On Monday night, when I spoke at my Uncle Dan Haggerty’s memorial, I told a version of this story, which captures what he meant to me, to all of us.
|Thanksgiving 1970. That’s me and my cousin Tracey up front, Uncle Dan and our moms and Grandma looking on.
We were eight years old that Easter, Tammey and I. Tracey was ten, double-digits so she could hardly be bothered with us pipsqueaks any more, unless she was really bored and had no one else to play with. I was staying the weekend with my cousins, which I often did. Sometimes I spent a week, sometimes a month, or sometimes they lived at our house, if Uncle Dan and Aunt Diane were filming a movie out of state. Our mothers were sisters, so our families and homes were interchangeable.
What woke me that morning was his loud laugh. It was so unmistakable – high-pitched and almost maniacal, but in a good way that made you laugh with him. I had barely opened my eyes when Uncle Dan flew through the air and landed on us, knocking the wind out of us both. We screamed and protested but we were in for it. The ticklefest was on. He tickled us until we couldn’t breathe, then just as fast as he came in, he ran out in nothing but his Fruit of the Looms, his hair sticking out all over his head.
“Get up!” he shouted back as he ran down the hall, “We’re going somewhere.”
“Where are we going?” I asked Tammey, whose face was still flushed red from laughing. She just shrugged and started to get dressed.
We threw on whatever clothes were on the floor from the day before, not bothering to ask where he was taking us because we knew it would be an adventure. Uncle Dan didn’t take you to places like the post office or the supermarket. He had no interest in the responsibilities that the rest of the world thought were important. He lived in Dan-world, where only Dan-rules applied.
I’d never known him to hold a regular job. In his earliest days, he was a body builder who played a muscleman in Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon beach movies. Sometimes he was building motorcycles, or doing stunt work, but most of the time he was training animals for the movies. He used to keep wolves in the backyard, until one of them attacked Tammey. I was with her when it happened. We were about six. It was early in the morning and Tammey, Tracey and I were the only ones awake. Tammey ran out into the backyard in her little flannel nightgown, mistaking one of the new wolves for her pet wolf Akela. The wolf, who was not Akela, grabbed her by the head and shook her like a rag doll. My Aunt Diane heard Tracey and I screaming, dove through her bedroom window, and wrestled her child from the jaws of a wolf. Like one does. They took Tammey to the hospital and got her head all stitched back together. When they brought her home, they laid her down on the couch in the living room, and I sat by her side and held her hand all day.
|Me and Tammey, always together.
Uncle Dan also had an owl that lived free inside the house. When I was a toddler, he had a pet lion that my cousin Tracey used to take baths with, but they got busted for that one and had to send him away.
Uncle Dan was completely uninterested in society’s rules. His friends looked like a ragtag bunch of reincarnated pirates, in fact, I’m almost convinced they were. They wore bandanas, had long hair and tattoos. They rode motorcycles and built custom cars and did stunt work in films. Some worked on the film Easy Rider, and Uncle Dan got a small part in the movie. Some were animal trainers. Uncle Dan was the king of the crew, sitting in his carved king’s chair in the living room, holding court, the owl often perched atop it.
His home was fit for a king, or maybe a wizard. He made it that way. On the living room ceiling he attached branches with little white lights woven through it, so at night it looked like fireflies. There were gargoyles staring down from the walls, animal skins draped over the sofa, and intricate brass statues of angels and faeries. The front door was a massive wooden arched door, with an iron ring as big as a dinner plate. It took two of us kids working together to get it open, or closed. I can still hear the loud creak of that heavy door, the sound of the iron knocker clanking against it (there was no sneaking in or out of that house) and I can still remember the particular fragrance of the living room: a mix of leather, wood, patchouli and pot.
Sometimes Uncle Dan would get a burst of inspiration and start drawing on the walls. He was incredible at creating imaginary characters like wizards, pirates and dragons. We’d watch over his shoulder as he sketched and the character came to life. He was obsessed with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and when the Disney version came out, he drew all the Jungle Book characters on one of Tammey’s walls – life sized. He also drew a mermaid in the bathroom, and began to paint her but never finished.
