Friday, March 23, 2007

Remembering Uncle D

Ed recently wrote about some of his ancestors got me thinking about some of mine. The photo to the left is a copy of a copy of a photograph taken in the 1930s. D is holding the mule and his father (my great-grandfather) is in the back. With them are two helpers. For those of you who don't recognize it, they are in a tobacco field. I took the second photo taken in 1981.
Was it the winter of 1981? Or was it ’82? The years seem to run together when I don’t have a specific event to which to tag things. It had to be winter for there were no leaves on the trees and the air was cool. Uncle D and his two yippy dogs had been living with my grandma, his sister, ever since he had been released from the hospital. Finally able to get out, the two of us along with his two dogs hiked down to Joe’s Fork, in the swamps behind grandma's house. We followed the creek downstream by a series of beaver dams to the place where the old mill had once been, then followed the ridge back to grandmas.

I don’t remember much about this hike, except that it was the first time Uncle D talked to me as an adult. My grandmother wasn’t around to censure his stories, so he could be quite frank. I should have made notes. He told about leaving the tobacco fields in the late 30s and heading up to Norfolk where he worked in the shipyards. They were busy as the world prepared for war. He told me about signing up with the Navy after Pearl Harbor and spending time at Great Lakes, learning to be a corpsman, and about buying a ’34 Ford Coup and, once he had leave, driving home down through the West Virginia Mountains. Then he told me about his service upon a banana boat converted to supply ship for use in the Pacific. After the war, he wandered around a bit, but as he got older, he became more settled and seldom left Moore County. And finally, he told me how to make good moonshine.

Although we always called him as Uncle D, he was really my great-uncle. My earliest memory is of him in a neck brace, after one of his accidents. I assume he was living with his parents, my great-grandparents, just down the road from us. My parents were remodeling a house and he’d come down and help out. I also have vague recollections of him and my Dad working on the copper clad steeple that went up on the new church building in Eastwood. When the crane placed the steeple on the roof, we were all there to watch. My first fishing experiences at fishing was in D’s pond. D loved to fish.

Shortly after the new church was completed, right before I started the first grade, we moved from the Sandhills. Over the next dozen years, whenever we came back, seeing D was always a treat. When he saw us (my brother, sister and me) they’d be a sparkle in his eyes. He always got us Christmas presents, generally handkerchiefs. We always got him something, often candy or cookies. D was a favorite uncle even though I knew he had problems and not all my memories were positive. Once, when I was about ten or eleven, my grandma picked up him and brought him over to her house. He was sitting at the table, slurring his words and, as was evident to all, quite ashamed of his condition. My grandma poured black coffee down him trying to get him sobered up enough to visit. On another occasion, my dad, brother and I went over to D’s place one Saturday afternoon. Uncle D and several other men were there. The place was in shambles, they were all drunk. We didn’t go in, but from standing on the back porch I could see men passed out the couch in the sitting room. Again, I could tell that D was ashamed to be seen in such a condition and we didn’t stay long.

It’s an understatement to say that D. had a hard life. But he always seemed to recover. Twice he’d broken his back in a car accident, I assume while under the influence. Right before moving in with my grandma, he’d been severely burned. Planning on doing some grilling, D poured gasoline on coals that weren’t turning white quick enough. He was in the hospital for several weeks with the doctors not giving him much of a chance to survive. However, once again Uncle D seemed indestructible. He rallied and after a few weeks was released from the hospital and, upon taking a temperance pledge, moved in with my grandma.

D’s last quarter of century would be significantly different. My grandmother didn’t cut him much slack and he mostly remained sober, only occasionally falling off the wagon. He started attending church more regularly. It should have been in his blood as his daddy, granddaddy and great-granddaddy had each served a long tenure as an Elder. For well over a century, someone from the family was in a leadership position there. He stayed with my grandma until she, his older sister, couldn’t take care of him anymore; then spent his last year and a half in a nursing home.

A year or so ago, I asked a distant and older cousin if he knew anything about D’s moonshining activities. He told me about a time around 1960, just after my cousin had finished school. D had gone out squirrel hunting that morning and when he came back, asked my cousin to grab a couple jugs and to come with him. While hunting, D had discovered someone still. Fearlessly, D and his nephew went out and ran off a gallon or so of liquor, using someone else’s still, mash and firewood. D didn’t think they had to worry because it wasn’t likely that they would be calling the law to report the missing mash. D got away with running someone else’s still without getting shot. He always seemed to have good luck.

My uncle D passed away this past November. I think he was 84 years old.


  1. You shouldn't have mentioned the bit about the two black men being helpers. I was hoping to read that you had some soul in you. :-)

    What a life D led and he lived to be a ripe old age. Your genetic longevity is a constant amazement to me. I look forward to picking on you for another 34 years or so.

  2. A thoughtful memorial. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. 84 is old ? :)

    Didn't you love it when older relatives began treating you as an adult?

  4. I loved reading this, Sage. I had great uncles who were similar, although I don't know if any of them ran a still or not. Probably at least one of them did....LOL

  5. Murf, If he could make it to 84 with the hard living he did, I should be good for a few more years! And who says I don't have any soul--I need to find a college pic of me with what appears to be a "white afro"

    Kevin, thanks

    Pia, you're right about feeling good when you are being treated like an adult.

    Kenju, you're from West Virginia--I'm sure you have at least one bootlegger in the family!

  6. As I read your incredibly detailed words about D's life, I saw in between the lines the way he managed to imprint himself on you in the process.

