I come from a long line of eccentric uncles. They exist on both sides—maternal and paternal. Mom’s brothers were a no-brainer set of eccentricity. Her ancestors settled in Breathitt County, Kentucky a generation or two before the Revolutionary War. Just the fact that they were Appalachian farmers is enough zaniness for most people, but the fun didn’t stop there. My grandma, Mom’s mom, was pregnant more than fifteen times. The count is somewhere between sixteen and eighteen “children” depending on whether you count miscarriages as viable births. Still, that’s a lot of kids. She married Grandpa when she was thirteen—he was in his late twenties, revealing something of the dirty “old man” tendency in my collection of eccentric uncles. Grandma got pregnant not long after the wedding and had kids about every two years for the next thirty or so years, well into her forties, which explains why some of my later-born eccentric uncles died in childbirth, or were stillborn.
My oldest uncle died at the age of eighteen in unagreed upon circumstances. Some say he died of suffocation where he worked at Dupont as a spray painter. Others say he died of diabetic complications. Neither is out of the question. His next younger brother, Manuel (pronounced MAN-yull, not mon-WELL), was the oldest uncle in my mind. He chewed tobacco and rarely bathed, explaining the greenish tint on the top of his forearms arms where he’d wipe his mouth after stepping up to the front porch of the trailer in Lost Creek and spewing a glob of chaw out at the chickens on the patio. He spoke in riddles that actually revealed a latent intelligence, but were difficult to process in my young mind, partly from the Appalachian dialect that put a strange twist on everything my uncles said. As an example, he used to tell my mentally challenged aunt that her bright-red lipstick made her mouth look like a fox’s butt during pokeberry time. He used to crock my males cousins’ and my heads in the crook of his tobacco-stains arms and give us “roosters” and “hens”—variations on the theme of using his curled index finger to knock some sense into us.
Merle (pronounce Murl) was cleaner, quieter, and more sensitive than Manuel. He favored making up pet names for all of the grandkids in the family. He called my older brother Chris “Critter” and he called me “Marchus.” When my sister was three we went to visit my grandma in her house on First Street in East Dayton. The kitchen had flooded and Merle was extracting the offending inundation when we arrived. I asked what that goofy sounding—“guk, guk, guk”—contraption in the middle of the kitchen was. Merle said, “That’s a sump pump.” Michelle said, “Sunk punk?” Merle nearly died laughing and until the day he died some twenty years later, he called Michelle “Sunkpunk.”
Aside from Merle’s endearing nomenclature, he also had a penchant for wooing and bedding teenage girls. While in certain circles in Kentucky such behavior is more or less considered normal, in the somewhat more main stream America in suburban Dayton, Merle often came off as a freaking pervert. This was especially noticeable to me when I, at the age of fourteen, was dating my cousin Timmy’s neighbor Carrie. Each time I came back from a visit next door, Merle would ask, “Did you poke ‘er yet?” To which I’d answer, “No, not yet.” To which Merle would reply, “Boy, I’d be pokin’ that. Mmh!” One day, Carrie was walking up her driveway. Merle stood at the sliding glass doors of Timmy’s Florida room, repeating his passioned observation to no one in particular, “Boy, I’d be pokin’ that. Mmh!”
In this climate, in relative terms, Jimmy Dale and Goodlo were far less off kilter, but I still retain some good memories. Not long before my ex-wife Faye and I were to head off to Africa to work as missionaries, we went to visit Mom’s family at my cousin Timmy’s, something of a central hub for the Neace clan in them parts. Jim sidled up to me at the dining room table and said, “You going to Africa?”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding.
“Ain’t they a bunch o’ niggers over there. Why the hell you want to go over there and be with a bunch o’ niggers for? Ain’t they enough a them over here for ya?”
I had almost no common ground to find with Jim in this interchange and sat stunned, paralyzed in my effort to formulate some kind of response that wouldn’t compromise my own views on race while not raising the hostilities in the room. While most of my family were not so extreme in their hatred for African Americans, they also weren’t likely to appreciate my own personal views that considered all people equally valid representations of humanity. In my moment of hesitation, Goodlo came to the rescue. “Why, he’s going over there to civilize ‘em, Jim. That’s a good thing. They need that.”
How to summarize all I’d learned from personal experience, a bachelor’s degree in International Studies, and a couple of semesters of Linguistics and Anthropology in graduate school? I settled for, “Yeah. Right. What he said.”
It’s speculated that somewhere along the way the Neace family incorporated genetic material from the Cherokee Nation. It’s a family rumor, but it’s not really so far-fetched. The first time I saw a picture of Geronimo—at the age of four or five—I thought it was a picture of Merle wearing an Indian costume. Grandma and most of my uncles look Native American and many of my students from Asia over the years had uncanny resemblances to my mother, aunts, and uncles. Standing with a group of Asian students at a Chinese buffet one day, a Texan came up to me and asked what part of China I was from. I was flummoxed, but when I relayed the story to one of my colleagues later, he told me, “Yeah, I can see it.”
The funny thing is, no Native American shows up in any of the Neace family genealogies. My theory is that some kind of interracial hanky-panky was going on in that valley in Lost Creek, Kentucky. Likely, it was one of my great (great) grandmothers. She got pregnant, pretended it was my great (great) grandfather’s, and like Dale on King of the Hill, he was either blissfully ignorant or hopelessly in denial, but never made an issue that his own boy or girl looked more like the Cherokee tracker in the county than himself and the Cherokee gene pool merged with the Neace line and thus some ancient roots from Asia made themselves ready to formulate my body for this incarnation.