My Uncle Fred was a shyster. He was a drunk, a womanizer, and a thief. But he was extremely charming to most people, although not to me. I’ve known since I was five years old that he was basically up to no good. When we would see him drive up our driveway my sister and I and would run around the house yelling “Hide the Booze, Hide the Booze”. My mom would put it in the washing machine, a place Fred would never think to look. This was our job, warning them of Fred’s arrival and we had fun doing it.
Sometimes Fred would show up when no one was home and when we got there he would be on the couch, drinking, with our German Shepherd, Kelly sitting by his side. This wasn’t because Fred was such a great animal lover, it was because the dog would let anyone into the house, he just wouldn’t let anyone leave; not without my dad there. When Fred would try to leave the dog would growl, take Fred’s hand in his mouth and lead him to the couch. Smart dog.
Once when I was five or six I had a loose tooth when Fred was visiting. He suggested to my dad that they should tie a string around my tooth, tie the other end to a door knob and slam the door shut in order to pull my tooth. I think they had both been drinking when they decided to try this. It didn’t work but I’ve never forgotten it, or Fred’s sly smile while he tied the string or my fear about what might happen.
For some reason that I’ve never figured out Fred held major sway with my dad, his older brother. Fred was about 3 years younger than my dad. The two of them went overseas together during WW2, and they served together and got into trouble together. They spent one Christmas in the brig in England because of a fist fight with British officers.
Both my dad and Fred were handsome, my dad was a ringer for Clark Gable and my uncle a sandy haired Errol Flynn. They both also had that definite Irish charm. Women were suckers for them both. Dad was married 3 times and had many more ladies in his life. Uncle Fred married a beautiful Brit during the war, brought her home and immediately had a baby. He stayed and strayed from Betty the Brit the rest of his life. He couldn’t live with her or without her.
Fred didn’t like working nine to five and found it difficult to support his family alone. As Betty said, “if I had got a job in the early days he never would have worked again”. He tried selling baby pony pictures with my dad. Fred handled the pony, dad sold the pictures. He tried used car sales but he was much better at stealing hubcaps than selling cars. He finally found a home in construction although I’m not sure how financially successful he was at it.
I think my dad considered Fred his best friend for a long time, even though he used and abused my dads slightly better good nature. I don’t really know why their friendship ended but my suspicion is that it was likely about money. Fred was always short of money. Family stories include one about Fred selling my fathers precious pigeons when they were kids. He killed them, plucked them and sold them as small chickens. Dad always loved those birds and never forgave him for the death of the pigeons.
Fred was an alcoholic for many years and eventually succumbed to Meningitis, something people with low immune systems are very susceptible to. He had been living in Long Island but in the winter before he died he returned to Toronto and stayed with my dad for a couple of months. They reconciled, which I was glad of, especially for my dad. I remember visiting my dad, that winter, while Fred was living there and he was never happy to see me. I particularly remember going to see my dad on the day I got married at city hall and Fred was there. My dad gave my new husband and I a cheque for $1000 which Fred voiced was a big mistake. We were young and of course he had hesitations, as did everyone, about how long our marriage would last although we recently celebrated 50 years of marriage. Honestly I think Fred was just pissed that my dad gave me some money and didn’t give him any.
While Fred was living with my dad my car broke down and I called dad to help me out. He sent Uncle Fred instead. The car needed a boost. It was January and very cold which probably didn’t put Fred into the best of moods but my recollection is that he was miserable about having to be there. He complained about my dad sending him the whole time he was trying to get my car started. He blamed me for flooding the car. He told me the choice of the car was a bad one. He was basically a shit and I was so relieved when the car started and he drove away. I hoped that the car would stay running and I would never need his help again.
His redeeming qualities were few but he did love to laugh. I have a silent home movie of him serving up champagne from the trunk of his car to his wife Betty, my dad and my mom and everyone is laughing a lot so he must have been pretty funny.
I didn’t love him, I didn’t even like him but he was my uncle, my dad loved him, his daughter, my cousin loved him and he is a strong memory of my younger self.
Family is often made up of a variety of different characters and some are unlikable. But they are part of your history and your memories, sometimes as “my uncle Fred was a shyster”.