The image, now a treasured gift from my childhood, is etched in my memory.
His back hunched, his stride unhurried, and his gait a slight side-to-side sway. His ball cap, perched on the top of his head, covered the remaining wispy strands of snowy-white hair and the rolled-up sleeves of his plaid shirt revealed his sun-leathered arms. An old black dog, heavy from its diet of left-over scrap food and Granny’s daily morning biscuits, lumbered at his side. The duo made their way across the yard several times a day. An old man and his dog tending his farm.
“Uncle Sam, when were you born?”
At ten years old, I thought he must be ancient. He was, after all, my grandmother’s oldest brother and I knew she was old.
“July 30, 1893.”
“You were born in a whole different century than me!” I’m sure I furrowed my brow. How could he still be alive if he was born in the 1800s?
“I was born before there were airplanes or TVs!”
“You were? What did you do for fun? How did you get to school?”
I quickly discovered Uncle Sam was a masterful storyteller and I was a captive listener.
Sometimes he’d tell stories around the kitchen table. At night, in the winter, we’d all sit the backroom near the oil heater while he spun tales. But mostly, we sat on the porch on summer nights and, as darkness settled, he would tell about days-gone-by, spurring my imagination to paint pictures of an era I knew little about and places I had never heard of. At the time, sadly, no one ever thought to record his stories or write them down.
While I don’t remember the specific details of all his stories, as I have been plundering through genealogy websites and discovering information on his life, the facts stir long-forgotten tales. I can almost hear the sound of his words drifting in the night air, accompanied by the creaking of rocking chairs on the wooden porch slats and the clank of the metal glider moving to-and-fro.
“Uncle Sam, what’s your middle name?”
I clearly remember the impish smile on his face and his eyes dancing as he told me. “My parents only gave me a middle initial: D. When I registered for the draft, the Army told me I had to have a middle name, so I told them it was Dorn.”
When I found his WWI draft record online, I visualized him printing, then signing, his new full name: Samuel Dorn Whitehurst, dated June 5, 1917. Back then I was too young to know to ask why he chose that name, but now I am curious. Was it the name of a friend? A character in a book he read? A name he heard in passing? Perhaps it was a name he and his young wife had chosen to name their baby? Or did he just really make it up on the spot?
Uncle Sam never told us sad stories. I knew he had been married and widowed, twice, but no one talked about it. I knew he served in WWI and went to France, but he only told us about upbeat things, like the time his friend gave him grape juice and he got tipsy; the long voyage on the ship to Europe, and the excitement as his ship returned home.
Over the years, tidbits of information, which came out in casual conversation, has allowed my cousin and I, as adults, to piece together his untold story.
July 25, 1917, was an exceptionally horrible day for Uncle Sam. It was the day his 17-year old wife, Lizzie, and his unborn son, died in childbirth. It was also the day he got his Army draft notice.
A little over a month later, he reported to Camp Jackson, SC, where he was assigned to the newly formed 81st Infantry “Wildcats” Division. In August 1918, the Wildcats were deployed to Europe. Uncle Sam never told us about serving on the front lines in France, engaging in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, or that the 81st fought up to the moment the Armistice was signed at 1100 on November 11, 1918. The Wildcats remained in France until May 1919. Once, Uncle Sam pointed himself out in the large photo of a ship, which hung in the hallway, taken as his ship came into port. I remember looking at him and back at the picture, wondering how he could distinguish himself from the hundreds and hundreds of men gathered on the deck. He just smiled.
One time, when Uncle Sam was puttering in one of his old sheds, he didn’t hear me come up behind him, but suddenly sensed my presence. He jumped and spun around, his arm swinging wildly.
“Blasted German! I’ll whack off your head.”
His reaction startled me. I had never heard Uncle Sam raise his voice or utter a near-curse word. When he realized it was me, he quickly regained his composure and did a silly dance, shuffling his feet to make me laugh. While I didn’t understand it at the time, I now know that, even after 52 years, he was still fighting memories from the war. He survived artillery gunfire and, by his reaction, most likely engaged in physical contact with the enemy. I cannot comprehend the things he experienced and witnessed.
I especially loved to hear the stories about him growing up in “the olden days.” He told me about the excitement when, in nearby Kitty Hawk, the Wright brothers flew for the first time. He told about driving the county’s first school bus on the dusty, bumpy country roads. When we’d drive along the backroads, he’d point out the old houses where he had lived, or who had lived there, and where he’d been involved in harmless mischief with friends. Once, while eating, he told the story about the time he hurt his back.
“I was horsing around with a friend, walking along the top fence rail. Our ol’ mule was close by and I decided to see if I could jump on her back. Well, the ol’ mule wasn’t having any of it, and when I landed on her, she bucked me off and sent me flyin’ in the dirt.”
Dishes clanked in the sink as my grandmother spun around and pointed a soap-covered finger at him. “That’s not what you told Momma!”
Uncle Sam clamped his lips shut, but a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. He looked at my grandmother and shrugged. Busted, after almost 60 years! His eyes sparkled as he looked at me.
I have often thought about how, when Granny moved in after my grandfather died in 1969, his quiet world was changed. Along with Granny came four adult children, four in-laws, and at the time, four grandchildren (three more would follow). While he had only been a bachelor for four years, he never had children of his own. When we descended, we took over his home.
