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My Uncles Can Beat Up Your Uncles

Editor’s Note: The following is a personal essay written by Mike Waltman, and originally posted on his Facebook page. When you read it, you will understand why it drew such a positive response.

As someone who has survived the beasts of divorce and custody disputes, neither the fears nor the heroism expressed in this story is lost on me. This is a Gen X memoir, and I thank Mike, who I’d never even heard of until yesterday, for sharing it with us.

by Mike Waltman

Those who know me as an unassuming Homer Simpson-type will be surprised by two things: that I am a closet Justin Bieber fan, and that as a boy I played a part in a dramatic real-life adventure that was later called the “finest hours” of the family members involved.

Those hours were carried out by three of my uncles, who after two months of what I as a parent can only imagine as my mother’s sheer agony, traveled hundreds of miles to rescue my brother and me from a very literal trained killer who had kidnapped us. That the kidnapper was my father makes the act all the more fraught with danger and all the more noteworthy, in my opinion.

As a result of intergenerational child abuse and untold other factors, my father reached adulthood in a state we now politely describe as “troubled.” Like so many other good-hearted women, my mother—God rest her beautiful soul—had the very understandable and virtuous notion that she could ‘fix’ him in the setting of a domestic family life. It was about then that my father entered the Army, was enrolled in its most potent lethal warfare training, Airborne Ranger school, and then sent to Viet Nam. Before this experience, the odds weren’t great for a normal family life. Afterward, the disaster of his return to society and subsequent divorce were a foregone conclusion. Like any sane father, though, he loved his boys and decided since he was not satisfied with the amount of time with us on visitation he would take us away.

I want to emphasize that I’m not recounting this as some dramatized personal catharsis; I’m fine. If there’s any emotion now, it’s how I cringe at thinking how bad that episode could have gone, given what I’ve learned about the volatility of the setting, coupled with an overwhelming gratitude and appreciation not only for my rescuers but for the family honor they exemplified that epic day.

The facts of the rescue itself are enough for an extraordinary book—as was driven home in reading the heartbreaking day-to-day account of it from my late mother’s journal—but the bottom line is that they tracked us down to an apartment through several reconnaissance trips and the help of a private investigator, swooped in and grabbed us up while my father had stepped out, disabled his car and flew us back home (one uncle was a pilot).

But just as I do not want to exaggerate the danger involved in this rescue, I don’t want to downplay it either. My father had exhibited one violent act after another upon his return from Viet Nam, and the myriad methods soldiers like him were trained to kill people could—and does—fill books. Talking with my father’s father years later, as he sensed his own death approaching, he tearily recounted this period: “When I heard they were headed out there to get you boys, I was tempted to call and give your dad a heads up…but I just didn’t want there to be any killin’.” There was every marker for this to end up bad.

We Christians sometimes gloss over the “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” part of the Twenty-Third Psalm, but these men lived it with their rescue and my mom with her relentless, agonizing prayer. If they “feared no evil” it is because they, like the psalmist, have a stronger faith than I do. Or perhaps they exhibited the truism—long before it became a bumper sticker—that courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it.

I have avoided the term ‘hero’ not because it doesn’t apply—it does—but because I know how they would bristle at being called that. But if anything that term understates, not overstates the virtue of their actions. I was as vocal as anyone in lauding the valiance of police and firefighters on 9/11. And as a veteran myself, I venerate the actions of military warriors. But in both cases, these men are clad in protective armor and the latter with weaponry. My uncles had only their wits and determination, and a thousand unseen guardian angels. In a later psalm, David says “the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him–and he will deliver them.” Indeed.

That’s where insights about their generation come in. These men were part of a culture where it was not out of the realm of obligation that you would do that for a family member. They simply would not let their beloved sister/sister-in-law go the rest of her life without her boys; even if that meant facing a crazed, probably-armed, definitely lethally-trained Green Beret in his den.

This was almost forty years ago now; definitely not the Oprah era when people gushed and emoted over events like this. Quite the contrary, it was never mentioned as I was growing up. My mother lovingly wanted to spare us the trauma, and instead emphasized countless fond memories of our travels and fun and laughter. It was only later that I learned the full scope of this episode. My uncles not only never mentioned it, their responses to my later expressions of gratitude were quintessentially modest: “Look, your mom needed our help, so we helped her. Now, quit blocking the TV.”

That this is all amazing to me, yet rational to them—if not normal per se—says a lot about generational familial roles, particularly males ones. Like so many who grew up in the time where media male figures were artificially hyper-masculinized (Rocky, Rambo, Schwarzenegger) or feminized (Boy George, Wham!, Duran Duran), and where father figures were often, um, sketchy, I often pondered what it means to be a true man. These men—remember when we used that term, instead of “guy” and “male”?—demonstrated it with that unforgettable act.

If my unfortunate father represents what is to be mourned about that era, my uncles and mother represent what is to be celebrated about it. So, although I understand the desire to let the past bury these crises (I only recently shared this with my teenaged sons, who were astounded, mainly that there was anything interesting about their old man), I refuse to let the fateful actions of Ellen Thomas Waltman, Dennis “Soapy” Cooke, Joe Triplett and Ben Thomas be forgotten. While the first two must regrettably be honored posthumously, it is my hope that their kids will tell their own kids (and so on) that those kind older people that bring them cool stuff on Christmas—or are featured in photos around the house—executed one of the bravest unheralded acts of authentic courage and family obligation that anyone should never forget.

Gen X Blog Jennifer Chronicles

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