Thursday, November 16, 2006


I’ve been thinking about terrorists, and the ideology that leads them to their behavior. If you get past the horrific damage, lost lives, pain and human suffering, it all just seems to be a comic and counterproductive way of going about things. I mean, how in the world do these people think that they are going to accomplish anything? Do they see Tony Blair saying Gee, that was all rather much, best we leave old Ireland to them and be done with it. Or the Knesset saying Wow, I always knew it happened, but right here in Morty’s falafel stand? Hand over the occupied territories and let’s get back to the sheckles.

They all seem to me to be a bunch of whiney spoiled kids holding their breath because Mom won’t serve them bologna sandwiches for lunch. Which is bad enough. But the part that really irks me is the lack of ingenuity. Instead of hunkering down and arriving at some enlightened way to illustrate their cause, these people just engage in the basest part of human nature. The innovative thinking that really gets the job done, like Gandhi’s Passive Resistance or Winston Churchill’s thundering overtures, is really where it’s at. Crashing airplanes into Metropolitan areas just tends to piss people off.

Now for a lesson in international relations and crises resolution, my Uncle Dick would be the guy to turn to. He was the sort who could have had an enormous effect on grander situations, had he chosen to take them up. But of course he just stuck to aluminum.

I remember once when I was about 13 or 14 we went off to look at an old car he was interested in buying. We went down this long unpaved driveway and came up on the rig and it’s owner, and before I could get out of the car my uncle had the guy knee deep in it. The part of the conversation I heard went something like this: “Ya know, you look a heck of a lot like this guy Timothy I was in the war with (my uncle was never in any war), heck of a guy that Tim was, could drink a fish out’ a water, hey, we found this great local beer on the way up, how ‘bout havin’ one (sound of two beers opening halfway through this sentence) anyway…. (here the guy actually chimes in that he has been mistaken for Timothy before) hey, I noticed ya’ got an old post and beam barn, ‘been thinkin’ about building one of those (you’d have to go through a box of nails before you could get my uncle to hammer one in unbent)…mind if I have a look”. ‘Next thing you know the two of them are jostling towards the barn like they’d been best friends from birth. Anyway, about 20 minutes later when he came back to find me sitting in the car with my second beer crotched, he tosses me the keys and tells me to follow him home. Never once bothering to discern whether I’d driven before, of course. Needless to say, if he paid half of what the car was worth, it was probably the worst deal he’d ever made.

Uncle Dick would tell anyone who asked that he was a purchasing agent for American Can, and that that was why he spent most of his professional life traveling. I think a microscopic evaluation of that claim would yield archeological remnants of fact, but nothing substantial enough to tuck into a shirt pocket. There was just something shady about the way he said it. That a large manufacturing concern would send someone like my uncle all over the world in search of good deals on equipment and raw materials was no great surprise. But everyone knew he was capable of coming back from two months in Siberia with a deep full body tan. And once, when I was there and he had just returned from the home office, I was surprised to see him dapper in a grey suit, and not surprised at all to see, upon closer inspection, that his tie revealed the tiny words “F… Y..” almost disappearing into pattern.

The other shady thing about my uncle was that he was always in the middle of rebuilding antique cars, but they were never getting rebuilt. But without exception their radios were always in stellar condition, and each served as the perfect place to sit listening, drinking and hiding from Aunt Joy. Oh yeah, that’s the other thing: he wasn’t my uncle. Everyone in my family referred to him and his wife as Uncle Dick and Aunt Joy, but they were related neither through name, birth or proximity to anyone I knew. An explanation was never offered nor solicited.

The thing you have to understand about my uncle, the part that makes this all OK, is that the guy was just so damn likable. There wasn’t a bar, ball game or board room that he couldn’t find a friend in. I’m pretty sure that if you put him in a Pygmy convention he’d shrink two feet for the occasion. So even though I’m pretty sure he only spoke English, I know his attitude translated just as well throughout his travels.

Anyway, one of the reasons my brother and I liked Uncle Dick so much was his genuine caring. Once, when we were quite young, he brought back this beautiful Geisha doll from Japan and told us the story of how he came across it. We knew the glass encased icon wasn’t the only load he was giving us, but none the less we sat riveted to the oration. Here’s how events unfolded:

Apparently he was in Japan purchasing aluminum. Now, I just want to reiterate here that in my adult life, especially upon reflection, I’ve come to understand that purchasing aluminum, like so many other explanations offered by my Uncle Dick, was most probably a metaphor. What the hell he was really doing in Japan, or wherever he was, was probably pretty damn far from purchasing aluminum. Refitting cargo ships with secret holds or Midget Formula One Interspecies Nude Racing would probably be a lot closer to home. Anyway, his story places him in Japan. In a bar, of course.

My Uncle goes on to explain the meanderings of his inebriated mind and how he came to befriend this fella who wanted to take a real American cowboy home to meet the family. You have to remember, I was only a kid when I first heard this story, so we’re talking early 1950’s or thereabouts, so the world had not gotten as small as it is today. And my uncle was describing the intricacies of Japanese culture as he saw it, with a fascination akin to discovering a herd of wild elephants playing pinochle in a downpour with lavender umbrellas held aloft betwixt jewel encrusted mandibles .

