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AFTERWORD Hard Times BY ANN VLIET IN THE THIRTIES, about twice a year, our Uncle Turkey would pull up to the gate in the middle of the night hollering for some of Mother’s hot biscuits. For the next day or two, while Mother and Aunt Irene chatted in the kitchen, we’d hang around Uncle Turkey’s knees watching his eyes and gold tooth sparkle, listening to him tell Daddy the latest escapade in his search for steady work. My favorite was “The Blind-man’s Drive,” where Uncle Turkey played the blind-folded, “hypnotized” driver in a Texas-circuit vaudeville act, until the Dilley sheriff and his deputy volunteered to ride witness. My brothers’ eyes would get big as saucers while Uncle Turkey told about the pigsticker the deputy pulled out and about how they jabbed his leg with it all the way to Cotulla and back, telling each other they were going to make that SOB admit he could see if it killed him. We were so proud to hear him tell how he never flinched a muscle while all that blood ran down his leg that my brothers would invariably gulp. Aunt Irene would frown at Uncle Turkey until he’d ask us, “You believe that?” and laugh and tell us, “Hell, you, that, you’ll believe anything.” One time when we were in high school and they had come up from the Gulf, outrunning the hurricane that had flattened their trailer home and filling station, Daddy and Uncle Turkey were enjoying a couple of cigars after supper and talking about the old days. Suddenly Mother and Aunt Irene came running in from the kitchen and went straight to Uncle Turkey’s forehead, pushing his hair back to look for a scar. “Well, I’ll be dogged,” Aunt Irene said, her eyes dancing just like Uncle Turkey’s usually did. “How much did they say the reward was?” Then they told us the radio had just announced and my brother swore to it that an escaped convict with Uncle Turkey’s description and among his aliases Uncle Turkey’s real name was headed this way. Uncle Turkey did a couple of deadpans before cutting his eyes over at my scared face. “Hell,” he finally said, grinning then like Robert Duvall does now. “It might be me for all I know. You can’t tell what’s going to happen in this crazy world.” I never knew how we got to calling him Uncle Turkey, but I knew his laugh was worth more than his gold tooth because I’d Ann Vliet is a writer living in Kyle. heard my mother say so, and as the Depression years gave way to more comfortable times, the good-natured teasing that came with him to our house kept us real. It had been Uncle Turkey and Aunt Irene who started us on the road back from destitution, stealing our horse and ourselves one winter’s night right out from under our share-cropping debts and installing us in an abandoned box-car next to the castle they’d made out of an old abandoned saw mill. As my father and mother moved up in the world, Uncle Turkey went from one short-term job or business venture to another, most of them done in by “acts of God” in the fine print. Even so, the only time I ever saw him solemn for more than three minutes was at my grandfather’s funeral, standing among the ragweed and red ants in a flat South Texas cemetery but then only because \(he informed us all on his elbow. IN THE SIXTIES and seventies, when we’d all moved away from our provincial roots and then gone “back to the land” for the fun of it, I’d remember Aunt Irene’s poke-weed salad, her pickled watermelon rind, her prickly-pear poultices and all the other concoctionswith which she managed to keep us alive and relatively healthy during the thirties. Occasionally, when whim or somebody’s illness would bring me “back home” on a rare visit, I’d ask about her and Uncle Turkey. They always had another job, had always just moved to another small town. Once, when I was called home because of my father’s surgery, we arrived in town the same day. “If you don’t come now,” my brother’s voice had said on the bad longdistance connection, “you may never see him alive again.” What I saw was an anonymous old man lying there in sterile hospital wrappings, in a Walt Disney movie called Death, with crisp, clean nurses moving IVs around, glassed-walled waiting rooms looking out onto San Antonio tourist attractions, polished floors and plastic plants. It wasn’t a Texas I recognized. Until Uncle Turkey breezed through the door and pulled a chair up to the bedside. Aunt Irene stood in the doorway shaking her head and telling Mother he had no business being there, should be in bed himself. “Get out,” he told us all. “I didn’t come all the way from Gainesville to waste time with this blabbering.” We stayed out in the waiting room, looking in from time to time to see what they were laughing about always some old story of their boyhood together. Toward the end of the afternoon, we heard them singing some of the jokey old songs that we grew up on and that once helped Uncle Turkey eke out a living. That was ten years ago. I filed away the incongruous scene two old leftovers from hard times, in all that hospital hygiene and order and expense, trying desperately to recapture what their lives were all about and I went on about the business of keeping up with my, own thriving times. Two months ago my mother casually mentioned that Uncle Turkey, was “in trouble.” I knew already that he had Alzheimer’s. I’d seen him at my mother’s 80th birthday wandering through the halls of her elderly high-rise, hardly remembering where he was. But what I didn’t know was that, unlike my father, who died soon after surgery, he’d been through one operation after another for years and that more were on the way. The eighties had made an anachronism of my Uncle Turkey. But the trouble my mother was talking about was financial. Somehow Uncle Turkey had managed to slip through the cracks in our wonderful designed-by-committeee health care system dreamed up to pay for a variety of medical miracles. His hit-or-miss scrabbling for a living over the years had left him with just enough Social Security to live on, and unlike, the secure group policies my profession provided, Medicare had no “catastrophic illness coverage” or nursing home care. Co-payments had eaten up what savings he had, and Aunt Irene had worn herself out caring for him. It took a while for the ironies to sink in. For better or worse, he has lived on into our times, and what happens now? That old system called The Struggling Family \(which itself, replaced by the PC’s and VCRs and BMWs and mega-hospitals we can no longer do without. Like it or not, hard times come again no more except for all the Uncle Turkeys out there caught between the old jokes that carried them through another time., and modern health care at $1800 a month. And if you believe we have no stake in the situation we’ve created or that we just can’t do anything about it in a budgetcrunch year hell, I guess you’ll believe anything. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23