Mr. Underwood portrait by Lynn VanderHerberg
My Uncle Jim. Never Jim. Always Uncle Jim.
To Darryl, he’s Mayor Lang. Always. It’s old-world manners. Even when Darryl was running the detachment, there was a respectful nod to the Mayor of Bracebridge. After Darryl and I became us, Darryl continued the honorific, and it still makes me smile. Dignity, respect, earned.
Uncle Jim is the family archivist. Sort of a legend in the family for recognizing the good stuff and being in the right place at the right time. My Mom’s younger brother, Uncle Jim, and their older brother Joe, inherited the family heating business in Bracebridge from my grandparents. Lang Fuels was a big deal. Propane and heating oil, when most houses still used woodstoves. Uncle Jim has crawled through a lot of basements. He kept his eyes open.
On my father’s side of the family, Uncle Jim looked after my great Aunt May’s furnace. Aunt May had the purse gun my great-grandmother carried when she immigrated from Scotland with her husband in 1870, six children and her mother-in-law in tow, headed for a place called Monck Township, somewhere 50 kilometres north of the last corduroy road at Washago. The first night in Bracebridge, the women and girls stayed in a hotel with few rooms. The men started a long family tradition of spending the night in the jail. At that time, it was voluntary.
Uncle Jim and Aunt May somehow came to an agreement on the pistol, and I cherish it to this day. It doesn’t work, but it’s very cool to think Great-grandmother Glass had it at her side on the St. David when the brood arrived in Montreal, continued west, and eventually made Muskoka their home. Visitors to the Milford Bay Trout Farm tread the same soil.
Uncle Jim also found a chair, owned by another ancestor who farmed on the St. Lawrence in Mallorytown. Visitors to Brown’s Bay Park and T.G. Guild Marina tread the same soil. The Manors of Mallorytown were equally hardy folk, and the photo of them on the banks of the river with their pumpkins is a family classic.
Uncle Jim also has a letter written to his father, my grandfather. A hotelier in Chicago thanks my grandfather for the “special tire” sent to him, which made the hotelier’s daughter’s wedding very special. Apparently, during prohibition, my grandfather’s garage in Mallorytown specialized in non-pneumatic wedding-enhancing tires.
I never met my grandfather, or the Manors, and I was a baby when Aunt May left us, but my memories of Uncle Jim are filled with joy. He had a Packard and his old truck is in a museum in New Orleans, I think. He could build anything, including a great story. He served his community forever, and the last time I saw him was in 2007 when he helped us with my father’s estate.
A few month’s ago, a cousin passed away and my sister Joanne asked if I would let him know. We hadn’t spoken since 2007, but his voice on the phone, the humour, the warmth, was all there, and the years evaporated.
We spoke of family, but mostly of history, and I mentioned my cousin Henrike and her grandson were visiting in a few days and planning to check out the National Air Force Museum of Canada. “I’d like to see that,” said Uncle Jim. “I hear it’s wonderful.”
It is, and I offered to arrange a tour when he’s feeling up to it. I can’t help but wonder what gems Uncle Jim will find, mementos only he can see, and as my sister says, “You never know what will fall into Uncle Jim’s toolbox.”
As a mechanic, he’ll love the restoration shop. He’ll chat with the volunteers and let them know he has an original Anson propeller, bought at an auction. As a historian, he’ll have tears in his eyes when he sees the Halifax. Who wouldn’t? He’ll make new friends with the RCAF museum guides, and he’ll probably talk his way into places most of us haven’t even noticed.
Chances are, he’ll make new memories, and bring us along on his magnificent adventure.
That’s Uncle Jim. Wherever he goes, history is in his wake. He’s a pretty cool guy.
I hope he likes this issue. I hope you do, too.
Thanks for turning the page.