Uncle Dan already had the motor running that morning as we scrambled to get dressed and get our butts in the truck before he left without us. We jumped in the front seat, on our way to who-knows-where. Jazz was blasting from the car stereo — always. We stopped off at a nursery, and Uncle Dan hopped out, leaving the truck running and music blaring. In what seemed like only minutes, he came rushing out with a cart full of flowers, vines and chicken wire, and loaded them in the back of the truck. Next, he drove to a pet store, but it was early morning and the store was closed. Nothing could stop him once he got an idea in his head. He always found a way to get what he wanted. He went to the payphone to make a phone call and before we knew it someone was there to open the store. Uncle Dan was persuasive. He wasn’t the kind of guy you could just blow off, and in fact, most people found it impossible to say no to him. He knew people everywhere he went and could always pull a favor. Uncle Dan strutted out of the pet store and handed me a cage with a tiny yellow and blue bird. “Here, hold this,” he said, and went back inside. I put the cage in my lap. The bird was only as big as my thumb, its eyes like shiny black beads. Tammey and I talked softly to the bird, trying to make it feel comfortable. We learned from Uncle Dan to be kind to animals. Only days before, there was a mouse in Aunt Diane’s closet. We helped Uncle Dan to catch it in a shoebox, then drove miles in the truck until we found a vacant field, where Uncle Dan set the mouse free.
Uncle Dan came out of the pet store and jumped into the front seat, handing Tammey a box. Inside was a baby bunny, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. I had never before seen such tiny and fragile things.
“Hold these while I drive, and be careful with them, okay?” he said, revving the engine.
“Okay,” Tammey and I said, and then we tried to keep our little pets calm while Uncle Dan drove with all the windows down, his hair blowing, Miles Davis blowing on the radio.
When we got back to the house, he immediately got to work in the driveway, cutting branches and chicken wire, leaves and flowers flying everywhere. I asked what he was doing, but he seemed to be in his own inner world, and didn’t respond. Everyone thought I asked too many questions, anyway. Tammey and I were hungry, so we went inside, scrounged through the cupboards in the kitchen, and ate dry cereal out of the box, then we wandered off to play foursquare with some of the neighbor kids. After an hour or so, Four Square became a serious game of Dodgeball, leaving Tammey and I sweaty messes with dirt on our hands and smudged on our faces. When we heard Uncle Dan’s whistle, we dropped the ball and ran home.
Uncle Dan sat me down on a crate in the driveway and tied a bandana on my head. He lifted a tall, pointed witch hat made of chicken wire, with flowers and branches woven through and shiny green leaves and magnolias around the brim. Inside he had fashioned a perch out of a branch, and my tiny bird was sitting on it, blinking its beady eyes. The hat was half the size of me. He carefully lowered it on to my head and suddenly I became one of Uncle Dan’s magical characters. Being chosen by Uncle Dan made me feel important, like the sun was shining on me a little brighter than anyone else that day.
Next, he held up Tammey’s hat – a giant sombrero they had brought back from a trip to Mexico. Uncle Dan had covered the brim with cabbage leaves and flowers. It was truly a beautiful masterpiece. He cut the top of the hat out and put a head of butter lettuce there, with the baby bunny nestled inside. He had Tammey try it on, and she and I stood together, bringing characters to life out of Uncle Dan’s mind. Uncle Dan crossed his burly, muscled arms, stood back and studied us. He seemed pleased with his work, flashing that huge trademark smile of his and said, “You guys look great!” He then lifted our hats off of us and carefully put them into the truck.
I threw my arms around him, “This is the best day ever!”
He hugged me tight, lifting me off my feet. Being held by him was the best feeling. He was as big and solid as a mountain, and we used to climb on him like monkeys when we were small.
He rushed us toward the truck, “Now let’s go. We’re late!”
“Late for what?” I asked.
“I entered you girls in the Easter hat contest at the mall.”
Easter hat contest? This didn’t seem like something Uncle Dan would care about. At all.
