A man named Knuckles is running for sheriff of the Florida county where my Uncle Al settled after he retired from the Air Force in 1971. The current sheriff is named Slaughter. My aunt and cousins were bemused by my exclamations of glee over these Dickensian surnames when I visited in July. But I was snatching at any excuse to lighten the atmosphere as the occasion for the trip was a sad one: I was accompanying my 79-year-old mother on a last visit to her big brother, confined to a hospital bed and slipping in and out of consciousness since a mini-stroke earlier in the month.
Uncle Al had been on home hospice for inoperable lung cancer since February, but up till his 82nd birthday in June he had been tooling around town in his Jazzy, able-bodied enough to rise and hit a few golf balls at a course near his home every few days. The stroke felled him in a way that cancer and chemo couldn’t, paralyzing the left side of his body. It was clear to all of us that my mom had better fly down quickly if she wanted to see him while he was still able to talk with her.
So in mid-July my cousin Tom claimed my mother and me at the Jacksonville airport, driving us down the pine-fringed highways to Trenton, a one traffic light town in the rural north central region of the state. It was an odd place for my uncle to have put down roots. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Baltimore, he had enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean War, serving in the war zone though not on the front lines.
Over a twenty-year career as a USAF radioman he had lived in Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Key West, Florida. In one of the murkier phases of his career, he had served as a member of a five-man “secret Air Force” team monitoring nuclear tests from Chile prior to the election of the socialist Allende government in the mid-sixties. But my aunt had been raised in Florida, and her parents, brother, and sister lived near Trenton, so my cosmopolitan uncle settled near his wife’s family like a good husband. As a dark-skinned Italian with a name that ended in a vowel, he didn’t exactly blend.
When I was a kid, my parents, brother, and I road-tripped south every couple of summers to visit them, stopping overnight in South Carolina to break up the sixteen-hour drive from Baltimore. Swimming in a motel pool the first night of the trip was a treat, but merely a tantalizing appetizer for the main event—meeting up with Uncle Al, Aunt Peggy, Michael, and Tom in Trenton and together hitting all the Florida attractions within a couple hours’ drive of their home. My brother and I marveled at the curvaceous mermaids at Weeki Wachi and glided over crystal waters in glass-bottomed boats in Silver Springs, a “nature theme park” in Ocala. And of course, we screamed in the Haunted Mansion and giggled through Mister Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World.
But we had just as much fun swimming in the snake-infested waters at Hart Springs and tubing lazily down the Itchnetucknee River near Trenton. My brother was even brave enough to try water-skiing in the river till my cousins told him to hail them with a wave if he saw a gator slide into the water. After a face-saving spin on the skis he hopped right back into the boat.
Once we hit adolescence my slightly older cousin Michael and I discovered other shared interests. Soon after my family pulled into Trenton in “Old Paint,” our family Chevy, Michael would say, “want to take a ride, Debbie?” and we would jump into his battered pickup truck. Driving down some long dusty country road bordered by watermelon fields, we’d see another pickup filled with his friends in the distance, stop side by side and pass a joint back and forth between the trucks. Michael always introduced me as his “Yankee” cousin and teased me about how fast I talked. On one memorable occasion when our families were vacationing together in Fort Walton Beach on Florida’s Gulf panhandle, Michael proposed drinking Kool-Aid mixed with the juice of psilocybin mushrooms before a family dinner at Howard Johnsons. After dinner we took our little brothers to see The Deep with Jacqueline Bisset and laughed through the whole movie, which was not a comedy.
Those were halcyon days to be sure, and a lot more fun than our latest meeting, which was shadowed by my uncle’s looming death, which none of us could bring ourselves to acknowledge. Instead, we sat in the living room, where his hospital bed faced the big flat screen television, and urged him to drink water from the pink and purple sippy cup I bought him at the Dollar General as he could no longer drink from a regular cup without spilling. We worked in teams to turn his emaciated body from side to side to ward off bedsores. We brought him back mashed potatoes from the barbecue joint where we went to dinner and cheered when he took a few bites.
And we talked politics. On the ride down from Jacksonville, my cousin Tom, a budget analyst for the Florida Department of Corrections, had pointed out four razor-wired prisons on the highway between Jacksonville and Trenton. The prison system is one of the top employers in North Florida, he told my mom and me. But the Republican governor and legislature are itching to privatize corrections and he is worried about his job. “I’ll have thirty years service next year,” he said, sitting in his dad’s wheelchair, which has become just another sitting option in the living room. “But I don’t think I’ll be around for forty.” Like his dad, who retired from the Air Force at forty-one, Tom is pretty sure he’ll have a second career doing something else. Though he never said so, I’m pretty sure he will be voting for the Democratic ticket this fall.
Meantime, Michael works for one of the few manufacturers left in Florida, making boats. He’s been there for twenty-eight years but is worried about how he’ll pay the bills when he has to take off for a couple of months following surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. He doesn’t have disability insurance and doubts that he will be able to get workmen’s comp, though it is clear that the injury is caused by years of hard physical labor. His wife is worried that if he takes time off, his employers will fire him. Nonetheless, he is planning to vote for Mitt Romney because, he says, “he fixed Massachusetts.”
Tom says that Florida was a solidly Democratic state for decades, but that battles over abortion and gay rights pushed the state into the Republican camp. I wondered aloud how that could be. My aunt, a Republican who used to work for the Board of Elections, said that the state’s Democrats no longer felt at home in the party. “The party left them,” she said. “They didn’t leave the party.”
My uncle, a lifelong Democrat, roused himself to croak a single word—“Dixiecrats”—before slipping back into dreams.
Deborah Rudacille is an independent journalist and science writer. Her first book, The Scalpel and the Butterfly (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), was named one of the year’s best nonfiction books by the Los Angeles Times. The Riddle of Gender (Pantheon, 2004) was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. Her latest book, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town will be published in January 2010. She teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.