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Finding Uncle Vince

                A ringing telephone at 3:22 in the morning is rarely the harbinger of good news. With any grace, it is merely a drunken misdial. Abby Morrow stumbled out of bed and across the darkened living room. Eyes still half closed, she picked up the receiver and managed a phlegmy “hello?”

            A gruff voice responded, “Mr. Morrow? Mr. William Morrow?”

            Sensing his presence behind her, Abby covered the mouthpiece with her hand and turned. “It’s for you, Dad.”

            Bill Morrow took the handset from his twelve-year-old daughter. His own voice was as gruff as the caller’s. “This is Bill Morrow. Who are you?”

            The phone was far enough from her father’s ear that Abby could hear the response. “This is Sergeant Michalski from the Second Precinct. We have a Vincent Morrow in custody. He was picked up a few hours ago on a D&D. We found a card in his possession with your name and number. He’s in pretty bad shape. Probably the D.T.s. We’re getting ready to transport him.”

            “If he’s still drunk, it’s not the D.T.s,” Bill said. “Where are you sending him?”

            “Saint Luke’s E.R.”

            “Any charges?”

            “Nah. The bar owner won’t press charges. Says he’s a regular. Just wanted him gone.”

            “Alright. I’ll be at the E.R.” Bill hung up the phone, rubbed one hand across his stubbly cheek and the other through his hair.

            “Dad?”

            Bill jumped. “Abby! What are you doing up? You have school in the morning.”

            “I answered the phone.”

            “Oh. Right. Go wake your mother. I need to go out. Then get back to bed.”

            “Uncle Vince?”

            “Yeah. Uncle Vince.”

            Libby Morrow was already awake, though still in bed when Abby entered her parents’ bedroom. “Bill? Oh. Abby. What’s wrong?”

            “I think it’s Uncle Vince.  Dad says he has to go out.”

            Libby threw back the covers. “It’s not even light. What time is it? She turned on the bedside lamp. “Three-thirty!” Yawning, Libby stood. “I’ll take care of it. You get back to bed.”

            Abby obeyed, but sleep did not come. Just before the alarm went off, she heard the weary tread of her father’s footsteps and muffled voices in the kitchen. Abby joined them. Libby looked at her daughter. The three of them had matching black circles under their eyes. “Oh, sweetie. You’re a mess. Don’t imagine you can go to school like that.  Well, it won’t hurt for you to miss a day. And Bill? You’re calling in sick, too. I’ll get us some breakfast.”

            Bill’s lips lifted in a half smile. “Already did, from the hospital. Thank you, honey.”

            As Libby measured flour and cracked eggs, Bill and Abby took their customary seats at the kitchen table. For a few long moments, Bill sat with his head in his hands. “Dad?” Abby broke the silence. “What’s wrong with Uncle Vince? I’m old enough to know.”

            Libby slid a platter of pancakes onto the table. “Eat first. Then talk.” She poured orange juice for Abby and strong coffee for Bill and herself. Sitting and reaching across the table, she grasped Abby’s and Bill’s hands. Bill clasped Abby’s free hand and the trio bowed their heads. Libby prayed. “Heavenly Father, we thank Thee. Bless this food to our bodies and give us strength for this day. Watch over Vincent and heal him. Amen.”

            The pancakes were soon gone. Libby made no move to clear the table nor did she prompt Abby to do so. Abby asked, “Dad?”

            The sound that escaped Bill Morrow as he scrubbed his dark stubble was long and low, almost a growl. “Your Uncle Vince is an alcoholic. He can’t live with his whiskey and he can’t live without it, either.”

            “Why?”

            “Vinnie drinks to forget and when he is drunk, he does irresponsible things. But when he is sober, he can’t live with his memories.”

            “What memories?”

            “Oh, child. It goes back a long, long way. Our great-grandfather’s name was not ‘Morrow.’ It was Müller. He came from Germany and changed his name when he arrived at Castle Gardens. You know Vince had a twin brother, Francis, right?”

            “He died in the war, didn’t he?”

            “Yes. During the Depression, jobs were scarce. Vince and Frank enlisted in the Army. I tried to enlist with them but was turned down because of my eyes. I joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, instead. That’s where I met your mother. But that’s another story. Anyway, when war broke out, Vince and Frank were in the same unit and they were sent to fight on the European front. If the Army had known they were German, they would have been sent to the Pacific instead. As it was, they survived D-Day and the fighting that followed. Whenever there was a lull, they were sent on burial details. Didn’t matter if the dead were American, British, French, or German…they all deserved as decent a burial as could be managed. Besides the fighting and death all around them, one of the worst shocks Vinnie and Frank had was when they found a dead German soldier. He couldn’t have been much older than fifteen or sixteen…and his name was Müller. It’s a common enough name, but Vinnie couldn’t shake the feeling he was burying his cousin. Then came Germany’s surrender. Vinnie and Frank took part in liberating Dachau, the concentration camp. What they saw there… Vinnie could never really talk about it. One day, when they were clearing the perimeter of the camp near the mass graves, Frank stepped on a land mine. Vinnie saw it happen. The Army sent them home, then…Frank in a sealed coffin and Vinnie in a straight jacket. Vinnie was in a psychiatric ward at Walter Reed for a year. They said it was shell shock. He was eventually released, but he was never the same. And once he was on his own, he started drinking. That’s where he is still today. The hospital doctors said they would put him on a 30 day psychiatric hold, so he will be safe for a while. This won’t be the first time, and I doubt it will be the last.”

            “But Dad. That was so long ago.”

