John W. Smithwick
When I was young, I had an uncle who was a great story teller. At family gatherings, after dinner, when most of the grownups were seated around the big table playing cards, Uncle Bill would go into the family room, sit in the largest, most oversized chair I ever saw and sing out, “Who wants to hear a story?” That was the signal for all his nieces and nephews to gather around him. We would sit on the floor and wonder what great adventure we were about to hear. Would it be the time he sailed the Atlantic all by himself – at the age of thirteen? Or, the time he skinned a bear, just like Davy Crockett. “Best bear stew I ever ate,” he would say with a laugh. Or the time he explored an old cave and found a colony of people, blind from lack of light with skin the color of boiled chicken, “Just like the chicken you ate tonight.” They were all great stories but Uncle Bill always saved the best for Thanksgiving. That’s when he had his largest audience.
Uncle Bill grew up on a farm. After he returned from the Second World War, he married Aunt Sally and true to his heritage, purchased a local farm. The next year they invited everyone down for Thanksgiving and a family tradition was born. But time and age eventually caught up with them. Without children of their own, they allowed their farm to shrink from the original five hundred acres to just forty. “A gentleman’s farm,” Uncle Bill would say. “Just right for Sally and me.” But it was still big enough come Thanksgiving. The farm house had plenty of room for all the visiting relatives and their children. Those that didn’t get a bed got either a sofa or a sleeping bag. It was controlled chaos, with a dozen women in the kitchen, an equal number of men trying to stay out of their way, and all their children playing hellion. It was wonderful and it was the glue that held our family together.
Looking back as an adult, I realize what a special person Uncle Bill was; loud, funny, always talking, always caring. But being young at the time, I failed to recognize those things. Instead, what attracted me was his wooden peg leg. Attached at the left knee. He said he gave an old row boat for it. (I think he said it was the same one he used to cross the Atlantic). He traded with a pirate who wanted to put to sea one last time. “Here, take me peg in trade,” the pirate said. “Won’t be needin’ it where I’m goin’.” Then Uncle Bill would lean real close and point to a row of notches running down one side of the peg. “See them notches? That’s how many people the pirate made walk the plank.”
The first time he told us that story, I remember Cousin Tommy raising his hand and asking. “What did you use before?”
“Before the pirate gave you his peg. What did you use?”
Uncle Bill rubbed his chin. “That’s a good question.” He rubbed his chin a bit more then his eyes lit up. “You want to know what I used? Well, I’ll tell you. I used nothing but my muscles and my sense of balance.”
Tommy scrunched his brow, trying to understand.
“I just hopped wherever I wanted to go. Didn’t need a peg then. I was a lot younger and stronger. Just hop, hop, hop.”
“Like the Easter Bunny!” cousin Ann squealed. Every one laughed.
“Don’t go making fun of your uncle, just because he has one leg,” Uncle Bill scolded. “It wasn’t as easy as two legs but I got around. Couldn’t go out on a windy day, though, ‘cause I’d blow right over.”
That’s when I heard a low groan come from the back of the room. I looked in time to see Aunt Sally turn around and walk back into the kitchen.
Uncle Bill had great fun with that peg. His favorite was to wait for one of his nieces to walk by and call her over to his chair. “Do me a favor and hold this for me.” He’d unfasten the peg, give it to the girl and then hold his bare stump up and give it a scratch. “Ah,” he’d say, “that feels good.” That was usually enough to send the poor girl screaming from the room. But he stopped doing this after Emily, nearly scared out of her wits, swung the peg in self defense and struck the end of his stump. About sent him to the hospital. In later years Aunt Sally would laugh when she’d tell that story. “Served the ol’ fool right. I was standing in the doorway watching. About wet my pants.”
His peg leg intrigued me. I was taught that it was impolite for someone my age to ask a grown up a personal question. But heck, he was the only uncle I had with one leg and I wanted to know why. So one evening while we waited for his latest story, I asked.
