My Uncle Ed was born in the 1800’s. He held down many jobs after leaving school in third grade to help his family, including a 2-year stint as President Teddy Roosevelt’s chauffeur. He had great stories about Teddy. I even have a pair of 18 karat cufflinks that Teddy gave him when he left his position.
He was fascinated by aviation and became a flyer in World War One. He started flying when airplanes were only used in war for reconnaissance. On his way to check on the German troops, he would regularly fly by a German plane headed to do recon on the allied side. He said they would sometimes wave at each other.
One day, a flyer, no one knows from which side, took a pistol up in his plane and shot at a plane from the other side. Next time, the plane that had been shot at took up a rifle. That led to planes carrying machine gunners with submachine guns to shoot planes out of the sky. Then both sides began testing what they called synchronous fire machine guns that would shoot between the propellers. Uncle Ed said he shot his propeller off once when the synchronous mechanism failed.
After the war, Ed came back to Avalon, NJ, his hometown, and tried to get a job. Even then, there were few opportunities for returning veterans. As he had built his own airplane, he did some freelance jobs taking passengers and light cargo to destinations along the Jersey Shore. As it was during Prohibition, someone eventually approached him to go to Canada and bring back some booze.
In his homemade biplane, it took 4 stops flying from Southern New Jersey to Canada, 5 coming back with his heavy load. No radar in those days so there was little chance of being caught. He made more money for one trip than he could have in a couple of months of freelance work. He was soon making regular trips to Canada and was successful enough to buy another plane and hire his brother who was also an amateur pilot. He eventually bought a few boats to bring in European liquor and wine from ships offshore.
Federal agents caught him a few times and he went to trial. He told me that the judge and everyone on all the juries were his customers. Hence, they never got a conviction. He prospered until Prohibition ended.
Ed’s passion was inventing. He patented many things including the Compass Course Finder, which became the standard in marine navigation prior to Radio and Loran. He made a lot of money from that one. He took the money he had saved from bootlegging and inventing and bought into a business in Haddonfield, New Jersey, one of those “George Washington slept here” towns. He was partners with Harry Neumeyer, who was a very cool guy. Harry once taught me how to field strip and reassemble a Colt Model 1911 pistol. My mother lived on the third floor of the building and I was born there in 1950.
Their store controlled all the newspaper distribution in Southern New Jersey for the three major newspapers in the region. Plus, the store had a complete selection of comic books and model kits. I loved going there!
Ed never married, but he always had multiple girlfriends. He was also fond of hookers and I have written in the past about catching him in a threesome with a couple of them in Las Vegas. He loved to travel and we traveled every summer when I was a kid. He also loved music and we went to many concerts, Broadway Shows and festivals during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
In August of 1963, he took me to the March on Washington to hear Dr. Martin Luther King. It was quite a day. It was really hot and humid. We left New Jersey at 4 AM and arrived in Washington, D.C. about 8 AM. Not much call for bottled water in those days, so we took a couple of large Thermos bottles of ice water. I also took my guitar, since I was 12 at the time and I took it everywhere.
Uncle Ed knew a lot of people from all walks of life. I always figured it was from his bootlegging days. We were able to park pretty close to the start of the parade route, even though all the parking lots had “Full” signs. I don’t know if he bribed the attendant, or knew him. Ed was the master of what I call “the pass,” which is slipping money to someone so that no one notices. Anyway, he and the attendant had a nice conversation and we drove right in.
The parade was amazing. Our part of the march was singing together. I was able to accompany them, using a capo on my guitar to adjust for the key. A black man was walking alongside of us. He had brought his two children with him; one was my age one a bit younger. We shared our water with them. It made me sad that he asked if it was alright since he was black and we only had the 2 Thermos cups.
Uncle Ed didn’t care what color, nationality or lifestyle a person had. He liked everyone, always quoting Will Rogers, saying “I never met a man I didn’t like.” My own tolerance along with my love of music are the 2 best things I took from Uncle Ed.
The man walking with us had a fantastic voice. He sang quite a few spirituals and I accompanied him. Once I found the key he was in with the capo, accompanying him was easy. Most of the songs only had 3 or 4 chords. Playing while he sang is one of my most favorite musical memories. The crowd around us sang with him. It really was beautiful!
Once we reached the podium area, we were about a hundred rows back, I heard Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Peter Paul and Mary and others sing with the crowd. Hearing Dr. King’s Speech live is something that changed me. I was raised by Ed to be tolerant, but Dr. King’s words reminded me that there was still a lot of work to do. Almost 60 years later, there is still a lot of work to do.
At the end of the rally, we exchanged contact information with the family we walked alongside. While we never made it to their place, they did visit us that Fall. We had dinner and sang a lot of songs that evening. It was a great way to relive that amazing moment in time.
Fast forward to the early 1980’s. The advertising and marketing company I worked for in Atlanta was hired to write the script and produce a film for the Dr. Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violence. I got to work with Coretta Scott King. It was awe inspiring. I am proud that the film ran at the center for many years. Writing and producing it was a real labor of love.
And now it’s 2020. I do believe that all the demonstrations from the past couple of weeks have everyone’s attention. Changes have to be made. I hope we’re smart enough to make them. May God bless us all!
© 2020 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.