Uncle John, my dad’s brother, was born in Conway Springs, Kansas in 1903. He was mentally disabled, what people used to call “retarded.” When he was an adolescent, my grandparents took him to specialists in Wichita and to the KU School of Medicine in Kansas City to see if he could learn a trade, but no one seemed able to help. Determined to exhaust all options, they had him evaluated at a clinic in Chicago. The examining doctor proclaimed there was nothing he or anyone else could do to improve Uncle John’s prospects.
“He’ll never be able to work,” he told my grandparents. “He’ll probably turn violent, and it won’t be long before he does. You’ll have to find a place to put him.”
When my grandparents died in 1919, Dad, at the age of twenty-two, became his sixteen-year-old brother’s guardian. It was a responsibility he would shoulder for the next fifty-one years.
My first clear memory of Uncle John dates to 1955, the year I turned five and television came to Conway Springs. I was playing in our basement when I heard people in the kitchen.
“Why, hello, Brother!” my mother said.
“Mary Kayus, hon’.”
I recognized Uncle John’s voice and ran upstairs. He and Mom were standing with a man I didn’t know but would later learn was Forest Skiles, owner of Conway Springs’ radio repair shop. Next to them on the floor was a large, crated box.
“We’re getting a television, Justin,” Mom explained. “Forest just got it in today. It’s real heavy, and your uncle’s gonna help. Ain’t that so, Brother?”
“Sure is, Mary Kayus,” Uncle John replied, grinning.
“Mary K, can you make sure the door’s open?” Forest said. “John, you take the front end.”
“I got ‘er, Fory Skiles!” said Uncle John.
My uncle locked his thick arms around the crate, dragged it to the basement door and muscled it down the stairs while Forest held the other end. I followed and sat down on the couch in our reading area to watch as Uncle John and Forest pried the crate open and pulled out our TV, a big Zenith in a solid-wood console. As Forest finished wiring it up, Uncle John sat down next to me and put his arm over my shoulders.
“Whada ya think, Ookie?” he said.
Uncle John, who always called me by my nickname, gave me a squeeze. He was as excited as I was by the first image on the Zenith’s screen. Neither of us had ever seen a TV.
The following year, I started first grade and got a bicycle for Christmas. I would ride it downtown after school and on Saturday mornings to buy a two-cent stick of licorice at Nichols’ Variety Store. Sometimes, I’d go to the State Bank, where Dad was president, in order to deposit the money I’d saved up from my allowance. Uncle John, it seemed, was always in the lobby or standing somewhere outside on Spring Avenue, our small town’s four-block business street, one hand stuck in his bib overalls, a King Edward cigar in the other and a railroad engineer’s cap on his head.
“Hello, Ookie!” he’d say whenever he saw me. He’d bend down, sling his arm around my neck, pull me close and rub his cheeks and chin against mine. His face bristled with stubble, and his flannel shirt reeked of cigar smoke. But I didn’t mind. His nuzzling didn’t bother me either, unusual as it was in a family not given to displays of affection. He was my uncle John. And sometimes he would slip me a shiny, silver quarter—the same amount I got at home each week, but only after doing chores.
In my early years, Uncle John lived by himself in an upstairs room at the Midland Hotel, above Wheeler’s Grocery and Dry Goods. He took all of his meals next door at the Northside Café and paid for them with tickets Dad bought in advance and doled out each week. My uncle never strayed from his set menu. For breakfast, a stack of hotcakes with bacon and eggs. At lunch, the Northside’s daily special, either fried chicken or chicken-fried steak with mashed potatoes and lima beans. Dinner was steak with French fries and pie à la mode. Uncle John’s appetite was prodigious, his body sturdy and muscular.
When the Midland Hotel closed in the early 1960s, about the time I turned eleven and began working summers at the State Bank, Dad leased a room for his brother from Mr. Leddy, a widower whose house was just a few yards down the alley from the Northside Café. Other than his sleeping quarters, nothing changed for Uncle John. He continued to go to the post office several times each morning to pick up the State Bank’s mail. After lunch, he’d sit for a while with the old men who gathered at the front end of Meils Hardware. Then he’d resume his rounds up and down Spring Avenue, shouting hello and waving to everyone he met.
One morning in June 1963, fifty-some years after the doctor in Chicago had warned my grandparents about their son John, I was working at the bank and saw my uncle through the front window. He was trudging over the sidewalk toward the lobby door, balling his fists and scowling. He threw the door open and stomped across the floor toward the desk where Ash Cranmer, the bank’s cashier, was typing a letter.
“By God, you better leave that satchel alone!” Uncle John yelled as he pointed to the leather mail pouch on Ash’s desk. His outstretched arm trembled. His deep-set eyes glared. I’d never seen him like that before.
Ash said nothing and kept on typing. Uncle John released a torrent of dark words—garbled curses and oaths not even Dad could decipher. But it was clear he was angry that someone had picked up the day’s first mail drop at the post office. That was his job, by God, and the satchel was his, too. That much we understood.
Uncle John grabbed the satchel and tromped over to Dad’s end of the counter. Although he’d yelled at Ash, it was his guardian brother he looked to for satisfaction.
“It’s okay, John,” Dad said, his voice even. “It’s harvest, and we thought you were workin’ at the grain elevator.”
“They ain’t cuttin’, Brother. Dew’s too heavy.”
“Well, that’s good, ‘cause we’re awful busy today,” Dad said. “It’d be a big help if you’d keep checkin’ our box.”
Uncle John snorted and looked at Ash again, not realizing I was the one who’d picked up the bank’s mail that morning. But his face had already begun to loosen. With the satchel under his left arm, he walked out of the lobby and turned west toward the post office.
