Many people remember the excitement of a visit from a favorite relative when they were little. Sharon Smith’s “Uncle Jimmy” was a dynamic and generous figure in their family. (FYI – the “hawsepipe” mentioned in her story is the pipe that the anchor chain passes through near the bow of a ship.) Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
By Sharon Benson Smith
We kids called him “Uncle Jimmy,” although he was actually Mom’s first cousin. His young good looks reminded me of Clark Gable. His wife, “Aunt Tedodie” (short for Theodora), reminded me of the actress Gene Tierney. He called ALL the ladies, young and old alike, “Sugar” in his inimitable Southern drawl.
He was a Merchant Marine and would often be at sea for as long as two or three years at a time. Whenever he docked in the Los Angeles or San Pedro harbor, he spent time in our home.
He always took Mom and kids out to eat at the nearby Stan’s Drive Inn and told us to order whatever our little hearts desired. And, oh boy, did we! That was a real treat for us as we didn’t get “treated” like that very often.
I must have been all of nine or ten years old. I ordered a hamburger, French fries, and a coke. For dessert I ordered a butterscotch sundae. My siblings went “hog wild” with their ordering also.
Anyway, after we downed all that food plus a butterscotch sundae, he asked if we would like anything else. I immediately said, “I would like another butterscotch sundae,” and VOILA, he ordered it.
Then, about half way into that second butterscotch sundae, I started feeling queasy and had to make a mad dash to the restroom. I wonder why! Do you think maybe my eyes were bigger than my stomach? Wouldn’t you think that very incident would have cured me of my love for butterscotch – well, not so. It’s my favorite to this day --not caramel, but butterscotch!
After our Stan’s Drive Inn visits, we would go home; the adults would gather around the kitchen table and question Uncle Jimmy about all his travels to faraway places. They’d ask about where he had been, what the people were like, what were the different traditions, what about the food, etc. Seems my family always wanted to know about the food!
I recall being frightened at the adult conversation about what was going on in the world, and I also recall his words that, “China is the one to look out for.” Considering our world today and what’s going on around the globe, he was right on the mark even way back then.
He was such a wonderful and loving positive in our young lives. He bought me my first bike. It was a boy’s bike, and it was not brand new, but I sure got a lot of pleasure out of it for quite some time.
I even rode it over that crazy, yet exciting, curved and bumpy entrance to the corner beer joint. I enjoyed a lot of freedom riding that bike through our neighborhood. It was a good time to be a kid. It was a time when kids felt safe just being a kid and doing kid-like things.
Uncle Jimmy started going to sea as an ordinary seaman at the very young age of fifteen. His home was in Houston where he became known as “Blackie Merrell,” and he was assigned to the S.S. Liberty Bell. He later played a major role in the formation and the building of the National Maritime Union.
In 1939, Uncle Jimmy was elected Chairman of the Gulf District. It is written in “The Hawsepipe” (the newsletter of the Marine Workers Historical Association) that under his leadership the union in the Gulf was cleaned up and the goon squads ceased their activities.
Even more years down the road, he went on to be elected as one of the Trustees of the Pension & Welfare Fund and served in that non-paying capacity after he retired from the sea.
To this day, when I hear the words “Marine” or “butterscotch,” I am reminded of our favorite Marine, our beloved “Uncle Jimmy,” and the result of the night of two butterscotch sundaes.