    Lives well lived have a way of doing just that. Thank you for sharing him with us in this way.

  7. Very beautiful tribute. Uncle D came out alive forus.

    This reminded me of my grandmother from my mom's side is 91 and still got an amazing memory. I met her last year. Wish I could see her more often.

  8. Uncle D sounds like quite the character! I love the moonshine stories! And I also love how you've shown us a photograph and given us the history behind it. I'll have to do the same on my blog.

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your history with us!

    Michele says hello.

  9. wonderful post, sage, memories - we need to hold on to them, and learn from them - i am going out back now to smash up my stil...

  10. Peoples lives are utterly fascinating, aren' they? They things that stir each person---what drives someone to do the things they do---Your Uncle D. sounds like there certainly were demons that ruked him...But he survived somehow....Like I said, I find this utterly and completely fascinating...
    Here from Michele's today.

  11. My Uncle Joe sounds alot like Uncle D. I remember as a kid the guy only had two fingers from a sawing "accident" and creeped me out. But it was amazing what the guy could "cook up" with corn cobs and other produce....

    Great memories of life on the farm though...first place I got licked by a cow, jumped off a hay loft, and first place my Dad let me drive out in the fields...a Model T!!! Believe it or not. Everyone needs an Uncle D and a farm. And his wife was Auntie Em and made the most amazing strawberry pies...

    Good post...brought back some good memories of my own. Thanks!

  12. I got the feeling that even though he had a problem, Uncle D would never harm anyone intentionally. That he was a person with flaws who had a good heart.

    That's all you can ask.

  13. Love the old photos.

    I have a portrait of my grandfather and great-grandfather which was done in Austria in 1918 during WWI. Both grandfathers were in the war at the same time.

    Also have a portrait of my grandmother taken when she was 18 at the turn of the 20th century; I imagine it was the equivalent of a high school senior picture today.

    Memories are precious.

  14. It's so important to keep these memories alive. I have a whole box of old photos of ancestors who no one remembers. They haunt me!

    Thanks for remembering what makes each individual life important. I loved reading about Uncle D.

  15. I really enjoyed this remembrance. He sounds like a character! If his stories could enter the blogosphere I'm sure they would be interesting reading.

    BTW: The pudding below looks yummy.

  16. Fantastic recollections of an interesting man, sage

  17. Carmi, thanks, I like the way you caught D's "imprint" on my life.

    Gautami, is your grandmother in the South of India? I seem to remember you writing about visiting her. Put her life into words!

    Write/Karen: I have a few more moonshining stories I need to share, but I should note that I've never personally been involved in making "likker"

    David, don't waste any corn, make sure you run off the mash before you take an ax to the pot!

    Lady of the hills: You're right about both the demons and the surivival, thanks for noticing

    Hey Non-Angel, thanks for telling us about your Uncle Joe (you should write more about him!)

    Bone: You're right and thanks for noticing, I don't think he would have harmed anyone. I never saw him mad, and when he was drunk he was mostly sad

    Karen: you should write about those pictures? Your grandparents were in Austria, which side were they on?

    Patry, thanks for stopping by. I too have photos for whom I'm not sure who they are, but at least I have photos going back 5 generations whom we know who's who

    Kontan, I ate the last of the pudding for breaksfast this morning!

    Diane, thanks

  18. Your uncle reminds me of both my brother and my oldest cousin in some respects. Although my cousin passed away some years ago, he lived a life no one would choose and always had stories to tell.

    My brother is still alive, but the way he treats his body, he may not last much longer. He's tried to get clean more than once, but can't seem to hold it together.

    Nicely told story. Michele sent me,


  19. As always, a great post. Thanks for sharing your memories of a complicated (and aren't we all) relative.

    I'm sure Uncle D is very proud and happy to read such a loving post.

  20. I just want to clarify my above comment. I mean to say Uncle D is reading this post from the afterlife/heaven type environment. I don't want my comment to seem as though I didn't read the post.

  21. Sage: This nicely written post not only made me feel as if I were along on this journey with you, it also brought back pleasant memories of visiting my Grandparents as a tot! Well done!

  22. Mr. kenju is pretty happy now, Sage, and you know why. However, I am sad, my son is sad and my two daughters are sad. This tournament is not altogether a good thing....LOL

  23. What a wonderful memory you have. I almost feel like I knew Uncle D. That generation had a real iron will for survival. I have lost most of my relatives from that time period. It makes me very sad that they are gone, but I enjoyed reading your remembrances about someone you cared for. :o)

  24. Mr. Alt, I'm sorry about your brother. Even though there is a lot to celebrate in everyone, its also sad to see potential wasted

    V, don't worry, I understood what you meant. Thanks

    Michael, thanks!

    Kenju, Oh well, University of North Carolina can't win it all, but I'm still impressed that your husband once played for Georgetown!

    Trailady, you're right about the loss we're facing as that generation dies out--they will be missed as they helped us grow up.

  25. That is the kind of story that I want to write, save, print off and someday give to a grandchild to pass on through the family. I think family stories are very medicinal. Hopefully you are saving all your stories to pass on someday.

  26. sage~ grandfathers are on my Mom's side and grandmother on Father's. Grandfathers died before I was born.

    Maybe someday in my second *coming* I might write something. :+)

  27. I love Uncle D. I am Aunt Dee! That would be enough but he sounds like such a character. I loved this post and I always enjoy looking at old pictures. I think it is good to have colorful folks like that in our boring it would be without them.

  28. A very interesting and honest account of your Uncle D's life. Thank you for writing it :)