When Uncle Jay came down for breakfast that morning, he was NOT in a good mood. He rarely was. But this particular morning it was even worse.
My cousins and I, who I was staying with for a few weeks, like I did every summer, were all yakkin’ over our bowls of Lucky Charms and Coa Coa Puffs. When Uncle Jay came into the room, we stopped our conversation cold, and became very interested in our respective cereals. It was usually a good idea to be quite and look occupied whenever he came into a room, but especially on mornings like this. At ages that ranged from 8 to 11, there wasn’t much else we COULD do.
But this time, we lucked out. Instead of stopping to berate one of my cousins or my Aunt Nordeen, who was standing stone still at the kitchen sink, he just breezed through the room like a nasty, mean, silent storm cloud and passed out the back of the house with barely a growl or a grunt, slamming the screen door upon his grand, overly-dramatic exit.
For a while we all just sat in silence, not quite ready to believe that we had just survived what had potentially been the makings of yet another very “memorable” morning meal. When we finally heard his pick up truck snarl to life and drive away, we knew we were in the clear.
“What’s with him?” I asked Aunt Nordeen.
“Oh, he had a rough night last night,” she said. “Them Conway dogs across the road were barkin’ all night and he couldn’t sleep. So he got up in the middle of the night in his underwear, went out on the front porch and yelled at them dogs for about 30 minutes.”
“Did they stop?” asked my younger cousin, JD.
Aunt Nordeen sort of snickered and turned back to her dishes, “Oh, they always do. When he does that.”
As I slurped the last of the now chocolaty, sweet Coa Coa Puff residue out of my bowl, I tried to picture Uncle Jay, in his underwear, in the middle of the night, standing on the front porch, yelling at the Conway dogs. It was almost impossible to imagine. I assumed he would’ve just shot ‘em instead. That’s the kind of guy he was.
Uncle Jay scared me. He scared everybody. For a lot of reasons. For one, he was very strong, yet sinewy. He was the kind of guy you could just tell was strong by looking at him. He used to tear down houses for a living, so spent his days wrecking things with his hands. That kind of work required little skill, but with enough meanness, you could become an expert pretty quickly.
He was around 6 feet tall, but always seemed much taller with his cowboy boots on. He had a huge wallet that attached to his belt with a long silver chain. The “snap-button” cowboy shirts he wore were usually short sleeved, with a pack of cigarettes rolled up into one of them.
His hair was always slicked back into place with loads of Bril-cream gel, exposing his Elvis sideburns and two dark, slitty, cold eyes. His favorite party trick was to pop out his mouth full of false teeth, cross his eyes and guffaw.
That I DID like. I almost stopped brushing my teeth just so that I could one day copy that gag.
When he did speak it was more of an angry holler, or a long, mindless, never-ending rant, and was more often than not accompanied by a kick or a couple of hard, well-placed smacks in the direction of one of my cousins.
I never received any kicks or slaps from him myself (my mother would’ve filleted him), but I did share my cousin’s relief whenever he was finally out of the house for the day, as well as the heavy feeling of sickening unease when he came home for the evening. It wasn’t so much that the floor was covered with eggs shells, it was more that the shells had already been broken several times, and we were just trying not to slip on them. It was exhausting.
Free of Uncle Jay for the day, and breakfast finished, it was time to get busy with our schedule of unplanned, unspoken, yet well known summer of activities. Task #1: Pinball.
My cousins had a pinball machine in their house. No, I mean a REAL pinball machine. Lights, scores, metal balls, the whole deal. Instead of getting money for his house-tearing-down business Uncle Jay would often get “stuff” instead, like: a pinball machine, a candy machine, a Shetland pony, rusty plows. I’m not sure how my Aunt felt about this business plan, but I thought it was fantastic.
After a few hours, of championship pinball (my older cousin Randy was unbeatable), we went fishing at the creek, shot the pellet gun at some squirrels in the barn, got thrown from the same horse twice, went swimming “in town”, acted out the Johnny Cash hits, “Boy Named Sue” and “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” (to the original 45’s, at least 3 times each), got cut on some barbed wire, fell out of a tree, and watched some Popeye cartoons on the Calamity Jane Show out of Lincoln. We even played 300 miles of an Indy 500 mile race in the tire-less car Uncle Jay had up on cinder blocks in the front yard. A nearby flock of pink, plastic flamingos, that we pretended were our pit crew, completed the picture.
Then, we were officially B-O-R-E-D.
As we laid in the hot living room in front of the fan, sucking on ice cubes, and watching commercials for K-Tel records’ “Sounds of the 60’s”, the greatest plan ever given to a 10 year old was suddenly and miraculously inserted into my brain.
“Hey, Randy, know what we should do?” I said.
Randy lazily threw an ice cube at me from the couch and kept watching the TV. I didn’t notice.
“Tonight we should set our clocks to 2:00 am, climb out your bedroom window, and onto the roof that comes out over the porch, and see if your dad comes out in his underwear again.” I said.
“That’s stupid,” said Randy. “I don’t wanna see that.”
