Craig La Rotonda

Today's male siblings—brothers, they're called—are tomorrow's uncles. But Americans are having ever-smaller families. Most couples aspire to have one child, maybe two. So the uncle—that non-authority figure, that often drunk, childish, pseudo adult—is going extinct.

Growing up I had a dozen uncles by blood and marriage. My kid only has three uncles. When my son is an adult, he will likely marry someone who is also an only child, and their children—or their only child—won't have any uncles at all.

So it is only fitting that we pause on Thanksgiving to remember our uncles—good, bad, drunk, sober, morose, helpful, molestful, homicidal—because it was the one day a year when you could count on seeing your uncles. But soon we will live in a world without uncles, so it's important that we write down our uncle stories now, while we still can, while uncles still walk the earth. DAN SAVAGE

Scent of an Uncle

My father's brother, Uncle Chuck, was a man apart: apart from hygiene, apart from manners, apart from any social life outside of his addiction to dog-track racing and the creepy world of the United States Postal Service, where he worked. A confirmed bachelor, Chuck haunted our family holidays like a ghost wrapped in a foul-smelling, beige cloth.

Thanksgiving always seemed like the biggest holiday for Uncle Chuck: He would sit on our couch, which my mother would cover with a clean bed sheet before he arrived in order to save the furniture from his ripe and, at times, fungal smell. He would drink beer after beer, trying to egg my father on in matters of politics and religion. The football games would go on and on, and there Chuck would sit, beer in hand, irritating everyone, refusing to leave.

I remember my mother explaining the new plan to me, on a bright Thanksgiving morning when I was 5, and I remember Operation: Get Rid of Chuck kicking into action: at 8:00 p.m. sharp, we all retired to our bedrooms and put on pajamas, pretending that it was our bedtime. After my father had turned out the lights, Chuck felt awkward enough that he left. Then we all padded back into the living room, turned the lights back on, and watched TV until 11:00 p.m. or so, reflecting on the gaffes Chuck committed this year. It seemed to work, and though we never, ever discussed the plan again, we kept it up annually.

The last time this happened, I was 10, and, as Chuck had just left, we were watching the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special, and someone, I think it was Linus, said something about Thanksgiving being about traditions. I looked at my mother and father, sitting on the couch, which had been stripped of the bed sheet but still smelled strongly of Uncle Chuck, and said, "Is pretending to go to bed so Chuck will leave one of our Thanksgiving traditions?" Every year after that, my father would just tell Chuck when he thought it was time he'd best be heading out. That seemed to work just as well. PAUL CONSTANT

Touched by an Uncle, Once Removed

Mom always brought it up just as I was about to leave for a sleepover. She would allude to what happened to her, back when she was a kid, back when she'd slept over at her cousin's house.

The story—as I've pieced it together—is this: Mom crawled into her cousin's bed and fell asleep. A few hours later, she awoke to find her uncle staring at her, crouched beside the bed, his hand beneath the sheets. Her cousin woke up, locked eyes with her father, and told him—in a way that made it seem like she'd been through this before—to knock it off. Mom's uncle sauntered out of the room.

Mom never told us what happened under the sheets, or if he tried anything the next time she slept over. Mom did tell us that she ratted him out to her own mother, who slapped her and told her not to repeat the story. Her mother—my grandmother—sent her back to sleep over at the cousin's house many more times. Mom never forgave her for that, she told me the day after her uncle died, explaining why she'd refused to go to the funeral. My own uncle—Mom's little brother—had just knocked on our front door, imploring her to attend. Mom slammed the door in his face, and didn't speak to anyone in the family for weeks.

But Mom didn't need to divulge details of that night in her cousin's bed to drive her "uncles are not to be trusted" message into my brain. All she needed to do was raise her eyebrows when I'd come home from a sleepover at my own cousin's house. Worse, she'd put me through the third degree after babysitting a little cousin in a distant suburb. Under Mom's uncle-scrutiny, I started to believe that if I wasn't on guard, one of my otherwise wonderful uncles—the guys who taught me how to fish, play poker, swear, and hit a baseball—would do something creepy. If I found myself alone in a room with an uncle, I made sure I was a few yards away—a touch-proof distance. I avoided uncle hugs. I had a tough time falling asleep at sleepovers, until I could hear my uncle snoring in another room.

Being paranoid around my own family sucked. I'm not sure what my Mom's uncle did to her but he might as well have molested me, too. ANONYMOUS

Uncle L. Ron

We had no choice. Clearwater stood squarely between us and getting out of Florida, and on a road trip, you can't pass within 350 miles of relatives without stopping by. It's a rule.

Consequently, Liz and I found ourselves being quizzed on our educations by my step-uncle Jim. At the mention of my philosophy degree, Jim's eyes lit up. He leaned across the table, took my hands, and said, "Oh, so you love knowledge? You want to understand the world!"

"Uhh, sure," I said. "I guess so."

Over dinner, Jim and Patty invited us to an "event." Liz and I exchanged nervous glances. "What kind of event?" I asked. "I think you'll be very interested," they told us. "It's only for a few hours."

At the Scientology center, we were given a tour, and then led into a small classroom. As Jim was leaving the room, Liz overheard him describe us to the lecturer as "prime age, prime property." We put down our soda and cookies. The more palatable tenets of Scientology were explained to us (no mention of our bodies being inhabited by millions of tiny space aliens), and then we were asked to split into pairs to "audit" one another. Amid the shuffling of chairs, we saw our opening and escaped.

That night, after everyone had gone to bed, I trolled the internet for the beliefs and practices of Scientology. What I found shocked me enough to wake Liz and we stayed up eyeing the intercom on the wall and searching for hidden cameras.

In the morning, Jim brought out a plastic device with several dials, a couple of needle-meters, and two silver cans attached by thin wires—an e-Meter. I politely insisted that I wasn't interested, but Jim persisted, pushing the cans into my hands. He asked me emotionally charged questions like "What is your earliest memory of your mother?" and "What is your greatest fear?" I answered with lies as he twisted the knobs and studied the gauges. I gently squeezed my hands to make the little needles jump back and forth to the tune playing in my head. Jim pronounced the readings "very interesting."

"We'd better get going," I said, putting down the cans. "Thanks for a really weird time!" ANTHONY HECHT

Tattooed Uncle

Stereotypically, tattoos are acquired while drunk, but my uncle Jimmy doesn't drink. So, stone-cold sober one overcast night in late November 1991, we went to a tattoo parlor on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. This was just at the beginning of the ink-and-needle craze that has yet to fade in urban hipster culture, but no tattoo could be less hip than the ones we were getting: Chicago Cubs logos. This was something we'd half-joked about for years. Listening to the game on the radio in the kitchen or lounging on the couch watching TV—when the Cubs win the World Series, we'd say, we'll get tattoos.

