From 1916 to around 1960 Americans lived with the reality of a crippling disease called Polio. This sickness affected the lives of millions until a vaccine was developed and widely distributed in 1961. Growing up we lived with the effects of Polio long after 1961.
Aubrey Elam Smith Jr. was my Dad’s brother. Uncle Auby. He was born December 12th, 1936 in Mabank, TX. In the spring after his birth, in 1937, Uncle Auby developed a fever that did not relent for 10 days. The fever spiked and held at 105 degrees for much of that time. The local house-call-doctor did what he knew to do in those days—packing him in ice, administering what medication he had. His efforts were able to save my Uncle’s life, but they could not prevent or reverse the crippling effects of Polio.
Unlike many children affected by Polio, Uncle Auby did not have severe physical paralysis or deformities as a result of his sickness. He did, however, suffer from substantial brain damage due to the high fever over several days. This left him mentally disabled moving forward in life. Back then they didn’t have the resources for children with Uncle Auby’s condition we do now. He attended mainstream classes throughout school. By the time he graduated high school in 1955 it was apparent he would not hold a job, get a drivers license, or marry. I always remember Uncle Auby seeming like he had the mental and emotional maturity of a 7 year old child.
However (a big “however”), his cognitive deficiencies were juxtaposed strongly by his physical stature. Uncle Auby stood 6’3” and weighed 230 rigid, evenly distributed pounds. His thick black hair was guided by a strong hairline that never receded a centimeter over the course of his life. He could run. Fast. And he could lift anything. My Mom used to get so frustrated standing in front of the refrigerator trying to open any jar Uncle Auby sealed shut with his huge, rugged hands.
In 1982 Uncle Auby moved from my grandparent’s house in Mabank to my parents cattle ranch in Sherman, TX. His parents (my grandparents), elderly and failing by that time, were losing their ability to give him the attention he needed. So, my grandfather had a home built for him next door to my parents house. I was five years old. It was like adopting a brother about my age with a 46 year old body. The next 30 years deserve a book of their own. Uncle Auby’s personality and presence in our family’s life are never far from our dinner table discussions and collective family memories. Every day there was a new story WELL worth the telling. From his Big-Bad-John-like size and strength to his tenderness toward children and animals. (we used to see him walking around the barn with a huge chicken snake draped across his shoulders…non-poisonous, but we’re not sure he knew one way or another) From his alternative vocabulary and pronunciation of words to his unceasing devotion to “Price Is Right” and country music…Uncle Auby was the most colorful person in my life. Give him a kitten, a Sprite, some Ritz crackers, and a Dolly Parton song and you had a happy man.
One of the conditions of Uncle Auby’s new life on our ranch was work. He was to be available most of the time to help my Dad around the farm. My Dad was 3 years younger, but very much an older brother to Uncle Auby. As the years went on Dad would seem more like a father than a brother. The following account is just one of many involving my Dad, Uncle Auby, and the rich, complicated story of them working together on the farm. I am writing this with tears blurring my eyes and a smile on my lips.
What rich times we had.
Brahman cattle were imported into the U.S. from India in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. Due to climate, they are very popular in Texas. The heat can have a devastating effect on traditional beef cattle breeds. So in Texas a lot of ranchers bring in African, Middle Eastern, or Indian bred bulls to crossbreed their herds. The result is a cow with good beef producing capabilities and a strong, durable composition. Brahman bulls are very popular in this process. They are the ones with the hump on their back, used in a lot of rodeos. While I typically believe the idea of bulls being scary and mean is a myth, with Brahman bulls it tends to be true. They are tall, rangy, agile beasts with short sharp horns and intense eyes.
Whiskey was a Brahman. My Dad bought him from my Aunt Jolie and Uncle Martin Pickens in the late 70’s. He had a light amber toned hide, the same color of his sippable namesake. Similar to a strong drink, he was also unpredictable and, depending on the day, mean. You never wanted to underestimate Whiskey.
And you certainly didn’t want to trust him.
