Uncle Arthur’s Crazy Friends

Charlie Gargiulo’s memoir, Legends of Little Canada, captures life in Lowell’s “Little Canada” and the trauma experienced by its residents when their homes were demolished by Urban Renewal. Legends is available from Loom Press. In a serialized sequel to Legends, Charlie is sharing some stories about his beloved Uncle Arthur. The first appeared last month and the second installment is below.  


Uncle Arthur’s Crazy Friends

By Charlie Gargiulo

It was sad when my Uncle Arthur was finally kicked out of the house on Lakeview Avenue in Dracut that he lived in for over 10 years. He was so happy there in that big ranch house until Uncle Leo was tricked into giving power of attorney over to my evil Aunt when his mind was going and she had him removed from his home and put into a nursing home. After my Uncle Arthur recovered from the road accident that almost killed him he had to move to Lowell. He could only afford to live in some dumpy rooming house on Merrimack Street right next door to St. Joseph’s hall, where the church parish held bingo, dances and other events. This rooming house was very depressing. Everybody who lived there only had one room and had to share a bathroom in the hall with every other occupant of their floor of the building.

The good part for me was that now Uncle Arthur only lived a couple of blocks away from our place on Austin Street so I could see him a lot more than before. I know I told you before that in addition to being my Uncle, he was also my Godfather. What I didn’t tell you was that in many ways he also felt like a really old, older brother.

When I say Uncle Arthur also seemed like an old, older brother, it was because for over five years we shared the same room when me, my mom and dad lived together with him and my Uncle Leo in Dracut. When we lived there, Uncle Leo had his own bedroom, my mom and dad had theirs and me and my Uncle Arthur had the third bedroom. We each had our own twin bed and our own bureaus. My Uncle Arthur also had a cool CB radio setup on a table next to his bed. This was a kind of radio like you always saw cops using in their cars to communicate with the police station. You know the kind where the cop can hear the guy at headquarters calling them by saying something like, “Car 54 come in, do you read me, over,” and the cop would grab a microphone attached to the radio and answer back, “This is Car 54, yes I read you. Over.” Then the headquarters would give the cop instructions and they would talk, always saying “over” at the end of what they were saying to let the other guy know it was his turn to talk. When they wanted to end the conversation, instead of saying goodbye, or see you later, they had to say “over and out.”

Well, besides cops, regular people could buy radios like this and use it to talk back and forth with each other. It was just like a telephone except everybody else could hear what you were saying and join in the conversation. My Uncle Arthur said a lot of guys who drove trucks all across the country had them so they could call somebody if something bad happened, but mostly because they got bored and lonely driving by themselves all night long. They would get on their CB radio and talk like a bunch of old ladies. Of course, my Uncle Arthur and a bunch of his friends didn’t have a truck as an excuse. They just got a big kick talking with each other on their CB’s. It was fun listening to Uncle Arthur and his “good buddies” blabbering on the radio sounding like goofy little kids pretending they were in the army or something because they talked in code words like “10-4” when they meant yes, or yelling “breaker, breaker” when some new guy wanted to join an ongoing conversation. And of course, they also used the “over” and “over and out” thing.

My Uncle Arthur just did it because he liked being able to talk with his friends and even strangers, like truck drivers passing through, who just wanted to shoot the shit. But some of his friends were pretty weird about it and would get all upset when I teased them about how dumb I thought it was to spend all that money just to talk with each other when they already had a telephone. They said this wasn’t just a game and didn’t I know that CB stood for “Citizen Band” radio, and they were performing an important duty because, if we had a hurricane wipe us out or the Russians attacked us, they would be able to communicate important information if all the telephone lines got knocked out? I didn’t push it with them by saying, “Um, but wouldn’t the electricity be out too?” It’s funny how grown up guys can never admit that they just like to do goofy stuff for the fun of it. I guess even when guys get old they still like to play games pretending they are some kind of heroic figure. It’s actually kind of reassuring in a way because it’s nice knowing when I grow up I won’t have to give up playing make believe games.