Eventually, we realized two things: 1) the Cubs will never win the World Series, and 2) any bandwagon jumper can get a tattoo after such an event—true fans would get the tattoo after the team finished, oh, 20 games out of first place, as the Cubs did that year.

We spent some time looking at the flash—tribal, military, biker, gang, tits and ass—until a couple of chairs opened. Then the first snag: Even though this place was a 20-minute walk from Wrigley Field, they didn't have a Cubs logo in the place. We were even less hip than we thought. Uncle Jimmy saved the day, fishing his Die-Hard Cubs Fan Club membership card out of his overstuffed wallet. The artists—if you want to call tracing a corporate logo "art"—made transfers, and the pain began.

When I see my tattoo in the mirror I always think of my uncle Jimmy. The tattoo marks not just our unrewarded loyalty to a baseball team, but also our uncle-nephew connection. I have vivid memories of Jimmy: of him teaching me to wash my hands before dinner, of his rock band practicing in our basement, of raiding his stash of Playboys in that same basement. He's a cross-country truck driver now, and I never see an orange Schneider National semi without wondering if my uncle is driving it.

My own nephews live all across America: New Mexico, Iowa, Seattle, suburban Chicago. Like most American families, we've scattered, and so we've lost the physical and psychological closeness we used to have. Because of this, I doubt my nephews and I will ever talk ourselves into getting tattoos together. BILL SAVAGE

Uncle Cal

Long before I had any clue that my uncle Cal was gay, I was drawn to him because he was wild. He didn't dress or act middle class or Catholic like everyone else in our family. Cal was fancy and urban. His hair was long. He called the Pope an asshole. He drove a van with a peace symbol stuck on the bumper. (My parents made him park the van in our garage, so it wouldn't scare the neighbors.) Cal's "friend" carried around actual hardback novels (not Reader's Digest compilations) and read from the books rather than making small talk.

I was painfully aware, growing up, that Cal was the butt of family jokes. He was an easy target. He watched soap operas and went to my mother's Ladies Home Journals for decorating ideas. My father hated him and made homophobic remarks. Deep down, I knew that I was constitutionally and emotionally like Cal, but the truth of that, and the possible consequences of being considered strange at age 7 or 12, seemed terrifying. Fortunately, Cal ignored my father and kept blazing. He wore paisley silk shirts, and painted scenes from Wagner operas. He refused a practical career. My childhood home was full of canvasses Cal had painted and given my parents. They were proud of the paintings but believed that making art was a kooky profession. So they tried relentlessly to convince Cal to open his own Sherwin-Williams interior/exterior paint franchise. Cal said no thanks and no, and finally lost his temper. He didn't visit again for several years, during which time some kind of color, something as essential as red, seemed lacking.

Cal came out to me when I was 17. He was too tired to wait any longer. He told me all the stories he had been saving up in great detail, beginning with the first time he went cruising for "fairies" in Echo Park in L.A. He had worn a three-piece suit. Then he got smarter: He bought himself a pair of Levis. He slept with Montgomery Clift twice and some lesser movie stars, but mostly with strangers. He told me in graphic detail about all the sex he had in public bathrooms, and in bathhouses, and in that van. Several times he was beat up by police. One time he came close to being involuntarily committed, back when homosexuality was still considered a mental illness.

Cal also introduced me to art and music, architecture and travel.

"Try everything," he said. And I'm still trying. TRISHA READY

Uncle Lenny

My uncle Lenny visited our family in Baltimore before he shipped out to Vietnam and it completely terrified me. I was 7 years old. Suddenly I saw what my future would be. I'd turn 18, I'd be drafted, I'd go to Vietnam, and I'd be killed. Since I was so terrible at sports, I figured I'd be terrible at war, which just seemed like sports with guns. All that running around in the old war movies. You ever notice that? I was chubby and a terrible runner and I was sure I'd be dead by 19. This is what went through my head all the time in elementary school, thanks to that visit. I'd lay in bed at night and try to picture the universe continuing without me—people doing stuff and having dinner together and inventing new things and going into space—for all of eternity, and I wouldn't even exist. It wouldn't even matter that I'd existed.

There's a picture of me and Uncle Lenny from that day. I think my dad got out the charcoal briquettes and made hamburgers and hot dogs outside. I remember the adults acting like everything was chill and nothing to be upset about but I cried and cried. The fucked-up thing was, I wasn't even close to Uncle Lenny. For most of my growing up, he was away in school in Michigan. I didn't even know him that well. But after that visit, I was crying all the time. Which surprised my parents. They figured I was worried for Uncle Lenny, and I was, I guess. That was part of it. But I was mainly worried for myself. And my doom. Funny how we usually don't think of kids having such selfish thoughts.

When Uncle Lenny came back from the war he was a different guy. Not in the clichéd Vietnam vet way. He wasn't spooky or anything. He was just... Great! Everything was always Great! Nothing was ever less than Great! He became a plastic surgeon, moved to Southern California. For a while, my mom said, he did so much breast surgery that people called him the Titty Doctor.

Me, though, I still laid in bed and tried to imagine my own coming extinction. That's the main thing I ever got from Uncle Lenny. Not that he intended to put those ideas in my head. How we affect little kids can be so different than how we mean to affect them.

And I still don't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing to be thinking about death all the time at that age. Probably a good thing to come to grips with at some point in your life, I guess.

I definitely still carry it with me, that feeling inside that I'd get while in bed at night. Knowing, absolutely knowing, that the world would continue forever without me. That I am an unimportant speck. That I would be crushed out. IRA GLASS

Ira Glass's radio show, This American Life, is heard weekly on KUOW and KPLU.

Uncle Squint

My great-uncle Squint was a lousy drunk. He was dead by 1975, which left me zero chance to know him, but his legacy looms largest out of anyone in my stereotypically huge Catholic family. If for nothing else, I will always admire my great-uncle for his remarkable problem-solving skills. He lived at home sauced for most of his brief adult life, and his parents, my great-grandparents, did all they could to keep him away from booze. Squint could recognize a fix in just about anything. If there was no Jim Beam to be found in the house, he'd raid the medicine cabinet. Listerine and rubbing alcohol were two of his most common alternatives.

