Some of you have met Uncle Kelley on these pages. Others have not. This is for them.
Uncle Kelley was the bachelor uncle every youngun’ should be lucky enough to have. He died when he was 60. I was 29. . So I got to be around him a good many years.
Let’s start back a piece, before I knew him.
He grew up on the family farm. He and a buddy left when they were in their late teens to go west and work in the wheat harvest.
He wound up in Chicago, back when it was the property of Al Capone, that “Toddling town that even Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down.”
We never have known exactly what it was that he did there, but he stayed a long time, seven or eight years.
He came home when it was thought that Aunt Lessie was going to die after giving birth to cousin Wynell.
He left again, but not as far this time, just to Memphis, where he sold tractors for John Deere. Grandpa died when I was seven, and Kelley would have been about 38. This time when he came back it was for good.
He and his brothers and sisters worked out a deal whereby he would live with and take care of Grandma, and part of the old place would be his to farm.
So that began a good time in many ways for us nephews and nieces. He worked with a colorful series of hired men and sharecroppers – Melvin, Phil, Fred, Artie…
He had a knack of making hard work seem (well, almost) like fun. He and Artie would compete to see who could carry 200-pound sacks of 6-8-4 the easiest.
Sometimes he and the current helper would work ‘til dark on a Saturday, then ride around over the community Monday and chide their neighbors for being behind in their work.
Daddy had been running a little pickup school route. When Daddy got a real job, Kelley took over the short-route school bus operation.
Looking back, we broke every safety rule in the book, I guess. At least four of us would be in the cab, kind of an honored seat.
The pickup bus was also used for other things, like taking a load of us to some highly touted swimming hole over on the Buttahatchie, or to the big Fair over in Mississippi.
In addition to farming, he dabbled in other things, a jack of all trades – and master of a good many of them. He was a substitute mail carrier. Sometimes he’d let me ride with him. He was a deputy sheriff, used mainly for hunting stills. He set up an office in town, over Falkner’s store, to do income taxes. I doubt that he made much money at it, because if you were kinfolks or good friends he wouldn’t charge you anything.
He got his embalmer’s license, although I don’t think he ever practiced that fine art … but he would help out with funerals.
He read anything he could get his hands on. Some people claimed that he knew more law than some lawyers.
He worked at the cotton gin during ginning season.
He was a Mason, pretty high up in the ranks, I think. He worked with the County Agent; a show barn was named after him.
When the Hill-Burton hospital was built in our town, he was the first manager.
Being a bachelor, he had a very flexible schedule. Somebody would say, “Hey, there’s a big football game in Birmingham this Saturday. Why don’t we go?” And Ross and Turner and I, for example, would pile in his old car and off we’d go.
One time, he got Jack and me to lay by a little corn patch he had in the bottom … on the 4th of July. Daddy said, “Heck, if I’d known you wanted to work, I had plenty for you to do.”
He didn’t understand. With Kelley, it didn’t seem like work. With Daddy, it did. And I’m sure Kelley rewarded us handsomely when we were through.
One time, Kelley and cousin James and I had been to Columbus for some reason. On the way back, we stopped at Aunt Myra’s place. James and I were upper teenagers by then, and smoking.
Kelley warned us: ‘If you smoke, she’ll tell on you.” And she would have.
As we grew up and left home, his little house, out by the family graveyard, was our immediate destination after we’d said a brief hello to our parents. Some awesome rook and domino games were played there.
He (and I – I was ignorant!) had been Alabama fans until I came off to Auburn. My allegiance immediately switched … and so did his. He became a strong Auburn fan.
Being a bachelor, he never could quite understand why we couldn’t just take off to anywhere at a moment’s notice, but he got along well with our spouses. He came close, but stayed a bachelor to the end.
I think of those days often. Melvin, Artie, Fred, Phil … old Ider and Stella (mules) … Jack’s five dollar bill flying out the school bus window. The hay-hauling for Uncle Kent down at the Pierson Place…
He was one of a kind.
Bob Sanders is a veteran local radio personality, columnist, author and raconteur of note.