I first published this column at the consumer website CTWatchdog.com and it appears here in a slightly longer form. The origins of my interest in politics and the military are touched on. The part about ESP is incredible and leaves me with questions, but no answers. Perhaps you have some.
When I was growing up I was very fortunate to have some of the best uncles a boy could ask for. On my dad's side were my uncles Bill and Chuck, and on my mother's side were my uncles Bob, Vic and Floyd. My aunts were gems too, and as I look back I realize I was very fortunate when it came to relatives.
I saw my maternal uncles and aunts all the time because we lived close to each other in upstate New York. Dad's sisters and their families lived in the New York City area and I saw them less frequently, but the visits were always great times nonetheless.
Last week, the last of my uncles, Mom's older brother Victor Brimmer, who was closest to her in age and a staunch ally in her fights against my siblings and their children who tried to force her into an Alzheimer's home, died at the age of 97. (I expounded on mom's fight in my book Granny Snatching, and write about elder abuse in my CTWatchdog columns.) Uncle Vic had been in declining health for some time, and had developed pneumonia which in the end he just couldn’t beat.
I have decided not to tell Mom of Uncle Vic's death for the time being. There is nothing she can do about it and considering the mental blows she has taken due to these family attacks I am sure it would do more harm than good. They remained very close over the years and she called him regularly after she moved to Connecticut, so I will have to break the news eventually; just not now.
In addition to his support for Mom, my memories of Uncle Vic represent some of the best times of my younger days. He lived in Grafton, which is on the way from Albany to the intersection of Vermont, Massachusetts and New York states, for more than 60 years, on a vast tract of land that at one time encompassed some 300 acres, mostly wooded, although there also were fields that he rented to local farmers for haying.
Vic and his first wife, my late aunt Mill, both loved to ride horses; he had ridden on his parents' farm in Center Brunswick, New York, and a picture of Mill riding when she was a young woman still exists. Vic was a founding member of the Grafton Trail Riders Club.
He had barns, horses that they had rescued from a rodeo circuit – Gringo, a paint, Poncho a dark brown horse of indeterminate breed, and Chiquita a grey. Of the three only Gringo was ridden with any regularity and Vic for a while was an easily recognized figure riding Gringo in Grafton's annual July 4th parade.
But one year Vic had gone a long time between training rides with Gringo, and the horse was not up to his usual pleasant manners. As Vic told it, he led the parade with Gringo walking on his hind feet, and after that year, Vic and Gringo were "uninvited."
But the horses nonetheless were friendly in their own more familiar surroundings and I often fed them sliced apples or carrots and occasional sugar cubes. The barns were across a dirt road from the house, and once past the fences and into the pasture there were innumerable diversions for children of that time.
There was an old wagon road leading down to the "crick" in the upstate New York Dutch parlance – creek to everyone else – and along the way there were huge boulders to climb, an old tack house to explore, and upon arrival at the crick a swimming hole that my family helped Vic create by both digging it out and damming the stream with the plentiful rocks. (We could never do that today.)
Further downstream there were waterfalls and in years when there was an extended snowmelt you could stand underneath them and receive a cooling, sometimes ice cold, shower, even in mid-summer. If you crossed the crick below the waterfalls you would emerge into a sort of primeval forest, where huge hemlocks kept the air cool and decades of needles dropping on the forest floor kept it soft and spongy.
I spent several very special weeks as the guest of my aunt and uncle over the years when I was a teen, and walks through the woods and pastures, in summer and snowbound winters, were favorite activities.
My family went to visit them quite often, and a fireplace and picnic table that nestled up to a large boulder in one of the pastures marked the gathering place for July 4th family picnics. Thanksgivings also were a favorite time in which the extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends and girlfriends could easily swell the size of the dinner party to 30 or so.
Mom and Dad visited them on weekends quite frequently, usually on Sunday afternoons after church. Those were some spectacular times, as Vic and my father, with Mill and my mother chiming in when they could, completely ignored the sage advice to avoid talks of politics and religion.
Dad would usually stop on the way to their house and pick up a few quarts of Fitzgerald's beer, a local brew from Troy, New York that is long gone but was quite good. The "discussions" I remember best go back to 1960 and the Nixon/Kennedy election, and again in 1964 when it was Johnson vs. Goldwater.
As I recall one side said Goldwater would drop the A-bomb on the communists, and the other side said he should. I forget who took which side.
Vic and Mill loved to hunt and fish and the area was crawling with game. Further up the old wagon road, heading into the woods a beaver family once built its own dam creating another pond. Deer were seen regularly, and once Aunt Mill found herself picking wild blueberries on the other side of a huge bush from a black bear!
They raised Springer Spaniels for many years, and even rabbits for a while. In his middle ages Vic gave up hunting – he had been an expert with shotgun, rifle and a beautiful recurved bone bow – and took up wildlife photography instead.
Vic had trained as a dental technician and was a member of the American Dental Association. He worked with a firm in Albany and then started his own firm, but he didn’t like city life and eventually moved his business to his house in Grafton.
