One In Every Bunch
Uncle Jack* was the only son born to Meemaw Fogerty after previous attempts at carrying on his name gave her husband four daughters, whom he christened Francine, Claudine, Justine, and Pauline – just so that he could call them by boys’ names, since he didn’t have any proper male heirs. Of course, the girls never answered to “Frank,” “Claude,” “Justin,” or “Paul,” and by the time Jack was born, it didn’t seem as important to get them to try. Uncle Jack was enough of a handful to account for an old shoehouse full of boys.
By the time he was just 4 years old, Jack had already begun to show signs of trouble brewing ahead in the days to come for him and his family.
Maggie Fogerty was religious about attending worship with the fellowship of her Christian brethren, and come what may, whatever else was going on, she would see to it that all 5 of her children were bundled every Sunday morning into her old Plymouth to make it to services hosted in the colossal congregation at Union Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis by the time the doors were open – without fail, no exceptions, no excuses. Sometimes this meant a royal battle getting young Jack into his shoes, and occasionally even dragging him up the steps by the scruff of the collar. Of course, it was the 50s in the American South, and true to the culture of the times, Maggie – and as much as she could muster, all her kin – would be dressed to the nines out of respect and deference to their presence in the Lord’s house. For Maggie, that included whichever Sunday bonnet best matched her tailored skirt suit, and silk elbow gloves, both of which she’d take off and lay down on the bench beside her on top of her handbag while she read from her bible or from the songbook. One particularly muggy summer Sunday morning, Jack got it into his head to entertain himself by petting the gloves. Maggie kept a peripheral eye on him, but let him be; so long as it kept him quiet, he wasn't a bother to anyone.
No one can say for certain when exactly he’d managed to slip away, but at some point during that day’s homily, Maggie realized he was no longer at her side. In a panic, she checked the rows directly following theirs, under her seat, and everywhere she could see. Now, Union Avenue CofC is comprised of a massive gathering of believers, and had to split the weekly ministry into two separate assemblies at different times to accommodate more than a thousand members at each. The Fogerty family always situated themselves 3-4 rows back behind the front pew from the edge of the balcony in the mezzanine seating, which overlooked the general mass below. So naturally, one can imagine Maggie’s shock (and horror!) at peering past the railing to see her little Jack running from the lower foyer up the aisle straight toward the pulpit during the middle of the preacher’s sermon, trailing her silk gloves behind him like kites on the wind, with a lot of gleeful childish giggling, high pitched squeals of delight, and general 4-yr-old ruckus. Maggie scurried downstairs as fast as she could move in a skirt, and red-faced, gathered up a wriggling, squirming, loudly protesting Jack and stormed toward the rear doors of the building. Knowing what kind of a laying-into could be expected from his mother, Jack's cries could be heard throughout the building, the sound of his caterwauling echoing as it bounced off the walls of the sanctuary.
“No, Mommy, don’t! Please, I’ll be good, Mommy, I love you! Mommy, I love you, I’m a good boy, I promise! I love you, Mommy! I love you! Mommmmmmmiiiiieeeeeeeeee!!!”
The whole of the flock shared a knowing wink and nod with one another that day, with bemused, muffled chuckles and understanding smiles passed around the amphitheater, as Jack’s first very public moment of notoriety secured his future: a trickster had been born.
The next few years saw the continuation of the established trend. Six-year-old Jack was a hothead with a temper, who never quite figured out the right balance of growing up as a young boy in a house full of girls. After Maggie took her children out of the abuse that had been her marriage, for a few years before she was rewed to Neville Abbott, Jack was all the snakes-and-snails-and-puppy-dogs-tails the family had, and he was going to be darn sure they knew it well. Girls could be so... girly – eeeeeew!!! He’d get so frustrated with them he could hardly contain himself, and he’d shake and spit so bad when they got him riled up good, until they thought the top of his hair would pop off, while his ears blew steam like a factory whistle.
On extreme occasion, he’d even resort to calling them names.
“You… you… Hamburger!” he’d yell.
Unless, of course, he was really, really mad, and then, lookout world! The scream of:
“You’re all a bunch of Hot Dogs!” could pack a powerful punch of sheer volume alone.
(He really told them, didn’t he?)
Shortly after his eighth birthday, poor Jack had had enough. He was not going to take any more tormenting from those pesky sister critters, and that Mommy creature just wasn’t helping any at all. He was angry with the world, and he was through being nice, so he marched right into the living room, and told her so, with as much gusto as he could muster.
“That’s IT!” he fumed. “I’m done with all of you! I’m LEAVING! Right NOW!” he said with an added stomp for emphasis.
Maggie lowered her paper and slid down her glasses to look over her nose at the huffing child in front of her, his arms folded, brows furrowed, lips pursed into an overpronounced frown, chest puffed up and heaving.