As a gesture of kindness, out of sheer curiosity or perhaps just pure lapse in judgment, these people had invited my uncle to spend his stay in their home, which must have delighted him, always eager for adventure and emersion. I wonder, though, what their school age children must have thought the following days as this bleary eyed Westerner came stumbling into their home without his trousers as they were heading off for breakfast and school.

Apparently one evening during this week the family was gathered in the living room, sharing their history and photos with my uncle. Suddenly the room turned somber, and the wife emerges from a closet with a cherished vase. According to its lore, it had been passed from generation to generation for untold centuries, and they wished to honor my uncle by showing it to him.

I’m not sure if the thing was an exceptional beauty, or if my uncle just felt obligated by the occasion to say so, but I guess the family was struck by his compliment…because they insisted that he pack it up and take it home with him. By no stretch of the imagination an idiot, Uncle Dick immediately surmised there was something afoul in Denmark. None the less the family had the pleasure of watching their treasured vase leave the home for the first time in the stewardship of a man who’d already proven himself to have a rather tenuous relationship with sobriety and thus gravity.

In the office the next day he takes a moment to call the “American Embassy” for advice, and is referred to a Shinto priest accustomed to deciphering these situations for drooling Americans. Just after he hangs up the phone it rings, and I guess the whopper-of-a-lifetime deal in terms of aluminum purchasing is on the other end. Some motorcycle concern had overextended itself, and needed the capital, and had a fleet at harbor waiting to be redirected. So my uncle and his vase were the only place for them to turn, and that meant, of course, very favorable conditions for negotiation.

The priest was at 1pm, and the aluminum laden motorcycle makers were at 3, and between them stood the bustling city of Osaka. The news of this sort of tonnage changing hands would reach home almost immediately, and that meant the trip would be over the same day. So making the deal worked for his professional interesests and against his personal one, that being, of course, his finding a way to return the vase without insulting his hosts. And squeezing in some drinking as well, of course.


Apparently there was a directory, a manual of sorts that had been established in the era of the Marshall plan. It wasn’t an official U.S. government document of course, but it may as well have been. Anyway, my Uncle carried a copy of it in his vest pocket like a bulletproof bible, and therein lay the addresses of every American owned or themed drinking establishment in the European and Pacific theatres. So that’s how he spotted the sign for Lefty’s.

Inside there was a one-armed man smoking a cigarette with one hand and pouring drinks with the other. He was tall, had sandy blonde hair and was about to become my Uncle’s best friend.

As my Uncle ordered a fourth double-scotch his cab driver stumbled in through the doorway. He was stumbling for two reasons, the first of which being that he was carrying a large, beautiful Japanese doll encased in glass. And the second being that my Uncle took it upon himself to share a bottle he had tucked away for emergencies while the two sped across town. Tapping him on the shoulder the cabby inquired as to weather they would be staying much longer, and intoned in a delightfully respectful way that even a most understanding judge would strip him of his license for ingesting a quarter of the liquor he had drank already. An instant before the cabby hit the deck my Uncle rescued the doll from the fall, and as he did Lefty, with a mischievous grin, offered a lavish compliment upon the doll. Looking around my Uncle noticed that the place was surrounded by the things, and realized that the bartender must have acquired some secret way of coming about his collection. Suddenly remembering the last time a lavish compliment had changed hands, he was struck by a bellwether idea.

Turning to replace the bottle of Laphroaig on his top shelf the bartender smiled a bit, having realized that my Uncle was wise to his play on local custom. But as he faced the bar again he found only a 100 dollar bill fluttering to the place were my uncle had sat.

Returning to the Dirosaki residence my Uncle detected an absence of warmth, though the scene was surprisingly well-composed. Removing his shoes to join the family in the sitting room, he was a site composed of three things: a tall Westerner and two large objects tucked under each arm. Under one was a delicately wrapped and packaged family heirloom, while under the other rested the doll.

Assuming a campfire composure, my Uncle began ranting on and on about the figurine. He wondered over its finery, remarked on its lifelike complexion, expressed disbelief at its otherworldly expression and, most importantly, dwelled for portions of an hour on his own fine taste and discerning sensibility. He did not neglect to mention that it was meant as a present for his nephews, and how they cherished the exotic gifts he never failed to lavish on them. Finally, worn to the bone by this and the accumulation of six days of indescribably eccentric behavior, the father broke down and offered my Uncle a compliment on the doll. And that, of course, is how my Uncle achieved the Got’cha: the doll for the vase, an even trade.

Now, that story is not based in fact, it would be more accurately said to be based in what my Uncle Dick considered to be fact. That being equal parts of reality, whiskey, hallucinogenic drugs and whatever indigenous substances he could find growing outside his hotel. But that’s just the thing, he was vivacious enough to be allowed to define his environs. As their card was translated for us we came to realize that even the Dirosakis knew this.

There was an air about my uncle which added to his demeanor, his way of casually assuming that everyone in his vicinity was as drunk as he was, or at least should be. Imagine, he could turn something like that into an endearing quality? And of all the people I know who worked in NY, he is the one lost to the towers. That is the one day, among all days, that he chose to be where he claimed to be. I am sometimes overwhelmed by how senselessly so much was cast to those plumes.

But when I look at the demure smile on the face of that Japanese doll standing in the foyer, I know there’s more. Maybe he saved a life that day…or maybe he had something to do with the plot. But nah, if he was going to go through the trouble of toppling two buildings he’d have at least had the ingenuity to find a way to leave them standing.

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