The Return of Uncle Will

This is another mostly-true Day-After Halloween story.   I thought you might like to know what came of me and Uncle Will.

When I was fourteen … fourteen years three months, to be exact … I took a sudden interest in the contents of my father’s top dresser drawer.   It started simply enough.   Dad caught me smoking.    My Newport cigarettes, cleverly disguised in a Band-Aid box, went in the trash and the Zippo lighter I’d bought with 12 week’s allowance went in his dresser drawer.  I didn’t really like smoking all that much but the lighter was very cool with a dragon emblazoned on the side in red and black.    So, one Saturday night when I was baby-sitting my brother and sister, I decided I’d get it back.   And I discovered a treasure trove of my father’s keepsakes.    There were medals from the war and real bullets.   There was a tattered armband with a swastika.   There was a penny with a bullet hole right through Abe’s head and three other lighters, one with a pretty girl in a bathing suit.   I pocketed my lighter and Dad never seemed to notice.    But whenever Mom and Dad went out, I’d be  back, exploring.  In the back corner of his drawer, under a pile of handkerchiefs, was a small steel lockbox … always locked.   I carefully tried to open it with a screwdriver or one of Mom’s hairpins, but the lock wouldn’t budge.   When I shook it, it sounded like it was full of loose change.   I imagined Nazi coins or silver dollars passed down from generation to generation.  Why else would Dad leave it locked?

Then one Saturday afternoon when my parents were out, I found the box unlocked.  Feverishly, I opened it but instead of a treasure, I found … a tarnished set of dog tags.   Please be Dad’s, I thought, remembering the ghostly face in the bathroom door six years ago, but when I turned them over, Uncle Will’s red-eyed skull was staring back at me.   I closed the box, carefully replacing the handkerchiefs as I always did, and pushed Dad’s drawer shut.   I’m fourteen years old, I thought.   I’m not scared. But I sat in the back yard until Mom and Dad came home.  Here’s the thing.  I asked Mom where they went.   She looked at me curiously, since I rarely showed any interest in their grown-up activities, but she said, Your Uncle Will passed away six years ago today.  We went to the cemetery to leave flowers.  I never looked in Dad’s drawer again.

Still, one year later, Dad caught me by the shoulder as we passed in the hall.   Have you been in my dresser drawer? he asked.

No, Dad, I said, resisting the urge to add, Honest.   Dad always said he could tell I was lying when I said Honest.   Why do you ask?

I found Uncle Will’s dog tags hanging on your bed post this morning, he replied.   I was just hoping …

No, Dad, honest, I said, expecting a lecture.   But he just smiled sadly and walked away.

I’m sixty-six years old now and every year since then, Uncle Will’s dog tags have shown up by my bedside, even though I keep Dad’s old lock box in a storage bin ten miles from our house.   Like my Dad before me, I tried throwing it away, burying it, smashing it and selling it as an antique.  Like the dog tags, the box returns.  Uncle Will seems satisfied with the storage bin and I like having it a little farther away from my family.  After fifty-two years, you’d think I’d be used to it, but I’m still that frightened little boy when Uncle Will’s dog tags show up by my bedside on Uncle Will’s death day.  At least I don’t yell Mommy any more.

Yesterday, my son wanted to get my old electric guitar from the storage bin and without thinking, I gave him the key.  Late last night, even though he’s thirty-one, I heard him yell in his sleep.  It sounded like Mommy.   I suppose Uncle Will’s dog tags are his now.

Explore posts in the same categories: feeling older, holidays

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