Uncle Dunk

Dunk in the 1980s

I drove to hospital in Pinehurst the first day I had off. It was the thing to do, especially since my dad was living on the other side of the world and my grandmother, a widow for just a few years, had her hands full. There, in a sterile room, was Uncle Dunk. His name was Duncan Calvin McKenzie, but to everyone he was Dunk.

Dunk wasn’t really my uncle; he was my great-uncle, my grandma’s brother. As a man, he seemed to have as many lives as a cat. He was still living in the old place, his parents’ home, on Doubs Chapel Road, next to where we lived before moving from Moore County when I was six. I remember the old house well, the kerosene heater in the parlor where we’d gather in the winter. In the summer, we’d sit on the back porch unless it was Sunday, then everyone sat on the front porch while us kids climbed in the large magnolia trees whose branches reached the ground, making it an easy tree to climb.

Dunk had come home from work one weekend with the intent on doing some grilling. The coals just weren’t turning white fast enough for Dunk. He was ready for that meat to start sizzling. I’m sure his judgment was already somewhat impaired by alcohol. He tossed some gasoline on the grill. 

Dunk was in pain when I was saw him, but he’d live another day. In fact, he’d live another twenty-five years. That gasoline saved his life, for afterwards, till he finally went into a nursing home, my grandma kept a close watch over her younger brother, keeping him mostly sober.

Dunk in the 1930s, working tobacco
with his father and two neighbors

My first memory of Dunk came from when I was just a little boy. I was probably four. My parents had brought an old home, a couple hundred yards east of my great grandparents place, and were fixing it up so that we could move in. Every evening, we’d be over there working, or at least Dad would be working. Dunk, who was still living with his parents, my great-grandparents, just up the road, would come down and help the best he could. 

During much of this time, he wore a neck brace then, which made him kind of look like the women from the Karen tribe of Burma with long necks and heads pulled high by metal bands. Of course, Dunk’s brace wasn’t a fashion statement; it was the result of having totaled his car on 15-501. I think it was near the Lower Little River Bridge. He almost didn’t make it then. Despite a broken neck, Dunk did what he could. When not able to help, he’d play with us kids. I’m sure, his keeping us our fingers away from the Skil saws, was a big help. Dunk would late help my father build the copper clad steeple for Culdee Presbyterian Church.

After we left Moore County, we’d only see Dunk occasionally. On time, he’d told my Grandma that he wanted to see us. She went and found him drunker than I’d seen a man before. She brought him home with her and ran him through the shower, then sat in one of her hard maple chairs at her dining room table and poured coffee down him. He cried, saying he was ashamed of his condition. By making him sit there, I wasn’t sure if she was trying to punish him or to use him as a lesson for us kids. I was probably ten or eleven years old and just didn’t know what to make of it all. I still don’t.

A few years later, after Dunk’s daddy died and the old place was getting pretty worn down, my Dad took my brother and me over to see if he was home. Knocking on the back door, he yelled for us to come in. Dad opened the door, but wouldn’t let my brother and me go in. I could see there were four men in the sittin’ room, but no were sitting. They were nearly passed out on the sofa and floor. Seeing us, Dunk struggled out to the back porch, where he held tightly to the screen door in order to remain upright. I think he was both ashamed as well as glad to see us. One of the other men yelled out some lurid comment. Dunk told him to shut up. By then my Daddy was herding my brother and me toward the car. I was probably thirteen or fourteen then and even today I not sure what to make of it all.

As the years drifted on, I’d occasionally see Dunk at Culdee Church when I was in Moore County on a Sunday. He’d be out front on the lawn after the preaching was over, smoking cigarettes and talking to the men. Of course, if he’d fallen off the wagon, he’d be missing among the assembled crowd.

Dunk in the Navy during WW2

Regardless of his condition, Dunk always remember us kids at Christmas and send us something. At first, it was mostly candy, often a box chocolate covered cherries that would leave a little sticky glue on the corners of my mouth. When I got to high school, he went through a phase of giving me bottles of Old Spice Aftershave, even before I was shaving (something I gave up long before I used all those bottles). Then, thankfully, he started giving me packages of handkerchiefs. This kept up till I was in my forties and I’m sure even today half the handkerchiefs in my dresser drawers were gifts from him.

As he got older, his wounds begin to bother him. During War World Two, Dunk was a pharmacy mate in the Navy. He served on a supply ship in the Pacific, and if I remember correctly, it was struck by a torpedo or maybe a kamikaze. I don’t think it sunk, but some of the sailors aboard were lost. He seldom talked about the war, but it must have bothered him. His back and neck, both of which had been broken at various times from automobile accidents, always hurt. He shuffled around; at least he couldn’t get into too much trouble. He started to go to a men’s Bible Study and attended church more regularly. I reckon it was in his blood as his Daddy and Granddaddy and Great-granddaddy had all served as an Elder at Culdee Presbyterian. He never served as an Elder, but for his last quarter century of his life, he attended faithfully. He also took delight in his dogs.

Dunk reached out to my adopted son. When we’d visit in the summer, he’d take him out fishing on his pond, the same pond I’d first fished in when I was just a tot. I liked that they got to share that together. Both went through a lot. As the boy got older, whenever we talked, he’d ask about Dunk. Dunk also adored my daughter. When he learned she was taking violin lessons, he presented her with a violin that had belonged to his granddaddy, the man for whom he was named. His granddaddy traded a barrel of kraut for the violin, back in the 1860s. Dunk was tormented by demons most of his life, yet deep down there was goodness.

14 Replies to “Uncle Dunk”

  1. Thank you for sharing Dunk’s story.
    A shame he was tormented by demons for most of his life.
    But I do agree with you … deep down there was goodness.

    Take care, my good wishes.

    All the best Jan

  2. That’s awesome that you got to spend time with your great uncle and that you have so many family stories. Knowing where the violin came from is particularly amazing!

    1. I’m sure part of the reason Dunk was so close was because my uncle on my father’s side of the family, my father’s brother, was only six when I was born, so he was somewhat like an older brother.

  3. I had an uncle similar to Dunk. He never served in the armed services, but he was a cop, until they kicked him off the force for what was described as “being overly hostile”. He died while shoveling snow for a neighbor.

    When I was three, he and his wife were babysitting me, and he was playing cards with friends. He gave me a small glass of beer, and I remember loving it! Mom and my grandma were not at all happy with him.

    1. Dunk never offered me a drink, even when I was old enough. Probably because he feared his older sister, my grandma. At least he died doing a good deed, and that’s a perfect way to go, IMHO

    1. I should have included another story, from my 2nd Cousin David, who’s maybe 10 years older than me. This would have been in the mid-late 660s. He tells of a time when he was just waiting before he was to report into the army after having been drafted. Dunk had been out squirrel hunting and came home and grabbed him and a couple gallon jars.Dunk had discovered someone’s still in the swamps and was heading back to run off their mash. While he went with Dunk, he was pretty scared that the owner of the illegal distillery might discover them.

  4. I guess one of the benefits from coming from a heavily pruned family tree, is that I don’t have any “Uncle Dunks” that I know. But I’m sure they existed further up the tree and the wounds have all scabbed over by now. I only had one great uncle and he certainly was an oddity among my family but about in the complete opposite ways as your Uncle Dunk.

    Beautiful story though and I enjoyed reading it.

  5. I think perhaps we all have an “Uncle Dunk” somewhere in our extended family. He sounds like a tortured soul, yet a good-hearted man.

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