            “Sweetie, it’s only been twenty years. I know that’s way before you were born, but to Vinnie, it might have been yesterday. And just turn on the news and there it is right in front of us all over again. It’s just too much for him to take.” Bill turned to Libby. “Honey, I need to get some air. You and Abby should get some sleep.” He stood, kissed his wife, ruffled Abby’s hair and walked out the back door.”

            “Your father’s right. We could both do with a nap – right after we get this table cleared and dishes done.”

——————————————————————-

             Spring came early in 1965. By the first of May, temperatures were already in the 80s and even with the windows open, Abby’s classroom was unbearably hot. She couldn’t wait for summer vacation, just six weeks away. Uncle Vince had been staying with them since his release from the hospital. Abby had just about gotten used to being wakened in the night by his screams. After one of his nightmares, he would sit at the breakfast table hollow-eyed, over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Abby’s Mom didn’t like him smoking in the house, but recognizing his fragile condition, she allowed it. After class let out for the day, Abby walked over to the high school for choir practice. All the eighth-grade classes in town would be singing together at the Memorial Day service at Riverside Cemetery, and once a week the massed choir gathered for rehearsal. She hummed “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as she walked. From the high school, she caught the bus and rode with her father as he drove his last route of the day. Abby loved riding the bus with her father. He was always kind to all his passengers and Abby would tease him about this woman or that woman whom she declared had a crush on him.  Parking the bus in the barn and clocking out, the pair rode home together as Abby chattered on about the events of her school day and the antics of some of the Jefferson school boys during rehearsal.

            Their happy mood vanished as a distraught Libby met them at the door. “He’s gone! Bill, he’s gone! I went to let Vince know supper would be soon and he wasn’t in his room. His closet is empty and his duffel bag is gone. And I found two empty whiskey bottles in the back of the closet. And there’s money missing from the teapot. We have to find him!”

            Bill engulfed his wife in a hug. “Sh, sh, sh. We knew this was likely to happen. This has probably been the longest time Vinnie has been sober in a decade.”

            “Daddy?”

            Bill pulled Abby into their embrace. Libby sobbed, “I know. I know. But I thought that this time…this time…if he knew how much we cared for him, if he knew how much he was loved, that this time he might heal.”

            “Sometimes healing doesn’t come this side of heaven. You know that.” Bill nuzzled the top of Abby’s head. “Sweetie, why don’t you change and wash up. Your Mom and I need to talk.”

            “No, Dad. If it’s about Uncle Vince, I want to know, too.”

            Bill looked at Libby. She nodded. He sighed. “Alright then. Let’s go sit down and we’ll talk. They settled on the couch in the living room. Bill asked, “How much money is missing, Libby?”

            “A twenty dollar bill. There’s still another twenty in small bills and change left. He didn’t take it all.”

            “He wouldn’t. I might be able to find him if he’s stayed in town. But if he’s bought a bus ticket to Chicago, we’ll have to wait for him to come back. Of course, if he’s thinking clearly enough, he might be headed for the Veteran’s Hospital at Great Lakes. He’s done that before. I’ll give them a call. I’ll check the Rescue Mission and the AA club here in town. And I’ll check with Pastor Carrington. He’s been meeting with Vinnie.”

            “Will you be able to find Uncle Vince, Dad?”

            “I don’t know sweetie. I just don’t know. But I won’t stop looking.”

————————————————————————————-         

            A knock at the door at 3:00 in the morning is rarely the harbinger of good news. Abby Morrow heard her parents’ footsteps outside her bedroom door and muffled voices in the front hall. She stumbled out of bed and into the darkened living room, just as her mother turned on the lights and her father showed a police officer and Pastor Carrington to seats on the sofa. The two men pointed a glance in her direction, but her father said, “She can stay.”

            Abby asked the question her family all had, “Have you found Uncle Vince?”

            The men nodded. It was the preacher who spoke. “Some teenagers out spooning found him at Walker’s Point. It took them a while to find a phone to call an ambulance. Then they took off. It looks like he was beaten up pretty bad. I was at the hospital for one of our parishioners who was dying when they brought him into the emergency room. He was still conscious, and as far as I could tell, quite sober. We talked about your brother Frank and Jesus and heaven. He said how grateful he was for the love your family had shown him. He…he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ and said he looked forward to seeing Frank again. And then…well, and then, he was gone. I suppose we could have waited until morning to bring you the news, but I just felt, and the police felt, that you should know as soon as possible.”

            Libby began to weep and Abby felt the tears welling in her own eyes. Bill cleared his throat, cleared it again. “Thank you. Thank you for finding Vinnie. Thank you for coming to tell us.”

            The men stood. The officer held out his hand. “My condolences on your loss. I knew Vinnie. He was an okay guy.” Bill shook the man’s hand.

            “If you need help with the arrangements, I will be available later today.” Pastor Carrington patted Bill on the shoulder.

            As Libby and Abby held each other, Bill said once more, “thank you,” and showed the men to the door. Then he gathered his family to himself.

            The funeral for Vincent Alexander Morrow was held on Wednesday. On Sunday, May 30, after church, Abby’s family drove to Riverside Cemetery. Abby joined her fellow eighth-graders on the risers in front of the chapel, each holding a small American flag. If she looked in the right direction, she could just make out the raw mound that marked a new grave. She wiped her eyes, cleared her throat, and with her choir mates opened her mouth. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”

              

By kathykexel

I've been writing from close to the time I learned to read. Fortunately, almost nothing exists from those days. Throughout my working life, I've jotted down bits and pieces here and there. But now that we m retired, I've run out of excuses not to write.

3 replies on “Finding Uncle Vince”

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