Life not always like we tell it

Death of family's 'black sheep' keeps his Alaska years shrouded in mystery

Posted: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

My Uncle Monte died 20 days ago in a hospital bed near Galt, Calif., the small agricultural town where he grew up, off Highway 99 between Stockton and Sacramento in the San Joaquin Valley.

His quiet death so close to his boyhood home where several of his siblings still live and his parents died was a shock. From what I knew, everyone in his family expected he'd die a loner's death, far off in the bowels of the desert, or up in the deep snows of the high mountains, or maybe in a rusty trailer abandoned on the back lot of a junk yard.

I didn't know my uncle well, but no one in his family did. My uncle was troubled. He moved around a lot. He had "relations out of wedlock." He drank and played guitar. Mostly he drank. He was the adventurer of the family and the black sheep.

At least that's the story I pieced together from the whispered conversations I overheard at family gatherings as a kid.

It was the mid-1970s and I must have been 11 or 12 years old when I was shown a picture of my uncle dressed in jeans and a plaid, flannel shirt, perched on a rickety bunk, a beaten-up six string balanced on his knee, his hair and beard one wild tangle around bright eyes and a boyish grin. Someone my mother or grandmother said he lived in Alaska.

My uncle was one of the bold, half-mad prospectors who moved to the arctic wilderness to make their fortune working on the trans-Alaska pipeline or so I remember being told when shown the photograph.

After my uncle died, however, I asked Mom about her older brother's adventures in the far north where had he lived, for how long, had he moved back to California after the oil line work ended?

"No, no," she said.

My uncle had worked in Anchorage at an auto parts store for a short while, maybe a year, before running off to Mom didn't know where.

"Huh," I said.

All my life, when I thought of my uncle I pictured him in heavy overalls with a welding torch, oversized wrench, or whatever in hand, assembling sections of pipe over miles of permafrost. His stint on the pipeline was the one thing I thought I knew about my uncle. How could I have gotten the story so wrong?

Maybe my uncle had in fact headed north to work on the pipeline, but couldn't land a job, or worked on the line briefly but quit or was fired. Maybe he lied at first, said he was working on the oil line, and came clean later.

Maybe the pipeline story was something Grandma made up to lend her wayward lamb an air of industry and respectability, when all my uncle wanted to do was to get as far away as he could get from the boredom of home and the pressures of family.

Maybe I had embellished the story for myself as an unconscious extension of the admiration I felt for my uncle's unwillingness to settle where he was born or settle for the expectations he was born into.

I don't know which scenario, if any, is true.

About the only thing I'm sure of is that my family, like many, is good at keeping open secrets. If something or someone is considered to be shameful or embarrassing, we don't talk about it or them.

If we do, we tell lies and half-truths that sweep shame under the rug and lock embarrassment in the attic. We tell ourselves whatever we need to believe to make the unpleasantness go away.

The last time I saw Uncle Monte was a decade ago at my grandmother's, his mother's, funeral. I gave the eulogy and afterward my uncle mistook my younger brother for me.

He hadn't seen my brothers and I for years. He'd been drinking and was crying as he hung on Rodney and told him he didn't know how my brother managed to get up in front of everyone, say all those nice things and not fall apart.

No one commented on his condition, his quick disappearance after the funeral service or the fact that he didn't show up at the wake.

Two weeks before my uncle died of systemic cancer, his brother Loren and brother in-law Skip drove from Galt to Arizona to pick him up. He'd called to say he wasn't doing so well, he needed help, he was sick.

He was 68 and living by himself in a small trailer off the main routes at the edge of the desert. He had been a big man, but was now emaciated after losing over a hundred pounds.

Monte died in the presence of my mom, his sister Wanda and sister-in law Judy, shortly after Mom and Aunt Wanda had returned to the hospital room from running errands.

Aunt Judy told Mom Monte had waited for them to get back before he died. Whether my uncle had or not, my aunt told my mom what they all wanted to believe.

Mom said it made her feel better.

Mark Harrison is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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