Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Uncle Mart

I was such a little kid when I fell in love with my Uncle Mart. He was actually my dad's uncle, and the story of his life was taken from the tales of the old west.

He left his home, family, and twin sister in Wisconsin and and made his way, mostly on foot he said, to St. Louis, Missouri. There he joined a wagon train heading West. He was a big twelve year old. He said he had no money to speak of, but he was young and strong. To pay for his passage, he helped out wherever he could. He worked mostly with the horses and the chuck wagon. 

He was headed for the Pacific Coast until he saw Idaho. Something about the Teton Mountains must have spoken to his soul, because that's where he stopped. He never complained to me about hardships along the trail, but he said it was a long trip. 

We found him still living in Idaho when I was in about the second grade. He had never moved on from there, but had homesteaded some land back away from the city of Tendoy. That made us laugh because Tendoy had a population of twenty, and if you blinked on the highway, you'd miss it. Either Daddy drove too fast, or he blinked a lot. Every time we went to see Uncle Mart, we'd have to turn around after driving past the town by mistake. Oops, there it went.

You'd leave the paved roads and wind up through the hills on hard-packed dirt roads. Herds of sheep would share the road with you, and more than once we'd be stifling our laughter while Daddy tried to honk and yell the animals off the road. Our giggles would have been the final straw. 

Uncle Mart lived in a valley near the crest of the foothills. He and friends had built everything he needed. There was his main homestead, a two room cabin. It had a bedroom, and a kitchen and living room combination. He cooked on a wood burning stove, which always sported a ready crock of sourdough. We had sour dough pancakes and biscuits that have never been equaled in my experience. He also had a bunkhouse. "Back in the day," he'd tell us, "it would fill up with hands to tend the sheep." He no longer owned any when we came along. 

The third building was our favorite. I should mention that he had no running water. He walked to the springs and then heated water on the old stove. He didn't have electricity. He used kerosene lanterns and had a hand cranked victrola. But across the graveled yard was the plunge. That's what he called his third building, and its contents. It was a covered, heated swimming pool, fed by underground hot springs. People would drive up and pay two bits for a plunge, and the name stuck. He gave family discounts, of course.

A couple of times, Mom and Dad would leave us kids there and go off together. I loved those weeks. I'd listen to Uncle Mart as long as he'd keep talking. He'd rock and smoke his pipe, and his rheumy eyes would look across his land, looking backwards in time. He talked about riding shotgun for Wells Fargo, but he didn't say much about that. Most of his stories were about the people that came up to see him at his homestead and use the plunge.

My favorite story was about all the swimsuits he had stored for people to use up there. Whenever someone left one behind, he'd save it for visitors in need. Eventually, he said he took the size labels out of all the suits. Why? Because there was always some lady who would insist she was a size twelve, and rip the seams on one of his suits. He could give her a sixteen with no tag, and she'd be perfectly happy He was no dummy.

When he finally got on an airplane for the first time in his life to visit us in California in the early sixties, we picked him up at the Los Angeles International airport. I'll never forget what he said when we crested the hills overlooking the vast San Fernando Valley on our way home.

"It would take a person a powerful long time to shake hands with every man who's got his porch light on in this town."

I still miss you, Uncle Mart... Even though you told Daddy that someday a pack rat was going to come along and trade me for a hen turd.

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