Deep into his cups, Squint would fight or pass out. The frequent combo of both left him without a driver's license, confining him to his parents' home. They lived out in the country, 15 miles from the nearest town. If he couldn't drive, he'd hitch a ride, but that didn't always work once the neighbors caught on. A few times, he turned the shotgun on my great-grandmother, demanding the car keys, which she also kept stashed away.

But while drunkenness was the leading cause of his indiscretion, there were times when his one-track mind gave itself to fits of unparalleled genius.

One afternoon, lying at home sober and belligerent, Squint dialed the county ambulance, claiming his parents were having simultaneous heart attacks. The ambulance rushed the several miles from town, across the river and out to the country only to find the old folks in perfect health, planting potatoes in the garden.

"Do you realize the resources wasted on false alarms?!" the driver's scolded.

Squint hung his head in shame. He knew he'd done wrong.

"You're right. I'm sorry, boys," he said sheepishly. "But hey, since you're here, would you mind giving me a lift to the bar?" BRIAN J. BARR

Uncle Jim

When you take that step to fully accept your transsexuality, nobody tells you you've signed up to star in Adolescence II: Super Dorky Bonus Round. You have to re-learn how to walk, talk, groom, dress, work, socialize, and date. Lessons from the first time around are nontransferable. At 30, I felt 13.

One thing many adolescent women experience that I never anticipated was being the object of ambiguous, semi-sexual attention from male relatives. It happened to me just once. And though I was left with a slightly creepy aftertaste, it remains the most memorably delightful 30 seconds of my life.

My uncle Jim is my mother's sister's third husband. He's a typical Midwestern working man. He drives a semi coast to coast. I've only seen him in flannel shirts and a CAT hat. He's completely unlike my parents. They are slight, modest teetotalers who clam up when controversial topics are raised. Jim is huge, amiable, and outspoken.

Though we usually only met at Thanksgiving dinners, those memorable 30 seconds didn't happen at a family gathering. It was the weekend I flew home to finally come out to my parents.

I arrived late on a Friday night. Ahead of me, I sent a long explaining letter. My parents and I spent most of the weekend talking. They listened; they cried; they strained smiles. There was no yelling, no disowning, no damning. Just an overwhelming sense of embarrassed gloom.

By Sunday, I was drained and defeated. I was upstairs packing for my flight home when my aunt and uncle Jim showed up unexpectedly. I heard them arrive and froze. The weekend wasn't going well and I really just wanted to leave. But I couldn't avoid them.

With dread, I turned the corner down the stairs and saw them all at the foot. My parents' faces were gaunt, exhausted from the emotional marathon. But my uncle's eyes lit up when he saw me. I smiled, and he spoke.

"Wow! You look great!"

I was stunned. After 48 unpleasant hours with my parents, instant, warm approval came in four simple words. Flustered, I stammered out a sheepish "Thank you." He responded, "You definitely made the right choice!" Then, he turned to my ashen-faced mother and said, "You've got a beautiful daughter." All I could do was cry.

Later, on the plane, I relived the moment in my thoughts. Was that a sweet-yet-creepy adolescent encounter with my uncle? There's a great deal of resemblance between my aunt and me. We have the same frizzy shoulder-length hair and that distinctively ample, corn-fed Hoosier butt. Was Uncle Jim attracted to me because I looked like a taller, thinner version of his wife?

I've decided it doesn't matter. Today, my parents love and accept me. My brothers' families are cool. But nobody has offered the validation Uncle Jim did in that instant.

Thank you, Uncle Jim. KALEY DAVIS

Uncle Scary

Uncle Harry was a drunk and behaved like an adolescent, which made him a total blast and our favorite uncle when my siblings and I were kids. He'd lost his thumb in a lawn mower accident and would stick the stub up his nose at dinner. Adults mostly tolerated Uncle Harry's behavior because of his humor and charm, and his easy way of making people feel special. I adored Harry until, as a teen, I learned of one of his childhood pranks—one night he poured gasoline on the family cat and lit it on fire to watch it run around in the dark. Harry's sinister side surfaced again years later when a call from my sister informed me of his final drink: a tall rum and Coke in his carbon-monoxide-filled garage, as he asphyxiated himself in the front seat of his running car. Just before his suicide, he'd begged his estranged wife, our Aunt Lori, to visit, then strangled her in a drunken rage and left her body tucked peacefully under the covers of their old bed. The newspapers reported the splashy suburban murder-suicide, and Harry's hometown memorial in Tacoma packed the house. TRACY BRYAN

Missing Uncle

It is one of those family photos where everyone—even the baby—has lacy socks and knees pressed together. My mother's nose gives her away. Uncle Mike is there, too, forearms on knees and pants going high-water. He is a teenager. I do not recognize his body. "I was 21," says Mom, "1971." This is the only time I remember her remembering herself first. "Mike was about movement," says Mom, and I tell myself that this is why I do not know him. I am told that Mike's knuckles cracked, that he tapped his teeth, that he liked Cat Stevens. Once and in summer, Mom put "Moonshadow" on loop. I sat in a chlorinated haze, mashing peanut-butter cups and imagining this lovely long-lost uncle.

It is hard to meet someone who died before you were born. Once, we found a plaid shirt in a box. It had prairie heat and weariness in the elbows. I gathered it in and up, tried to shock myself into mourning and recognition, but no. Another once, a woman drank beer on the Fourth of July. "She loved him," said Mom without details, and I knew. An old sweetheart, moving around empty space. I imagined them talking together.

In my head, and because I have not seen his eye color, Mike is James Dean. In my head, he is still young, and so he is also the big brother, the one with the good vinyl, the one who'd say what I should have done when Sonic Youth Boy pawed my crotch back in '02. In my head, Mike understood Dylan. Sometimes, I ask how he died, and I am told a skeleton of late-night and cheese frenchies, of car trouble and drinks and a windshield.

"Mike was about movement," says Mom, and so I imagine our Thanksgivings would be, too. I imagine that we would have left the orange house and walked in the Nebraska cold. We would have walked, and there would be no beer. There would be no questions and I would not need to talk. We would just be together, moving. It would be nice. MAIREAD CASE

I Molested My Uncle

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I molested my uncle. I made him do something. I made him touch me.

It was a Sunday night, the weekly evening reserved for homemade ice cream at grandma's house. She actually wasn't even my real grandma—she was the woman my real grandfather married after divorcing my real grandmother. Their children were half-siblings of my father's and I didn't care much for these weekly meetings of the illegitimate Corton family, and after years of sorrowful campaigning, my dad finally gave up and we stopped visiting. But before that fateful day, I had a profound homosexual moment with my Dad's half-sister's husband: Uncle Gary.

