Family History: Uncle Hank

Our family has quite a few interesting characters. Whose doesn’t? Contributing to this is a persistent trait of mental health … quirks. My Great-uncle Hank was one of those quirky individuals.

When I knew him he was a sober and self contained older gentleman whose mother, my great grandmother Nell, lived with him. Nell was a firecracker, but there was always something a little odd about Uncle Hank. He was always thrilled to see us kids, but he just wasn’t a natural with us. That didn’t stop him from bribing us with his stash of hard candies until he was a favorite. Secret candy with no strings? Definitely cool.

I found out as an adult that the candy was my mom’s fault. Uncle Hank smoked like a chimney until Mom told him he wouldn’t get to see us unless he quit. POOF. He traded the cigs for an endless supply of Cherry and Butter Rum Life Savers. As I understand it, a generation earlier he quit drinking with the same efficiency. My granddad kept pulling him out of bar brawls when he came traumatised home from WW2. Eventually he succumbed to threats that he wouldn’t get to see my mom and uncle unless he dried out. So he did.

He was a seaman in World War Two, assigned to work on three different ships in the Pacific Theater. He survived the sinking of two of them. This is information I’ve gleaned, mind you, and is integral the image of the man as I saw him. It occurs to me as I wrote this that it may not be completely accurate. I don’t know what work he did aboard ship. I’m not sure anyone does. What information we have about it comes largely from records found in his footlocker that was uncovered when my great-grandma passed away and her house was sold. Looking back on memories of this time I was absorbing conversations the adults were having while my brother and I explored the upstairs of a house where we had never been allowed before. We were little I can’t have been older than 7.

Hank came home from the war with a tattoo, a drinking problem, and shell shock. We’d call it PTSD now. Then he was shell shocked, and a drunk, and maybe schizophrenic. Likely, he had trauma related psychosis having something to do with being on multiple battleships as they sank. He was in and out of hospitals, sometimes for long stays, until my mom was an adult. Family mythology says this included spans in the kind of hospital where they put lithium in the salt shakers.

After great grandma passed,we saw less and less of Uncle Hank every year. I didn’t know why until I was 18. We came into town for a visit; the first face-to-face visit in five years because we’d moved rather far away. Instead of the pleasantly stoic, awkward man I remembered, I was confronted by an angry soul. He yelled at my mother for things I’d never heard of and in some cases for things that never happened. He called us names, but never looked at us, and he left. It was heartbreaking. PTSD had given way to paranoia and dementia.
He passed away in 2012. There wasn’t much of a service, and I didn’t attend it. I was too sick myself at that point.

We are all more than our diagnosis. We are more than our treatments. I didn’t know Uncle Hank was sick until I was an inquisitive teen. It didn’t occur to me until even later that he lived with his mother because he couldn’t live alone. He was just him, and I loved him.

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