Uncle Helmer

Snow-covered fir trees I don’t remember exactly what winter it was – I was pretty young – but it must have been around ‘56, give or take a year or two.  My grandparents still lived in the house where they had raised thirteen children to maturity and lost another half-dozen along the way, so that fixes the date pretty well.  It couldn’t have been much later.

I remember being proud that I was old enough to be charged with keeping the cookstove fired.  My grandmother would direct me to insert the small, carefully split sticks of well-dried firewood into the stoke hole.  I was mightily impressed that she always knew just how many sticks it would take to achieve the temperature she desired without burning the bread.  She used no thermometer other than long experience.

Anyway, as was the custom, my father and several of his siblings had brought their families to spend Sunday at his parents’ house, where we held a general family get-together and feed.  We’d had the usual late afternoon meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet greasy gravy, dumplings, green beans cooked down with onions and bacon, fresh bread, and an assortment of hot fruit pies – all prepared on or in that wood cookstove.

The entire five-room house had no other source of heat but a single pot-bellied stove located in the adjacent dining room; and a healthy fire was kept going in it all day.  We burned coal if we had it, wood or corncobs otherwise.  We were lucky to have coal that day, because coal burned the hottest.

The day had started out cold, and the temperature continued to fall without cessation.  By the time we were ready to head home, the dark sky was dropping huge heavy snowflakes from the depths of eternity, and it hurt bitterly to breathe.  The air stabbed at my throat like needles as I inhaled, and returned moisture-laden from my lungs to freeze instantly as I exhaled, plumes of sparkling ice crystals falling heavily to the ground before me.

My father’s car wouldn’t start.  In fact, no one’s would.  It had grown so cold that the oil had gelled in the engines; and the batteries could do no more than force a dim glow from the small dome light overhead.  In seconds, even that power faded.  We children were hustled back inside, and as night drew on we busied ourselves by stuffing cracks with newspapers and rags, or nailing tin can lids over leaky knotholes in the floor.  When at last those efforts garnered no more noticeable benefit, we huddled shivering around the dining room table, occasionally rotating positions so each of us would have a moment in front of the stove.

As cold as it was, no one wanted to stay near that stove for long.  It was an approach-avoidance thing.  If you stood close, your eyebrows got singed while your backside froze.  If you stood very far away, you just froze.  The best solution was to take turns; and as we did so we kept busy improvising new ways to more evenly distribute the heat.

A coal-fired pot-bellied stove is a dangerous thing.  Stoked full and fed adequate air, it can glow cherry-red.  If you aren’t careful with the damper, that red glow will crawl right up the smokestack and set fire to the ceiling.  It took watching, and everyone had some part of his or her attention attuned to it.  Even so, our awareness that something about the fire was different dawned rather slowly.

The wind had stilled, and it had grown eerily silent outside.  The stars shone bright through the window without a twinkle, and even the usual pops and cracks of the old house had ceased.  The kerosene lamp on the table had been extinguished to save fuel, and as we sat in the light emanating from the woodstove’s small mica window we slowly became aware that the glow of the fire was uncommonly steady.  What was more, the fire had become silent:  no more pings of expanding and contracting metal, no more pops and crackles of burning fuel.

Uncle Helmer caught on first.  Now, Helmer wasn’t his real name.  His real name was Elmer.  He had acquired the extra H because of his habit of incorporating his favorite four-letter word into nearly every sentence he spoke.

Anyway, Helmer had been taking his turn at standing near the stove when he quietly exclaimed in his usual vernacular, “What the hell?” and leaned down to open the fire door. None of us could believe what we saw then, and I know it sounds unlikely to this day.  Nevertheless, the recollection remains implanted in my memory, possibly even more vividly than the night it happened, and I wouldn’t be an honest soul if I didn’t relate things just as I remember them:  It had grown so cold in that house that the flames themselves had frozen in the stove.  They stood there stiff and motionless, arrested in the act of conflagration.

Helmer paused a moment; then carefully reaching in, gingerly snapped off a flame.  He straightened and, turning it over in his hands, peered at it for some seconds, then abruptly stuck it in his pocket.  Maybe he did it to keep warm; and maybe it was just a reflex sort of thing; I don’t know.  A concern had been awakened in him, though, and pulling on his hat and gloves (he was already wearing his coat), he muttered, “Hell, I’d better check the livestock.”  He opened the door and walked outside into that bitterly cold night.

At that, all of us kids rushed to the stove to get our own piece of flame; and there was a general period of confusion as we jostled for access.  Our mothers were screaming with worry, and our fathers were barking orders.  We paid no heed, and in short time each of us had acquired at least a small tongue.

