Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Hockey Life: Uncle Russ

A call came not long ago, during our ride to Atlanta for a hockey tournament, that no one ever wants to receive. There had been a death in the family. My Uncle Russ had passed away in his sleep. He was 77.

In an instant, memories of my childhood came rushing back.

I remembered how much he looked like Elvis Presley back then, his thick black hair, combed just right. I can't hear an Elvis song today, especially Hound Dog, without thinking of him.

I felt the chill of late-night snowmobile rides through the western New York countryside under crisp, clear starlit skies. These days, I can't see a snowmobile, mostly on some commercial, without thinking about him.

I smelled motorcycle exhaust from the many motocross races our family participated in throughout western New York and Pennsylvania. Places like Zoar Valley and the Wilson Farm are as fresh today as they were back in the early 1970s.

 Of all those memories, though, there are two that stand out the most about my Uncle Russ:

~ He was the first adult that I remember to hold me responsible for my actions when I was a kid. One summer day, my cousin Danny and I were given the task of clearing loose rocks from the motocross practice track out back. The track wasn't all that long, but picking up stones was something that carried little interest for me.

My effort, I suppose, showed my disinterest. At best, I probably picked up, say, maybe 100 stones, none bigger than a baseball.

Well, Uncle Russ would have none of our half-hearted effort. Rather than tell us that what we'd done was good enough and we could go back to being kids, he sent me, as well as Danny, back out there. This time, though, he handed us shovels and showed us the wheelbarrow. He figured it would take at least four or five loads to clear the track.

Of course, I wasn't happy about it. It was hot and picking up stones wasn't fun. At that moment, the lesson being shared escaped me. Years later, I finally understood what he was doing -- and it had nothing to do with being mean. No, what he was teaching us that day was any job you have is worth doing your best.

As a father, I've passed along that advice to Colin many, many times. Doesn't matter if it's hockey, school, building Legos or coloring. If he's doing something, I tell him, he needs to be doing his best.

And, yes, I've made him pick up rocks.

~ Later that summer, a few weeks after my mother passed away, I took my first ride in a helicopter. My Uncle Russ had a lot to do with it.

He and my mother (his younger sister) were born three years apart -- to the day.  When we celebrated their birthdays, it meant a big family gathering. Lots of food, fun and live country music. Back then, that's how we celebrated.

That summer, though, was different. An air of sadness hung over us. I found comfort from the love of my family, but I knew nothing would ever be the same. In the days leading up to Uncle Russ' birthday, I wasn't sure how I would feel. On a day that we'd celebrate a birth, my mother's death was fresh in my mind.

My Uncle Russ repaired transmissions for a living. From what I hear, he was pretty darn good at it, too. At that time, he was working for a guy named Bucky Bucholtz, who had garages in the Buffalo area. Bucky, from what I can remember, was a pretty wealthy man.

On the day of the party, as our family gathered at Uncle Russ' house, I heard a loud noise overheard, one I hadn't heard all that often. When I looked up, I saw a helicopter. Bucky, I would soon learn, was the pilot.

He landed out back, joined the party and must have answered a hundred questions from everyone. I remember just standing there, looking at the helicopter and thinking how cool it would be to go for a ride. I wasn't scared one bit.

Uncle Russ must have seen me standing there. It didn't take long before he walked up and asked me if I wanted to take a ride in the helicopter. Bucky would be giving rides and he wanted to make sure I got one of the first ones. Of course, I didn't say no.

For an hour or so, that birthday party was fun.

Over the past few days, I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about my Uncle Russ. I've spoken with his two children, my cousins Danny and Jenn. I've spoken with his sister, my Aunt Phyl. It has been a time to reconnect. It has been a time to people that I love them. It has also been a time, as I now am the oldest living male on our branch of the Saar family tree, to remember what's important -- family.

Even in his death, my Uncle Russ gave me another lesson. Thank you, sir.

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