Uncle Bill leaned back in his chair and studied me for a moment. “So, you want to know what happened to my leg?” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Do you think you’re man enough?” He then looked us all over. “Do any of you really think you’re man enough?” His mouth curled up at the edges and he slowly nodded his head. “Alright, I’ll tell you. But those of you who can’t stomach blood and gore had better leave the room. Those who stay and end up puking on themselves, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you “
We all looked at one another, not certain what to think. Most of the girls got up and left, and a couple of the boys, too. The rest of us scooted across the floor and got tight-in-close to Uncle Bill.
“Alright now,” he said. “Here’s the truth to the story.” He paused, allowing the tension to build. “And don’t come crying to me when you start having nightmares.”
Raising his hands for effect, Uncle Bill started. “It was during the war and I was in Italy fighting the Germans. Every where I looked I saw blood and guts and bombs and tanks and people jumping out of buildings and things blowing up. Ka-boom! Ka-boom! Everywhere I went, running from house-to-house, across streets and down alleys, Germans were constantly shooting at me. Rat-tat-tat-tat, ka-boom! They were shooting at me from roof tops. They were shooting at me from windows. I couldn’t stop running so I ran and ran. One day I had to run twenty miles before I could stop and rest. Why, they were shooting so much and I was running so much that I didn’t sleep for two weeks. Finally, when things got a little quiet I decided to have a talk with my sergeant, you know, to see how he was doing and if he saw any good movies lately when ka-boom, he wasn’t there no more. The only thing left were his shoe laces. Then I saw this skinny dog running across the street and, ka-boom, he wasn’t there no more, either.”
“A doggy?” cousin Nancy wailed.
“Uh, no, not a doggy. I meant a cat. Does anyone here like cats?”
Almost every one raised their hands.
Uncle Bill shifted a little and cleared his throat. “There was this pig, a very, very ugly and mean pig running across the street.” He paused for a second and took a cautious glance at us, then continued. “Suddenly, ka-boom! It disappeared all except for a slab of bacon that landed between my feet. Lucky thing, too, because I was hungry. Might have been the best pig I ever ate because it was cooked just right. But don’t tell your Aunt Sally that ‘cause I don’t need her blowing up our pigs.
"And do you want to know about the weather? It was cold. Real cold. And the snow. There was so much snow on the ground that we had to dig tunnels if we wanted to go anywhere. And if that wasn’t bad enough, we had a blizzard that lasted two weeks. You couldn’t see a foot in front of your face, and you had to be careful or else you’d walk right into a German, and you didn’t want to do that because they were nasty people. Real nasty. They would rip the heart right out of your chest if you gave them the chance.”
Uncle Bill then made a plunging motion with his hand, pretended to grab something and then slowly pulled his hand back. “Riiiip.” Our collective eyes followed his closed hand as he raised it over his head. “And that would be the last thing you’d ever see. A German holding your heart in his hand. Thump, thump, thump.”
He lowered his hand and we gave the collective response he expected, “E-uww.”
He then continued. “So there I was, running from street to street in this Italian village during a blinding snowstorm, freezing to death while the entire German army is shooting at me, rat-at-tat-tat. Ka-boom, ka-boom. Then it happened”
“What?” I gasped.
“My leg. That’s when my leg got cut right off right at the knee by a German soldier swinging a big sword, just like the swords the knights in those old movies used.” He swung his arm over his head. “Whoosh, whoosh.” He must of found it in a museum or something. Never did figure that one out. But there he was, in the middle of the plaza just swinging this sword around and around.”
“Why didn’t you just shoot him?”
“Because I couldn’t see him. Haven’t you been paying attention? There was a blizzard and it was cold and way too much snow to see anything.”
“So, anyway, I’m running street to street trying to keep from getting shot when I come to this plaza. Now, I had to get to the other side but I didn’t know how far it was because of the blizzard. I could barely see in front of me. So I start running and I hear this, ‘whoosh, whoosh’ and I’m wondering what the heck is that? Then I see this dead German all blown to pieces so I jumped way high over him because I didn’t want his guts stuck to my boots.”
