I met Uncle Jim when I was a young child, and he has stayed in my mind all these years like a warm feeling.

Mount St. Joseph News

He was a sprite of a man, just a smidge over five feet tall, not deformed or anything, but the size a lot of men born in the 19th century grew up to be.  He was full of life and good humor and I never heard him say anything bad about anyone. He had owned a barber shop in West Virginia, so I’m sure he and the customers said things not suitable for my young ears, but he cleaned everything up when I was around.  He told funny tales of “back home” and laughed so hard he tickled himself. I never saw him laugh while standing up.  I think  it was because he knew he probably couldn’t stay on his feet, so he always sat down when he spun his yarns. 

He chewed tobacco and spit it back into an empty coffee can.  He and his daughter lived together and I don’t know how she could stand the sight of tobacco and spit, and those stories that he told over and over.  I loved the stories because it was fun to laugh at him laughing, but I could never bring myself to give him a hug because the chewing tobacco looked and smelled so gross.

I was fascinated with his breakfast.  He ate black fried eggs every morning. They were black as coal because he loaded them with pepper. They were so black you couldn’t tell they were eggs. For a long time, I thought they were some kind of big fat insect that had been squashed until its yellow blood came out. Looking at them gave me the willies.

Uncle Jim managed to put his three children through college, and basked with pride about what they had accomplished.  Sarah was a teacher in the Lincoln Heights Elementary School;   Paul, the president of Valley Homes Mutual Housing as well as a tax examiner for Ohio, was friends with Doris Day’s father.  Ralph was the youngest and had been spoiled.  He was very smart and worked for the U.S. Post Office, but didn’t seem to be happy. He drank a lot. It would have been nice if he had used some of his father’s good humor.  But maybe he had. He had a fold of skin just above the back of his neck that he told me was his second brain.  I was told that Uncle Jim drank heavily before he moved to the Valley Homes in Lincoln Heights, but I was never aware of it. Paul took him to the doctor.  No one ever knew what the doctor said to him, but he stopped drinking immediately.

He spread a lot of cheer when the  Friday Night Fights came on television. Those were during the days when neighbors left their doors open to catch a cool cross breeze.  Everyone did not have a television, so it was common for people to drop by the homes of those who did and watch something special like the boxing matches. Uncle Jim was proud that Paul had  boxed in college, and that he ran the Golden Gloves program at the downtown Cincinnati YMCA.  It was there that Paul participated in an exhibition match with heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles, who was from Cincinnati. He was just supposed to tap Paul, not hit him to hurt him.  Paul said when he knew anything, he was on the floor.  He said Charles really did pull his punch, but  when you are the World Heavy Weight Champion any punch you throw hurts a lot. I think that is when Paul’s wife Emma forbade him to get into the ring with a  champion ever again. Uncle Jim bragged about Paul to all who would listen.  He didn’t care that Paul got knocked down, he just cared that he had boxed a champion.

People crowded into their living room on Friday nights and in the front yard to watch Uncle Jim through the door and windows. He put on a heck of a show boxing with the contestants.  He jabbed, ducked, threw round houses and knock-out punches so fiercely that he fell off the couch, all the while inviting his opponent to try to hit him again. He got so wrapped up in the match, that he never realized he had fallen. It was  miraculous that he didn’t ever hurt himself.  His performance was the talk of the neighborhood until the next Friday night.  My mother bought him a hassock to sit on so that he didn’t have so far to fall. He thanked her, but never knew the difference between the couch and the hassock.

That old man had a remarkable charm about him. He outlived both of his wives, and still managed to keep a good humor.  Arthritis finally caught up with him in his late eighties, and he started walking with a cane, accepting it as merely another chapter of life. When his beloved Ralph died of a heart attack, Uncle Jim took that in stride, too.                     

He had a stroke at 92 years of age, and told Emma to tell the doctors to stop checking his head – that they needed to check his leg instead.  After all, his leg was why he needed the cane.   As far as he was concerned, there was nothing wrong with his head, and maybe he was right.  His thoughts and speech were just as clear as always.

As I have gotten older, I have reflected on Uncle Jim’s life and what he taught me.  He never spouted platitudes (religious or otherwise), but taught by example. He was not particularly religious, just a gentle soul who I think believed in the power of God to keep him safe. I remember him whenever I hear the words “Be of good cheer.” Uncle Jim was older than most of the people in the Valley Homes, yet he made it a habit to “visit the old folks” on a regular basis to bring them cheer.

Maybe James Paul Jones was a gift from heaven, sent to show the rest of us the way.  I never remember him being ill until he took his last journey with the Lord at age 92, and even then, he was not suffering:  he just quietly slept away.  I always wondered why his tobacco chewing and stained teeth (those that were left) didn’t kill him, but he sailed through life as if the world was his oyster.  He never had a lot, but he prized what he had.  Maybe that is why the Lord was so merciful to him, and didn’t let him suffer.