I was a senior in high school the winter Uncle John asked for a new sweater. As was often the case when he wanted something, he approached my mother first.
“I sure do need it, Mary Kayus. Don’t know if that brother of mine’ll buy me one.”
“Well, John, I’ll talk to him.”
Mom prevailed on Dad to tap my uncle’s guardianship account and order an extra-large sweater from the John Plain catalog. A week later, John Plain sent a postcard saying they no longer had the item in stock. My parents then placed an order with Sears & Roebuck. Each day, Uncle John would pick up the mail and expect to find a package with his sweater. Each day, he’d come in the bank, empty-handed and crestfallen. As it turned out, Sears was also out of stock. When Mom gave him the bad news, Uncle John fumed and stomped his foot against the lobby floor.
“By God, I better have a sweater here by sundown!”
“Now, Brother, we’ll see what we can do,” Mom said.
She called Woolf Brothers in Wichita and arranged for a fancy cardigan to be sent by special delivery. After it arrived the next day, Uncle John saw Mom in the bank. He sidled up to her and laid his head on her shoulder.
“Oh, Mary Kayus, hon’. I’m so sorry I talked rough. I’m so sorry.”
“That’s alright, John, just forget about that.”
Although my uncle had a child’s temperament and sometimes boiled over from frustration, he was never violent. His flashes of anger always gave way to remorse.
Uncle John couldn’t read and wasn’t able to hold down a regular job, but he worked throughout his life. Everyone knew he was eager to earn his own spending money, and people gave him opportunities that matched his abilities. Dad paid him to pick up the State Bank’s mail. Until diabetes weakened him at age sixty-five, he shoveled out wheat trucks every summer at the Garretson Grain Company. Business owners like Forest Skiles and Ike Meils tapped him for odd jobs. Others lent him their cars and pickups so he could run errands for them. In those years, getting a Kansas driver’s license didn’t seem to require literacy, and my dad would let him use our Cadillac to deliver items to my Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Pip in Cheney, a farm town twenty miles away. Uncle John was, as Dad used to say, “pretty darn stout” and a reliable hand for moving anything heavy.
But Conway Springs’ engagement of my uncle ran deeper than work. During the five summers I worked at the bank, I could see that the town sheltered him as much as our family did. He was the son of early-day settlers and had never lived anywhere else. He was never more than a hundred paces from people he’d grown up with. He was a town fixture, known to all and loved by most.
No mental images of my youth stick with me more than those of Uncle John with his friend, Fred Hoover, a retired railroader who also spent his days on Spring Avenue. The two of them would sit on a steel window ledge on the south side of the Talbert Lumber Company, just across the street from the State Bank. When the sun rose to an intolerable angle, they would shift to the shade of Talbert’s southeast corner, where the words “COAL, LUMBER & NAILS” were painted in huge white letters on the building’s red brick wall. As cars, pickups and farm trucks rolled by on Highway 49, their drivers would wave, and Uncle John and Fred would wave back. They smiled but seldom spoke, Uncle John puffing on his cigar, Fred hooking leathery thumbs under the straps of his blue denim overalls. Every now and then, they would remove their engineer caps, wipe sweat from their foreheads and look skyward for signs of rain before pulling their caps back on—often at the same time, always at the same angle as before.
Almost fifty years have passed since Uncle John and Fred Hoover sat for the last time on their Talbert Lumber Company perch. When I was growing up, it didn’t occur to me that they would never have met had our family lived in a city, even one of modest size. I couldn’t have understood that urban life would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for my uncle to live in his own place and find meaningful work. Nor could I have fathomed how living anywhere but Conway Springs, or another small town like it, might have proved the Chicago doctor right. He’ll never be able to work. He’ll probably turn violent, and it won’t be long before he does. You’ll have to find a place to put him.
Whenever I think of Uncle John, I am flush with his kind touch. And I think of how Dad, Mom and the people of Conway Springs looked after him until his last breath. I recall the drinking fountain that “The Friends of John Hunt” installed on Spring Avenue in his memory—beneath a brass plaque bearing his name. I remember the way Mom’s voice warmed whenever she spoke of her brother-in-law. I remember the tear that trailed down Dad’s cheek one night, years later, as our family reminisced about his late brother.
And I am haunted by what is lost: a time and way of life that are no more. A landscape wide enough to weave the threads of people like my uncle into our tribe’s common cloth. A town small and tight enough to hold them safe.
Uncle John died in 1970. For the next sixteen years, Dad used his brother’s leather satchel to carry mail and other paperwork. Every day, he would take it to the bank, go to the post office and bring it home. Every day, until he retired at ninety. Dad called the satchel “John” and kept it on a stool in our kitchen.
I have “John” now. It’s in one of the boxes I packed up in Conway Springs in 2010, the year I moved Mom to North Carolina and our family left Kansas for good. Before I die, I must find someone to give it to.
Justin Hunt grew up in rural Kansas and lives in Charlotte, NC. In 2012, he retired from a long business career in order to write full-time. His work has been published by The Atlanta Review, The Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, The Live Canon Anthology (U.K.), WinningWriters.com, Spoon River Poetry Review, Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose and Bacopa Literary Review, among others. Hunt’s recently completed memoir, Dominoes Are Played at Joe’s Place (working title), probes his relationship with his late father, who was born in 1897 to Kansas settlers. He is currently writing a novel based on the true story of a complex and enigmatic cousin, a bank robber who died while on the run in the Kiamichi Mountains of southeast Oklahoma.