Alley Sheffield, my mother’s father, lost a leg around 1920. I don’t know how he lost it, or which leg he lost, only that he lost a leg.
The story that came down to me from my aunt, Sister, was that after he lost his leg he was unable to support a family with five children, and that’s why the four younger children were put into the Salvation Army orphanage in El Paso, Texas, in 1921.
Then he and my grandmother, Lottie, divorced and went their separate ways, and Alley settled in Carrolton, Texas, where he remained the rest of his life.
I never met these grandparents, only heard stories.
After Sister was married and settled in California, she kept in touch with her older sister Gladys and her father in Texas, and even went to visit them a time or two.
Now, Sister was married to my Uncle Mike, who worked as an auto mechanic, and he was darn good at it. Uncle Mike was born in the 1890s and grew up in a time when if you needed something, you built it or made it. At least he did, because he had the magic in his hands, and the skill in his soul.
By the time he and Sister married, it was the 1930s, and Daddy, as Sister called him, must have complained about the deficiencies of his wooden legs.
I am willing to guess that the science of prosthetics was not advanced in Carrolton, Texas, in the 1930s, and if there were more sophisticated options than a handmade wooden leg, Alley could not afford them.
So Uncle Mike began making wooden legs for Daddy.
As a child I had no idea about Uncle Mike’s leg making activity. One more thing in my world to which I was completely oblivious.
Until 1968, when my college sweetheart, Van, and I dropped by Sister and Uncle Mike’s house one day for a visit when we were in town.
We talked of this and that, and then for some reason Sister got onto the subject of Daddy’s wooden legs.
Mike had made so many legs for Daddy, she said, and when they sent them to Texas, they were beautiful, and when Daddy got them he used them until after a time the wood would crack, and then he’d need a new one. So Uncle Mike would make a new one.
Uncle Mike would saw and carve the pieces and put them together and sand the surfaces until you could slide down them on your bare fanny, I’ll bet. Uncle Mike was a perfectionist.
It was so frustrating that the wood always cracked, Sister said. Mike tried different varieties of wood, and he would let the wood get good and dry before working with it so that theoretically it would be beyond cracking. It cracked, anyway.
Once, Sister said, they submerged a log in the Pajaro River for six months, then brought it out and let it dry for several months, hoping that would bring out all the wood’s cracking tendencies before it was used.
The finished leg was sent off with high hopes for its longevity.
Alas, that leg cracked, too.
Finally they got fed up, and figured that if Uncle Mike was going to have to make another leg soon, why not skip curing the wood? He made a leg out of green wood and shipped it off to Texas.
Sister beamed triumphantly as she said, “And Daddy said it was the best leg he ever had!”
Van and I sat and listened to this story with the politeness and respect due to Sister and Uncle Mike, and we must have said, well, that’s great, and how about that, how wonderful, and so on.
After a while it was time for us to take our leave.
We got out to Van’s car, looked at each other, and burst out laughing.
Why did the leg story strike us as so funny? I don’t know. It just did. Speaking for myself, I was a callow youth at the time. I will say that over the years when I remembered Sister saying that last line, I laughed again, and smiled, and not in a mean way, honestly.
Sister and Uncle Mike both died in 1987. Sister gave me my first guitar, the Stella she played while singing on the street in the Salvation Army. Uncle Mike helped my dad repair my ’58 Chevy when I drove it without water and turned the cork gaskets into charcoal.
God bless them all.
Errata: last column I said that I sometimes think of someone as an “adverb moron.” I should have said, “adjective moron.” Sorry.
I will say that “adverb moron” trips off the tongue more musically than “adjective” moron.