“The Uncle Joe Memorial”
By Richard E. Noble
To me War is Uncle Joe.
When I was a little boy and fascinated with six-shooters and guns, and playing army with my box full of little tanks, and trucks, and infantrymen, I was looking through a photo album with another of my uncles, my Uncle Ray. The album was filled with pictures of my Uncle Ray and my Uncle Joe in their army uniforms. Seeing my uncles all dressed up in their uniforms prompted me to ask;
“Uncle Ray, did you ever kill any Germans?”
My uncle laughed. Why was he laughing, I wondered? I suppose that it was the naiveté of a child enthusiastically talking about War and killing as if these things were positive achievements for mankind. I’m sure that he realized instantly from the gleam in my eye and the thrill in my voice, that if he said, “Darn right, I did. I wiped out a whole platoon of them suckers!” he would have been an instant hero. But, I’m sure, as much as he wanted the admiration and hero worship of a young idol seeker of about six or seven years of age with eyes just burning to hear a tale of war, victory, and brave endeavor - and knowing that he could tell me any number of lies and I’d never know the difference - made him see a humorous situation written all over my little face.
“No, no,” he said still laughing. “I never left Fort So-and-So. The closest that I got to see any war was at a John Wayne movie.”
“But, but. . .” I said pointing to his picture in his army suit, “you were a soldier.”
“Oh yes, yes,” he explained. “But there were millions and millions of us soldiers who never even shot a weapon. I spent most of the war shooting off a typewriter in this far away foreign land called California.”
Needless to say, I was gravely disappointed. My hero, Uncle Ray, was a typewriter shooter assigned to killing enemy file cabinets in California. Boy, you would think that he could have, at least, knocked down a German - or beat one up - or something. But no, unfortunately, my Uncle Ray was one of those guys who could not tell a lie. He probably read too many cheery tree stories.
But then, seeing all the disappointment dripping from my face, he quickly added; “If you want to know about killing and shooting bad guys, you’ll have to ask your Uncle Joe.”
“That’s right. Your Uncle Joe is the man who saw the action. He can tell you all about it.”
I was very glad and proud that I had an uncle who saw action and killed a bunch of enemy people - but Uncle Joe?
Uncle Joe was somewhat of a family mystery. He was semi-mystical. When anybody in the family mentioned his name, a look came over them - as if they were talking about someone who didn’t really exist. Someone who had died a long, long time ago. But Uncle Joe wasn’t dead. He was alive and periodically, I would bump into him. He died before I was twelve years old, yet I can describe to you, in detail, every one of the few encounters that I had with Uncle Joe throughout those years.
Uncle Joe lived as a kind of recluse. He lived somewhere in the neighborhood, but I never did know where. I think that he lived in a little apartment up on Center Street. The apartment was above a small neighborhood tavern known as Coza’s Cafe’.
Uncle Joe had these deep penetrating eyes. They seemed to be sunk deep into his skull - like they were trying to hide back inside his head. The skin around his eyes was always somewhat yellow - funny looking. When I asked my mother about it, she told me it was because my Uncle Joe had contracted malaria during the war. He always looked yellow and . . . . well. . . ghostly.
I learned about Uncle Joe, little by little. He got put together in my life like a picture puzzle - a mass of little jagged pieces, frayed, torn and never quite fitting together properly.
Uncle Joe was the brave, warrior guy who saw all the action and killed all the Germans, but Uncle Joe looked like the saddest, most sensitive, all-alone person who I had ever met. He never got married. He never had any children. And, even though he lived just around the block someplace, you very rarely saw him. Whenever my mother or my aunts talked about Uncle Joe, they talked in “used-to-be's”. Uncle Joe used to be like this; or Uncle Joe used to be like that. Uncle Joe used to be something. Uncle Joe used to be someone, but now . . . what is he? Who is he?
Uncle Joe popped into our apartment one Christmas. My Dad, who was a man of very few words, loved my Uncle Joe. Whenever Uncle Joe walked in that door everybody laid it onto him. He was the wailing wall of the family. Whenever he popped his head out of his “foxhole” it seemed that everyone in the world came running towards him with their arms wide open. And there would be “crying and the gnashing of teeth” as they dumped all of their petty problems and grips onto his shoulders. My mother could moan and cry and bellyache to poor Uncle Joe for hours. I remember sitting on the parlor floor on this particular Christmas, and saying to myself, “Why don’t these people just shut up; can’t they see that they are just going to scare Uncle Joe away? He is just going to fly off someplace.” Uncle Joe was the butterfly – the delicate, sensitive loving butterfly. Didn’t they realize that they were going to chase him right out of the house and that he might never come back?
From my perspective, Uncle Joe was the one who needed the comfort. He was the one who obviously needed the hug and someone to say; “It’s all right. Don’t worry. You’re safe.” But instead, he got the exact opposite. He was the toxic dumpsite for everybody else’s pent-up frustrations - everybody else’s problems. He was the one who understood everyone, but also the one who everyone else didn’t understand. He was the mystery man.
A week later when my older sister and I were taking down the Christmas tree, we found three envelopes scattered among its branches. They had our name written on them - my name on one, my sister’s on another and my brother’s on a third. When we opened the envelopes we found a dollar bill inside. The name of the giver was not to be found on the envelope anywhere.
My sister and I stood for a moment looking at our dollar bill and the unsigned envelope. Then, we looked at one another. Without hesitation, we both said, Uncle Joe! Who else would give and not want anything in return - not even a thank-you, or a hug, or a kiss. Who else did we know who would leave dollar bills hanging in the Christmas tree anonymously - probably the only three dollars that he had.
I still, to this day, don’t know what Uncle Joe did for a living. He didn’t work at the mill or own a car, or a house, or own anything as far as I knew.
