|A literate childhood memory of a cherished uncle and the effect on everyone of his extremely audible flatulence.|
Uncle Bertram was larger than life. An oversized man. Tall, with a wide frame and huge belly that started at his throat and plunged to somewhere around his thighs. He had a squared head with close cropped reddish hair and ruddy cheeks below powder blue eyes that seemed like two bullet holes in a cardboard cut out with the sky behind it. His eyebrows floated on their own like furry little Hindenburgs and he wheezed through nose hairs thicker than English thatch. I know he wasnít eight feet tall but as a small boy I thought so then. His legs, revealed to us several times each summer when he wore short pants - Lion Hunting Shorts, he called them - were thick and sturdy, resembling snooker table legs, except they were glaringly white with only a few orange hairs. He was given to grand gestures, and when he might lay his five-banana hand upon your shoulder, you knew his bones were hard and heavy. Everything about him was overdone. He was a grown-up Katzenjammer Kid.
He relished expansive dialogues, often told unexpurgated stories of rather inconsistent adventures that seasoned friends ceased to believe, but with which my older brother Andrew and I, were transfixed. Uncle Bertram had done everything dangerous and been everywhere exotic.
No one ever called him Bert. That was too disrespectful and common for a man of his Germanic intensity and immense superstructure. My father nicknamed him ĎThe Bertrameisterí, which was fitting and he seemed to appreciate the Teutonic title with a Kaiser-like dignity as if it were his due. One always knew when Bertram was around.
Especially, when he farted.
Uncle Bertram was also a man of stentorian flatulence. And they were never those little fartkins that slip past oneís sphincter harmlessly. These were always clarion announcements, one at a time. The occasions when he chose to discharge this torrent of gas in the most immediate expedient always seemed to occur when the whole family was present - and just as often when new friends were in the group. Race, colour or creed, he ostracized no one with his nether voice.
Sometimes the sonorous sound was as though you had placed your head inside a tuba on polka night. Other occurrences were like the moment a piano hits the pavement after falling from the ninth floor. Mostly it was a quick blast like standing next to the lunch horn in a steel mill. Throughout this, disturbance, Uncle Bertram seemed to deny the very happening of the event. It was as if he heard nothing at all, choosing deafness at these critical moments. Aunt Mill eventually used the same tactic to save herself the embarrassment of her husbandís ear shattering detonations.
Sometimes his flatulence, (although in a musical chromatic sense, it could occasionally be called sharpulence) was preceded by a rumbling, like a lion who gives no appearance of passing air over his larynx as he creates the sound of deep distant thunder. Then the real roar would ensue and even those of us who knew it was coming would startle and expect a tawny lion to leap from behind the china cabinet. Andrew dubbed him the Bertrameistro. One time Aunt Bea even dropped her tea cup and fell back into the sofa, but then, she was always like a little nervous animal who is easily spooked and plays dead for survival. Uncle Bertram, ignoring his sister-in-law, would simply swig schnapps from the sterling silver flask he kept in an inside pocket over his heart, which he said was necessary to maintain the correct temperature of the Ďtonicí and might save his life in the event some sharpshooter from his past tried to kill him.
Whenever the resonant rumbling provided forewarning, Aunt Mill would rise and head for the kitchen to brew Oolong tea. Often the blast was so powerful people lost their train of thought as though it was derailed by a bomb. The family was used to these sonic booms of course, but newcomers would helplessly snicker and it is always harder to stop laughing when you shouldnít be laughing. At least us children could dive under the chesterfield cushions and guffaw while pretending to search for nickels.
Most of these Ďbreakingí events occurred without warning however, and took everyone by surprise. Sometimes the sound was like turning the radio on without knowing it was at full volume, and during the Sunday evening gathering for the shows, this could be disconcerting. Of course we knew what had happened during the Jack Benny or Baby Snooks programs, but often werenít sure while listening to The Shadow, if Lamont Cranston had been shot by someone with Xray vision!
When Uncle backfired, it was exactly like what he did when he borrowed Fatherís Ď46 Ford Coupť, in which he often took us nephews riding. He would find a crowded street and coast in gear while turning off the ignition for a moment. Turning it on again produced an explosive report so loud and sharp that everyone jumped and guilty people dived for cover! Andrew and I were full of glee at these moments and truly loved our robust uncle beyond limits. We made him do it so many times that he returned the car with the gasoline tank registering empty. And the muffler pipe nearly shattered.