“I’m high in the air when I hear this ‘whoosh” and my leg is cut off, right at the knee."
“Did it hurt?”
“Hurt? Heck, I didn’t even know it was cut off! It was so cold it stayed frozen to the rest of my leg for two days! It wasn’t until we got inside a barn where there was a fire that it fell off.”
“God as my witness. I’m sitting there eating a can of beans when Smitty, that’s one of the guys in the group, says, “Hey Billy, is that your leg?” So I look down and sure enough. There’s my leg, just lying on the ground. I guess it had thawed out and became unattached to the rest of me.”
“What did you do?”
“What did I do? What do you think I did? I reached for it, hoping I could reattach it when this dog appeared from nowhere and snatched it in his jaws. He started running around the barn with it like it was a ham hock. Everyone gave chase including me. I’m hopping after the dog on my one good leg when Smitty caught him, wrestled my leg away and gave it back to me. But I didn’t know what to do with it ‘cause now it was all chewed up."
“So I stuck it in my back pack and carried it around with me for a few days. Then a general heard what happened and gave me a Purple Heart medal and told me to go home.”
“What happened to your leg?”
“I left it in Italy. Seemed the right thing to do ‘cause that’s where it was cut off. I also figured that the Purple Heart belonged to the leg because that’s the part of me that was hurt. So I pinned it to my leg, dug a real deep hole and buried them both. Then I got on a boat, came home and married your Aunt Sally.”
“You left your leg in Italy?”
“I sure did, buried so deep it will never be found.”
Uncle Bill stopped and thought for a second. “I guess that’s why I like Italian pizza so much.”
Uncle Bill died a few weeks ago. He had been in poor health for several months and one night his heart stopped beating. Once again the family gathered. We each had our favorite Uncle Bill story and what could have been a sad gathering became a memorable one. I know my children enjoyed his stories as much as I did, and I’m glad they got to hear most of them.
Last week I went back to the farm house after Aunt Sally called and asked if I would help her sort Uncle Bill’s things. She said it was time to decide what to keep and what to give to Goodwill. When I arrived, I saw her blanket and pillow on the over stuffed chair Uncle Bill sat in when he told his stories. Aunt Sally saw me looking. “It keeps me from being lonely,” was all she said.
That night after dinner she handed me a carton. I opened it and saw Uncle Bill’s wooden peg inside. “It always fascinated you and I know he would want you to have it.” I took the peg out and ran my fingers over the “walk the plank” notches that ran down one side. I couldn’t help but smile. As I got older I realized he wore the peg only at family gatherings, just for the delight of his nieces and nephews. But holding the peg and thinking back, I wonder if he didn’t enjoy it even more.
The next day I was sorting through Uncle Bill’s dresser when I found in the back of the bottom drawer, a box with PURPLE HEART stamped in gold on the lid. Aunt Sally came closer to see what I had found. I opened it. “It’s empty.”
She took the box from me and held it for a few seconds. She handed it back. “Your Uncle Bill and his best friend Smitty joined the army the day after they graduated from high school. They were able to stay together through training and got themselves assigned to the same company. Both were part of the D-Day landing but before their boat reached shore, someone’s rifle misfired and the bullet hit your uncle in the knee. He never got off the boat. The doctors in England were forced to amputate and he was sent home.
“About two weeks before the war ended we got word that Smitty had been killed. His mother later came over and showed us his Purple Heart. That weekend, I watched from the kitchen window as your uncle walked down to the creek where he and Smitty used to fish, and throw his medal into the water.
I smiled. “You mean it isn’t buried in Italy with his leg?”
She smiled back, “No,” and then with a soft laugh, “I guess he liked Italian pizza just because it tasted so darn good.”
John W. Smithwick is a writer living in Florida.