My Kind of Cowboy
Uncle Henry’s grin would light up a room. Everybody smiled.
Old folks always enjoyed his grin, banter and showmanship. His table manners were not too refined and some days he was kind of ripe. Dogs started wagging their tail when they sensed he was within range.
But man, oh, man, what a man! A man's man.
Uncle Henry, Hank, Henry, Unc (pronounced UNK,) Ivar (his given name) and a host of others were his handles. Unc or Uncle Henry was my preferred title.
Henry was a cowboy. A real cowboy. A REAL cowboy.
Not the kind of cowboy with an air-conditioned pickup with CD player and cell phone. Not the kind with a steamed $150 hat that nobody could touch. Not the kind who would delicately and religiously place his hat upside down when it was not perched upon his head. His hat was for sun, rain, temporary bucket and for swatting at critters of all sizes. Including me.
Not the kind of cowboy with colorful shirts, rhinestone studs, silver collar tips and an earring. Not the kind with a sprayed-on fragrance and clean boots made from any animal other than a member of the bovine order. Not the kind of cowboy who had a personal computer.
Henry was the kind of 175-pound cowboy who would walk up and bite the ear of a critter that had given him trouble. The kind who would actually get on top of a pissed-off Brahma bull. The kind who would strap his butt to virtually anything for 8 seconds for the fun of it and if a couple of bucks came out of it, all the better.
ME? I’d get on a Brahma bull only if it were dead, had a death certificate, two reliable eye witnesses and I had stuck the carcass with an electric prod to make sure the damn thing’s soul really had gone on to Brahma Hell. I still think I’d park a truck on it first, though. Naw, two trucks, one truck might slip off.
Henry was a Swedish cowboy from North Dakota. Or South Dakota. Or Montana. Any dang place he felt like being a cowboy. A scrapper, but not one who picks a fight. In his youth a good scrap was fun, like a round of golf, a day at the beach or 3 rounds of bare knuckle with that ironworker from over on Racine Street.
Summary of Unc: A gentle, loving man unless you were a critter with an attitude, 2-legged -OR- 4-legged.
When Grampa lost the farm during the depression, the family moved to Chicago and Henry, his oldest son, came along. The family strapped everything they owned to a truck or car and came to Chicago looking like the Beverly Hillbillies, but without the music, oil wells or stupid script.
Well, cowboying in Chicago is not an oft-advertised career position so Unc became a bricklayer.
Let us compare cowboy/bricklayer job requirements:
So he transformed himself from cowboy to bricklayer, or more accurately from a cowboy-cowboy to a cowboy-bricklayer.
Unc would entertain at various churches where he would drag out his ropes and whips to do his rodeo tricks to the delight of kids from 3 to 103. He always surprise some young-lovely by roping her. They would always giggle and wiggle and wiggle and giggle like only girls full of life can do.
Now as Unc advanced in years, so did his definition of a young-lovely so towards the end the “young-lovely” was just as likely to be a 70-year-old great-grandmother as a teenybopper so none of the female types were safe as long as his rope was a-twirling. They ALL giggled & wiggled whence roped. I even think some of them wanted to be his groupies.
Unc would call my folks and ask to borrow me, Carl, a mere child. They’d ask if I wanted to go and I never regretted yelling "Yes! Yes!" Smelt fishing in Lake Michigan (big sardines caught in a net) and other adventures happened with Unc.
His basement was a child’s treasure hunt. More stuff to excite a child’s mind than a museum. In fact, it was a museum. Cannon balls, rodeo equipment, various tools, weapons, contraptions, gizmos, great thingamabobs and doohickeys everywhere. He’d let you mess with any of it for none of it was breakable and if you could lift it at all it was your job to get your little fingers and toes out of harm’s way.
And buckets. I think Uncle Henry’s luggage was buckets. One time his car showed too much rust so he dumped out a bucket of his tools, mixed concrete, patched the car, and returned the tools to the bucket. New cars gave his car a wide berth on the road. You would, too, if you pulled your new Lincoln or Cadillac along side a bucket-filled car patched with concrete!
Cracking his bullwhips (and a bunch of his related tricks) always sent my heart pounding for fear that my beloved Uncle Henry would pick ME to be the holder of whatever prop was about to be violently shredded by the whip. I was afraid I’d tinkle in my pants if he picked me.
