By Cait Collins
Our cousin, Jack, sent out an email last Tuesday. Uncle Max had died in his sleep. He was 86 years old. I did not know my uncle well. My dad’s military service separated us from family for three to four years at a time. We missed many a family gathering. However, we know our cousins. They have stood by us in the hard times, and we wanted to be there for them. My sisters and I discussed attending the service when we go together for a birthday dinner that evening. Sis 4 could not get off, but the rest of us got the time. We left Amarillo at about 9 AM on Friday morning for the nearly five hour drive to Graham, Texas.
I got to know my uncle during the service and the brief visitation at the cemetery. I did not know he had served in the Army during World War II. He loved his country, but chose not to re-enlist because he believed he could better serve the nation by growing wheat for food and working the oil leases to provide energy. He was unfailingly loyal to his commitments. He missed family gatherings because he was working to provide for his family and to support his employer’s needs. He worked for the same company for 54 years. Uncle Max was the original environmentalist. He loved the land and respected its bounty. He taught hard-headed kids the things he had learned.
Yes, he was a hard man, but he loved his family and his extended family. When Uncle Scott died, Uncle Max stepped up to be a role model for my cousins, Scott and Jack. He came to my father’s funeral to offer his support to mother. Over the years, he would ask his wife about mom. If my aunt had not spoken with mom in a while, she would call to check on us. Uncle Max kept letters, cards, graduation announcements, wedding and birth announcements. His children became concerned he could not afford new clothes as he always wore the same grungy overalls. They sent him boxes of new overalls, white tee-shirts, socks and shoes. The care packages were found in a closet.
The more I thought about what I had heard, the more I realized I had met Uncle Max in many a book or short story. He’s that character who would greet an intruder with a loaded shot gun. But when the snow falls, he secretly clears a widow’s sidewalk and driveway. The sheriff does not need to ask for his help searching for a missing child. The curmudgeon is already beating the bushes. The town bully taunts a timid child to go knock on old man Hunter’s door. Although terrified of the consequences, the kid accepts the challenge. A hand reaches through the partially opened door and yanks the boy inside. The sheriff arrives in response to a kidnapping report and finds the child pulling weeds in the garden under Mr. Hunter’s supervision.
The shadowy person may not be a primary character in the work, but he does have a role in the development of the story. Information he provides the authorities may break the case. The protagonist rescues the hardened character. When he dies, his estate goes to the hero. Old man Hunter dies. His game-rich property is left to the county as a wild life preserve. Or what if this cagey character is killed in a gun battle? The investigation reveals he shielded drug runners. The plot lines are infinite when an “unknown” person is introduced. Thank you, Uncle Max. You just taught another hard-headed kid a valuable lesson.