The year was 1941. WWII was a mere five months away. My father and his brother, James Columbus (J.C.), had just finished celebrating The Fourth of July in Vernon, Alabama where they lived.
J.C. had plans for his tenth birthday two days later. Because of the closeness in events, I’m sure my grandparents combined J.C.’s birthday with the holiday where special food was concerned. Grandma would’ve made J.C. some ice milk as she called it. She always did the same for me and my brother.
Grandma Hankins took an aluminum ice cube maker and poured milk in it, then added sugar. She froze it afterwards. It was as close to ice cream as Grandma could get.
On July 31, 1941, dad and his brother were walking through downtown Vernon early in the morning. It would’ve been Thursday according to the newspaper story. Dad and J.C. strolled by two men trying to start a truck. Curious at what was going on, they stopped to watch.
One of the men was pouring gasoline into the vehicle carburetor while another fellow cranked the engine over. When the truck backfired the can of gasoline caught fire.
The man quickly tossed it aside. James was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. The flaming gas went all over his clothes setting him on fire. J.C. took off running and before anyone could stop the boy he was severely burned. The uncle that I never got to meet, James Columbus Hankins, died later that day.
That traumatic event left horrible mental scars on my father. He never talked about it. Dad passed away five years ago at the age of 88 carrying this pain to the grave.
In 2016, I had a telephone conversation with the son of the mechanic that accidentally tossed that burning can of fuel. He told me he was a small boy when it happened. This person remembered things extremely well.
He told me that his dad was never the same. The family eventually moved out of Vernon to try and escape bad memories. That relocation didn’t completely erase it all. Like my dad, this man’s father never openly discussed it. He had to live with extreme grief for the rest of his life.
My late, Uncle James Columbus Hankins, is buried at Asbury Cemetery in Lamar County, Alabama. His granite gravestone now shows its age. The tragic accident took place 81 years ago so that’s to be expected.
July is not only our countries independence month, but a reminder for me each and every year, that I have an uncle I never got to hug or shake hands with, because of a most horrific accident. There’s only one photo of J.C. that we knew of and it appeared to be permanently lost.
Getting back to that lost picture of my late uncle. It was first shown to me by Grandma Hankins in the early 1960s. With the photograph being one of her most cherished mementoes, she kept the picture in a a secure place, yet did give me J.C.’s old pocket knife with a broken blade. The knife eventually became lost due to my irresponsible nature. I was only six or seven.
After Grandpa and Grandma died, the box of vintage photographs was passed on to Dad and Mom. On occasion, I’d thumb through them. J.C.’s picture was recognizable as it had a section missing in the upper left corner.
Years went by, and what now seems like a blur, Mom sadly left this world. Dad, of course, became sole caretaker of the photographs. He remarried and all was assumed to be fine where safekeeping family photographs went.
Because Dad was a long-haul trucker, and had no permanent address for a brief time, the box of pictures, along with other worldly goods was placed within an outside storage unit.
Within a year, that complex was broken into and most all items stolen, except for those photos and some winter clothing.
As it sometimes happens, my father’s new wife, for whatever reason, took a dislike to our side of the family and communication was severed from him talking to us. That included the grandchildren. Letters and cards never made it past her hands. Dad was in no medical condition to choose sides at this point.
When she passed away four years later, all of their possessions were taken by the city of Las Vegas per Nevada law. There was no “will” or “trust”, so we had zero rights to anything. Jim and I tried to get access to the photos yet were denied.
We’d pretty much given up on ever seeing them again, when out of the blue, my brother received a call. It was from our father’s deceased wife’s daughter, Stacie, who lives in Tennessee.
Las Vegas Social Services had mailed Stacie an envelope with old pictures inside, and some of the people were unrecognizable to her. She thought they might belong to our side of the family. It was amazing that she was able to contact Jim.
To make a long story short, on December 5, 2022, my brother met this lady at a Las Vegas storage warehouse. Stacie had traveled there to go through the items that the city now held. There was hardly anything left of value. When Stacie handed Jim the photos, he instantly recognized the one of J.C and let out a whoop. Jim had hit the jackpot as far as he was concerned.
Ultimately, a smiling face miraculously survived, for us to remember an uncle that we never got to meet!