A Short Story
By: David Allan
I was sorting through my mother’s old chest of drawers when I came across that photograph of Uncle Wiggly in his scarlet dress uniform. On the cardboard backing she had written a date: the 24th of November, 1950. The following day, the 25th, he’d shipped out from the Canadian Forces Base at Wainwright, bound for Pusan. The photographer had him seated, hands folded on his lap, head tilted just right, smiling at the camera as he posed before his regimental colours of red, gold, and purple-blue, the “Ric-A-Dam-Doo” of the Princess Pats.
When I was five years old and he lived with us, that picture, in its wooden frame, had stood on our mantelpiece. “Is that you?” I remember I asked him. “That was me before,” he replied. “Now I’m Uncle Wiggly, because I’m soft and jiggly.”
When my parents were around my uncle hardly ever spoke — just sat in his chair, saying nothing. When we were alone, though, he came alive. After I got home from school, before my parents returned from work, his job was to look after me. We made up funny names for things, and for each other.
“You want some moo?” he would ask me. “Tell me, what’s your name?”
“Baby Boo!” I would answer, dissolving into giggles, and then he’d pour me a glass of milk. We had a name for our silly language: “New English.”
“Don’t say anything about New English or we’ll be in trouble,” he reminded me, so apart from the two of us, no one knew he was Uncle Wiggly and I was Baby Boo and we made up our own words.
“Where are your friends?” I asked him one day.
“They’re gone,” he said. “Killed.”
“Who killed them?”
“The people we were fighting.”
“Why’d they do that?”
“Because they had to.”
“It was a bad place?”
“Nope. It was a beautiful place. Who knows, Baby Boo, maybe you’ll visit there one day. But Uncle Wiggly’s thinking something else now. He’s thinking how Baby Boo’s going to grow up into a fine lady some day.”
As things would turn out my career in consulting one day did take me to Korea and to many other places besides. While in Seoul I asked my hosts what they knew of Kapyong, the battleground where Uncle Wiggly’s regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry, had so bravely held back the Chinese advance. Oh, they replied. They weren’t too sure about it. Perhaps it had happened somewhere up north, in North Korea.
Memories of wars fought to a draw fade quickly. But what Uncle Wiggly had done in their country I hadn’t forgotten. Up there on Hill 677, outnumbered many to one, manning a mortar, manning a machine gun, driving back the enemy, rescuing his comrades, standing his ground.
Three of his fellows he’d saved that night, risking his own life. When he had me recite their names I would start off slowly, enunciating the first two, Jack and Bill, then I’d pretend to falter, pausing for him to jump in and demand, “And who else?” At which, gleefully and brimming with pride, I’d shout out the third man’s name: “And good old Danny Brown!”
One day when I returned from school Uncle Wiggly was sitting in his chair, drinking my father’s beer. Later on I watched him refill the stubby brown bottles with water from the tap and reattach the bottlecaps.
The next day my father found out. “Goddamn it, he’s been drinking again!” he shouted to my mother. He seldom spoke to my uncle directly. “Lord knows he’s already doped up enough as it is, on that monkey tranquilizer they give him. Just make damn sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Pretty soon afterwards it did happen again. The beer made him happy, and when he finished each bottle I ran off to the refrigerator to fetch him another. He laughed and laughed, saying, “Baby Boo, you’re my favorite bartender.” I was laughing too.
This time he made no attempt at concealment. When my mother came home he was sleeping in his chair, empties scattered all around him. Nothing we did would wake him, until my father came home and started yelling.
“What did I tell you?” he shouted, looking at my mother but pointing to my uncle.
Uncle Wiggly said nothing, but I saw his fingers tighten around the brown bottle that rested between his thighs, and I knew he was getting angry. He jumped up and pushed my father against the wall, holding him there.
My father was a small man, no match for Uncle Wiggly. He looked scared, but I wasn’t — I knew my uncle wouldn’t hurt anyone.
“For Christ’s sake, let him go!” my mother said, pulling on her brother’s arm. She was his older sister, she’d shown me photos of them playing together as children, and I knew he would do as she said.
The next day, a Saturday, Uncle Wiggly stayed in his room. My mother spent the morning sitting downstairs, glancing out the window onto the street. Then she stood up and told me to go to my room. As I ascended the staircase I heard my father say, “It’s the DVA.”
My uncle’s room was next to mine. When the people entered the house I was sitting on my bed, listening as they marched up the stairs and knocked on his door.
A man’s voice called out, saying, “Come on out, Private.”
Uncle Wiggly shouted back: “I am one mean machine, the meanest man you jackasses have ever seen.”
He was quite good at inventing funny rhymes, I remember thinking as he repeated the sentence several times. Then came a crashing noise and the stamping of many feet. I heard Uncle Wiggly yelling on the staircase and then from the front yard, then the heavy door of a large vehicle slamming shut. Afterwards the house was quiet, so I walked downstairs to ask what had happened to Uncle Wiggly.
My father replied, “He’s gone to a nuthouse where he belongs.”
My mother sat on the living-room sofa, crying. She looked at me and said, “He’s gone someplace where they can help him.”
I guess a year or more must have passed, and I’d almost forgotten about Uncle Wiggly when one morning my father called me into the kitchen. He said, “Your uncle hanged himself in that nuthouse. I don’t suppose you’d remember him too well anyhow.”
That day my mother stayed in her room. At nighttime she emerged, and I overheard them talking in the kitchen. She said, “He left behind a little note. It said, ‘Don’t forget me, Baby Boo. Signed, Uncle Wiggly.’ I wonder what it meant?”
“It meant he was a nutcase,” my father said. Only I knew what it really meant: he’d been thinking about me the whole time he was in that place.
Many years later I met a man who had served alongside my uncle in the Battle of Kapyong. On hearing my uncle’s name he didn’t smile and nod and touch my arm in warmth as I thought he might. Instead, he looked away. When I pressed him, he said finally, “If you must know, we didn’t associate much. He was a mean son of a bitch.”
But what, I inquired, of his actions up on Hill 677? What of his heroic night on its north face, of good old Danny Brown and the two others of “D” Company my uncle had saved? The man forced a little laugh and shook his head.
“He was directing fire, sighting targets, and he messed up somehow. Forgot to level a bubble or some damn thing. Landed a mortar on our side.”
We were in a bar and the man was half drunk, but he spoke slowly in a low voice and I knew what he said was true. Three had died, he added. I didn’t need to ask their names. I stopped my questioning.
Since my mother’s death her possessions have, I confess, become rather a dilemma for us. A source of clutter, yet difficult to part with — to jettison. How long would we postpone that process of shedding? I held up the wooden frame and looked again at the man in the picture, at his smooth skin and his clear blue eyes, his iron chin and his hard white teeth.
“Goodbye Uncle Wiggly,” I whispered as I slid him back in and closed the drawer.
David Allan, a native of Sarnia, Canada, has lived for many years in Northeast Asia, where he works in manufacturing. He can be contacted at email@example.com.