MY UNCLE HARRY by Steve Batty

Harry -My Uncle Harry – was a very influential person in my life. He was more like a grandfather than an uncle, and quite often was a stand-in father, taking me hunting and fishing when my father, a small town physician in southwest Nebraska, was working and taking care of others for most of my childhood. Harry and his wife Edna had raised my father in McCook from the age of five, when both of his parents had died from illness.

 

Pheasant Season

When I was 10, the year Edna died, Uncle Harry started taking me on pheasant hunting and fishing trips with his life-long friends. At that time Harry was 79, and still going strong. All of his hunting cronies were approximately the same age, and they had been hunting and fishing together for over 50 years. As I rode with them I marveled at the stories they told about how things were done in their younger days, before pheasants had been introduced into the state. In fact, Harry introduced the first pheasants into southwest Nebraska. My father has told me many times how the birds arrived by train, and from there he and Harry took the birds south of town and released them.

 

Prior to pheasants, horse and buggy carried avid hunters through the countryside in pursuit of prairie chickens. As more and more settlers populated the area, pheasant replaced the prairie chickens, and today some of the finest upland game hunting in the state is in southwest Nebraska near the town of McCook.

 

The Bird Dog Tradition

Harry used to describe how my father acted as the bird dog on trips past. It was his job to run after the downed birds when they were only “winged” and could still slink away into the dense underbrush. Once he was big enough, he too became a hunter like Harry. It was like a rite of passage when one finally got to carry his own shotgun with the grown men. Up until the last few years I was an avid upland bird hunter, but, for some reason, I just can’t seem to find the time to go any longer. My father was much the same way when he reached fifty. I’m not sure why but it might be that life seems to take on a deeper meaning at that age. Not just human life, but that of all God’s creatures.

 

A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned

Harry was a very frugal person and would only shoot a bird or catch a fish that he, his family or friends would eventually eat. It seemed that nothing ever went to waste around Uncle Harry. He had grown up in a very small farming community in southwest Nebraska several miles east of McCook, and worked for the C.B. & Q. Railroad for forty-nine years. Perhaps some of Harry’s frugality has rubbed off on me through my association with him during those years.

 

Becoming the Caretaker

As I grew older, my role changed while hunting with Harry and his three close friends. I became more of the caretaker for the group. I would help Merritt Brown light his cigarettes because his hands shook so much from Parkinson’s disease. It didn’t keep him from being able to shoot is shotgun and bring down the quail and pheasants. Chris Jorgenson, the proud owner of a cream and green 1952 four-door Chevy, was the designated driver each time since he could no longer walk the fields. Chris, I helped, get in and out of the car. To help the entire gang, I was the downed bird catcher – the bird dog, like my father had been – as I was the only one who could chase down the wounded birds so they didn’t disappear and die.

 

Liver & Onions?

I learned to enjoy some less popular foods while eating with him prior to hunting and fishing outings or after school. Among those were liver and onions, ox tail soup, and non-pasteurized heavy cream straight from the farm. I can remember turning my nose up to the soup and liver dishes when he served them for the first time. His comment was “if you want to eat in my house, you have to eat what I serve.” “Besides”, he said, “you will probably like it once you try it.” He was right (as usual), and I actually acquired a taste for them and looked forward to having them the next time. To this day I can’t have liver and onions without smiling on the inside and thinking of Uncle Harry. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen ox tail soup on any menu but, if I did, you can bet I would order it and think of all the wonderful meals I had with Harry.

 

A Tradition is Passed Along

Eventually, when Harry was eighty-five and could no longer see well enough to hunt or drive, he passed on to me two of his prized possessions: his 16 gauge Browning shot gun; and his two-door 1950 Dodge with fluid drive. I drove the old Dodge through my freshman year of college at Colorado College and the University of Nebraska in 1965/66, when it finally had to be retired. However, I am proud to say I used his shotgun for many years. Eventually on a hunting trip one Fall I purchased my own Browning from a patient of my father’s. Harry’s gun stays well oiled and stored in a dry spot in the basement, and all the wonderful outings with Harry and his old hunting buddies stay locked in my heart.

