My favorite uncle

In July 1949, my favorite Uncle Phil was killed in a plane crash in the Burbank California mountains. He was returning home to Los Angeles from Chicago where he attended a furniture and textile show and visited with family. I wrote the story below from my memory of the day we found out about the crash and that he was not one of the fourteen survivors. I couldn’t let the month of July go by without a mention of him. Uncle Phil still has a huge place in my heart.

Uncle Phil home from WWII with his mother, my maternal grandmother

Uncle Phil home from WWII with his mother, my maternal grandmother

“I Didn’t Have Time to Worry”

I was nine during the summer of 1949. My baby sister was a month old, and my brother was away at camp. I spent those long, lazy days being the big sister. I either helped my mom take care of the baby, swam in Lake Michigan a block away from our apartment in Chicago, or I was curled up with my nose in a book. I was the chubby girl with short, dark curly hair. My eyes were hazel and my skin had a deep summertime tan.

And, I was already a romantic, hopelessly in love with my Uncle Phil, one of my mother’s younger brothers. Uncle Phil was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. He had slicked back hair, a mustache, a twinkle in his eyes, and he was still a bachelor. While my father and brother called me fatty or fatso, my Uncle Phil hugged and kissed me when he came to town on business trips and told me that he was waiting for me to grow up so he could marry me. No wonder I was in love.

Uncle Phil flew in from Los Angeles for a week’s visit that July to attend the textile trade show at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. He was in the textile business just like my dad.

I sat on a fence in the hot sun at the airport with my dad while we waited for him to arrive. I wore a new outfit – a white and red polka dotted skirt and blouse. And the skirt had matching panties. When his plane landed almost directly in front of us and I saw him coming down the steps, I ran to him with open arms. No one else in our family had ever traveled by plane, but for him it was old hat. He had flown thousands of miles around the South Pacific as a medic in the military during World War II.

I didn’t get to see much of him that week because he was busy working, and he stayed with my aunt and uncle who lived upstairs. Then I heard he was sick with a migraine. I remember peeking into the darkened room where he was sleeping, disappointed that he couldn’t spend time with me.  The next thing I knew he was gone. Because of the migraine he decided to cut his trip short. He left so early the next morning, I didn’t even get to kiss him goodbye.

That afternoon my mom and I were in my brother’s room where my sister was sleeping until he came home from camp. My mom stood at the changing table with my sister while I lay across my brother’s big, red plaid club chair reading a book when I heard someone unlock the front door and enter our apartment. Suddenly my dad was standing in the doorway of my brother’s room, silent, not saying hello or anything.

“Look, Daddy’s home,” I called out. I looked at the clock on the bedside table next to my brother’s bed. It was too early for him to be home. I lifted my legs from the arm of the chair, turned my body around and sat up. My mom put the last pin into my sister’s diaper, pulled up her rubber pants, and pulled down her dress.

“Give me the baby,” he said. Though he was not smiling, his voice was soft and calm. I could see that his shirt had deep circles of sweat beneath his arms. His hands were shaking.

As my mother handed him the baby, she asked in a whisper, “What’s the matter? What’s happened?” My mom had an instinct for knowing when something was wrong, and I could tell from her voice that something was very wrong.

“It’s Phil,” he said. He looked at me and patted the baby’s back. “There’s been a crash.”

“I knew it, “ she cried, sitting on the bed. She fidgeted with the belt on her cotton sundress. She reached for a tissue on the table. “He shouldn’t have changed his reservation.” Her voice grew louder. Her hand clutched the tissue. “It’s bad luck to change a plane reservation.”

By now my heart was pounding so hard that I couldn’t understand what my parents were saying. Their words – unscheduled flight, mountains near Burbank, California, no word about survivors yet – came to me later as if I was recalling a dream.

My mom got up and rushed down the hall to the bathroom. I went after her.

“I was so busy with the baby I didn’t have time to worry. That’s why it happened. I didn’t have time to worry.” She kept saying those words over and over, “I didn’t have time to worry.” I didn’t understand the meaning of those words then, but later I realized that she believed worrying was a way to prevent tragedy. I learned how important worrying was from her.

That night our apartment was filled with people. My aunts and uncles and a few close friends were gathered on the enormous sky blue circular sofa we had in our living room, waiting for the call with more information from Uncle Phil’s partner on the West Coast. They wanted me to go to bed and sent my younger cousin downstairs to keep me company in my room. Well, I was dressed for bed in my yellow pajamas — the ones with the bare midriff and white lace and blue ribbon trim — but I wouldn’t go to sleep. In spite of my cousin’s antics, there was nothing anyone could do to calm me down.

I needed to know what had happened to my uncle and if I would ever see him again. I couldn’t stop thinking about a life without him in it. I couldn’t bear the thought  that he would never get to see me grow up and get slim like I promised him I would.

The phone finally rang and I heard my dad rush into the wood-paneled library next to the living room to answer it. I sneaked down the hall on my hands and knees and waited by the glass and wrought iron library door with my back up against the wall until he finished talking, straining to hear what he was saying. He hung up and went into the living room where everyone was waiting. I followed close behind him, but stopped just short of the arched open doorway.

“Phil is gone,” he said, barely able to get the words out. His small body was hunched over in defeat. as if he felt responsible for the news. “His body was burned beyond recognition,” he said. As he looked toward me I saw tears in his eyes. He walked toward my mother and laid his hand on her shoulder.  “He was identified by the ring he was wearing.” Weeping, I ran into the living room, climbed over the back of the couch and into my mother’s arms.

The next day my parents forced me to go to day camp with my cousin. One of the activities that day was horse back riding. As soon as I was on that horse I knew I couldn’t stay on. I was afraid to be up that high. I began to cry hysterically until they allowed me to get off. I never got on a horse again and I’ve  been afraid of heights ever since.

After Uncle Phil’s death no one in our family got on a plane for years. But, then we began to fly out of necessity. I am still afraid, but interestingly enough, my son, Ben, is more afraid than I ever was.

What is worse is how much I missed him. I used to daydream that he’d walk through the door, that it had all been a mistake and that he would miraculously appear. That feeling was especially strong at my  Bat Mitzvah. I wanted him to see me up on the pulpit in the navy blue dress that showed off my trim waist. Because my parents thought I was too young to attend his funeral, I never felt closure about his death. In my mind he was alive somewhere, remembering me too.

 

 

 

 

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