One Christmas, my Uncle Herbert came to visit. Sweeping in from Detroit, he parked a beautiful Chevy in our driveway, and sailed through our front door laden with presents for everybody.
61 Chevrolet Bel Air by DVS1mn
Bounding into the living room with a fat cigar belching smoke in his wake, he barked a happy greeting to his brother, threw the packages on our couch, and wrapped his arms around my mom as he said, "Now, where are the meatballs!" My mom waved away the cigar smoke, laughed and pointed to the sideboard where no fewer than twenty-five Swedish delicacies were waiting for the man we affectionately called Uncle Gunshot.
My uncle earned his name the hard way. But that will become plain later, and he had no regrets about the choices he made that led to his surprising moniker. What you need to know first is that Uncle Herbert loved America. Most of all he loved living in Detroit. "The greatest city in the world," he called it. Given how he got there, I can understand why.
Before Sweden adopted a more humane approach to government, in the 1950's for example, living in small-town Sweden could be a stultifying experience. Now, please keep in mind that I am reporting here. These are the characterizations shared with me by my father who, you may remember from other posts, left Sweden because it was not the greatest place for him to grow up.
Anyway, my Uncle Evert was dad's older brother. And he was a bit at loose ends as he left school. Not the best student, he didn't seem to settle into a job. Instead, he was most famous for running with a pack of boys who very effectively stole apples from other people's apple trees, and performed similar acts of mischief when they felt necessary. To cope with my Uncle Evert, one of the more recidivist pranksters, the little town's leaders met and decided they would take up a collection to send Evert to America. They cast about for a town that would fit his exuberant personality, one where a Swede they knew would be willing to sponsor him, and finally decided to send him to Detroit. They thought of it as a punishment. For Evert it proved to be the exact opposite.
You see, Uncle Evert later told me that he got into so much trouble back in Sweden because the culture there had already written him off. A boy from a poor family with not the best grades in school, Evert just wasn't able to compete for one of the few scarce jobs the city dangled in front of its young men. You see, it's not just America that tolerates a high unemployment rate in order to enable business owners to employ only the most prized workers. So Evert had directed his initiative in ways that pleased him and frustrated the city elders.
Uncle Evert was blessed to arrive in Detroit at the height of its glory. The city was booming.
Cadillac Square from City Hall looking east towards county building, Detroit, Mich. by Boston Public Library
Evert marveled at its city thoroughfares laid out like the spokes of a wheel. When my dad drove to visit my uncle the first time, Evert said, "Just follow any major artery. They'll all take you to the city's center. I'll meet you downtown." Detroit was pulsing with the success of its auto plants, with its parts plants, with its manufacturers of all kinds. Evert quickly decided on a career as a house painter and helped all the working class and middle class folks who wanted to make their homes and apartment buildings shine with the city's success.
But it wasn't Detroit's economic prosperity that Evert loved. He was to remain in the city even when times got very tough indeed. No, what Evert loved were the city's people.
Ugandans dance to Mahogany Jones- LIVE music at the National Theatre by U.S. Mission Uganda
As a boy who'd known only Caucasian Swedes, and pretty conservative ones at that, Evert loved all the races and nationalities that flocked to Detroit. He said this rich and complicated culture was what made Detroit so amazing. The crazy quilt that was Detroit kept Evert happily fascinated for the rest of his life. Even after he earned his nickname.