He rattled the pages as he searched for the sports section of the Delaware State News. Leaning back in the metal porch glider, arms held wide, his teeth clamped down on the unlit stub of a Phillies Blunt. The cigar was fireless because Aunt Sadie put her foot down about smoking in the house.
"Get rid of that stinking thing, eh!" Aunt Sadie's words are stamped on my memory.
Uncle Nick never gave up his cigars though. He just chewed them to death. They became a part of his presence after he went into the Army in 1941 when he was twenty years old.
I stayed with Aunt Sadie and Uncle Nick many summers as I was growing up. They never had any children so I guess they sort of adopted me for the months I had no school. I didn't mind. In fact, I loved it.
Uncle Nick was a movie projectionist, and there were numerous perks for me that went along with that. He even showed movies in the service, training films and first run movies to departing soldiers. He told me he was stationed at some base in New York State for the entire War because it was such an important job. He was responsible for keeping up the soldiers' morale.
When he was fourteen, he got a job as circular boy, handing out movie programs from house to house with free movie passes as pay. He sneaked up to the projection booth to learn the job. Nobody under eighteen was allowed up there at that time, but the theater owners saw that he was determined. They encouraged him with the promise of a real job as projectionist when he was old enough.
He showed his first film in 1938, a movie titled The Crusades, a Cecile B. DeMille spectacular starring Loretta Young. He never stopped until the theater finally closed its doors in 1982. He did everything from splicing film, playing the music before the show, dimming the house lights, even opening the curtain.
I know some of this firsthand because I got to sit in a special chair in front of the little window in the projection booth and watch movies. Of course, some movies I wasn't allowed to see, but that was okay. Disney films and westerns were my favorites anyway, and they came with hot salty French Fries, fountain sodas, and sometimes a Sugar Daddy for dessert. Aunt Sadie came with us once in awhile, but I think the newness of it all had worn off for her years before. And the booth reeked of cigar smoke.
When a new feature started, Uncle Nick had to go early enough to check the film for breaks. He set up a full reel on this old hand-cranking machine, fed the film onto an empty reel, and with his thumb pressing down on the film to feel for splits, he turned the crank with his other hand until all the film was loaded on the empty reel. He repaired breaks with some kind of stinky brushed on glue. Then, the reel had to be rewound to start at the beginning again. I never remember a film breaking during a show in all the times I went with him. He said he never wanted to hear those boos the audience makes when the screen goes white. A feature film came on several reels so there were two projectors for switching from one to the other. This happened almost every twenty minutes. Uncle Nick did this seamlessly without missing a beat. He showed me how to look for a little blob in the right hand corner of the screen. This was his cue to get ready. He said there could be a murder scene happening, and he had to make sure the audience never missed a shudder. Years later, as I watched Psycho I thought about Uncle Nick switching those reels in the middle of the shower scene.
Since Uncle Nick never learned to drive, Aunt Sadie always picked us up after the show. At home, he would turn on the television and watch Jack Paar for a few minutes, then channel check for a late movie. Yep, he watched movies at home. He said he never got to see the good parts because that was when he was busy changing reels.
Uncle Nick smoked Phillies Blunt cigars, but that was not the only Phillie he was fond of. He was a Philadelphia Phillies fanatic before the real Phillie Phanatic ever existed. I'm talking about the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. I watched the games with him when they were on television, and we knew every player, every position, and all their stats. We yelled and shouted at the TV screen as though the players could hear us. I am a big Phillies fan to this day, never to change. No matter how many times they let me down, I'll always be looking forward to next year.
Going to the horse races was another of Uncle Nick's favorite pastimes. He always claimed he was not superstitious, but when he won an exacta or trifecta, he would wear the same tee shirt, unwashed, back to the races the next time and the next time if it kept bringing him good luck. Sometimes it did. I remember some of those tee shirts getting holey. He was a pretty lucky fellow. He never bet a lot, but he loved to see the horses coming down the homestretch. His dark brown eyes grew animated and intense as they neared the finish line. To punish his losers, he threw his program and tickets on the ground and stomped on them. He chewed his cigar down to nothing by the last race.
When I got to tag along to the races, on the way home we always stopped at a restaurant specializing in chicken and dumplings. For dessert, we ordered rice or bread pudding, his favorites and mine, too. Oh, and I forgot to mention, he especially loved donuts and Tastycakes. A covered cake dish for these sweets held center place on Aunt Sadie's red-trimmed Formica table. Tastycake sponsored the Phillies. When their song came on during a game, that was my cue to grab two. Vanilla was the best.
When I think of Uncle Nick, I always picture him on the porch glider, reading the sports page, and chewing on that cigar. He had curly black hair and, of course, a little paunch from all those sweets. I miss him. There'll never be another one like him. He passed away in 2011, at ninety years old. I don't think anybody had as good a time at living as he did, and it rubbed off on everyone nearby. A person couldn't help but have fun with Uncle Nick around.