Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Uncle Stafford's 85th Birthday Party: Tales of Fried Chicken & Gin in the Baptist Ladies' Punchbowl

It's my Uncle Stafford's 85th birthday party, a big, happy affair with my entire family gathered around a long banquet table at a restaurant. Stafford and his younger brother--my father--are in rare form, telling stories on each other.

It starts with the fried chicken.

When my father, C.W. Martin, and Stafford were boys in Virginia and it was Sunday night, it was more than likely going to be fried chicken for supper. Stafford and C.W. would watch their mother grab a live Rhode Island Red chicken in the backyard, hang it upside down, tie its feet to a clothesline, whack its head off, and throw the head into the bushes--all the time singing a Baptist hymn like Old Rugged Cross. Stafford and C.W.'s job was to pluck the hapless bird after it had been scalded.
Uncle Stafford (left) and my father, C.W. Martin, in Roanoke, Va.
"It was terrible to watch," my father says.

"But man oh man," Uncle Stafford pipes in, "that was the best fried chicken you'd ever eat." 

A waiter appears and wants to know if Stafford would like something to drink. "I believe I've earned a gin and tonic, don't you?," Stafford asks.

"Absolutely," the waiter responds, and off he goes, leaving Stafford to launch into another tale about my grandmother.

 "She was a right staunch Baptist, in case y'all hadn't noticed," Stafford says. "One afternoon, she had a women's missionary society group over for punch. My friend Bob---"

"The bald-headed guy with the glass eye?," my father wants to know.

"That's the one. Well, he and I got hold of a bottle of gin, and when Mother wasn't looking, we poured it into the punch bowl."

"Oh my God," my mother says, laughing. "Not the whole bottle?"

"It was just half a bottle," my father replies.

"If it was, it's because you drank the other half," Uncle Stafford jokes.

"I was twelve," says my father.

"Details. Anyhow, all those ladies lapped up that fruit punch. I heard several of them ask Mother for the recipe."

"Did she figure out what happened?" This question comes from my nephew Stafford, named for the man we are here to celebrate.

"No, thank God, because she'd have taken a buggy whip to us if she had," Uncle Stafford replies.

At this precise moment, Uncle Stafford's gin and tonic arrives. He examines the wedge of lime, squirts it into the drink, takes a small sip, and looks around at the presents piled up before him. "Which one of these lovely things wants to be unwrapped first?," he asks mischievously. I push my gift toward him eagerly. He smiles at me warmly and slowly accepts the brightly colored package, unwraps it, puts on his reading glasses, studies it.

"Is it..." he begins.

"A radio. It plays radio stations from around the world, over the Internet," I explain. Uncle Stafford is a radio fanatic, having built them himself when he was young.

He's pleased. "I'll never leave home again," he says. "Thank you, Jimmy."

As a young man, Uncle Stafford used to build radios, first out of crystals, then out of tubes. It was a huge deal when, after working on a radio for what must have been months, there suddenly came a popping, crackling sound, followed by a broadcast from KDKA in Pittsburgh. He and my father danced around like lunatics, whooping it up.

When I was a boy, Uncle Stafford tried--oh so patiently--to teach me how to make a radio. He didn't succeed. "Why build something when you can buy it?," I'd ask. "Because it helps you learn how to think," he'd say. He did manage to infect me with a love for the radio programs of his youth, and during my family's visits to see him, Uncle Stafford and I would spend hours listening to his tapes of old shows. "I think it's time you heard The War of the Worlds," he said to me when I was about 15.

"I saw the movie," I shrugged.

"You don't know the half of it," he said. And so I listened, riveted, as Orson Welles' brilliant 1938 radio hoax--which had most of America convinced an alien invasion was occurring--unfolded. 
Uncle Stafford in uniform
Uncle Stafford's mastery of radios was put to use during World War II. He enlisted, rather than waiting to be drafted, and soon enough found himself operating the radio on a B-25 bomber over the Pacific. It was there, over the dense Burmese jungles in October 1944, my Uncle Stafford's plane was shot down.

His body was never recovered.

Only his "dog tag" and those of his six fellow crew members were discovered and later buried in the Louisville National Cemetery in Kentucky. You see, the truth is that my Uncle Stafford never had an 85th birthday; he didn't make it past 36.

Though the stories of him and my father I've shared actually happened, the party and my experiences with Uncle Stafford are only something I wish were true. He died 14 years before I was born.

On more than one occasion, I've imagined watching him surrounded by our family, celebrating a landmark of old age, laughing as he and my father needled each other yet again--their way of showing affection. And at this imaginary 85th birthday party, amidst the clatter of cutlery and glasses and conversation, I sit next to my beloved uncle. In this moment, I have his complete attention, so I look him in the eyes, I squeeze his hand, and I say "Thank you." I know he understands exactly what I mean, because he squeezes my hand back.

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  1. It is wonderful you remember your uncle in such a personal way. Great story.

  2. I'm tearing up, Jim.

    You have such a gift for words and for making memories.

    1. Thank you Claudia. That means a lot to me.

    2. Oh Uncle Stafford. I was so excited thinking about him listening to, and enjoying Satellite Radio. (what would he think of the Playboy Channel, I wonder?) What a character!
      Your writing brought him to life for me,and I wish I could have spent time listening to his stories. Thank you for bringing those stories to us.
      I'm guessing he's squeezing your hand as we speak.

    3. Thanks JuJu. I feel his squeeze, and yours. Thank you.

  3. Jim, once again I find myself captivated by your writing. Your blog has become a little guilty pleasure...every so often I check to see if you've written something new and a smile never ceases to cross my face when I come upon a new post. What an incredible story, your words truly brought Uncle Stafford to life with such depth and character. What a beautiful tribute.


    Lady Grace

    1. Wow, I am so honored by your kind comments, dear Lady! As you know, a blog is something we do for love and not money--though comments like yours are worth more than $$. Thank you!

  4. You had me going JIm, although I knew about your mother and father, the writing was so genuine....A lovely story!

  5. How amazing was it to be searching for "Southern Birthday Ideas" and come across this great story. Best of all- I am sitting in Roanoke, VA :)

    1. Thank you Elizabeth! You made my day. Hope all is well with you in Roanoke (I miss that city!)