“It could be funny.” I said.
“What if he doesn’t come out?”
“If we bark like dogs, he’ll come out for sure,” I said. “He did last night.”
“That’s stupid. He’ll kill us.”
This was true. He would kill us, or at least Randy. But I couldn’t be stopped. I knew that any plan that included underwear and began at 2 AM on the roof, and had the potential for death, was worth saving.
“Well, after we bark, and after he comes out to yell at the dogs in his underwear,” I said, “We could dump water on him.”
Randy sat up. I thought he was gonna throw more ice at me.
“There are 2 huge, 10 gallon milk cans in the barn,” he said. “We could fill ‘em up right now, hide ‘em in my bedroom and then take ‘em out onto the roof tonight after everybody’s asleep.”
“He’ll kill us.” I said, grinning.
“He does that every day anyhow, who cares?” said Randy as we took off for the barn.
That night, the alarm went off at 2:00 AM. Randy sat straight up and covered it with his pillow, shutting it off. Without a word we both slipped out of bed and opened the closet door to reveal the pre-hidden milk cans. They were filled to the brim with cold water.
Then we each grabbed a handle of the first, ridiculously heavy can, headed to the open window, and somehow managed to wrestle it out onto the roof. We did the same with the second can, spilling about a bucketful of water onto the floor. Then we each crawled out onto the roof that was over the porch in our underwear and squatted down next to the cans.
“Jeez, it’s cold out here!” whispered Randy.
“It’s OK, “ I whispered, “Just start barkin’.”
Which we did for 90, freezing, cold minutes. We barked, and howled, and whined, and yelped. It was an impressive display of canine noises. At one point the Conway dogs across the street even joined in. But no matter how much we howled and yipped, Uncle Jay never even came to the front door.
“How can he sleep through all this racket?” I whined.
“Maybe he’s dead,” said Randy.
“You wish,” I said.
“I’m goin’ to bed,” Randy said.
“No, come on, just a little longer,” I begged.
“No. I’m freezin’ and he ain’t comin’.” he said. “Come on and help me with these things.”
Then we dragged the milk cans of water back into the room, hid them in the closet, scrambled underneath the warm quilts on our beds, and fell back to sleep.
The next morning, after Uncle Jay made another quick, angry breakfast exit, I said, “Aunt Nordeen, did you and Uncle Jay hear them crazy, loud dogs again last night? Boy, they sure were somethin’! I thought Uncle Jay was gonna go out there and yell at ‘em again. I wished he would of, we couldn’t sleep at all!”
“Oh yeah, he heard ‘em,” she said. “But he was too tired to get up and yell at ‘em this time. You boys should close your window and use the fan if you can’t sleep.”
I felt like Thomas Edison after the first failed light bulb experiment. This plan had been a total failure. But I would not be deterred. It was just too good of a gag. It was the kind of gag worth dying for. And in a very real sense, we just might. Summer hadn’t been this exciting since the public pool opened up.
Later that day we once again found ourselves in the soaking hot living room, throwing ice at each other in front of the fan.
“What time does Uncle Jay usually get home from work?” I asked no one in particular.
“5:30,” sighed JD from the floor.
“Does he always come in the back door?” I asked.
“Always,” said JD.
“So he parks his truck in the back and comes in the back door, always around 5:30,” I said.
Randy suddenly sat up and looked at me. I knew I had his attention.
“There’s a little roof over that back door,” he said. “We’d have to use a ladder to get up there.”
“Is the roof part over the back door big enough to...”
“Just big enough.” he said.
“Both cans?” I said.
He nodded his head and smiled. “Oh, yeah. And we could lock that back screen door. Then as he came down the side walk from his truck to the house, we could hit him with the first one, then when he runs to get into the house...”
“He won’t be able to get in!” I said.
“And that’s when we’ll hit him with the second one.” he said.
“That’s stupid. He’ll just spray you guys with the hose!” said JD.
“Shut up, JD,” said Randy. “We’ll unscrew the hose beforehand. Then while he’s trying to get it screwed back on, we’ll run to the other side of the roof where we’ll have the ladder, slide down, and run around the far side of the house, to the cinder block car in the front yard, jump in, and lock the doors.”
It was an evil plan. It was a genius, evil plan. It was a perfect plan.
Within minutes, everything was in place. We had both milk cans filled with water on the roof over the back porch. The back screen door was locked. Our ladder was situated on the far end of the house, just out of sight and hose-spraying range. We’d have to run the length of the house on the roof to get to it - but that was a plus - anytime you’ve got to run on a roof, it is a plus.
Next we made sure the hose was unscrewed, and that all the doors to the cinder block car were unlocked for easy escape access. We ran a few “dry” practice missions. We were flawless. We were ready.
By that time it was only 8:30 AM. So for the rest of the day, all we did was watch the dirt road for Uncle Jay’s truck. Well, that and play pinball. For the next several hours, I was in a constant state of excited, nervous, giggling, sweaty fear. It felt great, but also a little nauseous.
