Uncle Bert left Washington, D.C., each July, along with everyone else who worked for the federal government. The nation’s capital is built “on a tangle of woods and swamps.” It’s sweltering in the summer.
Bert’s family of four drove to his childhood farm in Iowa, then up to my hometown, a small Minnesota river burg where his wife was born. Bert was adamant that his two sons get to know their relatives.
George, their youngest, jumped off the pages of my youth. He was 14 and I was 8 the evening some kid ran through my neighbor’s yard, swept a bicycle off the front lawn and took off.
“That’s Dave’s bike,” I said.
The thief was about to make a left turn at the end of the block when George, Dave and I ran through a backyard and down the alley. Dave and I were not going to catch that kid. George was a good athlete and a couple of years shy of a track scholarship at the University of Maryland.
Satin smooth strides brought him even with the biker before George pulled up, rather than spill that kid like a sack of sugar.
When Roy Rogers got Trigger alongside the bad guy, Roy leapt from the saddle and knocked that feller from his horse.
“Why’d you let him go?” I said between deep breaths.
George dropped the truth at my feet: If the kid went to pavement, badly hurt, it would be hard to justify.
“What do I know? Maybe the guy thought it was his bike,” George said.
Geezus. George was more Roy Rogers than Roy Rogers, a cowboy who was purdy durn good at seeing how confusion might drive a varmint into a life of crime.
That George cared so much about that kid yet a few years later packed a suitcase with fireworks and flew to Maryland on a plane full of people made me feel better about the inconsistency of my own judgments.
C’mon, Even my dog?
George was the big brother I never had for one week each July. I could not step out of his shadow.
He smothered my tennis game. I’d drain five quarters in a pinball machine as he piled up a dozen games then sold the credits to some kid for a buck. Poncho, my Chihuahua, ignored me while George visited.
My friends rarely asked where I had been if I was gone for a weekend, but each June they’d start in, “When’s your cousin coming?”
The dad of one of my best pal’s was a high school track coach who helped boost a high jumper named Tom Stuart into a local celebrity. Stuart lived up to the attention by setting records at the University of Minnesota.
George and Stuart were both about 17 the summer Mom tried to steer George toward something more fun than hanging with me. Knowing George was a track star, she mentioned Tom Stuart.
“Where can I find this guy” George asked me. The answer was at the high school high track in the morning and the swimming pool in the afternoon.
We went swimming. I pointed out Stuart. For the rest of that stay, George, who melted into every situation, joined him each morning at the high jump pit.
That my cousin’s visits came during calendar photo summers helped his reputation. But wherever that guy was, there were lights of adventure.
One surfaced in recent years, when my sister and brother-in-law asked to see an historic site in D.C. while visiting George and his wife in Virginia. That site wasn’t in the best neighborhood, was known for panhandlers, and a George story.
George developed policy for hunger issues as deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture special nutrition programs. One day he and a colleague appeared at this historic site for a TV interview. Afterward, cabbies refused to pick them up in that part of the District.
George’s co-worker called the office demanding that someone retrieve them. “We can’t get a cab.” she fumed, “and George is standing on the corner handing out money to strangers.”
Is this heaven?
His Iowa farm cousins said it took George to show them how to have fun on a farm. George would tell you the excitement grew from the fact “there was always dynamite on the farm.” His uncles set it off during visits, fueling George’s lifelong fireworks addiction.
Two of those uncles had bad hearts and didn’t pass age 70. George drew a similar bad hand. He died of congestive heart failure last month at 72.
His mom’s ashes were bound for burial near Bert a few years back. Bert rested in his Iowa home town.
As we drove into Iowa from Minnesota, George asked about a line from “Field of Dreams,” a film in which ghosts of baseball players emerge from a corn field to play ball on an Iowa farm.
George was about to retire from the federal government to become senior vice president for Government Relations and Public Policy for a hunger nonprofit, Feeding America.
Why did a guy steeped in pop culture who was going to be a senior VP need to ask me? Still, I fed him the film quote.
“Is this heaven?” one player asks.
“No. This is Iowa,” is the response.
Then, George changed the subject.
The next day at the burial, George concluded his homage with a clever twist.
“About now, mom is asking dad, ‘Is this Iowa?’
“And Bert is saying, ‘No. This is heaven.’ ”
He hadn’t needed my help with that. He just wanted me to be a part of it.
A homage to my cousin from a law firm. You don’t read many law firm homages that mention the Playboy Clubs of yore.