He was dark-haired, handsome, glasses, mustache, bookish but brawny. I admired him deeply, despite having barely spoken with him. We were on our way home, and I was in the back of his station wagon with his sons, half asleep. When the car pulled into the driveway and stopped I realized that if I had fallen completely asleep my uncle would have to carry me to bed. I would be carried to bed by a MAN. A man with a MUSTACHE. I planned my attack: I would ignore anything he said, and lie motionless. It would be so romantic that we would kiss and get married and live happily ever after with my cousins as my new stepsons. I would trim his body-hair. I was going to make the best wife EVER.

Soon he was opening the door. I was pretending to be asleep but thinking "do it, do it, do it..." I felt my weight shift as his large arms dug underneath me and hoisted me up into his warm embrace. He carried me to the front door. Through the living room. Down the hall. My cheek was touching his bicep. My legs dangled at the knee. Into the bedroom. He lowered me onto the mattress. I performed "sleepy disorientation" as I rolled into bed and he raised the covers over me and said goodnight.

I forced myself upon him. It was worth the risk. I needed it. IAN CORTON

Guns and Uncles

My uncles went through guns like most folks go through air fresheners—once one loses any hint of its scent, they throw it out and get a new one. They would return from gun shows and display the results of their shopping sprees, explaining the intricacies of the lethal weapons and praising the National Rifle Association.

"Ooohhh" and "aahhhh," my cousins and I would say. Then we would stand in line and wait as each one of us took several turns at shooting the 12-gauge shotguns, 7-mag rifles, 270 rifles, or the 30/06s.

Those of us who were too small or weak to hold a gun were assisted by our loving and sensitive uncles. The kickbacks were always the killer—that's why we started out on the 22 rifle.

The best marksman was soon labeled the favorite niece or nephew. Second place went to the one who retrieved an adult beverage the fastest.

Believe me, fetching beer and shooting guns all day to earn an uncle's admiration can really wear a person out. So when the sun went down and the empty lead shells gleamed off the moonlit sky, we fell asleep, deeply fulfilled, dreaming of guns and uncles. SARAH D. FISCHER

Uncle Vova

Every family has its lore, tall tales that require some serious suspension of disbelief: the great-great-grand-uncle who partied with Napoleon, the sixth-cousin-twice-removed who swears he slept with John Travolta and Tom Cruise—at the same time. My Russian clan is no exception; in fact, our stories are especially far-fetched—from the divorcing family friend who chain-sawed his marital bed in half to the godfather who claimed to have made LSD with Tim Leary—because Russians are an embellishing people, prone to exaggeration, hyperbole, and grandiosity.

A recent yarn concerns my uncle Vladimir, whom we affectionately call Valodya, Valo, or simply Vova. (Russians even go overboard with nicknames; everyone has at least 17.) After arriving in the States from Moscow in '79, Vova worked as an interpreter for the State Department, which kept him on the road much of the year. He would accompany officials and diplomats to government summits from Kalamazoo to Kazakhstan, and he would occasionally return home to regale us with stories from his jet-set life.

To me, Vova was 007 with a thick Russian accent, an international man of mystery privy to unknowable secrets of governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain. One wrongly translated word, I imagined, and huge, powerful hands would hastily slam down on big red buttons (this was during the Cold War, after all). In my young mind, my uncle might've been the only thing protecting the world from nuclear annihilation.

Vova was in Washington, D.C., on business when the plane hit the Pentagon on 9-11. The story, as various relatives told it, was a Hollywood screenplay waiting to be optioned: He was due to attend a tour of the Pentagon that day to translate for a group of attachés dispatched from Chechnya to study, ironically enough, American anti-terrorism measures. He escaped death by mere hours, I'd declare dramatically at parties while friends oohed and aahed.

When I called my uncle in preparation to write this piece, he revealed the real details of his 9-11 story: While he had interpreted for anti-terrorism programs in the past and was no stranger to Pentagon tours, he was in fact at Colonial Williamsburg on 9-11. The high-ranking Russian diplomats? Actually a group of theme-park operators. The "death-defying" tour of the Pentagon? Try Busch Gardens.

What would've happened if I hadn't made that call? I probably would've continued to tell the romanticized tale of my uncle and his narrow escape from death. I'd tell my kids, they'd tell their kids. It would've become one of those stories that families repeat year after year for generations—tales that can't possibly be true but which you hope are, because that would mean some of those adventurous, furniture-destroying, terrorist-eluding superhero genes made their way into your DNA. MAYA KROTH

Love Is a Bartender

"Son of a bitch," my mother said under her breath. It was the day after Thanksgiving. She was standing at the window watching her brother's car miss a sliver of the driveway and run over a sapling in the mangy snow. "Uncle Ronnie's here!" I yelled to my dad and brother, running to meet him at the door. He visited once a year, either the day after Thanksgiving or the day after Christmas. He only lived three miles away but no one in our extended family was very close. But Uncle Ron made up for his absence—monetarily.

He staggered in. "Lynne, Linda, Lindy," he said to my mom, as if trying on nicknames to remember what fit. "Christ, look at you." He slapped my dad on the back and hugged my brother, who had dragged out a hockey trophy to show him.

I was already making Uncle Ron's first drink.

By the time he had planted himself in the living room, I was putting a cocktail into one of his hands and he was slipping $20 into one of mine. "Nathan, Nate, Natie, how the hell are you? Lemme look at you." He already reeked of booze but I stood in front of him in my bad Buster Brown bowl cut and pushed my glasses up. "Christ, you're no bigger than a minute. How the hell old are you now?"

I looked at him, smiling at me. His was the only friendly face I'd see all Thanksgiving weekend and I wanted it to last as long as it could. "I'll be 10 in two weeks." That was the cue. "Your birthday?" Another $20. I fed him drinks until my mom hissed, "He's had enough." My dad insisted on driving Uncle Ron home in his car while my mother followed in our family car, clenching the wheel. He hugged me in his driveway. "Here's something extra for my favorite bartender." Another $20.

The Christmas I was 19 I went home. I hadn't been in that house since they had kicked me out three years before. I was talking in brittle tones with my mom when her eyes flared at the driveway. "Shit, my brother." I looked out and saw Ronnie struggling up to the house on the ice-slick driveway. I met him at the door with a drink.