One hot mid-morning in July my brother, my Dad, Uncle Auby, and I had a herd of cattle up in a corral for working. “Working” cattle is treating them for illnesses, castrating bull calves, etc. It is intense work. The stakes can be high. The language is typically rough. Everyone is on edge. On this particular day, when it was Whiskey’s turn to be worked, Uncle Auby followed him into a small 12×12 catch pen. After closing the gate my Uncle turned to climb over the six foot paneling of the corral. As he put his hands on the top rung of the paneling to pull himself up Whiskey charged and swiped with his head at Uncle Auby’s feet, leaving him hanging from the top of the corral. He quickly gathered himself and began climbing. Again, Whiskey charged knocking my Uncle’s feet off the corral panel, and again, Uncle Auby gathered himself to climb out. This happened four or five times with increased intensity on Whiskey’s part each time. Whiskey had found a game, a fight, and a victim all at the same time, in the same person. He was snorting, tossing his head with long strings of saliva dripping from his mouth and nose. The final charge knocked not only my Uncle’s feet off the corral rungs, but also finally pried his strong hands from their grip on top of the panel. He landed in the dust and manure as Whiskey backed up one more time preparing to finish the fight.
What happened next is true. There are witnesses to verify it. My brother retold this story at my Dad’s funeral this past June. I never get tired of the retelling.
When Uncle Auby hit the ground he frantically scrambled to get his feet under him. Just as he got to an “all fours” position, with Whiskey just feet away, a single hand grabbed him by the seat of the overalls. It was my Dad. Suddenly my brother and I saw Uncle Auby’s giant, thick body fly up over the six foot panel and out of the corral. Dad let go as he hit the ground on the other side. Uncle Auby sat up dazed, slump shouldered, breathing hard….like a boxer happy to watch the count go to ten. Whiskey pawed the ground, his wet nose low to the ground with a hot cloud of dust rising around him, his eyes darting back and forth wondering where his prey had just flown off to.
It was a miracle of human strength. In one motion, standing on the other side of the corral about 3 rungs up, Dad bent over, collapsing his body over itself with the top of the panel pressed against his ribs. Once he had a grip on my Uncle he exploded upward putting all the weight on his shoulder, lower back, and hamstrings. Uncle Auby rose off the floor of the corral like the end of a cracked whip.
My Dad was a strong man. But something else filled his body that day. My brother remembers him complaining later that evening of strange soreness in his ribs. He had done something outside of his body’s natural abilities, fueled by adrenaline.
But he was fueled by a lot more.
Dad was Uncle Auby’s brother, provider, and protector. Their life together, from the cradle to the grave, was complicated. There were moments of incredible frustration and intense misunderstanding. Though he was challenged in many ways, Uncle Auby was not deficient at the art of getting under my Dad’s skin. They would bicker and butt heads right up to the point where Dad remembered this was not a typical sibling relationship. Nothing was normal about their relationship—especially my Dad’s love for Uncle Auby. Love pulled my Uncle out of the corral that day.
Siblings love one another. They care for one another and would do anything for one another. Rarely do they live together for most of their lives. Even more rarely does one sibling assume a parental role for the other. My parents took on this role for my Uncle. My mother shopped, cooked, and cared for him like one of her children. My Dad took him places, corrected him when it was needed, and saved his life. More than once. When Uncle Auby died in 2012 my Dad wept in a way I hadn’t seen before.
My parents were heroic in their love for Uncle Auby.
That word, “heroic,” is lost on us. It has been embellished to an unattainable status by media boasting super powers and fictional abilities. A generation of children are growing up spectators to heroism as entertainment with little idea that heroic is something they can be. We don’t celebrate service, sacrifice, bravery, and valor anymore. At least not in everyday life. I think this is because many of us don’t allow ourselves to face circumstances that require these. Let me assure you, the world is full of realities you can apply heroism to. There are children to be adopted, mouths to be fed, trafficked people to be rescued, elderly to be visited, lands to be nourished and resuscitated, patterns of society, education, and agriculture to be reversed. These along with a host of other needs are waiting for heroes to step in. And, regardless of your persuasion, I guarantee you, the government is not going to be the hero.
Look across the corral of our culture right now. Whiskey is in the ring. Needs lie in the dust before us. It’s a showdown. Our children are becoming who they will be. They will be the union of their experiences, trials, sacrifices, hardships, and overcomings. I know what a hero looks like because I had them in my home growing up.
I pray that you and I have them in ours as well.
January 28th, 2021