Monday, February 2, 2015

Fake Uncles and Godfathers

Beware of men you are taught to call "uncle," who aren't actually your uncle. It's likely they've got something on your parents. For my sister and I, two of those people were Doug Hanks Jr. (pictured above right, with balloons) and Artie Jeffra (above left, with laurel crown and stuffed snake). "Uncle Doug" became my godfather, while "Uncle Artie" was my sister's. These two men taught me what side-splitting, can't-catch-your-breath, damn-near-wet-yourself laughter is.

Doug died in 2003. His exploits, stories, thoughts, and memories were well documented. He wrote them down. He always had a project. He involved others and got the community excited about things. Artie died a week ago, on Jan. 25. I doubt his stories will be as widely accessible, but he has as many of them.

When we were growing up, what either of them did for a living didn't matter much to us. I knew Doug had a real estate company next to the Avalon Theater in Easton. I knew that Artie did different things, from painting and wallpaper to working with/on boats. I remember hearing that his dad was a boxing champion. My father and Doug grew up together in Oxford, and the Hanks's were cousins of ours. I don't know how Artie came into the mix.

What we cared about, is that when they showed up for family functions, the party started. Drinks and laughter started flowing. Music got louder. They were in the backyard playing wiffle ball with or against us kids. As it got dark, Artie would be karaoke singing into a lacrosse stick or baseball bat to my dad's reel-to-reel taped Motown songs. We were on the floor laughing at him.

Artie loved when I got into heavy metal music in middle school. He dug Judas Priest. For my birthday, he would give me money or a gift certificate to the local music store (Price's) to go buy a "headache tape," named for the headache it would give my parents. Like giving a Talking Elmo doll to someone's toddler.

We heard rumors of Artie's legendary antics: "borrowing" a fire truck in Ocean City or singing and dancing on tables at the Oxford Fire Department bull roast. We never tried to confirm them. What we knew is that Artie liked to have a good time, and he made everyone else's time so much better. His laugh was raucous, raspy, and contagious. It was impossible to be on hand for and not catch.

When my dad turned 70 last year, Artie couldn't make the party/roast because of the lung issues that ultimately took his life. Doug had passed away some ten years before. That night there was plenty of laughter shared, but I missed both of theirs. Doug would have been in his element telling stories at the microphone. The Artie of old would have extended the party and had people dancing.

Family parties for my daughters and my sister's children are dull by comparison. Our generation has lost some of the laughter--we don't have an Artie or a Doug that the kids can't wait to see come in the door. Both were once in a lifetime personalities, irreplaceable, but I feel like we need to channel them better.

Our godfathers, our fake uncles, taught us how to laugh. Deep belly laugh. That's a gift to pass on.

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