Those were the first words I remember my Uncle Bill saying to me.
My name isn’t Fred.
His name wasn’t Bill.
But Uncle Bill died yesterday. His sickness was quick, another goddamn cancer tearing through our family.
We all loved him as if he were our quote/unquote real uncle. He was our second uncle, my mom’s twin’s second husband. Our families melded back in the 1970s, my old cousins getting a new brother and a set of sisters. Half-a-dozen cousins for us; all teens, all polyester. In old pictures we were Fleetwood Mac marrying Wings.
It all started when my aunt began dating a guy named Jim Munson — a teacher at our high school whom my mom sent a now infamous note to, “Jim, I don’t know what your dating situation is right now, but if you’re free, call me.”
Make no mistake, Mom was happily married to a guy we called Dad. But she was asking about Jim for her sister. Whatever or whoever he thought Mom initially meant, he called her right away. My Aunt Janet and Jim Munson instantly hit it off.
All us boy cousins loved sports, namely Detroit and Cincinnati baseball and football. The Lions quarterback at the time was Bill Munson. My cousins wondered if maybe their mom was dating him under a pseudonym. That might not be true, but family lore has a way of distorting itself into mythos. They were probably just joking around as usual.
So we secretly called Aunt Janet’s new boyfriend, “Bill.”
Me being the youngest of all the cousins, I guess it fell on me to reveal the truth. Either that, or I was just being a little brat. Regardless, one day early in their relationship, he showed up at our place — where my cousins and aunt were visiting — and when I answered the door, I said “Hi Bill.”
Without missing a beat, he responded, “Hi Fred.”
To us five cousins — and even to his own son — he’s been known as Bill ever since.
That was a bit awkward when he was my Psychology teacher in High School. He taught Advanced Biology to a few more of us. It was even more awkward as, one-by-one, we grew up, married and tried to explain to our wives and kids that Uncle Jim was really Uncle Bill, or vice versa.
Eventually the next generation won him back his birth name.
For the most part.
Sometimes during family get togethers, younger kids in the family would still point to him and say — you guessed it — Sammy!
Oh Sammy. I thought I’d be able to get through this tribute to my uncle without crying. And then I remembered Sammy the Serpent.
That was his favorite story to tell, Uncle Bill’s (Jim’s).
It was the oddest tale about a little snake who loved to hiss. He hissed and hissed all around his pit until his mother got upset and told him to go to Mrs. Pott’s pit and hiss in it.
There is no way anyone could tell the story like him, to do it justice. So I won’t even try. But man, was it funny, even if I didn’t at first understand the ending. Sammy the Serpent’s mother was scandalized that Mrs. Pott sent him home. “Why, I can remember when Mrs. Pott didn’t have a pit to hiss in.”
It was just awesome to see his wry smile as he repeated the story for the umpteenth time (only once did I ever hear him mess up and say “piss” instead of “hiss.”)
I’m going to miss many things about my uncle; his Canadian cottage, his fantastic dry humor, his kindness to me and my cousins whom he treated exactly like sons. But don’t hiss at me if Sammy is what I’ll miss most.
He might look askance at me from his eyes of science, but in my cosmology, Uncle Bill continues on somehow, somewhere. But hey, wasn’t it Einstein who said “energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.”
So in my mind, Sammy the Serpent has just found a new pit to hiss in.
ADDENDUM: After reading this to my cousins, they explained that calling him “Bill” was just their way of calling him Dad.
Believe it or not, there’s a longer version of Sammy the Serpent’s tale on the internet.
I found it here: tinyurl.com/hw3je5h