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Philip D Birmingham

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Uncle Jake and Jesus Christ
By Philip D Birmingham
Friday, February 01, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A humerous anecdote from my childhood while working on my aunt and uncle's farm.

Jesus Christ and Uncle Jake

When I was very young, perhaps ten or eleven, I was sent by my mother one summer to stay with Aunt Lolly and Uncle Jake, who owned a farm in Schenectady, New York. I was quickly thrown into child labor, getting up with Uncle Jake at 5:00 am to help with chores and working in the fields until 5:00 pm. Aunt Lolly was a very heavy-set woman, very affable, and always hugging me. She would make you think of that old farm adage, “There’s a lot to be said for a fat wife and a big barn.” She was a wonderful cook. She baked homemade bread and made pancakes from scratch. When we worked in the fields haying and so forth, she would make a sumptuous lunch along with a drink she called switzel. She would put the switzel in a large gallon jar and we would take it all to the fields. It is basically a thirst quencher, and is made with water, sugar, ginger, lemon, and whatever else was in the recipe. Years later I handled an insurance claim for a German man and mentioned the drink. He laughed, took out a bottle of ginger ale from the refrigerator, put it in a glass and stirred it rapidly with a teaspoon to remove the carbonated water, then handed it to me. It tasted the same.
Uncle Jake was a short, strong, wiry man with a deeply wrinkled, craggy face and a steel wool black beard. He had the bent back of a life-long farmer, as his father was before him. He smoked a curved pipe incessantly and was extremely taciturn. I would work with him for a twelve hour day, and during that time he would literally not say more than 20 words. He was quiet to the extreme, had a constant pissed-off look on his face, and could be very grumpy, especially if you asked him to repeat something he had said through the clenched teeth that held that pipe. I was frightened to death of him. His favorite expression by far was Gudamnit!
They had a son named Donald, a Dennis-the-menace trouble maker extraordinaire, who was constantly in hot water. He once talked me into jumping from the second floor of their barn into a wagon load of hay with an umbrella, and I went for it, with the expected result. At the time of this story he was elsewhere, and I was working alone with Uncle Jake. Where he was at that time I have no recollection, but reform school would not have surprised me.
One of my chores was to make butter with a rotary churn. All of the heavy cream that had separated from gallon milk jars was poured into the opening in the top of the churn, and then I would crank it until I thought my arm would drop off. When I heard clunking sounds inside the churn, and I couldn’t turn the crank anymore, I would open it and scoop out the large, heavy chunks of lemon yellow butter that clung to the churning blades, then Aunt Lolly would press them into wooden one pound molds. The residual buttermilk from the churning was used for pancakes, or drunk straight by Uncle Jake. I hated the taste of the buttermilk, but the pancakes with that butter on them tasted like food for the gods.
When the day’s work was done we would have another sumptuous meal, and Uncle Jake would then retire to the kitchen rocking chair while Aunt Lolly cleared the table and cleaned up. He would light up his pipe and puff away, staring silently at the kitchen floor with a thoughtful, pissed-off look on his face. He would rarely last more than an hour or so before his eyes would get drowsy and begin to close, then his head would start to bob. Finally his eyes would shut and his head would drop to rest on his chest, with the lit pipe dangling dangerously from the corner of his mouth. Aunt Lolly had a knack for spotting that moment from the corner of her eye. She would walk over to him, take the pipe from his slack lips, brush the ashes from him, and then shake him. He would grunt, stand up, and then walk upstairs to bed. He would arise the next morning at 5:00 am without an alarm clock and start a new day.
Now, with that background, on to the story of Jesus Christ and Uncle Jake. But before that… This happened in the fall, that is, during haying time. The first thing on a particular morning I walked to the pasture with Uncle Jake. They had two farm horses, a dark brown mare named Dolly and a stallion whose name escapes me. We lead them by their halters to the barn to hook them up to the hay wagon. After getting their harnesses on, we backed them up to the wagon, me on one side of the horses and Uncle Jake on the other. I then picked up the chain that was connected to the harness, which had to be connected to a snap swivel on the wagon. Uncle Jake said, “Hook it up tuh the wagon, three links back, then ontuh the swivel.” That meant I had to count three links back from the last link on the chain, then hook that link to the snap swivel. I miscounted and went back four links. When I connected it Uncle Jake bit down on his pipe and snapped at me through clenched teeth, “I said three links back, Gudamnit!” I mention this incident to further clarify what a miserable old bastard Uncle Jake was.
Now, onto the story of Jesus Christ and Uncle Jake. I got up on the wagon and Uncle Jake took the reins in his hand, clenched his pipe between his teeth, snapped the reins and said, “Git up! Giddyap! And off we went. I loved sitting high and riding in the wagon, looking down at the horses’ backs swaying back and forth as they pulled the wagon along. I loved those horses more than anything. I loved their smell, how their skin felt, and everything about them. I liked to give them each half an apple that Aunt Lolly would give me now and then to feed them after I led them back to the pasture at the end of the day. When they took the apple out of my flattened palm, I would feel their soft lips and pet their velvet noses. I wanted desperately to have those reins in my hands, and drive that wagon. That’s all I wanted out of life, to drive that team pulling that wagon. I dreamt about that, and fantasized about it every day.