"Jesus Fucking Christ, Nathan," he greeted me, already tanked. "It's great to see you." He told me all about his triple bypass that summer, showed me the scar. Another drink, another $20. I knew I wouldn't be back in that house for a while. I knew I probably wouldn't see him again. I made us both a drink, and raised my glass. "Here's to family." NATE LIPPENS

Don't Measure Your Penis for Your Uncle

When I was in fourth grade we only lived a block away from my elementary school, so I used to walk home for lunch. One day I was enjoying a bologna and ketchup sandwich of my own creation in our kitchen when the phone rang. It was my uncle. "Uncle Who?" I said. "Guess," he said. "Uncle Tom?" I guessed. "That's right!" he said. "I'm calling because I'd like to send you a pair of swim trunks and I just wanted to know if they'll fit. Do you have a ruler handy?" I ran to the "den"—a glorified hallway in our apartment—and retrieved a ruler. "Got it," I said eagerly. "Good, now all I need you to do is measure your penis for me. Just want to make sure they'll fit in the crotch," said my uncle. I took down my pants and began to measure my penis. "Let's see, that's two inches and..." Only then did it occur to me how creepy it was to be alone at home during my lunch hour with my pants around my ankles, measuring my penis for my uncle. Well hung as I was at that age, I couldn't recall my penis ever causing any major blowouts in the Speedos I'd acquired over the years. Come to think of it, this guy didn't sound anything like my uncle, an archivist who'd acquired an affected New Zealand accent during the many years he'd spent in the South Pacific. I slammed down the phone and ran back to school and never ever went home for lunch alone again, except for once in 11th grade with Lela DiSanti, but I wasn't exactly alone that time, obviously. NOEL BLACK

Captain Uncle

I was lucky—in a family rife with emotional misconduct, none of my uncles were perverts. Actually, none of my uncles were uncles. They were my parents' friends, and we just called them "uncle" the way Korean people do. There were tons of these guys around when I was growing up in the New York suburbs during the 1970s. New immigrants like my parents, most of them had wives and children of their own. All of them played golf with my dad and smoked and drank with him afterward while eating my mother's magnificently prepared food. Some, like Captain Ujahsee, stayed with us for a while.

Captain Ujahsee translates from Korean as "Captain Uncle." My dad came up with all the "American" names and called Ujahsee—I think his real name was Kang—Captain, because he was one, a war hero who'd fought the North Korean army during the Korean War. I was 8, my brothers Will and Ed, 6 and 4, when Captain Ujahsee came to live with us, staying in the guestroom as he established a camera-repair business. We all liked him. He'd take us to get ice cream at Baskin-Robbins or Carvel pretty much whenever we wanted him to.

Once, I tried spying on him. Straddling the cedar porch railing outside the bathroom window, I craned my neck to see past the frosted glass in the lower window as he showered, but to no avail: All I could see was his smooth, stocky torso and those beautiful male hip creases disappearing into the cloudy pane. When he looked out and saw me, I blushed—it had never occurred to me that I might get caught—but he just smiled and waved.

On his back, Captain Ujahsee had a raised, bluish mark that was a bullet that had entered his chest during the war and lodged near his spine. My brothers and I liked the bullet, though we didn't care much about the wars my parents and their friends had experienced as young people. The stories were too awful. We didn't have real aunts and uncles, because my mom was orphaned at the end of World War II, and my dad's siblings, his two younger half-sisters, had been stuck in the North when the DMZ became a definitively impassable barrier.

One day, Will decided to take a magnet from my mother's gold Amana refrigerator and place it next to the bullet in Captain Ujahsee's back. When the bullet moved a little under the skin, Captain Ujahsee told Will to stop. I was jealous when I heard about this. Will always thought of clever things to do. ANNA MARIA HONG

Remains of the Uncle

My uncle is close to 80 years old now, living in the same house he and my mom grew up in. He's a lifelong bachelor, a sports fanatic, and he'll talk your ear off unless you make up an excuse to get out of the room.

He's also a pack rat and hoards things in his small house. He's never met a newspaper he threw out. He compulsively buys clothes at discount stores—watches, baseball caps, dress shirts.

"When he goes, you'll have to get a dump truck," my mom often sighs. "Just back it up to the front porch and start shoveling it in."

It's one of those looming projects my sisters and I have been talking about for years. My uncle has never let any of us inside his house. My grandmother's curtains have remained tightly shut to the outside world since her death over 30 years ago.

My sisters and I are both fascinated and mortified by what we may find inside: girlie magazines from the 1950s, bedspreads that haven't been changed since 1972. There are rumors of a wringer-washer in the basement. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for a few skeletal remains. Talk about film rights!

When I was home this past summer, I suggested to my mom that we take my uncle out for lunch. "He's aged," she said as we watched him step out of his front door and turn to lock it. "Look at how stooped he is now."

And it was true. His arthritic neck curved out like a question mark. He'd become an old relative, the sort that stare back at you from photographs, daring you to figure out who they were. Only he was there, in the flesh, the smell of his Old Spice filling the car's interior. I realized how little I cared to know about him, aside from the eccentricities that made him an interesting story.

My uncle kept talking and talking throughout lunch. I kept a distant smile on my face, wondering how much a wringer-washer would be worth these days. BRIAN FRANCIS

Guncles

Somehow, I made it to my mid 30s before I understood what an uncle was. Not that I didn't have uncles of my own. It's just that by the time I came along, the last of four children, the novelty of nephews had worn off. Because they were scattered across the states, I only saw them every 10 years or so, when someone got married or decided to host one of those nightmarish potlucks otherwise known as a family reunion.

Now that I'm older with kids of my own, my brothers have carried on the tradition. My kids have only seen them once or twice and rarely hear from them. I'm not judging. I'm in no position to. My sister has two sons; I've only met one of them in person. I feel bad about it and think of myself as the second worst uncle in the world (first place goes unanimously to Ted Kennedy). At the same time, I just didn't have any foundation for what an uncle really was.

The good news is that I am being shown the way. Three of my best friends are a troika of gay men who have stepped up to fill the void. Guncles, we call them. They remember the kids' birthdays, take them to movies, and always bring them souvenirs from their vacations. From them, the kids have learned to play hockey, keep rhythm on a bongo, and many of the songs from Chicago. And isn't that what an uncle is? A man who's a grown-up, but is just a little cooler than your parents? An adult willing to bend the rules and buy you an ice cream before dinner?

