In a book I wrote one of the characters likes to say “Damn the luck.” That is something my uncle liked to say and recently it put me in mind of a story about my uncle I had forgotten.
I was spending the day, or the weekend more than likely, with my grandparents and as was often the case at that time, my uncle was there popping colored popcorn (as in the colors of the rainbow) and telling me stories about how my grandmother caught him smoking when he was young and made him smoke a whole pack and he threw up before he could reach the kitchen sink.
We were in the living room where my brother would set a green velour chair on fire one day and it would take us all years to understand that if certain things were meant to be set on fire, a green velour chair was among them.
I don’t know for sure but my guess is, and it is likely a good guess, we were watching an Audie Murphy movie on a Saturday. Audie Murphy would have been only recently dead at the time. My grandpa’s first name was Murphy and that was my uncle’s name too and for all of my childhood, maybe even most of my adulthood, maybe up until this moment, I believed they were fans of Audie Murphy first because he was a war hero, and second because they shared his name.
Whatever we were watching and whatever we were talking about, it was interrupted by a crash bang. It was the sound of King Kong landing on a street nearby, followed by the sound of fingernails being dragged across a chalkboard.
My grandpa only raised an eyebrow because, after Pearl Harbor, to hell with a little crash bang on a Saturday afternoon. But my uncle jumped up in a hurry to go out and see what it was. I followed him because he was my uncle and he always had adventure in his eyes and in his shoes and it seemed to me, and I mean seemed, that he never did like to lie to me about anything, even the things grownups think they should lie about to children.
The California neighborhood where my grandparent’s lived then was separated from the main road by a service road, but between the main road and the service road there was a difference in elevation of at least five feet. What my uncle saw and I saw too once we reached the sidewalk was that a car or its driver had made a severe misjudgment or experienced a complete lack of judgment in navigating the difference in elevation between the main road the service road. The car was on its side and the driver was crawling out through the broken windshield.
My uncle ran toward the accident. So I did too. The man who was climbing out the broken windshield didn’t make it any further than the ground next to his car. My uncle arrived with me not too fast on his heels, but he gave me a look that meant I should not come any closer than the distance the car would cover if it decided to finish rolling over. He began checking the man for, I didn’t know what, but probably broken things. The man said he needed to get away. My uncle told him he wasn’t going anywhere. The man said something about the police. My uncle told him he wasn’t going anywhere.
I should explain that I was a child, not much older than eleven or twelve. My uncle was not actually a hero, at least not that day, and he was not actually unencumbered by any responsibilities, but that is how I always understood him. He owed the man bleeding on the street nothing, but still he made the man be quiet. He made the man be still. He made the man forget about running because the man was drunk or high or both. And even at a young age, I knew my uncle was making some sort of calculation. He didn’t care about the man, not really. Like my grandpa, my uncle understood consequences as straight lines drawn directly from one thing to another. The only person responsible for the man bleeding in the street was the man bleeding in the street. But I think my uncle knew that the world would be worse in some way if the man ran away, or crawled away. My uncle suffered many consequences for his actions over the years and though I cannot say he never tried to avoid those consequences, I think I can say he didn’t whine about them. “Damn the luck” was his signature phrase, a way of acknowledging if not admitting that we all more or less create our own circumstances. No, the drunk man who tried to chitty chitty bang bang his car wasn’t going anywhere.
I believe my Uncle Murphy was a moral man, a good man, maybe even a righteous man in the way I understand righteousness, which is nothing like holiness or godliness or being full of faith. Trouble found him, at least early in his life, because trouble liked the look of him, liked the way he stood in every room like he owned the room, liked the way he smiled like he just took you and you didn’t even know it, liked how anyone being angry with him only made him smile wider.
My Uncle Murphy is the only person I ever met who had been thrown through the plate glass window of a drinking establishment, like in a western movie. He was once stabbed in the arm by a hitchhiker. And these are just small glimpses of the life. The stories go on and on. When he died, on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, he died because he put himself in harm’s way rather than let others do it. By then, as an EMT out on the platform, he actually had been a hero for many people many times. After his funeral I sat with my cousins and my uncle’s step sons and there was no end to the stories. Maybe the best measure of a life is how long they can tell stories about you after your gone. By that measure, my Uncle Murphy walked tall.
