Author: Cornish, Rick

Almost Banjo
I wish I could say I’d listened to Uncle Red play his banjo when I was growing up….could tell you how he’d pull it out during family get-togethers and just light up the room playing all the old mountain favorites all night long. But the truth is, I think I only heard him play it once, and ht as very late at night w, when I’d gotten up in my jimmies serching for a drink of water and wandered into a grownup party. There was red the center of attention, playing and singing, with his charming, boozy, mischievous trademark smile.

Uncle Red was the tenth of eleven children, my dad was ninth and they were only ten months apart. The eleven Cornish ids and their mother, Maude, lived in a sod shack on the Nebraska plains. The father, my grandfather, was an itinerant Baptist minister, banjo player and alcoholic whose busy touring ministry brough him home just often and long enough to make more little Cornishes. My grandmother and her eleven children were very, very poor, but somehow the family made it, season after season. Most of the stories my father told me about his growing up fell into two categories—how their plains family survived with hard work and luck and how my Uncle Red drove my grandma crazy. There was the time she and the eight older kids went into town on the buggy, leaving my dad and Red to slop the single family hog and how, instead of feeding it, ten year old Red got it into his head he was going to butcher the hog as a surprise for Maude and broke off the blade of a butcher knife in its neck, in the house, with blood all over. Or the time he was sent into town for a bag of flour and returned home with a brand new Gibson banjo. Or the time he talked my father into making cabbage and carrot wine in an old abandoned farmhouse down the road. It was after Red started making wine, and latter liquor, that the stories really got wild.

So, uncle Red was the family screw up, the one who always got into trouble, the one who could charm the wrist watch right off you, who could play any musical instrument and who, in his early twenties, figured he’d rob from the rich by pulling a bank job in Bel Foche North Dakota with an unloaded pellet gun. The bank teller, a few years older and much bigger than Uncle Red, didn’t even bother reading the note. He just broke Red’s nose with a single punch and my uncle was carted off to jail. Silly unloaded pellet gun not withstanding, bank robbery was by then a federal offense and Red went to jail with the big dogs in Minneapolis for just under five years.

By the time Uncle Red got out of the slammer, most of the Cornish clan, including my dad, who was by then married to my mom, had gone off to California to work in the shipyards in Alameda—America was gearing up for war and jobs were plentiful and good-paying out west. Red hung around the Black Hills for a while, got his old high school girlfriend, Florence, pregnant, got into another scrape with the law and, with great encouragement from the local magistrate, took his new little family out west. (Uncle Red and aunt Florence would eventually divorce, re-marry, divorce, re-marry, divorce and live together unmarried for the remainder of their lives).

What kept the two of them together was their son, Little Harold, a beautiful redheaded boy. In fact, it was Little Harold’s appearance on the scene that got Red on the straight and narrow, or at least as straight and as narrow as he could be and still booze heavily, gamble and womanize. In fact, here in California is where the entire Cornish brood settled into their own little families and made their new lives. And it’s interesting as I look back now….they all had very little families. The largest was our family, with two kids. Most of my father’s siblings had one or no children. I guess it was like, after you’ve stretched fried flour and cabbage soup twelve ways for so many years, you just want to keep the number of mouths to a minimum.

Little Harold was the apple of his parents’ eye. They lived for him. He was a lot like his dad….red-haired, charming, a natural musician, and always, always in trouble. First in school, later with the law. I remember so well the day he died. I was ten and we were packing our 55 Chrysler getting ready for a one-week vacation in Clear Lake. The phone rang, my mother answered and almost at once she began crying. It was aunt Florence. The police had found Little Harold, just one week out of country jail, shot up with an overdose of heroin by dealers against whom he’d turned state’s evidence. No Clear Lake for my family that week.

For the next thirty years it would be the loss of their son that would keep Red and Florence together. They would alternately hate themselves and one another for what happened to Little Harold.

Fast forward twenty years. My dad calls. “I’ve, ah, got something for you,” he says a bit cryptically, “Red gave me something for you. Don’t say anything to your mother. Just invite us over for dinner. Okay?” I knew Uncle Red had been in the hospital with a serious heart problem. “Sure,” I said, “come Saturday night.” When I told my wife about the call, she asked what my uncle could possible want me to have. “I’ll bet it’s his old banjo. I’ll bet that’s what it is. But don’t say anything….there’s something about my mom not knowing.” “But why would your mother object to your having a banjo?” Claudia asks. “She objects to EVERYTHING connected in any way to Red,” I explained.

After dinner that Saturday night my father announces he’s out of smokes. “Come on, Ricky, go for a ride with me.” My mother’s in the kitchen helping with dishes, oblivious. Two blocks from the house my dad pull’s to the side of the road and parks. “So what’s up,” I ask, “what’s this about Uncle Red?” “Well,” my father begins tentatively, “Red’s been real, real sick. His heart’s giving out. You know, my brother’s lived a damned hard life, a damned fast life. So he’s in the hospital and his doctor says he’s not gonna make it. So…..” my dad has a pained expression now. This isn’t easy for him. “So, I visited with Red in the hospital last week and he says to me, you know, Bebe, your boy’s the last….the last man. All us kids, and all our kids, and it’ll come down to Ricky to carry on the Cornish name. And then he asked me to give you this.” My father reaches under the seat and pulls out a towel tied in a bundle with a string. “Here” he says. I pull the string off and unwrap the towel. There, in my hands, is a 32 caliber pistol, snub nosed, only good for two things—killing at close range or threatening to kill at close range. “It was little Harold’s,” my dad whispers, explaining what I’d already guessed. “I told him I didn’t want you to have it. That it was just crazy that he’d kept it all these years. But you know Red….he was determined. And it’s pretty sure he’s dying. So now you’ve got it and I’ve kept my promise. I think you should you throw it away, but that’s up to you.”

I’ve still got the 32. Red lived another twenty years, outliving my father by ten. In fact, he outlived all of his brothers and sisters. Don’t know whatever happened to that Gibson banjo….just know I didn’t get it.

Posted:  6/18/2003

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