Twenty-five years ago, today, I was touring Europe (Switzerland, Austria, Germany) with the Ball State University Chamber Choir, under the direction of Dr. Douglas Amman. On this day, we were wrapping up the tour with a few days in Heidelberg, Germany.
That afternoon, back in Elwood, Indiana, my family learned the dreadful news that my uncle, Ron Barmes, 35, was dead. His automobile had run into a concrete wall/poll in the Chesapeake Bay-Tunnel Bridge.
That Wednesday afternoon, our plane landed in Cincinnati’s airport just as the earthquake hit. We entered the terminal to the sound of buzzers and much harried activity. I called home to let the family know our arrival time would be delayed due to a mix-up in the bus schedule. My 12 year old brother, Destin, answered the telephone. When I asked where everyone was, he slipped with, “At the funeral home.” Destin wanted to leave it at that, but I forced him to tell me what had occurred.
“Uncle Ron was in a car wreck. He was despondent and his car ran into the bridge.”
I don’t recall the following few moments.
Once the world stopped spinning, and the sounds of the airport’s terminal restored, I can still recall seeing Warren Miller, a fellow choir member, and dear friend, finishing the telephone conversation with my brother while his outstretched arm steadied me against the wall in the circular phone booth bay. Warren summoned Dr. Amman, who sat next to me, his familiar paternal arm tightly around my shoulder.
The remainder of the airport stay, and return trip to Muncie, are long faded.
3:00am, we arrived at the music building’s loading dock. Mother and Dad were there to greet me, as were my summer roommates, Stacia Bolakowski and Jeanette Daily. The roomies had brought my suit, and other clothes I would need for the funeral.
The darkness of the night gradually moved into day. The shock of the nightmare had evolved into a combination of the ethereal, and a constantly turning kaleidoscope of memories.
Ironically, only two weeks before as I packed for the tour, I grabbed my well-read edition of Sandburg’s LINCOLN: The Prairie Years & The War Years. Twenty-five years later, I still do not understand why I packed such a large item for a tour.
In July 1974, Grandpa Leroy& Grandma Donna took me with them to visit Uncle Ron in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was stationed in the US Navy. It still remains one of my most memorable vacations. I had saved up $20 so I could go to the bookstore at Military Shopping Plaza to purchase the Sandburg book I’d spied during an earlier visit in March. Uncle Ron made numerous attempts to purchase the book ($15.72 with the tax), but I insisted it was my purchase. To a soon-to-be ten year old, this was of great value.
A day or so later, when we bid farewell to Uncle Ron at the naval pier lined with the tall military-gray ships, Grandpa did not wish to see him walk away. Grandma encouraged Grandpa to remain parked until Uncle Ron was out of sight. Never one to handle seeing Uncle Ron depart, I sat in the backseat, trying to look at my Lincoln book through tears. As I turned pages without really seeing the content, I discovered an envelope. The note inside was from Uncle Ron. He described how proud he was that I would make such a mature purchase after saving my money for several months. In the envelope was a twenty-dollar bill, with a reminder from my uncle to purchase something a 9 year old boy would want.
Today, whenever family leaves my home following a visit, we stand on the porch until they are out of sight. My nephews, Parker and Freddie, and their little sister, Carolyne, are showered with books – and yes, there are Lincoln books presented them as gifts. One day, my nephew, Parker, who turns 7 today (a mixed blessing) will receive my favorite book, Sandburg’s LINCOLN: The Prairie Years & The War Years.
My bedroom is filled with Lincoln memorabilia, many items which were gifts from Uncle Ron. The Lincoln bust, a 1972 gift, has, for forty years, traveled with me from 825 Main Street to Ball State to Ohio, and ceremonially rests on the antique marble-top table by my bed. Uncle Ron often sent me magazine articles on Lincoln, or postcards with Lincoln’s likeness. The pocket watches I received as a young boy will become generational gifts to nephews, Freddie (my godson) and Parker.
The blooming of my Mary Todd daylily seemed a fitting tribute to this day. In some ways, it serves as a reminder that Uncle Ron is probably watching over me, still cheering me on, still encouraging my love of Lincoln, and always reminding me what being an uncle means.
And, the daylily’s arrival on this day seems to celebrate Parker’s 7th birthday, and the continuation of this wonderful lineage of uncles and nephews.
“Being an uncle is better than being a Superhero.” – Anonymous
“An uncle is a bond of faith that even time can’t sever, a gift to last all of our lives an uncle is forever.” – Anonymous