Uncle Gene died yesterday. He didn't make it to 2013. What do I remember of him? Mostly I remember that he was determined and happy. He really seemed to enjoy life and to enjoy people. As someone who has led a charmed life, I was surprised that Uncle Gene had such a good outlook on life. He was born with cerebral palsy and orphaned at an early age. This didn't seem to bother him much, beyond his dislike for the drive thru. He had a lot of friends and it was easy for him to make more. He had a host of corny one liners that he would launch and unsuspecting store clerks or anyone who crossed his path. One of my favorites:
You gotta go, when you gotta go. If you don't go when you gotta go, you might find out when you do go, that you already went.During my high school years my cousin Mark and I would occasionally "work" for Uncle Gene during the summer. Working usually meant some kind of maintenance on his rental trailers or his fleet of cars and trucks that he collected. For the rental trailers we got to tar the roofs and insulate the water pipes. Tarring a roof is a hot job, especially in the summer heat of Southern Illinois. We would haul buckets of silvery goo up on the roof and spread it around with mops. The underside of a trailer tends to be more or less open to the weather, so the pipes will freeze in the winter. Mark and I would crawl under them and wrap "heat tape" around the pipes and then fiberglass insulation around that with generous layer of duct tape holding it all together. Heat tape is basically a long flat electric extension cord that heats up enough to keep the pipes from freezing.
I remember Uncle Gene usually had at least three or four cars around. One of which almost always needed something done to it. I learned how to change a thermostat on his Chevy Nova. He taught us about the proper mixture of antifreeze to water when filling a radiator.
I remember that he had a diesel truck that was his pride and joy. He wanted to use a special kind of oil in the truck and so he wrote to the manufacturer to make sure it was ok to use a certain motor oil since it wasn't on the recommended list in the owner's manual. Apparently they gave him their blessing.
One of my favorite memories was changing the tie rods on one of his cars. I think one of them was bent, so we replaced it. We made the mistake of measuring the toe-in while the car was jacked up. This meant that when we took the car off the jacks, that the toe-in was way off. I distinctly remember test driving this car and it made a horrible squealing sound as it went down the tar and gravel road in front of Uncle Gene's house. It was a hot day and the road was soft. The Nova's front tires left a gouge in the road, not unlike a snow plow would have left in soft snow. We re-worked the toe-in measurements, this time while the car was on the ground as opposed to when the front wheels were hanging down from a jacked up frame. Lesson learned. That reminds me of another Uncle Gene saying: "Measure twice, cut once."
Uncle Gene loved country music and dancing. His diesel truck had dual smoke stack exhausts and a spoiler with the saying "Country lovin' with the country cowboy".
As a kid I remember that he would drop by occasionally to confer with Dad. It always seemed like they had several secret projects that they were working on. He had a sixth sense about when to come by. If we were opening the pool for the summer or fixing up the barn, he would usually appear to put in his two cents, often leaving unceremoniously, the scent of his Brylcreem slowly dissipating.
He worked at Valley Steel in quality control. I'm not sure what he did exactly, but I think it involved a lot of measuring and checking of orders. He worked outside a lot and the rumor was that he would never wear a hat, no matter how hot or cold it got. He did wear a cowboy hat when going out on the town though.
I remember he would drop by Grandma's house and sometimes plop down on the itchy carpet next to me and watch TV. In my minds eye we were always watching Hee Haw or the Carol Burnett Show.
Thanks for the life lessons Uncle Gene. I'm better off for having known you. May you rest in peace.