The Last Bike Ride

My uncle was an odd man, gently odd in the way that all of us become if we live long enough, after a lifetime of slowly developing idiosyncrasies.

He was my mother’s fraternal twin.

Before his early retirement in his fifties, he worked as a brakeman and engineer for Southern Pacific, mostly out of California in the Bakersfield area.  I remember when we visited him when I was a very young kid.  He took me to the rail yard and let me “drive” a big engine.  Driving mainly consisted of moving the throttle backward and forward, but this was still a big thrill for a little boy.

He was a yardman, shunting the engines and cars around, getting the right ones together for the next long train out. In his later years he was forthright about the reason for his early retirement — he caused a bad accident in the yard that cost a lot of money.  He was in danger of being fired, but friends in management and union stuck up for him enough to allow him the more dignified, and more financially viable, option of retirement.  He didn’t sugarcoat the mess he made.  This is one of the things I learned from him… tell it like it is, and was.

After his retirement, he moved to Nevada and ended up residing in the mile-high little metropolis of Carson City, the state’s capitol.  He and his second wife Beth owned and ran a liquor store for a few years.  But when that came to an end, they hit the road with an older RV that somehow he managed to keep running.  They would often come up to Canada and British Columbia to visit his three nephews.

I usually was not there, either at university, traveling, or working elsewhere, but he would frequently visit the farm of the middle brother, Mark, and became quite close with him.  When my wife and I visited Uncle Ed in his later years, he had many of Mark’s early pencil sketches taped up on his walls in his little house in Carson City.  (Mark is a talented pencil artist who occasionally sells his work despite not pursuing that calling professionally.)

The Winter He Gave Us

But what all three brothers remember him most for was the winter after our father died of a stroke.  I was twelve, my brothers 8 and 9, and we lived with Ma in an old log cabin in the Bulkley Valley in the northwest half of British Columbia.  The winters were colder then — there could be periods of -40, and even -50, degrees below zero Fahrenheit — and the long season required a lot of wood to burn.  We had a wood cook stove and heater, and an additional little oil furnace, but stove oil was too expensive for us to use in a big way.

I could operate our small Homelite chain saw, although I didn’t sharpen the chain very well, and us boys struggled to start creating the store of wood that might last us the winter.  As the snow began to deepen on the ground, one day Uncle Ed showed up from California.  He took a few months leave from his railroad job and came to help us.   Probably Ma let him know how we were struggling, trying to get over my father’s death, and how we were falling behind in such things as the winter fuel supply.

He showed up more than a little overweight, unused to the cold and snow, and proceeded to take things in hand. He was always of a cheerful demeanor, prone to lame jokes, and nonsensical sayings.  I don’t think he had ever used a chain saw much before, but he got hold of a good-sized one, and started roaring away with it immediately.

Over that winter he was the wood-cutting boss, orchestrating the falling and cutting and delivery by toboggan down to the cabin area from the hilly slopes above where we lived wherever we found good-sized poplar and pine.  Then Ed, and to an extent us three boys, had to split all that wood with a heavy splitting axe.  Unfortunately, green poplar takes at least a season to dry well.  We didn’t have much in reserve, so we struggled to burn green wood all that first winter while we built up a sizable store for the future.

I’m sure there were many other chores he helped out with, but it was the firewood cutting that I remember best.  He could be annoying, and rather sharp with us while trying to be amusing, I recall as a budding teenager.  But he never tried to pretend to take the place of our father, or to be anyone other than who he was.

By the end of his time with us, he had lost all his extra weight, and looked fit and trim. He was ready to return to his life in California, and apparently a serious girlfriend (who later became his first wife) was waiting for him.

Sadly, in later years, towards the end of my mother’s life, he and my mother became estranged for reasons that had to do with their parents and events from their childhood that I’m not sure about.  At times, my mother found Ed to be maddeningly opaque about what he thought or felt.

For awhile, he took care of his mother, our grandmother, moving her from Seattle to Nevada to stay with them until she died.  After my mother died in her sixties, Uncle Ed continued to travel around with Beth, still often visiting my brother Mark.

Then Beth died, and Ed’s health problems came to the fore.  He had become heavily overweight again, diabetic and suffering from heart problems.  When my wife and I visited him in the in the early 2000s in Carson City, he told us the doctors expected him to die quite soon, but that he was going to thwart them.

HO Scale

He showed us his large model train setup in an otherwise empty extension of his house.  It wasn’t the typical model railroad setup with nice miniature scenery and little stations.  No, it was mainly just a bunch of tracks where he tried to recreate all the problems of scheduling and distribution of cars from his former working life.