That's the kind of guy I should be for my nephews. That's the guy I needed around when I was 12 and couldn't talk to my parents. But until Leif, Eric, and Kevin came along, I never really knew what I was missing. Thanks, boys. ROSS LAMBERT

Low Uncle

We are of peasant stock, my family likes to say, and perhaps no family member so resembled this quip like my uncle Eric. Tall and lumbering, he was a bachelor not by choice but by lack of choices who, despite holding a master's degree in political science, resigned himself to a career as the manager of a Texaco station. He lived a quiet, unassuming life, favored brown slacks, was self-deprecating to a fault, and usually voted Republican. He was sad, the family member most likely to be spoken about in hushed tones. And, as the family would come to find out, he wanted to die.

The technical babble behind my uncle's death is littered with words like "ascites" and "bilirubin" and "jaundice." The short version is this: He drank himself to death. This was no easy feat—unlike, say, the naive frat pledge who downs too much during rush week and suddenly finds himself in a coma, Eric's demise was the result of a determined, methodical, and deliberate process that involved only a chair, cigarettes, and gut-rot vodka.

My memories of my uncle Eric are, on the whole, pleasant ones. Like most uncles he filled a gap in my father's parenting; he was an adult who didn't enforce any form of discipline. I loved him. He took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark, he took me to Mariners games and Sonics games and Husky games. I was his only nephew and we shared a sense of humor, often laughing at the same things. One thing we didn't share, however, was crippling depression.

Eric wasn't the only member of the family afflicted by depression, but the disorder hit Eric especially hard. His death was a sad shock, but there was a silver lining. My family's dark secret—clinical depression—was forced into the open. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Uncle Bigfoot

I was in college in Iowa. It was summer. I was out for a walk, and heading to the park. Near the Chemistry Building, I saw a blind man standing and rocking.

I walked by him, and he called out to me: "Hi, would you come over here and shake my hand?" He was tall, heavyset, and gray haired. He was wearing a turquoise T-shirt and had his cane under his right arm. It sometimes doesn't occur to me that I don't have to do things for people when they ask me.

When I shook his hand, he asked if I could help him look for a noise. "There's a noise," he said, "and I'd like to find it. Can you help me look for it?"

It sometimes doesn't occur to me that I don't have to do things for people when they ask me.

He grabbed my arm at the elbow, just like you see blind people do in movies. He asked my name, and I told him. He didn't tell me his, and I didn't ask. I led him around, and we tried to track down the noise.

It was a sort of whirring.

When we went into a little wooded area, he clapped, and then he went, "Aah!" And then he asked if we were in a wooded area. I said yes, and he clapped and went "Aah!" again. He listened to the echo, I think.

I have to go and call my brother Jeff, I told him.

He asked me where my brother lived. I told him Seattle.

"They have the Bigfoot there!" he said. "Has he ever seen the Bigfoot?"

I told him I didn't think so, and we turned to walk south along the Iowa River.

"Who's the biggest tallest man you've ever seen?" he asked.

I told him my uncle Tom was the biggest, tallest man I'd ever seen.

"Does he have really hairy arms?" he asked.

Yes, I told him, my uncle does have big hairy arms.

"Does he ever grab you and make like he's going to hug you? Does he have a big beard?"

Yes, he has, now and then, hugged me. No, he doesn't have a beard, but he always has a lot of stubble.

"They have the Bigfoot in Seattle," he said again.

I didn't tell him that my uncle lived in Indiana. Because, really, maybe my uncle Tom is the Bigfoot. And he moved, say, for love.

The noise was sandblasting in a parking garage. We walked in a long circle to find it. I led him to a bus stop after that. I noticed a stain on his pants and then felt weird about looking at his ass. MATTHEW SIMMONS

I Love My Uncle

Like almost everyone else in this issue, my favorite uncle story involves the drunk one.

My alcoholic uncle—my mom's eldest sibling, also my godfather—was letting me crash on his sofa for a few days during the summer after I dropped out of college for the first time. My health had been deteriorating for a few weeks. I thought it was the flu. Turns out it was mono, though I wouldn't learn that until I got home. By the time I came to stay with my uncle, the symptoms were that I couldn't stand up without feeling faint, couldn't walk without fainting, and couldn't eat without throwing up. You know, the flu.

Three days before my flight home, my uncle came home from a long day of smoothing cement, and saw that I had ordered a pizza. He freaked. If I was well enough to order pizza, he screamed, I was goddamn well enough not to be lying on his goddamn couch all day like a lazy Mexican while he worked like a dog and I never worked a day in my life and all the sacrifices my parents made to send me to college and how did I thank them but by dropping out. I tried to explain that answering the door when the delivery guy arrived had almost killed me, that I couldn't finish a single piece, that I threw up what little I'd managed to swallow. He wasn't interested. He just drank whiskey from a generic cola can and seethed silently in front of the TV for the rest of the night.

He later refused to drive me to the airport, citing the pizza as the reason. I spent most of the 90-minute bus ride unconscious. I had lost 30 pounds in a month, and my skin had turned bright yellow from jaundice. My mother screamed when she saw me at the airport.

My alcoholic uncle drunk-dialed me at 1:00 a.m. about six months ago, a full 13 years after the pizza episode. I'd seen him only once since, at his dad's funeral in 1998, and we didn't really talk. He was drunk. "I know you hate me," he slurred into the phone. "But I just wanted to say I love you. Even though you hate me."

I told him I loved him, too. How could I not? SEAN NELSON

Uncle Russ's Legacy

Uncle Russell was a bespectacled public-school art teacher with fabulous cardigan sweaters, a miraculous record collection spanning 30 years of pop music, and a penchant for over-decorating. He was, of course, most likely as gay as a carnival in May, and so, being a big h-mo caught in the frigid wilds of unkind Montana, he naturally married my great-aunt Olive Jane, who was a wrinkly, wrinkly 32 years his elder.

When Russell died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 50, Aunt Ollie came to board with my family, and she brought most everything she and Uncle Russ owned: his amazing record collection, her trunk full of fox-fur stoles, and an enormous cache of filthy, filthy porn that sweet old Ollie didn't know anything about and that my father found hidden in the trunk of Russell's maroon Chevrolet: porn so exotic and peculiar and raunchy that my father, for reasons best not dwelt upon, squirreled it away in the rafters of our two-car garage. From there the naughty hoard cried out to my pre-pubescent psyche, until I was forced to discover it. I then moved quickly to inform every boy within a 20-mile radius of my glittering pile of secret spank-rags.

