Tuesday, March 11, 2014

My Uncle Ed

My Uncle Ed was laid to rest yesterday beside his loving wife, Mabel. Although, everyone called her Tabby. For as long as I can remember, most everyone called him Ralph or Ralphie. Ed was the sixth child of my maternal grandparents Joe and Erma Smith. Ed was born in 1945 and after graduating from White High School in tiny White, South Dakota he enlisted in the Army.
Four years later, he found himself in Vietnam where he had volunteered to be a door gunner. He flew eight missions in the most dangerous position one could have in combat. For those of you that do not know what a door gunner is, they were the guys on the doors of the helicopters firing machine guns into the jungle as the choppers came in to rescue the wounded and other soldiers after an encounter with the Viet Cong. Only 8% of door gunners came home!

We have all heard the phrase, “I’ve got your back.” Being a door gunner is the epitome of having your brothers in arms backs! Door gunners saved many lives and had an incredibly high mortality rate because the VC were aiming at them! The enemy knew if they could take out the door gunners, they had a much better chance of survival because no one would be firing back at them.

Ed never talked about his experience in Vietnam, but talking to my other uncles, reading about the war, and talking to other people, I have learned more than I ever care to about war. You may have heard the famous General William Sherman’s statement to the Mayor and Councilmen of Atlanta before he burned the city to the ground, “War is hell!” If you have experienced battle, you know all too well what that statement means. If you have not experienced combat, ask someone who has and see what they tell you — if they are willing to talk about it. It will make you think twice about wanting to serve in a battle zone.

In May 1967, my grandma died very unexpectedly. Ed’s two older brothers who were active military at the time and had some high ranking connections, got Ed out of the Army on a hardship discharge to go home and help grandpa run the farm. There were still four younger siblings living at home and grandpa needed help. Fortunately, Bill and Bob were able to use their connections and get Ed out of his military obligation.

After several years of being out of the Army, Ed reenlisted and served sixteen more years to retire from the Army with twenty years of service. Between my mom’s seven brothers, they have a combined eighty-two years of military service in all four branches of our Armed Forces. I have always contended you cannot find many families that have made that much of a commitment to serve our country from one generation of young men in one family.

To a man, whenever I bring that up, none of my uncles think it is such a big deal and other families have done more. That may be true; but I believe eighty-two years from one family is pretty impressive!

Sometime in 1969, Ed was struggling with what today would be called survivor’s guilt and probably PTSD. He was in Marshall, Minnesota and called mom to tell her he was thinking about taking his own life because he felt he could have done more and he should not have left his buddies back in Vietnam.

Mom asked him if he had enough money to get a bus to Worthington. He said he did and he came to live with us for a year. That school year we had thirteen people living in our house! Besides my mom and dad, my four siblings, (Chad had not been born yet), two uncles, four renters in our apartment in the front half of our basement, and me we had a Baker’s dozen under one roof.

One of our renters was also a Vietnam vet who had combat experience with a K-9 unit in Vietnam. He would share some of his stories and kept us mesmerized for hours listening to his experiences with his dog in a combat zone. The four renters we had were all college student/athletes and my mother fed all of us that year. She charged them one dollar for lunch and a dollar and a half for dinner. We went through one hundred pounds of potatoes every two weeks, gallons and gallons of milk and more food than you can imagine. It was like living on Walton’s Mountain!

We had to eat in shifts because thirteen people would not fit around our dining room table. You just hoped if you got the second shift, there was still enough food left to fill your stomach.

Ed did several different jobs that year starting at Campbell’s Soup Company where he worked a number of jobs I do not want to describe. He did not have enough money to buy a car, so he rode my brother’s bicycle to work that fall. 

By winter, he was working in the Worthington Co-op gas station pumping gas, checking the oil and doing all the things full service gas station attendants did back in the day. He also worked in the shop doing car repair work. It was during that time he bought an old Studebaker for $50.00. I will never forget that Brown Studebaker with the bright red rims coming to pick me up from basketball practice to give me a ride home after he got off the shift from the co-op.

One day, Ed did 180° turn on the street in front of the playground while Chuck Peterson and I watched from inside the school door as we waited for our rides. When Ed drove up on the curb a little bit, rolled the window down, and yelled, “Come on Fat Cat, the hawk’s a bitin’!” 

Chuck looked at me and wanted to know who that was. I said, “Oh, that’s just my uncle Ralph!” 

For those of you that do not know what the euphemism, “the hawk is biting,” is all about, it refers to the wind is blowing and it is cold!