Unfortunately, some of them took it too far. Instead of just sounding like a bunch of nuts having a good time, some of these guys were kind of creepy. They were convinced that our country was being infiltrated by communist agents who were brainwashing Americans and it was up to them to expose the truth on their CB radios. For instance, there was this guy named Joe Guillemette, who my Uncle Leo and Arthur knew since  they were kids, who actually believed President Eisenhower had been secretly a Communist. Which meant that he pretty much thought everybody in our government was a communist. He was convinced that the only thing that stopped our country from turning the keys over to the Russians were guys like him listening to their CB radios for some modern day Paul Revere to yell, “Breaker, breaker, the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming,” to signal it was time to grab their guns like the Minutemen and stop them.

Fortunately, my Uncle Arthur wasn’t one of those crazy people, like I said, he just liked being able to talk with other guys on the CB. My Uncle Arthur let this Joe Guillemette guy hang out with him and his friends because my Uncle Arthur was such a nice guy he felt bad for Joe because nobody else liked him. Joe had a mostly bald head and a nose like a big bird’s beak. He was a surly guy who never smiled and complained about everything. He lived alone in a rooming house on Merrimack Street near downtown and he didn’t work, even though he was only in his 40’s. I never knew why, or how he got any money to live on, because there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with him. He certainly didn’t seem like he had a lot of money, which he mainly spent joining all these crazy mail order organizations made up of other nuts like him accusing everyone of being a communist. Whenever I would go with my Uncle Arthur to pick up Joe at his room, it was creepy because it was cluttered with stacks and stacks of crazy magazines and pamphlets written by those nutty groups he joined. He was supporting Barry Goldwater to beat President Johnson in the upcoming election. Everyone thought Goldwater was a crackpot, but Joe proudly made his own campaign button for Goldwater that he wore which he thought cleverly showed Goldwater’s name in the chemical symbols “Au h20,” except that he printed out “As h20,” which everybody smirked at without telling him once they found out that Joe’s symbol actually meant Arsenic water, rather than Gold water.

My Uncle Arthur used to either go to a diner with him or pick him up for a ride in his Cushman cart and go visit some of his other friends or take him back to his house to watch the Red Sox together with Uncle Leo. My Uncles Arthur and Leo used to get a kick out of listening to him grumble about everything. They both knew Joe since they were kids and knew he was nuts. But Joe knew not to talk politics around them because he made the mistake of once trying to tell my Uncles Arthur and Leo that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was secretly a Communist and both of them worshiped the ground FDR walked on. My Uncle Leo, who had a bad case of multiple sclerosis, told Joe he was lucky he couldn’t get out of his wheelchair or he would physically throw him out of his house and that if he ever wanted to step foot in it from now on, he better never mention FDR’s name again.

After that, Joe gave up trying to convince my Uncles that there was a Commie under every rock and mostly just talked with other nuts like himself on the CB and kept signing up with secret organizations determined to expose FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ and probably George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as being communists.

Not all of my Uncle Arthur’s buddies were nuts like Joe. Well, actually they were all crazy, but crazy in a fun way, not in a creepy way. My Mom always said they were a bunch of “characters,” which was a polite way of saying they each had their own unique way of being oddballs. It was like my Uncle Arthur hung out with his own Frank Sinatra-like rat pack. Besides Joe, there were three other guys in Uncle Arthur’s rat pack, George and two different guys named Teddy, which always led to confusion between the two Teddy’s wondering which Teddy someone meant whenever somebody said, “Hey Teddy.” I tried to help by suggesting that maybe they should choose to call one of the Teddy’s Ted, but they ignored me and kept calling each Teddy, Teddy.

George was probably the guy who looked the most normal among them. He had his own house on Pawtucket Boulevard. His mother and father were pretty old, but they still lived with him and he was trying hard to keep them out of the nursing home. He had a small garage next to his house that he used to keep a million tools and all kinds of parts and junk to fix cars and mechanical things. His main job was getting people to hire him for all kinds of handy-man things. His father used to do it since the 1920’s and George just learned from his dad and worked with him when he became old enough and he was able to get plenty of odd jobs because he and his old man were good at it and people called whenever they needed something fixed in their house or car.

My Uncle Arthur and his buddies used to go over to George’s place when they wanted to hang out together because he had a nice big yard right across the boulevard from the Merrimack River and in the winter, or when it rained, they could hang out in his garage. The best part about George’s place was that he had a big fenced section of his yard that had a giant shed where his two cool dogs lived. It wasn’t a doghouse, it was more like a small barn and he had a large older female German Shepherd named Betsy and a young male Siberian Husky named Boris. Whenever I visited I would go into their yard and play with them.

