Saving Uncle Freddie
Uncle Freddie was less than five feet tall – his wife, Carmela, was even shorter. Freddie was as round as a bowling ball. Aunt Carmela was stick-thin.
The two lived a quiet, childless life of routine. Carmela stayed indoors. She only went out when visiting family. Freddie, in starched white shirt and tie, commuted via the Hudson Tubes to the City and his job as a tailor at Saks. If repetition were bliss, they were a happy couple.
Uncle Freddie and Aunt Carmela entered my life on Sundays and holidays. In my grandma’s basement, Carmela would sit silently while Freddie played pinochle with my grandpa after Sunday dinner. He usually lasted an hour before gently nodding off to sleep, cards in his hands. My relationship with Uncle Freddie was one of soft thank-yous for the stacksful of rectangular cardboard he brought me weekly. These I would draw on, whiling away the time as a child must when forced indoors on a Sunday. Beyond the thank-yous, our interaction took one dramatic turn.
My father had a thing for horses. Among my childhood memories are riding ponies in a ring at animal farms and horses at dude ranches in upstate New York. I was dragged off to these places although I was a city kid. The streets of Brooklyn were what I knew best, but I went along, of course, sitting in the back of an Olds 88 or a Buick Regal, my younger brother alongside me. One Labor Day weekend, my brother and I were squeezed together in the front bench seat between my mother and father. Uncle Freddie and Aunt Carmela were in the back. They were coming to the Red Pony Dude Ranch with us for a weekend of horseback riding and shuffleboard.
After check-in, we rushed out of our cabins and down to the shore of the river that flowed through the ranch. There was a little dock on the east side of the river and a small lip of land on the west. Together they gave the illusion that the river was a lake. But it wasn’t. The water was cold, even in late summer, and the current pulled you into the main flow of water away from the shore. The river dropped off to deep water after the first twenty feet. As soon as I stepped into the cold river water, I felt a tug away from the shoreline. I needed all my strength to get back to shore. One of the young “cowboys” saw it all. “Be careful, Sonny! That water’ll pull you out faster than you can say ‘Jack Robinson.’”
I waited until my father changed into his suit and waded into the water before trying again. I kept him between me and the deep part. I figured I was safe that way. From the shoreline, I could see my mother, Uncle Freddie, and Aunt Carmela watching us. My brother was playing with a pail and shovel at their feet.
Uncle Freddie hadn’t yet changed his clothing. He had on his work attire: starched white shirt, red tie, blue gabardine trousers, and black wingtips. “Come on in!” I yelled. “The water’s fine.” I knew that wasn’t true. The water was ten times colder than Coney Island. Uncle Freddie smiled. The others waved to me. The second my father took a step toward shore, I got out.
After lunch we went to the stables, where there were horses and ponies to ride. I knew that riding horses for us city folk meant slowly plodding under tree branches on a well-marked trail, single file in a long loop. It was an hour of nothing more than horsey odors and the occasional branch across the face. My father decided that he, Uncle Freddie, and I would ride, leaving the women and my brother to wave goodbye as we joined the line of dudes on horseback. But there was a problem: Uncle Freddie was too short and too round to mount a horse. It took two young cowboys to lift him on to the saddle, and one to lead his horse around the coral by the reins until Uncle Freddie screwed up the confidence to hold them on his own. For the ride, Uncle Freddie had left his red tie in the cabin, changed into an older pair of blue gabardine trousers, and scuffed wingtips. To complete his outfit, he added a straw cowboy hat and a fringed buckskin vest he had purchased at the Red Pony Roundup, the ranch’s ‘general store.’
There were ten of us on horseback as the blondest of the cowboys – local college students on summer jobs – led us to the trail head. “Jack Johnson’s the name, but you can call me JJ folks. Let’s have a good ride. Follow the trail and keep your distance from other horses. Hold those reins,” he said through a doubtful smile. And off we went.
The first ten minutes went without incident. Then all hell broke loose. My horse, Little Reba, a black mare with an attitude, decided she wanted out. She bolted from the trail and led me on a wild ride. “Whoa, Little Reba!” I yelled over and over again. I panicked. I looked down to see a wet stain growing on my crotch, pee on the saddle. I tried to reign Reba in, but I didn’t have the strength, and I had to contend with not just the fast-approaching-gallop mare, but with low-hanging tree branches that we moved by so quickly I had no time to think. My face was a series of red welts. My eyes were fogged in tears. I was the last horse in the queue I remembered. Who had seen what happened?
Uncle Freddie did. He was the next to last rider on Lucky Girl, a docile old chestnut. Freddie managed to turn Lucky Girl around. He had seen Little Reba take off with me yelling for her to stop. From a reserve of tenderfoot courage, Uncle Freddie got Lucky Girl to follow. When Little Reba stopped to graze on some meadow grass, Freddie caught up. Holding Lucky Girl’s reins, he rolled off the horse, falling on his bottom onto the soft earth. He quickly grabbed her reins again and led her to where Little Reba was grazing with me still atop her, I was brushing tears from my eyes, and trying to stop the pee from rolling down my blue jeans.
