Some Memories of Uncle Art

Thursday, October 16, 2008

My earliest memories of Uncle Art are of him on "The Farm", of course. The strange pump-up lamp with the mantles, the small box of bullets on the shelf in the kitchen, just a few feet from another most fun pump ever at the sink. Together with the wood burning stove and the fly-swatter, all were captivating wonders to a little boy from the city.

I remember the house making noise whenever and wherever you moved in it, but I could only accept as the truth the news he would tell me of the early morning fox in the chicken pen, because in all my visits he never woke me once as he got himself up and at the chores. (Rodger had better luck than I, often returning for a second breakfast with the rest of us sleepyheads.)

Now that I try to make my own living, I realize how generous Uncle Art has been with his time. I was given ample opportunity to drive the tractor with its standard shift and my eight or nine year old grasp of how it all worked. I think my favourite machine was the hay baler, and when I was a little older I was able to help stack the bales. I'm sorry, Uncle Art, for how much my help must have cost you!

Once, he stopped the tractor, walked a little past the hay bales, and started this strange sideways shuffle, standing mostly on one leg. If there had been some music playing it might have made more sense, but after about thirty seconds he stopped and motioned me over. Uncle Art has the best way of teaching something. In contrast to my own style of endless lecture as I sort out what I'm trying to say, he does it by silent example. He showed me the mouse that had been eating his crops, and I like to think that I understood. I would rather have played with it, but that probably wasn't such a good idea either.

After we moved to Nova Scotia our visits to the farm were obviously less frequent. I was brought there once again; this time aged about twelve, much older and wiser, ready to tackle more serious farming tasks than just riding along. It wasn't long before Uncle Art had shown me the new lawn tractor, probably knowing what would happen next in general terms, details to be determined. I don't remember him ever listing off the rules, do's and don'ts or I'd lose my privileges. He just stepped out of the way until I came back to him. Without a word of criticism, he hitched up the front end loader to the lawn tractor and dragged it out of the swamp, and I was on my way again. Spectacular!

I watched when Uncle Art shot Blackie. Years later I could laugh out loud as he told the story of the slow jitters the cattle would work up, far too little to save their own lives. We ate Blackie that winter. I'll spare you most of the details of how that was achieved, but I remember a lot of it. I also remember that Uncle Art didn't really want to show me what a cow's stomach contents looked like, but I said I really wanted to know, so after we dragged the entrails out to the magpie feedlot, he sliced open that membranous sphere and I braced myself for a stench that never really came. It looked like moist cattle feed. How 'bout that?

One happy Christmas season Dad and I were in the basement trying to wire up the old fan Uncle Art gave me the last time I was in Saskatchewan. We had just started an electrical fire in it when there was a knock on the basement window. At first I thought it was the next door neighbour, but in the darkness of the evening I barely made out enough of an image to realize what was going on. I bounded up the stairs shouting, "Auntie Em and Uncle Art are here!" They had pulled a surprise visit on us. I can't imagine taking such a risk myself, but they did it just right and had maximum impact. How many decades later is it now, and I'm still talking about it? The visit itself, and the frozen turkey they brought with them, wrapped in newspaper and larger than the single travel bag the two of them used for the entire visit? I don't know anyone that can travel more lightly than those two!

As you all know, packing isn't the only thing Uncle Art can do frugally. Look around your homes and I bet it isn't long before you spot something really useful that he made for you out of almost nothing. The price list scribbled on the inside of the bandsaw he built -- the bandsaw that now occupies a central place of honour in my own workshop -- tells quite a story by itself: Plywood 8.95 V-Belt 1.95 Electrical Plug 0.12 Electrical Socket 0.14

I bought a replacement blade for it a few years ago at double, maybe triple what he spent building the entire machine! And nobody who visits my shop doesn't pause to gaze at it, and shake their heads in amazement as I explain that it was used to butcher deer that my father and uncle hunted. No matter how many times I brush it off, it's still soon covered with sawdust.

