Some people in this world are larger than life and my Uncle Bob was one of them. I was only six years old when he died at the age of thirty, but he had left an impression on me than never faded. He and my father had met in Corpus Christi, Texas when they were in high school and along with a third friend named Lloyd they became like the Three Musketeers, eventually attending college together at Texas A&M University. To everyone’s delight when my Uncle Bob met my mother’s sister, Claudia, the two of them fell in love and married. That’s how my father’s best friend officially became my uncle.
Uncle Bob was an athlete who played tennis and climbed mountains. When World War II broke out he enlisted and became a bombardier flying missions over Germany. When he returned from battle he completed a degree in Geology from Texas A&M and found love with my Aunt Claudia. Together they were a stunning couple, young and beautiful and brilliant.
Uncle Bob next enrolled in the South Dakota School of Mines to earn a masters degree in Geology. Before he had finished his studies he was diagnosed with cancer that required the amputation of one of his legs. True to his unflagging spirit he never missed a beat, studying during his recovery and graduating on time with the other members of his class.
After graduating he and my aunt returned to Corpus Christi where he landed a job in a small oil and gas company. At first his bosses gave him a desk job due to his disabilities, but he was itching to work in the field and finally convinced his superiors to give him an opportunity to demonstrate his prowess. He proved to be quite capable of doing the sometimes strenuous work at drilling sites, often being more adept that those without the constrictions that he bore.
Uncle Bob and my dad were quite the pair, two highly intelligent young men with big plans for the future. I remember them laughing together and enjoying each other’s company like two brothers. I loved the times when he and my aunt would stay at our house during their visits from Corpus Christi and we in turn often found ourselves traveling to Uncle Bob’s home which was filled with a museum worthy collection of rocks and minerals as well as his paintings of places he had been.
Uncle Bob was planning to enter a program for a doctorate when he was once again diagnosed with cancer. This time he endured surgery to remove one of his lungs and was quite sick. While he was in the hospital in Houston my parents were visibly upset and our home was uncharacteristically in a state of turmoil. My mother had just given birth to my youngest brother and my aunt was also expecting her first child. There was a great deal of furtive whispering in those days which culminated in my being quickly enrolled in first grade at the age of five. The adults seriously thought that I had no idea of what was happening, but I was all too aware that my Uncle Bob was not doing well. He had already prepared me for such an eventuality during one of his visits when I discovered him attaching his wooden leg. He treated me with so much respect when he told me about his cancer. I loved him for his honesty and his understanding.
After Christmas of my first school year Uncle Bob died. My parents attempted to shield me from what was happening so I did not attend any of the memorials or funeral events, but I knew all too well that I was never again going to see the remarkable man who had so enchanted me. I also noticed a profound change in my father who would grieve for his friend for what ended up being the rest of his own short life.
My family moved on just as people always do after such tragedies, but in my heart there would forever be a special place for my Uncle Bob. My image of him never grew old, but remained frozen in all the glory of his youth. It was only when I began tracking my ancestry that I began to learn even more about my incredible uncle, and only recently I uncovered a newspaper article about his father that touched me to the very center of my heart.
I never knew anything about Uncle Bob’s childhood or his parents, so I was stunned to learn that before moving to Corpus Christi he had spent much of his boyhood in Chicago. There his mother became ill and died while he was still rather young. Like him, she too had cancer that ended her life far too early. Nonetheless he was the apple of his father’s eye, an only child who brought great joy to the man who guided him through his childhood.
Uncle Bob’s father was a machinist and was apparently rather skilled in his trade. At one point he created a unique steam engine for his son’s train set. He used scrap metal from junked cars and dental tools to build tiny parts that made the details of the model realistic. Over the years the man had kept the treasure which had been loved by his son. When the father was in his seventies and retired he decided to donate his creation to a museum, and the local newspaper ran a featured article about his work.
As I read a copy of the piece I felt a tinge of great sorrow for my Uncle Bob’s father. There was a look of sadness on his old face and the story of how he had worked so hard to please his little son was filled with so much pathos. There he sat gazing wistfully at his creation and possibly thinking of all of the might have beens. Somehow I felt a deep connection to this person whom I had never met because I knew that he had loved Bob even more than I did.
I suppose that there is nothing quite like losing a person who seems far to young to die. The pain never really heals because of a lingering sense of unfairness. I would eventually undergo the even more sorrow only two years later when my father died, and as a young mother I would see my Uncle Bob’s daughter, my cousin Sandra, die at the age of sixteen. Somehow I feel as though these three souls and that old man are linked with me in a primordial connection. I am now a seventy year old like Uncle Bob’s dad was in the article that so touched my heart, and I sense an unexplainable closeness with him. Somehow we are linked as humans through our spirits, kindred souls wandering through life’s experiences.