There has been an “Uncle Ben” in every generation of our family for two hundred years. In 1809, Benjamin Kobal Fleagle was born, who became the first Uncle Ben to the children of his eleven siblings. His son was Benjamin F. Fleagle or Benjamin Fleagle Jr., and his son, Benjamin Edward Fleagle, is the dashing figure you see depicted above. This is the first Uncle Ben for James Ezra’s descendants, my direct line. When my father and my Aunt Miriam and all their siblings talked about Uncle Ben, they were talking about Benjamin Edward. Benjamin Edward’s first child was also named Benjamin Edward but that child lived only about nine days, so it would be his brother James’ third child who would carry the name for the next generation. That’s Benjamin Joseph Fleagle, my father’s brother, the Uncle Ben to my sister and brother and me. My own brother is Benjamin Daniel, so my daughters also have their Uncle Ben. And while my brother’s son Benjamin John Fleagle doesn’t yet have any nephews or nieces, he’s heir to the venerable title.
I have a tale to share with you about my great uncle Benjamin. I never knew him or his daughter Margaret Jane, but Jane was an accomplished writer of considerable craft, and she wrote a story called “The Cherry Picker” in which she tells of the day her father suffered a gunshot while picking cherries in the yard at Colonial Park. He survived and lived another 40 years, but no culprit was ever brought to justice. It was one of those long, languid summer days when, as she tells it, “the air alive with the chorus of cicadas and crickets, swept up to us from the thick woods below the barn.” Earlier that day, Jane notes, an older neighbor boy named Jimmy — a troublemaker in the eyes of her parents — had come around and tried to run off with the ball that her brother and his friends were playing catch with in the yard. Her father had sternly waved him off, saying “We’ll have none of that. You go on home — right now!” Later, Jane was playing outside with some new puppies and her father was on a ladder picking cherries in one of the cherry trees a good ways from the house. Her mother was in the kitchen preparing to do some canning with the cherries.
‘I have forgotten what I was doing,’ Jane reports in her written account,
‘only that I was near enough to hear a sound I had never heard before — one loud, sharp report and almost instantaneously my father saying, “I’ve been shot.” I remember Daddy, unaided, climbing down the ladder, the bucket of cherries in one hand. The fruit trees were some distance from the house, but it seemed that my mother was there by the time Daddy had reached the bottom rung.
‘The image remains with me of the bent-over figure of my father, my mother’s arm around him, and she half carrying him up the slope to the house. And I remember my father’s face, drained of all color as he lay on the horsehair-covered sofa in the living room. Mother, with almost icy calm, covered Daddy with a blanket and called the doctor. No one said anything to me.
‘As I quickly left the room, my heart pounded painfully in my chest, and fear almost cut off my breath. I recall a sense of relief, illogical as it was, as I went out on the porch and joined the boys who were standing around talking. What I had seen inside was unreal to me. Outside I could breathe, and I told myself that everything was going to be all right again. Then I heard one of the boys say, “I always liked Mr. Fleagle.” With those words of doom pounding in my ears, I rushed upstairs to my bedroom, threw myself across the bed and let the terrible tension inside me break forth in great gasping sobs.’
As it happens, the 22-caliber bullet travelled nearly all the way through her father’s torso, narrowly missing vital organs, and came to rest near his spinal chord. Doctors decided to let sleeping slugs lie rather than risk surgery, since after several weeks of rest Mr. Fleagle appeared to be developing no alarming symptoms.
And so that was the end of it. Jane was pretty sure it was a vengeful Jimmy who had fired the shot, but she says that it was not in her father’s character to accuse anyone of such an act without irrefutable proof. He steadfastly imagined that it could have been someone out bird hunting, and he went on with his life as a teacher (the writer Russell Baker, who was his pupil, describes him in his 1982 autobiography Growing Up). He lived to be 88 and the bullet, as far as Jane knew, never troubled him again. Jane finishes her story:
‘A former student of his remarked not long ago that he remembers an expression my father often used when the boys were getting a little out of hand. He would say, “Steady, boys, steady.” And that is the way I always remember him — steady in daily living and in times of crisis. For me, nothing stands out more clearly to indicate this quality than the memory of him climbing down the ladder after being shot, the bucket of cherries still in his hand.’
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