Ed’s younger brother, Terry, also lived with us that year and the next while he went to the junior college in Worthington. It was during those two years Terry became more like a big brother to me than my uncle. Before that, Terry, Dee and Tim who are the youngest three siblings in mom’s family were more like cousins then aunt and uncles. They still are.

After a year living with us, Ed enrolled in the vocational school in Pipestone, Minnesota and studied carpentry. I am not sure exactly which year he decided to go back into the Army, but at some point, he reenlisted and served his duration to retire after twenty years of service.

It was in the Army he met and married Tabby. They have one daughter, Amanda, who is married and lives in Mifflintown with her husband, Guy Bowman.

I know this is turning into a long post, but I want to share one more story about my relationship with Ed.

In 1995 I started a youth oriented business in White I called Prairie Woods. The whole idea of Prairie Woods was to recycle old or waste wood and make unique products out of the material. We also got a job taking down roughly three hundred ash trees and sold them as firewood. I hired Ed to come back from Mifflintown and help me run the business in the lumberyard in White. I was going to turn an empty lumberyard into a source for local farmers to buy used wood from barns we had torn down, products we were building like feed bunks and storage sheds. I wanted to give the young people experience and responsibility in product design, manufacturing, marketing and various aspects of running a business.

Here is a picture of part of my crew sitting in some of the Adirondack chairs we had made from a kit I got from a friend who was doing a youth project here in Minneapolis.

Click on the image to enlarge:

How is that for a motley looking crew? There is not a lot of diversity in White, South Dakota. These boys and the rest of my crew knew how to work. I would like to think I helped them in some way to develop into productive and responsible young men and women.

Prairie Woods failed due to a number of reasons. Ed went back to Mifflintown to be with his wife and daughter. Even though that business venture failed, I had a lot of fun teaching those young people new skills and being around a project that was the right thing to do. Plus, I love the smell of wood!

I could go on and on telling you stories about my uncle Ed, but I think you get my point. I will miss him and appreciate the fact I got to talk to him about two weeks ago for a while one Sunday afternoon. Little did I know that would be the last time I got to talk to him?

Life is like that. We never know when it will be our time.

As always, I look forward to your comments.




Cathy Judge said...

Thanks for sharing the family history, Mike. Very well written and interesting. RIP Uncle Ed. May God Bless you and your family, Mike.

Colleen M Patrick said...

We can all take comfort in the fact that "Ralphie" had a ton of friends in Mifflintown…small comfort but it helps to know. As the oldest of our "tribe" as we jokingly call ourselves, its not been an easy six days and I can not imagine our annual migration back to THE SMITH LODGE without him. Ironic as it is-I was trying to call him the morning his daughter was calling me to tell me he was gone. At the exact same time. Tabby was an only child but she had many cousins and they are going to be a great support to Amanda in the days ahead. He loved to tell stories of course, probably that Irish heritage, huh? It seems he told lots of them about our growing up years and the antics of
his siblings. Ånd we know he embellished a few!
Later. Just got back to Minnesota so better try and get some sleep.

angmag55 said...

Thanks for sharing this Part of Your family history Mike. I found this very interesting and enlightening about a former Vietnam Vet that went back to the Army!

angmag55 said...

Thanks for sharing this very interesting story of your Uncle Ed! To learn of another Vietnam Vet that rejoined the Military after getting discharged is interesting. RIP Uncle Ed and May God Bless all of Your Family and You as you journey the days ahead remembering the good times with him.

Jeff said...

Sorry for the loss of your uncle. He was quite young! He was only a year older than I am which makes me think of my mortality as well. You're right, We never know when it will be our time.

Anonymous said...

fat cat.i just talked to brother bob & he told me about what you wrote about brother ralph & said he was really touched & needed to write you about it.toni just brought this up &I too am touched by your writing.it really brings his life to life in my mind.as I read it everything he went thru was pretty much right on the mark bud as I believe he called you sometimes.he had a good heart &always meant well.our family has been so blessed & lucky to have the warm feelings for each other that a lot of families don't. my 3 kids consider themselves very lucky to have spent a few days meeting him & hearing all the tales we tell & retell every year in the barn about growing upon the farm.as I near retirement 17 months & counting I cant wait for another 10 days in November to do it all over again &believe my son Daniel is gonna try & bring his 2 girls & wife back to experience the reunion.we gotta keep this family thing going .thanks for your commentary on ed &god bless you bud.ole man river.