My Uncle Gene died last week, and he was the stuff of legend. As a matter of fact, there are several legends surrounding my Uncle Gene.
He was my mother’s brother, second son of my grandparents in Birmingham, Ala. Uncle Leroy was handsome, smart, talented and went to school at the U.S. Naval Academy and retired as a captain in the Navy. Everyone loved Uncle Leroy.
My Uncle Gene was not handsome by any means, but he was smart in a different kind of way. He was not so talented, and I am not sure he went to college at all.
He was a giant of a man — I mean that literally. He was 7 feet 3 inches tall in his prime and weighed in at about 300 pounds, all of it muscle. I saw him sit in a metal chair once and his small daughter jumped into his lap. The chair collapsed to the ground.
When Uncle Gene was a teenager growing up it was said that a good start on breakfast for him was about three dozen pancakes. He might make rounds from house to house eating breakfast with the neighbors. But as World War II was raging, people began to wonder why my Uncle Gene was not in the Army fighting for our country. Well, maybe they didn’t know there is a height limit for serving in the Armed Forces, and he exceeded that limit by a lot.
So, he built himself a bicycle and pedaled away from home one day. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going - and possible he did not know himself - and he stayed gone for nearly 10 years. He left Birmingham and rode to Oregon where he worked as a lumberjack for a while and any other job he could do. He made enough money to leave Oregon and rode up the Alaska/Canada Highway to Alaska as far as the highway went, and then he turned around and came back to Oregon. He worked another few years and when he got together enough money he left Oregon and rode south to the Panama Canal. From there he just rode through the country ending up in Chicago where someone stole his bicycle, and he hopped trains back to Birmingham.
It would have been nice if he had written home to let someone know where he was and what he was doing, but he didn’t. At some point someone in Idaho wrote my grandparents and told them Uncle Gene had seen a little girl struggling in a lake made from a rock quarry, and he jumped in, caught the girl, and swam to the other side of the lake, saving her life.
Uncle Gene did finally marry a wonderful woman, and they had several children, one of whom was Texas Star Student and attended the U.S. Naval Academy. Another earned a PhD. in a subject so abstract that no one knew enough about it to question what he was discovering!
While my Uncle Gene was certainly a colorful man, the truth is that he was deeply troubled as well. Uncle Gene did not see the world the way you and I see the world, and he interpreted his experiences in a way far different than you and I would. He was mentally ill, but not diagnosed as such because he would not see a doctor. He stayed a recluse most of his life and his children hardly knew him.
I last saw him at a family reunion in south Alabama years ago, but he did not know any of us saw him. He came to the town, but he did not attend the reunion. He stayed at a distance. He had virtually no relationship with his brother or sister (my mother) and what he usually said to them was hurtful.
I don’t understand why someone who had so much potential should have to endure such pain on the inside. He had protected himself in strange ways from the pain after a time, but it would have been nice to have been able to have a conversation with him.
What I do know now is that he is healed in both body and mind. I look forward to seeing him in his right mind when I am in heaven. There God perfects us, and I want him to tell me about his adventures.
Dr. Jay Hodges can be reached at Jayhodges610@yahoo.com.