The head drummer

My great uncle, Uncle John Major, was one of the greatest storytellers I’ve ever known. Not only could he keep you on the edge of your seat with his interesting stories, but he also had loads of life experience – at 93 and a half, he’d certainly been around the block a few times.

My memories of Uncle John reach far back into my childhood, about as early as I can remember. He and his wife were always around, and my sister and I spent a lot of time with them. Uncle John absolutely loved children, and we enjoyed spending time with him too.

I recall a game we used to play with him when we were little kids – Rhonda and I would beg Uncle John to tie us up with some rope and then we’d try to “break out” of it. Uncle John would happily start tying our hands together while singing a song, “Never in a million years!”, meaning, we’d never get out of THIS one in a million years. He would pretend to be tying a series of complex, intricate knots, but really all he did was wrap the rope around and around, and he never tied the knots very tight. Sometimes the rope was falling off of our hands as he walked away – still singing, mind you. When Rhonda and I would “miraculously” break free from the rope, we’d run and show him proudly. “Well, I never!” he’d say, looking and sounding shocked that we were able to get ourselves loose.

He also told us a story about a big, scary monster he called the “Cucamonga.” We heard the story a thousand times, but always wanted him to tell it again. So he’d go into great detail about its red, beady eyes, its towering height, and its big, sharp teeth. Our favorite part was the end of the story, when the “Cucamonga” emerged from the darkness and, as Uncle John told it, “It was just a potato bug!” We couldn’t wait to hear the story again the next time we saw him.

Uncle John also had some great stories from the time he served in the Army during World War II. Part of the 5th Infantry Division that traveled to England and then to France, Uncle John served behind the lines as a cook. He told us funny stories of how he made coffee for the soldiers in large metal vats. “That coffee was so strong,” he told us, “The paddle I used to stir it could stand straight up without me holding it!” Perhaps it seems ironic that the coffee he described that he made during the war oddly resembled the black sludge he called coffee that he made and drank for himself at home. Another time, he explained how he fretted over making a gigantic batch of cornbread for all the soldiers. He had no idea how much to increase the recipe, so he just had to wing it.

One of his proudest moments in the Army came one morning when a soldier informed the kitchen that General George Patton would be eating breakfast there. Uncle John wondered aloud what he should prepare for the general, but the soldier insisted that he just prepare the same things he always made for breakfast – Patton wanted to eat what the other soldiers were eating. So Uncle John made the usual – pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, coffee, cereal – you name it, he probably made it. After the meal, Patton surprised Uncle John and the rest of the cooking crew when he stopped back in the kitchen and thanked everyone for the delicious meal. “I got to shake his hand,” Uncle John said proudly.

Uncle John also had a very ornery side as well. One evening my mom called him and he sounded exhausted. “What’s wrong?” she asked him. “Honey, I’m so tired,” he told her. “I’ve been working all day long.” Mind you, he was about 89 years old and clearly was not out doing hard manual labor. So when my mom inquired further, she learned that early in the day Uncle John caught wind of some wild turkey hunters on his hillside. They had bows and arrows and permission from one of Uncle John’s neighbors to hunt the wild turkeys that often wandered down to eat in the back yards. A huge animal lover, Uncle John became extremely distressed at the thought of seeing a “poor turkey running around with an arrow through its body” and took matters into his own hands to protect them. He took a seat outside on his porch and waited for the wild turkeys to make their way down the hill. Once they appeared, he’d take his wooden cane and bang it against the side of his house, and at the same time, he made a loud yelping noise to scare them off. Sure enough, they’d run away back up the hill. Any time they appeared at the bottom of the hill, Uncle John did the same thing. He sat outside for hours, doing nothing but protecting these turkeys from harm. The next day, Uncle John happened to be speaking to his neighbor, and he casually mentioned seeing the hunters. “Yeah, they were hunting the wild turkey, but they didn’t get any,” his neighbor said. “Every time they came down the hill, something spooked them and they ran away.” I’m really not sure how my uncle was able to keep a straight face. Inside, he had to have been beaming about saving those animals.

This man had such wit and charm that he could have you laughing in a matter of seconds. I’m not exactly sure when, but at one point, Uncle John started calling me a “kolompos” (pronounced something like COLUMN-push) which is Hungarian for “leader” or, as Uncle John always called it, “the head drummer.” He was always very proud of me and my sister for our accomplishments, but since Rhonda lives away, I saw Uncle John more, so I was always his “kolompos.” When I’d worked at The Times Leader prior to my current stint, I told Uncle John that I put stories on the pages and sometimes I would put the obituaries on the page. To that, he replied, “Honey, if you ever see my name in the obituaries, just scratch it out.”

He’d also said hilarious things about not wanting to die until after the first of the month so he could still collect his pension check. “If I die before the first of the month,” he once told my mom, “Don’t turn it in until after. Just prop me up in the corner.” And at a funeral for his brother-in-law a few years ago, he made the comment that when that was him, he was going to “dig his way out of the ground and go to the VFW for one last drink.”

While I know people sometimes say things like “he was one-of-a-kind” but don’t really mean it, I can honestly say without a doubt that I never will know anyone quite like Uncle John. He loved children (although he had none of his own), loved animals, and he loved people. He kept a supply of sweet treats on hand at his house – mainly for himself – but also for anyone who stopped by. Some of his great-great nieces and nephews called him the “Candy Man” because he always had plenty of candy for them.

On April 27, our loss of this wonderful, unique soul on earth was most definitely heaven’s gain. While Uncle John was technically my great-uncle, I always thought of him like a grandpa. I never knew either of my grandfathers, so Uncle John WAS my grandpa. He was my buddy, and I know I speak for everyone who knew him when I say that he is going to be terribly missed.

But at the same time, he’s left behind such a beautiful legacy full of happy memories that none of us will ever forget. Maybe he said I was the “kolompos,” but I’m sure that where he is now, he’s now in the presence of the REAL head drummer – and I’m sure he’s got them all in stitches and loving every minute of it.