Uncle Dan and Aunt Beebe Watrous took me to see quite a few movies when I was a kid, and often they seemed to be better flicks than the ones I went to with my parents.
I think that’s because parents take their kids to movies suitable for their age. Uncles and aunts are not bound by such obligations. So sitting in between Uncle Dan and Aunt Beebe, I saw nearly every Burt Reynolds movie that came out in the ’70s — mostly on account of Beebe, who kept the Burt Reynolds “nude” centerfold from Cosmopolitan magazine. Uncle Dan liked Burt too, but not nude, and not as much as he liked Clint Eastwood fully dressed and playing Dirty Harry.
I remember Aunt Beebe covering my eyes at the Stockton Theater during nearly all of “Dirty Harry-Magnum Force.” She would have liked to cover my ears, too, but she only had two hands, and the other was busy dispatching the popcorn. Clearly, Uncle Danny and Beebe had no idea the movie would contain so much nudity or profanity, as the first “Dirty Harry” movie had very little.
Growing up, most of the kids in my neighborhood were girls, but Uncle Danny lived right around the corner. And with my dad working double shifts at odd hours for Owens-Illinois, Uncle Dan was the only guy in the neighborhood I could play with.
I had spent plenty of afternoons on my front lawn playing with the neighbor girls. We’d write notes to each other that read: “Do you like me Circle one: Yes — No.” I remember the innocent flush of receiving a returned note with Yes circled and the humiliating disappointment of a circle around a No — from the same girl who had circled Yes just 10 minutes earlier.
You would think that being exposed to the fickle nature of females early on would have kept me from swooning over all the circled Yeses and coy smiles in my life. But alas, the wiles of women are to most men and boys extra-strength kryptonite — even to Superman, and probably my uncle. Maybe that’s why back then, men enjoyed Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds movies so much — their characters were immune to the stupefying glamour of the fairer sex.
Sooner or later, the roller coaster of emotions associated with opening a tightly folded note to learn if she loved you, or loved you not, grew tiresome. Not for me, but for the girls who toyed with me, as, without fail, I would always circle Yes. Satisfied that they had either crushed or confused me (usually both), the girls would leave me to my befuddlement, and so I ended up, as usual, back at Uncle Danny’s.
It was an adult playground with a children’s entrance.
Two loveable and gregarious dogs, a swimming pool, stuffed pheasants and ducks on the wall, a green Naugahyde bar with a keg of Coors in the family room. Uncle Danny also had an early version of a Coors Light — an actual light behind the bar with a faux stream that appeared to ripple when turned on.
Sodas were kept in the relic of a fridge on the patio — it’s still chilling sodas today and is probably the most energy-inefficient refrigerator in all of Tracy, perhaps the county. But I am grateful Uncle Danny kept it running, because it gives every soda kept inside it a certain mildewy scent that I associate with my childhood summers.
My uncle also had an amazing stereo system, which he was quite proud of, and which could be heard in any room of the house and even the backyard. (He was good with wires and had an account at Radio Shack.) The centerpiece of the stereo was an eight-track tape deck that could actually record. He was a member of the Columbia House Record Club, so he had amassed a sizeable collection of eight-track tapes.
For those of you who missed the era of the eight track, the tape heads would have to physically move to a different part of the tape, during which time the music would stop and you would hear this loud CHU-KUNK that sounded like a bad clutch on an old Volkswagen. Then the music would resume at some point later in the song. This was by design, and it was infamous for doing it on the favorite part of your favorite song.
My Uncle Dan was a big Johnny Cash fan long before it was trendy, and I still hear “Folsom Prison Blues” in my head as “I hear the trai — CHU-KUNK — unshine since I don’t know when ...” I believe that if Joaquin Phoenix had sung it that way in “Walk the Line,” he would have won that Oscar. My friends in Hollywood say the original title for the movie was ‘Walk the — CHU-KUNK.” Kinda has a ring to it, doesn’t it Chief
The eight-track deck and tape library are still there, albeit pushed to the side to make room for a CD player. Last summer, Uncle Dan made sure his hospital bed was next to that wall of gear in the family room. I asked him if I should get him an Ipod so he could listen to music, and he answered, “What do I want one of those for Hell, if I wanna hear music I can just reach up and turn on my stereo.”
As usual, he was right. Besides, Johnny Cash being played at my Uncle Dan’s house just wouldn’t sound the same without — CHU-KUNK.
• This is the fourth in a series of Small Town Heroes stories by Richard Mobley. He graduated from St. Bernard’s Catholic School in 1977 and from Tracy High in 1981. He is a writer who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains. His uncle is the late Dan Watrous, Tracy firefighter from 1957 to his retirement as fire chief in 1988.