[A brief diversion from Africa to home…]
Last Thursday morning, my grandma’s brother died. His name was Jim Tracy, but to us he was known as Uncle Bud. He was 86, so his passing wasn’t too much of a surprise, but that doesn’t take the edge of the finality of it all. Especially for a family figure like Uncle Bud.
Uncle Bud was, as an English girlfriend of mine said after meeting him, “a true bloke”. He was a real Nordeast legend; always in a suit and hat he tipped to the ladies. On holidays, he’d gather us grandkids around and teach us the intricacies of dice and card games, giving us the chance to earn an extra quarter or two from him if we won.
Bud worked for the railroad as a property assessor, so he was all over the Twin Cities. He knew the names of everyone from doormen to presidents and treated them all with equal respect. A firm handshake and a look in the eye sealed the deal upstairs in the offices. A bottle of ‘something special’ guaranteed front a front row spot for North Star games from the Met Center parking attendants. Even his name was enough to get you VIP status the moment you entered a place. A 14-year old uncle Rick would go into Russel’s bar downtown to pick up North Star tickets and the bartender would greet Rick by name and pour him a 7-UP while he searched for the tickets.
After retiring from the railroad, Bud got a job driving major league umpires around town when they came in for games. He got all us cousins an official autographed ball by our favorite Twins player the year they won the ’87 World Series. The rest of his time was filled with golf and I remember going to celebrity tournaments and watching him pal around with everyone from Walter Mondale and Chuck Foreman to George Goebel and Loni Anderson. Especially Loni Anderson.
He never found the perfect woman to marry, so he always kept two or three imperfect ones around to make up for it. There were probably moments of embarrassed hi-jinks, but he treated them all like proper ladies should be. So much so that his high school sweetheart from 1939 showed up at his wake.
In short, he was the man.
I slipped five dice in his casket so he could play ‘6-5-4’ with Saint Pete at the gates. My younger cousins each put a popsicle stick and a dollar in with him. Whenever Uncle Bud came around, he’d take them for ice cream. If they couldn’t go, he’d give them a dollar so they could get one later. That inspired a story from my mom, who remembered Uncle Bud taking her and my aunts up to the corner soda fountain; his ulterior motive being that he needed a bromo fizz to take care of last night’s hangover.
As a WWII vet in the Pacific, Uncle Bud got a full honor guard and rifle salute at Fort Snelling cemetery. My uncle Larry, who was Bud’s guardian during his last years, and the eldest son in the family, was given the flag from his casket.
We adjourned to Manning’s bar in Southeast Minneapolis afterwards. It was a little neighborhood joint with wood paneling that welcomed gray-haired regulars and eager-eyed college kids with equal openness. Trains ran by an elevated trestle just outside. It was a hangout of Bud’s for a long time. A waitress who had worked there for forty years remembered him. And his girlfriend Ginger. I pictured the Ginger of Gilligan’s Island and smiled, imaging Bud walking into this very place with her on his arm, taking her fur coat as she slid into a seat at the bar.
Uncle Bud made the request that some of his money be used to buy us all a couple rounds of drinks. While they didn’t have the crème de menthe needed to make us a Stinger–Bud’s drink of choice–we raised our pints, hi-balls and sodas in a toast to the man, in a place his spirit still seemed to pervade.
Or perhaps it was in us; intensified by our gathering together, the commonality of our shared experiences and genetics. Maybe together, all of us, could make up one Uncle Bud. I looked at our family and saw cousins sitting with grandparents, aunts and uncles intermingled with my sisters and significant others. ‘Immediate family’ seemed like such a silly phrase with generations flowing freely together, history and future mixing without interruption.
The prevailing feeling wasn’t one of sadness, but an appreciation of how Uncle Bud lived the hell out of his time here. How he moved through the decades with nary an enemy, how he genuinely changed the mood of a room when he entered it. And how he earned everyone’s respect, not because he was rich or powerful, but because he gave you that respect first and put forth that little bit of effort to remember a name or show his simple appreciation for the smallest act of kindness.
No, we weren’t feeling sad. It was more like a comforting reminiscence. Like the lingering of a fine single malt. The fire is gone, but the warmth remains.