By Tim Hayes
My Uncle Jim was a bear of a guy, a man’s man, and it was impossible not to like him.
He and my Aunt had three daughters, and since my Mom and Aunt were sisters, our family spent a lot of time at their house, and vice versa. I loved them all, but when we got together there were the two adult women, three female cousins, and my two younger sisters. That’s a heck of a lot of estrogen in one place for a budding stud like me. (You can stop giggling now, Dear Reader.)
So naturally, I tried to hang around my Dad and my Uncle Jim as much as possible.
Uncle Jim had a nice job in an office someplace, and he maintained a solid, respectable, middle-class Pittsburgh life for all of his girls. He always had a wide grin to welcome you with, and a handshake that I always thought was what it would feel like to shake hands with a grizzly bear, as his great paw would knead my scrawny knuckles against each other. He had a great, deep voice that carried like crazy, and he always had a joke ready for you. Uncle Jim was awesome.
Oh, and one more thing. He had a wooden leg.
The source of mystery and a little bit of wariness on our part as kids, Uncle Jim’s wooden leg never slowed him down, never kept him from any activities with his own family or with our very large extended family. He never talked about it, other than to encourage us to give it a knock for good luck every now and then.
I never saw him in pain because of it, never heard him complain about it, never watched him take it off or put it on, never actually saw it at all, now that I think about it. His cars were specially adapted so that he could drive to work, drive to family events, drive wherever he wanted, just like anybody else. Uncle Jim’s wooden leg was just a part of him. Unusual, but accepted. It contributed to what made him such a great uncle, at least in my eyes.
Days, more like hours really, before I was to leave for college, Uncle Jim passed away suddenly. A titan of my youth, gone. If college is where you go to grow up, I got a head start on the process. A brutal head start. It remains one of the great regrets of my life that I could not be at Uncle Jim’s funeral. It would have been such an honor to serve as one of his pall bearers. But my Aunt insisted that I needed to start my college career as planned, so we honored her request.
It’s been more than 40 years since I heard Uncle Jim’s voice, saw his big smile grinning at me, felt my knuckles getting squeezed in his grip, or gave his wooden leg a knock for good luck. But I think of him a lot, especially every November 11th. For Uncle Jim was a veteran of World War II.
He lost his leg after an intense, close-range firefight in Europe. I’ve never gotten the details of the story perfectly straight, but it happened near a farmhouse where rifle fire was happening with mere feet between the combatants. Uncle Jim was shot in his leg and lost it later, coming home with commendations for valor and a wooden prosthetic.
They call his the Greatest Generation because of what they accomplished, which was nothing less than saving the world from totalitarianism. But also because of how they did it, and the fact that they came back and just got on with building their families, careers, and communities.
I don’t know the details of how he lost his leg because Uncle Jim never talked about it. That chapter was closed. It became more important to love his wife and daughters, and keep a little nephew company as we sat in his back yard and listened to Bob Prince call a Pirates game on the radio.
Heroes like Uncle Jim are everywhere. They may not talk about it much, and that’s their prerogative. But on this and every Veterans Day, it’s our time to talk, to thank them for their service and their sacrifice.
So thanks, Uncle Jim. I’ll never forget you. Knock, knock.