The workshop is probably where Uncle Art's influence on me comes alive the most. I am now firmly entrenched in a lifestyle of creativity, and thinking back to machines he has made, and solutions he has applied for repairs, always gives me the inspiration I need to persevere when I run into difficulty. I have yet to see a belt sander better than the one he made for my father. The meat grinder driven by large wooden pulleys he made, the tobacco tins full of bolts, little tables and chairs of us young-uns that still function well under our expanded adult behinds, are all functional reminders of someone that gave a little at a time, but gave with such unfailing regularity that his legacy abounds. And when I visit a cousin and see another item, I'm comforted that I'm part of a family stitched together by such strong thread.

Back in Nova Scotia I tried to help Dad erect the new garage door opener. He had built this massive structure out of 2x4s to hold it, and it was my job, as a young twenty-something, to climb the ladder and pound the nails needed to hold it in the ceiling. Our visitor, Uncle Art, in his seventies, had to replace me and finish the job I simply wasn't strong enough to do. He one-armed those nails home in a few practiced strokes that I can still shamefully recall. I don't know what he thought of me at the time because he never said anything out loud. Like always, he displayed his tender heart by his example.

The most blatant example I saw of his goodwill was of him feeding that herd of kittens on the farm. I had never seen a cat eat raw corn on the cob before, but hearing Uncle Art laugh at our incredulity as they chowed down with playful enthusiasm was another of those cherished learning experiences for me.

Taking my new wife to this hallowed place of heritage, my last memory of Uncle Art actually on the farm was of him walking up the laneway wearing tattered coveralls that covered only some, looking through those venetian blinds of his, a smile on his face and right on schedule. "40 winks", a cup of coffee perched on the arm of the chair, and not one drop spilled in my entire life.

Uncle Art gave me my first Princess Auto catalogue when I was maybe ten years old. I believe he went to the trouble of mailing it to me, three thousand miles away. You can't do stuff like that if you don't care about someone, because it's hard to think of a more appropriate gift for a budding inventor. I must have spent dozens of hours poring over every fascinating surplus item, imagining how I could use a 3000 psi hydraulic pump to make liquid oxygen (I couldn't), or a windshield washer pump to make a solar collector (I could), or maybe use that other big motor to power an elevator up to a tree house, even though there were no trees in my back yard. (Perhaps not every influence has been good, because Princess Auto opened a store near my house and it is now an open wound of temptation for me.)

Uncle Art gave me a little pill bottle of teeny tiny nails I still dip into once in awhile, as well as some equally small drill bits. Why a farmer might ever need such small tools is a mystery to me, but it's just another example of how thoughtful he has been. Maybe a pill bottle of assorted nails wouldn't matter to someone else, but after a lifetime of surprises starting with toys from Shreddies boxes to bundles of wooden shapes carried on the plane, I now assign meaning to every little thing that comes my way, because I know there's something personal behind it.

There'd be something wrong with me if I didn't mention time flying by during some of the "Murder" games played until all hours of the night with Auntie Em and Uncle Art. Few things have settled my family into hours of concentration punctuated by laughter and snacks as a six-sided round with the true masters of the game. What always impresses me is how Uncle Art gets every joke, no matter how convoluted it might have been, while knowing where every player on the board is, and being ready with the best tactic for any situation. Soft rules such as "No pre-communication with your partner!" he never breaks, but with a sly grin after the cards are played, he reveals that he knew exactly what crime he might have perpetrated, had he wished to stoop to a lower level. His sophisticated sense of strategy always led the men's team to the majority of wins, and I'll leave it to him right now to find some clever way to deflect the ladies' objections to that point!

My memories of Uncle Art are as strong as they are many. It's with ever growing respect that I write down only a few of them, and realize that Uncle Art raises the bar with his example, and then lifts you up so you can hope to reach it, too.

With much love and admiration,


Proud nephew of Uncle Art and Auntie Em.