The Spirit of Uncle Arthur at Christmas
By Charles Gargiulo
I remember reading somewhere that a great songwriter is somebody who can say more in just a couple of lines than most people can say about the same subject if they talked all night about it. If that’s the case, then my Uncle Arthur’s ability to say a lot with the fewest words would put Bob Dylan and John Lennon to shame.
I don’t know if it’s because he was embarrassed to have people learn he couldn’t read or write, or because he was practically deaf and couldn’t make out what most people were saying if they didn’t yell their heads off at him, but when it came to talking my Uncle Arthur was very shy and tried not to say anymore than he had to in a conversation. He also said things so quietly it was hard to make out what he was saying. Which would often lead to a weird scene where the person who was trying to talk with him looked like the deaf person because they couldn’t hear what he was saying, so they’d start repeating things like, “what?…I can’t hear you…what did you say?” over and over again, louder and louder each time, because he kept talking quietly as a mouse, and acted like it was their fault if they couldn’t hear him.
I think over time he just figured out that it was pointless to try and carry on a conversation like this and adapted by breaking down all he had to say about a subject to the bare minimum of words. As a result of doing this for decades he became a master at making up standard short phrases to respond to almost every situation. No beating around the bush with Uncle Arthur, no long windbag speeches and no hyperbole. He just made his point quickly and directly enough to get the hell out of discussing the topic at hand any further. In case anyone missed the fact that he had nothing more to say about something and tried to prolong the conversation, or ask him any questions about what he said, he would sharply raise his right hand with his palm out, like making a stop sign, while turning his head slightly away from you, thrust his jaw out like Mussolini and declare, “That’s it!” Making it clear that you would have a better chance at moving a stubborn mule than getting another word out of him on the issue.
Sometimes for variety, instead of saying “That’s it,” to make it clear he was done talking about something, he would substitute either the phrase “No more,” or “All done” in its place. If somebody couldn’t take a hint, he’d grumpily make one of his Mussolini stop sign gestures with extra emphasis and say all three phrases together in rapid fire. When Uncle Arthur told you, “That’s it, All Done, No More,” you knew he meant it.
Uncle Arthur had so many of these short, clipped, right to the point phrases that me and my friends started to collect them and incorporate them into our own language. For instance, you know how we are always ranking and comparing our favorite artists and entertainers with other people? Usually, it gets really annoying after awhile because we all tend to exaggerate or overblow things trying to get across how much we really like someone. Well, Uncle Arthur never had that problem. He didn’t throw around flowery compliments and turn every half decent performer into a freaking legend. As a result, when he praised somebody you knew they had to be pretty special.
In fact, Uncle Arthur had the perfect ranking system. If you wanted to know what he thought about a singer, a ballplayer or some actor all you had to do was ask him if he liked that person and he’d answer one of four ways. If he thought they sucked he’d wrinkle his nose, make a sour looking face and say, “Nuh, nuh, nuh, no.” If he thought they were average or very good, he’d slightly shrug his shoulders and grunt, “eh.” If he thought somebody was absolutely hall of fame level amazing, he’d very matter of factly state, “they’re alright.” And only reserved for those he thought were the very greatest, the people he admired and put on a plane above everybody else, would he utter his highest words of praise. For those rare few he would look you in the eye, press his lips together, make a very slow up and down nod of his head and then solemnly say, “They’re good.” In my entire life with him I think I only heard him say that about the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Clint Eastwood, Joe Louis, Ted Williams and the Three Stooges.
My friends and I used to laugh about his tough grading system and had a lot of fun using it ourselves trying to figure out who would make our own personal Uncle Arthur “they’re good” list. For me it’s the Beatles, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and the Three Stooges. I guess I might have to add Bob Dylan to that list too.
Ask Uncle Arthur his opinion about anything and he had one of two answers, “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” Period. Unless it was about the Red Sox. After years of having his heart broken rooting for them, if you asked him what he thought about the Red Sox he’d elaborate and say, “I like them, but at first they go up, up, up,” and he’d put his hand up with his palm facing down and jerkily raise it each time he said the word up, then give a hard thumbs down and make a fart sound. If you pressed him on why he keeps rooting for them, he’d always say, “I like them” then give a slight pause, look at you with a pained expression and say, “but they just never win.”
