Mother had told us her brother Speed (Levi Outhouse) was moving to Twin Falls. We knew he had been living in an SRO (single-room occupancy) building in Portland, Oregon. The building was being demolished. With nowhere to go, he became yet another recipient of my Aunt Grace’s and Uncle Dewey’s generosity. He moved in with them.
He had served in World War II. In my young eyes, that made him a hero. I expected him to be tall and handsome, maybe look a bit like Fred, another of Mother’s brothers.
Running from a war hero
We lived a few blocks from my aunt and uncle. Mother worked five and a half days a week. Uncle Speed probably figured he would surprise her by being there when she came home.
I don’t remember how old I was but likely no older than four or five. I had already internalized my mother’s warnings about a strange man who might try to pick me up. The strange man of the warnings was my father.
I had only a vague image of him in my mind, but I believed he might try to snatch me away from my mother. When a big, dark-haired stranger reached toward me in the wagon, I screamed and took off running.
A fixture of my childhood
When she came home, Mother smoothed over the disappointment my uncle must have felt. Uncle Speed became a fixture of my childhood. I remember the overstuffed chair he always sat in, the stubble that darkened his jaw and chin, the nicotine stains on his fingers. He had a wry sense of humour and loved to tease.
War had shattered more than his body, but I didn’t know that while I was growing up. He had a small disability pension that covered his cigarettes and helped with his room and board. Unable to work, he spent most of his time just sitting or watching television, occasionally lending a hand with some project of my uncle’s.
I grew to love him in the same way I loved all my relatives, with an unquestioning acceptance of his rightful place in my life. But we never had much to talk about. He knew little about children, less about teenagers. He was just there, on the edges of my life.
What his death revealed
In March 1968, three and a half years after I left for university, he died. He had always seemed old to my young eyes, but he was only 55 when he breathed his last.
I don’t know a lot of the details of his life. I do know a strange sadness – at least strange to my young eyes – always hung over him.
He was 29 when he enlisted in the Army in St. Helens, Oregon. The World War II Army Enlistment Records tell me his serial number was 20935945. I learned from Mother that his chronic respiratory problems were a result of mustard gas exposure during the war.
Smoking likely worsened the effects, but there was another reason he may not have sought a long life. After his death, Mother told me was engaged when he went off to war. He was deeply in love with a young woman who promised to wait for his return. She kept her promise, but by the time he returned from the war he had lost more than lung capacity. He had lost what he considered his manhood to a war injury.
Mother said he couldn’t bear to tie his beloved to the remnants of the man he had been before the war. He knew she loved him enough to marry him anyway, but he did not think that would be fair to her. So he broke off the engagement.
I’ve no idea what sorrow she has carried as a result. Mother was sure Uncle Speed never told her why he would not marry her, fearing she would stay with him out of sympathy. I hope she had a good life, that the disappointment dissolved into just one of those mysteries we all carry.
My uncle’s disappointment stayed with him until he died, thanks to a battlefield in Europe. Like so many others, he came back from the war with wounds to body and spirit that never healed. War isn’t the only way people’s lives are shattered, but it seems a particularly wasteful way.
Our young people deserve better. In a Nobel lecture on December 10, 2002, Jimmy Carter expressed it well: “We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”