Biography: Hobo can be hero when he's in form of your own uncle
Uncle Charlie wasn't like other uncles, and the difference suited me just fine
March 15, 2013 4:00 AM
By Pat Trapani
One of my more flamboyant relatives was Uncle Charlie, a half brother of my paternal grandmother.
He left the Pittsburgh area in his teens and became a self-professed hobo. He always explained that a hobo worked for a living, while a "bum" had more devious methods of existing.
He would send postcards to my grandmother, and I was enchanted by the pictures of exotic places that existed for me only in geography books and Uncle Charlie's travels.
Every five years or so, he would jump off a train passing through Pittsburgh and visit us. Although some adult members of the family were embarrassed by his lifestyle, I could not have been more impressed as a child if the visitor had been the king of England.
Uncle Charlie was a tall, burly man with a shock of brown hair and a ruddy complexion. In later years he reminded me of W.C. Fields, and his bulbous, reddened nose suggested that he perhaps shared his drinking habits as well.
He had a long, black overcoat that had several inside pockets. In these he kept small pots, dishes, silverware and various condiments. He would enthrall me with tales of the road and his adventures in the hobo camps. He verified as true the story of hobo stew and how all would contribute ingredients for it.
Uncle Charlie boasted that he had been to every state but Alaska and Hawaii, but he was careful to stay out of Alabama because hobos there were arrested and put on chain gangs. This had happened once to him, and he would literally go states out of his way thereafter to avoid it. As for the two states he never made it to, he explained, "Alaska is too damn cold and the trains don't go to Hawaii."
There was one period in his life that was what the family referred to as "normal." During World War II, he stayed in Pittsburgh for a year or so. He obtained a job and settled down with a woman whom I was told to call "Aunt Vickie." The legality of their union was questionable even to me, an 8-year-old.
She seemed to take good care of him, however, and Uncle Charlie suddenly did all the normal stuff -- attended family functions, visited relatives, etc. After a year or so, when he seemed to tire of the "good life," he suddenly disappeared again. Aunt Vickie remained in the neighborhood, but we never interacted with her again.
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The last contact we had with Uncle Charlie was in 1959. He had not visited in several years, but then one day he appeared on my doorstep in Penn Hills. I welcomed him with open arms and asked him to stay for dinner and meet my husband.
At the dinner table, Uncle Charlie kept his coat and hat on. When my husband asked if he might like to remove them, he explained, "Lots of times I have to leave quick." My husband assured him that he was a welcome guest, and the visit went well.
The next day we were pouring a patio and Uncle Charlie probably did the bulk of the cement work. As he was leaving, my husband gave him $20, a warm jacket and one of his business cards. I swear I saw a tear in Charlie's eye as he proclaimed that no one had ever given him a business card before.
The next day he was gone from our lives. That evening my dad saw the jacket being worn by a man outside a bar in Lawrenceville.
The years went by and the postcards as well as visits ceased. I thought that if he died, we would at least be notified because of the business card -- even with Uncle Charlie's unusual version of final arrangements; he boasted that somewhere on his body was a tattoo willing his body to a medical school.
I was visiting my dad's sister recently, and we were going through some old pictures. Among them was a studio portrait of a clean, handsome, young man, clad in a white shirt, with a book in hand. It was an Uncle Charlie I had never known.
I am sure the photo was taken at Aunt Vickie's insistence during that "normal" period. I asked my aunt if I might have it. She agreed as she lamented, "After I am gone, no one will even know who he is."
I remember my dear Uncle Charlie though, and I fully intend to keep his memory alive.
Pat Trapani of Penn Hills, a retired nurse, can be reached at email@example.com.The PG Portfolio welcomes "Biography" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.