We just got the news this week that my Uncle Donnie died back in March. Apparently, his long-time friend had tried to reach Mom afterward, but didn’t have her current contact info, and was fruitlessly searching for her in Ohio.
My most vivid memories of Uncle Donnie are from back when I was six or seven years old. He would come to visit for Christmas, often hitchhiking up from Florida to Ohio to be with us over the holidays.
See, Uncle Donnie was a carny: a fact I never thought was particularly odd until I got older and discovered that carnival work is not, in fact, a standard profession. Donnie left home at age 14, from what I’ve been told, and had been a vagrant of sorts ever since. Apparently, he started out as one of the kids who’d hide inside carnival skill games, pulling strings, and he moved on from there to manning other games (see pool table, above).
As I mentioned, he would visit on Christmas most years when I was little. He’d just show up on our doorstep, and we’d be duly surprised, and happy to see him. Sometimes he’d show up after I went to bed, and I’d wake up one morning to find Uncle Donnie sleeping on the couch, or on the living room floor.
One year, he gave me a horseshoe that was thrown by a racing horse named Steely Dan. He wrote the name on a piece of paper so I’d remember, and I brought the paper and the horseshoe to school with me for Show-and-Tell. Because of Donnie’s fabulous handwriting, I got chided by my first-grade classmates, saying that it really said “Steely Dun,” and I had to correct them in that protesting first-grader sort of way. (This was long before I knew about Steely Dan the band, or Steely Dan the steam-powered dildo from Naked Lunch.)
I still have that horseshoe, by the way. It’s sitting on my desk as I type this.
Uncle Donnie was also infamous in my young mind for playing the “Whatcha hittin’ yourself for?” game with me. (This was, apparently, a throwback from his younger days growing up with his siblings — mainly Mom, since she was the youngest — when he would instigate games like, “Let’s see who can hit the softest. You go first.”) I used to love it when he’d play with me, since I lived in a house full of women, and never had anyone play with me who had his wiry strength.
As I was growing up, no one in my family drank (not much, anyway, and never at home), and only my Memaw smoked; and she only smoked Virginia Slims and other such feminine grandmotherly-type cigarettes, at that. When Uncle Donnie would come to visit, though, he always smelled of beer and Pall Mall cigarettes, and I associated that bowling alley bar smell with Uncle Donnie for the longest time. He’d also have his pack of Pall Malls rolled up in his sleeve, seventies-style, and I used to associate the lyrics to “Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy)” with him, just a little:
Rapid Roy that stock car boy / He’s too much to believe / You know he always got an extra pack of cigarettes / Rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve / He got a tattoo on his arm that say Baby / He got another one that just say Hey…
Uncle Donnie had tattoos, but I don’t remember what they were, offhand. Mom would know, I think. Funny, though, that I don’t remember — you’d think that would have had a pretty big impact on me at a young age, too, being some of the first tattoos I’d ever seen. Maybe he just didn’t roll up his sleeves very often.
I never expected to see Uncle Donnie again, really… I don’t think I’d seen him since I was in Junior High or so. Maybe once in high school? Still, though, I miss the Uncle Donnie I knew in my youth. He seemed to bring with him a sense of… adventure? Troublemaking? Anarchy? Freedom? Bucking the system? I’m not sure what it was, exactly, but I always looked forward to his visits when I was little, and I missed him when I got older and he didn’t visit as much, or at all.
Miss you, Uncle Donnie. Rest in Peace.