Well eventually I was his chosen one and I could not stop shaking. His confidence calmed me with a few words and a gentle touch. “Carl, hold still so I don’t rip your arm off.” Wouldn’t that calm you down?
His grin told me it was all for showmanship and that there was nothing to fear. Yup, me go tee-tee. Just a drop, but tee-tee just the same.
SNAP! CRACK! SNAP! CRACK!
The whip flew and the paper exploded and the people applauded and I got an 8-year-old’s boner. I volunteered EVERY time thereafter! I was hooked. It was probably the boner thing.
So eventually I trotted off to college, tried to learn more about boners and playing pool and eventually returned to the Chicago area in my early 20’s.
Word got to Unc about my playing pool and he and his brother (my Dad) dragged me out to play pool. Both played a good game, but I slapped them silly on the table and they loved it! I finally was a man in Uncle Henry’s eyes! Well, maybe. They watched me in some tournaments and asked about technique and rules with skeptical male-adult-relative scowls.
Now Henry was a champion in his own rights. Horseshoe pitching. He was Chicago City and Illinois State Champ at multiple times. I recall some guy name McDougal being his horseshoe-pitching nemesis.
One day he challenged McDougal to a grudge horseshoe pitching match and Unc showed up with REAL horseshoes, not those made specifically for tossing at yonder stake. Some horseshoes still had nails in them from when they were attached to the horse! McDougal declined the match, cursing in McDougal-ese.
One time in a 14.1 match to 150, I had this joker down 148 to 60, and I played a safe. We swapped safes 5-6 times, and I left a wee bit of a shot and he ran a few balls leaving himself a dangerous side-pocket break shot. He slammed the shot to the side and the cue ball crushed the rack. Balls flying everywhere.
The called shot to the side pocket hit one of the side pocket’s tits, then the other tit (same pocket,) then headed cross side to the other side pocket at warp factor 4. There it hit THAT side pocket’s tit, then the fourth side pocket tit, and you guessed it, back across the table and into the original called pocket. All the time weaving through flying balls from the broken rack. That dog then ran 85 and out, leaving me a loser at 150-148. My Dad and Unc watched intently. An impossible 4-tit-hit did me in.
Afterwards Unc asked me “Can he do that?” I answered “Yup. But only once in his lifetime.” He grinned and bought lunch as I cried about the incredible 4-titter.
Well Unc continued to play pool for 30 more years savoring each shot as a victory and each miss with an easy air of “Oh, well.”
Once he got a traffic ticket he certainly did NOT deserve. Friends chattered to him about going to court and refusing to pay. He shut them down with a slightly Swedish accented “Well, over the years I certainly recall breaking a few laws and getting away with it, so I suppose this just kind of evens things out, doesn't it?” Then he'd give a BIG GRIN! Not much you can say, there, about his logic.
I think of Unc's logic whenever I get a bad roll and I scan back over the last few racks to see if I got away with something perilous. EVERY time I can see where I just as easily could (should?) have bitten the dust back it those earlier racks.
He didn’t care if the equipment was perfect, or the cue looked like a W.C. Fields stage prop. He loved to talk as much as play the game. A good shot was a good shot in his book, regardless of who shot the shot.
If somebody woofed at him for a bet more than a $1 or $2, he was liable to say “Nooooooooo” like only Swedes can do (3 syllables,) and offer a counter wager that he was taller than you, even as he looked up a few inches at you. You’d take that bet and he’d add that it was "while sitting down." You’d sit down back-to-back and you’d suddenly realized he was a big man with short legs and you just been had.
He always was working on a trick or skill whether it was slapping at an airborne brick hammer, twirling a rope, or braiding old clotheslines into the most gawd-awful macramé of the century.
I only got mad at Uncle Henry once.
He called and asked if I wanted to be his laborer and I needed money. What the hell, young college-grad, old bricklayer, this’ll be easy money. He picked me up and we went to get materials, including lots of sand, 50 boxes of fire clay and a bunch of tools. We drove to the site after the appropriate breakfast and got to work.
