I have a confession to make. I didn’t really like most of my relatives when I was growing up. There was this one uncle who talked babytalk to me until he died. His daughter still talks babytalk, and she’s seventy-four years old. His wife had a way of turning a positive conversation into an insult without cracking her fake smile.
The one I liked best lived in California and only came back to Texas for family reunions and occasionally for Christmas or Easter. When he did visit he always stayed with us. That’s because he was from my father’s side of the family. Dad could hardly tolerate him, but mother loved him as much as I did.
He was Uncle Eli’s boy. Uncle Eli was a train conductor in Colorado, and he expected his son Bruce to follow in his footsteps. Bruce had other ideas. He was a good looking guy and wanted to be a movie actor. One thing about my father’s side of the family—if your daddy told you he wanted you to be a train conductor, then, goshdurnit, you were going to be a train conductor. Bruce, I was told, wasn’t happy about it but started his training as a—well, whatever an entry level job was on a train.
One day Uncle Eli’s foot slipped as he was boarding the train while it picked up steam. When it pulled out of the station Uncle Eli was left on the tracks, pretty much cut in two, and, of course, dead. Right after the funeral, Bruce packed up and headed for Hollywood where he earned a respectable living for the next fifty years as an extra.
Everybody called Bruce Uncle Eli’s boy. He didn’t seem to mind it. Uncle Eli’s boy was a mouthful for me when I was three or four, so it came out “UncaBoy.” After that, the family called him UncaBoy even when I could actually say Uncle Eli’s boy.
“You can keep calling me UncaBoy,” he whispered to me one Thanksgiving when Dad was carving the turkey. “It would confuse the others if you didn’t.”
Every time Bruce showed up for a family dinner my uncle asked, in babytalk, why he never became a movie star.
“I was cast into a speaking role a few times,” UncaBoy patiently explained, “but once the cameras started rolling, I couldn’t remember my lines.” He smiled bashfully. “Being an extra was not quite the career I had wanted but I’m happy with it.”
My earliest memories of him were watching the late movies on television. He would point out himself walking behind Clark Gable in Boomtown.
“There I am. I liked being in westerns,” he told me. “It was like growing up in Colorado.” He was also one of the few extras who could ride a horse.
One time while watching The Philadelphia Story he said, “There I am, serving Katharine Hepburn a coffee at a diner. She insisted it be a cup of hot coffee too. She never drank it but she liked the warm cup in her hands.” He winked at me. “I didn’t think she was all that good looking either. Not anywhere as pretty as your mother.”
Occasionally Mother would stay up late with us and pop some corn. She always liked the movies. Dad never did. He called them durned foolishness.
“There he is.” Mother beat UncaBoy at pointing him out.
Sometimes I recognized him and sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes we’d only see his shoulder or the back of his head. Mother explained that Uncle Eli’s boy was better looking than Clark Gable and the director didn’t want moviegoers to know that anyone was better looking than Clark Gable.
The thing about Hollywood was that it needed extras of all ages so UncaBoy kept working even after the stars got too old to be seen anymore. I suppose he was in his seventies when he came for Christmas my senior year in high school. After the last of the pumpkin pie was eaten and the last of the baby-talking relatives left, he and I sat in the living room, turned on the Christmas tree lights and then tuned in the late movie. It was It’s a Wonderful Life. Mother didn’t join us. She said that movie always made her cry.
“There I am,” he said, pointing to himself during the run on the bank scene. “I actually got to say, ‘Give me my money.’ Of course, everyone else was yelling at the same time.’”
They also showed his face. I was about to ask him about Jimmy Stewart when I heard him gasp. I looked at him, and his face was pale and his lips blue. When our eyes met, I knew he was having a heart attack. I tried to stand up to get Mother, but he pulled me back down to his side. He smiled, patted my face and pointed at me.
“There I am.”