I was on a fishing trip with the Old Man and my Uncle Johnny when I was eleven, around the time I was starting to think for myself. Uncle Johnny wasn’t really my uncle but was the husband of my mother’s cousin. I was told to call him Uncle Johnny, so I did as I was told. He was a good-natured guy who told hilarious stories from his days as a “bag man” for the Chicago Mob. He also had incredibly large ears, which is why I believe he’d inherited the nickname “Eavesdropper,” which was shortened to just “Dropper.”
We had stopped at a roadside cafe on our way to the Wisconsin fishing hole, which was unusual because the Old Man hated to stop or take a break from driving. Once we were on the road, that was it, express from start to finish. Memories of family vacations driving long distances always included having to pee in a plastic bottle. He wouldn’t even stop for my mother, when she needed to go, making her wait for a gas station instead. She later got a bedpan from her friend that worked at the hospital. My younger sister always wet her pants on vacation road trips. Then the Old Man would start hollering at my mother, saying it was her fault for letting my sister drink too much water.
My older brother was quite an inventor and devised a contraption made from a piece of hose. It had a metal funnel on one end to pee into and the other end he hung out the window. I thought it was brilliant, but unfortunately it would flush back if you didn’t piss down the hose. And when he finally did succeed in pissing downward, the piss was swept up by the wind and got my Old Man’s arm hanging out the window all wet. That was the end of the “Easy Pisser.”
Anyway, Uncle Johnny wanted to get some lunch and liked the rhubarb pie at this particular cafe near Janesville. So the Old Man gave into his request after arguing about it for twenty minutes.
Johnny gave me fifty cents for the jukebox and the Old Man matched his donation.
“What do you want me to play?” I asked.
“Play whatever you want! I don’t care,” Johnny replied.
“Ya, whatever you want,” the Old Man begrudgingly agreed.
I knew better and I don’t know what made me think I could actually play whatever I wanted, but I gave it a shot.
I made the mistake of playing “Wooly Bully,” which pissed the Old Man off. He thought Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs were all black musicians, when actually they were all white guys.
My Old Man was a racist down to his Catholic soul and hated Blacks. He always used the ‘N’ word. I never found out the reason why.
“What the fuck you wasting my money on?” he hollered. “Wooly Bully, what is that shit? You’re not supporting a bunch of niggers with my fucking money.”
He got up and pulled the plug on the jukebox. Then he slapped me on the back of the head.
“What the hell are you thinking? Dumbshit!”
“Hey take it easy on the kid,” Uncle Johnny said. “He didn’t do anything wrong. You said he could play whatever he wanted. What’s wrong with you?”
I’d never seen anyone stand up to the Old Man before and was even more surprised by his reaction.
“Ya, well he knows better than to play that shit.”
“Relax, take it easy. This is a fishing trip to get away from all the stress. Come on, give the kid a break.”
Now I believe the reason my Old Man didn’t give it to Uncle Johnny is because he was connected, a “made man,” and you don’t want to be screwing around with the Italians.
I ordered a cheeseburger, which pissed the Old Man off even more because they charged an extra fifteen cents for a single slice of cheese. After my Old Man bitching about the overpriced cheeseburger, my Uncle Johnny bought me a piece of rhubarb pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. It was excellent.
After finishing our meal, Uncle Johnny lit up a cigar, which caused the Old Man to start bitching about the smell and laying down the law about smoking it in the car. The Old Man chain smoked cigarettes like a convict, of course, never considering anyone else’s feelings.
“Come on John, let’s get on the road.”
“Right behind you. Come on Santi.”
“Why do you call him that? His name is Judge. He’s going to be a big shot lawyer someday.”
Unfortunately, he had no idea I would end up appearing before so many judges in my lifetime.
We stood at the counter, waiting for the waitress to come with our bill. I could feel the tension stretching thinner and thinner, like a rubber band getting ready to snap. Johnny was eyeing some Payday, Hersheys and Milky Way candy bars while the old man grew more impatient. I heard Johnny quietly humming before he suddenly started singing and dancing around all nutty and crazy like, “Wooly Bully, Wooly Bully, Wooly Bully. I kinda like that song. It sticks with you, huh Santiago.”
“I guess so?” I replied. He had me laughing, causing me to forget all about the jukebox incident.
“Excuse me miss,” the Old Man shouted at the waitress. “I’d like to pay the bill and get on the road, if you don’t mind?”
She walked over, glaring as she slapped the bill down on the counter in front of him.
“Guess she doesn’t want a tip, acting like that,” he said to the cashier.
She never said a word, just handed him the change. He walked out in front of us as we followed, but before exiting I saw Uncle Johnny throw a five spot on the counter.
On the side of the restaurant sat an old black man with a guitar, playing and singing some gospel music. I have always been attracted to music. Any type of music. I ran over to the raggedy old man and he gave me a toothy grin. I had seventy-five cents left that I didn’t put in the jukebox, which I threw into the hat sitting next to him.
“Now you’re trying to piss me off,” the Old Man screamed, grabbing my arm and dragging me back to the car. “Why are you giving that bum money? He’s probably a drunk and will spend it on booze.”
“I hope so,” I wanted to say but knew better.
I never wanted to go on this fishing trip in the first place, but Uncle Johnny thought it would be nice to spend time together. He liked me and always gave me a Christmas and birthday present. So I thought it was the right thing to do.
“Now check the boat trailer and the shit in the boat,” the Old Man ordered. “Make sure everything is okay. Go on ya little shit!”
I don’t know what got into me then, but it was to be my first act of retaliation against the Old Man. I walked around the back of the car while he was checking under the hood, unlocking the hitch on the boat trailer.
“Looks good Dad!” I yelled as I got in the car.
“Here, got us some candy bars,” Uncle Johnny said, handing me three Milky Ways. “They were free just sitting there.”
“Uncle Johnny, did you pay for these? “
“Believe me Santiago I’ve paid, I’ve paid.”
He gave me his signature wink and a smile, rubbing the top of my head affectionately.
It was a few miles north of Madison when the boat and trailer finally went off the side of the road. It crashed into the trees, flipping several times before its fiberglass body shattered to pieces.
We ended up fishing from the shore, but surprisingly we caught a large amount of walleyes and crappies. The Old Man never confronted me about the boat. And I never offered an explanation.
Whenever Uncle Johnny saw me after that trip, he gave me a secret wink and then he’d start singing, “Wooly Bully, Wooly Bully, Wooly Bully.”
I think he knew.