 

Spring Time in McCook

Each Spring, when the lilacs are in full blossom and the air is heavy with their wonderful scent, I am taken back to the many mornings I awoke at Harry’s house on East 4th street. The smell of his lilacs drifting into the house and the soft cooing of Mourning Doves were the first thing I experienced at those times.

 

We always had the same breakfast before leaving for our morning of fishing. Both Dad and Harry liked to have shredded wheat as a starter in the mornings. Harry would always serve thick farm fresh cream for ours but Dad, with his medical training, would only use pasteurized half-and-half. Even at this moment, as I write about the experience, I can taste and see in my mind’s eye the thick cream we had to spoon out of the clear jars. That, with a little sugar sprinkled over it, produced a little bit of heaven for me. I can taste it even now.

 

The Fine Art of Fishing

Harry loved to fish for crappies and I was the fortunate beneficiary of his love for the little pan-sized critters. As I recall, it was usually in early June when he would get the urge to go. Once I was old enough to put my own shiner on a hook I started joining him. The limit at that time was 25 fish per person and most of the time we brought an even 50 home.

 

We used his old metal bait rods and cork bobbers with minnows swimming around at the end of our lines. There is a fine art to catching your limit of crappies and the primary ingredient, I discovered, was patience. Harry taught me that the first summer we headed out together. We both usually caught our limit of 50 after that. The secret is waiting for the bobber to go completely under before setting the hook. That was hard to do the first few times.

 

I See What He Means

Before concluding this remembrance, I want to relate one more memory of my time with Harry, and the influence it left upon me. When I attended Junior High School in McCook, which happened to be the Senior High School when my father was in school, frequently I would have dinner with Harry, as he resided in an apartment directly south of the school. It was usually on those days I took band lessons after school and was running late. After dinner I would help him do the dishes. Harry and I would have wonderful discussions together as he washed and I dried.

 

Occasionally, I would see that the plates I was handed still had food residue on them, so I would point it out to him so he could re-wash them. After returning several plates for re-washing one evening, he replied “it is the wiper’s responsibility to get anything off that was left on the plate once it leaves the washer’s hands.” I think by that time I had acquired from my parents the need to have dishes looking “real” clean.

 

I didn’t understand at the time why he could not see all the leftover food on the plates. My solution to the problem was to takeover washing duties so the dishes would be clean. Now it’s my turn in life to leave food residue on the plates. I’ve discovered in the last few years how food gets left on plates even though my “expert” hands have washed them. By not wearing the bifocals, which should always be resting on my nose, I too miss the small particles. Even with the cursed things on my face I have trouble seeing everything I should be seeing.

 

Suddenly He Was Gone

In 1967, Harry left this world at age 89 while I was home for a few days from college and before leaving to attend summer school at the University of Colorado. We received a call from Harry’s retirement home in Holdrege, Nebraska. They told us he had gone to sleep earlier that evening and had never awakened.

 

Dad got me out of bed after taking the call and I drove the two us the seventy-two miles to Holdrege late that night. That has been the only time I’ve seen my father cry and not be able to express his feelings without more tears rolling down his cheeks. Harry had always been there for the two of us. And I think we had never really stopped to think what an important role he had played in both our lives. We both miss Harry, and even after thirty-two years I don’t suppose we ever “told” him we loved him. Men of our generations frequently could not say the words “I love you,” to another man as it was not considered masculine to “tell” each other how we felt.

 

Family Tradition

Thanks Uncle Harry, for taking the time with both Dad and me those many years ago, so we could experience some of the most wonderful times in our lives. I’m just sorry my boys never knew Harry except through the stories we’ve told them. Fortunately, they have spent many vacations in the Colorado mountains at our cottage with my father and me, where the lessons Harry taught us live on in the traditions we pass to them.