Something was wrong. Something was bad wrong, I could tell from the way they were huddled together like thieves in the kitchen of the Nelson House on the Beach Loop Road, speaking conspiratorially over their coffee cups in low, determined voices. The normally bright and airy kitchen was suffused with a heavy oppressive gloom, as the two dangerous young men, turned their backs to the rest of the world and on me for a small desperate time.
I wanted to go in and take part in the conversation. Normally, I would have been welcome, but something in the way they held themselves that dreary afternoon in 1965, told me to leave them both alone. And, I did.
“He says there’s no cure, Lee-Roy.” He said; his jaw squared against the raw and unforgiving light. He was being brave and tough and it was no act, but even for his grim and dogged determination, it was obvious that he was scared.
Dad sat in silence with his older brother. It was enough for the both just to be in the company of the other. Nothing more needed to be said. They were men of few words and sparse deeds. My father, the younger of the two, looked down at the floor, sipped at his cup and shifted in his chair. His face was resolute and yet there was an air of bewildered sadness in his eyes that he could not hide. The silence between them told all that needed to be said.
Nels drained his cup, gripped it until his scarred knuckles turned white and the glass was in danger of shattering and then, just as gently, almost reverently set it on the table. He took an unfiltered Camel from a short stubby pack, smoothed his moustache back on either side with his thumb, popped his Zippo and lit his cigarette. A great blue grey cloud of smoke billowed perilously into the low kitchen air. Without looking at his younger brother, he said,
“It’s going to have to catch me, Lee-Roy.” It wasn’t a statement. It was a threat.
I shivered when I heard it. I knew, and I don’t know why, but my uncle was talking about dying. I knew there was going to be a fight and that he was going to be in it up to his neck.
Of all my uncles, I had two favorites as a kid- my mother’s brother, Bob and my father’s older brother, Nels. That’s not to say that I didn’t love and appreciate all the others, I did, but Nels and Bob had the biggest influences on my life.
Uncle Bob owned a series of small grocery stores, Farmer’s Markets, and they all had one thing in common- a butcher shop. And he was the local butcher. His butcher counter was always a place of fascination to me. Out front would be a refrigerated glass case, where the cuts of meat, the chops, the steaks and burger would be displayed. Just back of the counter, was the ubiquitous ‘Toledo No Springs’ scale for weighing the meat, and in the rear, nestled in the sawdust on the floor, a large sway-back butcher-block table, complete with a wide array of sharp, finger-quick knives, cleavers and saws. Boy howdy! What could be better than a roomful of knives? And, if Uncle Bob was in a generous mood, and he almost always was, he would let me come into the back with him and cut meat. I learned about knives from my Uncle Bob. I learned to steel them and keep them deadly sharp, a skill I possess even today. There’s nothing like a sharp knife! There’s nothing like the quiet thrill and satisfaction, of steeling a fine high carbon blade, and then drawing it with an eloquent ease through a cut of beef, or pork, or lamb. Everyone who knows me, who visits my house with any regularity, knows not to touch my knives! I keep one or two cheap raggedy edged blades around the kitchen for those who don’t know any better, but for myself, and because my Uncle Bob taught me, I have a set of butcher grade, German made, fine high steel Henckles knives, that I keep honed to an edge fine enough to shave with. I don’t think I ever told my Uncle how much it meant to me that he let me into his butcher-shop and made me a student of fine cutlery. Maybe this will do…
My favorite uncle was one of my father’s three older brothers- Nels. Now, dad was a tall, broad shouldered, narrow hip and handsome man, whose quiet nature contradicted the storm that lay inside of him. Nels was a squat, barrel-chested trunk of a man, with a quick and ready temper and a smile that was as disarming as it was dangerous. I recently told my father that of all the men I had ever met in my life, I enjoyed Nel’s smile the most. There was always a Santa Claus twinkle in his right eye and a grin beneath his waxed moustache that hinted of as much menace, malice and ill-intent as it did of benevolence, and you never knew, as my father has said, which you were going to get. In a piece I wrote in 2005, titled Giants, I wrote of Nels, that he could “…drink you under the table, slap you down, pick you up and dust you off and then drink you under and slap you down again…1)” but never for spite. Nels was tough and contrary but never malicious. If he was beating the hell out of you, he was probably smiling, enjoying himself and hoping you were doing the same. Don’t believe me? Well, find one or two of the old time tough guys who are still alive in Corvallis, Oregon, if there are any left, and ask them. After they stop shaking, twitching and convulsing, they’ll tell you it’s all true and that they remember Nels, some more fondly than others!
