I was too young to remember, but both my father’s brothers beat the ambulance to the hospital. Those three had many a scuffle over the years, but when a crisis hit, they lined up shoulder to shoulder. Neither my mother nor my father survived, but due to luck and the fastidious way my mom always strapped me into the car seat, I didn’t have so much as a bump on my noggin. Ever since, they’ve called me Tank.
Uncle Ben and Uncle Roe both wanted to take me into their family, and though I haven’t been able to get clear on all the details as to how they came to a decision, I ended up with Roe and Aunt Lucy and cousins Ron and Lilly who couldn’t have become any more of a brother or sister to me than if we’d all popped out of the same belly whistling three-part harmony.
Uncle Roe and Uncle Ben shared genes and certain family traits: wit, loyalty, broad shoulders and an ornery streak. But in most every other way, they were oil and water. Roe was Republican and Lutheran. He liked his coffee black. He lived east of the river. When the community split over the big Co-op that moved into town, Roe sided with those who believed the benefit of a couple hundred jobs outweighed the harm of outside money. I’ve never heard Roe utter a cross word to any living creature, but I’ve also never seen him back down. Once Roe drove up on the Fentson clan, along with two or three of their drinking buddies, manhandling a couple migrant workers. Roe was outnumbered, but that was no concern. As I’ve heard Roe say my entire life: “Right’s right, wrong’s wrong.” Roe grabbed a PVC pipe from the bed of his truck and went to work making things right. When the fracas concluded, he had a shattered shoulder but received a string of effusive gracias. To Roe, this seemed a fair trade.
Uncle Ben was a Democrat and a Baptist. He only drank tea, called coffee the bitter brew. He lived west of the river. Ben believed the Co-op would pervert all he knew and loved about this town of his. When the Co-op made an outrageous offer for Ben’s 103 acres, an offer that would have meant neither Ben nor his great-grandchildren would ever know another care in the world, he asked the big wigs if they’d throw in a couple pairs of flame-retardant Levis because signing that contract would mean selling his soul to the Devil. Then Ben struck a match and tossed it, with the contract, into the waste basket. Uncle Ben meandered through the woods talking to the trees. He wrote poetry and read Steinbeck. With the Co-op as a rare exception, Ben had a wide capacity for paradoxes and truths that exist in tension.
Roe and Ben shared Christmas and Easter dinner, diligently (happily, even) honored the annual July 4th family gathering and never had to guess whether the other would be at their side in those moments when a brother must be a brother. Short of that, these two men lived at opposite ends of the county, but it might as well have been at opposite ends of the universe.