My great uncle, John William Simpkins, Jr., would have been eighty-three years old today. He died in January of 2000, succumbing to cancer.
My parents divorced when I was very young. My Kenyan father and American mother had met while both were attending college. Fast-forward through the existence of yours truly and through the divorce, my father received his degree and high-tailed it back to Kenya, where he resides to this day.
So, for a time, during my mother’s single years, I lived with my great uncle and aunt, John and Alma Simpkins.
What can you say about a guy who had everything?
He was handsome and extremely intelligent. He--along with my stepfather--represents a personality blueprint for what I like and look for in a man. Reserved, reasonable and inquisitive he was; slightly obstinate, but usually willing to listen; highly interested in the world around him. I never heard him curse or raise his voice.
Uncle John was a retired City of Los Angeles employee and a World War Two veteran; he served in the segregated Army-Air Force of that time. (On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the US military.)
According to family lore, Uncle John had been a second lieutenant for a brief time during the war. I question the veracity of this claim, since he only had a high school diploma. However, knowing that the units were segregated and knowing that many black Americans of his era did well even to attend high school, it’s possible.
Aunt Alma says that, during his brief commission, he was busted down to private for insubordination and given a dishonorable discharge. This part I don’t doubt. Uncle John was full of smoldering, silent pride as a mature man. Likely that pride went unchecked during his younger years, as it often is with young men.
(I was about sixteen in this one. I think Uncle was a bit ill in this pic. He looked younger than this twenty years later.)
I was born when the two were forty years old. They had been married about twelve years at the time and never had children of their own, so I was and continue to be theirs; shared, of course, with my parents. (My ex-husband said that I was a spoiled brat; blame them.)
As a parent, Uncle John believed in teaching me the things that many parents of today leave up to the school systems. I was taught at home to read, write, add and subtract before I went to kindergarten. Really. (I owe my addiction to reading and my present-day overflowing bookcases to him.) Afterward, while I was attending kindergarten and doing the things that I had already mastered, he taught me to multiply and divide. (Decades later, in a university math class, the kids marveled at the fossil who could do basic arithmetic in her head. Ah, the age before the calculator!) Uncle continued to up the ante.
I loved puzzles, so when I was about six, Uncle John bought me a puzzle consisting of the States of the Union. Hours upon hours were spent by me repeatedly putting the puzzle together, taking it apart and doing it yet another time. Stemming from that exercise, he began to quiz me about the state capitals. Later, after he bought me a world atlas and a globe, the game changed to world capitals. (During a cross-country flight, knowledge of state capitals won me a nice bottle of champagne. I was nineteen at the time and no one asked for my ID. :-P The question: which four states begin with the same letter as their capitals? See answers below.*)
He taught me about the planets of the solar system and pointed out the few constellations that could be seen in the smoggy LA night sky, courtesy of a nifty telescope.
He had me memorize the order of the US presidents (then up to Johnson; the second one, obviously).
The three of us fished and camped in and around California’s Lake Isabella and the Salton Sea. I had my own little fishing pole and never acquired the squeamishness that many women have for baiting a hook. (I will propose to the next man that asks me to go fishing. That ought to tell you how often it happens.)
He also hunted, but I was never allowed on these trips. He knew of too many accidents.
Music was also a great love of his, old-school jazz, to be specific. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington (singer of my theme song, Mean and Evil Blues; Heh), Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams and on and on, were heard at home on those old 33s. In his fifties, he learned to play the drums, later becoming skilled enough to regularly perform with a little bebop ensemble.
No St. John was he. When I was nine, he and my aunt divorced and he married a woman I came to loath. (Afterward, I went to live with my mom and my new father—fortunately, the “new guy” was and is a good guy as well.) Our relationship—mine and Uncle John’s—was strained for many years after that. However, after my entry into the military, I made it my business to see him whenever I was in Los Angeles.
When his wife died in early 1999, there was no funeral, so I didn’t have to go and pretend that I liked the woman, something I'm not good at anyway. For a bit, Uncle and I began to rebuild our relationship, but we didn’t have enough time.
He had kept his illness to himself until it was impossible to do so. He had made a trip to Mexico in September of 1999, which, viewed in hindsight, was an attempt to find some miracle cure. He had also planned a trip to Thailand for March of 2000. I had originally thought that the latter trip was due to his religion—he was a Buddhist (apparently within limits). We joked about the trip. I warned him not to come back with a “Thai Auntie.” He laughed and said he knew better; that my cousins and I would run her back to Thailand.
In the last month of his illness, he would lose more and more motor function. First, he couldn’t speak, but he would still smile wide when I kissed him on the cheek. Finally at the end, he was totally paralyzed. There was nothing to be done for him except keep him comfortable. Morphine took care of that and, mercifully, he was gone soon.
The last time I saw him smile, the radio was on. We had it tuned to 88.1 (then KLON; now KKJZ) and Dizzy was jamming. Sitting in his wheelchair, he grinned joyously, bobbing his head and tapping his foot in perfect time to the beat--playing invisible drums one last time.
I loved him dearly.
*Oklahoma, Indiana, Hawaii and Delaware.