In my last blog, I introduced you to Uncle Herb, a Vietnam medic who re-enacted the splattering of napalm on my face by popping me in the jaw. Along with his effective teaching methods, he also has a gigantic heart although he’s a loose canon in conversation (see first sentence). I so enjoyed the randomness of my first encounter with Uncle Herb that I called him from the Ten Thousand Islands Boardwalk on Tuesday afternoon. There is a watch tower down the Marsh Trail that overlooks an expanse of wet prairies that lead into great green tufts of mangrove forests, and the first time I laid eyes on that swath of Everglades I wanted to marry it, lay up in it like the lap of my true love. And die there. It’s that beautiful. I’d gone there to get my mind right. Then I called Herb.
“What do YOU want!” Is how he answered the phone. Uncle Herb mostly exclaims although, like many compelling people, he has a hypnotic way of changing his voice to fit whatever particular story he’s unwinding. At the tense parts, he’ll widen his eyes and drop his voice almost to a whisper, then shout and clap at the scary parts (“…and that alligator’s JAW WENT SLAM!”), and often he’ll giggle in the middle of something inappropriate (“…my wife can’t even start her job til 6 pm…heeheeeheee…when people leave her alone!) and then snap “it’s not funny!” when I start laughing along. I so consistently mis-laugh with Uncle Herb that I just stopped laughing altogether. He calls me “Honey” and “Button.”
“I’m coming to see you,” I said.
“Well, I’m at the zoo!” Even though he retired from Naples Zoo, he still works two days a week. It’s in his blood, the Zoo, he loves that Zoo. In his kitchen, he built a 6′ tall bookshelf, and it is crammed with photo albums and scrapbooks of the 25 years he’s worked there. In essence, Herb is the archivist. Volunteer.
“Then how about tomorrow night at 6?” I asked.
“Fine!” He hung up. I drove home.
I returned the next night at our appointed time, and Herb was at the kitchen table reviewing his Bible study lesson for Friday. He wore a hot pink version of the same shirt with the hand-fringing that he was wearing when I met him last Sunday, and the same black denim shorts, or another pair exactly like them. White ankle socks. No shoes. The Uncle Herb uniform.
The hand-fringing made me curious. While he condemned the current government administration and assured me that retirement programs for non-profits were about to be seized and levied toward the national debt, I examined his handiwork. The fringes appeared to have been exacted with a ruler–Uncle Herb is a contractor, after all–and then I wondered how he gets the sleeve strips to fringe…by rolling them with his fingers? Washing machine? The cuts were precise and intentional, and I suspected perhaps Uncle Herb fixates on things, or might be OCD, or maybe it’s just the life of a peculiar man.
We’re alone in the house, and for the most part it was quiet. Even the parrots on the porch were silent. Occasionally the phone rang, and Herb responded to it as if it were someone’s annoying baby crying–“Shut that thing up, would ya!”–and then he’d plunge back into whatever he was saying. Or maybe not. Sometimes he would plunge into a different story altogether that would have nothing to do with the first story, neither of which had anything to do with the question I’d asked him, so now I was two stories away from my question with no horizon in sight that we would return to what I wanted to know. However, with Herb, you buy the ticket, you take the ride.
Remember that last time I said we were headed to this idea of “only connect..,” the epigram of E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, and I didn’t know why. Somehow meeting Uncle Herb brought it to my mind, invoked it from underneath some dusty pile of memories of graduate school, and I’ve mulled over Forster’s plea for these past few days. In the novel, the idea seems to be that a person is of two natures–“the prose and the passion”–as Forster says; our daily existence and our light that burns in the heart of us. Connect these things, connect with each other in this place in ourselves, and that, that is the beauty. That is the height of human experience, and we can have it. The only thing we have to do…is connect.
It’s funny because in a round-about sort of way, that’s what I’ve been talking about in this blog for almost 50 entries. The message can be distilled to two words: Only connect. I reckon my life has been about trying to do that, to connect, connect myself to myself, to God, to you, beloveds, and oh to my deeply beloved nature, and to do it without the greedy hands of my ego grabbing more from everyone than I deserve.
