“Napalm! It’s a jelly! It explodes! It sticks to you!”
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m standing on Uncle Herb’s screened in porch with him, both of us leaning against the pool table. We’ve just met as a result of the fact that I’m still interviewing the alligator wrangler (I am anxious now I may be interviewing him for infinity), and Uncle Herb is an integral member of the non-blood relations who make up the extended family of animal lovers and big-hearted wackos that feel as comfortable to me as a pair of suede knee high moccasin boots. I had no intention of meeting Uncle Herb, I actually didn’t know there was an Uncle Herb, but here I am.
I have asked him about his tour in Vietnam as a medic, and he is explaining that the worst it got was when the children were helicoptered in after the napalm bombs hit the villages.
There are six medium-to-large bird cages opposite us, full of green parrots, blue and gold macaws, an African grey, a few parakeets whose species I don’t know, one super sweet Moluccan, and one cage of a pair of parakeets who are in full, luxurious plumage except they both like to pluck out all their head feathers. If you’ve never seen a bald parakeet head, it looks like mummified penis. So just imagine that but covered in grey and gold feathers from the neck down, and you’ll know what I was looking at. The birds are twittering and chattering, some clucking and whistling, all creating this jug-band symphony of bird excitement as Herb eyeballs me through his drugstore bifocals. It’s as if he thinks I’m not properly impressed about napalm. But I am. This does not matter.
Herb is probably in his late 60s with long, combed-back white hair that hangs past his shoulders, fine and wispy like gossamer, some of it still tinged in haystack yellow, and a matching white beard shaped like a rectangle. He has hand-fringed the cuffs on his white Green Bay Packers oxford shirt (converted to short sleeves, we are in Florida after all) and his black denim shorts. The frays are meticulous, evenly spaced, and of approximately equal height and width, about half a pinkie finger. Some are knotted, others are not, and he wears white ankle socks but no shoes. He and his wife, every first Sunday of the month for 25 years, have hosted a free breakfast at their house for the kids in their church. “But anyone can come,” he told me. They pay for it themselves and let people stay as long as they want. This Sunday, I meet a woman and her 10-ish year-old son, and Herb points out that she had grown up in his house on Sundays. He knew her when she was the boy’s age. Then he laughs out of nowhere, which Herb does often, startling his cottony mustache whiskers so they expose his sturdy teeth, the kind of teeth that gave rise to the phrase “chompers.”
Herb is part wind-up toy, part Santa Claus, and he punctuates his stories by thrusting his pointer finger in the air and staring at me over his bifocals. He paces. He gesticulates. He may hop or clap or bob or stand dead still and stare deep deep down into your eyes as if he’s looking for what you’ve hidden in there. He laughs at the end of his stories when people die anyway; Uncle Herb’s life seems to have instilled in him the belief that irony is a jolly good practical joke. He scrolls through his phone for pictures as he tells me about his relief medical work in Haiti after the earthquake and how gory and backwards and graphic the rubble injuries were. “Have I got something to show you!” he says, tapping through hundreds of photographs with a black stylus. [About Haiti: “before the earthquake, after the earthquake, it all looks the same. If you ever go there, take everything–your own food, your own water–and when you leave, leave it all there, clothes and all. Burn it.” Laughter.]
He is enjoying himself, his baby blue eyes searching deep into mine when he looks up from the phone; his eyes smile, full of mirth, but there’s something else in there, too. Uncle Herb has inched closer to me, peering through his bifocals. I need to get the message about napalm.
“It sticks,” he repeats, mimicking napalm blobs plastering on my forearms with his fingertips. I guess I am still not sufficiently registering what Uncle Herb is imparting to me, which is important. “I mean it sticks!” he says. I nod. Then he claps me on the side of the head like an over-zealous five-year-old in a pumpkin patch.
