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Remembering Uncle J.P.
By Raymond Greiner
I lived in Vienna, West Virginia until age eleven, we then moved to Marion, Ohio where I entered sixth grade in 1951. Formative years unveil perpetual newness.
Industrial states felt economic surge in the early forties created from war demands while West Virginia remained stalled. Industrialized states struggled during The Great Depression era whereas West Virginia remained as it had always been. The thirties were more of a speed bump in West Virginia rather than a crisis because the state historically functioned on a fiscal precipice. However, my parents and grandparents were above the poverty line.
I attended Vienna School grades one through five, built in the nineteenth century with oiled wood floors, suspended globe lamps, wooden desks with inkwells and lift tops to store books, also paddles hanging next to blackboards. We didn’t change rooms, one teacher taught all subjects, but did changed rooms twice a week for music and on Fridays when our principal Mr. Huffman showed a movie in the largest classroom. We crowded in, some standing, to watch a 16mm, black-and-white film. I remember two, Destination Moon and One Million BC. I distinctly remember One Million BC as I was overcome with fear watching cave men fight dinosaurs, later learning dinosaurs were extinct millions of years before humans appeared. Teachers were the most memorable, all women, very strict and although paddles were seldom used they played a symbolic role as reminders disruption would not be tolerated. It was an interesting time to experience youth. Difficult to imagine such conditions today as parents closely monitor teacher activity. Stern discipline has been removed from schools. Contemporary educational systems mail parents neatly typed, and carefully composed correspondence to detail disruptive behavior, and a meeting is scheduled to politely discuss incidents of disruption. At Vienna School in the forties teachers clarified issues on site, quickly and effectively.
My grandparents on my mother’s side, the Slater’s, lived in Parkersburg, six miles from Vienna, and we visited frequently. My grandfather Slater was retired; and during working years he sold cemetery lots. The Slater’s were vagabonds of sorts, they owned a small orange grove in California in the early twentieth century, and I remember old photographs of this farm. Grandfather Slater had taken a job in San Francisco traveling from Georgia. His wife Minnie arrived a year later by train with three children. They were married in Claxton, Georgia in 1902. Grandfather Slater lived in San Francisco during the earthquake, and fire destroying the city in 1906, before Minnie arrived. He was a handsome man, performed skits in vaudeville shows, and had a variety of jobs, and somehow ended up with the orange grove. I am without knowledge regarding reasons for moving to Parkersburg, WV, but my mother went to Parkersburg High School graduating in 1930. I remember seeing a photograph taken in California showing three children with my grandparents. One was my Aunt Sadie and one, Clara, who died in childhood of scarlet fever. Also pictured was a small, wide-eyed boy standing tall, and this was my uncle J.P., born in 1903. My mother, Helen, was born in 1911 and was not in this photo. I also had an Aunt Janet, born a year before my mother; Aunt Janet was the academic of the family, graduating from Parkersburg High School in 1929 as class salutatorian. My Uncle Bill was the youngest, unsure of his birth year, it must have been around 1920 since he had graduated from high school prior to being drafted into the army in 1941. Uncle Bill was the most charismatic member of the family, very good looking, and gregarious, everyone was drawn to him, he possessed all the natural gifts. He was comfortable in social settings, became a hero in Italy during combat with the Germans, and awarded the Bronze Star for bravery enhancing his charisma. Everyone loved uncle Bill.
Uncle J. P. (James Paxton, Jr.), everyone called him J.P., was too old to be drafted and suffered from a mild learning disability, not classified as retarded but a slow learner, and was removed from school after the fifth grade. No special education classes in those days. Uncle J.P. was bullied, and shunned socially at school, likely contributing to poor academic performance. The Uncle J.P. I knew was anything but a slow learner, he was smart, read the newspaper front to back each day, and knew more than most realized.
Uncle J.P. lived at home with my grandparents, Jim and Minnie. Uncle Bill and Uncle J.P. displayed vividly contrasting personalities. In the course of daily life my grandfather habitually imposed verbal humiliation directed at uncle J.P., hurtful snipes exaggerating minor issues. When Uncle Bill visited he contributed to this activity. Even at my young age this made me uncomfortable and I knew it was wrong. I loved Uncle J.P., so much; he paid more attention to me than other adults in the family, often reading me newspaper articles. Uncle J.P. was also a master gardener; he knew everything one could possibly know about gardening. His garden was large, centering his life. He sold sweet corn, tomatoes and strawberries. People came from great distances to buy his produce. His garden was organic and perfect. He marinated tobacco in water then put this mixture in a garden sprayer using it as a pesticide. I was impressed at the neatness of his rows; always weed free as he worked tirelessly with his hoe in the sun wearing a straw hat. To escape verbal abuse uncle J.P. stayed to himself leading a solitary life. He told me he saved one hundred dollars, which I thought was a huge amount of money. Parkersburg High School was nearby, and Uncle J.P. volunteered to chalk the yard lines on the field for home football games. He did this for years, and coaches and players came to know and love him. They treated him better than anyone; he so enjoyed this job, representing his only social connection allowing a sense of worth and importance. They gave him a permanent pass to games, but he always returned home, and listened to the games on the radio.