The medical profession didn’t know a lot about M.S., Multiple Sclerosis in 1965. They still don’t. It was incurable in 1965, it still is. They didn’t know what caused it in 1965, they still don’t and there wasn’t any real treatment for it back then, although that has changed some in the intervening years. In those days, they didn’t so much diagnose M.S. as they eliminated everything else and then guessed that you had Multiple Sclerosis. And, that’s pretty much how they diagnosed Nels; well, that and a painful spinal tap, which, Nels told my father, was excruciating!
The doctor told him, “There’s no cure, Nels. The disease itself probably won’t kill you but it will eventually weaken and cripple you to the point where something else will – probably pneumonia, or something as simple. And, along the way, it won’t be pretty.”
From that awful afternoon in the kitchen of the Nelson House in 1965, until sometime in the early eighties, when the mill my Uncle Nels worked in burned down, he ran; he ran fast and he ran far and he made M.S., the dreaded crippling disease chase him.
There were good days and bad. But, through it all, my tough brawling Uncle kept a tightly clenched jaw. He would work a swing-shift, get off at midnight, hunt all night, sleep a few hours and then get up do it all again. It was during those years that my younger brother, Howard and I, begged him to take us hunting with him.
Our father’s brother was renowned for his smoked apple and cherry-wood raccoon jerky. A trip to his house meant that, if you were lucky, you would get a tender, chewy and smoky treat! I can still taste it. It was sweet and salty, a hunter’s nectar from heaven’s smokehouse! Well, Nels finally relented and took us raccoon hunting early one frosty winter morning. It was better than Uncle Bob’s butcher shop! This was real deal hunting! Uncle Nels packed his rifle, ammo and a thermos of stout coffee into his jeep, bundled me, my brother and I think our cousin Doug, although I’m not sure, into his Jeep with his dogs and off we went. Although he had two or three ‘Coon’ dogs, his favorite was his hound, ‘Blue.’ Once we got far enough into the back hills surrounding Corvallis, he let Blue and the dogs out. In short, if frenetic order, they picked up a scent and ran barking off into the near distance in a tight knot of rabid canine excitement. We sat in the eerie gloom, in the suffocating warmth of the jeep, bathed in the dim glow of the yellowed dash lights, drinking hot coffee, while we listened to the eager calling of the dogs. It didn’t take very long.
Their staccato barking soon turned to the horrifying baleful sounds of werewolves howling in the moors. It was a sound that sent shivers up my spine, and of them, Blue’s was the most mournful. It was the sound of eminent death.
“Let’s go, boys.” Nels said as he threw the stringent remnants of his coffee to the ground.
He grabbed up his rifle and a flashlight. We piled out of the Jeep, much the same way as the dogs had done, and crept through the dark and silent forest, hot on Nel’s heels, following the blood curdling howls of the dogs.
When we finally got to the tree where the dogs had the raccoon trapped, Nels collared each of the slathering beasts, chained them up, spotlighted the ‘coon’ and shot him. There would be more smoked apple and cherry-wood jerky to eat in the following days.
After the second round of howling death, I became curious. I wondered why, after all the work the dogs had done; my uncle chained them up before shooting the raccoon? It didn’t seem fair to me. So, I asked him.
“You mean, you don’t know?” He asked me, with that Santa Clause twinkle in his right eye and that grin beneath his waxed moustache that hinted of as much menace, malice and ill-intent as it did of benevolence.
“No, sir.” I innocently replied.
He took in a deep breath and let it out ever so slowly as he lit one of his unfiltered Camels. It was time for a harsh life lesson for his tender young nephew.
“Okay,” he said, “this time, I won’t chain up Blue and the dogs.”
He gave out a short shrill whistle. Blue and his fellows all snapped to attention like Marines in parade drill. He cut them loose, poured a cup of coffee and we waited.
Soon enough, Blue’s terrifying funereal bay, drifted like an evil appellation across the early morning mist on the forest.
When we got to the tree, Uncle Nels did not chain up Blue and the others.
“Watch…” was all he said.
He shot the raccoon and it fell, but it never reached the ground. It was the most terrifying, most shocking, horrifying thing I have ever witnessed.
