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.”
Your family…. is so familiar to my family….
My great-grandmother went blind with diabetes and when she laughed, her glass eye would shoot across the room. My great uncles who were older fought in Iwo Jima and then, Iwo Jima fought within them, but they almost never said a word about it. My grandmother kept having every type of every organization bully the sweet hearted generous woman into giving money and I would pick up the phone and hear fake “Publishers Clearing House” callers using voice machines and all of the technology was beyond what she could understand. Same with my great-grandmother, she would talk patiently to the machine recorded messages and minister to them and she would minister to everybody else, even in her blindness and she would brighten their days and make them laugh.
Losing my mind, the hardest part was having the faith to think anyone might come through, because everybody immediately ran away and I didn’t blame them, but my grandmother went into dementia with great courage and never stopped laughing or smiling and I spent the last 4 months of her life celebrating Christmas, because if she wasn’t going to know what day it was, it might as well be Christmas…. [pyasst]
“WINSTON” came up as a result of my putting in help, my son committed suicide , in your search bar. He was 41. I have struggled with major depressive depression most of my life , being medicated since age 14, after my first suicide attempt at age 12. My guilt in both being an example to him of this option and of not being able to get to him with practical help for him in time is overwhelming. He was raised as a Christian when young, but did not walk with the Lord as an adult but was a giver, a friend, loyal to a fault yet failing to be able to care for his son so I raised him for the most part, (the mother abandoning them , being a drug addict, and now my grandson blames me, as well as my daughter;)failing in his career And struggling with drugs , complicated by being evicted, ultimately contributed to his great despair. I had gotten money to help but he had cut off communication with me and he had moved and his apt. Was empty and I did not find him. How can I find my way to know that Jesus, Lord of mercy who triumphs over judgement, and is faithful when we are faithless and says he will never leave us or forsake us, who is greater than our hearts when our hearts condemn us, will He take the word of a young child and keep his covenant with him, will not have let him be taken out of his hand??? Will he have been with him when he was overwhelmed and was in the darkness and gave up?? I know all too well the place where logic and truth gets blocked out and you are drowning in pain and there seems the only important pressing need is your crying out for relief from the torture you are in DOES JESUS HAVE MERCY, FORGIVE, AND DID HE TAKE ADAM HOME ??? He provided for your Uncle, but when my son could not receive it, did he have compassion on him anyway??? Please pleaee help me. Besides Brennan manning and Henri nouwen, I have read al out all your books along with the bible. Oh, and Anne Lamont.
Reading your heartbreaking story reminded me of Jesus crying over Jerusalem as he pondered some of the tragedies soon to fall on that city, “if only I could gather you under my wings like a mother hen protecting her chicks…” Think of that: God’s own Son saying “if only.” Sometimes we’re powerless to help those we love most. You say that your son cut off communication, which was his choice, a bad choice, like others he had made. You did what you could. Some things, no one can do. It’s very touching that your main concern isn’t so much getting over your own guilt but rather your concern about how merciful God is to your son. I have a belief that God sees us through the lens of the time we showed greatest faith. Jesus responded to every glimmer of faith; only in his home town could he “do no miracles” because there was no faith. He also defined mercy. He came for the sick and not the well, the sinners and not the righteous. Surely he understands your son; surely he sees the tiniest glimmer of faith in your son’s life–like the Prodigal Son who could hardly say a word of remorse before being swallowed up in grace. Manning, Nouwen, Lamont–you’re reading just the right authors. I hope you also have grace-filled, compassionate friends who can surround you just now.
I metWinston at the church you mentioned. It was always such a pleasure to see him there. He was always so kind and cheerful. We will miss him terribly!
The story about your uncle is a reminder of the saying “never judge a book by its cover”. Far too often we make assessments based on appearance; sadly society has taught us to revile the poor. It is often assumed that people whom are shabbily dressed are unintelligent, amoral (yes, totally without morals), and unclean – essentially a total waste of skin. Yet, we can see with different eyes. We can see people the way God wants us to see the world: as His creation.
We must treat every life as if it has value. This is not an easy task because the enemy will attack anyone who seeks to uphold the ideals and teachings of Christ. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, passersby regarded the beaten man with revulsion. He was beneath contempt. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus again showed us how the world views the poor and the defenseless. The parables show how God views things and how different His views are from mortals.
We must strive to help the poor, the oppressed, and those whom are harassed on the job for living as a disciple of Christ. We must do this if we are to be like Christ. Because in truth, what we do to others we also do to God.
(oops, my message appeared on top so I agree with the messages below)
I agree with all the comments above. May I just say how precious your books ‘Soul Survivor’ and ‘The Jesus I never knew’ and ‘Prayer’ have become in recent years. I cant describe how important it has been for me to read a trusted Christian author who expresses what I was afraid to admit: the church has hurt and confused me, but I can’t stop seeking God. Thank you for your honesty, authenticity, and for the way you see God in places the church of my childhood never will. You have brought fresh life to my faith, always pointing me to the amazing God of the Bible, your humility is perhaps what most draws me to your writing. Bless you!
Had an Uncle name of Mathew,
Was his father’s only boy.
Born just south of Colby Kansas,
Was his mother’s pride and Joy.
Growing up a Kansas farm boy,
Life was mostly having fun,
Riding on his daddy’s shoulders,
Behind a mule beneath the sun. John Denver.
I had an uncle who sent me a book every year until I got to 17 years old, and he also a w/w2 vet passed away from heart problems.. I still miss him.
He taught me the love of books and reading.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.
I’ve lived in Atlanta all my life. I think my sister- and brothers-in-law went to school with you, Phillip, at Gordon. I can’t help but wonder if I was one of those who saw your uncle and misjudged him. I know I have others. For those, I am sorry and I promise to try and do better. Thank you and prayers for peace in your time of loss.
When you told me your uncle had died and you were out of town helping take care of his estate I had no idea you were talking about such an amazing man. Although after reading this post about him, I should assume that about any person you might mention in the future. Who are we to say who the ‘greats’ are in our world? Sometimes they just might be the scruffy old man who lives next door and never comes out on the porch. Beautiful post, Phillip. Winston was a gift to the world and because of your gift of memorializing, the rest of us now know it too. I’m so sorry for your loss. And the world’s loss. Thanks for the thought provoking post today.
Thank you….. making each stranger a person…. with a life…. a background… a family…. a person with memories…. a heart….. and a story
Thank you Philip for this post. Something about it was deeply moving. Thank you for enabling us to see the person behind one more face. I’m sorry for your loss – may peace be yours during this time.