Meet Uncle Dick: In Which I Introduce A Legend

May 8, 2013 in New Zealand, Oceania, Travelogue

Family Travel New Zealand

I guess I should open with an explanation:

Uncle Dick is not my uncle, but he’s always been my Uncle Dick. His dad and my Pip were in the war together, the second one. They raised their boys together… Dick and my Dad… and the rest, as they say, is family history.

When we lived in the bush and I was a very little girl I remember Dick blowing in for a few days or a few weeks in the summer. We have this old photo of him standing on the end of our dock, tight jeans, long hair, aviator glasses and his shirt open to the third button, a la 1970s. In that incarnation he was on a hard burn, recovering from his less-than-touristy-tour in Southeast Asia, and rockin’ his way around the world as a road manager for the likes of David Sanborn & Manhattan Transfer.

Dick would blow into town on a loud wind, make my Dad laugh harder than he had in months, and then blow out again, life whirling like leaves in a fall wind in his wake.

  • I remember him sitting in the middle of our basement floor with duck decoys spread out in every direction.
  • I remember waking to the sound of his gunfire in our marsh the first week of duck season most years.
  • He would take my brother hunting with him and they’d come back with a stringer of ducks and happy dogs.
  • I remember him cursing his dogs loudly while my Mom pursed her lips.
  • I remember him standing in our kitchen, in front of the punched copper cabinets, a towel thrown over one shoulder, painstakingly preparing duck, explaining the procedure in detail.
  • I remember pretending that I liked the duck.

Uncle Dick always brought gifts.

He showed up one summer, when I was 12… maybe 13, with a hot pink Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass “Bullish” tour shirt. I was in love. Anything Uncle Dick brought was the epitome of cool. My mom hated that shirt, but I’d wear little else until it was shreds and beyond repair. I wore it all over central Mexico one winter and then peeled logs, for the house we were building, in it all through the next summer.

When I was about 16, he turned up from Paris with a ridiculously expensive perfume sampler that made me feel like a grown up. I carefully stretched out those little vials and they lasted until after I moved out. Anais Anais was my favourite. I still remember the pink flowers on the white glass bottle.

He once brought a really expensive, gourmet Black Forest Cake from a high end bakery. It was the kind of thing we NEVER had at our house. It sat on the counter where we could all admire it for quite a while… and then… one of his hunting dogs leapt up onto the counter and devoured a third of the cake. My ears are still ringing from the fallout. My mother saved most of the cake, but it’s the story that lives in infamy!

And then there was the time his bird dogs got loose and killed two of the neighbours chickens… I may not have learned all of my best language from Dick, but he’s undoubtedly contributed to my excellent delivery in moments of crisis.

When my Dad stepped between the rafters of the second story of our house, under construction, and bounced on the corner of a stack of plywood on the concrete floor, Dick was there helping us build. He helped call the ambulance, and he built the equipment my Dad needed to recover. My Dad tells it differently, remembering his buddy’s dog leaping up onto the couch on top of him and his many broken ribs, and dancing around in circles.

Between running guided hunting trips in Alaska in the summers, and dive trips in the Grand Caymans in the winter Dick would pop in for a night or two of blowing smoke with my Dad. They’d drink Dad’s homemade bear-claw wine (so named for it’s affect on one’s esophagus) and Dick’s gold label whatever. They’d plot world domination through a number of entrepreneurial ventures, argue politics, tell jokes and eventually rehash the infamous mini-beaver scheme. Yes… tiny beavers… you know what, never mind.

The winter my appendix burst Dick spent quite a bit of time with our family. I remember him fixing the fan in the sunroom and puttering around in the kitchen, and a book he was reading called “Fly-fishing your way through your mid-life crisis.”

Eventually he ended up owning my grandparents’ cabin on Brule Lake. He curates it for the family and I love to visit him there. I get to sleep in the bedroom that I slept in as a baby and in the darkness I can still hear my Pawpaw laugh and smell my Grammy’s cookies baking. I sit on his dock and dangle my toes in the water while my kids fish. In the mornings he makes pancakes and bacon and elucidates a range of subject matter.


I never come away from a visit without a new life lesson summed up into a snappy one liner:

The Christmas before I got married, Dick turned up for an evening, examined my ring and pronounced it “elegant” (this was very important to me, coming from Dick.) While holding my hand, he looked into my eyes and said, “Remember the 7 P’s… Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” Indeed.

The day before I got married he told my Dad to write one word on his hand: Lovely. The right answer to everything anyone says, or asks, on a wedding day. Lovely.

The last time I was at Brule, I was sitting by the wood stove with my cup of tea, discussing travel plans and adventures with my Uncle, we were both marveling at the swift passage of time and the necessity of grabbing life with both hands. He listened to me, chuckled in his quiet way and looked over his shoulder with one eyebrow raised, as he wont to do, and said, “Well Darlin’ you know what they say: Fuck, Fight or Hold The Light!” I sneezed tea through my nose. That pretty much sums up life.

On parenting: An interesting side note, and rather long story, is that Dick’s kids are younger than mine, his wife (who is my favourite) teases that she was robbing the grave. We’re about the same age. Dick has contributed the following three questions to my parenting strategy, as a means of helping young people think through the realities: Where am I? What’s going on? What’s the next appropriate course of action? If only I could transfer his voice an intensity to your ears.

I called Dick, about two and a half months ago, and woke him out of a dead sleep at 3 a.m.

The time change kills me. I realized what I’d done and hung up, but the danged caller ID gave me away. He called back. I let it go to voice mail, embarrassed that I’d woken the old guy for nothing, and wishing he’d just forget it and go back to sleep. He called back again and I answered, sheepishly. Naturally, he was worried that a call from the wrong side of the planet meant a family emergency. Nope. I was just excited.

I was excited because I’d hatched a little plan that would require his involvement:

“No, Dad is fine. I just have this possibility, this idea… you know, it’s really more of a long shot, but… if I could arrange a hunting trip for you here in New Zealand, would you come? It would be a press trip… you know, where I trade lots of writing for the gig… but I couldn’t do it without you and it’s not my thing anyway… I just saw the opportunity and I thought of you… and if you are up for it I’ll give it a shot, but I probably won’t get it. I probably just woke you up for nothing. I know… you’ll never let me live it down.”

To make a long story short, I got the gig, or rather, we got the gig, because I couldn’t do this without Dick. He’s the one who knows the which end is the operative end of Sako .308; all I’ve ever shot at were cans and clay pigeons! It’s new territory for both of us and I’m ashamed to say that we’re deliriously excited.

By the time this post goes live my Dad will be dropping Dick off at the airport in Toronto for a 24 hour loop around the globe. I thought I’d make use of the calm before the storm to introduce you to The Legend.