Monday, November 13, 2017

I remember Uncle Bill

When my first book of stories was published in 2006, I drove from Cheyenne to pick up copies from Ghost Road Press in Denver. I stopped by my Uncle Bill Taylor's house and delivered a signed copy. He called me the next week to comment on the stories. He was complimentary, and especially liked the ones set in post-World War II Denver. He did have a critique, though, one I always will treasure. He commented that my stories didn't seem to have endings. True, I said. I explained that contemporary short stories don't have endings, that some writers describe them as "slice-of-life." He took that in, absorbing the words better in his mid-80s than most of my 20-something students did. He said he would take another look. I am not sure if he did. But I appreciated his diligence. He didn't read books as a rule and I was glad that he read mine. Uncle Bill's reading consisted mostly of the Denver Post sports section. This was fortunate when I was a stringer covering high school sports for the the Post in 1978-81. I knew my uncle would read my blow-by-blow account of the latest game under the Friday Night Lights.  

Uncle Bill died Sunday morning. He was our family's last link with what's sometimes called "The Greatest Generation." They were great, in our eyes. My older siblings and I had the pleasure of growing up with grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Then my father began to be transferred around the country to build sites for Atlas missiles. We never lost touch, though, but the moving around frayed our connections. We are an itinerant bunch, we Americans. It was traveling that helped our Florida-based family reconnect with our Denver roots. In our gallivanting days, my siblings and I wandered out to the Rocky Mountains to visit relatives, drink Coors beer (couldn't get it in the South), and to see what all the Colorado hubbub was about. My brother Dan ventured to Denver in the summer of 1971 and came back with some stories. Dan's future wife and her pals ventured West that same summer and dropped in on some of our Denver family on the way to the Grand Canyon. I hitchhiked through Colorado with a girlfriend in 1972. My brother Pat and I hitched from Houston to Denver in 1975 to traverse the mountains and see our relatives. Aunt Mary and Uncle Bill always welcomed us wayward family members. 

My brother Pat was stationed at Lowry AFB in the 1970s. He found family with the Taylors and my paternal grandparents, who, as luck would have it, lived in a senior housing complex that looked out over the Lowry AFB runway where the Army Air Corps trained its pilots during World War II. My sister Molly moved to Denver for a short time in the late 1970s. She knew she was in trouble when she discovered she had to wear a sweater on July nights. Same goes for my sister Eileen, who kept having complicated encounters with ice and snow on Denver roads. The last straw was a spinout and collision on Florida Avenue in southeast Denver. She saw it as a sign and soon after decamped for the real Florida where the road hazards are real but much less icy. 

When my then-girlfriend Chris and I arrived in Denver during the very pleasant summer of 1978, Mary and Bill took us in. We stayed there until we found an apartment in Aurora at the edge of the air force base. We had family but didn't know anyone else. They took us in and we were grateful. 

The World War II generation passes and we are sad. My life is different because of the experiences of our forebears during that era. Uncle Bill told me stories of how he and my father drove the Ribbon of Death (the two-lane precursor to I-25) from Trinidad to Denver to see their girlfriends in Denver. They were two sisters, Mary and Anna Hett, who grew up in an Irish neighborhood near South High School . My father worked as a salesman for Armour Meat Company in Albuquerque and Uncle Bill sold insurance in Trinidad, a sleepy town on the New Mexico border. My father would get off work on Friday and take a bus to Trinidad. Bill drove them in his jalopy up the dangerous road to Denver, where they arrived early on Saturday morning. After some frenzied courting, the two young college grads and war veterans were back on the road, reversing the trip they had made less than 48 hours before. I can imagine their conversations as they negotiated a snowy Colorado night. Do you remember when you were in your 20s and in love? You would do anything to bridge the gap. Anything. They did, as soon both couples married and began families. I was conceived in Albuquerque after a spicy Mexican dinner and a few beers in Old Town. I have been fond of Mexican food ever since. Beer too.

We would be nothing without stories. They tell us who we are, and were. I transform tales of those who came before me into tales of the present. One of the critiques I get is "You have so many people in your stories." Yes, I do, because I have so many people in my life. I grew up in a big family and have many friends. They find their way into my stories, with names changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike. And, as Uncle Bill said, they don't always have tidy endings. 

I hate to tell you this Uncle Bill, but your story is not over. We will continue telling stories about you as long as we are part of this world. Some of those stories will outlast us, and tell our descendants what sort of people we were. 

We hope we are worth remembering. 

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