This of course won me tremendous popularity that summer, and, in one way or another, introduced me to the penises of every boy my age for 20 miles. Every day after baseball practice, most of my team and various hangers-on could be found crouched up in my rafters, newly tumescent, squirming over that wicked, wicked porn (which encompassed something for every taste: man-on-man, man-on-women, women-on-donkey). I was the neighborhood hero until Mark Pagelliero, a mean older boy from up the block, broke into my garage in the quiet of night and made off with every steaming page of Uncle Russell's old porn—a tragic event that revealed to me the fleeting natures of popularity and boyhood boners. But for the naughty experience and the dark and wonderful things it taught me, I will always secretly bless the ghost of poor old Uncle Russ. ADRIAN RYAN

Bird-Smitten Uncle

In old fairy tales from Europe and the Middle East, white birds symbolized renewal, hope, or the potential discovery of a treasure. My uncle Lee owned one of those preternaturally smart, white cockatiels—Australian parrots—with the proud, spoiled eyes. He named her Brenda (after 1960s singer Brenda Lee).

Whenever I see one of those birds, I instantly remember Uncle Lee. Not only did he own the bird for what seemed like decades, but my uncle himself had magnificent, thick white hair and light eyes that bored into you as if they could understand the content of your soul in a glance.

Or so it seemed to us, his nieces, who held that tall man of white hair and the white bird in thrall. Uncle Lee even had scaly red hands whose texture recalled Brenda's birdy feet.

Uncle Lee could be loud, hilarious, and mischievous, then suddenly moody and distant, troubled by mysterious adult woes that made our childhood world feel safe and insulated by contrast.

It was a more innocent world then, and stupider. The slogans on bumper stickers said that love was the answer to everything. As if in direct rebuttal to this, Uncle Lee and his wife fought all the time, bombing one another with insults. In his cheerier moments, Lee was apt to call his spouse "Rasputin"; she always called him much worse. Not that my aunt was a rotten person, but Uncle Lee and Aunt Joanie, soldered in marriage together, created poison. Aunt Joanie loathed the fact that Uncle Lee never had the confidence to get a real job. And she loathed the bird. Looking back, I think she was jealous. The potential affection Lee might've expressed for her, he poured out to the white bird instead.

One late autumn afternoon I sat with Uncle Lee in his darkened "den," or TV room, deep in the midwestern suburbs, watching the St. Louis Cardinals go through another of their humiliating losses. Lee groaned loudly after the plays, while Brenda the bird muttered and whistled in good-natured response. Aunt Joanie came in and a spectacular marital battle ensued. The game was drowned out, lost. Among other things having to do with money, my aunt screamed about the bird and its filth, the bird and its shitty voice, the bird, the bird, and she bent over, actually gasping and crying, like Katharine Hepburn losing her mind in Long Day's Journey into Night.

Uncle Lee yelled back, then waited; his breath and loose cardigan smelled of smoke. He was so unhappy and frustrated always.

Aunt Joanie left my uncle. The white bird brought no renewal or good fortune. But there had been the potential—there always is. Uncle Lee had once dreamed of being a history professor. Then he died.

New children were born into the family, two funny, white-haired children who may someday go on to find their true selves in a way that Uncle Lee never did. STACEY LEVINE

Uncle Bennie

When I was growing up, my favorite uncle was Uncle Bennie, a wiry, unkempt hippie who rode a motorcycle and liked rock music. He attended my bar mitzvah in a Greenpeace T-shirt and sandals. He grows his own food, builds his own furniture, and can fix anything: VCRs, phones, computers, and cars. He can also fix people: He's a doctor.

In 1980 Uncle Bennie volunteered his services in Afghanistan working as a medic for the mujahideen rebels—the United States armed the mujahideen during one of our proxy wars with the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Reagan called them the mujahideen freedom fighters. They were the good guys. Osama bin Laden was a member of the mujahideen and for all I know my uncle Bennie dressed bin Laden's wounds.

But Uncle Bennie's experience in Afghanistan gave my family an early insight into these so-called freedom fighters. When the mujahideen discovered that Bennie was Jewish, they promptly kicked him out of the unit and sent him home without a thank you. It was as if they had been wronged. It didn't matter that he was risking his life for their cause—and saving lives for their cause.

As a kid, I was befuddled by the story. Why didn't the good guys like my awesome uncle Bennie? Why were the good guys racists? JOSH FEIT

Uncle Sandy

Long before I was born, my father was locked in mortal combat with his older brother, my uncle Sandy, a towering hulk of a man whose emotional specialties were paranoia and violent mood swings.

Back in the 1970s, Sandy accused my father of trying to "kill" him as they hiked up a fourteener in the Colorado Rockies. My uncle, who weighed nearly 300 pounds, insisted that my father intended to induce a heart attack.

My dad cut off all contact and Uncle Sandy ceased to exist, except as a family bogeyman. His eviction demonstrated the sanity-saving value of pruning the family tree. But it also showed that, in families, troublesome limbs have a way of reappearing.

After my parents divorced, Uncle Sandy launched a charm offensive toward my mother, along the lines of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." For a few years at holiday time, he sent us a box of fancy pears. We never could finish eating the fruit before it started to rot. JESSICA KOWAL

Kentucky Dale

Uncle Dale was a redheaded white guy from Kentucky. That made him exotic to our family of Syrian-Americans and Latvian Jews from suburban Detroit. Uncle Dale married my mother's younger sister in the '60s. He immediately became my favorite uncle. From my preadolescent perspective, Dale was extremely cool: He had a tattoo on his arm; he painted pictures of racehorses; he was a great bowler who often took me and my brother to the lanes and let us sip his beer; he read William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist in one day; he often played catch with me; and, coolest of all, he could throw a baseball really fucking high.

As I entered adolescence, Uncle Dale continued to seem cool (admittedly, the competition among my uncles wasn't that stiff). In the mid '70s, Uncle Dale worked as a home-improvement salesman, so much of his job was spent in other people's homes dispensing advice on how to enhance their digs.

Well, apparently one particular female customer of Uncle Dale's had her interior improved with exceptional personal care. You might say Uncle Dale went beyond the call of duty with regard to customer satisfaction. Of course, my aunt found out about the infidelity, and she divorced his Kentucky ass right quick. All of this somehow made him even cooler to my 14-year-old self. DAVE SEGAL

Punked Uncle

When I was in the fifth grade, my mom got this phone call that made her spit coffee all over the breakfast table. She was talking in this odd, reassuring tone, in between massive fits of laughter. Every time she'd laugh, she'd apologize. Then after she hung up, she laughed for a good five minutes. I demanded to know what was so funny. She told me that I wouldn't understand. Then she called her sister.

