I was eight years old when my uncle Al died. He was only 42.
I was seven years old when he gave me his autograph.
When Uncle Al was a younger man, he’d enjoyed singing and playing the guitar. He’d turned down a chance to go play with the Grand Ole Opry, because he had a young family and didn’t want to be on the road and far away from them. He and my aunt Jan had gotten married when they were only 19 years old; they met in the Air Force.
My cousin Tim asked for and received Uncle Al’s guitar; I don’t know whatever became of it. But I had his autograph, and that was my great brush with fame as a kid.
Anyway, it was the first year I was going to summer camp. My mother bought me an autograph book from the Camp Fire Girls store; it was red leatherette and had a gold embossed bluebird in the corner (Bluebirds were analogous to Brownies in the Girl Scouts). My aunt Jan, Uncle Al, and their two sons (my cousins Kenny and Barry) were visiting. Uncle Al was pretty sick with emphysema; he spent a lot of time lying down in my parents’ bedroom.
It was the fashion at that time to have autograph books for school or camp friends, and I guess my mom didn’t want me to go to Camp Namanu with an empty book. So, she, my dad, and our visitors all signed the book before it was given to me. I never saw my uncle Al again after that visit.
Over the next couple of years, between camp and school friends, the book started to fill up a little bit.
I don’t think I knew yet that we were moving the summer between sixth and seventh grades, but I do remember bringing my autograph book to school on the last day of class at Fairview Elementary. One way or the other, I would not be back at that school; I suspect I figured I’d see lots of my classmates at Columbia View Junior High, but there were some kids who would go on to different junior high schools and, of course, some teachers whose signatures I wanted.
It was the typical last-day chaos, and our teacher was distracted.
More than anything, I wanted the signature of the boy on whom I had a crush. Looking back, I’m hard pressed to say why I had said crush. He wasn’t that cute and he was a bully … but I had a crush nonetheless. And Jon made it very plain that he was not going to sign my book.
My best friend, Bobbi, had an idea. She would get him to sign my book by pretending it was hers. So, she took my book, flipped it open to a blank page, and asked Jon to sign it. He did, and then he saw her return it to me.
His rage was immediate and incandescent. He demanded that I give him the book, and I refused. One of Jon’s friends ran and grabbed it from my desk and tossed it to him; Jon ran out the door with my little red book.
He came back into the classroom and announced loudly that he had torn up the autograph and flushed it down the toilet. He flung the book on my desk and said “Oh, someone called Uncle Al had written on the other side.”
I was 11 years old when Uncle Al’s autograph was stolen from me by that horrid kid. All I had left to show for my uncle was the ragged bit of blue paper where a cruel sixth-grader had yanked it out of the book. My crush died in that very instant.
I burst into tears; Bobbi knew why, of course. She yelled at Jon: “Her uncle Al has passed away. Have you no respect for the dead?”
She then told our teacher, Mister Marsh, what had happened … and he made Jon apologize. Of course, it was the kind of sullen, muttered apology that made it clear the only thing for which he was sorry is that he was caught.
I have looked up many old classmates from those days and found wonderful adult friends among them. Jon is one person I have no desire to talk to; I suspect he’s still a nasty bully all these years later, because sometimes a leopard doesn’t change his spots. Maybe I should forgive him for what he did, but I don’t want to. He took something precious and destroyed it in a fit of childish anger, and then he reveled in what he had done to cause pain to another person.
I have only a few photographs of Uncle Al now. I don’t remember what his autograph said. I don’t even know where the book is. Somehow, I just didn’t want to get signatures in it after that day.