My Dad had five brothers. By the time I came along the youngest was gone, killed in North Africa during WWII. One brother had moved to Pennsylvania and another lived near the border between Minnesota and Canada, so I had very little contact with them.
But I did see the other two—the eldest of the six Lehman boys—every summer. (Careful readers will note the lack of an extra “n” in Lehman. Dad was the only one who spelled it with an extra “n”, but that’s another story.)
On occasion we would visit Uncle Gordon in St. Louis and Uncle Marvin in Judson, Minnesota. But most of the time, we would join my uncles up at “The Lake”, a house my grandfather Henry Lehman had built near Crosslake, Minnesota, and that was now co-owned by his sons.
Uncle Gordon was a genial, outgoing guy. Uncle Marvin was a bit of a grouch. When they were together, Marvin would relentlessly criticize Gordon’s every choice. In Marvin’s eyes, his older brother drank the wrong beer (“Goddammit Gordon, that’s nuthin’ but water.”), used the wrong bait (“Goddammit Gordon, worms? You gotta use night crawlers.”), and lived in the wrong state (“Goddammit Gordon, it’s too hot down there.”).
Uncle Marvin even harped on Uncle Gordon’s taste in cars; ironic, since for years they had both been loyal Studebaker owners. When the automaker ended production in the mid-1960s, Uncle Marvin took it very personally, hinting broadly and often that they had done it just to piss him off. He switched to Chrysler, but when Gordon not only failed to follow his advice but bought a Mercedes instead, Marvin was beside himself. “Goddammit Gordon, how can you drive a Nazi car?”
To this—as to all the unsolicited advice from his brother—Uncle Gordon just laughed. That was the way my Uncle Gordon responded to almost everything, with a smile or a laugh. He must have experienced sadness in his life, but I never saw any sign of it.
For all of their differences, my two uncles did have some commonalities. Both were great uncles to me, albeit in different ways. Uncle Gordon took me to St. Louis Cardinal games, and Uncle Marvin taught me how shoot a .22. (For whatever reason, the love of the Cards stuck; not so much the shooting.) Both let me secretly drive their cars when I was well below the driving age, both making me swear to say nothing to my Dad or the other uncle. Uncle Gordon provided me with fun adventures, Uncle Marvin provided me with an endless supply of life advice, most of which revolved around one theme: “Everybody’s out to get ya, so don’t be played for sucker, kid.”
They also shared a love of fishing, but again, with vastly divergent approaches. Uncle Gordon viewed fishing simply as an enjoyable way to relax. Uncle Marvin took fishing very, very seriously. For him, heading out in the boat with the latest in fishing gear was not so much recreation as a holy quest, a pitched battle between Man and Fish.
My Dad was somewhere between the two, and almost never joined his brothers on their fishing excursions. He preferred fishing alone or with his wife and kids. One summer day I discovered why.
At first light on most days, Uncle Marvin would arm himself with fancy rods and reels, carefully chosen bait and his beloved Fish Lo-K-Tor, a sort of radar which at the time was the last word in fishing gizmos. In contrast, Uncle Gordon would grab the closest rod and reel and use whatever bait was handy. Throughout the day, Uncle Marvin would point out everything that his brother was doing wrong and why he wouldn’t catch anything. And in late afternoon they would return, Uncle Gordon smiling broadly and holding up his catch of northern pike and walleye, and Uncle Marvin grimly silent, having been skunked…again.
On one such morning I helped my uncles carry their gear to the boat. Uncle Marvin had a brand new rod and reel, an expensive model that had all the features necessary to lay waste to the finny population of the Lower Whitefish Chain of Lakes. As they pulled away from the dock, I could hear Uncle Marvin lecturing his brother on the virtues of having the proper equipment. Uncle Gordon just smiled.
About an hour later, I was surprised to hear the boat returning. When they reached the dock, Uncle Marvin gathered up his gear and stomped angrily up the hill. Uncle Gordon just shook his head, smiled, and motored back out to continue fishing.
I would later discover the cause of the shortened fishing trip. Things had begun as usual; Uncle Marvin fished off the left side of the boat, and when he got nary a nibble, began to berate Gordon on his choice of fishing spots. Over on the right side Uncle Gordon was pulling in walleye after walleye. With each one, he would cheerfully exclaim, “Hey Marv, got another one!”. To which Marvin replied, “Goddammit, Gordon.”
At some point, Uncle Marvin leaned his rod against the oarlock and began fiddling with the Fish Lo-K-Tor. At that moment, a fish hit his line, pulling his fancy new rod and reel into the lake. I guess Uncle Gordon couldn’t help himself. “Hey Marv, that was a big one!” At that, Uncle Marvin said, “Goddammit, Gordon, take me back to the dock right now.” They returned in silence, minus one expensive piece of fishing apparatus.
Uncle Marvin sat in a lawn chair on the dock for the rest of the day, sulking and smoking Camel after Camel, no doubt elevating his elder brother into the same grievance category as “those bastards at Studebaker.”
Later that afternoon Uncle Gordon appeared around the point, heading for the dock. He had an even bigger smile on his face than usual, and was holding something over his head.
Uncle Marvin recognized what it was before anyone else. And in a voice that echoed across the lake, he bellowed, “God-DAMMIT, Gordon!
Returning to the same spot as before, Uncle Gordon had continued to catch fish after fish. But it wasn’t walleyes and northerns that he was holding above his head. While fishing, his hook had become snagged on something. Something that he then pulled out of the lake. Something that he was now displaying proudly. Something that taught me the value of a positive attitude.
Uncle Gordon had caught Uncle Marvin’s lost rod and reel.
Today’s Fact Cetera
Before he was Uncle Joe on “Petticoat Junction”, Edgar Buchanan ran a successful oral surgery practice.