So long, Uncle Jim: piece-a-work fisherman, storyteller
March 02, 2005
I got word that my uncle Jim died in his sleep. Age 67. The wild boys have to watch their hearts.
My one regret: I didn't go fishing with him. I meant to. Rats.
This wouldn't be just any ol' fishing. Uncle Jim was the best, wildest, wackiest fisherman out there. Famed on the west side of the state. For the past many decades he's fished every day, guided, lived on what he caught, and sold probably TONS of fish to people.
This was good ol' boy swamp fishin'.
That's him in the photo, second from left, looking sideways, like Elvis. Nice boots. I'd always thought he was just being oddly reflective in that photo. But now I see that he's talking to a kid. I have 44 first cousins. They all lived in Grand Rapids when I was growing up.
Until one uncle took his 6 kids west to be a missionary to the Mormons. That's right. He got one.
Then another took his 8 kids west to live off the land in Idaho. That's right.
The rest have stayed.
So it's 3 brothers down, 7 sibs still hanging in there (depending on how you count). I better go hunting and fishing with the others while I can. But I missed my Big Fishing chance.
I told Uncle Jim last year about our new up north trailer property and the small, low-pressure trout stream next to it---and how I saw a big one. He said "You don't want to tell me that."
I think he was the best storyteller of my dad's five other piece-o-work brothers and one fiesty sister. Out-talking these people would take some doing.
And he always bragged about having a head injury.
A good storyteller always uses the "one hand tied behind my back" angle.
He did talk slow, with funny ups and downs in his voice. Countrystyle.
He said he got his slow way from nearly drowning in some kind of underwater breath holding contest that ended up with him stuck under a dock, or hitting his head down there. But he was always the fastest runner, and ran 10k's until now, as far as I know.
My dad and his big family were raised next to the river, in the bush, on the back of a farm, in a one-room shack. They sold row-crops and did orchard work. Their dad got a wild-hair idea to start a mink farm and had a big operation going...then he died. The kids were still little, but they kept the ball rolling. A local church's missionary work kept them from foster care and jail. Their mom had some troubles with the stress of working and raising 6 very wild boys and a girl, on her own. But there were relatives around, support, so the family doesn't talk bad about how they grew up. In fact, they all got decent jobs---and then kept living just as they had grown up. Huntin', fishin', trappin', orchards.
Uncle Jim was a fireman, so were two others, one was a cop, another a railroad recovery foreman. The firemen and cop all got newspaper stories done on them early on as they used their hillbilly ways to save lives, rescue people from flames and catch burglars---barefoot and such. Jim was the firehouse cook, a vital role subject to intense scrutiny, if you know firehouses. Local fish was often on the menu.
My dad was the only one who got a college degree---his first term at school he said was the first time he had peace, quiet, his own space...and an easy life which taking an extra-full load of courses didn't make any harder. All easy compared to before. He's never gone near the woods again if he could help it.
My one aunt married a guy who all the brothers approved of. (Fancy that.) It was said that he outPottered the Potters. A fireplug red-head...and a fireman, too! On the side he...ran a popcorn and fish-gutting wagon (with his kids) down at the salmon ladder in town, where he also kept scuba gear to retrieve drowned fishermen and to glean fishing lures off the rocks underwater. Oh yeah! Beat that, homeboy!
My uncles were big role models for me growing up, because I caught their outdoor bug. I went deer-n-bunny hunting and trapping with them. Jim hunted a lot, sure, but mostly did fishing and beekeeping...and orchards.
As soon as I could, I started spending part of the summer working in the family orchard with the other cousins and the migrant workers...and the uncles. All for one, one for all, and pick til ya drop. Then sell em by the roadside. (There's still several Potter stands over there, with signs painted sloppy on plywood.)
The uncles taught us how to eat a huge ripe peach in one bite: just turn it inside out in your mouth...and hang on.
Some of my suburban friends came and did orchard work, too. They still talk fondly about the Uncles, especially Jim, and can imitate him better than I can. I think they were impressed to not look down on country folk after experiencing that world. (At the funeral a cousin told me he was always shocked to see me at the orchard when I didn't have to be there, to do that kind of work for $1/hr, but that he was astounded when a friend came along with me.)
Uncle Jim told stories.
For years he told me that he made fishing cars for him and his buddies. He said he'd take a car and saw off the back part of the roof and add grommets and make it into a little pickup truck. It sounded like a hilariously bad idea. I didn't know whether to believe him. Everything he told a kid had a leg-pulling sound to it. He was daring you to believe him.
He recently told me about shooting a deer at 250 yards with a muzzleloader.
When our gramma died a few years ago he came to the church a bit late. After the service he showed me a big ice-fishing catch of bluegills and crappies in the back of his truck. I think he was delivering them to a subscriber.
The last story he told me, with various uncles chiming in on the tale, was about how as kids they shot a bunch of "big snow geese" near town. They turned out to be swans and soon the cops showed up, so they rowed to the other side of the pond and stashed the swans under brush, then escaped, only to be chased awhile in cars, got away, went back late at night and retrieved the swans while a game warden was waiting in the woods: he lit a cigarette and gave away the ambush, so they could circle around another way. The story goes on much longer, including a tip-off phone call from a friendly warden and a barbwire fence injury. And of course the delivery and dramatic pauses was the whole thing.
I hope someone has audio/video of Uncle Jim telling a story. However, they may well not have such records.
One of Jim's kids might've done something. One got out of town.
...He's doing a dissertation on mythology in California. --Related to storytelling in a way, isn't it?
A couple years ago my parents had a family Christmas party at their house and there were all kinds of rigs in the driveway---including one chopped-off Cutlass-truck. So it was true. It was a hilarious car, but finished off quite nicely. I saw fishing poles inside. In the garage, for the dress-up party, I saw a pair of tall firefighter boots. Oh yeah!
1975, from left to right: Cousin Steve (15)---visiting with his family from Utah; he brought a rattlesnake in a box. Uncle Jim (35 here)---nice boots, nice hair; he always had snap; he looked like this 'til he died. Uncle Leon (40)---eldest, railroader, farmer. Uncle Larry---ex-fireman, Idaho woodsman, smoked pipe. Uncle Chuck (back)---fireman, popcorn. Uncle Phil---cop, marksman, horses. (I trust you'd understand that if we added the rest of the brothers to the photo, and the cousins, you'd have more of the same, only wider and deeper---quite a passle of characters. Come to think of it, they'd make a pretty good Special Forces company if we ever had the Civil War to do over again.)
[NOTE: I adjusted the date of this article to make it place differently in the story line-up. Jim died on 4/3/05, not in March.]
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