matching the family car, a '57 Chevy station wagon.
On the road, the trailer sat low to the ground, about three feet high. You could see over the top of it when you looked out the back window of the car; but it bounced a lot, making it difficult to tow.
Parked for camping, the trailer took on a new look. The lid raised four feet, and two single sized beds folded out to the left and right. Canvas walls, attached to the bed boards, folded out with them. Four round metal poles held the roof in place.
Inside, the main floor stretched a full six feet long and four feet wide. The bed boards lay to the outside, over the wheel wells, two feet above floor. Thin sponge mattresses provided a measure of comfort.
Uncle Joe and I slept in the little trailer that summer. He took the bunk on the left, and I had the one on the right. Never had two men been more content in life.
Each night, after the others had gone to bed, Joe and I slipped out the back door of the house and walked fifty feet to the trailer. Squeezing in through the back flap, we moved about with careful ease.
For many years, Joe had been a slim wisp of a man; but, by this time in his life, he had gained an ample girth. There wasn't much room to move around.
After a few minutes of rustling about, we sat on the edges of our bunks. Joe had stripped down to a pair of manly boxer shorts, while I wore those awful print pajamas my mother made me wear. Then began the long process of saying good night.
Joe handed over his pipe, and I lit it for him. No one could know about this . . . our little secret. Packing it with a sweet cherry tobacco, I struck a match and drew in a mouthful. Satisfied with the deep red glow in the bowl, I handed it back to him.
Joe switched off the flashlight that served as a lamp and fell into bed. Lying on his back in the dark, he spent the next half hour spinning ribald tales from his distant, checkered past. They were stories about small, out of the way places and odd, eccentric characters he'd met during decades of traveling America's back roads.
In 1924, at ten years old, he rode the rails from Bay City, Michigan to Mexico and back. That exploit alone served as a jumping-off point for a dozen other minor sagas. A single word or phrase could set him off -– remind him of a time and place long ago -– and he would launch into another adventure.
Between stories, we lay in silence, staring up at the white wood ceiling. Joe sucked on the pipe and blew strings of smoke rings. With each breath, his huge round tummy swelled and stretched his sleep shirt. Creatures of the night howled in the distance, and the wind whispered through branches in a creaking old walnut tree overhead.
* * * * *
Joe didn't miss a single one of my little league games that summer. He introduced himself to the coaches and watched from the sidelines during each practice session. All the kids on the team came to know Uncle Joe.
On off days, Joe and I played catch in the back yard. He hit hundreds of ground balls, helping to improve my fielding skills. Long hours on the receiving end of a fungo bat taught me the value of discipline and hard work in achieving a goal.
Joe sat in the dugout with the team on the day I hit my one and only home run in the little league. He had always told me to take a smooth level swing, and the hits would drop in. "Keep your eye on the ball," he said, "and don't swing too hard."
On that fateful swing, the fat part of my bat happened to be out over the plate, as a fast ball came whizzing in on the same plane. The two met with a loud crack, and the ball shot high in the air. It cleared the center field fence, the deepest part of the park. As I crossed home plate, Joe stood first in line to shake my hand.
Two days later, in practice, I fouled off an inside pitch and broke the cherished home run bat. Joe walked over and put his hand on my shoulder.
* * * * *
On weekends, after the ball games, Joe often asked friends over to the house. His old army pal, Glen McEwan, lived in the area. Glen had a daughter my age.
At some point during the visit, Joe liked to suggest a "friendly" game of cards between the kids. Visitors could pick the game. Gin rummy or pinochle, it didn't matter. Joe had tutored me in both.
With the game in progress, and me lagging in points, Joe made a "friendly" side bet with his pal. We strung it out, made it look close, and then I won it on the last hand. That was the plan.
Later, Uncle Joe gave me my cut, four or five dollars that would buy a new bat and replace a tattered, old baseball -– the one covered in black electrician's tape. With the rest of the money, I took the kids to Roy's Donut Shop for a sundae or banana split.
As the summer drew to a close, Uncle Joe said good bye and boarded a bus for Eureka. He and Aunt Devina had patched things up over the phone.
My cousins were about to get their father back. Surely, they missed him. Still, a single greedy cell deep within gave thanks that I had Uncle Joe to myself that summer.
