Posted by: Jerry Garrett | May 10, 2018

Solving The Mysterious Disappearance Of My Black Sheep Uncle

It’s been nearly 60 years, but I finally found my Uncle Eldon. He’s dead.

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 3.17.56 PM

Not my uncle, but close

Not surprising, or else he would have been 112 now.

I don’t know why, but I had been thinking of my mysterious uncle recently. It seems more than a coincidence; it turns out he died almost exactly 50 years ago (fittingly, around Kentucky Derby time). No one in my family ever told me – if even they knew – what happened to him.

When I was seven years old, Uncle Eldon blew into town like a tumbleweed. He stayed with us for a couple of weeks at our little house in San Gabriel Valley, California.

He was tall, thin, weathered, with sandy hair and stubble beard. When I did a Google image search for him, for some reason pictures of the actor Hugh Laurie kept coming up; close enough. I remember him dressed in old khakis, a dark shirt and a well-worn leather jacket. I never saw him eat; he was too busy sneaking a smoke in our non-smoking household.

“I thumbed it,” he said, when I asked him how he got from his home in Colorado.

“Thumbed it? What’s that?” I asked.

“You stand on the side of the road, hold your thumb out like this,” he said, with great tolerance for a nosy little kid who asked a lot of questions. I noticed his thumb and three fingers were stained nicotine yellow. “Eventually, some car will stop and give you a lift.”

From that moment on, the notion of hitch-hiking, anywhere you wanted to go – for free! – held an irresistibly adventurous appeal to me. I couldn’t wait to try it, although I was chastised severely by my dad when I tried it a few weeks later, on the way home from second grade. I thought my mom would be happy I saved her the trip; but she seemed cross as she called the cops and told them they could stop looking for me.

By that time, it had been firmly established that Uncle Eldon was a Bad Influence.

He was gone not long after. But he had left an indelible mark on me.

In less than a week, in addition to hitch-hiking, Uncle Eldon had taught me how to play blackjack, canasta, pinochle and a dozen variations of poker. I knew how to ante, bet, bluff, and count cards like a pro. I learned the finer points of cribbage and dominoes – both played for money. He taught me how to roll his cigarettes (I never smoked any, but his second-hand smoke was worth about the same thing).

Best of all, he taught me how to “play the ponies.”

The Los Angeles Times had a pretty good horse racing section back then, and Uncle Eldon could read it like a treasure map.

“The longshots tend to win the first four or five races on the card, especially the first three,” he confided. “The favorites are tough to bet against in the features.”

He acquainted me with the great riders of the day, who included Willie Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden and some guy named Valenzuela who was the scourge of the longshots.

Eldon would mark up a tout sheet in the morning, and head off hitch-hiking somewhere. He would leave me the Times racing section and tell me to pick my own winners for the day. I guess I got really good at it.

“Didja pick any winners, kid?” he asked me a few days later.

“Yeah, but only four,” I remembered telling him, to his great surprise. “One was a 30-1. That’s good, right?”

“Jeezus,” he said, shaking his head. “Can you do that again?”

I told him I usually got at least three or four. “My goal is to pick ’em all. I got six once.”

“Jeezus,” he said again. “Tomorrow we’ll pick some together.”

The next evening, when Uncle Eldon got home, he handed me a $5 bill, which was basically more money than I’d ever had in my whole seven-year-old life.

“We did all right?” I asked.

“We did all right,” he said. “I should have listened to you.”

“We got six, yes?”

“Like I said, I should have listened more to you.”

Uncle Eldon was gone the next day.

Santa Anita was only a few miles from our home, and it occurs to me now that Uncle Eldon’s visits coincided with racing season there. His subsequent disappearances likewise had something to do with exotic names like Agua Caliente, Del Mar, Hollywood Park, Golden Gate Fields, Ruidoso Downs, and a faraway place called Longacres.

“What do you do?” I asked him once.

“I’m a rolling stone,” he said.

“What kind of job is that?”

“It’s not exactly a job,” he replied. “It’s more of a way of life.”

He told my sister he lived in a tree, sparking my lifelong interest in treehouses.

Eldon was my maternal grandma’s baby brother, in a family of six kids, where she was the oldest. Eldon was born in 1906, and she was nine years older.

“Your grandma calls me the Black Sheep of the family,” he added. “Your grandpa calls me something else.”

That was about the only insight I ever got on Uncle Eldon’s life. My grandparents made a point of not talking about him (or letting him stay with them). He was single, 35, and still living at home in Sanford, Colorado, when World War II broke out. Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 3.08.36 PMFamily genealogy records indicate he married after WWII, and he is buried in a Denver cemetery, next to his brother, two sisters, his parents, and a woman identified as his wife. No one ever spoke of her, and I know he traveled alone. I don’t know what he died of at age 61; maybe something mysterious, maybe something more logical like lung cancer or cirrhosis. Maybe someday I’ll find out; the other great (still unsolved) mystery of my family history is his grandfather, who was murdered in 1905 in St. Louis, as he tried to return to Switzerland. So, stranger things have happened.

I only saw Uncle Eldon one other time – about a year later. I think he stayed with us only one night.

“Got me a ticket on the Greyhound,” he said, proudly waving an envelope. “Travelin’ in style.”

I asked him if we could play cards.

“Grandpa won’t play with me anymore,” I told him. “He threw the cards in the fireplace.”

“Your grandpa is some card player,” he remarked. “But a sore loser.”

“He said he must not be very good, if an elementary school kid could beat him.”

“Some people can’t see the humor in getting beat by a seven-year-old,” he observed.

“I’m eight now,” I said proudly. “Third grade!”

For diversion, I was still playing the ponies, I told him, “although my dad cancelled our L.A. Times subscription, so I couldn’t get the racing form anymore. But I get them at the liquor store.”

“Still pickin’ winners?” he asked.

“About the same,” I told him. “I picked seven a couple of times.”

“You’re wasting your time in school, kid. Jeezus.”

Jerry Garrett

May 10, 2018

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Responses

  1. I enjoyed this post, kinda reminded me of a Neil Simon character.
    Do you still play the ponies?😊👍Hehe
    Keep writing.

    Sent from my iPad

    • I do. In the most recent Kentucky Derby, I took “the field” which is basically a batch bet on all the longshots. I’ve never won that one. But one day I will!


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