I was particularly pleased with mine.  It had one large fork and two lesser ones, each tinged yellow on the outermost edge and painted a clear blue in the center.  There was a slight shimmer of red overall on the largest fork, as well.  It felt like rock candy that had been left sitting on a sunny windowsill.  I tucked it in my flannel shirt pocket and peeked at it with pleasure often.  It imparted a soft warmth to my whole upper front side, and probably kept me from getting frostbite that night.

Helmer wasn’t so lucky.  After a while, Aunt Mabel got worried and opened the door to call for him, “Elmer!  You get back in here!  You’ll catch your death!”

How right she was.  Helmer never answered.

The next morning when the sun came up, we could see him through the window.  Apparently, he had heard Mabel call.  As he trudged toward the barn, Helmer had turned his upper body back towards the house, cupped his hands to his mouth to reply – and been frozen instantly in that position, twisted like a corkscrew.  Two days later, he was still frozen like that, and they had to build a specially spiraled coffin to hold his corpse.

I was sitting in the second row at the funeral when they brought the coffin in.  Because of its shape, they couldn’t set it down horizontally in front of the mourners.  The men fretted a bit about that, then finally decided that they couldn’t do any better than to prop it up in the corner of the room.

They placed it near the wood stove that heated the church.  Although the weather had warmed up considerably, it was still plenty cold outside, and a fire was burning in the stove.  No one thought much about it at the time, though, and the preacher began his sermon.

To a boy my age, the preacher’s words weren’t really very noteworthy.  Obviously he was making an effort to find something nice to say about Helmer, in a rather detached and artificial sort of way; and it was clear that he didn’t want to upset the bereaved.  Still, I detected an underlying current in the soliloquy that just touched upon belligerence.

This preacher and Helmer had never seen eye-to-eye – we all knew that – and Helmer had always pretty much walked away from any conversation between them smugly feeling he had managed an adequate defense of his character from erosion by the righteous.  This day, I suspected the preacher was having difficulty resisting the unrestricted opportunity to have the last word.  Still, he remained circumspect; and I lost interest in the speech.

The coffin was on my side of the room, and all the while the preacher carried on, my eyes were drawn morbidly to the spectacle.  I had seen only one coffin before, and it was nothing compared to the magnificent construction Helmer stood in.  It towered tall and angular, covered with a thick coat of hoarfrost.  But, as the sermon heated up, so did Helmer.

I watched as the frost first began to thin on the side nearest the fire, then disappear.  The wood of the coffin darkened with moisture; and a small pool of water began to accumulate at the box’s base.

My attention was reclaimed as I heard the preacher utter those most dreaded words, “Let us pray.”

Now, everybody there knew how to pray.  You start out, “Now I lay me down to sleep…, “  but obviously such a prayer was inappropriate.  It was still morning; and most people wouldn’t be going to bed for hours.  Aunt Mabel was the exception.  She worked nights as a waitress, and slept during some part of the daylight hours.

I leaned forward and peered down the pew at her.  She didn’t look like she was going to sleep.  She was sitting there, red-eyed and very alone in a kind of tunnel, staring at the backs of her hands.  She seemed very tired, as if she’d sobbed out every tear she owned.  I leaned back, not wanting to encroach on her privacy.

Nope.  We weren’t going to lay me down, which left only two other options.  Either we did the “Our father who art” one, or the preacher improvised, praying for us all.  Everyone bowed their heads, clasped their hands together, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Now, our preacher wasn’t a great holy-roller.  He didn’t work up a sweat ranting and raving.  His eyes didn’t bug out at you as his face turned red and the blood vessels on his neck pulsed blue.  We had preachers like that occasionally, when the populace got absorbed in a moment of general religious fervor, but such moments and such preachers didn’t last long.

On the whole, our congregation preferred a sedate sermon.  They didn’t want to be pressured into making any overly demanding personal commitments.  They knew you weren’t supposed to be comfortable in church, but they preferred to manage their discomfort to small doses.  On the whole, they sought mediocrity in their clergy.

Our preacher was suitably mediocre; but he could do one thing quite well.  What our preacher knew how to do well was wait.  He waited until everyone there was just about as uncomfortable as possible.  He waited until they had all gone through the process of wondering whether they should be reciting some verse, then whether they should be making up their own prayers and saying them silently.  He waited until everyone had made some feeble attempt at a personal communion with the Deity and had run out of anything new or important to say.  He waited until we all felt inadequate to the task.  Then he waited some more.  I think he may have waited until he heard at least four nervous coughs from the menfolk in the room.

One – that was Uncle Howard.  He always coughed first.  He hardly ever waited long.  He must have figured out the rules, too.

Two – someone I couldn’t recognize.

Someone else shifted position behind me, but that didn’t count.  The preacher was very strict about that.

Three – way back in the corner.  Not a relative.  Possibly one of the local farmers who had come to see Helmer off.  Helmer had lots of farmer friends.

“Cough, cough.”  I tried to muffle my cough deep into both my hands to make it sound lower; but there was no tricking this preacher.  Boy coughs didn’t count either.