“Uncle Herb just smacked me in the face,” was all I could think to say, and then Uncle Herb cups my face in the palm of his hand for a second before telling me that the next trick of napalm is that it starts to burn, and it doesn’t stop. Then he laughs and lets go of me. But he’s still napalm-splattered me, and that was only the first of several re-enactments Uncle Herb performs on me over the course of the afternoon. Later in the conversation, I will get a demonstration of dehydration symptoms on my leg and a personal tutorial on how to perform surgery on a double harelip using my face as the example.
“You know that’s where I learned about maggots?” he asked, after he’s released me. “You just dump ’em in there,” pretend dumping of maggot into a pretend wound on my forearm, “bandage it,” pretend bandaging with a roll of gauze, “and a few days later,” unwrapping of the bandage, “all clean! It’s remarkable. I’ve never seen anything so thoroughly clean a wound in all my life.”
“The maggots eat the napalm?” I ask.
“No. You scrape that out with a knife.” And he shows me what he means by using the side of the black stylus on my cheek. “Like so.”
“Got it,” I say. Uncle Herb is the first enthusiastic hands-on conversationalist I have ever met. It’s not just me. He grabs the kids as they walk by–their heads, their shoulders, their faces–sometimes for hugs, sometimes because they walk by. More than once I watch him scoop up someone’s face as they pass through the porch, shaking and laughing and hugging them.
Uncle Herb, slightly irritated by the need to go into such a detailed explanation with me about napalm, returns to his cache of photos until he finds the one he’s looking for. “Ah-HA! Here! Look at this!” He shows me an x-ray of someone’s skull and neck vertebrae.
There is a sliver line, about two inches long, in the esophagus. “Do you see that!” he asks, as if we’re looking at never-before-seen dinosaur fossils. Uncle Herb marvels. He exclaims. He makes the picture bigger so I see the line expand until I can almost make out the object.
“What is it?” I ask.
“A STRAIGHT PIN!” He is ecstatic. “In this girl’s throat! She swallowed it! Do you know how many times we’d have to cut to get in there! Four or five! It would be so painful! What do you do with that? You’re in Haiti!”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“So I ask around! They say to me ‘straight banana diet.’ Because–” and then he waves his hands down his body, from his throat to his large intestine, “–the bananas coat the system and the straight pin passes. And every day you take x-rays to see where the stupid thing has journeyed to on its way out.” Boom, boom, boom, he points at my chest, my guts, my exit area.
“Cool,” I say, although you still have to poop out a straight pin. “How long would it take to pass?”
“Few days. Yes! Very cool! And I never would have learned that otherwise. Bananas!” He smiles broadly, his chompers agleam, his eyes on fire, and Uncle Herb becomes the kind of man I could spend an afternoon hanging around, and I tell him I’m coming back, but next time I’m coming by myself, because if he knows the healing powers of maggots and bananas, then there is no telling what else he might know. And Uncle Herb, if this short couple of hours is any indication, has a wealth of unpredictable knowledge.
“Bananas,” I say.
When I leave Uncle Herb’s, I say goodbye to the birds, who have all but gone silent, and he shoves his feet into some shoes and walks me to my car. Somehow, even after he’s popped my face, performed pretend harelip surgery on me, skeptically inquired about whether or not I swallow my food (“why are you so skinny!”), and informed me that I should keep better company, Uncle Herb and I (I think?) are friends. Or, somehow, we connect, and that’s when I drive home pondering the epigram to E.M. Forster’s quintessential British masterpiece, Howard’s End–the one that was made into a movie with Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, and Vanessa Redgrave.
Hardly anything from that novel stuck with me except the epigram. “Only connect…” Forster implores before the novel begins, a sort of wishful command, and I drive up the Tamiami Trail to Fort Myers Beach reliving the rapid-fire stupendiosity that is a few hours with Uncle Herb. I denied my compulsion to write it out when I returned home and thus found myself in a fever at 2:37 a.m. starting this blog, which I finally abandoned about 4 a.m., right before Uncle Herb strikes me with pretend napalm.
Only connect, beloveds. That’s where we’re headed.
to be continued. night, night.