Bobbie Ann Hull passed away on Friday, Jan. 11, at age 75. She was married to my father's youngest brother, James, which makes her my aunt. An awkwardly written line, but not as awkward as the concept. I never thought of her as an aunt. She had none of the traits I associate with aunts, or relatives even. When she was young, she was a huge hulking monster of a woman -- close to six feet tall, weighing close to 300 lbs. She didn't talk so much as bark. She lurched about violently, flailed, shrieked. She was the least intelligent person I ever met. I remember her mostly from when I was a small child, and what I remember about her was first of all terror, then pity for her two small children, a few years younger than me. The younger, Jimmy, was severely retarded. He died at age 21, a wretched life I always blamed Bobbie Ann for.
James joined the Air Force in the early '50s. He was a career NCO, working as an aircraft mechanic, so he moved from base to base over the next 25-30 years. In the late '50s he worked at McConnell AFB in Wichita. They lived in a brick ranch house in near southwest Wichita, and that's where my initial memories are set. He went to Germany after that, had several stretches in Las Vegas. He did a year in Vietnam where he never got off the base, so most of his memories were of bowling. He wound up back in Wichita for most of the '70s. When he retired, he got a job at Boeing here, doing what he had done in the Air Force, and wound up with two pensions. I spent time talking with him in the mid-'70s. He's an affable, cheerful, easy-going guy, with a corny sense of humor. As near as I can tell, he only has two political beliefs, but he takes them to extremes. He is so ardently pro-military he not only defends My Lai, he defends the Navy at Tailhook. (Haven't talked to him since Abu Ghraib; like, what's the point?) And he believes that capital punishment is not just a good thing -- it's a metric of economic progress in America. Last I heard he was writing a book on that.
James is the only survivor of five siblings in my father's generation. He was the youngest by most of a decade -- my father, the middle child, always referred to him as the "baby" and didn't seem to be all that close, especially when growing up. When I was young, my grandparents lived on a 160 acre wheat farm near the Smoky Hills, about 100 miles north and slightly west of Wichita. The farmhouse had a hand pump in the kitchen sink and an outhouse halfway to the barn. There was a pear tree, a corral, a windmill to pump water for a couple of cows, a small pond stocked with a few scrawny bullheads. My grandfather's family had homesteaded northeast of Dodge City in the 1870s, where my father was born in 1922. My grandmother's family came from Sweden in the 1880s, settling near Lindsborg, still the most pointedly Swedish town in Kansas. She was born in 1894. My grandfather was born in 1895. They were married in 1918. They had a daughter, Clara Belle, then four sons: George, Carl (my father), Bob, and James.
My grandfather died when he was 70 and I was 14. By that time he had retired and moved into a large house in Marquette, a small town west of Lindsborg, not far from the farm. We went to visit there something like once a month, including whole family get togethers at Christmas. Clara Belle also lived in Marquette; the rest of us lived in Wichita, except when James was somewhere else. My grandfather was cold and taciturn. I only found out much later that he had taught school as well as farmed, and that the family had spent the '40s living in Wichita. I mostly remember him talking about genealogy -- he traced the family back through Pennsylvania to Ireland in the 1810s (I later concluded these must have been English protestants from the plantations near Dublin) -- and Revelations (he was particularly interested in Israel as a sign of the end of times). He was, in short, a typical midwestern farmer-intellectual, where the latter trait was defined by his researches in one book. (My father had his own theories about Revelations, which were markedly different, although I never bothered to figure out how so. My own theory is that the Book is the denouement at the end of a play, where everything is revealed to have been a farce.)
My grandmother was another scary woman. She was harsh, bitterly judgmental, blithely prejudiced, her main skill cutting sarcasm. But she rarely took this out on me, so my resentment built up more in her absence than in her presence. She lived another 25 years after my grandfather died, but dementia set in in the early '70s. The last time I saw her she gave me some money to bail a stolen car out of the pound, an unusual but not unheard of kindness. My judgment is no doubt unfair, but I found it impossible to watch The Sopranos because the Livia character was the spitting image of her, making me wonder how much more evil her hatreds would have been had she the power to order up hitmen.
There are a couple of interesting Hull family traits. None of the five had much in the way of education -- at most a semester at Pittsburg State Teachers College under the GI bill before the three older brothers returned to the airplane factory; James might have had a bit more -- but at least two were regarded, by acquaintances if not experts, as geniuses at mechanics. George reportedly designed the Lunar Lander feet, an ingenious curved rocker that would gently center the craft on a hard surface but had enough surface area it wouldn't sink in powder. What I recall is that he had his own business building tractors and lawn mowers, and that he built go-karts, raced by his son. My father had no such ambitions, but he tinkered endlessly, converting old pieces of junk into new contraptions more elegant and more useful than their Rube Goldberg resemblances suggested. James had similar skills, but I don't know that he did anything so idiosyncratic with them.
The other trait is that the four sons, like their father, all married crazy women, and stuck with them long term. (The daughter, Clara Belle, married a guy we always thought was a hopeless bum. Their marriage lasted more than 50 years, until he died.) You might argue that Bob was the exception in that he divorced his first wife then remarried, but he stayed with each more than twenty years, and the second was even crazier -- albeit more fun -- than the first. Like my mother, Bob's two wives were demanding, dominant, sometimes shrill, always high maintenance, but at least they had redeeming qualities. My mother finally mellowed a bit once she discovered that the children she had tried so hard to drive crazy actually turned out OK. George's wife I'm less certain about, but she killed herself a few years after he died, so that's nothing to throw a good generalization out over. But Bobbie Ann was in a class by herself.
The same day James and Bobbie Ann were married, she freaked out and ran off, disappearing for three days. I don't know much more about that, but I always interpreted the story through the prism of something that happened to me. Shortly after I started dating my future first wife, at the end of a very long night, she freaked out on me and suddenly threatened suicide. She scared me something awful, but somehow I calmed her down. It wouldn't have been unusual to split at that point, or at the next one, or the one after that, but I kept being drawn back, and eventually I got better at coping with it all. We stayed together until she died -- she was a diabetic with nasty complications. I imagine that James experienced the same shock, fear, and sense of duty, and over time he got used to it all, even the rhythm. Probably even more so. At least I never had to call the cops to haul her away after she tried to kill me. Nor did I have to watch her destroy small children. Hell, I didn't even have to live in a house full of pigeons shitting up the place. And I could point to traits that I did appreciate and enjoy about my wife. Bobbie Ann was the most completely unappealing person I've ever met. She must have had a terrible life. But that she lived so long, and had any shred of normalcy in her life, is due to one person, James Hull.