One time, my mother was getting back at me for showing too much attention towards my grandmother. I always liked my grandmother. She would cook the same dish that my mother would prepare, and I would eat my grandmother’s and not my mother’s. My mother would get infuriated.
“1 use the exact same recipe that your grandmother uses; in fact, she is the one who taught me how to make this dish.”
“Sorry Mom,” I’d say. “You can blindfold me or put me into a dark closet; I’ll still be able to pick out grandma’s pirogues over yours every time.”
Well finally, this one day, my mother blew her top; “You think that your grandmother is so darn wonderful; well let me tell you this, sonny boy - that woman is the same woman who threw your favorite Uncle Joe out into the street when he came home from the war.”
Boy, my mother knew how to hurt. Could that possibly be true? I didn’t believe my mother. My grandmother was a round, jolly, barrel full of hugs and kisses and chocolate pudding with milk on the top; and cheek-pinching and smiles and laughter.
“I don’t believe you,” I said. “Why would Grandma throw Uncle Joe out into the street?”
“Because he didn’t have a job - that’s why, smarty pants!”
“So, your wonderful grandmother didn’t want your Uncle Joe, war hero, sitting around her house and eating her food, without paying any rent.”
Well, I wasn’t going to argue with my mother, but I also knew that she had a sharp tongue and could often say things without thinking - even make up things, sometimes. But just having this new knowledge made me look at my grandmother differently. Could anybody do that to their child? Work was important, but a son? . . . home from the war? Could my grandmother have done such a thing?
One day I was puttsing around helping my Uncle Ray with something. I popped the question; “Did Grandma really throw Uncle Joe out into the street after he came home from the war just because he didn’t have a job and couldn’t pay her any rent?”
My Uncle Ray stopped dead in his tracks. He turned and looked at me.
“Who told you that?” he asked. I lowered my head, shuffled about, and kicked at the concrete at my feet. He could tell that I wasn’t about to squeal. “Well,” he said sitting down on an old crate. “Your grandma did put Uncle Joe out, but your description was not exactly the way that it happened. You see, when your Uncle Joe came back from the war, he wasn’t the same as before he left.”
“I know. He got malaria.”
“Yes, he did have malaria, but he had something else also - something that nobody had a name for; and no cure for either.”
“What was it?”
“Well it is hard to describe. It is something that comes with war and killing people. It makes a man different inside. When your Uncle Joe came back, he was different. He didn’t want to work or even look for a job. He sat in your grandmother’s living room and just stared out the window.”
“So what? I do that sometimes.”
“Yeah, but your Uncle Joe did it day after day after day - for a long, long time. Your grandmother was worried about him. He couldn’t just sit there in the parlor staring out the window for the rest of his life. He was making himself sick inside. Your grandmother tried and tried and tried. She talked and talked, but Uncle Joe just sat there staring out the window and smoking cigarettes. Finally one day she just couldn’t stand it anymore. She packed his bag and brought it to him. She told him that if he wasn’t going to live anymore . . . he would just have to find someplace else to die.”
“So what did Uncle Joe do?”
“He left. Then after awhile he got a job, and pretty soon, he was all right again.”
“What is Uncle Joe, anyway?”
“Well,” my Uncle Ray said with a smile. “Uncle Joe is kind of a Jack-of-all-trades. You know, he was always the kind of guy who could do anything - and be good at it too.”
My Uncle Joe is a part of the reason that I don’t like war. It always seemed to me that my Uncle Joe was a casualty of World War II. Somehow his life ended over there in Burma or Bataan or wherever it was, but his name never got carved into a wall or put on a plaque. Unfortunately he was still alive. But what was he? Who was he? Where did he live? What did he do for a living? Who did he care about? Who cared about him?
War sprouts bodies like my Uncle Joe. Guys who make it back, but don’t make it back. They live under bridges, and in flophouses, out in some woods, or in empty apartments. My Uncle Joe fought on the “right” side in World War II. No question about it. He didn’t fight no “Little Hitler”; he fought the real Hitler - the democracy hating, Jew killing, monster who wanted to take over the world and didn’t care who or how many died in the process. No mistake there, my Uncle Joe fought on the right side - for the good guys. But yet he couldn’t find his way back from Burma - and why? He was right; they were wrong. What’s the problem?
War creates a lot of heroes. We get a lot of plaques and a lot of monuments. We get bronze guys on horses - concrete guys with swords. We get statues, and walls, and pillars, and pits, and ponds and lakes, all surrounded by canons, and cartridge boxes and stars and stripes and flags - lots and lots of flags. But war also creates a hell of a lot of Uncle Joes.
There are no memorials to the Uncle Joes. I doubt if there ever will be. How do you carve a ghost out of marble? How do you paint a picture of a man searching for the soul he lost on Pork Chop Hill or in some Vietnam village or on Bataan or at the Battle of the Bulge or in Flanders Field? How do you make a statement about a man who no longer has anything to say?
The Uncle Joe War Memorial? what would it look like?
My guess is that these Uncle Joe types would not want a memorial. They would probably tell the public to keep the money and put it into the hot lunch program at the public schools.
So don’t start up a collection or hire a sculptor just yet. These guys probably like living under the bridges and in those empty apartments - it’s now a tradition; a very, very old tradition.
I don’t know about you but there is a part of me who lives in an empty apartment; a part of me who would rather live under a bridge; a part of me who doesn’t want any hugs and kisses; a part of me who just wants to be left alone - all alone; a part of me who thinks that he has nothing left inside of him - nothing left to give; a part of me who would just like to die - to die in peace; and may they all someday rest in PEACE; someday . . somehow, somewhere - may we all rest in PEACE. . . amen.