Mom's end of the conversation went something like this: "So he meets her in this jazz club down in the French Quarter... Wasn't even drunk, that's the best part. Okay, so they go back to his place... No, he's got his own place now... Okay so she's gorgeous, totally gorgeous... I know, right?... Yep, kissing for hours... Okay, are you ready for this shit? He reaches down, and she's got a DICK! Ah-ha-haaa! I know, I know, the damn fool. No... he was nice about it. I know, I know, I spit hot coffee all over Kelly... Here's the best part—after she left, he took a shower with a bottle of Listerine!... You bet your sweet ass, it burned!... He kept asking me if it meant he was 'gay'... Hell no, I didn't say that, I mean I WANTED to, but he was too upset... Oh shit, is that him on the other line?... Call me after you hang up! Okay, okay... Be NICE... bye." KELLY O

The Famous Uncle

Stranded by my playboy father with his taste for supermodels and allergy to fidelity, my mother and I moved in with my uncle at his compound in the countryside shortly after my sixth birthday. My uncle was a formidable man in the eyes of this 6-year-old, but not for the reasons one would assume. As an accomplished man, as a man very much in the public eye, as a legend in his field and one who'd enjoyed much success, my uncle hasn't been able to leave the house—without a certain amount of chaos, that is—since his early 20s. We rarely left the compound and we became quite isolated.

The adults were always around, yet as this was the early 1980s and a time of great excess, it didn't necessarily mean they were always "there."

I remember one wintry morning one of my older cousins (the tomboy) woke me up by slapping me in the face. We each had our own ATV (three-wheeled motorbikes which have since been outlawed) and she wanted to go for a sunrise ride. Still half-asleep, I ran after her in a T-shirt and underpants and jumped onto my bike, tearing off after her. After five or so minutes, my bare leg felt ice cold. Then searing hot. As I halted the engine and leaned down to investigate, I realized my bare calf had stuck to the carburetor and was cooking. I fainted.

I awoke on the butcher's block in the back end of our cavernous larder to find all the children and the adults of the house staring at me quizzically. Apparently my nanny (a hulking queen of a man) had torn my flesh from the carburetor and carried me across the grounds to the house for further examination. Such energy was uncharacteristic of my nanny, who spent most of his time enjoying a spliff while vacuuming the same patch of carpet in the hallway for 40 odd minutes at a time. Seeing as no one would claim authority and I was bleeding quite heavily, I started to give up hope. On our island there was only one leader and he was oftentimes unavailable.

Aunt and Uncle eventually descended. In the span of four seconds, they scanned the scene (mess—especially one involving any of the humors—was frowned upon), and decided that the family was going to the hospital... but not dressed like that! What seemed like an eternity passed, and while I was bleeding out, the family ran in every direction making "preparations." Finally my aunt descended the staircase in a full ball gown, tiara, and makeup (slightly smeared). My uncle followed in a dark suit and shades. The caravan of Rolls Royces set out for the hospital. ANONYMOUS

Underwater Uncle

I was one of those repulsive fetus-looking boy-children with skinny bug arms and a drooping, prepubescent potbelly. Looking back, I'd wanna drown me, too, so now I can see what Uncle—let's call him Uncle Hank—was thinking. Uncle Hank smelled like sausage and cigarettes and while I was trying to do a back flip underwater in his new swimming pool, I felt a sausage fist curl around my ankle. I flipped over to look at him and he was just watching, and when I tried to swim back to the surface, he pulled me down. I did that panicked fish flop and he didn't let go. His face was so set and relaxed he could have been about to go to sleep, so I said fuck it and resigned myself to dying about eight inches below a breath of air. This was around the time a lot of kids were getting stuck in wells, so I knew exactly how spectacular a child funeral could be. So there we were, two relaxed dudes underwater, my vision retreating into white, and then he suddenly let me go and I popped out of the shallow end in a sad little geyser of bubbles and spit. STAN LAUGHNER

Racist Uncle

My black African uncle was a mining engineer. He received his education at some university in Idaho. Idaho is a very white state and my uncle was a very black man, and proud of this distinction. After graduating my uncle returned to Zimbabwe, Africa, and began running a gold mine in a small town called Shurugwi. There were no white people in this town, and so he lived like a happy chief among the black miners his company employed, the black cooks who prepared his food, and the black bartenders who served him beer. But my uncle's racism was not pure. He loved white rock. His passion for the music of Kiss and White Lion was almost religious. If a white man offered him a hand for a shake, my uncle would leave it hanging, and yet he knew of no greater happiness than rocking out to the heaviest metal. I never confronted him about this contradiction and, now that he is dead, I will never know what enabled him to love white music and hate white people. CHARLES MUDEDE

My Uncles Are Boring

Uncle Paul is a doctor. Uncle Frank is a builder. Uncle John was a missionary and Uncle Jack lives in the Vermont woods, cutting hay in the summer and running a small ski shop in the winter. My uncles had their youthful flings with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, but that's pinochle and chamomile tea compared to the exploits of my great-uncles. Southern men to the core, they all believed in states' rights, Jesus Christ, and ghosts.

Bernard was a hell-raiser who died in his 60s while dancing with his new wife at a honky-tonk. Wendell was an ornery cuss who refused to follow the town "beautification laws" that required him to cut the grass in the field by his house. With a pistol in his belt, he stared down neighbors, a sheriff's deputy, and eventually the sheriff himself, saying, "I've known you since we were boys, Sheriff—you were trifling then and you're trifling now." Watson was a Navy hero, an enlisted man with a battlefield commission who commanded a landing ship at Normandy. When his ship was hit by a torpedo, Watson saved the 500 men aboard with a clever nautical move, shifting ballast to lift the hole out of the water.

Great-great-uncle J. T. was a scoundrel. During World War II, the local Navy hospital paid him to cart away its garbage, which J. T. fed to his hogs. Then he'd sell the garbage-fed pork back to the Navy. He'd walk through the farm each morning, picking out the hogs that had died during the night. "Go ahead and butcher these boys," he'd call out to his crew. "They're just late sleepers." Watson claimed he ate one of J. T.'s "late sleepers" somewhere in the mid-Atlantic and was sick for a week.

Why aren't my uncles that weird and exciting? We live in a flattened era of strip-club prohibitions and guardrails at every waterfall. A finger-wagging government and litigation-happy society may be keeping us safer, but they've also dulled our taste for danger and risk, cheating us out of the heroes and rogues who made the best uncle stories. BRENDAN KILEY