Everyone Should Have an Uncle Ken

Did I ever tell you about Uncle Ken?

He was a hippy before there were hippies.

In the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s...he traveled. He traveled from Iowa to California, up to British Columbia, Canada, and back to Iowa. Sometimes he'd be gone only weeks, sometimes months, sometimes a year or more.

And then, he'd come home again.

My father said he only came back to Iowa to stay with us when he needed money. I don't know if that's true. But he always worked when he came back to stay with us. Stocking shelves at Penneys, working at the gas tanks on the outskirts of town, cleaning up after the flood of 1950. Or was it 1952.

He'd help with chores, feed the dog. Babysit for us.

And, then, he'd disappear again. Off to California, back to Canada. In his panel truck.

Ah, his panel truck. A marvel to a young girl stuck in Iowa. It carried all he needed, from campstove to bedding. Everything he owned, I guess.

The best part was his musical ability. He could play the harmonica, the banjo, the drums. All at once.

He rolled his own cigarets. His fingers were yellow with tobacco. But I never saw him take a drink.

I saw his high school year book, East High School, Sioux City, Iowa, 1927, not too long ago. It said his nickname was "Barney," although I never heard anyone call him that, and he was editor of The Tomahawk, the politically incorrect name of the year book.

It was still The Tomahawk when I graduated from the same school, and the football team was still equally politically incorrect. The Black Raiders.

Uncle Ken never married. When he died, in British Columbia, I was told he left all of his possessions to some young Indian children. Another relative told me he left them to a woman, perhaps a girlfriend, she wasn't sure. And, in fact, that's about all I know about his personal life.

Last Christmas, I received a letter from Canada, from a woman, expressing greetings of the season and sympathy for the death of my mother. Who, she is, I don't know. But she sent along a small box, a box no more than three by three by one half inch. A box of Uncle Kens possessions.

She called them trinkets.

A tintype photo, which she called very unique. Along with my great grandmothers locket with Kens baby picture in it. And, a lock of his baby hair, tied with red ribbon.

She said she guessed he must have been quite a scholar, and enclosed a high school debate club medal and his National Honor Society medal. There were two other tiny medals, too worn to read.

A token good for one ride on the Sioux City streetcars. And a token "Good for 5 cents in trade" at the "Hoffman House, Remsen, Iowa."

A tiny penknife, red, white and blue. A crystal keychain.

And a tiny, very tiny, about the size of your thumbnail, ivory elephant.

(I guess Uncle Ken was a Republican.)

Where do you put things like this? After nine months they're still on my desk, in the same small blue box.

And, how can I explain to anyone how much these dozen items mean to me?

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