Uncle Toby’s Temper

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Uncle Toby only lost his temper once, but that was enough for a lifetime.

Or, how to disassemble your car…in minutes.

Farmers tend to be easygoing, but once in his life-long age, my uncle lost his temper. I learned the details when I was 12, helping him work on the pump inside the tiny stone well house on his farm. I held the flashlight as he pushed on an old pipe wrench, straining to loosen a union on a rusted steel pipe. Without any warning, the wrench slipped, raking his hand across the craggy stone. Even in the dim light, the damage looked spectacular. “Outside,” he gasped.

Uncle Toby held his bleeding knuckles to his chest until he burst forth into daylight. And then he spun gracefully, as if waltzing with his own arm, eyes squeezed shut and lower lip trapped by his teeth.

I had a question. “Gee, Uncle Toby, didn’t that hurt?”

“Yup,” he admitted. He pulled the dinged fist out of his armpit and took a peek. It looked like raw brains. “Go in the house and get–yeeouch–some– iodine.”

I brought back a large bottle. He crouched, slowly dribbling the orange liquid over the open wound. Suddenly he breathed a frying sound, like bacon on a skillet, and leaped straight up to an altitude of two-and-a-half feet. If he had waltzed before the application of iodine, over the next few minutes he invented break dancing.

After a while, I wondered something else. “Hey, Uncle Toby, will you tell me something?”

“What?” he asked, entirely through his nose.

“Why don’t you ever lose your temper?” In my experience, adults usually demonstrated astoundingly filthy vocabularies when injured. My uncle looked at me bleakly and indicated an old elm tree with his chin. We went over and sat under its shade. “It’s like this,” he said. “The last time I got mad was in 1940.” He blew on his knuckles. “Went crazy actually.”

“Oh, cool:’ l said.

“Well, it wasn’t,” he replied. “Real hot summer day. I had a date with the prettiest girl in the country, and I was on my way to pick her up. My car had a rumble seat and a top that came down, real pretty roadster. It had a crank start. You wouldn’t know about them things-bent sticks of metal that went in the crankshaft in front, and when the engine caught, they’d whip around and clop you here.” He pulled up his sleeve to show me an old clop-ment scar.

“Anyway, up at the highway, the engine died. Everything was gravel then and not much traffic, so there I was, crankin’ away to start it again. I didn’t know many swear words, but I said all of ’em. Once, it gave me a cough, the crank whipped around and got me. Gosh, that smarted. So I cranked it again, and got another whack. Finally I took the crank out and tossed it on the seat. Hard-like.

“And you know,” he said wonderingly,

“it bounced right up into the windshield and smashed it. I just stared at that crank and thought I was gonna lose my mind. So I took that sucker back outside to try again. Planted my feet and threw it on the seat just like before, only this time with everything I had.

“Darned if it didn’t bounce again. Cracked the door window that time. By then I couldn’t quit. I just wanted to throw that crank down and have it not bust something. I threw it on the road and accidentally hit my own foot. Then I tried to chuck it at the crank socket, figured it might stick in there like a knife. But I let go too soon, and do you know what that dirty thing did?”

I hadn’t a clue.

His jaw set hard. “It broke the headlight, all by itself. I’ll never forget that sound, glass shattering and going tinkle on the road:’ He paused again, and I was about to ask what that entailed with respect to further automotive havoc when he went on: “Not much left of that car when I was done: windows gone, bumper tore off and stomped flat, seats all ripped to confetti, and I used the crank for the body work. Think I bit one of the tires ’cause I could taste hot rubber. But I don’t remember much, just a red fog for a long hour. I was a mite riled, yessir.

“When I got up from my little rest on the road, I could see there wasn’t any use to going home and trying to explain what happened. So I hitched a ride into the city. Next morning, I joined the Army. Didn’t come back until ’45.

“That’s the whole story, nephew. Shall we try that pipe again?” We got up and went back inside the well house. In the cool, dark interior, I asked one last question: “What happened to the car, Uncle Toby?”

He shook his head and sighed. “Oh, my daddy drug it down to the river with a tractor. He said it was just out of gas.”