Bill’s Babe and the Return of Uncle Ernest
Nichol’s Restaurant, looking north towards City Dock, circa 1950
Schaefer’s Bar, One of Uncle Ernest’s favorites. L to R: Freddy Mivis, Monica Breeza, Bill Reynolds, and Beanie Beaston, circa 1940. Inset: Schaefer’s original Coaster.
When Uncle Ernest visited us for the second time, I wasn’t home at the farm. Oh sure, observant reader, you remember my Uncle Ernest. He’s the one who told me how he was swallowed by that catfish and taken to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I know that Unk would never try to trick his young cousin by exaggerating his adventures. And so, I always listened carefully so I could remember them and hash them over in my mind when I couldn’t sleep at night.
But that day when he arrived I had gone into town to dive off City Dock into the canal. That’s where Pell Gardens is now, but in the mid-forties instead of a garden it was occupied by apartment buildings and Nichols’ Restaurant. The most popular form of recreation for us Chesapeake City kids was diving off the north side of the dock and even off the east side where the ferry surged past every half hour. Grason Stubbs, who lived there in one of the apartments, used to race it in as far as the first piling. He swam so close to it that we all thought he’d be sucked under its hull.
He never beat it in, but churning water with thrashing arms and legs, he gave it a good run. Our Cecil Sisyphus, he always labored to reach his goal. In Grason’s case it was to reach the finish line first, that first ferry slip piling. So, never giving up, his triumph was in the attempt. For me he’ll always be striving alongside that ferry, his red head bobbing along with the furious water.
But, as I started to tell you before Grason interrupted, I wasn’t home when Uncle Ernest arrived via outstretched thumb. Not knowing he was there, I had stopped off across the road from our farm to see old man Bill Herman. What made me stop to see him was a cracking, thudding sound coming from the road right next to his garden. Old Bill was in his tomato patch searching for trespassing box turtles. And when he found one he’d heave it up over the fence onto the macadam road where its shell would land with a sickening crunch.
Anyway, I stopped in and he came up to me cussing the turtles and the occasional car that sped over them. He’d look at me with his one good eye and say about the drivers, “Goldurn fools; they’ve got more money than brains—not worth the gun power it would take to blow them to Hades.” No, wait. He didn’t say Hades . . . something close to it. So there he was looking down at me with that one-eyed, arrogant stare—tall, erect, peering down his hooked beak at me, with his one eye, for that’s all he had, his sightless eye sunken under ravaged, brown-wrinkled skin. “Well booooyeeee!” he wheezed, extending the vowels with a high-rising pitch and turning his head to spit out a lavish brown stream of tobacco juice. “You entertain Babe for a minute; I’ll be right back.”
And so, waving his hand backwards in disgust, he limped over towards his orchard. So I ran over to watch Babe, Bill’s work horse, as she grazed. When I talked to her she trotted over to me and I saw that she was tormented by a swarm of buzzing, frenetic flies and gnats. Then, suddenly, the father of all horse flies appeared with supreme political authority. About two inches long and about the size of a man’s thumb, he established residence on Babe’s shank. Babe snorted and shivered, rippling her skin just where that ugly fly was on her body. The shiver did no good so she swished her tail with a quick slash that knocked the bugger off. If you think that swat discouraged the monster you’d be mistaken, because he landed on her again, forward, just out of the tail’s reach. Babe shivered several more times, with each shiver stronger that the one before until the last one which was almost an audible shutter. Then she stomped her hooves hard a few times . . . no good. That repulsive fly had dug in, had clung tight and snug, had buried its life-sucking head into Babes hide.
Mad and disgusted, I slid under the fence rail, ran over and smacked the sucker as hard as I could. Babe barged ahead a few feet and I saw the mangled fly embedded into her coat. Then I looked at my hand. My palm was laved with rich, bright blood—sticky and glistening radiantly in the sun—an oozing mess slowly congealing even in between my fingers. Momentarily astonished yet soon smirking with success, I just went over and wiped the mess off into the grass of Bill’s lawn, which was already alive and resplendent with expectorated tobacco juice.
Then Babe gave a shrill whinny of gratitude and came over to the fence. Pushing her shoulder up against the top rail, she thrust her head as far as it would reach. Then she swiveled and twitched her ears and whinnied louder, sputtering her distended lips in a razz that kids do for scorn but horses do for fun. I scratched the white patch on her forehead, patted her broad, flat cheeks, and ran my hand up and down her ears, which trembled, rolled, and collapsed in response to my touch.
Bill soon returned with a large over-ripe apple. He handed it to me and gestured towards Babe. So, holding it in the palm of my hand, I offered it to her. She sniffed with her huge, quivering nostrils and enveloped it with groping, rubbery lips, which tickled the daylights out of my hand until finally she lifted it, exposing large, yellow teeth that scraped my fingers in the process. All of a sudden I heard Granny calling me for supper with that high-pitched screech of hers. So I took off for home and just about half-way up the lane I stopped and said, “Yes!” I was one lucky kid, because swaying softly on the swing of our front porch was old Uncle Ernest. He was back.
After supper, and just before Unk left for a full night of partying at the numerous taverns in and around Chesapeake City, he told me that tomorrow he had a story to tell me about a girlfriend he once dated . . . said her name was Helen, and that he’d met her in Troytown, a city even older than ours. He added that if she wasn’t the prettiest blonde he’d ever seen she was right in there amongst them. When he saw my eyes widen and my open mouth, he explained that back in the thirties a friendly witch led him to a magic submarine that was docked at Schaefer’s Wharf. Well, when he got aboard, it submerged and took him all the way across the seas to Troytown. And that’s when his romance with Helen began. Now, you know, I was too old to cry although I wanted to, because tomorrow was a long time to wait to hear about that adventure—a blonde beauty and a magic sub? So, I got no sleep that night with those images swirling through my head. And, patient reader, I sure hope that you’ll be able to sleep until you hear about it in a future posting.