When the mortally wounded creature came within reach of the frenzied dogs, they tore the poor beast to shreds. In the short span of about thirty seconds, they had reduced a once vibrant and living creature to an ionized mist of particulate blood matter and remnant floating fur and hair, which surrounded the tree base like the early morning mist on the forest. And then the agitated dogs, in their slavering blood lust, turned on and began to savagely maul each other.
I had never witnessed death up close on such a violent, ferocious and intimate scale. It was horrifying. It was terrible. It was fascinating and mesmerizing.
The dogs, consumed as they were with their blood lust, began brutalizing each other. Uncle Nels waded fearlessly into the writhing, barking, howling, squealing mass, as if he were wading into a calm shallow pool. He was trying to separate the dogs. They were growling, drooling, biting and scratching. He was roaring curses and epithets like a wild bull and a mad man as he threw his dogs right and then left as he simultaneously sustained deep and terrible fang wounds to his hands and arms. I was transfixed. I was terrified. I was too transfixed and terrified to look, and too transfixed and terrified to look away. He was savage and beautiful! He was fearless! He was a feral God! He was bloodied and wounded and yet, he pressed steadily on as if none of his wounds mattered. I loved him. I feared him terribly. I wanted to be like him and yet I knew, deep in my soul that I never would.
In later years, my brother and I chanced to visit Nels; just about the time he was teetering on the terrible edge of taking care of himself and not being able to care for himself. His normally neat, if cluttered house was a wreck. Everywhere I looked there was garbage and refuse. Nels was slipping badly and it was beginning to become apparent. He was thin, frail and gaunt. He was harried and nervous. He waved us into the house. We took our seats on a dirty couch next to a coffee table that was festooned with rotting food and detritus. He sat across from us in a shabby wingback chair and began to regale us with stories of the old days, As he did, a scrawny, malnourished bent-tale cat came slowly, if cautiously picking his way through the putrid dump on the coffee table. Nels continued his story but it suddenly occurred to me that he wasn’t making any sense. He was speaking, but the words were nothing more than a careless unrelated jangle; some weren’t even real words, but if you didn’t know any better, or didn’t speak English, by the casual sound of his voice, nothing would seem amiss. I looked at my brother and he looked at me. We shrugged. We both turned to Nels but he wasn’t paying any attention to us. His once keen hunter’s eye was locked, cocked and zeroed in on his cat. He was tensed, but his outward appearance belied a singular calm. His jaw was set and his eyes were focused and narrowed. It was as if my brother and I weren’t even there. He continued speaking in a sentence pace, pedantic, calm and hypnotic. All the while, he was slowly and deliberately reaching to his side to grab up his ‘Charlie Chaplin’ bamboo cane. Without warning, he pounced.
With an Indian war hoop and a scream that would have frightened the life out of the toughest of men, he swung his cane wildly, as if it were a rapier.
“Aiyee, yah- haaaa!” he screamed as he brought the slashing cane downward like a sword, over and over.
The cat scrambled frantically right, left, back and forth before he finally got his feet under him and he scuttled away to the relative safety of a carpeted tree box on the sunny side of the living room.
Uncle Nels was fairly trembling with anger and adrenalin. He stopped short, as if he suddenly realized that he had taken a wrong turn into a really bad neighborhood, looked toward Howard and I, grinned that wonderful Santa Clause smile and said,
“I hate that damn cat, but he’s the only thing that keeps me alive!”
He finally got his dogs separated and calmed, chained and quieted. Each of them had injuries though none was serious. He was bloodied and battered but not beaten. He strolled casually back to the Jeep, breathless but not winded, lit one of his Camels and grinned that wonderful twinkling Santa Claus smile of his, that hinted of as much menace, malice and ill-intent as it did of benevolence,
“Now you know,” he said, “if I don’t chain up my dogs, I won’t get any dinner.”
Uncle Nels finally succumbed to the awful ravages of M.S., but not before he was reduced to a pitiful shadow of his former robust self. His Doctor had been right all those years before- it wasn’t pretty and in the end, although I’m not sure, I think it was pneumonia, or maybe influenza that finally killed him. But, I don’t recall that pitiful shadow of a man so much as I remember my tough and brawling uncle Nels with the Santa Claus twinkle in his eye: the quiet hunter, the fighter, the man who made a deadly disease chase him and who taught me one of life’s cruelest lessons.
1) Giants. 2005.