My beloved Unc, Uncle Henry, Hank, that lazy good-for-nuttin-bum just STOOD there telling me what to do! Well, suggesting what to do, but he just stood there having coffee and dipping stale Swedish things. I wanted to yell “And what are you going to do? Sit there and get fat?”
I (fortunately) didn’t say anything out of basic Unc respect supplemented by a pressing need for money. I just grumbled and got to work lowering those heavy boxes down a 30-foot shaft into the basement of a big old building. He suggested I leave 15 or so on the truck, and I ignored him and got all 50 down the hole-from-hell. I didn’t want to come back up for them.
When it was time to lower the heavy sand the pulley grabbed his glove and ran his hand up into the pulley, cutting his hand worthy of several stitches. He just wrapped a dirty rag around it and said for me to lower it on my own, in smaller buckets, and he sat down again to nurse his hand. Grumble. Grumble.
When we climbed down to the bottom of the pit, he had ME, just me, haul tons of stuff through narrow corridors, over hill & dale, under the bridge, down the yellow brick road and stuff it through a tiny door into a boiler, the inside of which was about the size of 2 pool tables.
It was to be like sitting under a tall pool table and working. We slithered inside the boiler and I had to split the clay and hand him slices of the clay. Unc took tools and cleaned the boiler in about an hour and I cleaned up the old junk. We broke for lunch, shot a few racks, had a few belts of Old Zipper Lips, or whatever whiskey was cheapest, and came back to work.
Uncle Henry picked up a heavy sledgehammer with a short handle and proceeded to pound with that hammer for 7 straight hours. I barely did anything. Another hour of sculpting with a trowel and he just dropped his tools on the ground and said, “I’m done, clean up.” He sat down, leaned against the brickwork of the boiler, and fell instantly asleep. I never doubted the man’s work ethic again. Don’t forget the bloody rag still wrapping his hand, still needing stitches.
From that day forward I also paid more attention to what he said. I had to haul 16 heavy boxes of left over clay back UP that 30-foot shaft, hill & dale, and yellow brick roads notwithstanding. He gave advice once, take it or leave it. No nagging. Once. He never missed - it was always good advice.
A few more nips of whiskey and he challenged me to an arm-wrestling contest. I used to regularly do a free-beer drunk thing in college financed by pool, Ping-Pong and arm-wrestling. Besides, I just saw him pound for 7-8 hours. He has to be tired, right? Any damage I avoided as an 8-year old at the hands of his whips was finally repaid in one swift arm-wrestle put down. No tee-tee, though, at least I avoided that grand embarrassment.
OK, Ok, you ol’ Bag-o-Gas, how about some pool? Uncle Henry grinned. I got that twinge I get whenever I feel like I’m walking into a trap. Years later, I KNOW in my heart he wanted to prove that age, cunning and deceit can outdo youth, recklessness and energy anytime.
The table he took us to was terrible, the chalk was a bare sliver of something previously identifiable as chalk, and there were TWO, not one, but TWO posts obstructing everything. The cue ball had a divot in it, and there were 3 three balls on the table. My arms were shaking so badly from the labor and the whiskey that I lost best of 5, two by scratching on the 8-ball. My 25 year old ego was in flames but I think I was just on the edge of being mature enough to see the wonder in that day’s simple, unheralded labor.
MY Uncle died within weeks after my Father’s death, maybe not wanting to leave his younger brother without an older brother to get him out of jams in case that dang iron worker from Racine was around.
One of the last times I talked to Henry, or more accurately listened to him because his hearing was gone, he said “I still remember that pool shot (referring to the 4-tit-hit) Carl, aren’t you just proud that a once-in-a-lifetime shot like that included you?”
Yeah, Unc, just like you. You are certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am certainly proud that you and I share some blood, although the Brahma bull part got lost somewhere.
Now you, Uncle Cappy and Daddy-O are all together. All of the adult pool-playing men in my life are there. That just leaves my cousins, brother and myself. Add our progeny.
I just know the three of you are plotting some horrific scam on me at the pool table. Better bring your whip and ropes, Unc, because you’ll be on my turf when I get there. I’ll bring my own chalk.
AND don’t go arranging any 4-tit-hits. I’ve already had mine and one is all I care to see.
Nobody paid me any money to put these links here, I just thought they deserved it. Tell them Carlo sent you, maybe they'll buy me a beer.
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