He was my step-mother’s brother and no one really liked him. He was mean, bad tempered and consistently unpleasant, but he worked hard at his job to keep his long-suffering wife and three young children well fed and healthy.
His name was Richard, and I called him Uncle Richie and like everyone else I avoided him whenever I could. He’s been gone for decades now, as has his sweet wife Dot.
But I now have a huge amount of respect and admiration for that man because when his country called, he went off to fight in WW II, leaving his family in the care of his ageing parents.
Uncle Richie was in a glider plane somewhere over Germany in the darkest days of that terrible war, and was shot down.The enemy fire came straight up through the underbelly of the glider with some bullets landing in Uncle Richie’s upper thigh, seriously shattering his femur. As luck would have it he survived the glider crash and was rescued by his American compatriots. In terrible agony he was immediately taken to a make-shift hospital where they patched him together and told him he’d be sent home. Uncle Ritchie wanted to stay and fight but was unable to walk and so was of no use to his comrades in arms.So back he went to a state-side hospital near his anxious family and was confined to a bed, in traction.He was told the broken bone may or may not knit together, so he must not move.
I occasionally went to see Uncle Richie when I could catch a ride to the hospital, and I remember being amazed at the man’s patience.There was no TV back then of course but at least he had a small radio next to his bed where he could hear his beloved Red Barber broadcast the Brooklyn Dodgers games. Uncle Richie had lost a lot of his sharp edge because of his war experiences and would actually chat with me as he lay there, his grotesquely injured leg suspended in the air.I recall it appearing yellow and wet, greasy, and covered in plaster and gauze and it had a terrible odor. I asked him how he managed the boredom and he said he read a lot, dictated letters to the nurses and that he was being taught to knit.Knit! I remember thinking this was a woman’s thing to do (that’s how it was back then) but I didn’t say it.
And one day I visited the ward and all the wounded WW II men in there were knitting, and really enjoying it.They were chatting and laughing as they lay there healing from the terrible wounds they’d received while fighting for a cause in which they dearly believed. I remember thinking that perhaps these shattered men could maybe be happy again.
Uncle Richie got quite good at knitting and took lessons from the nurses without ever being crabby, and they obviously liked him.He made beautiful sweaters for his family, even in intricate Irish knit patterns. I don’t know who supplied the wool (back then it was called “wool” and not “yarn”) but the men had enough to keep on knitting beautiful garments until they were able to leave the hospital or until they died, and many did.
But not Uncle Richie. After five long years the doctors told him his bone had healed well enough for his wife Dot to take him home for good, and so she did. He would need crutches for the rest of his life, they told him, but it turned out they were wrong. Uncle Richie was home for one week when he tripped over a hanger left on the floor, fell and rebroke that fragile bone.He knew in the ambulance that when he next came home he’d be without the leg they’d all tried so hard to save.
Uncle Richie took great pleasure in showing us his “wooden leg” over the years, laughing when he used thumb tacks to hold his sock up. He found it to be hilariously funny to have that leg with shoe and sock propped up in the corner during their dinner or Bridge parties. We all knew the leg was painful to wear and his limp was pronounced and awful and his gait very slow when he did wear it, but he struggled along on just a cane and sometimes he didn’t even use that. He loved to garden and did not mind dragging himself around his small yard on his stomach by his elbows to put in his plants and to pull the weeds. Uncle Richie never knitted again but surprisingly became a talented jewelry maker.Lying for so long in that hospital had taught him great patience and his jewelry pieces were beautiful, intricate and in great demand.
All this mellowed Uncle Richie to an extent.He still had his moments of temper, but not as often.He was to be forgiven however, because he went Over There and fought and did what he thought was right.He believed in what he and his war buddies went to do. He never complained, not ever.Uncle Richie was always a proud United States Veteran of World War II.I will never be able to comprehend how much he suffered, but I know I will always be proud of him.