Betsy was almost as smart as my Aunt Rose’s collie Daisy, which meant she was also a genius. George was really proud of her and would always amaze friends and guests by having her do tricks, not just dumb tricks like roll over but really complicated ones. For instance, she could count. Nobody would believe him at first but then he’d prove it by picking any number from one to ten and saying, “Betsy, show me six,” and she would tap her paw on the ground six times. People would be impressed, but every once in a while some wise guy would say she couldn’t really count that she only was trained to tap to the sound of the numbers. Then George would tell the guy to put down one to ten things, like rocks or sticks, on the ground in front of her and whatever number of things the guy would put Betsy would tap the correct number with her paw.

Betsy was very friendly and mild-mannered. Boris was very friendly and not so mild-mannered. I don’t mean he was dangerous, I mean he was just always bursting with energy, like some little kid who ate a ton of candy and his way of being friendly meant he would jump all over you with joy when you came into the yard. He insisted you run with him or have him fetch a ball five million times. Even though Boris was a whirlwind and a young, strong Siberian Husky, it was clear that ‘ol Betsy was still the boss. Watching them together was like watching one of those families where there was a giant, wild teen-age boy who would come slinking back quietly, with his head bowed in shame, if his mother told him to knock off whatever he was doing and to get his naughty ass over to her immediately. Betsy quietly watched Boris going all nuts until she felt like enough was enough and then she would stand up in a firm way and give Boris the eye. Immediately, Boris would calm down and act like he was trying to tell her that he was behaving until this human came into the yard and caused all this trouble. I think Betsy would do that when she wanted to be petted or talked to and was annoyed that Boris was getting all the attention. Needless to say, I would jump at the chance whenever my Uncle Arthur invited me to come along for a ride to visit his friend George so I could play with Betsy and Boris.

Like I said earlier, Uncle Arthur had two friends named Teddy. Teddy Number 1 was a big, goofy, friendly guy, almost like a human Boris, who was all herky-jerky with energy. He had a loud voice, but you could never make out what he was saying half the time because he had a hard time pronouncing words correctly. The reason why was because he had some kind of large, deformed teeth that made him look like he was permanently smiling because he couldn’t fit his lips over them and, on top of that, he had some kind of problem with his jaw that caused it to jut way out. He wore glasses that were almost as thick as my Uncle Arthur’s and bulgy kind of eyes that looked even more bulgy because they were magnified by his thick glasses.

I liked Teddy Number 1 even though we never really interacted much as he mostly just laughed and talked loud in his Teddy distorted language that my Uncle Arthur and his buddies seemed to understand. I also liked Teddy Number 2, okay just realized I should probably call them Teddy the First and Teddy the Second, instead of Teddy Number 1 and Number 2, anyways, so Teddy the Second was a really tiny guy, almost like a grown up version of my pal Dicky, and he was also bursting with energy like Boris and Teddy the First. He was probably about 10 years older than my Uncle Arthur and his buddies Joe, George and Teddy the First and, unlike my Uncle’s other buddies, who were French Canadian, he was Polish. He looked and sounded a bit like a really little Jimmy Durante. He even always had one of those kinds of hats that Jimmy Durante wore. He was another guy I could hardly ever understand what he was saying, not because he had messed up teeth and a jutting jaw, but because he talked rapid fire and didn’t feel like taking the time to fully pronounce his words. Somehow they all understood each other and really seemed to be happy together, except Joe who always seemed grouchy looking, no matter what, but you could still tell that deep inside he was grateful to be included, since nobody else could stand him.

3 Responses to Uncle Arthur’s Crazy Friends

  1. Louise Peloquin says:

    The following comment was meant for “Uncle Arthur’s Crazy Friends” by Charlie Gargiulo and NOT for my translation posted on May 7th.
    Apologies to the author!

    The way you bring these endearing “characters” to life makes us readers part of your family.
    Keep your stories comin’ Charlie!

  2. Elliott Jacobowitz says:

    Charlie, thanks for another tale about your Little Canada days. Your insight into details always makes for a good read.

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