October 23, 2017

Greatness and The Passing of Uncles

My uncles are almost gone.

Uncle Charlie’s cancer has returned. My Uncle Joe is nearly blind. My dad’s last brother no longer knows anyone, and you’d never know he was once the seemingly indestructible pastor of my youth. Slowly, they are growing older. Too rapidly, they are going away.

I never thought much about these men when I was growing up. They were my dad’s brothers and the fathers of my cousins. Some were always around because they lived nearby. Others traveled down from Michigan several times a year. They were the background of my growing from boyhood into adolescence, and they were my image of manhood from those days until today.

My father’s brothers were eastern Kentucky mountain men. I don’t have the space to explain all that means, but they were men who grew up focused on survival. They had lived through the great depression, and their values were different from those whose prosperity came easily.

They could be quirky and clannish. They were not classroom educated, but they could hunt, fish and trap. They knew trees and guns. They were happiest in the woods, and miserable in the cities. For as long as I can recall, my uncle Matt rose every day at four and headed to the woods to pull ginseng and hunt squirrel, turkey and deer.

They could sing. They knew hundreds of bawdy jokes. They loved God, and usually wept when they prayed. They were “Primitive” Baptists, and even though one became a successful pastor, they would be horrified at what passes for church today.

My mother’s brothers had all left the farm in western Kentucky as young men. Eventually, they went to war. One fought with Patton, and earned acclaim. One became a musician who played a mean steel guitar. They all married northern city girls, which their mother thought was bad. They all got divorced, remarried and stayed that way. They worked in the automotive factories their whole careers and raised good kids. Like good products of the Bluegrass state, they loved their native land, and they piled in cars and drove down to see their mother and sister frequently, always making stops at the local barbecue joints and taking me along.

They were big, tall men. Their manners were gentle. They drank beer- which I’d never seen- but they didn’t get drunk. (My church taught me there was no such thing!) They were happy men, the happiest I’ve ever known. As a teenager, I came to love them intensely, and to treasure their attention.

My uncles saw the depression. They saw the big war, both in Europe and supporting it here. One fought in Korea. They lived through remarkable changes in America, and their lives embodied those changes. In many ways, they were America in the 20th century.

Last year, my mother’s church, a booming mega-church, bought property on a farm where my mom and brothers lived as children during the 1930’s. She took me to the property, and had me drive close to a field. “We nearly starved to death here one winter,” she said. “We had to beg to stay. I remember my brothers burying our mule right over there.”

I wondered how many of the people who will sit in those megachurch pews will have any idea about that kind of world? And the kinds of people that came out of it?

Most of all, my uncles were men I wanted to be like. They were not like the unsure and overcompensating men of my boomer generation, with our stupid talk of how our inner turmoil is our war. They were not reading self-help books or going to Promise Keeper meetings. They did not get hairpieces or buy video games to amuse themselves. Some of them never went to church till they were old. They went to work, and when they came home they worked some more. I don’t think they changed diapers or worried about their abs.

They lived good, grateful, cheerful, moral, decent, faithful, honest lives. They all found Christ in their own time, and they all were/are ready to leave this world for the next. My generation made fun of them, but I have decided, that is because we are simply not worthy of them.

But I don’t want to lose them. I don’t want to lose that generation that knows about the Great Depression and the Great War, about starving on farms and working your whole life to provide for yourself. I am not like them, and I feel the difference painfully. We aren’t like them as a culture. We are less than them in ways that frighten me to think about.

Want to know what we have become? Listen to Senator Kerry and President Bush fighting like adolescent girls over whatever tiny premium can be gained from their military service in Vietnam or, in the case of Bush, during the Vietnam era. This is typical of our generation’s awareness that we have no greatness, and we must manufacture it. That, I assure you, is a failed project.

We are addicted to our materialism in a way they were not, so addicted we are afraid to consider what a house of cards we have built for ourselves. We laugh at the wrong things. We are addicted to sports and pills and porn. We don’t treat our wives as well, and we buy our kids far too much because we feel guilty. We hear the stories of our uncles and grandparents- stories we once thought boring, or maybe fantastic- and we know in our hearts, “I could not be so brave. I could not sacrifice as much.”

Our times have given younger people a chance to prove their character. The son of a good friend is serving in Iraq. He has asked for reassignment to a more dangerous position. He wants to make a contribution. This is not unusual, but the mark of the generation that has come after us. I have former students who have served as Marine warriors in Afghanistan and come home as men so gloriously proud that I am almost embarrassed to be in their presence.

The greatest generation is leaving us. Their lessons and example, both in life and in conflict, are wonderful, abiding gifts to all of us. But we will not, I think, see men like them again. We have been in the presence of greatness, and only now are we realizing it.

Another generation is coming after us, our own sons (and daughters!) determined to know some of the glory that their grandfathers and uncles knew in liberating strife and a shared willingness to sacrifice. I know that many find their war a fool’s errand, but I consider them fortunate to have a challenge for their generation that will give them gifts so many of my generation never found at all, or were denied in a war that no one understood.

My uncles are almost gone. I am missing them more and more every day, both for who they were for me, and what they meant for my world. In their passing, there is a kind of silence, a kind of emptiness, that will not be easily filled.

Comments

  1. I feel for ya…one of my favorite uncles is not doing so well either. He has lymphoma and has already lived a lot longer than the doctors thought he would, but still it is sad…I have not gone to see him and I know this sounds awful but I don’t know how I would take seeing him sick, since he was always rather strong and robust…

    I don’t have grandparents either. My friends find this somewhat strange, since I am only 27 and haven’t had them for more than 12 years…

  2. Hi Michael,

    Just a note to let you know that the Grace Pages has temporarily moved to http://gracepages.blogspot.com

    God bless,

  3. Great piece. One of the hardest parts of aging is watching those you love and remember from your youth with a particular ‘magic’ pass away.

    One thing I wonder though is if we can over-romantisize a particular period or people looking only at particular aspects of their lives and putting aside their stuggles with sin and such, different than ours perhaps, that they dealt with. For instance our current generations struggle with masses of information vs past generations ignorance and the actions that sprang from it.