commuterchroniclesdbh

Driving and Biking in the Big City

A road trip in time

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Just last week, I told this story of my gambling Uncle Richie and the road trip I made alone to his funeral. This is one of my favorites, told in the days when both my oldest brother and mom were still alive and when we’d first begun to lose treasured family members. I come by my commuting naturally and as a lover of a good road trip.

Services for Uncle Richie

DENISE BRAY HENSLEY
PUBLICATION: Houston Chronicle
SECTION: TEXAS MAGAZINE

DATE: SEPTEMBER 20, 1992

 I scrawled the directions on a piece of paper near the telephone, my husband — in the background — more incredulous all the time.

“You’re gonna turn at Aunt Bessie’s old place,” the voice on the line said.

“But I don’t know where she lives. You know, I haven’t been out there since I was just a kid.”

 

“You’ll know it by that blue Chevy parked in the yard,” he explained.
“You sure her car’ll be there?”
“It’s been there for at least 20 years,” said my oldest brother who was giving me directions to the cemetery in East Texas where my uncle was to be buried. My husband, on the other hand and not two steps away, was giving me grief for even thinking about trying to find it.
Half the drive was a two-lane highway; the other half was red-dirt roads only traveled by the people who lived down them. My last obvious landmark would be the Arcadia Four Corners Grocery, a store that never had much business, and by now was long closed.
A battered, lone stop sign still marked the crossroads in front of the Four Corners, although the chance of two cars being in the same area at the same time was — as they say in this part of the country — slim and none.
I had been in that store a lifetime ago. My family occasionally stopped there on our way to my grandmother’s house, a place where we chased chickens and milked cows.
As a visitor from civilization, I was never comfortable with the bathroom out back or the black potbelly stove that dominated the living room. I did, however, manage a taste for the sweet well water we drank from a dipper after the silt had settled to the bottom.
I always bought grape Nehi soda at the Four Corners and poured peanuts in it — not because I liked the taste, but because it was the East Texas thing to do. Friends today ask me, “What was the point?” And I can’t really tell them. It made the grape soda salty and no longer refreshing, and it made the peanuts — washed by the soda — rather bland. The only fun was the foam, caused by the salt in the carbonation. But that wasn’t even much fun when the indelible grape soda foam washed onto my clothes. I never did it unless we were visiting the country from our home in what my mother considered the city.
“You’ll come to a `Y’ and you need to stay right,” my brother continued. “You’ll take the second road to the left. It’s down quite a ways.”
“How will I know if I’m going right?” I asked. My husband, still pacing in the kitchen, shouted, “Why don’t you use the mobile phone in Bessie’s car to call for help?”
I cut him a look while the voice on the phone said, “Well, if you come to an old burned up barn, you’ve gone too far. Turn around and come back.”
In the end, I decided it would be best for me to go too far, then come back.
uncle-richieMy uncle had been the kind of person most families kept in the closet. In mine, he was a hero. We all wanted to be at the funeral.
Uncle Richie was my mother’s baby brother, although he looked much older. He was sick or dying for years, and there was much speculation about how much of his original organs remained after the hard life he’d led. We were certain he’d lost one lung to cancer. Despite that fact, he continued to smoke and cough, sometimes falling into breathless, ragged attacks as he exhaled a long drag from a filterless cigarette. His illness never stopped him until the last year of his life.
His body, always weak and frail, was a contradiction to the reckless, carefree life everyone said he lived.
I am the youngest of six children, and my memories are shaded by the eyes of a child and remembered as legends told in a family.
In one of my few personal experiences with Uncle Richie, he breezed into town in a huge pink convertible. The car seemed the size of a living room with buttons everywhere for making windows and seats go up and down. We all took a ride around the block with the top down, a one-car parade, waving to our neighbors.
My brothers, all three of whom have a Texas passion for vehicles, tell me Uncle Richie had two separate pink 1955 convertibles — a Plymouth and a Ford. One had a hardtop that rolled down into the trunk with the push of a button. We still have a picture of Richie — taken in the late ’50s — on the hood of a convertible. He’s wearing baggy pants, a sleeveless T-shirt and a hat, cocked on the side of his head. He looks carefree and full of fun. It’s the way I most want to remember him.
It’s that man, perched on the convertible, who must have been a draw for the ladies. By last count, he married eight times — the first time on a dare. The women were mostly redheads, voluptuous and crazy. The family rumor mill had most of these women on their way to or from mental institutions, both before and after relationships with Richie, which only added to his curious stature.
I remember most the beautiful, seemingly worldly, Lottie Jo. She smelled of fields of flowers and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. She wore billowing, soft clothes with blouses that hung off both shoulders, showing sprays and sprays of red-brown freckles the same color as her hair. She was the mother of at least two of his children — my cousins — who, by the time Uncle Richie was dying and they were contacted, wanted nothing to do with him.
All Richie’s relationships seemed to end violently and with threats of murder and mayhem — all from women. One burned his new home as it was being built at my grandmother’s home place. Another threatened to burn my mother’s home, and that must have been near the end of his life as he became more and more bedridden in a back room that once had been mine.
Uncle Richie made a living gambling, but it was hardly a living, as my mother said, and his unreliable lifestyle was the downfall of all his marriages. Gambling, however, was the true love of his life.
There were stories of a suitcase filled with cash on one visit, while the next trip my mother would complain he was in town to borrow money. Of all the people who borrowed money from my mother, he was the most likely to pay her back.”Oh, he forgot about a little,” my mother said. “But not much. Everyone forgets a little bit. He was just like one of the kids.”
Many years ago, Mother bought her younger brother enough clothes to go to Las Vegas for a stint as a card dealer. It was the longest period of time when he was out of our lives.
Later, when he came back to Texas after allegedly being run out of Vegas, he was among an anti-elite group of gamblers who seemed to know about any game in town. He played in barrooms, trailer houses and back alleys. It was a shock to me as an adult to be told these little towns could draw regular, semi-high-stakes card games. It couldn’t have been the glitzy scene portrayed in movies, but there were still fortunes made and lost, and shots were still fired when someone felt wronged. In Richie’ s case, the shots were most often fired at him and not by him.
“He didn’t play a straight game,” they said of my Uncle Richie.
He had his own brand of ethics, though, and one of his rules concerned the big cities. He steered clear of Houston and thought the people much too cold and calculating. He told the story of a game one night in a Houston bar where someone came looking for a hit man. Richie said he watched as others at his table flipped a coin and decided who would do the killing.
“I never knew if it was the winner or the loser who got the job,” he said later.
So, it was a damp Texas morning when I drove my own convertible to Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Shelby County, between Center and Timpson, to say goodbye to the family legend. I retraced a route I hadn’t seen for more than 20 years and had never driven alone.
The dirt roads could no longer have been familiar, but I was drawn in the right direction and never made a wrong turn. It just took me a long, long time to get there.
My mother said she was so surprised to look up and see I was there, just as she and others started to make their way to Uncle Richie’s gravesite.
I couldn’t have been any later and still made it on time.
My mother was in her element with these country people. The suburban town she’d lived in for my lifetime was not her home. This was. Everyone was related in some way or another to her — to me.
I stood among the pine trees and the graves and heard my uncle called a Texas pioneer. All the sins of his life were forgotten and he was honored for his roots. The mournful crowd heard solemn words, but I preferred to think of Uncle Richie with a gleam in his eye and an ace up his sleeve. Life was a game for him, and how he loved the game.

 

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Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

December 16, 2016 at 9:31 pm

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