Jeff Swain remembers his uncle who taught him his first dirty joke, helped raise him, and taught him about being a man.
“What’s worse than a lobster on your piano?
“A crab on your organ.”
The first dirty joke I ever learned. I was so young when he taught it to me I didn’t know it was dirty. Hell, I didn’t know what it meant.
But that was Uncle John. He taught me that joke one day while riding in his truck with him making deliveries. At the end of the day he’d pay me for an honest day’s work. I was maybe five or six years old. And he’d tell me to buy something nice for my mother with my earnings. And that was Uncle John too. Generous to a fault and always teaching.
He taught me so much in such a short time. I was lucky, I got him at a time in life when I was absorbing everything around me. He taught me there was no sin in hard work. And there was no sin in enjoying yourself along the way. That there was nothing wrong with a cold beer and a hard back (a shot) as long as your work was done.
Uncle John actually had a hand in raising me and my father. My old man’s parents passed away when he was young and John and his wife Lil, my dad’s older sister, took in my pop and his older brother while raising two kids of their own in a three-story house on Lithgow St. He was the family patriarch who set the tone for everyone else to follow.
He was one of only two men my old man feared. One time, at a cookout my old man got a little out of line and Uncle John told him to knock it off of he’d “bust him in the mouth.” So my old man knocked it off. I found out years later that John had one rule for the boys living in the house. Don’t upset the apple cart. The apple cart was aunt Lil. John was fine letting the boys be boys, including his own son Johnny, who ran around with my old man. But if they did something and Aunt Lil found out about it … then he’d “drop the hammer on them.” Now, I don’t know what exactly “dropping the hammer” meant. My old man would never tell me. But, whatever it was it was enough to slow down my old man that day at the cookout.
As I got older and was transitioning from a boy to a man, my old man adopted the same rule with me. Now the apple cart was my mom and if I upset it he’d “drop the hammer on me.” I finally found out what that meant when I was a senior in high school, but that’s a tale for another time.
My Uncle John was a man’s man. He could walk with kings and vagabonds alike and be equally as comfortable. “Title doesn’t matter, Jeffey,” he told me. “It’s what’s inside a man that counts.”
I remember walking the streets of Fishtown with him. Everybody loved him. Even the druggies. And he seemed to love them. He’d joke and screw around with them for awhile, and then we’d be on our way. When he saw that I was afraid of them, he told me I had nothing to worry about. They’d seen me with him. And even if they didn’t word gets around. That was Uncle John.
Whenever he took me out in his truck he’d always tell me that when I grew up I’d want to live in the rich people’s neighborhood. We’d drive through all sorts of neighborhoods making deliveries in and around Philadelphia. “Know how you can tell your in a rich man’s neighborhood Jeffey? There’s no trash and beer cans in the street.”
He taught me about being a man. Both personally and through my old man. One time, he gave me a pocket knife to carry around. “You’ll never know when you’ll need this,” he said. “It comes in handy for opening packages and impressing girls.”
Now being a little kid the first thing that came to mind were to use the pocket knife to slice open my presents and Christmas. As for girls, I was guessing he meant sticking them up for their candy or something.
“No, no, no, Jeffey. It’s like this. Say you’re walking down the street with your sweetheart and you’re trying to get a kiss. She’s acting like she don’t know. What do you do?”
I thought this was the stickup part.
“You see a street vendor, see, and you buy the reddest apple you can find. Here’s another little secret. If the vendor sees your with your sweetheart and you give him a wink, he’ll take the apple and make a big splash about how you bought the best one on the cart. He’ll polish it up on his apron and present it to you wrapped in paper.
“Now you being a gentleman, this is your chance to shine. Compliment the vendor on his fine wares (I had no idea what wares meant) and pay him a little extra for his trouble. He’ll make another big show about your generosity and promise to donate the extra money to the orphans. This cannot help but make your sweetheart fall instantly in love with you. It’s a fact.
“And now you’ve got this apple and you’re strolling along the avenue. It’s warm and she can go for something sweet. So what do you do? Well what you don’t do is hand her the whole apple and let her fend for herself. A gentleman, even the great hunters because only gentlemen could be great hunters, never came home with their kill and dropped it, plop, right on the kitchen table. They dressed it themselves or took it to a butcher. Then when they brought it home all neat and packaged their wives were grateful and cooked them the best stews.
“You want to be a gentleman, right Jeffey?” Of course I did. “Well here’s what you do. Don’t hand her the whole apple and let her fend for herself. Besides nobody looks good eating an apple. Did you ever notice that? Ever look in the mirror while you’re eating an apple whole? It’s not pretty. I’ve seen you and you look like a horse with no teeth. (I didn’t have my front teeth at the time).
“No, now is your time to shine. This is where you, being the gentleman, take out your pocket knife and slice it up for her a piece at a time and feed it to her. She’ll recognize instantly that you are a man of taste and standing and will fall even deeper in love with you. In fact, she’ll fall so madly in love with you she’ll reward you with a kiss for each slice you give to her. You can get eight slices out of a good apple. See?”
So for weeks I walked around the neighborhood looking for a sweetheart and an apple vendor to no avail. My mom caught me in the backyard peeling twigs with my knife and took it away. Years later my old man gave it back to me. He taught me how to keep it sharp using a stone and spit.
That was Uncle John. The first knight errant I ever knew. He knew how part of being a man was treating women right. He doted on my Aunt Lil. He’d do anything for her. He was a strong man who used his strength not to smother her but to let her flourish in her own right because he would always be at her side looking out for her. He showed me how a real man could handle living as equals with a strong woman and never stop being a man. That was Uncle John.
That’s why we all know how hard it must have been for him these last years. A man so strong, vibrant, and full of life reduced to being what he was. Well, I’ve thought about. Thought about why he would hang on since he was no longer what he wanted to be. And I can only come up with this. He was still working on something and he wasn’t about to go until that something was finished. I don’t claim to know what that something is but I can tell you this. It was something he was working on to benefit one of us here today. We won’t know it when it happens. Could be a surprise, a comfort, a breakthrough, whatever. But it will be because of something he had a hand in making possible. Because that was Uncle John. He was not leaving until his work was finished.
He also taught me my first dirty limerick while riding in his truck. I won’t give you all but I will share the first two lines:
“Peter, Peter pumpkin eater
Had a wife but wouldn’t eat her.”
It took me years to figure out the meaning of that one too. But that was Uncle John. Giving lessons we couldn’t appreciate until the time was right meant we got to enjoy them twice. Once when he was teaching and again when we learned the lesson.
Rest in peace. I love you. Jeffey.
Photo credit: Flickr / Torjussen