“She bolted,” I began. “I couldn’t stop her.”
Uncle Freddie looked up at me. “Are you okay, Louis?”
“I guess so,” I replied, but I wasn’t okay. I was still shaking with fright.
“I think your horse was hungry. She wanted to come here to eat the grass. I don’t think she was trying to hurt you.”
“Okay. What should I do now?”
“Let’s wait until the cowboy gets here. I’m sure he knows by now that we’re missing.” Uncle Freddie grabbed Little Reba’s reins. Now he held those of both horses.
And sure enough, JJ rode back with the rest of riders following. My embarrassment was now total, but at least I was going to be okay.
“That Reba. She’s always the one. Loves the grass in this meadow, you know. You okay, kid?”
“Yeah,” I answered. My next thought was how to hide the dark spot on the saddle.
“Best you walk back. I’ll take care of your horse.”
“I’ll go with him,” Uncle Freddie volunteered.
“Me, too,” my dad added.
“No need for that gents. I think your boy needs a little space to himself after this adventure, don’t you?” I did. I was in a hurry to change my pee-stained pants.
Dinner was a rehash of the day’s excitement. “I couldn’t stop her. I tried, but I couldn’t.”
“That’s what the reins are for,” Dad replied through a mouthful of steak and potatoes.
“I know, but…”
“It’s not easy. You did the best you could.” That was Uncle Freddie.
Nobody said a word about the pants though everybody knew.
The early autumn morning broke cloudless and cool, a breeze rippling the water. “White caps?” I asked no one in particular.
“Nah, just ripples,” my father answered. “Let’s go in and work up an appetite for lunch. It’s been almost an hour since breakfast. No worries about cramps.”
He waded into the water, holding my little brother in his arms. I followed and Uncle Freddie, in white tee shirt and navy-blue bathing suit, followed me. We moved around in the water, just our heads above, our bodies under to avoid the developing wind. Soon, my brother’s teeth started chattering and my father walked him back to shore. I turned to see where Uncle Freddie was. I didn’t want to be the one out the deepest. I wasn’t. Uncle Freddie was out further and moving toward the strong river current. He said nothing. His face was expressionless, but it was obvious to me he was in trouble. He couldn’t swim. I saw the first bob of his head under water. “Help! Help! My uncle’s drowning,” I yelled into the wind. There was no movement from shore.
I dog-paddled in Freddie’s direction. “Hold on!” I screamed. Soon I began to lose control. Although my dog-paddling was useless against the strong pull of the current, I was getting closer to where Uncle Freddie was bobbing. He tried to keep himself above water, but he couldn’t. Each time he resurfaced, his mouth was full of water. Only his eyes showed his panic. Then both of us were moving in parallel downstream, the current pushing us quickly away from the ranch. The river was narrow at this point, and its current thus stronger. We were human floatsam.
The river took us over rocks, crashed us into floating tree branches, turned us upside down, then righted the two of us.
“We’re gonna die Uncle Freddie!”
His answer was a gurgling sound, so I repeated my distress. “We’re gonna die!” My mind flashed to a funeral: mother, father, and all the relatives crying as I lay in the casket. Then I felt a tug on my arm. It was Uncle Freddie. He looked at me as he went under. I thought he was saying goodbye. I grasped at his bald head which was the closest part of him to me then. No luck. “We’re done for,” I said over and over in my mind.
My progress downstream was halted by bumping into something soft. It was Uncle Freddie. He was standing nearly erect in the middle of the river. We’d come to a little island of stone and tree branches. “We’re alive, Uncle Freddie! Alive!” His answer was a mouthful of river water along with the undigested contents of his morning bacon and eggs. For a minute, he continued to spew. The act was contagious. I joined him, Cheerios emerging along with fresh river water.
We were alive, but just so. We started shivering, then flapping our arms in a feeble attempt to create warmth. I looked back to where the Pink Pony Ranch was.
I could see no one, no canoer coming to save us. Then my eyes were drawn to the near shore. There, twenty feet away were my father, mother, Aunt Carmela, my brother, and JJ, our trail leader. “Hold tight! We’ll have you out in a jiff,” JJ said, the same doubtful smile on his freckled face. Then he waded into the water holding a lasso. My dad followed JJ to the water’s edge where he held onto a low hanging tree branch. His outstretched hand grasped JJ’s. JJ was waist deep in the rushing water which was pushing him downstream away from us. “We gotta hurry fellas. Grab this lasso.” And I did. With my other hand I grabbed Uncle Freddie around his waist. JJ pulled on the lasso. My father pulled JJ with all his might. Then his hand slipped out of JJ’s grasp. JJ went under, and Uncle Freddie and I headed downstream again. Like a breaching bass, JJ rose up from the river, and tackled the two of us. Then my father jumped on top. He was a good two hundred pounds. The collective weight of we four put a halt to our journey downstream. We were going to be okay.
Years later, when I tell this story to my children, they ask me why Uncle Freddie and Aunt Carmela, long gone before the kids were born, decided to go to a dude ranch. I have no answer, but the memory of that river sends a quick shiver down my spine. Wherever Uncle Freddie is now, I hope there is a No Swimming sign.