My life in Florida is unpredictable, swerving into regular stops of surreality, and landing at Uncle Herb’s kitchen table discussing an alligator wrangler whom I was perilously close to falling in love with was both. Florida is one of the few places on the face of the earth where you can get famous–quickly–for your talent and showmanship with dangerous animals. It’s a circuit down here, and like LA or Broadway or the World Wrestling Federation, it’s an ego-driven arena, and if you’re really, really good and you know it, you’re never going to last long anywhere. That’s why the wrangler was in and out of Naples Zoo in the gator show, and that’s how Uncle Herb knows him.
“So why did you stay in touch with him after he left the Zoo?” I asked. I’d given up premeditating questions, and I don’t know why I asked Herb this question–I didn’t really care why they stayed in touch; it seemed irrelevant not only to my article but also in the bigger picture. Who cares?
But Uncle Herb stopped. It was as if I was the one who was doing the hitting in the face this time. When something I say strikes Uncle Herb off-guard, he leans away and rolls his eye at me, very similar to a horse being spooked and reassessing its handler. He did this when I asked why he would stay in touch, and then he threw his head in his hands as if I were hopeless, the world was hopeless, Jesus died in vain, and he’d wasted a perfectly good Wednesday night entertaining an imbecile.
“BECAUSE!” he said. Then he grabbed a handful of envelopes on the bookshelf behind him and threw them on the table. They were letters in all handwritings addressed to Uncle Herb. “YOU CONNECT! These letters! Twenty-five years of young people in my church! You write people! You use STAMPS! You write them every week! YOU CONNECT. YOU CONNECT. YOU CONNECT.” He shoved himself from the table and pointed at the fringe on his sleeve. “Look at this.” His voice was low, quiet. “No. Better yet, you come here.”
He reached under the table and searched out my hand, pulled me from my seat and dragged me to his dark bedroom to the closet door. “Go in there!” he said, and pushed me inside.
Now, I don’t know about you, but there was nothing happening to me in that moment that was okay. Everything that every adult had warned me about as a child was happening, and I wasn’t stopping it. I can’t tell you why. I can tell you I was nervous, not because Herb gives off a bad vibe or I honestly thought I was in danger, but being alone in a house with a man I’d only met once who had just pushed me into a dark bedroom closet and followed me in there is freaky, and in the moment before he flipped the light on, I went through about 8,000 thoughts from every horror movie I’d ever heard about, figured out that I may not be equipped to immobilize Uncle Herb if I needed to, wondered if there was someone else in the closet and this was all some heinous set up for a crime, mentally moved back to North Carolina, envisioned my funeral in which my mother stood at my coffin wailing about how she knew I’d die alone and victimized, and taken four deep breaths to calm myself down. But, I bought the ticket. I was taking the ride. Something in this shoebox sized closet had significance, and Uncle Herb wanted to show me.
In the dark, Uncle Herb spoke to me. “You’re about the bravest woman I’ve ever met.”
“Or the stupidest.”
When the light broke open the darkness, I stood in front of a wall of hanging shirts–white, pink, green, blue, more white, some striped, but shirt after shirt whose short sleeves had been meticulously measured, cut into strips, and fringed. It was like looking at a regiment of soldiers awaiting orders.
I fingered some of the fringes. Like with most of Uncle Herb’s demonstrations, I had no idea what I was supposed to be getting out of this moment. “Why do you do this?” I said.
“Because. Because the kids get lost. I write letters and letters and I never hear from them. And sometimes life gets bad. And worse. I may find out where some of them are, and I go there. If they aren’t around, I hang my shirt on a doorknob or on a post somewhere. Nobody’s stealing a shirt that looks like this, come on! But the kids come home, they see this shirt. They know who’s been there. They know I still care.” Then he exited, abandoning me in the closet with the troops of Uncle Herb’s war for humanity, his calling cards, and I returned to the table where he was gathering up the letters. “Connection! It’s all about connection! That’s all it is!”
I stayed for another hour before I packed my writing gear and left. In that time, Uncle Herb showed me all the contacts in his phone, including the alligator wrangler and the alligator wrangler’s ex-wife, whose name Herb can’t recall but who “may still need to be talked to one day, you never know!” He told me the story about how his own first wife died and how Herb had raised his two girls on his own, the youngest one tagging along to construction sites and classes at the technical college. Later, that little girl would grow up to contract the same cancer that killed her mama, and Uncle Herb buried her last January in the grave next to his first wife. Only connect, Uncle Herb says, only connect.
night night beloveds. I love you.