For as long as I can remember my Uncle Bobby was my idol – the self-proclaimed “Poster Boy for Home Depot”. In fact, I can’t recall a time when he wasn’t fixing this or repairing that. He was the neighborhood handyman, the guy everyone called to replace a broken window or unclog their toilet. He could paint a room like nobody’s business, his cutting-in seams done to perfection without the use of that “sissy painter’s tape”. Yep, he was like a magician, my Uncle Bobby was, and I loved following him around on his odd jobs, delighting at his request for me to hand him a Phillips head screwdriver or a roll of duct tape.
Uncle Bobby was a no-frills kind of guy; what you saw was what you got with him. He was my dad’s brother, living with us in the spare room of our old rambling Victorian house. He must have replaced just about every board of the huge porch that wrapped itself around the house. My mom would complain that the decking looking like a patchwork quilt with no two pieces of wood being exactly the same. Uncle Bobby would always say the same thing: “Don’t worry ‘bout nothing, Margie. They’ll all weather with age and you’ll never be able to tell ‘em apart.” But they never did and the porch truly looked like a jigsaw puzzle.
The biggest problem with Uncle Bobby was the fact that he couldn’t truly fix anything that required real skill, like a washing machine or a radio or a power lawnmower. Whenever he attempted such jobs, he’d inevitably have a couple of pieces left over even after he finished putting the whole thing back together! He’d toss all the unused parts into a ten-gallon drum in our basement which was also his workshop. Funny thing was everything he repaired would work fine for a while, then breakdown after several weeks anyway. Uncle Bobby would explain that he “fixed the dang thing but it was just its time to go”. I think I was the only one who knew about his stash of leftover essential pieces which doubled in size on a weekly basis.
Truth was Uncle Bobby had more crap in our basement than Carter had liver pills and he was slowly but surely inching his way over to the cramped corner where my mom had her washing machine. She finally put her foot down one day and demanded he either clean up his crap or build a wall around her laundry area so she wouldn’t have to look at all his crap. Rather than clean up the place, Uncle Bobby built mom a wall. Even she had to admit it was the best looking wall she’d ever seen, with a door and everything!
Believe it or not, Uncle Bobby was a genuine ladies’ man and he “cleaned up real nice” as old Mrs. Jenkins liked to say. He’d wash up in the basement using Lava Soap, shave with menthol Barbasol and splash on the Aqua Velva then head out to Kelly’s Place for ribs and a few beers. All the girls liked Uncle Bobby but his favorites were the Andrews twins, Patty and Paula. They didn’t seem to mind the perpetual ring of dirt under Uncle Bobby’s fingernails; no matter how many times he washed his hands that grime stayed put. He said it was “the mark of a hard-working man”.
Uncle Bobby loved watching those old black and white tv shows like Flash Gordon, Superman and The Twilight Zone. He had a real fascination with outer space and anything that could fly. That’s probably why he loved “The Honeymooners” – that classic Jackie Gleason comedy show; he’d laugh his head off every time Ralph Kramden roared his trademark tagline “To the moon, Alice!”
I’ll never forget that one Christmas when I got a remote control airplane; I think Uncle Bobby spent more time playing with that damn thing than I did. He was happy as a pig in slop the day he found a used one at the church tag sale. He’d tinker with that thing every chance he could, making it fly higher and faster. He’d inevitably forget to include a piece or two which he’d just toss into that catch-all drum of his.
So one day out of nowhere right in the middle of dinner Uncle Bobby announced he had his mind set on building a rocket ship. Well, I think it came as a shock to everyone but me and they all laughed it off as him just joking around as usual. But I knew Uncle Bobby better than anyone and he was dead serious. He told me he was gonna use all the bits and pieces and spare parts he’d collected over the years. And what he didn’t have, he’d scavenge for in dumpsters, rubbish piles outside people’s houses or the garbage bins behind Home Depot. Those places were like a magical treasure trove for Uncle Bobby and he always came home with something. “You never know when this might come in handy” he’d declare, proudly showing me a discarded catalytic converter or a manual typewriter.
Well, true to his word Uncle Bobby started construction on his rocket ship the morning of April 1st and the neighbors howled that it was the perfect April Fool’s Day joke ever. But it wasn’t no joke to Uncle Bobby and he worked on that craft every day. He pitched a tent in the backyard, rolled out that giant ten-gallon drum and went at it like a man possessed. And I was his helper; my special assignment was to find him a really good helmet and a cooler which I filled with Hawaiian Punch, bologna sandwiches and Twinkies.
By July 4th Uncle Bobby’s rocket ship was finished. To be honest it looked like a pile of junk but he thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever made. He painted it red, white and blue and named it “Independence Day”. By now word had gotten out and the whole neighborhood was there to watch Uncle Bobby attempt to take off into the wild blue yonder. Sporting his best overalls and the cool viking helmet I found for him, he climbed in, waved goodbye and slammed the door shut.
Well, the damn thing sputtered and smoked and made all kinds of weird noises but it suddenly started shaking and actually took off. It was kinda wobbly at first but it just kept on going higher and higher until it disappeared into the clouds. We all stood there with our jaws hanging open, expecting to see the ship come crashing down any second – but it didn’t. We stayed out there for a long time, then gave up and went inside thinking Uncle Bobby would probably just waltz back in when he was good and ready with some great adventure tales to tell.
Damn thing was, we never did see the rocket ship or Uncle Bobby again. Boy, do I miss him!
Here’s to you, Rocket Man! Hope you had a great journey, wherever you are.