I was about ten years old when Uncle Arthur Benson came to visit my father. Arthur’s sister was my grandmother, so he was my father’s uncle and I’d never met him because he lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where Hester, his ex-wife, and family lived. I guess he could have visited when I was born but I don’t remember him. His brother, Uncle Louis, lived right next door; my parents and Lou shared a duplex. I’m not sure how other families were in the 1950’s but my Dad was a little embarrassed by his Uncle Lou, who was unmarried at age fifty, wore too much gold jewelry, decorated his home in the Louis XIV, Versailles style, had an elaborate flower garden and a succession of male “roommates”. My Dad would always say “Louis” with a lisp and bend his pinkie in a certain way, long before Dr. Evil did it in the Austin Powers movies fifty years later. It’s a wonder that any kid made it out of the fifties not homophobic with the attitudes that prevailed during that time.
Arthur had a strange living situation with his ex-wife. She owned a huge and elaborate antebellum home in the city of Louisville. After their divorce, Uncle Arthur lived in the basement and paid her rent. Even as a ten year old, I found that unusual, of course I wouldn’t have known about it if my parents hadn’t discussed it in front of me, so even today, years after the deaths of all the people concerned, I am still reflecting their biases.
The day of Arthur’s arrival was a momentous occasion, my mother charging through the house cleaning and polishing anything that stood still for longer than thirty seconds. Even Boots the dog, a grumpy Toy Manchester got a bath. I decided to bring some levity to the situation by showing Uncle Arthur the old smoking ten year old gag I got in the mail through a comic book advertisement and my paper route money. It was a cardboard tube that looked just like a cigarette. It was loosely stuffed with cotton. The jokester child would pour baby powder or talcum powder in one end, add more cotton, then, when the moment was right, blow through the tube and hilarity would ensue. What a fun way to ingratiate myself to my new best friend, Uncle Arthur.
Well, we had the best meal my mom made, pressure cooker pot roast, carrots, potatoes, and jello salad. My folks even got out the Manishewitz Concord wine and Seven Up, in which they indulged only at Christmas and New Years. I should have known when Uncle Arthur refused the wine spritzer, delivering a mini-lecture on the evils of demon rum, that the cigarette gag would go over like a lead balloon, but my youthful desire to make Uncle Arthur laugh clouded my judgement, and I had no knowledge of the Pentecostal denomination in Kentucky to which Arthur had converted from the Lutheranism of his youth in Washington, DC. Anyway, after dinner, my mother cleared the table and my sister and I were given a pass on washing the dishes in order to entertain our great uncle Arthur in the living room. The moment for fun had come. My father went to the basement to smoke a real cigarette, another social cue which I did not pick up on. Normally after supper he smoked in the living room, reading the paper and watching Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite.
I sat across from Uncle Arthur with my back to the window so the powder would look even more like smoke in the sunlight. My sister cannily slipped upstairs to her room. I was on my own. I had secreted the gag cigarette in one of Dad’s old Chesterfield packs. We conversed on the events of the day: Alaska being made a state, the rock and roll stars who were killed in a plane crash, and I weighed in on the singing talent of my favorite actress, Annette Funicello of the Mickey Mouse Club. As I launched into a comparative analysis of Annette versus Darlene, I casually tapped out my bogus cigarette and mimed lighting up, holding my hands as if I had a lighter, puffing lightly through the white tube. It looked great!
“Bruce, what in the name of all that is decent and right are you doing, son?” Uncle Arthur exclaimed in such emotional distress that his voice went into a uncontrolled falsetto.
“Oh, don’t worry Uncle Arthur, Mom and Dad don’t mind,” I cooly retorted, channeling Cary Grant.
“What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” he shrieked and I began to get frightened.
“I’m sorry Uncle Arthur…It’s not a real cigarette. Look…,” I blew into it harder and a great puff of powder shot out all over the living room floor.
“IT DOESN’T MATTER FOR VERILY I SAY UNTO IF YOU HAVE SINNED IN YOUR HEART, YOU HAVE ALREADY SINNED, Bruce kneel down with me right here and now and pray for your eternal soul.”
He put his hands on my shoulders and slid me off the sofa on to my knees.
“Dear Heavenly Father, PLEASE FORGIVE THIS CHILD FOR HIS WILLFUL AND SINNING WAYS…HE KNOWS NOT WHAT HE HAS DONE AND OFFENDS YOU UNINTENTIONALLY FOR HE IS ILL-TAUGHT AND HAS NO MATURE GUIDANCE IN THE WAYS OF HOLINESS…KAREEMADOLLA HOLLA MANAHAWKIN TELL A HARUM DA AMEN, HOLY JESUS, AMEN, AMEN, AMEN.”
By this time we were rocking back and forth. Tears were pouring down his face and his body was shaking and shivering as if he were freezing cold. I was terrified.
“NOW BREAK THAT DEVIL’S COFFIN NAIL AND PLEAD FORGIVENESS TO HOLY JESUS,”
He put both his hands on my head.
“FOR THE VIOLATION OF HIS HOLY TEMPLE, YOUR PERFECT BODY, MIND AND SPIRIT, SAY YOU ARE SORRY, BOY.”
SAY YOU ARE SORRY TO JESUS
I’m sorry, Jesus.
HALLELUJAH, HALLELUJAH, AMEN, AMEN…AMEN.
Then out of breath, panting, we rose up from the living room carpet and sat back down, me on the chair in front of the window, he on the sofa, opposite the Zenith TV.
At that moment Mom came into the living room, tea towel in hand drying a casserole dish. “Well, boys, what’s going on in here? What’s that powder doing all over my nice clean rug I just vacuumed two hours ago? “
“It’s just a joke I was showing Uncle Arthur. I’ll clean it up.” I tried to laugh.
“You bet you will, Mister. Where’s your father?”
“I think he might be in the basement, smo…uh…just in the basement.” I stuttered.
“Well, alright, Dad’s going to drop you and Uncle Arthur off at Great Falls tomorrow on his way to work. Arthur wants to take you fishing! Won’t that be nice!”
“Uh, yeah…Mom…that will be…uh…swell. Just swell.”
Bruce C. Snyder, Charlotte,NC June 22, 2019