Friday, March 7, 2008

My Uncle Tom

On December 28, 1959, “Wishful Thinking” by Wynn Stewart began a 22-week run in the Country Top 40. Wynn Stewart, whom I featured in my Wednesday post, wrote the tune with his sister Beverly. They were talking about another sister, Patty, who was homesick. If you listen at all to country music, you will recognize this tune as a superb precursor to the Bakersfield sound that made Buck Owens and Merle Haggard stars; in fact, Merle used this shuffle sound as late as 1984 in “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room.”

I can appreciate the song now, and I would have appreciated it somewhat in 1963, because the jukebox in the Dwyer Café in Shoals, Indiana was jammed with country music, and I played my share of it when I was visiting my grandparents. Three-year-old caithiseach was a rocker by nature, but he was also open-minded enough to enjoy good songs in any genre. (I have been mocked for refusing to despise any style of music per se, but I don’t care.)

“Wishful Thinking” starts with a confident, clean fiddle, adds a tasteful steel guitar, and turns to a driving shuffle beat. I have always been a sucker for shuffles, and the pace allows the instruments to fill the sonic space without rushing. Wynn Stewart’s lyrics, likewise, combine tasteful phrasing with a melody that is in his wheelhouse; he nails every note he sings.

Why was it, then, that I didn’t play the A side of this single for 35 years? Simply because the B side imprinted itself on me, and there was no time for “Wishful Thinking” when I wanted a Wynn Stewart fix.

The B side, “Uncle Tom Got Caught,” evoked images of my Uncle Tom, the source of most of my 45s, getting into trouble. Since he was about 45 years old, the idea of his getting caught at some mischief struck me as incredibly funny. And now, as I write this essay on Christmas Day, 2007, it’s time I introduced my readers to the man who made this blog possible.

Thomas Joseph Gibbons Jr. was born in Gary, Indiana in 1917. He was the fourth of ten children born to Thomas Sr. and Henrietta Brown Gibbons. Tommy was getting a career started at U.S. Steel when World War II broke out. He spent a good chunk of time in the Pacific Theater. In fact, he became the indispensable aide to a general there (because he could type) and wound up being required longer than most draftees. When he got home, he stayed away from his parents’ house for a couple of weeks while he fattened himself up, for fear that his mother would collapse if she saw him.

He and his wife didn’t have children, and I became a surrogate son to him. He adored his youngest sister, Phyllis, who happened to be my mother, so he drove 75 blocks from work a couple of times a week to visit us. That’s when the records arrived, as well as other tidbits and the occasional spiffy gift, including a monogrammed gold pinky ring. Holy cow. I wore that thing to school. It just now strikes me to wonder what my classmates thought of that when I was in the first grade.

My mom’s health was always a bit fragile after a bout of rheumatic fever when she was a teen, and Uncle Tom was protective of her. He worried that she was taking on too much when she wanted to adopt a set of infant twins, boys whose foster care with my mom he had helped arrange. Something got said, and Uncle Tom stopped coming over.

Uncle Tom arranged for me to attend Goodfellow Camp, a summer camp near Lake Michigan that was run by the Goodfellow Club of U.S. Steel. I attended from 1969 to 1974. I learned to swim there, and I was there when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. He landed after lights out, so we weren’t allowed to see the video feed. I heard his words on the radio.

When my mom died in January, 1970, Uncle Tom let my Aunt Eileen do most of the mop-up work with me. He wasn’t unavailable, just knew when to keep his distance. I saw more of him at his mother’s funeral in 1974. We talked about how things were, and about the future.

My dad remarried, and I lost touch with most of my mother’s family. The next time I saw Uncle Tom was in 1978. I had just gotten off work as a dishwasher at a restaurant near a mall in Merrillville, Indiana, and he and his wife were buying chocolate at the Fannie May store. I was walking over to them, but I froze, because I was covered in muck from work, and I was embarrassed. And that was that.

In 1986, I got a letter from his older sister, Viola. She told me he was at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, suffering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I was in Bloomington, Indiana, starting a PhD program. I called the hospital and got him on the phone. I asked if he knew who was calling. He guessed that it was another nephew, Tom Gibbons. I said no, it’s Seán Dwyer. He repeated my name slowly, seemingly savoring it. I told him I was coming to see him. And I did. I drove eleven hours the next day and went to his room. He, his wife and I visited for a while. He said, among other things, that he was very glad to see I had survived my teen years, after what had gone on from the time I turned nine. They also put me back in touch with Aunt Eileen.

They were living in Florida then, so I didn’t see him after his treatment. He lived about two years, and we stayed in touch by phone. I was able to tell him my wife was going to have a second child, whose name would be Thomas if he turned out to be a boy. He did, but my son Tom was still in the womb when we attended Uncle Tom’s funeral.

I lost a lot of opportunities to have more time with my uncle, and with my mother’s entire family. I’ll take this opportunity to suggest that, if you ever have stepchildren, you help them stay in touch with their biological family. There is no value in being territorial, jealous or afraid of the results of such generosity. My Uncle Tom would never have tried to keep me or turn me against my parents, but some more time with him would have been a big help to me.

And maybe all that makes this an appropriate tune to spin now. Thanks for the 45s, Uncle Tom.

Wynn Stewart, Wishful Thinking

Wishful Thinking label scan


stackja1945 said...

Wynn Stewart and the song are not known to me.
Buck Owens and Merle Haggard I know.
Wynn Stewart style is similar to the two Johnnys, Preston and Horton.
I also enjoy good songs and refuse to despise any style of music.
Families do fragment unfortunately.

Yah Shure said...

Sean, thank you for sharing a chapter about your Uncle Tom. Your words helped to explain why those cherished 45s from your Uncle are so meaningful to you to this day. The power of the gift of music is truly great. No wonder you want to track down every one of those "Great Vinyl Meltdowners!"

The "shuffle sound" of the Wynn Stewart record also reminded me, albeit in a less-twangy fashion, of Don Williams' number one late 1986 country hit, "Then It's Love."

caithiseach said...

Folks, thanks for the comments. It really was time I showed that my uncle was important. The 45s are my only link to him, so I think you figured out for me why they matter so much. Apart from being music, of course, which matters a whole lot all by itself.

senormedia said...

Great story.