The thing about my Aunt and Uncle is that they were always late, really late, to everything. If we wanted them to come to a party of ours, we had to lie and tell them it started an hour earlier so they wouldn’t miss it. Sometimes they still did. We zoomed in to the mall parking lot, Uncle Dan screeching to a stop and parking illegally.
“Hurry!!” he said, “ the contest already started!”
We tried to run, but balancing giant hats with bunnies and birds on our heads was not easy. When we got to the center court of Sherman Oaks Fashion Square, there were hundreds of people watching the stage, and someone from the newspaper taking pictures. My stomach lurched. The girls on the stage were dressed in traditional Easter dresses with crinolines and little white gloves and hats with ribbons and bows. They wore patent leather shoes with heels, and stood posing for pictures with their moms.
As we walked up to the stage, everyone stopped and stared. I felt Tammey’s small hand grab mine and squeeze. The contest was already over, the judges had made their decision, but Uncle Dan talked them into letting us go on the stage to show our hats. I didn’t want to, but I knew how much this meant to Uncle Dan and didn’t want to hurt his feelings. So we walked across the stage, our little faces smudged with dirt and sweat from Dodgeball, wearing jeans and wrinkled t-shirts with these huge magic hats, and instead of recognizing how genius these hats were, the girls and their moms stared at us like we had just stepped off of a spaceship. I really didn’t want to stand next to the prissy girls and their moms, because even though I knew that Uncle Dan’s magic hats were better than theirs, I also knew that we actually were from another planet, one those girls could never comprehend.
The judges had a quick discussion on the side of the stage, then a man stepped up to the microphone and announced the winners. The prissy girls with the prettiest dresses and ribbon hats won the trophies and the money. The man said we had received honorable mention for “originality.” The judges gave us some cheap plastic bubble wand as a prize, and Uncle Dan looked crushed. I’d never seen the King sad before. It made my heart hurt.
Driving home in the truck, we were quiet. Uncle Dan stared out the window, not listening to jazz. The hats began to fall apart, the flowers and leaves wilting in the heat. We had to return the bird and bunny to the pet store. I slumped down in my seat, a lump in my throat, wishing I knew how to make this right. But I didn’t.
Forty-four years later, I would feel that way again, on a much deeper level, when I found out that my uncle was suffering with cancer. I had loved him more than life, and at times I had hated him. Throughout my childhood, I depended on him. He was strong, powerful, invincible. He took us in when my mom’s life was falling apart. My own father was in prison, but when I went places with Uncle Dan and my cousins, he introduced us as his three daughters. I loved that. When I moved out on my own and I was struggling, he showed up at my doorstep one night, without me ever asking, and gave me rent money. He took me on incredible trips to exotic places.
But in the eighties, drugs changed him. My childhood belief in him was crushed. I struggled with how to forgive him for the things he had done, but the feelings were bigger than me and I couldn’t bear them.
I wanted to be at his side when he was sick, but I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t pretend like nothing had happened – that our family hadn’t been obliterated, that my trust in him hadn’t been shattered, that my aunt hadn’t been devastated by the things he did, the choices he made, and the cold way that he left her. Just like the eight-year-old girl I once was, I wished I knew how to make it right, but I didn’t. And then he died.
On the day he died, I went to the mountains to let my soul rest. I spent an entire day working on a 1000-piece puzzle, because nothing else made sense and this was the one thing I could fix. That night I dreamt that hundreds of puzzle pieces were raining down on me, and every one of them had a different picture of my uncle’s face. I had no idea what to do with them.
What is the moral of the story? My god, I wish I knew. All I do know is that love is everything. It can heal you, and it can also break you. Family is so damned complicated. You can love someone with all your heart and they can hurt you without ever meaning to, and heroes, as much as we want to put all our faith in them, almost always fall from their pedestals.
Love is a risky business, but I’ll take the risk every time, because what other way is there to live? Would I have traded in my childhood with my uncle to save myself the grief I felt as an adult? No way.
It was a wild, heartbreaking, magical ride, and I’m so glad it was mine.