Uncle Arthur was only really a fan of two different sports, boxing and baseball. He’d watch the Celtics with me on TV but didn’t really know that much about the game except the score. He was a big fan of listening to the games on the radio, or should I say, he was a big fan of listening to their announcer Johnny Most. He didn’t really care or understand that much about the game or what he was saying, he just loved it when Johnny went all psycho when the Celtics were getting screwed. I had a record album with highlights of Johnny Most’s most famous calls and his face would always light up whenever I put on the famous, “Havlicek Stole the Ball” segment. It was fun to watch Uncle Arthur try to imitate Johnny losing his voice with excitement.
It was sad to realize that Uncle Arthur’s lack of hearing was so bad that it was clear one of the reasons he talked so little was he couldn’t really make out much of what was being said to him unless someone said it loud and slow. So in addition to not being able to read books and things because he never learned to read or write, he was also not able to enjoy TV or movies like me or you can do because he could hardly make out what was being said on the screen. It was no wonder that he loved the Three Stooges and his favorite movies were either full of action, physical comedies or Disney films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, because the only entertainment he got was from the visual stuff.
It was interesting how this lack of following the dialogue in movies gave him a unique perspective in how he appreciated and understood them. For instance, the reason he liked Clint Eastwood so much was because he literally became known as the “Man with No Name” character from his spaghetti Westerns. And watching his movies gave Uncle Arthur a chance to give his stock answer whenever I’d ask, “What do you think of that?” after Clint shot somebody. He’d give a grin, shake his head in amusement and say, “He’s dead now.” Which always summed things up pretty well. Unique visual moments also had a way of sticking with him like a memorable line from a movie does with most of us. Uncle Arthur appreciated the way Clint told a story. There probably have been a million scenes of people shooting somebody in movies, but Uncle Arthur knew what made Clint special was that he shot somebody in an outhouse. Ask him about Clint, he’d make a shooting gesture and he’d smile and say, “Boom” then chuckle and say, “shot him in the shit house.”
Sure, Uncle Arthur might not go into great detail critiquing a movie but his right to the point opinions might be responsible for the greatest movie review in history. After becoming a fan of the “Rocky” movies, I went with Uncle Arthur to see Sylvester Stallone branch out into a terrible gangster comedy called “Oscar” and when I asked him what he thought about the movie he replied, “Stick to boxing.” Roger Ebert, eat your heart out.
His bad hearing did lead to a couple of funny by-products for those who loved him. One was that he ended up creating new names for a lot of famous people that me and my friends loved to adopt as our own. Since he couldn’t hear well, he didn’t alway pick up the correct pronunciation of somebody’s name. The problem with that is, in addition to being half-deaf, Uncle Arthur was also a pretty stubborn guy, so if he thought he heard a name like Nixon as Dixon, then he wouldn’t let you correct him on it. So it didn’t matter that Richard Nixon became Vice-President and President, he thought it was Dixon the first time he heard it, so it remained Dixon forever. The same with Dukakis, he thought it was Contakos, so Dukakis remained Contakos and everybody else was an idiot for pronouncing it incorrectly.
The other funny thing about his lack of hearing was how it impacted his volume control. Remember how I told you that he would usually mumble so quietly when he talked with somebody that they often couldn’t understand what he said? Ironically, he had the opposite problem when he was trying to conceal what he was saying. You know how when you get angry at someone or something you might swear under your breath because you don’t want others to know how you’re feeling? Well, poor ol’ Uncle Arthur’s volume control was so messed up that even though he thought he was cussing too softly for anybody to hear him, his true emotions let those swear words fly out so loud that everybody within ten miles could hear them. So when he got mad you’d hear a whole scattering of French and English swear words come flying out of him, while he would act like nothing was wrong. All of sudden, Uncle Arthur could blurt out a loud string of swear words so fast and foul it would make Ted Williams blush. And if you asked him what was wrong, he’d give his mild-mannered smile or act puzzled and genuinely be surprised that anybody would think he was upset at something.
These memories of the little unique features of Uncle Arthur’s personality and charm are the kind of things that shape all our important relationships with the people we love. It’s not how much somebody made or what titles or honors they achieve that we remember, it’s the gift of being close enough to somebody to know all of the little quirks about them that only can be earned through the privilege of loving familial intimacy.
My Uncle Arthur passed away on Christmas Eve in 1997 after his health began failing for a couple of difficult years. So the holiday season always comes with a bit of melancholy, never forgetting the pain of losing him on a day that was associated with a lifetime of warm memories of Christmas pasts with Uncle Arthur. But those memories are so full of love and gratitude for the smiles and joy he gave me that death can never come close to ending the bond we will share in this lifetime and whatever comes next. Merry Christmas Uncle Arthur.