I’ve written about my Aunt Kat on a few occasions over the years. She passed away a few years ago and I miss her terribly. My mom is the youngest of ten kids...my Aunt Kat was the next youngest and all my life, she lived no more than fifteen minutes away. She was a force to be reckoned with and was a jelly making, pie baking, gossiping her ass off vessel of love. She and my Uncle Jim only had one child, daughter Susie who’s about ten years older than me.
LFG has missed out on relationships with most of my mom's siblings...they've all gone on now except for one. But LFG and my Aunt Kat had a very nice rapport and I’m happy for that. The photo above is of LFG, my mom and Aunt Kat about to head out to pick strawberries in McBee, South Carolina.
My Aunt Kat’s first husband, Uncle Jim, died when I was ten years old but I loved the hell out of him for the short time that I knew him. It’s clear to me now but I was oblivious to their intent when my uncles and other dads would step in and take the place of my absent father. And Uncle Jim was keen on high impact shenanigans. He was so damn full of love and mischief that he was just wired to be a dad and uncle and spoiler and prankster. And he loved me. That's Uncle Jim sitting beside my bow tied dad at my Aunt Inez' Sunday dinner table. My Aunt Kat, in the striped blouse is standing beside my mom. I was just a twinkle in the bow tied guy's eye when this picture was taken.
I learned many years after his death that he too was a member of the Greatest Generation. And like most veterans, he spoke nothing of it or at least very little. My Aunt Kat told me that he’d sometimes cry in the middle of the night after they were married. She begged him to tell her what it was and he told her. Once. He drove or was one of the crew members on those landing craft…Higgins boats…vessels that dropped Marines or Army troops off on the shores of Pacific islands during WWII. And he told my Aunt Kat that some of the boys were so scared that they didn’t want to exit the boat. He said he could see it in their eyes and he felt guilty having to help make them get off the boat.
But Uncle Jim said what haunted him and made him cry at night sometimes was the memory not of the dropping off but the picking up...Transporting the dead, including just partial bodies and the screaming wounded on the same vessel that dropped the young, scared but physically intact boys off to meet their fate. There’s so much PTSD today, my Marine nephew being one who’s challenged with it, but I’m thinking that my Uncle Jim and others like him had their own silent PTSD for decades. But I never knew it. All I knew was his love.
Uncle Jim owned a grocery store and when I was a toddler, I’d have the run of the place. But what excited me most about Uncle Jim was the Grubworm. He had a 1963-ish Econoline van that he drove on the weekends and for his grocery store tasks. And he said it looked to him like a grubworm. So he had someone paint “Grubworm” on the front and his name on the driver side door. And he’d take me to ride in it. Whenever I wanted.
I can’t convey in words the excitement of riding in a truck whose engine is right up there in the cab with you. And when my three or four year old imagination was at work in tandem, hell, my Uncle Jim might as well have been Alan Shepard or John Glenn and the Grubworm, the Freedom 7. I mean really…how many kids get to ride in such a curious little vehicle and especially one that had a personality conveyed through its owner and painted on moniker?
So I wanted to honor my Uncle Jim by re-creating to the degree my imagination would let me, the Grubworm. And I’m dropping it off at my cousin Susie’s house tomorrow. It was a fun little project…kind of an ADG meets American Restoration…half-ass style. My first task was to find an old toy Econoline truck. I snagged one courtesy of eBay and then had to figure out how to make it less toy-ish and more faithful to the green color and blackwall tires of my Uncle Jim’s Grubworm.
Old advertisements from the 60’s helped fill the bill as well as discussions with my mom regarding what the Grubworm looked like and how the lettering was done. Of course my wild-ass imagination had an actual grubworm caricature worm on the front of it. Shut up.
And then I taped it off.
And painted it. The wrong color. Too light.
And painted it again. Too glossy and too green.
And again. Not perfect but close enough. I then had to get rid of the whitewalls.
Finally I went online and learned how to make decals. Voila…here’s the Grubworm.