Then finally, at 5:35 PM JD screamed, “Here he comes!”
I looked out the side window of the house. It was Uncle Jay’s truck rumbling down the road, dirt and gravel flyin’ up behind him.
“He looks mad,” I said.
“He’s always mad,” said Randy. “Come on!!”
We bolted out the front door and around to the ladder, where we flew up the rungs like monkeys, ran across the roof and settled into position beside the milk cans of death.
“It’s gonna take both of us to lift this thing you know,” said Randy. “So don’t panic, just do it. When it’s empty just drop the can on him.”
“Drop the can on him?” I said. “Are you sure? What if it hits him?”
“It BETTER hit him,” said Randy.
I was starting to move into my pre-hyperventilation-get-in-trouble mode. I thought I would start to cry or laugh out loud or pass out, all at the same time. I was so excited and nervous.
“Where’s JD?” I said.
“Shh! Who cares? Dad’s pullin’ in!” said Randy.
We ducked lower behind the milk cans as Uncle Jay’s truck choked its way to a stop behind the house. He was already cursing when he got out of the truck and slammed the door shut.
“Who’s he talkin’ to?” I asked.
“Mom and JD,” Randy said. “Shh! It’s fine. Get ready.”
I peeked out from behind the cans and saw Uncle Jay carrying his lunch pail and a shirt. He was mad. Then I saw the ever-present cigarettes in his shirtsleeve. Shoot. Hadn’t counted on that. Wet cigarettes aren’t gonna make him HAPPY, I thought.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” I whispered. “He looks really mad.”
“It’s fine. He’s always mad. Get down!” said Randy.
Uncle Jay started to make his way down the sidewalk towards the back door. He was still mumbling curses to himself. Randy and I looked at each other, stifled a laugh and each took hold of one of the handles on the first milk can. I was sweating. I could barely breathe. But it was too late now. We mouthed the words, three, two, one - lifted the heavy can and poured.
A direct hit. Complete and total soakage. Right on his head. The force of the water had knocked his lunch pail out of his hand and popped it open. His thermos flew out and rolled into the grass. His cigarettes were a mass of wet, stinky leaves. His false teeth were smacked crooked. Then as he looked up in our direction to see the assassins behind this ambush, we tossed the empty milk at him.
Another direct hit.
He cursed, and dropped the shirt and tried to slip his way towards the locked, back screen door to escape. When he got there it didn’t open. He cursed again, just as we hit him with the second can of water, this time only getting it half way empty before dropping the still heavy can right on his foot.
Now Uncle Jay was screaming. JD was screaming. Aunt Nordeen was screaming. Randy and I were running.
“He’s spraying us!” I yelled, suddenly finding myself in a shower of water. “How did he get the hose attached so fast?”
“I think JD hooked it back up when we weren’t lookin’,” Randy said. “Who cares? Run!”
“JD! You traitor!” I yelled over my shoulder just as I slipped and landed on the shingles, face first, and started sliding toward the edge of the roof.
“Whoa!” I hollered!
“Look out!” yelled Randy.
“Ahh!” I cried, as I slipped further toward the edge of the roof. At the last second, I caught my foot in the gutter and stopped.
“I’m OK. Run!” I said as I got back up and headed again for the ladder, the water continuing to hit us.
When we got to the end of the roof, we slid down the ladder and bolted around the far side of the house toward the cinder block car.
“Hurry, “ said Randy. “He’s gonna come around the other way and nail us. We gotta beat him to the car or we’re dead!”
We burst into the front yard, Randy, ahead by a few feet, and me, still feeling the sting of the shingles on my face.
As Randy jumped into the car, I saw Uncle Jay coming toward me from the other side of the house with the hose. He was soaking wet, and screaming, with a mean, weird smile was on his face. The kind of smile lions get when they come upon a wounded wet wildebeest.
“RUN!” yelled Randy. “He’s coming! Run!”
I could tell I wasn’t going to make it. Uncle Jay would cut me off before I could get to the car and then drown me with the hose. I would die, 10 years old, next to pink, plastic flamingos.
“I’ve got you now, you little runt!” said Uncle Jay.
I screamed and cut back the way I came, like an antelope trying out maneuver an old, mean lion in cowboy boots. Uncle Jay tried to follow me but slipped on the wet grass. Then I cut again this time toward the flock of pink flamingos. It was too much for him. Uncle Jay got tangled up in the hose, tripped, then went “slippy sliding” into the middle of the flamingos, head first. When I heard him hit the ground, I jumped, Spiderman-style, into the back seat of the cinder block car, as Randy locked the door behind me.
When Uncle Jay came up and glared at us through the windows, Randy and I made faces at him and laughed till we thought we’d pass out.
I know that eventually we came out of that car, I just don’t remember exactly when. It’s possible we stayed there the rest of the summer. No one would’ve blamed us. And I’m sure that when we did come out, horrible, horrible things happened to both of us. I can’t see how it couldn’t have. Luckily, I don’t remember that part of the story.
What I DO remember is how good it felt.
As together we stand and sing.