If you had met Winston on the street, you would presume him to be a vagrant. Day after day he wore the same ratty blue jeans and plaid flannel shirt. Even at the height of summer he wore a stained jacket and often a knit cap covering his nearly bald head. He had more teeth missing than present. He walked with short, shuffling steps, assisted by a cane—until he went blind, when he hardly walked at all. Instead he sat in a reclining chair by the front door waiting for the man from Meals on Wheels to deliver his daily fare.
You would not know that Winston was a World War II veteran who served in the occupation force in Japan. That he had seen the shadows of men, women, and children etched into the concrete bridges and buildings of Nagasaki. That in oil-starved Tokyo he rode buses powered by coal, with a little man squatting on top to shovel black chunks into the hopper. That he used to sneak food from the PX to his translator, who had eaten nothing but rice for months and suffered from beriberi.
You would not know that he once harvested wheat in Kansas. The combines, he recalled, started at the margins of the fields and worked their way in, harvesting the grain in a rectangular pattern that became smaller with each cut. As the great machine plowed through the last remaining square, small animals such as mice, rats, voles, and rabbits dashed across the open field; to Winston’s astonishment, unseen hawks and falcons and other raptors shot out of the sky like missiles to pluck off the terrified creatures.
You would not know that before the era of interstate highways Winston had driving adventures in Alaska and Colorado, and on dangerous roads in Mexico. Or that he owned the first Volkswagen Beetle in Georgia. In the 1950s the state had an eighteen-month waiting list, so Winston flew to Kentucky where a dealer friend sold him the first Beetle to be registered in Atlanta. Later he drove a Porsche, then a motorcycle, then a Volkswagen station wagon.
You would not know that Winston was my uncle. My own father, Winston’s brother, died the month after my first birthday, and Winston did what he could to fill in. He taught me to tie a necktie, and to shave, and to shoot a gun—the three essential skills for every Southern male. (I still shave but rarely wear a tie, and haven’t shot a gun since that memorable lesson at Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta.) He paid me five dollars to memorize the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and had me read aloud the longest English sentence without punctuation. It came from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in James Joyce’s Ulysses and totaled 4,391 words. Fortunately, he didn’t ask me to memorize that.
When I went to college, my uncle gave up his two-pack a day smoking habit—Winston cigarettes, of course—and sent me fifty dollars a month, money I needed just to stay in school. Typically, he thanked me for giving him an incentive to quit smoking.
My dominant memory of Uncle Winston is of a nattily-dressed insurance executive, ruddy-cheeked, cheerful, a lifelong bachelor who filled his room with gadgets: ham radios, a teletype machine, and every iteration of personal computers. His car license announced his radio call sign: WA4TFB—“Stands for Tired Fat Bachelor,” he said with a laugh. A wooden cabinet housed a bayonet and gun collection, including a German Mauser rifle with walnut stock made in 1917. Boxes on the floor held transistors, bolts and screws, a soldering gun, vacuum tubes, bullets, colored wires, typewriter parts, and ink ribbons.
My uncle’s decline began after I moved away. His only living brother moved to Australia, and he lost both his mother and his sister to cancer. Winston got laid off during a recession and never landed another job. He earned a little money by doing chores for widows in the neighborhood: cutting grass, repairing plumbing and electricity. He could fix anything.
Diabetes affected his eyesight, and eventually Winston went blind. We tried to find a home for him with assisted-living care, but he insisted on staying in the house he knew best. His daily menu never varied: frozen waffles in the morning and chicken nuggets at night. Blind, vulnerable, gullible, he made a perfect target for the grifters who prey on senior citizens, and on four separate occasions they cleaned out his bank account. Each time he lost his life savings he responded sheepishly, “Oops, I think I made another mistake,” and never gave it another thought. Though my uncle caused the rest of us endless worry, he seemed perfectly content.
In the last decade of his life, something amazing happened to my uncle Winston. All the goodness and kindness he had shown to others came back to him, like a boomerang. When he wore his World War II Veteran hat, strangers offered to buy him lunch. A nearby church signed him up for Meals on Wheels, adding much-needed nutrition to his diet. The widows he had helped in the neighborhood volunteered to take him to the doctor and to the grocery store. His next-door neighbor offered to sort his mail and pay his bills. A younger couple faithfully stopped by to let him pet their two dogs.
A woman connected with an organization that helps the visually impaired got him a reading machine and helped monitor his insulin doses. She and her husband invited him to church, which he had not attended since childhood, and after he got used to the new music my uncle sat on the front row every Sunday, singlehandedly raising the median age of one of Atlanta’s hip churches. A business executive became Winston’s best friend, spending many hours to help him negotiate the Veterans Administration and other bureaucracies. An African-American caregiver lovingly put both the house and my uncle into an order he had never known.
Thanks to these good-hearted people, my uncle was neither homeless nor friendless. And each of them told me, “The pleasure we get from being with your uncle far exceeds anything we might have given to him.” Winston continued his full, rich life even though he spent most of his time in the reclining chair by the front door. His friends and neighbors brought the world to him.
You would not know that, if you had wandered into the VA hospital and noticed my uncle sitting with the other damaged veterans in the waiting room. You would think, “Poor guy, what a sad life he must lead.” You would be wrong.
My uncle Winston died this summer at the age of 86. He has changed forever the way I look at people, especially those I am tempted to judge by appearance. The vagrant with the hand-lettered “Will Work For Food” sign at the street corner. The disabled child who interrupts church with loud grunts and groans. The tattoo-covered juveniles smoking in front of a drug rehab facility. The refugees swarming into Europe. I do not know their stories, but if I did I would likely discover behind them a mother, a compassionate friend, or perhaps a nephew, who sees past the appearance to the real person inside.
In the summer of the Great Depression, James Agee wrote a book about the Alabama sharecroppers he interviewed on assignment for Fortune magazine. He gave it the ironic title, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The men and women he profiled were anything but famous, the very embodiment of Southern poverty. This is what he learned:
All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and mind, all these things are differing expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical: and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent: but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe.
The biblical Book of Hebrews says something similar, in fewer words: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”