Vic was a trailblazer in terms of running his home-based business. He built a lab in his basement, where he did gold inlays for false teeth, receiving the molds by mail and shipping them out the same way when he was finished. I always marveled at that facet of his life because when he wanted a break he could walk outdoors and ride the horses or go fishing if he so desired - but he still got paid!
As a youth working on my grandfather's farm Vic and my mother often teamed up, due to them being the youngest of the four children, and my mother's ability to drive teams of horses and help out with the haying and other farm work. Vic had incredible hand strength, probably due to milking a herd of dairy cows by hand twice a day for years, and when in high school he could bend a 10-penny nail into a horseshoe shape.
When he was old enough to drive the farm truck he started taking the raw milk to the processor in nearby Cropseyville each day, sneaking a smoke from cigars he hid in the truck. He allowed Mom to ride with him as long as she didn't squeal and she never did.
In the mid-80s my Aunt Mill died and Vic was a lonesome guy for quite some time. But he had always loved to dance – he and Aunt Mill even transformed one of the unused barns into a dance hall named the Oxbow Ranch which they ran for a few years, and the place was jammed on weekends.
I will never forget my uncle sitting in with the band one night in the mid-50s, singing a commercial song from the Save the Baby cough linament. He forgot the lyrics, as did everyone else, but it didn't matter. The band knew the chords, the joint was jumping and everyone was cheering as Vic did the chorus over and over. What a hoot. That man was at least two generations ahead of the karaoke craze!
Vic's property was about a half-mile up a dirt road from State Route 2 that winds its way through eastern New York and he had placed a sign at the bottom of the hill advertising the Oxbow Ranch and that breakfast and lunch were served. One of Mom's favorite stories concerned the summer morning when a carload of New York City tourists pulled in and ordered a breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon.
Vic was not much of a cook and while he handled the coffee, toast and bacon, he didn't know how to make the scrambled eggs - Aunt Mill was out - and he had to call Mom for directions! But Mom knew her way around the kitchen, both at our house and at the Oxbow Ranch, and it all ended well, with the tourists complimenting Vic on his cooking skills.
It took Vic quite some time to get over the loss of Aunt Mill, but eventually he started getting out again, and he met his second wife Joyce, who shared his love of dancing, and antiques. They married in 1998 and she was with him until the end both as companion and caregiver.
I took Mom to Grafton one last time in 2009, about a year after she moved in with us, and they had a great visit. It was then that I told Uncle Vic how his firearms training when I was a teen helped me when I was a Marine helicopter gunner in Vietnam.
Victor Brimmer and Ella Winter 2009
The Marines taught proper firearms handling and precise target shooting at Parris Island when I was a recruit, then added the concept of "battle sights" when we later took the required infantry training. Battle sights amount to pointing your firearms directly into the enemy's center mass without too much regard for what part of the body you hit as long as you hit something and the enemy goes down.
But Uncle Vic who also had taught me firearm safety and the proper shooting positions, had a similar tactic called "snap shooting," which amounted to the same thing done quickly. I told him that snap shooting worked very well for me as a machine gunner, especially when it was clear that no friendly troops were in the field of fire.
Uncle Vic's face lit up like a Christmas tree when I told him that. We hadn't talked much about Vietnam but the knowledge that what he taught me all those years ago helped me out in combat was obviously of great comfort to him. I'm glad I told him.
Vic's life ended peacefully; he died in his sleep, shortly before 9 p.m. on Thursday July 21, 2011. But there is one more item to share.
On the last day he was alive, Mom was in an unusually agitated state. The next day Mom was quiet, even introspective and spent much of the day just watching her television. It was that night, Friday, that Joyce called with the news that Vic had died the night before. I decided to say nothing about it for the time being, so as not to upset Mom.
The next morning, Mom awoke and her very first words were about funerals and graveyards! She was dredging up memories from 70 years ago and more, all about death.
Then, she called to my wife, asking her to come to the kitchen where Mom was reading her daily newspaper. The table where she sits looks out on a wide deck that is adorned with annual flowers that she and my wife planted in the spring. Hummingbirds and butterflies come to the flowers and if it is raining or too hot she still can see them.
Access is by a six-foot wide slider. When my wife entered the kitchen Mom said, "Vic was at the slider, can you let him in?" My wife was in shock and to be certain of what she heard, asked Mom, "Are you talking about your brother, Vic?"
Mom answered in the affirmative, adding that he had approached the slider, stood looking at her for a long moment, and then slowly turned and walked away. I swear to you this is true, and I have no explanation for it.
I told Joyce and she said "I believe Vic was helping her," trying to set Mom's mind at ease. Mom's vision also gave Joyce great comfort concerning the death of her husband, she said.
I don't know what all this means, but maybe some readers have some insight that I lack and can share it with us.
For the moment, I’d like to leave you with a line from the Garrison Keillor movie, Prairie Home Companion, in which actress Virginia Madsen, states, "The death of an elderly man is not a tragedy."
Uncle Vic lived a long and productive life, he saw triumphs and tragedies, and the one thing that saddens me the most is that he never had children and thus his line of the Brimmer family has come to an end. Still, his life was rich and fulfilling, and his death is more a normal part of living than tragic.
But he will still be missed.
Thursday, July 28, 2011