The year we moved from the 1800s to the 1900s, was the year that my Uncle Bertrand came to town. That man was larger as life and twice as bold.
He’d made all his money in some venture in Morocco, Africa, at least that’s what they said about him – you could never tell about my uncle what was true and what wasn’t.
Except maybe that he was the kindest man who ever walked the face of the Earth. When I was down, and maybe crying, he’d find me in the back yard – he’d say:
“Robert, there are more good things in this world than bad, and there are more good people than wicked ones,” then he’d pat me on the head and smile, one of his famous smiles. That usually did it for me, and I could feel a little warmth coming back to my heart. Man, my Uncle Bertrand was good.
I ain’t sure if you can see the picture and all, but if you can – my uncle is the gentleman standing proudly next to his horseless jalopy, in front of our house. It was the only carriage in Saratoga Springs, and he’d steered it all the way up from New York City. Just in case you’re asking, the picture was taken by my good pal, David Kodak, who was always experimenting with things like that. He was going to be a scientist one day.
As for my uncle Bertrand, he was scared of nothing.
“As long as I’m breathing, my fine young nephew, I will keep on making things happen. Many times, I’ll fail, but a man who ain’t failed, ain’t lived.”
Amen to that, I say.
Then one day it happened. One sunny day, when the world was warming right through to my bones, my uncle Bertrand called at our house, and asked if it was okay to take the ‘young rascal’ – that being me – on an adventure. My mother said it was fine as long as I was back by dark and we didn’t go in that ‘godless contraption’ of his.
The thing is we did. I sat in that machine, like I was the king of everything. Man, it felt good, and my uncle steered and steered all the way to the Niagara Falls.
I mean the actual ‘Falls’ – we had lived in Saratoga Springs for ever and no one had ever taken me to see the Falls. Man they were a sight, I can tell you.
“Let’s take a walk,” said uncle.
And we walked right to the very edge of the waterfall.
“Taste that,” he said, grinning.
I wasn’t sure what it was I was supposed to taste, but I nodded any way.
“That’s the taste of freedom, and that is what is so great about living. Anyone can almost do anything and I plan to do that.”
So I asked him what he meant and he pointed out there, to the Falls.
“That,” he said. “That’s where freedom lies, I’m going to walk across the Niagara Falls on a tightrope.”
Well, if I had thought about what my Uncle Bertrand was going to say, it would not have been that, I can tell you.
So at least once a month, me and my uncle would head out to the Falls and we’d sit there and smell the freedom. And me and him would look at each other and we would understand what all this freedom meant.
One day, my uncle said to me, “Robert, I want you to promise me that if you ever have a dream, then you chase it, and chase it and beat it down until it’s got no choice but to do your bidding. Then you sit on the back of that beast and you ride it for all it’s worth. No point in being alive, otherwise. All those folks who died a long time ago and just move about until it’s official.”
That day I promised him.
It was a train that killed him, in the end.
Some cargo train from Ohio, caught my uncle and his jalopy when it got stuck on the rails at a crossing. ‘Never stood a chance’, the Sheriff said. The train just kept on riding the rails, not knowing that they’d brought my uncle down. Still, it was a kind of adventurous way to go. He would have approved, I know he would have.
So I’m writing this story in 1925 and I’ve been overseas. I’ve been to Belgium and I’ve watched people die in wars.
And maybe we all heave dreams, and maybe most of them do die or get suffocated by life. And sometimes – well sometimes, maybe you pick up another man’s dreams and carry them on.
And that’s why today I am getting ready to walk across the Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Maybe I’ll make and maybe I won’t but at least I’ll have tried.
I mean, what’s the point of being alive?
bobby stevenson 2017