My Uncle JK was a sailor. He served in the US Navy during World War II. When the war ended, he was discharged in San Diego. I was only six years old then and was amazed to hear that he hitchhiked home. Never having heard that word before, in my mind he pole vaulted across hill and dale back to Charleston where he entered The Citadel. From that point on, he was my hero.
Uncle JK finished The Citadel and went to work in the Charleston Navy Yard. On weekend trips to his home, I sat at his feet listening to stories of war, college, and nuclear submarines. When I became of age and was able to go hunting with the men, Uncle JK was my guide. He set me up where the doves would fly and the deer would walk, and it was his dogs who found the quail.
When I was in college, Uncle JK married a beautiful woman who died tragically soon after the birth of their second child. At age 49, he retired to his farm, having had 20 years of government service, and he built a yacht. For the next few decades I was out–of–state or out–of– country, and we lost touch, Uncle JK and I. My mother wrote of his many sailing trips to Boston, Florida, and the Caribbean. And his second boat.
Uncle JK remarried and raised two sets of children, all the while spending much of his time sailing. About 20 years ago, I took a trip with JK and his wife on his boat through the Santee–Cooper to Charleston. He was proud of every plank, every wench, and every sail he had made with his own hands. He offered to take my wife Linda and me on an extended trip down the inland waterway, but somehow we never got around to it… partly because his second wife also died unexpectedly.
Thanksgiving 2002, we visited Uncle JK and his new wife, Margaret, whom we had known for three or four years and to whom he was embarrassingly in love. He spoke of his love of sailing, his love of the sea, and asked us to join him and Margaret on a Caribbean cruise in January. “I don’t care where it goes,” he said. “I just love to be on the sea sitting on the deck looking at the water and the sky.”
Linda and I agreed on the spot, not so much for the cruise but for the opportunity to be with Uncle JK for 14 days. I hoped to be able to sit again at his feet and hear stories of war, college, and sailing…and his new loves, religion and politics.
Just before Christmas, Margaret called and said JK was ill, and they weren’t going to be able to go on the cruise. We visited him in the Charleston hospital where we saw the quick devastation of prostate cancer. Uncle JK died December 29.
Uncle JK planned his own funeral, I know, to give his final irreverent whack to the stogy liberal elitist society he loved to disrespect. It was held in a funeral home in Moncks Corner on New Years Eve and was presided over by a lady Unitarian minister. No prayers, no medieval hymns, just a choir of his black friends who sang gospel songs that rocked the room.
At the graveside ceremony in the family cemetery in St. Stephens, Uncle JK continued his rave. As a cold drizzling rain fell on the pre–Revolutionary brick church, a trumpet sounded a few soulful notes. Oh, I wish… and a
guitar joined in…I was in
the land of cotton, old
times there are not forgotten.
Uncle JK played Dixie
at his funeral!
The preacher reminded all the black and white folks with tears in their eyes that JK was born in the land of cotton, and he did not want the old times there to be forgotten. He was a good man who lived a good life, and he had his
final goodbye: Look away,
look away, look away Dixieland.
This next series of Adventure Travel stories are about the Caribbean cruise Uncle JK did not take, but whose memory was on every meal, every island, and every sunset. Linda and I stood on the deck of the cruise ship every evening, looked at the sunset, and remembered what JK had said, “I don’t care where it goes. I just love to be on the sea sitting on the deck looking at the water and the sky.”
It is with great pleasure and appreciation that I dedicate these Caribbean stories to my hero, my Uncle JK, John Keith Gourdin.