Each summer, my mother would pile us into the white Impala station wagon, and head north to visit her sisters in L.A. and Oakland; then proceed with us up the coast through Northern California and into Oregon, to her family's hometowns: Grant's Pass, Coos Bay, Eugene...sometimes stopping to gather agates, or search for signs of Bigfoot. In Coos Bay, we'd visit my wonderfully authentic (and eccentric) Uncle Cy, and his wife, Mildred.
As a teenager in Oregon, Cyrus Fletcher sported patent-leather hair, in the style of Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert. He'd split the legs of his denims up the side, and sew leather triangles into them to make his own vaquero-style boot jeans. He jumped on his belt-driven motorcycle, made mostly of wood, and rode it from Oregon down the San Joaquin Valley to Hollywood, to become a moving-picture star in the days before "talkies." He never hit the big time, but he flirted with it – he was one of a "cast of thousands" in the original Ben-Hur, and went on to do a stint as chauffeur to a famous silent-film comedian, Ben Turpin, a forgotten superstar best known for his very crossed eyes.
Cy and his wife, Mildred, seemed to have little in common, he being gregarious in the extreme, and she as stoic and taciturn as the old gal in "American Gothic." They did possess one notably obvious complement that may have explained their long, successful marriage. Cy had a remarkably pronounced underbite that jutted out from under his nose, and yin to his yang, Mildred had an overbite that could only be described as Simpsons-like. In profile, if not from any other angle, they were a perfect fit.
It wasn't just Cy's overbite that was remarkable. He was an amazing natural storyteller. When he entered "Critter-Callin'" competitions in local fairs, the tales he spun immediately before beginning his wooden whistle critter-call repetoire so delighted the crowds, that he became a sought after Storyteller, engaged by oral history buffs from town to town, just to sit and tell his rich and wildly funny stories.
As a kid, I liked him because he was so funny, and he had lots and lots of cool stuff, especially in his amazing workshop out back. Railroad sets, compound bows, "critter-callin'" whistles, dagguereotypes, and a very interesting record collection. (With an older brother and sister who were part of the Surf Explosion and English Invasion, a mom who loved Broadway show tunes and Sinatra, and my favorite themes from cartoon and cowboy TV shows, music had already become a big part of my young life).
In the evenings we would struggle through another of Mildred's afternoon-early and impossibly bland "suppertimes." She was a cook in an elementary school cafeteria, and had made uniquely creative dishes that the kids would like. For example, she put scoops of cottage cheese on slices of baloney, criss-crossed them with strips of individually-wrapped cheese slices, and baked them until the baloney edges curled up around the bubbling blob. Ironically, she called them "Flying Saucers." She served them with catsup and bread-and-butter pickles.
After supper, Cy gave me the secret up-and-down signal with his overgrown eyebrows that meant I was supposed to wait a bit, and then follow him, because he had something to show me that Mildred might not approve of. He patted the arms of his easy chair, thrust out his lower jaw, raised his great eyebrows again and hoisted himself up, dawdling down the hallway towards his workshop. I waited awhile, and innocently followed like I heard the call of nature. I did, and it was the mischevious nature that Uncle Cy and I shared. Cy cautiously peeked through the cracked door of his workshop, opened the door, and hurried me in.
"We're gonna have to keep this quiet, Bobby. Mildred'd have a tizzy if she caught on." I greedily scanned the room, letting the amazing contents flood my little boy's eyes as Cy lifted the lid on his little record player, and reached into his wooden milk crate full of records.
...to be continued in Part 2
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