“Okay,” she agreed calmly, pushing her glasses back up and returning to her paper. “When you get where you’re going, drop me a postcard with your new address so I know where to send your Christmas gift this year.”
A few moments went by. Maggie began humming softly as she listened to her son’s heavy panting from the other side of her evening edition. After a second refrain, she peeked around the metro section to peer at him, where he stood, glowering, lower lip stuck out so far it could have perched a canary.
“Are you still here?” she queried.
Jack began jumping up and down, screaming.
“I - am - running - away!” he bellowed with frenzied accentuation, hitting his knees mid-air with his fists as they rose from the floor with each jump.
Maggie sighed and got up from her rocker.
“Well, all right, but if you're planning on heading out tonight, you should probably quit standing around and go ahead and get your things together, then,” she answered, grabbing his hand and marching him to his bedroom. “Come on, let me help you pack.”
At his closet, she grabbed his suitcase, and began tossing in various remnants of clothing.
“You’ll want to be sure to have enough skivvies, and don’t forget extra socks, you don’t want your tootsies to get cold,” she explained, loading up his traveling luggage with items from his unmentionables drawer.
Throwing a handful of garments over her head onto the bed from the bureau and his hanging racks, she surveyed the piles.
“That should be enough to get you started,” she said, nodding at the array. “You’ll want to fold those, of course, to make them fit into the trunk so you can get it closed. I’ll leave you to do that while I go downstairs and make you a lunch. You’ll probably need a few sandwiches for the road, since who knows when you’ll find your next meal. I’ll try not to fix anything too soggy.”
Then she kissed him on the cheek, patted him on the head, and tousled his hair as she swept out of the room in a flurry of skirts.
Uncle Jack came downstairs the next morning for breakfast dressed in his PJs, and never mentioned running away again.
Feeding time with the family was always an adventure in getting noticed for Uncle Jack. By age 10, Maggie Fogerty had gotten remarried to Neville Abbott, and now Jack’s family number had increased by three – but at least it was all boys! Jack gained two new brothers and a stepdad from that union, and moved with his mom and the two of his sisters still in school to the Abbott house. Naturally, to Jack, this meant all the more potential audience for his antics. So, at one evening gathering, when the entirety of the household tribe was collected at the table for a holiday dinner, Jack began flapping his arms. He leaned into his plate and picked at his food with his teeth when he could, so as not to lose any momentum from his grand gestures: elbows turned out, thumbs tucked into his pits, arms pumping up and down in wide flying motions. He scanned the table for signs of any suckers to draw into his web. His sisters, naturally, had more than a decade by then to get used to his shenanigans, and were not going to bite. Everyone went about their usual routine as if he weren’t there. But Jack refused to remain unseen. Undaunted, he relentlessly continued playing at his personal game. This went on for a good ten minutes. Finally, Justine tired of the distraction, and took the bait, despite herself.
“Jackie, what are you doing???” she grunted, not a little begrudging.
“I’m keeping the elephants away, of course,” he explained with an air of flippancy, as if it was such a common activity that anyone should have guessed it, naturally.
“Don’t be stupid, Jackie,” Justine rolled her eyes at him. “There are no elephants in Tennessee.”
“That’s because it’s working!” he replied proudly, inflating his chest with a big, toothy grin.
The entire table groaned. Maggie turned her face away to stifle a chuckle.
Now, the Abbott house was an old style American brownstone, built in the thirties, with hardwood floors, coved ceilings with crown-molded trim, wainscoted walls, and beveled glass windows. It had a formal dining room, and a large eat-in kitchen big enough to hold the entire family for meals. It also had a somewhat unusual architectural feature characteristic of the time, but not otherwise common since. There was a small half-bath just off the kitchen, complete with a toilet and sink. In this particular bathroom, there was also a small extendable hose attached to the faucet, used for washing hair. (An absolute necessity in a house with five females and only one clawfoot tub-and-added-on-shower combo for personal hygiene.) It never failed that Jack’s internal elimination system always seemed to be directly linked to his eating habits, because every time he was called to grub, he suddenly found himself in need of a quick restroom break just about the time everyone in the family had loaded their plates. Of course, being the uncouth preadolescent that he was, it was not uncommon as he hurriedly excused himself in a rush for the water closet to have all four sisters hollering after him in unison:
“CLOSE the DOOR, Jackie!”
…and rightly so, for the sake of every palate in the home.
Upon one particular family night’s repast, 12-yr-old Jackie undertook the notion to be more of a rascal than usual. He left the start of dinner for the nearby lav, and locked himself into the washroom adjoining the dining seating. Accustomed to this, the family went about their business as usual, focusing themselves on the chow, entertaining each other with stories of their day, and mostly trying to pretend they were not aware of what was happening behind the door in the wall right next to them, and especially that they were not listening to the sound of flowing liquid hitting the inside of a porcelain bowl just a few feet from their food. This would be possible for a minute or two fairly easily.
