An excerpt from a chapter in Calico Lane
Katzenjammer Kids and Casper
Dad’s oldest brother, Basil–everyone called him Washo–came home from the Army and moved into Baba’s side of the house. He worked in the factory at the end of our street. I could count on Uncle Washo to come to Baba’s kitchen for lunch, and sometimes I’d sit at the table while he and Baba ate their usual bowls of Borscht. He hugged his soup bowl and made slurping noises, but I noticed Auntie Heley didn’t correct him or tell him to sit straight.
I stared at Uncle Washo, the strongest and biggest person in the family. Uncle Washo’s pants ended above his ankles, and white socks showed from the tops of his black boots, unlike my dad’s pants that covered his socks. My uncle rolled up the sleeves on his shirts because if he didn’t, they’d stop above his wrists. His voice was soft. He had dark, curly hair on the top of his head, but around his ears, he didn’t have much hair, and, on special days like Sundays, he slicked his hair with slimy gel. His teeth were big and white, and his smile stretched from ear to ear–the happiest face I ever knew.
Uncle Washo kid-sat me while Mom and Jayne napped. One day, back when I was four, he loaded me into his car and drove us to the Pretzel Place. He placed me on a high stool that spun and made me dizzy. I dipped pretzels into ginger ale while my uncle laughed and enjoyed a beer with his friends. This loud, smokey place was our secret. When I became a teenager, I realized the Pretzel Place was a tavern named Betty’s. Dad would have flipped.
* * *
Uncle Washo called the three of us ‘the katzenjammer kids.’ I hoped it was because we made him laugh and not because we were a headache. On Saturday mornings, my sisters and I hurried to keep up with his long strides as we trekked into the field to hunt for bunnies and wildflowers. He did the butter check by holding a little yellow flower, called a buttercup, under our chins.
* * *
Auntie Heley told me that Uncle Washo received the most spankings when they were kids. He may have been the oldest, but not the smartest, and their father refused to tolerate Washo’s senselessness. “Washo is attracted to trouble like a duck is to water,” Auntie Heley said.
One summer afternoon, my friend, Roger, and I sat on a fat limb in the apple tree in Baba’s garden. From the tree limb, we could see for miles. We liked climbing the tree, especially at the end of the summer when it smelled like baked apples. Roger was smart; he was teaching me how to be a spy. On this summer day, the branches had all their leaves, “We’re camouflaged,” Roger said excitedly; and I asked what the word meant. “No one can see us, silly,” was my friend’s answer.
The door to the kitchen opened and Uncle Washo appeared. He wore his Sunday, bright-white shirt–the sleeves rolled up to his elbows–his black curly hair greased flat on his head. He sauntered across the yard. Roger’s father worked on Saturday afternoons, so Uncle Washo visited Roger’s mom so she wouldn’t be lonely.
Baba came barreling out of the house, the screen door banged, and the nasty cat flew from behind the patio chair. Baba flapped her babushka and yelled in her low-Russian, “Washo, vee budzetse zastreleny!” (Basil, you’re going to get yourself shot!)
Roger and I laughed so hard we almost fell out of the tree. Baba shook her head and returned to the patio, where she slumped onto the wooden swing. I didn’t understand Baba’s worries because Uncle Washo reminded me of a real-live teddy bear. He was tender and kind. Why would someone shoot him? Still, if there were going to be gunshots, Roger and I had the perfect seats for the show.
* * *
Back in the days of steam trains and before there were gates that automatically lowered to stop traffic, there was a small hut near the tracks where a man waited for the trains. Bud, the crossing guard on Hill Street, was Uncle Washo’s best friend. My uncle and I sat with Bud in the little flag shanty next to the tracks. The guard chewed something that wasn’t gum, it was black and tarry, and after a few chews, he spit black syrup into a tin cup. It smelled worse than Janet’s diaper. The wooden shack rumbled, and the distant steam whistle on the train blew; my six-year-old eyes widened with excitement as the train approached. My uncle’s friend stepped out into the middle of the street, blew into his whistle, and held his flag high. The cars stopped.
I treasure the whistle Bud gave me when I told him we were moving. The smell of Bud’s chewing tobacco inside the whistle has faded over the years.
* * *
In Scranton, during my Junior College days, I often walked past the county building where my uncle worked. Uncle Washo preferred shoveling snow over the factory job. He smiled and waved as he leaned against his shovel. That winter, Uncle Washo slipped on ice and developed a blood clot. In his hospital room, the day before he died, we shared stories about the years we lived in Mayfield. He smiled his huge smile and said, “You girls are my katzenjammer kids.”
Every now and then, I’ll stretch my arms around my soup bowl and think about Uncle Washo.
* * *
To spend time with Baba and Auntie Heley, I had to go down our stairs, out to the patio, and cross over to the kitchen door on Baba’s side. If Auntie Heley had her ‘face on’ and was ‘slaving over the hot stove’–another one of her routines–it was okay to enter. A locked door was our spy code for ‘come back later.’ Auntie Heley was the best spy person; she knew about codes, secrets, and pretending.
Auntie Heley said my first mission as a spy was to discover what happened to the nasty cat that hung around the sheds because all of a sudden, it vanished. Dad was at our table, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. I interrupted him in my loudest voice, “Daddy?”
“What already, Judy? What is it?”
“Daddy, what happened to the cat?”
All he could say was, “What cat?” Dad was of no help.
Even though I was drenched in fear, I searched for clues everywhere, anticipating that the shabby cat would spring from one of the outbuildings. To help me, Uncle Washo made a pair of make-believe binoculars from two cardboard rolls taped together and said, “Now you can look into the field without leaving the yard.”
After much searching, my uncle explained cats sometimes go away and find new homes. That was a noteworthy conclusion, as I never saw the cat again. For a moment, I felt sorry the cat didn’t have a name. Casper would’ve been a good name since he was white and kind of spooky.