I still remember him suddenly diving below the large surface, into the guts of the electrical system which seemed to consist of many haphazard, tangled knots of coloured wire, trying to get the electricity going again on the tracks.  He stood up, pleased and apparently surprised, when the train started clattering around once more.

Fortunately after his health scare, he lost the extra weight, revised his diet, began to exercise including taking long bike rides with a neighbour friend.  Whenever we phoned him, he would report with glee that his doctors just couldn’t understand how he managed to be doing so well with his conditions.

Uncle Ed had his own theories about life and living that he often promoted to us, although we were skeptical.  He had read a lot of Jane Roberts and the Seth material, which derives from channeling.  It’s mainly about how you create your life through what you think.  I accepted there could be a lot of truth to that, but I always balked about people giving themselves cancer, or being responsible for getting themselves gunned down by some ruthless dictator.

He liked to make choices with a pendulum, even travelling decisions.  In the latter case he would dangle the little metal bob over a route, and depending on which way it turned, decide where to go.  He swore it worked wonders.

I think his beliefs did extend his life. They gave him the basis to believe he could take control of his fate.

Turning 84

This year he turned 84, the same age my mother would have been.  Part of my relationship with Uncle Ed was as a connection with my mother.  The small birthday and Christmas presents we sent to him each year were also a misty surrogate way to affirm that connection.

Uncle Ed loved getting on the internet with his computer and sending to a select bunch of people the jokes and rude commentary that he found.  He still tried to keep active. When the weather allowed, he got out on his bike for rides that were shorter now than in the old days, he told us.

A few days ago, he took his bike out again for a ride.  I like to think that he knew that the end was not far, and that on a cool autumn day in October, leaves blowing along the street, with the breeze in his face, for the last time he took in the sight of the world and the wonder of it and his place in it.

When he got back home, he laid down in the same clothes and took his leave of us.  A neighbor, his old bike riding companion, who still lived nearby, found Uncle Ed after not seeing him for awhile.

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10 Comments on “The Last Bike Ride”

  1. sputnki Says:

    A touching and poignant tribute. It’s always a pleasure to read your posts!

    Doug

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    Thank you….

    Regards

  3. Rick Matz Says:

    It sounds like your uncle led a good life and had a good death. We should all be so lucky.

    There is nothing at the same time so grand and so poignant as the passing of generations.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    I think he had a very good death, like you say. I wouldn’t mind going that way….

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Regards


  5. “It’s mainly about how you create your life through what you think.” Of course there is much more to life than that but there sure are lots crazier beliefs to centre your life around. Yet another great story Fence.

  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer,

    It’s a world full of competing crazy beliefs, and most of them more harmful than the Seth stuff, that’s for sure….

    Thanks!

    Regards

  7. MDW Says:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    When you told about the model train set and how your uncle seemed surprised when the train started moving again after he fiddled with it, it reminded me of a quote we used to have written on the white board in the computer programmer’s room at work.

    When an engineer says “Initial results were gratifying” what it really means is “We were surprised the damn thing worked!”

    MDW

  8. fencer Says:

    Hi Mark,

    I like that quote…. so much of life, even (or especially) the successful bits tends to be hit or miss.

    Thanks!

    Regards

  9. Dale Fuller Says:

    Mark, I know that you posted this almost a year ago, but I just read it and would like to add my comments to the list. Janie Beth told me about your dad’s passing and referred me to his obituary. I hope you still check out the comments once in awhile.
    I met your uncle one time. His wife Beth was a well-loved family friend. We met Ed when he came up with Beth to British Columbia about three weeks before she passed away. It was as if she came to say good-bye to me and my two sisters. And of course, in the process we met Ed. They had actually come to see your mother as well.
    My family grew up visiting the Pepper’s farm and we all loved Beth very much. Janie is still a friend that we hold in high regard. I think I have convinced her and Stan to come visit us next summer. I live with my husband Fernando near Rock Creek, BC.
    I regret not being able to sit down and talk a little more with your uncle. They were here for such a short time. But from your description I can see that he was an ideal companion for Beth.
    Just wanted to say the post you wrote about your uncle was very moving. I used to write obits as part of my job, and I always regarded them as short stories.
    Dale Fuller

  10. fencer Says:

    Hi Dale,

    Thanks so much for your comments and the history you shared.

    I don’t know where Rock Creek is, but now I will have to look it up!

    Regards


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