A few days ago my sister messaged me to let me know that one of my uncles, who has had a recent bout with many body ailments, had a seizure and was put on life support. Honestly, it wasn’t something that hit me like I expected it too. I think that I pull a lot of my personality traits from each of my uncles. My Uncle Larry helped foster my love for the cinema. I mean come on, he DID after all, take me to see The Terminator at age 4. Best Uncle EVAR. My Uncle James challenged me to better myself and my talents. He pushed me to top myself and simply be stronger. But this post is here to honor my Uncle Russell. Perhaps this is my way of working through the concept of death, and losing a loved one. My way to pay tribute to the happy memories, and lift up the memory of one of the most interesting, funny and talented men I’ve ever known.
I was born in Brooklyn, New York and that was where all of my extended family was. Once we moved to Florida, my earliest memories are probably a mix of the visits my Aunt and Uncle made down south throughout the years. While visiting one November, my Uncle braved a long family trip to the Volusia Mall where my 8 year old patience wore thin. Ultimately it landed us at the Volusia Square 8 theaters to see Oliver & Company. He decided not to take me to see The Naked Gun for fear that none of the actors would be wearing cloths… hey, he thought the joke was funny. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie (Billy Joel’s soundtrack is the BUSINESS)… Uncle Russell? He added his own lyrics to the musical numbers in the form of snoring… but it was cool… he was there.
How about later that night when we arrived at the finest of mini burger establishments the South has to offer, Krystal Burger. My father had to work that day (he had LONG hours) so my Uncle Russell was the only adult male in the group of us (my brother and I being the only other males in a group of around 8 of us). A drunken man walked in and apparently thought he ordered chili with his meal. Needless to say he did not, and was quite perturbed when faced with the missing chili. If youtube, smartphones and WorldStar HipHop were “A Thing” back in ’88, this would have had no less than 100k hits. This guy was an idiot, screaming all the while “I WANT MY DAMN CHILI!”. But what did my Uncle do? He stood up (and i swear smoke came out of his nose à la a raging bull from Loony Toons) and approached the counter to confront Trucker McDrunky. With a few words said under his breath and a few hand gestures towards the door, the situation was diffused. He handled it like a sir, though the tension was extremely high. But it was cool… because he was there.
I can also recall the stories he told me about his time as a Green Beret during, if my memory serves me right, the Korean war. I won’t go into the details but let’s say that, for a child reared on the movies of the 80’s, his story telling felt almost like I was cheating the Hollywood system. The man could tell a story like you wouldn’t believe. From being a blacksmith, to a deacon at his church, Russell Johnsan never ceased to amaze me. Take for instance, the time we were doing yard work during one of his summer visits. My brother and I witnessed him uproot a baby palm tree… with his bare hands. I swear this is sounding like a Paul Bunyon story, but I promise these all happened. Little things will always remind me of him.
I can still smell the distinct smell of his cigars, the way he would occasionally stutter when he would get to talking fast about a subject that excited him, his peppered black & grey hair, mustache and goatee, or the way he would upturn his eyelids and roll his eyes to the back of his head just to mess with me and my siblings when we were younger, or the playful bickering between him and my Aunt Joyce the one Christmas when ALL of our family showed up at our house in Florida. Though it was cramped, it was cool… because he was there.
There was this one summer, probably ’92 or ’93, and my mother had bought a baby grand piano. My Uncle, having carpentry experience (jeez, he’s like the short, black Forrest Gump), and I, working at the local performance theater, agreed to have a summer project and build my mother a raised platform for the piano. We worked on that thing for most of the summer. Measuring and cutting, nailing and sanding. I remember my Aunt coming outside while we were both sweating our lives away cutting the boards for the supports. We were measuring one plank and my aunt stood up on the back of said plank and started bouncing. The conversation went something like this:
Uncle Russell: “Joyce, get off that while we’re trying to measure”
Aunt Joyce: “What, PeeWee (that was her nickname for him)? Am I not supposed to be up here?”
Uncle Russell: *Glaring* “Keep pushing your luck… you’re gonna fall off”
Aunt Joyce: *Bounces a bit more on the plank*
It may not seem like much, but there was a playfulness, a bond there that was a pure “Huxtable” moment. I’m not sure why I remember that encounter so vividly but I still can see the way they were smiling at each other. It wasn’t even a moment that was between him and I, but still… it was cool… because he was there.
Fast forward to when my sister got married. This was the last time I saw my Uncle face to face. He was in a hospital bed. Over the past few years he’s been on dialysis, has had multiple surgeries, and his health has been failing. I had my children with me as I followed my dad and Uncle James into the hospital room.
“Johnsan!!” (that’s what my Uncle James always called him)
“Heya Russell” (this is what my father called him. He hadn’t hadn’t seen him in years)
“Hey Uncle Russell” (neither had I).
I introduced my kids to him. The strong man I had known all of my life was still there. His strength now reserved only for the gaze he could give from that hospital bed. He smiled weakly at me, then to my kids, and back at me; his smile growing stronger. We didn’t say much to each other that day. I watched as three brother-in-laws, three friends reconnect… and the happiness in the room was enough for me. As we turned to leave I stopped and looked at him one last time. Something in me knew that this was going to be the last time I saw him, man to man, face to face. I think he knew it too because he just looked at me, turned his lips in a “Not bad… not bad at all” fashion and nodded at me knowingly. I nodded in return and we had said our piece without speaking a word.
I’m writing this the night I was told that they will take him off of life support in the coming days. For my family that may be reading this… Aunt Joyce, Nicki, Gina… hell, even Cook… Know that Russell Johnsan was a good man that had an impact on many many lives, including me. He encouraged my knack for tinkering with carpentry, electronics and more. His sense of humor carries on in bits and pieces through me as well. His sharp thinking, quick wit and love for all of us is something that we keep with us. This man was a Titan. My Father and Uncles are some of the strongest men that I know. And though one of them is leaving us in physical form, we carry on with his memory in tow…
…because it’s cool… he’s still there.
Rest in Peace, Russell Johnsan.