Finally, after a long awkward silence, a satisfactory cough emerged from the front row, and the preacher began.  I wasn’t certain, but a front row cough may have been a requirement as well on occasions like these.

“Our father who art in heaven,…”  Uh, oh!  Are we going to do the “Our father who art” prayer after all?  Uncertain, I got ready to chime in on the next part.  After all, I didn’t know much more than the next line.  I’d have to contribute now, or miss out on the prayer altogether.  I acted with caution, though, and began by silently mouthing the words “Hallowed be.”  Consequently, I suffered no significant embarrassment.

“Today, our brother Elmer Cox stands before you in judgement.”  Ha!  Sneaky!  Just when I thought I had the guy figured out, this preacher decides to get tricky.  I didn’t know he had it in him.  Anyway, this was going to be one of those prayers by representation.  The preacher would speak for everyone in attendance.

Of course, we knew what we had to do now.  The preacher would say something to the Lord, and the entire congregation was supposed to sit there, eyes all scrunched up, focusing intently on each word, and mentally emphasizing, “Yeah, Lord, that’s right!  That’s what we all mean!  We’re in total agreement here!  Yeees Sir!  This preacher’s saying it right!  If we were a-praying to you one-on-one, that’s just what each one of us would be saying right now!  Don’t know why we didn’t think to say it earlier!  Every one of us!  After all, we wouldn’t be taking up your time just so You could hear us argue amongst ourselves, would we?”

Now, even as a small boy, I could perceive the social and political advantage the preacher wielded on just such occasions.  After all, once he had duped you into telling the Lord that what he said was right, how could you argue any other perspective satisfactorily in front of mere mortals?  I was also somewhat biased by my father’s frequently expressed dislike of this particular practice, which generally kept him out of places of public worship.  Upon occasion, he had been known to object during the prayer itself.  He was a persona non-grata in several churches round-abouts.  Today, Dad held his tongue, though, and the preacher continued.

“Elmer was a good man, for all his faults.  And he had many, dear Lord, one of which we are certain You know well.”  Uncle Howard coughed again and shifted in his seat, as if preparing to defend Helmer in his absence.  The preacher quickly continued.  “Nevertheless, he was a good man, beloved by the family and friends You see assembled before You here today in testimony.”

“It is our prayer today that You see this goodness in Elmer, and weighing his faults against this goodness, You will not find him lacking.  Elmer sinned – as do all Your children.  But we are certain that if he were among this congregation today, rather than standing before You, Elmer would finally see the folly of his ways and repent his petty, sinful habits.”

I opened my eyes to glance at the coffin.  Knowing Helmer as I did, I was certain he would have interjected something by this time.  This preacher was just on a little too much of a roll to make Helmer happy.  Of course Helmer remained silent, but I could swear I heard a small crackle come from the coffin.  And didn’t I glimpse just the faintest wisp of smoke?  Was the flame in Helmer’s pocket taking life again, assisted by the warmth of the church stove?

If you remember, Helmer had turned to call back to Aunt Mabel just as he froze.  My guess is he actually answered her after she called for his return.  Most likely, his reply was frozen at exactly the same instant Helmer met his demise, just as the words left his mouth.  As a result, they hung locked in mid-air, sequestered in that dark space between his rigid, cupped hands.

That space warmed and thawed just as the preacher gave in to the temptation to practice his calling.  He addressed the congregation now.

“My friends.  Elmer’s fate is in the hands of the Lord today.  Our prayers go with him; but there is nothing we can say or do to change his fate.  Let us reflect upon this fact.  Isn’t it time for us to repent those small sins we do – those acts of vanity and arrogance – in light of the fate that could await us?  For, whatever good we may do, that good may not be enough.  On judgement day, our fate may hang in the balance, and the small sins we fail to repent may just tip that balance against us.

“If Elmer Cox were before us today, if he could live and speak again, knowing what he knows now, wouldn’t he at last repent his sins?  Wouldn’t he forsake his petty use of language objectionable to the Good Lord?  Wouldn’t he call out, ‘Lord Almighty, I repent my sins and beg to be accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven?’  What else could he possibly say?  Given a choice between the glories of Heaven and the pits of Hell, where would Elmer choose to go?”

The preacher paused for us to reflect on the weight of his words; and at that very moment the steaming coffin reverberated with the sharp crack of shattering ice.  It tottered and began a slow clockwise spin.  Its contents had finally thawed, and, freed from their hibernation between his hands, Helmer’s last words rang out from the spiraling container:

“Hell, I’m a’comin’!”

With that, Aunt Mabel burst into anguished sobs; the preacher blanched and fled the room; and I concluded that I lacked the fortitude to endure this particular variety of religion.  My temperament required something more subtle.

Copyright © 2003 by Bryan Cox