Mother tried everything she could over the years to limit Uncleís proclivity when he came to dinner, trying to ease her sister Millís chagrin I guess. We were forbidden to comment or cheer. Cauliflower and cabbage were definitely out of the question, although Andrew tried to sneak broccoli onto his plate once. She kept a large saucer of after dinner minties near and we told her he was taking them but it was I who surreptitiously chewed them whenever no one was watching. Andrew confided to me once that when he grew up and became rich, he would pay Uncle Bertram to eat a whole can of beans and then accompany him to a classical recital. He doubted Pablo Casals and his cello would be so serene with Uncle in attendance. And the repercussions of Tchaikovskyís 1812 Overture were unimaginable, except to us children who pictured the audience shooting back.
Andrew was the Bertrameisterís favourite. I accounted this to my brotherís uncanny ability to conceal a start or twitch when Uncle cut one loose. Andrew just talked on as if he heard nothing either. I liked my uncle and wanted him to like me but I couldnít help but startle when he made his bum bark. I suppose I was afraid he would blow the Hummel figurine off the sideboard and I would be blamed for it. One time Andrew tried to emulate his uncle and let go a little poot at dinner, the shock of hearing Andrew do it caused me to echo his performance with a fartlet of my own, absolutely involuntarily - I swear to this day - yet Father believed in a mischievous complicity between us and nearly killed us, one and two. The swat of hand and the threat of belt was enough to comply with quiet.
People near Uncle Bertram were lucky in that their olfactory glands were not attacked with the same intensity as their aural senses. There seemed to be no smell to his trump. Uncle Bertram never emitted those silent bouquets known as Ďthe butlerís revengeí or nose-closers. Even though everyone in the room waited, breathing the tiny short breaths we do when we are trying to smell something we donít want to smell, and we donít know if we are downwind. After all, no one has a windsock in their parlor. But there never seemed to be an offensive aroma. Uncle Bertramís breaking wind could probably break windows, but he didnít smell bad. Andrew said he saw Aunt Mill one time spraying eau de cologne on the seat of his trousers as she ironed them.
There must have been a hundred occasions where Uncle Bertram dropped a blowout in public. But he was so good at ignoring it that even standing in the aisle on a streetcar, people looked at others, who upon being suspected, grew red-faced and were immediately judged guilty! More than one innocent patron got off several stops before his own, probably arriving home late for a cool dinner and a cold shoulder without satisfactory explanation.
Once, when Uncle was purchasing something at Woolworths, he honked a rouser, the cashier believed the exclamation to be a protest over the price and gave him a discount! Another time Uncle was in a shop buying needles for his gramophone record player and a salesman was demonstrating the new High Fidelity sound to a prospective buyer when Uncle unleashed a thunderclap. The salesman leapt to the new equipment to shut it down, fearing emissions of smoke at any moment and believing the fidelity to be too high by far while trying to explain it as an electric spike through the power lines. The Bertrameister just smiled with avuncular charm and took his needles. Sort of a Victrola victory. Even outdoors in the park Uncle could startle flocks of birds into frantically leaping into the air, some of them actually believing they had been shot by Passenger Pigeon hunters.
One day dear Uncle Bertram died and I felt a deep sense of loss at his passing because we would no longer hear his full-blooded stories ... or his hinder-blast.
Because of his size, Uncle needed a specially constructed coffin. (I believed they were afraid to cremate him for fear of an explosion. This was also the reason we never asked him to try blowing out a candle with his netherwind, we did love the man and wanted no harm to come to him. Although Andrew WAS interested in a roller skate experiment.) According to his own wishes, Aunt Mill had the coffin constructed of white pine with no padding or plush interior. Uncle would be laid to rest with only the simplicity of a plaid wool blanket to cushion his eternity.
Andrew, having gone with Father and Aunt Mill to see this basic box, arrived at the conclusion that it had acoustic tonal properties far exceeding the latest electronic marvels of modern loudspeaker technology, because of the lack of sound deadening material within the coffin and the natural propensity of pinewood to be an amplifier. (My brother had researched this acoustic science once by placing the wind-up alarm clock on several wood tables and cabinets around the house and comparing the sonority of the tick-tocks.)
Andrew had got the idea to send his beloved uncle to Saint Peterís gates with at least a drum roll, something to get the angelsí attentions. He decided to use his Ďwhoopie cushioní. This was a rubber chamber resembling a hot water bottle that you placed under someoneís seat cushion, and which, when sat upon, expelled its air in a rush and emitted the crude sound of letting one fly. These simple prank contraptions were, however, not in Uncle Bertramís major league and Andrew rightly believed he deserved something more than pocket-thunder. The Bertrameister required a feat of Jumbo proportions to do justice to his towering reputation.
My older brother kindly allowed me to take part in his noble intrigue by instructing me to commandeer, with stealth, certain of Fatherís tools and wire and bring them to his hideout behind the furnace. I admired his expertise as he attached the rubber cushion to an old truck tire inner-tube, cleverly sealing off the air exit valve which created the noise. The making of the device was easy for Andrew. He was a budding engineer. Late that evening we crept into the funeral parlor where the Bertrameister was Ďlying in stateí and met with only one obstacle, a problem overinflating the device around Uncle Bertramís feet inside the pine box. I swear to this day that Uncle moved his legs to accommodate our inner-tube, which took what seemed like hours to overinflate with our bicycle hand-pump to such an extent that I thought one more stroke would tear my arm from its socket or blow the nails right out of the pine! Andrew attached the thin wire to a bobby pin that when jerked, would release the catch on the air outlet valve.
The next morning we filed somberly into the funeral parlor, and after several quavering speakers had combined in a respectful eulogy, were invited to step past the open half-lid of the coffin for a final look at the Bertrameisterís rubious countenance. Andrew took this opportunity to catch onto his wire and take the end of it with him to the outside seat in the first row.
The preacher got on with his preaching, trying dutifully to convert any of us who harbored black sin or green guilt, and then having said most of his pitch, was at the point of Uncleís entrance through the Pillars of Heaven when Andrew triggered his device, resulting in the most resounding instant crescendo the placid funeral home had ever witnessed! A booming, thunderous, rowdy, reverberating burst of rude noise. A fortissimo to jump-start the dead.
Everyone gasped. The delicate pale flowers each side of the room trembled. The stained glass windows vibrated. I really expected Uncle Bertram to climb out of the wood box as though waking from his nap but the lid had slammed shut!
There was total silence. A trace of plaster dust drifted down from the ceiling. The preacherís mouth was agape as though he had seen the live Virgin. Father was stunned, Andrew wide-eyed at the extraordinary success of his device. I was sure I smelled rubber and even imagined smoke seeping from cracks in the casket. The dazed mourners in the pews were flushed pink with bafflement or white-faced with shock. Old Mister Dowler was fiddling with his hearing aid. It was as if the congregation was wound tight with a steel spring. No one moved except the Spinster Sarah Brown who was knitting at forty miles per hour! No one knew where to look.
Until we heard a snicker from the front row and saw Aunt Millís shoulders quaking, not in tears, but in laughter. Aunt Mill could no longer ignore the Bertrameisterís booming broadside.
It was Andrew himself who followed her lead. Me right after. Aunt Bea, having regained consciousness, was trying to shield her face. Mother and Father struggled to retain serious decorum but helplessly joined in and when we turned to glance at the audience, everyone howled with laughter and relieved applause.
The man of the cloth simply closed the Good Book and solemnly said "Amen," then broke into a restrained chuckle himself, apologizing because he had never before laughed at a funeral. Someone in the crowd said Uncle Bertram had just found his own way to Heaven and had no need of earthbound Christian or Lutheran help because he had propelled himself there. I believed his spirit had already passed Jupiter on the way out of the galaxy.
Andrew grinned all the way home in spite of losing his beloved Uncle, because he had sent the Bertrameister on his way to eternity in magnificent style. Uncle had cut one loose, Andrew said, cut the Great One loose. There was nothing flat about Uncle Bertramís final flatulence. It had been round, with substance and a life of its own, deafening but with character. It was music from the Maestro, a climactic crescendo that had vibrato, tremolo, bang crash and boom, all at the same time. It was simply, as Father put it - in great respect mind you, to his elder brother - the King of Farts.
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© RC Westerholm
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