Uncle George

George ForemanMy uncle George was the oldest boy in the Foreman family and my dad was next to the youngest. They were separated by eight brothers and sisters and nearly twenty years in age. Their father died about fifteen years before I was born so I never knew him. However, from the relationship that I had with my uncle George, I would say that he was much more like a grandfather to me than an uncle. Even though he wound up with a whole passel of grandkids, he would never allow any of them to call him Grandpa. One time, when one of them accidentally called him that, he told them, "Call me Grandpa once more and I'll cut your damn ears off and feed them to the hogs." I'm sure he was smiling under his scraggly beard when he said it.

Uncle George lived just across the Oklahoma line in Guymon where he had a wife, six or seven kids and a goofy brother-in-law living with him. Evidently conditions at home must have gotten a bit tedious for him at times because at least twice a year he would show up at our house to spend a week or two.

During those infrequent visits, he taught me all sorts of earthy lessons that few fathers would ever pass on to their young sons; like how to chew tobacco and spit the juice, how to sneak up on a fly and catch it in my hand and how to blow my nose without using a handkerchief. He also taught me how make vulgar noises with my hand under my armpit, to lift my leg when I farted and how to pee my name in the snow. Fortunately with the passing of time, I have gotten over most of those disgusting traits. He also tried to teach me how to whistle through my teeth but the only time that I was ever able to do it happened to be in school. I was hiding behind my geography book, curling my tongue and puckering my lips just the way that he showed me and trying to whistle. By pure chance I got everything right and let fly one of the most ear splitting whistles you ever heard. That got me a quick trip to the Principal's office for a dose of the type of discipline that he used to keep unruly boys in line. I don't know if it was because of the five swats on my butt or what, but I was never able to whistle again.

Uncle George was a huge horse of a man, standing at least six feet five tall with nearly three hundred pounds of pure muscle. During his younger years, he owned a carnival and medicine show which traveled all over the country selling patent medicine. One of the main attractions was his strong man act. Part of his act was to put his middle finger through a small ring in the top of a two hundred pound chunk of iron shaped like a pyramid, pick it up, carry it across the stage and place it in a wooden framework bolted to the stage floor. After proving that he could move the chunk of iron, he would invite any of the men in the audience who thought that they were fairly strong to come up on the stage and try to move it back. Naturally, since this was a carnival, the invitation always included a little wager just to make it more interesting. They had to put up a dollar in order to try to pick the weight up and carry it back to where it had been. If they were able to do it, they would win five dollars. Needless to say, few of any of them were ever successful in getting it out of the frame, much less carrying it across the stage.

What the people didn't know was that inside the glove that George wore, there was a metal hook which followed along the inside of his middle finger and attached to a leather strap which went up his sleeve and looped around his opposite shoulder. Without this hook, there was no way that a person's finger was strong enough to pick up that much weight.

After several of the young men would try unsuccessfully to move the weight, Uncle George would sweeten the offer by allowing two or three of them work together to move it. This was an even safer bet for him because there was room for only one finger in the ring and all of them trying to get around it to pick it up would just get in the way of one another.

He was close to sixty years old when I was a kid but he always betting on some feat of strength. I was at his blacksmith shop one time when a man rode up on a horse. They got to talking about how big the horse was and Uncle George offered to bet that he could pick it up and carry it across the street. Before the betting was over, there was quite a bit of money involved.

Uncle George took the saddle off the horse and placed a sort of harness on it. The harness had a ring about mid-point on the horse's side. Then Uncle George slipped a harness over his shoulders which had a hook in the back to match the ring on the harness. He backed up against the side of the horse, engaged the hook and bent forward, lifting the horse right off the ground. He carried the horse across the street, put it down and collected his money.

Not only would Uncle George stand out in a crowd because of his size, but he usually sported a full beard and scraggly hair down to his collar. Had he been born a couple generations later, his appearance would have fit right into the counter culture of the hippie generation. On the rare occasions when he pulled off his bib overalls, got a shave and haircut and put on a suit, he would have passed as a lawyer, banker or even a senator.

I suppose that he was trying to escape from the pressures of family life through his guise as an old prospector. It was his way to momentarily escape to a life normally associated with solitude except that it brought him notoriety instead of the seclusion that he sought. It was around the beginning of the great depression when he began marching in Guymon's Old Settlers Reunion parade as the Old Prospector. I never understood what prospecting for gold had to do with the pioneer days of the Panhandle of Oklahoma but he would load all sorts of prospecting gear on his old jackass and lead the parade through town. He received so much national publicity that parades all over the nation were asking him to appear. Probably the most notable parade in which he ever appeared was the 1938 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California. He lived the life of the Old Prospector in the same vicarious way that Mark Twain lived the life of a precocious foundling through his stories about Huckleberry Finn.

The thing which always impressed me the most about Uncle George was his sense of humor and love of practical jokes. He was the sort of person who could find humor in the most bizarre ways. His wife's brother, who was about two sandwiches short of a picnic, lived with them for years. George never did anything which would hurt someone, just drive them crazy. Since Boliver was already a bit slack twisted, no harm seemed to come from playing a joke on him now and then.