* * * * *
Fast forward to 1974. The army assigned me to Fort Ord, a hundred miles south of San Francisco. For years, Fort Ord had been a quiet training post, nestled among gently rolling hills, overlooking picturesque Monterey Bay.
Shortly after my arrival, however, the army formed a cadre at Fort Ord to bring the 7th Infantry Division, a leg unit with a proud combat record, back to active duty. Uncle Joe had served in combat with the 7th Infantry Division during World War II.
Back in the "big war," Joe spent five years with the division as an infantryman. In 1940, he helped convert Camp Ord –- a hillside of pup tents -– into Fort Ord, a sprawling training post. Photographs show Joe sawing boards to build temporary wooden barracks buildings. Far from that, they were still in use thirty-five years later.
* * * * *
When the division shipped out to fight in the Pacific, Joe went with it. He hit every island from Attu to Okinawa. In four years of battle, his unit suffered heavy losses.
There were pitch black nights in lonely fox holes and several close calls; but, Joe never got a scratch. Toward the end, he had been in his company longer than any other man. He had witnessed a great deal of madness in the war.
Perhaps that explains a lot about the man. He seemed to get so much out of life, always ready with a quip and a laugh and so carefree. Sure, there are serious issues in this world worth worrying about. Then again, a lot of daily irritants just aren't that important in the grand scheme of things. Uncle Joe seemed to know the difference.
* * * * *
In late spring 1976, Fort Ord's commanding general decided to conduct a division in review, a massive endeavor. This would be a parade of epic proportions. Eight thousand soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division were to march across Fritche Army Airfield and pass in front of the general and his guests.
The last time it had been done, in 1942, General Vinegar Joe Stilwell reviewed the troops on horseback. Uncle Joe had marched in that last parade, and I would march in this one. When he heard about it, Joe drove down from Eureka to attend.
As Joe signed the guest book, he let it slip that he had marched in the 1942 parade. Out of respect, an aide to the general led him to a seat up in the VIP section of the reviewing stands. Joe Kaczmarek, who made it all the way up to Private First Class once before being busted again, had finally become a 7th Infantry Division VIP.
Lieutenant Colonel Breen, commander of the 2d Battalion, 8th Field Artillery, heard about it, too. He came over to talk with me, as I stood with my squad. I would march on the right flank -– nearest the general and the cameras.
"Ron," he said, "I just found out that your uncle is here and that he marched in '42 under Vinegar Joe. Why don't you go sit with him up in the VIP seats? You can watch the parade from there."
"No, sir!" I replied. "My uncle marched in the last parade, and I'm marching in this one. I can't tell my nephew some day that I marched in a division review, if I were sitting up in the stands." Colonel Breen saluted and walked away.
The parade went off without a hitch. The weather turned nice, and the units all marched well. Better yet, no one fainted from the heat during an endless string of long-winded speeches.
Afterward, Joe and I roamed the post together while he rattled off stories from the "big war." At his old unit, the 17th Infantry Regiment, a young captain took us down to the basement where they kept the unit scrapbooks. Long-forgotten and covered in dust, the old tomes contained faded newspaper clippings, photos, and lists of names.
In one book, covering the battle for the island of Attu, Joe saw a list of soldiers who had won the Silver Star. He looked at the names and frowned. "Wait a minute," he said, "that can't be all. Someone is missing here."
"Where is Henry Covaleski?" he asked. "My friend, Henry Covaleski, lost a leg on Attu, and he was awarded a Silver Star. Where is his name?"
The captain fell back speechless. He didn't know what to say. How did one go back and correct history? To him, the old scrapbook stood as fact.
To Joe, though, it didn't tell the whole story. There were gaps and omissions. Some journalist hadn't researched his story well enough before sending in an article.
No one could argue with him. Uncle Joe had been there and had seen it with his own eyes. He took part in that history.
* * * * *
In the summer of 1980, my tour of duty at Fort Benning neared an end. Fort Benning, Home of the Infantry, is one of the premiere posts in the army, rich in southern charm and tradition. Uncle Joe had always wanted to visit Fort Benning.
Joe bought a bus ticket and showed up on my doorstep one day -– unannounced and just in time for dinner -– with a bag of groceries under one arm. He cooked dinner that first night and laid out his plans.
Zach Doppel had been my house guest for the past month. The two of us pretty much filled a one bedroom apartment; but Joe, a seasoned traveler, knew how to fit in without making a fuss.
He found a slot in the bathroom for his tooth brush and hung his towel on the wall. Zach already had the fold-out bed, but Joe didn't mind. The sofa would do just fine.
For the next two weeks, Zach saw my Uncle Joe up close and personal. Zach can tell you, the man ran us ragged. He spent hours leading the way through the Infantry Museum, where he proudly pointed out each piece of equipment from his era.
Joe had us take his photo in front of every monument, plaque, and historic building on post. We shot up five roles of film. All the while, Joe regaled us with stories from his days in the army.
As a former enlisted man, Joe had never seen the inside of an officer's club. Fort Benning had one of the finest. The grand old building had thick whitewashed stone walls and a red tile roof. A circular drive led in from the street to a broad porch spread out under a high portico. Wide steps led up to a large set of wooden double doors.
Inside, thick red carpets filled the main halls. Rooms had individual motifs, honoring famous generals from the past. Elegant, polished mahogany gleamed throughout. Joe took a liking to the place and joined us there for lunch every day.
Ten of us sat around one long, formal dining table. Joe talked nonstop for an hour. His stories of barracks life in the old "brown boot" army brought us to our knees.
No one laughed as hard as Joe did. You've got to hand it to a man who can laugh at his own jokes, and Joe's laughter filled the room. During a lull, he stood and said, "It was never like this for me in the old army." Nine men raised a toast to Eureka Joe.
* * * * *
The only mistake we made during Joe's visit was to show him the Kudzu vines. Native to Japan, Kudzu is a fast growing ivy ground cover. Someone imported Kudzu to the deep south in the 1920's, in an effort to provide cheap cattle fodder.
The cows didn't go for it, though. Left unchecked, it spread throughout the south, covering everything in its path. All around Fort Benning, Kudzu inched up pine trees, telephone poles, and buildings.
In some places, entire hillsides were covered; and old abandoned homes fell victim to a sea of green ivy. Only the outlines remained.
Kudzu proved immune to all herbicides. Only one known remedy existed: burn the infected area, scraped off six feet of topsoil, and replace with fresh dirt. The federal government couldn't underwrite such a grand project, so Kudzu remained at large.
During early morning runs, Zach and I noted that Kudzu grew a foot or more overnight in some spots. Creeping onto the roadway from nearby fields, it's stringy vines stretched like tentacles, reaching out to grab unaware joggers. We respected the Kudzu, and we kept our distance from it.
That old warrior, Uncle Joe, did not scare so easily. He insisted on taking a couple twigs of Kudzu home with him. Kudzu might be just the answer to a problem he'd been struggling with.
Joe said that he owned a vacation cottage near the Pacific Ocean, south of Eureka. He worried, because the hillside behind his house had eroded badly. Nothing he had tried up to that point would grow there.
Kudzu would do the trick, we agreed. Kudzu could grow anywhere. Unfortunately, it didn't know when to stop growing. We begged him not to do it.
Our protests fell on deaf ears. Joe slipped two small Kudzu branches into plastic bags and added a few spoonfuls of moist dirt, enough nutrition for a Kudzu plant to cover a football field in three days. Then he packed it in his suitcase.
My uncle meant to transport a plant product across the borders of eight states -– a clear disrespect for the law. In addition to the legal issues, we shuddered to think of what might happen to the environment.
What if the Kudzu started to grow inside the suitcase on the bus ride? Worse yet, what if it got loose out on the west coast? "We'll read about it in the newspaper next week," Zach muttered.
Joe shook hands all around and climbed aboard the bus. A minute later, it motored off into the sunset. After it had faded from view, Zach turned to me and said, "Ron, your Uncle Joe is a certified true character."
* * * * *
If you're ever on the west coast, north of San Francisco, you might want to rent a car and take a drive along Highway 1. It's a very scenic route. Mountains slope right down to the ocean, ending in steep, rocky cliffs and rugged beaches.
Forty miles south of Eureka, slow down and look at the hills off to the right. The whole area is covered with Kudzu. Local folks don't know how it got there.
Near the ridge, the outline of an old abandoned cottage stands out. Farther down, in the middle of the hill, a large shape rises up in a sea of green ivy.
At first glance, it doesn't seem like much; but, look closer, and you will see that it is the Kudzu-covered outline of a middle-aged man, frozen in mid-stride. He seems to be running away from something, toward the ocean.
Say hello. That's my Uncle Joe.