My Uncle Buster died this morning. I don’t know how old he was but he was an adult when my mother was born and she would have turned 70 this year.

Louie Carlyle Hinson, AKA “Uncle Buster,” was from Sumter, South Carolina – the oldest of eight children. There were four boys and four girls. Two of the boys died at the age of four – one from an illness and one who was decapitated on their farm. My Uncle Buster was the one who found his little brother after the accident. The other brother, Uncle Bill, died several years ago of a heart attack, which left Uncle Buster as the only surviving brother. Then, of course, my mother passed away two years ago, so now all that’s left are three sisters.

My sister called to give me the news. I was driving Madeline to school and had noticed that the flag was at half-mast. I saw Cassi’s number pop up and answered the phone with “So, why are the flags flying at half-mast?” and her response was “Uncle Buster died this morning.” It took a second to process what she had said and to briefly entertain the thought that the entire country was mourning the death of my Uncle. I had to pull myself away from that quickly or I was going to get stuck there for hours. “Really? He died?” She confirmed that his daughter had called this morning to let her know he had passed. Evidently, he had been in the hospital for a few days. He had been in poor health for many years. The doctors revived him once this morning, which lasted for about an hour, and then he died.

I hadn’t seen Uncle Buster for many years. In fact, I think the last time was when Ben was a baby. In my defense, I have been a little busy dealing with cancer over the past decade. But growing up, we saw Uncle Buster at least once a year. We’d pile into our van and make the pilgrimage from Central Ohio to Sumter, SC to visit my relatives for the annual family reunion. This was always in August, which anyone from the South knows that this is the worst possible time to visit. The bugs. The heat. The humidity. It was uncommon that I looked forward to the trip because this little redhead does NOT do well in those conditions. To make matters worse, my family always packed a tent for us to sleep in for the week. It was big and blue and easily accommodated all of us, which numbered anywhere from six to eight people. However, the first night of our trip I would find alternate lodging. Many of Mom’s relatives still lived in the area, most of them in trailers scattered about over two lots of property. I would duck into one of those air-conditioned beauties and hide out until it was time to go home. There were so many kids no one really noticed my absence and no one really noticed one extra person sitting at the table. I was small. And quiet. I found that I could get away with a lot based on those two traits.

One day out of the vacation was always dedicated to Myrtle Beach. Now, I love water but back in the 70’s when I was a child, the sunscreen options were poor. There was baby oil and then there was Sundown, which was thick, gooey and made me whiter than I already am – if that’s possible. It took four hours to dry and had to be reapplied every half-hour. And then the sand. God, I hate sand. The beach was about two hours away from Sumter. We’d get up early, drive forever, rent an umbrella in front of the kitsch store “The Gay Dolphin” and spend an entire day getting sandy and goopy and still end up getting blisters from the sun. What made it more “fun” was that Uncle Buster loved to play in the waves. With me. He’d lift me up and say “Wheeeee!” but the timing was all wrong. He put me down when the waves crashed over us and lift me up as the water melted back into the sea, salt water gushing up my nose causing my sinuses to drain everywhere. The salt and sand stuck to my splotchy white skin. Despite loving the water, I have an irrational fear of drowning. I figure that I will someday meet my demise trapped under ice… and have the eerie feeling that I’ll hear my Uncle giddily crying “Wheeeee!” as I run out of air.

Uncle Buster was as round as he was tall. His beach attire was a pair of cut-off work pants that were held up with a length of rope. He would go shirtless but had an amazing sombrero type hat where we could all seek refuge from the sun. I loved that hat. He was a good natured man. We’d go to the hot dog place next to the Gay Dolphin for lunch. I don’t think he ever met a stranger. Even though it was not my scene I still enjoyed myself. Until the long car ride home covered in itchy sand and painful blisters.

The rest of the week revolved around a pig roast and running around with my hordes of cousins. My Uncle was the unofficial ring leader of this circus. His trailer was HQ. There was always an ice cold pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge and his wife, Aunt Wanda, holding court with all the sisters. She was a lovely lady. She taught me to crochet and sew. As the ladies were in the “hen house” Uncle Buster would cat nap in his recliner. His girth allowed for some mighty snoring. My “twin cousin” (we were born hours apart) and I would pretend like we were riding motorcycles, revving up in time with Uncle Buster’s obstructed breathing. It was great fun.

Uncle Buster was a Navy man. When he completed his military service, he worked for Campbell’s Soup for years. He was set in his ways (a nice way of saying he was stubborn as a mule.) I liked the way he said my sister’s name with great verve. I liked that he worked hard and put himself through school after his military career. I liked that my mom could go to him when she needed help.

Interestingly enough, I made a big batch of sweet tea this week. I haven’t made that in at least 14 years when I was married to my first ex-husband – also a Southerner. I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I enjoyed a big glass last night with my homemade fried chicken. When I woke up this morning, I knew something was wrong. I could feel it. Not to seem weird, but I usually have an intuition when someone is about to die. I don’t know who it will be but I know it’s coming. When I saw the flag flying at half-mast, I thought maybe I was wrong because I don’t have premonitions about famous people or politicians dying, just those close to me. But I should have taken from my cues of making sweet tea and frying up chicken that it was going to be one of my Southern relatives.

So, this morning, I’m eating my grits with cheese and bacon and remembering my Uncle Buster. He is predeceased by his wife, Wanda, and son, Louie Carlyle, Jr. (Dickie) and survived by his daughter, Carla. Rest well, Uncle Buster.

I sure hope they let you into Heaven wearing that awesome hat.

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