There was only one bathroom in the house and with all the people who lived there, getting in when you had the urge to go was usually next to impossible. Not being able to get into the bathroom was no problem for his goofy brother-in-law because he would just head for the barn when he needed to go. In fact, if it wasn't too cold, he seemed to prefer going behind the barn instead of using the bathroom in the house.

One day George saw him unhooking his bib overalls as he went around behind the barn and just couldn't pass up the opportunity to play a joke on him. The wind had blown the dirt from under the back wall of the barn until there was about six inches of space between it and the ground. George got a shovel and when Boliver squatted down to do his thing, George slipped the shovel under him. When he finished, George pulled the shovel, complete with its contents, back inside the barn. When poor old Boliver turned around to admire his accomplishment, there was nothing on the ground. Figuring that it had to be someplace, he began a frantic search of his overalls, finally pulling them off and shaking them.

There were times when George would go to great lengths in order to perpetrate a practical joke. One time he rigged up a coffin with batteries, an electric motor and an off-center weight which would shake, gyrate and make a thumping noise when the motor ran. He hooked the switch to one of the handles so the thing would start when that handle was lifted.

He dressed up in a black suit and hat and took his trick coffin down to the loading dock at the railroad station. When the train pulled in, he was standing there with his Bible in his hand and a most soulful look on his face. When the porters stepped off the passenger cars of the train, he asked them if they would put his poor, departed brother on the freight car for him. When they didn't seem to be all that willing to pick up the coffin, he put on his most pathetic look and began to read something out of the Bible about helping your fellow man. I'm sure that what he was saying was far more out of his head than from the scripture.

Loading freight wasn't part of a Porter's job and besides, they weren't all that thrilled about picking up a dead man, but since he looked like he might be carrying a fat roll of money in his pocket, the prospect of a hefty tip overcame their fear. Four of the porters gathered around the coffin, picked it up and started carrying it along the loading dock toward the freight car. Suddenly, a thumping noise came from inside the coffin as it began to shake in their hands like something in it was alive. They screamed, dropped the coffin and dashed for the safety of the Pullman cars.

On Halloween night a few years later, George took the coffin down to the funeral home, opened the back door of the hearse parked in the driveway and left it leaning on the bumper like it had just fallen out. The kids making their rounds of tricks and terror that night naturally found the coffin and did the only logical thing for boys to do, they decided to steal it. When it began to thump and shake, they dropped it and ran to the police station with the story about a man coming to life in a coffin. By the time that the police got there, George and the trick coffin were nowhere to be found.

One Saturday morning the driver of a truck loaded with frozen whole tuna stopped by the blacksmith shop to see if Uncle George would weld the truck's front bumper back in place. The mount for the bumper had broken and he had it tied up to a headlight with a piece of bailing wire to keep it from falling under a wheel. He told Uncle George that he didn't have any extra money to pay for the repairs but offered to give him four of the fish as payment for the welding.

When the welding job was finished, George wrapped the fish in newspaper and laid them aside to take home that evening when he finished work. Unfortunately, the next time that George thought about the fish was on Sunday morning. After laying around in the summer heat for a day and a night, there was no question that they were well past the point of being safe to eat. However, George was never one to let a good thing go to waste so as soon as he finished breakfast, he went to the shop to get them.

The Guymon city park had a small muddy lake in it with a few ducks swimming around, but everyone knew that there were no fish worth catching in it. Kids would fish there occasionally but all that they ever caught was some little things about five inches long which swam around with their eyes and mouths sticking out of the water, as if gasping for air. These things which seemed to be more closely related to salamanders than fish so the kids called them gasper-goos. Even if they had been big enough to eat, they tasted so much like mud that the ducks wouldn't even eat them.

When the preachers finally let their flocks go at noon, most of them would descend on the park for a picnic. When they arrived on this particular Sunday, they found George sitting in the shade of a tree, watching the bobber on his fishing line. It was such a strange sight to see an adult fishing in the lake that they just had to find out what was going on.

When they asked George if he was catching anything, he answered by lifting his stringer so they could see the big fish that he had on it. This set off an immediate frenzy of fishing and soon dozens of people were throwing hooks into the water. They baited their hooks with all the usual things like chicken livers, worms and grasshoppers. True to form, all that any of them caught was those little gasper-goos.

Every time that George thought that their enthusiasm was beginning to wane, he would pull up his stringer to check his catch, setting off another frantic bout of fishing. After about an hour of catching nothing but these little mud-cats, some of the frustrated anglers asked George what he was using for bait. He replied, "Raw turnips."

Since few people bring raw turnips to a picnic, they all rushed off to find some for bait. When they switched to chunks of raw turnip on their hooks, the even stopped catching the little gasper-goos. After another hour or so of enjoying his joke, George figured that he had pushed the scam about as far as it was going to go, so he gave them one last shot. He jumped to his feet and began to thrash his fishing pole back and forth like he had just snagged another big fish. As soon as he had everyone's attention, he dragged in the dead fish that had been on his line all the time, put it on the stringer with his other spoiled fish and took them home to feed to the hogs. I doubt that anyone ever noticed that the fish on his stringer were already dressed.


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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman