TUCSON, Ariz. - The note on the screen door tells me to come on in. I find him in the backyard, hanging up laundry. He glances at me, and I see my dad.
I see the same movements, the mannerisms. Even the pattern of his baldness. And later, it's the way he folds his hands and leans back in his recliner, and the way he's overly helpful.
It's comforting to see Edward Peel, whom I call Uncle Dick.
We conclude it's been five years since we've been together - at my father's funeral in Denver. Although it's already been well worth the effort for other reasons, I have taken this detour to Tucson to see him. To appreciate his generation of my kin.
At age 87, he's going strong. To cousins Steve, Doug and Jenny, I say: There's nothing major to worry about. This is an active man.
He's in the recliner one moment, and when I walk into the next room and return, he's gone, on to other chores. I'm impressed as he discusses events of his youth, his adult years, his retirement and yesterday with equal mental acuity.
The middle of three children born in the 1920s, Uncle Dick is the only one left alive. The brothers grew up in Denver during the Depression, and learned well the value of a nickel. All served during World War II. The Navy sent Uncle Dick to South America on the Venezuelan coast, and to the West Indies. German submarines were wreaking havoc in the area, my uncle recalls, and the mission was to keep a close eye on them.
He grew bored with the work and at one point volunteered to transfer to the USS Franklin, whose complement totaled more than 2,000 soldiers. He was denied.
Not long after, on the morning of March 19, 1945, the Franklin's planes were bombing targets on the coast of Honshu, Japan. A Japanese dive-bomber dropped two large bombs onto the Franklin, and the resulting explosions and fires killed 724 aboard. My uncle still ponders the fortunate twist.
While his brothers went to college, Uncle Dick learned the trade of aircraft mechanics, and it has served him well. He followed jobs from Chicago, first back to Denver, then on to Tucson in 1967.
His wife died in 1961, leaving him to raise four children. (Son Bob died of meningitis at age 19 in the early 1970s while stationed at Fort Ord, Calif.) They're pretty good kids, I must say, although as the younger cousin by several years, I think I'm still intimidated. And they'll probably never admit to the mean tricks they must've played on me, but why do I even bring that up?
Uncle Dick and I go out to lunch - "your money's no good here," he insists as he pays for the meal. We spend the next couple of hours looking for an inverter that will plug into my cigarette lighter so I can keep my phone and computer charged. I'm ready to give up, but I can tell he is not, and I guess this is the overly helpful quality rearing its head. Is this really the best use of our time together? Well, why not?
We finally strike upon an unsuspecting Radio Shack. Thanks to his persistence, I have found what I need. An uncle-nephew bonding experience, to be sure.
He's remarkably spry, able to handle the tall bound into my truck with ease. He still works 24 hours a week, mostly as a volunteer machinist for a medical equipment supplier. For many years he rebuilt planes displayed at the renowned Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, and he does similar work these days on the town's trolleys.
About a decade ago, he hooked up with a new life partner. Betty and her unicorn collection moved into my uncle's house, and they enjoyed traveling and keeping each other company. A year ago Betty suffered a stroke, and she's recovering at a local rehab center. Uncle Dick spends several hours with her each day.
We're sitting in the living room, discussing his busy schedule.
"Beats looking at that stupid thing," he says, jerking his thumb at the TV.
His daughter, Jennifer Drybread, a senior planner for the city of Lone Tree south of Denver, says she's learned that it's not diet but lifetime habits that are key to longevity. Her dad is no exercise nut, yet he's stayed healthy through the physical labor in his work and at home. Three years ago, he painted the house. Another key: bouncing back after life's tragedies.
"I think he's sort of a testament to that," she says via phone.
True, my Uncle Dick is just my uncle, he's not my dad. But the similarities are striking, somewhat amusing, possibly even irritating. And in an honest moment, I'll admit to sharing many of those traits.
He does a load of my laundry, and I practically beg him to give me a chore. He points to some clippers and a bush next to the road whose lower branches need trimming. It takes all of four minutes.
My stay is short but precious. What I take from this mid-May visit is just a tiny bit of comfort. It seems my dad, what and who he was, is not yet totally gone.
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