“There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”
— Genesis 6:4
They used to call me “Forty-Four” when I was a little kid, a nickname born from my football obsession. My main parlor trick, as a four-year-old, was to challenge me to read anything you thought you could stump me with: ketchup bottles, TV Guides, owner’s manuals… anything. I was a super-precocious reader. I had very few losses.
Although my father was kinda proud that I was a little smartypants, he was more proud of my football knowledge; we had a poster with all the NFL helmets in neat rows and columns. You could point to one, and I could tell you the team’s city and name plus who their quarterback was. My father’s old football number was forty-four, but it was “my” number when we played backyard ball. I would yell it out as I tried to avoid tackles and as I spiked the ball in imaginary endzones.
This nickname was given to me by my Uncle Carl; being the oldest of ten kids gave him the right to dole out secret names to his brothers and sisters, used to help bond the brothers and sisters beyond the rough family situation they were given. Names like Cricket, Runt, and Booger Red. And his nicknaming flowed over naturally to the rest of us. He had a daughter my age that he called Punkin. And he called me Forty Four.
It used to be, before my grandpa and grandma Caudle passed away, that anything worth drawing the attention of more than one aunt or uncle would draw them all together. Other than Carl, who lived in Oklahoma City, all the brothers and sisters lived within twenty minutes of each other. I was in San Francisco with the band when my Grandpa Caudle died; I called my Grandma Caudle from the hotel lobby, getting her permission to stay and sling my Sousaphone for my friends and the university, even though the university was prepared to fly me home. She said I should stay and finish what I had started, and I did. She died a year and a month later. Whatever Choctaw parental spell she had cast on my aunts and uncles started dissolving the day after her death. Things are more fragmented now, between feuds and family lives, so it was just three of my aunts watching me limp and hobble across the waiting room at the hospital. My father was getting his hip replaced, and I dared the long walk through the hilly parking lot, up the steps, to the wrong floor, and back to the right one. My foot was killing me, swelling and pushing fluid through the bandage, but I had to be there. My Aunt Libby, who Carl called Droopy Drawers, immediately called me hard headed for coming there on my bad foot. They didn’t ask me whether or not I was in pain; it was implied in the statement one of them made: “you shouldn’t be here”.
(My brother asked me if I wanted him to put on some music while I struggled to put enough force on the wire cutters with my “bad” arm, the one on the side of my chest with bones missing, to cut through the fence segments. I went directly to my phone and played something myself; Yeti. It had the effect of part insulating bubble of introversion, part rescue inhaler as I snipped, the wire peeling off in fractals and spirals.)
My first day helping my father in his recovery, and he tells me, somewhat casually, that Uncle Carl has died.
Carl had suffered from emphysema for years, and most of the mortality struggle and first grieving steps had already run their courses with Carl’s family. It had been ages since I saw him well enough to even walk, sitting on the step-up of his pickup as he stayed in the passenger seat, too exhausted from the previous business at Mount Comfort Cemetery to walk around or even get out of the truck.
“How are you feeling?” I asked.
“Son, not very good.”
Later that same day we took a coffee can, a Sharpie, and some money Uncle Carl had slipped one of us to give to the groundskeeper, and we marked the spot for his grave like he asked. It was Decoration Day in Blackburn, somewhere between Winslow and Devil’s Den.
He made only a couple more trips back. The last time I saw him was a rainy Ressurection Day, at the dam in Ozark where we fished for bony carp and catfish along with the Vietnamese. He was too frail to move, a body that betrayed his station to me, to my father and my family, to the Carl that worked among the heights of rooftops, the father to everyone. I wrote a poem for his suffering that day, as soon as I got home. I never saw him again.
Carp Prayer Poem (For Carl Caudle)
Campfire ash on Easter eggs and
All that mudfish undertow,
Hand in hand with good God’s fools
We yank them from the dam spill pools.
Good to fight but poor to eat,
With gasp and emphysema hiss,
Hook and gill with rainbow skin
We heave the dead to land again.
My dad wouldn’t let me follow him on his therapy walk. He was too concerned about my foot, feeling worse from the incoming storm. As I watched him shuffle off I checked my phone for a distraction. I found this:
I had Decade in my car, and I fired it up the track on my way back home. As I went west through the national forest I could already see them, wading waist high through the Oklahoma storm clouds; the Patagon, the Genesis titans, the Algonquin wizards, all the Earth’s giants gathering, weighing hearts in the mist and lightning, sparking the bowls of their pipes with fire and stars, tossing souls up to heaven.