When he was not much older than I am now he was visiting California from his relocation to Louisiana. I sat next to him in a restaurant and I felt ten years old again. We hassled each other about everything, but when I hassled him about being an old man his smile drifted off. He looked down the long table at his grand kids and said, “Hell, Michael, I didn’t expect to live past thirty.”
He always called me “Michael” or “boy.” He never called me “Mike.”
By happenstance I attended the same junior high school from which my uncle was among the first graduating class. His advice to me upon entering junior high, which I have written about before, can be paraphrased as follows.
“If somebody bigger than you wants to fight and you don’t have a choice, don’t wait, just kick him in the nuts as hard as you can and after he falls down put something heavy on top of him, like a desk or a bench, and then run.” I am average height now but when he gave me this advice there was reason to believe I might be shortish like he was.
As I think about it now, my Uncle Murphy gave me a lot of advice and almost none of it can be comfortably repeated here. As embarrassed or shocked or even judgmental as I might have been at the time, in retrospect I can say it was almost all very good advice and some of it would have saved me some grief in this life if I had listened.
Not long after the ambulance arrived the police arrived at the scene of the accident where my uncle made the man remain still. Before the police could reach the man as he was being prepared for a stretcher, my uncle stopped them by talking to them. He led them away a few feet and he smiled and he shook his head and he laughed and seemed to be telling a story. The bleeding man was put on a stretcher and the stretcher was put into the ambulance. One of the police officers came over to talk to the ambulance driver and then the ambulance driver drove away. The police kept talking to my uncle and one of them wrote some things down as I sat on the curb watching a tow truck bring the car back to its wheels. A bunch of neighbors joined me. After the ambulance and the police and the tow truck were gone my uncle told them the story of how the man wanted to run away.
Eventually, we started to walk back to the house. I asked him what he said to the police. He told them that the man had been drinking a lot and had earned his accident. He said he didn’t tell them that the man had probably been using a lot of drugs too. He told me the police could figure that part out on their own if it needed to be found out. My Uncle Murphy was in charge of diminishing my naivete and it was a task he took seriously, I think. When we arrived back at my grandparent’s house, my uncle gave my grandpa a very brief summary of events and my grandpa didn’t ask any questions. It drove me crazy.
This was one of the most exciting events of my young life and would not be topped until a neighbor six houses down shot his mistresses husband in his front yard in self-defense, or when the neighbor on the next block over was working under his RV and it slipped off its blocks and crushed his head and we straddled our bikes as we watched the blood run into the gutter and the fire department and police trying to figure out how to extract the body.
One day I decided that there is always an accident, always somebody drunk or dying, always an ambulance and police, always neighbors huddled on a lawn looking. It’s how I came to deal with the random tragedies of people I didn’t know. As an adult, driving home late one night on a dark highway I saw a car on fire on the other side of the highway. Several cars on that side of the highway had stopped, their emergency blinkers blinking and their silhouettes moving in front of the flames. There was nothing I could do to help but I made the mistake of looking as I drove past the scene and I saw a body on fire inside the car. Damn the luck, I thought. There is always somebody on fire.
There is always somebody dying on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. But one day it was my uncle, the first person to teach me that shit happens. When I found out my parents were going to divorce he put me in his truck and took me for a long drive and he told me everything that was going to happen to me and it all did happen, but the entire time he was talking to me his body language and his attitude and the way he spoke through his cigarette hanging from his mouth told me that there is always somebody getting a divorce.
I’m not defending or advocating this way of thinking, mostly because I’m projecting it onto my uncle. I have no way whatsoever of knowing if he ever had a thought remotely similar to those I assign him. But when the time came for my uncle to make a choice and put himself in harm’s way or allow others to do it, he put himself in harm’s way and I can’t help thinking, as he did it, he was thinking, “there is always somebody getting hurt or dying while trying to keep others from getting hurt or dying. Damn the luck.”