A minute or two passed.
The sound continued.
The second wave of a minute or two brought a natural lull in the conversation – as is wont to happen spontaneously in gatherings of more than three – along with a shared moment of awkward, uncomfortable silence.
Well… almost silence.
Still another minute ticked by, serenaded by the gushing torrent from behind the door. Maggie looked at her husband while her girls tried desperately not to make eye contact with anyone male, and a couple of them clapped hands over their mouths to stifle nervous laughter. Francine’s jaw was standing wide open. Claudine’s eyes were the size of saucers.
The flow remained steady.
Another couple of minutes passed. Maggie gestured to Neville, shoulders in a shrug, eyes pleading. He sighed, and got up, going to gingerly knock on the bathroom door.
“Hey, uh, Jack?” he started, a tad hesitant. “You okay in there, son?”
No response, no change in pressure.
All eyes were on Pops Abbott. Which meant none had noticed as Jack slipped back into the kitchen from the other side of the room, and stood behind his dinner chair, relishing the chaos of his efforts with a satisfied smirk.
“What’s everybody up to?” he inquired, fluttering his lashes in his best attempt at looking innocently bewildered, while wholly failing to conceal his delight.
It seemed that Jack had hooked the extension hose from the sink to flow directly into the toilet, turned on the water, and escaped out the bathroom window, going around the house to come back in through the front. (I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty sure Uncle Jack probably ended that meal with mashed potatoes in his hair.)
Fourteen-year-old Jack was more than a handful, as that bumbling era of the pubescent male came to settle around him. Youthful pranks gave way to genuine adolescent angst, and harmless-if irksome teasing turned into a holy teenage terror.
Home from college for the holidays that winter, his 21-yr-old stepbrother, Daniel, was charged with his keep one rainy afternoon while the parents were at work, and everyone else was out shopping. After several hours of ridiculous fighting over getting Jack to do the simplest tasks expected of him every day, and fed up to the brim with his rebellious acting out, Daniel loaded Jack up into the old Plymouth and drove him over to his father’s barber shop to dump him for the day, explaining to his dad that he just couldn’t take any more of the little punk’s mouthy lip and his defiant guff. Pops Abbott said nary a word about it, but gave the boy a long hard look over, staring at him with all the stern disposition that only a worldly-wizened father figure can, and then sat Jack down on a chair in the waiting area of the shop. Now, it can truly by said of Neville Abbott that throughout his entire life, the man never had so much as the suggestion of an inclination to raise more than an eyebrow against any child, but young Jack was never so savvy as to have gleaned that understanding about his still by then relatively new stepdad, but he did know that a strong man of few words who could make a pair of scissors in his hand move like lightning had a way of striking the fear of God into the rowdiest of kids. Jack waited quietly in the spot he’d landed for the remainder of the day, and then rode home in Pop’s car without so much as a peep.
And from then on, he was a little nicer to his older siblings whenever they looked after him.
Life hasn't been a walk in the park for Uncle Jack, but he's always kept his sharp wits about him, and put his best foot forward, with an eye for the things that really matter. Granted, being surrounded by the support of a huge mess of folks who were nuts about him couldn't have hurt, either. Everyone's favorite Uncle, Jack Fogerty turned 63 last year, and hasn't lost the twinkle in his heart or the spring in his step yet. Without so much of a thought for retirement, he and his lovely, patient, vivacious and jovial wife opened up Jack's Kansas City BarbeQ Shack near his home in Michigan, a true family-friendly venue for his nationally renowned, award-winning beef, pork, and finger-licking, stick-to-your ribs sauces.
Every family tree probably has an Uncle Jack somewhere along the lineage, if you just shake the trunk hard enough, one is sure to fall out. Not every branch can be directly touched by a Jack in your immediate gang... just those few lucky enough to be blessed with your very own Angel of Mischief to fill all those awkward pauses with memorable stories to share, and always leave you guessing. But, if you should happen to end up with an Uncle Jack of your own in the midst of your number, use caution, and handle with care. And compassion. And lots and lots of love. And a whole heaping helping of forgiveness. Oh, and, most importantly, an extra-large, double-sized portion of a wicked sense of humor to help you remember to step lightly, and keep you on your toes. After all, to get through this life in one piece, you’re going to need to learn to dance.
*Special thanks to Uncle Jack for giving me permission to tell these stories of his boyhood capers, and providing the details which took this entry from my original intent, a series of vignettes about various family members in compromising circumstances which created moments of social discomfort, to the one-man show it become. It seems Uncle Jack has a way of creating that natural reaction around him… I guess he’s just an egg-crate of a baker’s dozen all unto himself!
LJ Idol | Season 8 • Week 28 - Topic: WALKING ON EGGSHELLS
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