When we got to the fields, I took my hay fork and began lifting large forkfuls onto the wagon while Uncle Jake smoothed them out and evened the load on the wagon. I was focused and intent on doing a good job for Uncle Jake, so I worked hard and fast. Every so often I would load the hay faster than Uncle Jake could spread it, and I would hear, “Slow down, Gudamnit! And so it went for several days. Once, after supper, and after Uncle Jake had nodded off and was sent to bed by Aunt Lolly, I asked her timidly if I would ever be allowed to drive the wagon. She smiled, hemmed and hawed a bit, then said that one day before I left to go back home, I would probably be able to. She suggested I should ask Uncle Jake. The prospect of asking Uncle Jake anything sent a wave of fear through me, but I was thrilled at the possibility and I seized the moment. “Aunt Lolly, would you please ask Uncle Jake if I could drive the horses?” She gave me a quick, impatient look and said, “Well, one day maybe I will.” I didn’t press the issue.
Three or four days later, at 5:00 am in the morning, I went to the pasture with Uncle Jake to get the horses. We brought them into the barn and after I hooked up the harness chain, three links back from the last link on the chain, I got up on the wagon and waited for Uncle Jake. He got up, sat down on the wagon seat, clenched his pipe in his teeth, then handed the reins to me. “Here, drive ‘em out.” There are no words to describe how I felt with those reins in my hand. I was transfixed to the wagon seat. After a few seconds Dolly snorted, then turned her head and looked back at me through her blinders, as if to question why we weren’t moving. Uncle Jake got things going for me. “Git up! Giddyap!” The wagon moved, and I felt a pull against the reins. The horses stopped. “Loosen up on them reins, Gudamnit!” I did and managed to say something akin to giddyap, and we started moving again. I felt no less of a thrill than if I was flying a jet fighter plane. I can, to this day, close my eyes and replay it in my mind.
The ride to the fields was smooth, and I was giddy with excitement. I couldn’t wait for the wagon to be filled, so I could drive back. Would he let me drive them back? I worked especially hard, and several times more than the usual I heard the familiar, “Not so fast, Gudamnit!” When the wagon was full, Uncle Jake sat down on top of the load and jammed his fork into the hay beside him. “Well, git up there ‘n drive ‘em, Gudamnit!” I leaped onto the wagon seat and took up the reins. “Giddyap!” I yelled with confidence in my voice. The horses strained and the wagon began moving. Uncle Jake was sitting directly above me with his legs dangling just above my head as we jostled along. I was so happy that if I had been alone, I would have sung out loud with a volume strong enough to drown out Luciano Pavarotti. I lead them expertly through the field to the entrance gate, and then pulled the reins to the left to turn onto the dirt road to head for the barn. The road was deeply rutted and had a hump in the middle, which required a wide and careful turn. I took the turn too short. The front wheels of the wagon hit the hump, then twisted and jerked to the right. At the same time, and unknown to me for a few moments, the entire wagon load of hay, along with the wagon bed, was tipping over. My first awareness of that was my Uncle Jake throwing his hay fork well out in front of him as he leaped into the air from the top of the hay wagon, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Jeeeeeeeessssuuuusssss Kuhhhhrrrriiiiiiiisssssssst! I turned to see the hay fork being flung away, followed by the airborne Uncle Jake, and that followed by the load of hay, which came down and engulfed him like a giant amoeba.
The wagon was stopped by then, and I heard the wagon bed fall back into place. Dolly turned her head and looked back at me unconcernedly through her blinders. There are no words to describe how I felt. I was shaking with fear. I jumped down from the wagon and was grateful to see the hay stirring. Then Uncle Jake rose up from under the load, dripping hay like a monster rising from the sea. He brushed himself for several minutes while he spit out hay dust. Then he fumbled around in the hay for several minutes looking for his pipe. His hair and steel wool beard were loaded with bits of hay. His face was beet red. He found the pipe and jammed it between his teeth and looked at me. He said nothing. He climbed up on the wagon seat and maneuvered the wagon carefully back onto the field. He then jumped into the wagon bed, still red-faced, and looked down at the petrified statute of me standing beside the wagon. “Load the hay back up, Gudamnit!”
I did, and after we reloaded it all I stood there, holding my hay fork, and waited for the verbal invasion that I knew was coming. He stood on top of the load, stomped it down here and there to even it out, sat down on the load, jammed his fork into the hay beside him, then clenched his pipe in his teeth and said, “Git up there ‘n drive ‘em, and mind don’t take that Gudamn corner so short! Gudamnit!” I did, and I made the turn successfully, and I drove them back to the barn without further incident. After unloading, I helped a silent Uncle Jake unharness the horses, then got two apple halves from Aunt Lolly and took the horses back to the pasture. I gave each one of them their apple treat, and felt those velvet noses, and reveled in how good my Uncle Jake had made me feel that day by not humiliating me, and how he had graciously let me redeem myself by letting me drive the team again to make that turn properly. He let me drive the team for the rest of that summer that I was there.   



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Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 2/1/2008
Philip, this is a delightful story! Very well penned; I enjoyed this one!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your Tx. friend, Karen Lynn. :D

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