I think it’s easier to further explain my story by just letting you read my letter that accompanies the Christmas wrapped box containing Uncle Jim’s Grubworm. Here it is…
December 24th, 2013
Sometimes I miss Aunt Kat so bad I can’t stand it. Mom and I say more than once a day that it just doesn’t seem right not having aunt Kat walk in the back door saying “heeeey…I brought y’all something!” I’ve loved all of the Cole sisters but it’s no secret that I was crazy about your mom. We all loved Aunt Inez to death and whether it’s true or not, I know that I was one of Inez’s favorites so I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of love from the sisters. But Aunt Inez was the matriarch and everybody had to love her! I’m especially mindful of how great it’s been to have so many loving aunts as my mom’s now amidst the last, fragile chapter of her journey.
I have five more years’ worth of jelly that your mom made and a lifetime of pictures to keep her present in my mind. And even though uncle Jim died so many years ago, I have vivid memories (or at least they are vivid in the way that my imagination can conjure the hell out of things!) of loving him too. I was only ten years old when Uncle Jim died.
I remember his tickly moustache and his pipes. Seems like there was a pipe stand with several of his pipes on it. Am I dreaming that up? And when I was a little fella and had to wear suspenders to keep my pants up, I’m told that he taught me to answer “Dusty Baggy Britches” when someone asked me my name.
And someone would give me a dollar bill to spend at Jim’s Corner and I’d get some candy or a little toy and Uncle Jim would take over the register and hit every damn button on the cash register ringing up my purchases like an orchestra conductor. He’d take the dollar from my little hand and make change…giving me more than a dollar back. And remember the little brown sacks of penny candy that he’d bring? Squirrel Nuts, Red Hots, bubble gum, Mary Janes. And candy cigarettes and necklaces and those straws full of sugar. It’s a wonder any of us had a damn tooth left in our heads. I might have had a shitty dad but I’ve been blessed to have aunts and uncles and grandparents who made my childhood pretty memorable.
People ask me all the time how I know so much of the early to mid-1960’s R&B and pop music. I tell them that my mom was the youngest of ten kids and that I had a zillion older cousins who, when I was just a little fella, would be playing 45s of all that great music. I remember as a teenager going through a stack of your 45s or albums that were still over at aunt Kat’s house. The Tams.
Am I dreaming this up too? Did Richard, when he was dating you and y’all were home from college, put on socks just to come in and pick you up and then take them off again once y’all got in the car? Was it Uncle Jim who would have a fit about Richard not wearing socks? And now you and Richard are going to be grandparents. Damn I’m getting old.
Oh shit, and how could I forget the “Santy Claus Trap”? Remember? Uncle Jim would take us back behind his store and point to one of those outbuildings/sheds and say that he had a “Santy Claus Trap” in there and that he was gonna catch him and not let him leave us presents. But he would let on just enough that it wasn’t true so that we wouldn’t get upset…we’d just stay curious and sceptical because I think in our little four year old minds we knew that Uncle Jim was too good a man to do something so terrible to us and to Santa Claus. But he got us wondering and worrying…just a little bit.
But my most exciting memory of Uncle Jim is of the Grubworm! Susie, I couldn’t have been more than three or four when he had that truck. “Wanna go ride in the Grubworm?” Of course I did. What little boy wouldn’t want to ride in a truck? Especially one named after a damn worm? And I remember being scared and curious that the engine was right up there with us in the cab.
My memories are vague since I was so young but I think about the Grubworm from time to time and kinda had an idea of what it looked like…at least in my mind’s eye. And I’m sure that I haven’t gotten it just right but I loved creating my version of the Grubworm from an old metal Econoline toy truck that I got on eBay. I found some old advertisements on the internet to try and get the correct color of green, too. It’s close but not perfect…after I painted it three different colors of green before I was satisfied! And I learned to make and print decals for the lettering.
So here’s the Grubworm for you, Susie!