CJ Kaplan remembers the man who taught him to love The Three Stooges, Mad Magazine, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and other great works of art.
Being an uncle is the best gig ever. I didn’t realize this until recently because I was a dad long before I became an uncle. And while becoming a dad was a transcendent experience, becoming an uncle was downright mythical.
When my kids were born, my then-single brother would waltz into our house full of energy and inappropriate gifts to bestow upon his niece and nephews. Dan would get them all sugared up, wrestle with them, run them ragged and then hand their totally amped and strung out little bodies back to my wife and me. We’d be left trying to figure out how to get them off the ceiling and into bed while he sashayed out the door for a night out on the town.
I cursed his name on an almost nightly basis.
Of course, now that he has a little girl of his own I’ve returned the favor many times over. But, in reality, we both pale in comparison to the true champion of causing parental consternation: my Uncle Dickie.
His real name was Richard, but everyone in my mom’s family called him Dickie right from the beginning. When Dan and I were born, Uncle Dickie was in medical school. He really wasn’t much more than a kid himself at the time. That’s probably why he treated us more like little brothers than nephews. For that reason, Uncle Dickie was the first rock star we ever worshipped.
The news that Uncle Dickie was coming to visit would send Dan and I into paroxysms of joy. When he arrived, we would swarm his car like he was Robert Plant getting out of a limo at Heathrow. We fought for his attention and dragged him outside to play ball with us or climb trees or just run in circles. It didn’t matter what we did as long as it was with him. Like the Cat in the Hat, Uncle Dickie knew how to have fun.
Of course, Uncle Dickie also knew how to get into trouble.
When Dan and I got a little older, Uncle Dickie went out of his way to do things with us that drove my mother crazy. Tweaking his older sister was something that Uncle Dickie had spent a lifetime mastering and we became another instrument for his craft. He told us off-color jokes, introduced us to his collection of Mad Magazines and revealed things about our mother that she had hoped we’d never learn.
He also allowed us to do things while in his charge that would make my mother’s head spin. I distinctly remember driving up to Gloucester with him one summer day and not only sitting on the armrest between the driver’s and passenger’s seat, but at some point climbing into his lap and steering the car as we made our way up Route 128.
You can see why Uncle Dickie was our hero.
When Uncle Dickie started his own family, Dan and I were nearly teenagers. He and my Aunt Chrissy eventually had six kids in the span of twelve years. They lived about 40 miles from us and we saw them several times over the course of the year. Even though Uncle Dickie was now “Daddy” to all these little children, he was still a great guy to hang out with. While changing one child or burping another, he taught us every single word of the classic Three Stooges “Niagara Falls” skit until we knew it by heart and could torment my mother with it later that night.
As I entered high school and started getting into music, Uncle Dickie was there to amplify my interest in more ways than one. He gave me his prized sub-woofer to augment my stereo system. The thing was the size of a small coffee table and featured an omni-directional speaker that took the low end of every song and brought it to the depths of hell. At a certain volume, I could actually make the walls of my room vibrate while my mother screamed threats from the kitchen below. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this incredible gift was less the result of Uncle Dickie’s generosity and more the result of an ultimatum from my Aunt Chrissy.
Of course, Uncle Dickie wanted to make sure that I was using the sub-woofer to its maximum potential. So, he gave me a CD of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” with which to enjoy it. For those of you unfamiliar with this little paean to late-1960s hippie culture, it features roughly 17 minutes of the same ten notes played relentlessly over and over again by a bass guitar and keyboard that sound like they’ve been tuned underwater. There’s some trippy psychedelic guitar laid on top for occasional relief, but otherwise you know what you’re getting after the first twenty seconds. (Rumor has it that Uncle Dickie used to play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” cranked all the way up while lying directly in between his speakers like they were some sort of giant headphones.) When you threw in the sub-woofer, the result could be used to torture state secrets out of captured spies. Or, even better, to drive the mother of teenaged boys screaming from the house.
When I entered college and decided to major in English Literature, Uncle Dickie once again became a wellspring of material for me. I would routinely raid the bookcase in his old room at my grandmother’s house. There I found Atlas Shrugged, The Turn of the Screw, All Quiet on the Western Front, Brideshead Revisited and The Complete Works of Shakespeare. If Uncle Dickie noticed that his book collection was becoming thinner and thinner every time he visited his mother’s house, he didn’t say anything. I think he was secretly pleased that someone else was getting as much joy from his books as he did. Today, I can’t look through my own book collection without coming across a few selections that were lifted from Uncle Dickie. I can only hope that one day my nieces and nephews will steal them from me.
I thought about all of these things as I sat in Uncle Dickie’s synagogue for his memorial service a couple of weeks ago. A cancerous tumor had attacked his brain and refused to let go. He was only 64 years old.
In the last few months while he could still get around at home, my wife and I would go out to visit every couple of weeks. When I told him that I had been showing my children some of my favorite movies from my youth, he offered a bunch of other titles that he was sure they’d enjoy and, not coincidentally, that their grandmother would despise. Anything to get in a few more jabs on the big sister he loved dearly.
A few days before Uncle Dickie passed, Dan and I spent the day in his hospital room. He couldn’t talk much, but it was okay just to be there with my aunt and cousins and to hold his hand as often as he’d let us. When we left, Dan and I said goodbye with the knowledge that it would likely be the last time we would see Uncle Dickie. Lucky for me, all I have to do is turn on my stereo or watch The Three Stooges or simply look at my bookcase to know he’s there.