Uncle Fred only wanted one thing in life—to be a pilot. He had been turned down because of poor eye-sight, so he started a regimen of devouring as many carrots as he could possibly eat everyday and he eventually passed the test which qualified him to be a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corp. He always credited those carrots, they say, with his reversal of fortune. He died on training maneuvers, about a year later, when his wingman made a wrong move and they touched in mid-air, causing Uncle Fred to crash.
In my early teens I was rummaging through the cedar chest my mom kept at the foot of her bed, and which got forgotten a lot by me, like so many overly familiar things do, simply because it was always there. But it was more like a treasure chest for the same reasons. Each opening of it was a treat because it happened so seldom—a treat for its rich and pungent assault on the nostrils, a treat for the eyes because it contained bits of long gone family history, and, therefore, a treat for my imagination. Right on top, in the maroon velvet-lined shelf that had to be lifted out to view the contents of the chest, was a tiny white alpaca sweater that looked like it might fit an infant. This had been my mother’s when she was twenty years old. While still swooning from inhaling as much of the cedar fumes as my lungs would hold, I would try yet again to get my imagination around any adult size body fitting into what lay before me. My mother told me it had once been washed by mistake and shrunk, but this news did nothing to salve my amazement or my inability to imagine this garment ever fitting anyone. I always got stuck here on this item and this information before I could proceed. Only then could I move on to open the hinged blue leather box, lined with white silk, containing a distinguished service cross for some World War II valor my father refused to ever discuss. Also on display, a diamond stick pin with a three inch long gold shaft, and a mink stole made up of two little creatures with beady eyes, each biting the other on the ass by means of a spring-clip that formed their jaws.
On this particular day, after I got past these usual fascinations, I lifted out the shelf and found a black wool turtleneck sweater I couldn’t remember ever having seen. Probably I now noticed it because I was older than the last time I had visited here, and probably because here was something that could fit me. When I asked my mother about it she said I should probably have it, if I wanted it, and get some use out of it. It had been my Uncle Fred’s.
My only recollection of Fred was being carried down a flight of wooden stairs by him in the house we lived in, while he teased me by taking my teddy bear from me with his free hand, giving it back, and doing it again. After which, he waved good-bye and left. I was three or four years old at the time. This incident is a fleeting memory of a man I hardly knew personally, but he was a living legend to his older sisters, two other brothers, and my grandparents. They may or may not have embellished their memory of him, but the stories I would hear over the years from each of them at varying times, always told of a very handsome, very likeable, very capable and athletic young man who could captivate the ladies, win over any adversary, and was honest and trustworthy to a fault. The man I never really knew became the man I wish I had known.
When I put that sweater on, some reconnection was made between us, preserved all those years by the magic potency of cedar. I don’t know why, but each time I wore it afterward, I walked a little taller, felt a little older, and acted a little braver than I really was. I felt some family honor to be able to wear something of Fred’s. And I’ve never refused a carrot, when offered, since.