Maurice Barkley and I were brought together by Uncle Sam, and we shook hands at his door last night, an old hat with the Americal division patch on his head.
Inside I met his wife, sitting near her walker, on the couch. The house was small and the walls were crowded with pictures and racks of thimbles. They moved in almost 60 years ago and planted the big Norway maples out front from saplings they dug up in Geneseo. Back then their neighborhood had recently been a pasture and he had recently been a soldier.
It had been basic training at Fort Knox and when the infantry was done with him he'd come back to Louisville for college. She was a 19-year-old local girl and there was a mixer at a bar and they mixed pretty good and now that she's 80 and he's 84 they're still together, still laughing and still all over each other.
The pictures on the walls are a tour of a hundred years and a million memories. There's her mother as a girl, the two of them as newly met lovebirds, his father's first wife, him as a baby, countless of their son and daughter, and even more of the four grandchildren. Including the one in a sailor uniform and another, a lieutenant, wearing the brass of the air defense artillery and with the sternest most bad-ass look on his face. The granddaughter, who interned at the Library of Congress, is beautiful and well represented.
Off the livingroom toward what arbitrarily might be the front of the house is the sewing room, where Mrs. Barkley made decades of wedding-party gowns and the wedding dress of her own daughter, who still teaches art at a city school. There are posters signed by the casts of visiting theater companies whose costumes she fitted and fixed. The myriad spools of thread hang in racks arranged like the colors of the rainbow.
His office is on the other end, a warren of radios and papers ideally situated to allow him to write each day. His latest science fiction novel hit Amazon this week. It is the third. There's also a memoir and a collection of his mother's recipes. And two treehouse books.
That came about by accident.
When the grandchildren came along he built them a treehouse in the back yard. And he kept building. Soon there were sky bridges and various platforms and functions and before long the backyard was a network of houses and bridges. And word got out. And it caught on. And now there are TV shows about such fantastic things. As the grandchildren grew up and left, the treehouse went unused and eventually was sold to a man in Geneseo, who has moved it and breathed new life into it.
They worked here in the house, the two of them, all their lives. She sewed and he was a commercial artist. And now they are fascinating old people full of life and wonder.
But it was Uncle Sam who brought us together.
A four-foot, narrow, plastic Uncle Sam holding an American flag sunbleached on one side.
My daughter married him some 25 years ago.
It was one of his appearances in a yard sale and we, pushing one child or another in a stroller and walking down the sidewalk, came upon him. Aubrey, who turned 30 the other day and is now a drill sergeant in the Army, was a patriotic, enthusiastic and joyful girl. And she took a shine to Uncle Sam. She may have paid the 50 cents or dollar out of her own money. At any rate, he came home with us.
And he was great fun. He became a member of the family. At a certain point, as a kindergartner or first-grader, she married him in a solemn ceremony.
But little Jackie Paper wasn't the only one to grow up, and Uncle Sam went to live in the basement. Until he went to the curb. And he got picked up in another yard sale, by a nephew of Mr. Barkley, who kept him a few years and then dumped him on the Barkleys, who set him as a guardian of the front door. He had some surgery along the way, to epoxy a crack and rebuild a hand and to fill him with ballast and give him some weight.
When Mrs. Barkley came into the house she would rub her hand across the crown of his top hat, as he stood there holding a little flag.
They are starting to clean out their collections a little bit, to make it easier if they should eventually have to move out of the home, and their children and grandchildren are being presented with various family keepsakes. And they thought it was time for Uncle Sam to go home.
So Maurice Barkley wrote me a note and sent me a picture and I found myself knocking at his door. An hour later, Uncle Sam and I drove away.
And that's what I did last night.