Uncle Earle was my father’s best friend. He was married to Aunt Alma, my mother’s older sister, and was famous for being a player. Uncle Earle’s romantic dalliances were legendary. At any one time he might have something going with two or three of Aunt Alma’s friends, the woman who owned the dry cleaner where he took his shirts, the coat check girl at his favorite restaurant, and a young lady he happened to sit next to on the train on his way to work. Tall, athletic (he was a former college football running back), beautifully dressed, and debonnaire, Uncle Earle was a thirst trap.
The fact that his job consisted of a sinecure position in a company owned and operated by his wealthy father made it easy for him to pursue his hobby of chasing woman. With no set hours and few duties to perform he could play the field as much as he liked, which was A LOT!
Aunt Alma put up with it, goodness knows why, unless she, too, found him irresistible. There were occasional blow-ups, like the time she took the “diamond” wristwatch he gave her for her birthday to the jeweler to have the band adjusted and learned that the sparking jewels on the watch’s face weren’t diamonds after all but zircons. Uncle Earle goofed by buying two watches at the same time. The diamond one was supposed to go to his wife, while the fake was intended as a love token for one of his girlfriends, but they got mixed up.
Things like that were always happening. Aunt Alma would be furious for a while, but then she’d get over it. Uncle Earle was that charming. Aside from the affairs he had no bad habits.
Unless it was his fascination with gadgetry.
Uncle Earle was the reason my father paid several thousand dollars for a stereo, back in the days when stereos were known as a “hi-fi.” That stood for high-fidelity (something Uncle Earle could not claim to practice.) The hi-fi cost almost as much as a new car did at the time, angering my mother, who would have preferred a new car to a complicated device from Sweden which nobody was allowed to touch except for my father, because he claimed it was a “delicate piece of equipment.”
Uncle Earle was also responsible for a dark episode in my parents’ lives referred to simply as, “The Foreign Car.” I’m not sure what kind of car it was, only that it wasn’t a Ford or a Chevrolet or any of the other brands of cars made in America that my father had owned up to that point.
This was not all that long after the conclusion of World War II, when anything that came from any of the former Axis powers was viewed with deep suspicion. The words “Made in Japan” stamped on a product meant that it was not only flimsy and unreliable but that the people who made it had not too long before been trying to kill us. The same went for things from Italy and Germany, although it was grudgingly admitted that Italian food was pretty good, albeit “too spicy.”
As far as I can tell, there are no photographs in existence of The Foreign Car. It wasn’t with us long. I have no idea what it looked like, although I have a dim recollection of it being bright red in color, a two-seater sports car, hellaciously expensive to maintain. It was always breaking down at inconvenient times, leaving my parents stranded on country roads, and forcing my father to walk miles to the nearest pay phone to call for a tow truck.
Years later, my mother confided in me that The Foreign Car had nearly brought about the breakup of their marriage. Uncle Earle had urged my father to buy it, and had accompanied him to the dealership, where Dad purchased it without first conferring with my mother. It was the first and last time he ever bought a car without telling her about it first and asking for her permission.
Getting back to the episode of the electric carving knife, Uncle Earle had one which he used to carve the Thanksgiving turkey that year. My father was envious of the ease with which it went through the turkey, creating thin, perfect slices. He’d always found carving cuts of meat a terrible chore, cursing as he hacked and slashed at the roast or the ham or the turkey, leaving a mangled heap of scraps that looked like something that had been chewed by a feral dogs.
Uncle Earle took note of Dad’s wistful statement that he would love to have an electric carving knife, and got him one for Christmas. Dad was delighted. He vowed to take it on its maiden voyage on New Year’s Day, when we were having a twenty-pound ham, which he’d won in a raffle at the Masonic Lodge.
Electric carving knives today are cordless and rechargeable. The one my father one had was powered through a long, white cord which plugged into the wall. Not having examined the cord carefully, he failed to notice that it was defective. There was a cut in the plastic covering, which left the wire underneath exposed. All might still have been well if I hadn’t spilled my glass of sparkling cider, a stand-in for the grown-ups champagne.
The spilled cider was mopped up by my long-suffering mother, who complained that I was always spilling things. That was because I had terrible eyesight. The fact that I desperately needed eyeglasses had yet to be discovered. Up to then, people thought I was just clumsy.
So, the tablecloth was damp when the carving knife was lowered over the ham. It slipped from my father’s grasp and went bounding and whirring angrily onto the table, the exposed wire in the gap in the cord coming in contact with the wet linen.
There was a loud crackle, and a flash of weird blue light. All of us were instantly thrown from our chairs and flung onto the floor. I could feel the jolt in the fillings in my teeth. My relatives were wide-eyed and dazed, not sure what had happened, only that it was something bad.
The carving knife was still buzzing, wiggling across the table menacingly.
“Unplug it!” shouted my mother.
“Hell no! The damn thing’s alive,” said my father. “I’m not touching that plug. No telling what it’ll do.”
Instead he went downstairs and shut off the electric power to the whole house. Only then did he feel brave enough to gingerly unplug the knife and cast it, trembling, into the garbage.
I have heard people describe having gotten a bad electric shock as similar to being hit with a baseball bat. I have been hit by a baseball bat, one which was swung in anger. I can say that’s exactly what an electric shock feels like: a tremendous blow that knocks you off your feet (or in this case your dining room chair) and leaves you stunned and reeling.
For all of you who have never been blasted out of your seat by a current of electricity, consider yourself fortunate. For those of you who have, I can relate.
Happy New Year! Be sure to check the power cord before plugging anything in.