Mike Wilson: The legend of Uncle Vaudie

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, January 25, 2024

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After I lectured to a Hispanic culture class about the profound importance of “fictive kinship” (social bonds unrelated to blood or marriage) in Latino societies, I began to think about my own “fictive kin,” and the first people who came to mind were my “river uncles.”

“Uncle” Vaudie had a cabin on Lick Creek four cabins down the road from my grandparents’. He and his wife Juanita had become fast friends with Granddaddy and Grandmommy after they built their place at roughly the same time our houseboat was hauled up permanently into the woods just down the gravel road. Their cabin was right next door (perhaps they even shared a lot?) to “Uncle” John Andrew and his wife Elizabeth, Juanita’s sister.

I discover now that Uncle Vaudie had been born in 1907, so he had lived through the hardships of the Depression and World War II (a web search for his tombstone shows that he was a private in the U.S. Army during that terrible conflict) before I ever knew him. He was most certainly against any type of waste: many a time I would find him at the cleaning table by the boathouse scaling a batch of small bream with a teaspoon.

He and his wife kept and ate absolutely everything they caught. I also saw once that they had rinsed off some paper plates and clipped them on the clothesline so they could use them again. Though it has been almost 50 years since I saw him last, I can still picture him perfectly with his sweat-stained pith helmet — just like Jungle Jim’s — and steel-rimmed glasses heading out early in the morning in his small Alumacraft. (All four of the vessels that shared that boathouse were 14 feet long; this was long before the advent of the modern bass battleship.) All the ladies — my grandmother and the two sisters — always wore very large straw sun hats.

I seem to recall that Uncle John Andrew had retired from the U.S. Border Patrol and returned to Tennessee from the southwest. He was by far the quieter of the two, and I can see him puffing on his pipe and pondering how to answer the incessant questions of a very curious boy. It may be that his tales even led me subconsciously to the study of Spanish. His surname was Hawk, which makes me wonder whether he perhaps had a touch of Native American blood. His boat had a blue and silver hull (one of few thereabouts) that I could spot way across the lake. To my knowledge, he and his wife did not eat all their bream; they probably gave them to Uncle Vaudie!

As good Baptist role models, my grandparents did not imbibe when the grandkids were visiting, but I have the feeling that on other weekends when we weren’t present they may have enjoyed an occasional libation with those dear old friends. I did once overhear Granddaddy remark to Uncle Vaudie that the next weekend he intended to make a batch of “lemonade, made in the shade and stirred with a spade…” I’m going to hazard a guess that the recipe involved spirits…

I remember those dear “uncles” and “aunts” now so fondly, and I wish I could have thanked them for the kindness and patience and generosity they showed me as a little boy. If you have “kin” like them, please tell them how much they mean to you before it’s too late.

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.