Chapter 5 - The best roommate a boy ever had

Raised by an retired vaudeville comic, Uncle John

People who meet me sometimes remark on my garrulous nature and my story-telling ability.

These are all gifts from my surrogate father, John Bowen.


A few typical vaudeville acts like Robinson's Elephants and Fink's Mules. Joh's act was Marston & Manley.

Uncle John was my mother's step-uncle, the brother of her step-mother whom I never meet, so he wasn't even a real relation, but he was an amazing substitute.

I don't have a photo of him, but he looked like those classic picture of Santa Claus without the beard.

John was bald except for a fringe of hair above his ears, and he would allow me as a budding artist to paint his bald head so he looked like a bearded man from above.

John was born in New Haven CT and spent his adult life as a vaudeville actor on the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit traveling back and forth across America performing his various skits on theater stages between movies.

John, Irish and lapsed Catholic, was long divorced from his Jewish wife who he had met during the famous San Franciso earthquake of 1906.

Vaudeville was a huge attraction from the late 19th century until it was literally destroyed by Joseph Kennedy in the 1930s  when he was an owner of a movie studio and theater booking company and wanted to focus the public on his studio's more profitable films rather than the vaudeville acts.

When vaudeville finally collapsed, John came to live with us, and for all my childhood helped run our restaurants and literally raised me because my father worked for a morning newspaper and was seldom home when I was awake.

One of Uncle John's tales

He said he once took a job as cook on a railroad where he rode in the caboose at the end of a long freught train. He had to cook for the crew and also bring the train's engineer his hot lunch in the engine twenty cars ahead.
   There was a very steep hill which John waited for because the train could never  make it in the first attempt.
   As the train came to a stop near the top of the hill, Uncle John would step off the caboose and wait for the engine to pass on its way back down the hill to try again.
   He simply handed the engineer his lunch as the steam engine went by him.
   Then as the train started up on its second try he would step back on the caboose as it slowly passed.

For many formative years I shared a room with Uncle John who told me a new bedtime story every night.

And every night the story was different, and they all came from his vivid imagination drawn from his thirty years on the stage.

He was the kind of man who always had a pair of socks hanging next to the stove to warm for me when I returned with wet and frozen feet from ice skating.

He was simply the warmest and most charming of men.

He was also an alcoholic.

He was what's called a "bender drinker."

John would not touch a drop for three months or longer, and then disappear for a week until he ran out of money.

Help like Alcoholics Anonymous didn't exist until 1937, and wasn't wide spread until years later, so his ability to stop "cold turkey" for months at a times was all he had.

Needless to say, he returned as the wonderful, warm and clever man he had always been, never seemingly the worse for wear.

I can't even blame my own drinking problems on him since he wasn't a relative and I was a more pedestrian working drunk during my mid-life until AA saved my butt thirty years ago.

But that is a tale for a later chapter.

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