The torment from family members damaged Uncle J.P., but he concealed his emotions. Uncle J.P. smoked all day and Grandfather Slater and Uncle Bill were also heavy drinkers, fueling their abuse toward Uncle J.P. Uncle J.P. never used alcohol, had very little money, and would hand roll cigarettes on a small hand crank machine. His thumb and forefinger on his right hand were yellow with stain from smoking cigarettes. The family was not totally dysfunctional, they shared meals, and there were times of harmonious interaction, but love was shallow, and much of the food was from the garden and never a word of recognition or praise directed at Uncle J.P. for his effort.
When I was around ten I remember Uncle J.P. holding his hand over his heart complaining of pain. He was told that it was indigestion. Later, I remember my mother getting a phone call, and she began to cry. We were living in Ohio then, and drove directly to Parkersburg to my grandparent’s house. Uncle J.P. had shot himself in the head with my grandfather’s revolver. He was not dead, but mortally wounded, and at the hospital. I had never felt such emotional pain, it hit me so hard, it seemed I would surely die. They brought Uncle J.P. home and rented a hospital bed, he was in a coma, and his head was badly swollen, he died three days later. Uncle Bill, my grandfather and grandmother were overcome with grief manifested from guilt. From the time they brought Uncle J.P. home from the hospital Uncle Bill remained at his bedside, would not leave, eat or sleep, staring at Uncle J.P. the entire time until his death. This incident caused family breakdown, complete devastation, and everyone wept uncontrollably displaying suffering I was unfamiliar with at my early age.
This was a harsh lesson in life. These experiences caused me to open an extra portion of my heart to those I observe who are shunned or emotionally damaged from the treatment of others. Uncle J.P. was a magnificent person, he was kind to everyone, never complained, ever, and loved plants and nature in all its forms. Few people ever attain the level of connection to the Earth Uncle J.P. achieved. I did not recognize this until adulthood, but the pain I felt at the funeral home, observing my grandparents and Uncle Bill overcome with intense grief has never left my memory. They were broken. It was 1953; Uncle J.P. was fifty years old.
All of those of that generation of my family are gone now. Uncle Bill died of a heart attack at age fifty-six, associated with alcoholism, and heavy tobacco use. Observing him throughout his later years he seemed empty. He wrote me letters while I was in the USMC. Often these letters reflected his youth, and I remember him telling me how he and Uncle J.P. played together as kids. They loved baseball but no baseball diamonds were nearby and they began playing stickball on a vacant lot using a broomstick and a rubber ball. After a time, the rubber ball split down the middle, leaving two halves, and since they could not afford another ball they began playing with one half. They soon discovered it was more fun than when the ball was whole, jumping around when pitched, doing crazy things when hit, eventually giving the game a name calling it “half-rubber”. Kids would gather for a game of “half-rubber”. Uncle Bill thought this might be a marketable game, but it never ventured beyond a thought. It was sad to read uncle Bill’s letters describing his memories of Uncle J.P. One would think with Uncle Bill’s broad experiences, war heroism, and life’s interactions brought forth from social gifts, those experiences would remain prominent in his memory. His memory of playing stickball with his older brother found its way to the forefront. Often, simplistic, less grand events flash forward with clarity as aging descends.
Families’ falling down frequently occurs, spiraling into darkness. Recollecting my uncle and grandfather intimidating Uncle J. P., my thoughts are: “What if Uncle J.P. tried to retaliate, resist and fight back?” He couldn’t, he did not possess an anger-based, confrontational demeanor, he also had no place to go being poorly educated, and not easily accepted socially. His only job skill was gardening. Uncle J.P. was in a cage of despair, and my uncle and grandfather were poking sticks at him. Viewing this through the eyes of a child is indelible; I thought Uncle J.P. was a glorious, compassionate person, never critical toward others.
I recently returned to Parkersburg for a visit. Slater’s house was demolished, and the large lot where Uncle J.P created his beautiful garden was weed infested with abandoned cars occupying this space. The picture in my mind reminisced a gentle man hoeing weeds on a hot summer day. Time gauges life, stirring emotions ranging from joy to sadness. Memories cling like shadows.
I am seventy-three now and feel blessed to remain. Awareness that the average US male life expectancy is seventy-three weighs on my mind, but adds dimension, seizing reverence as each day unfolds. I live with my two dogs Orion and Venus in a small cabin, five hundred feet from the lightly traveled road, on fourteen rural acres of pasture, pond and woods, an introspective place. This is where I will likely remain the duration of my life.
There is freshness on this cool, late February morning, and high in the sky is a flock of the sand-hill cranes trumpeting in their flight north signaling the cusp of spring. Nature displays balanced perfection. Humankind is plagued with misdirection, struggling within itself, drifting in continual disharmony. It is a hope that as a species we will evolve to more congruity.
The voice of destiny sings in various rhythmic tones, often off key and out of tempo, like a catbird singing in a thorn bush. Then the sky opens and darkness becomes light as clouds of doubt vanish. On this special pre-spring day I am remembering Uncle J.P.