Uncle Pungo, with his funny nickname, was always a favorite of mine, although I hardly knew him at all until the final years of his life. His given name was Nehemiah Wilson Newell. He was my Father’s younger brother, his only brother, his only sibling. They looked like brothers. Any other similarities are in the mind’s eye.
Reasons known only to those who can no longer speak the common language of the living, my Father and his brother were very different from the very beginning. For one, the world opened up completely with daily interactions and relationships, while being gifted with numerous opportunities based on aptitude. Pungo enjoyed the privileged status of being adored by his mother. He did well in public school and received additional tutoring at home.
By contrast, Dad left school at the beginning of the third grade. He never really learned how to write. It was his Victorian grandmother who nurtured his heart and his mind. It was his grandmother who taught him how to read. It was his grandmother he mourned his entire life. We don’t know why, we only know that detail.
My Father remained in a cloistered community, keeping his own counsel, living inside his head, making his own opportunities. Pungo was verbal and intellectual. Dad was non-verbal and innately insightful. Each was intelligent, resourceful, and creative in their individual ways. Pungo decamped from Cape Cod by enlisting in the Navy. It was a one-way ticket, he never looked back.
He spent his productive years in the Navy, making it his career. With his large family of sons and a daughter along with his devoted wife, they traveled the globe. He became a prime mover in very early Naval electronic communications and computer technology. His fine mind for abstract thinking and complex problem solving earned him positions of responsibility within the post-Korean war military paradigm.
What little we know about Dad’s childhood, we know from my conversations with Pungo. Their childhood was quite sparse in the things that make life comfortable. They were cold in the winter, ate the leftover seasonal catch of the day or not at all. There weren’t any creature comforts. Their poverty was both material and emotional. My fraternal grandmother had been educated. Her father had been a doctor. She once owned a dry goods store. She married beneath her station as my Mother always explained. She married a subsistence lobsterman. Why?
When my Father quit school, he joined his father in the rowboat. Every day, day in and day out, pulling lobster traps, removing the catch then baiting the traps again and again – he never complained that it had been too much. He could make his body perform the tasks at hand. Thus employed, his mind could wander. I believe the silent repetitiveness, the quiet acceptance he surely enjoyed being in the boat with his father, eased his psychological disconnectedness.
Pungo told me that Dad had confided to him that he didn’t feel right, thought something was wrong shortly after returning home from the war. This, my uncle explained was ‘shell shock’. It was never discussed beyond that brief exchange, certainly never professionally treated. It was just something one brother told the other, unburdening Dad from that point forward. Talk therapy at its undocumented finest.
Pungo and my Father came to appreciate each other’s talents. Dad always spoke glowingly of how ‘smart’ Pungo was, while Pungo said my Father could fix anything.
Before Pungo retired to Reedsport, Oregon, he lived with his wife in California. By then, he was enjoying a bit of gardening and well earned rest with his wife. Dad was still working seven days a week. But by then Dad also allowed himself the pleasure of owning a camper and would take overnight trips to Maine at least once a year. The rest of the time the camper sat in the driveway waiting. Pungo said that just knowing it was there had been enough to give my Father a sense of freedom from his self-imposed boundaries.
Long about this time, Dad began to study a road atlas. He covertly planned his first trip west to visit Pungo. It wasn’t until a day or so prior to his heading out on that first solo journey that anyone knew he was going.
Armed with maps that noted the KOA campgrounds every 500 miles or so, Dad departed. He ingeniously had had additional gas tanks welded to the frame of the camper, and invented a way to switch the gas flow without stopping. He also developed a water-cooling system that would spray water on the transmission to keep it cooled during long uphill grinds. A few years later, I benefited from Dad’s single-minded determination when he drove to California and brought my son and I home with all our possessions while towing my VW bug behind the camper. He had visited two years prior and had said to me, “Just let me know when your ready to come home and I’ll come get ya.” That trip to rescue me was his third trans-continental crossing.
Then came Dad’s final trip west. It would become his most difficult in spite of it being his fourth solo passage. We didn’t think it mad that a person of his advancing age would head west, traveling over 6,000 miles alone in total, staying only two days on the west coast before turning around and heading back east. It was just the way Dad did things. So when he called me from a phone booth at a KOA campground in West Virginia asking me to meet him the next day in Connecticut, signals went off. Something wasn’t right with Dad. We made our plan.
When I saw him driving towards me at the prescribed time and location, the look on his face was grave and his color ashen. His left arm had been horribly sunburned from long hours of traversing the western desert in the high heat of the day. He was thirsty and had a day’s growth of facial hair. He began to cry when our eyes met.
I had brought a friend along with me to drive my car back so that I could drive the camper and give Dad a much needed break. Dad simply got out of the camper, wiped his face, thanked me and got into the passenger seat. I drove the rig home as he sobbed quietly. I remained silent.
After a while, he was able to share that he had felt unsure he would make it home this time. Apparently his resolve to drive long hours alone had waned, his confidence shattered somewhere in Arizona. He’d lost track of time. He’d awaken to himself while driving and had been terrified because he didn’t know where he was. For Dad, this trip had become a survival campaign, a drama in his head. We never discussed his emotional breakdown. We simply drove home where he returned to being what others thought he was, a man in full possession of his faculties.
Years later during one of my final conversations with Pungo, he said that on that last visit Dad told him he thought his mind was going. My uncle believed that the last trip west had been a test Dad put himself through to assuage his growing concerns over his mental functioning. Apparently on the way home, Dad realized his worst fears though he never said a word to any of us. By the time Pungo shared this with me, I knew all too well that Dad was suffering from dementia. For his part, Dad had spent many years faking it. He became really good at it. He functioned at a high level for a long time while dementia slowly robbed him and us.
I am grateful that Pungo was willing to give Dad’s family bits and pieces of history, much of it now written down. I’m also glad that Dad at least had a brother, no matter how physically separated they were, who he cared about, admired and could confide in. Dad’s singular persistence and courage at living an independent life allowed him a graceful exit as his mind slipped away – a stoic character trait Pungo understood and appreciated long before we did.
By Marilou Newell