If my 10-year old chatter bothered Uncle Sam, he never let me know it. I remember the first time he let me come along to feed the chickens and collect the eggs. He unlatched the eye hook on the weathered-fenced door to the chicken coop and put out his foot to block the excited chickens from escaping while I slipped in. I stopped in my tracks; I was a chicken when it came to the chickens and their aggressive advancement and persistent pecking at my pant’s leg unsettled me. I followed my uncle into the dark hen house. It stunk and the dirt floor was covered in stuff I dared not step in or else I would start gagging. It was noisy and chaotic as the rows of hens fussed with each other.
“Go ahead, stick your hand under the hen, like this.” Uncle Sam stuck his hand under a sitting chicken and came out with an egg. My eyes grew round. Hesitantly, I stepped closer to one of the nests; the old chicken stared me down and I stepped back.
“Don’t let her scare you. She’s just a chicken.” Uncle Sam snickered at his own pun. “Don’t let her know you’re scared of her.”
Again, I stepped closer. My hand shook as I got within pecking range. I quickly stuck my hand under her belly and felt around, but not before the old hen took a hard peck at my arm. I recoiled and looked at the red spot on my forearm. Uncle Sam chuckled and encouraged me to try again. This time, I was swift and successful. Gradually, over time, I became less fearful of getting pecked and, using Uncle Sam’s technique, collected the eggs without losing any more blood. Collecting the eggs and tossing a scoopful of corn feed across the dirt became my morning “chore.”
Uncle Sam was a quiet man who never complained or grumbled. He worked long hours tending his garden and taking care of his home. After lunch, when my grandmother would retire to her bedroom for a quick nap, Uncle Sam would settle in an old rocker and close his eyes. Without being told, we knew to be quiet during nap-time. I can remember watching Uncle Sam; I was fascinated how he could sleep in a perfectly upright position, sometimes while still rocking. More than once, he’d slightly open one eye and cut his eye in my direction. I’d cover my mouth to stifle a giggle and tiptoe away.
Uncle Sam was a man of many trades: soldier, bus driver, farmer and barber. On any given day, there would be men lined up in rockers in the back room, waiting to get their hair cut. I liked listening to the lively conversations. In hindsight, I realize these men — and everyone who knew Uncle Sam — held him in high regard. He was a very likable man.
In 1971, Uncle Sam was still driving his old faded blue 1950s Studebaker. He used to let us kids play in the car, pretending to drive. I always loved riding with him to Kight’s Store to get gasoline. Uncle Sam always bought us ice cream, and then he and Mr. Kight, and any other customers, would sit around and talk while we ate. Sometimes, in spite of our mothers’ objections, Uncle Sam would allow us to pick out something. He bought me my first, and only, pocketknife, and taught my cousin and I how to whittle on a bar of soap. He once bought us plastic ponies, which were big enough for our Barbies and GI Joes to use on imaginary cowboy adventures. Perhaps my favorite thing I got at Kight’s was a 3-ring notebook, covered in cheerful blue fabric dotted with bright red and pink strawberries. It was my first grown-up binder and I used that thing until it literally wore out. Even more than the gifts, we all enjoyed being around Uncle Sam.
If we got in trouble, Uncle Sam always tried to run interference, or at least minimize our discipline, by trying to claim he was somehow responsible. Most of the time it worked; our mother’s couldn’t say no to Uncle Sam, and he knew it.
At dinner time, Mom made me stay at the table until I ate everything on my plate, which included foods that made me gag: lima beans and peas. I would eat everything but the eat-me-nots, and then it became a holdout battle of the wills…and then the compromise: I had to eat at least three. I’ll never forget the first time, when my mother wasn’t looking, that Uncle Sam reached over and poked my lima beans with his fork and quickly put them in his mouth. His wink told me not to say anything. And he did it at every meal there were lima beans or peas! I’m not sure Mom ever knew.
Every night, when Uncle Sam retired to the back room where he slept, his light would be on for a long time. We always knew to leave him alone, but one night curiosity won out and I peeked. Silhouetted by soft lamplight, he was sitting on the side of his bed with his big black Bible, which he kept on his nightstand, open and resting on his lap. I sensed I was intruding on a private moment and scurried back to bed. Yet the image lingered in my mind. I knew the Word of God was important to him; it wasn’t just words on a page, but words that he clung to, words that guided his steps and words that shaped him.
Uncle Sam, and my grandmother, lived on the farm until 1981. After a particularly nasty snow storm left them without power, and no way for family to reach them, they decided to move into my grandmother’s house in Chesapeake, Virginia. As they were downsizing, Uncle Sam asked me what I wanted. I asked for his old iron bed, which he had gotten for his first marriage in 1916. During a visit back to Shawboro in 2011, one of Uncle Sam’s half-cousins surprised me with the original large oval-framed engagement photograph of Uncle Sam and Lizzie Duncan, taken in 1915. The portrait hangs in my guest room above the iron bed.
Uncle Sam died on May 5, 1986. He may not have had children, but he left behind a powerful legacy. I once heard someone describe him as a saint, and while he was not perfect, I think it is an accurate description. He lived out, and continually displayed the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). He was virtuous and feared God. He loved his neighbor. He loved his family. And I have no doubt how much he loved me. Even today, his words and example are still influencing my life.
Great Uncle Sam has written his story on my heart, and in my opinion, it’s a never-ending best-seller.
For he will never be shaken;
The righteous will be remembered forever. ~ Psalm 112:6
Additional comment: When I shared this story with my mother, it stirred a memory Uncle Sam had told her about WWI: On November 11, 1918, Uncle Sam was in a foxhole, about 600 yards from the enemy line in France. When the clock struck 1100 — the effective time of the armistice signed between the Allied Forces and Germany, which officially ended of the war — he and his fellow soldiers celebrated with the men they had been fighting with only minutes before!