Uncle Jim was already a heavy drinker before he shipped off to fight in WWII. He returned a full fledged drunk, beset by demons. His job as an Army Ranger was to infiltrate behind enemy lines and cut throats.
"Those people don't know how to live," was my father's general assessment of my mother's hillbilly family.
Grandpa was a drunk, too, a melancholy, withdrawn drunk. My only memory of him was of a ghost sitting all day in his recliner, downing one can of beer, then picking up another. The death of his son, Benny, in a training exercise during the Korean War, gutted Grandpa.
Cousin Vicky never had a chance. By the time she was 14, she was already a heavy drinker like her father. She was, unfortunately, also the apple of Uncle Jim's eye, a stunning chestnut haired beauty, built (as they say) like a brick shithouse. He bought her a souped up Chevy when she turned 16.
I was in love with Vicky and terrified of her. She had a crush on me, too, so I was among the first to take a ride in the Chevy. Central Illinois is flat and wide open, with straight aways on country roads that stretch out endlessly... a perfect place for Vicky to open up that Chevy. She laughed at me for being terrified as the speedometer pinned above 100.
I remember her beautiful hair streaming back in the breeze from the open window of that Chevy.
I found out about the accident when I saw the Chevy, engine compartment crushed into the front seat, being towed down Main St. in my teeny-tiny home town. This was not a surprise.
The rest was a nightmare. Aunt Pat sat in a folding chair at the intersection of two coffins , one for Vicky and the other for her baby, throughout the wake wailing and begging God for mercy. I don't even remember the baby's name.
Two children survived. Cousin Kathy somehow lived through the 100 mph collision with the tree, being thrown through the windshield and bouncing down the highway on her face. Cousin Jimmie was the only child who did not take that fateful joy ride.
During my recent trip home, my mother and I drove past the crash site. Nothing remains to commemorate that bloody, bitter day. Even the tree that took the impact is long gone.
Aunt Pat surprised us all by leaving $100,000 to Cousin Kathy when she died. How she amassed that fortune... who knows? My aunt worked in the most menial of jobs. For a long time she was a laundromat attendant. I visited Aunt Pat from time to time in her squalid, barely furnished apartments. A lifetime of mourning and praying for forgiveness had twisted her face and head into an odd boxlike shape. She offered me lunch when I visited, usually bologna on white bread.
Cousin Kathy used her inheritance to buy an ostrich farm in Minnesota where she lives with her husband to this day.
Mom says she's happy and that her husband is a good man. I hope that it is true.