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My One-of-a-Kind Uncle
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opinion columns
by Richard Harris

From the July 5, 2017 issue
of The Journal

   My Uncle Phil Harris recently passed away. Below is a condensed version of comments I made at his Memorial/Celebration of Life Service last Saturday. I was asked to share some of my memories in the newspaper for his friends who couldn't make it to the service.

   I had the good fortune to have my Uncle Phil as my next-door neighbor when I was growing up. His sons, my first cousins Matt and Mitchell, my sister Charlotte, and other "Oochee Kids" like cousin Al Hester and friend Clifford O'Hearn got into a lot of stuff together through the years. One of the reasons for that was because Uncle Phil and my dad, Charlie Harris, got into a lot of stuff. We were lucky to be around their ventures, because they led to our own adventures.
   In addition to being fulltime salesmen, they always had one side business or another, which meant there weren't any dull periods in Oochee Bottom. Through the years they were hay farmers, cattle farmers, row crop farmers, hog farmers, pecan orchard planters, etc., as they worked the land to help support their families. They also stretched their entrepreneurial spirits with the short-lived Harris Company, which stocked racks of impulse purchase items in retail stores.
   Dad said Phil could make a million dollars on paper in only about five minutes. The superb salesman would then only need about five more minutes to "sell" Dad on the idea and away they'd go. They would be the first to admit that their business ventures had varying degrees of success and didn't always work out as planned. For instance, if you drive down Oochee Bottom Road today you won't find any sign of a pecan orchard. Even some ventures that appeared successful really weren't. Dad laughed when recalling how they filled the entire bottom with corn and harvested a heck of a crop only to earn just enough revenue to cover their expenses.
   However, even the efforts that didn't make much money made a lot of sweet memories for us country kids. We will never forget riding in the back of the truck atop a dangerously tall stack of hay bales, trying to ride hogs, and damming up the creek while the grown ups worked in the nearby pastures and fields. I can only imagine the horror that modern-day parents would have imagining their little kids playing in a homemade watering hole and saying things like, "Snake! Everybody out," and then watching a moccasin swim by before saying, "Okay, everybody back in!"
   I recently took my family on an adventure in North Georgia that included zip lining. It was a new experience for them, but not for me. Phil and Dad made a zip line between their homes for us kids back in the 70s when nobody had heard of them. It was also back before anyone had thought they should include safety harnesses or belaying lines, but we somehow survived flying high over the valley – sometimes hanging upside down.
   In addition to memories of adventures, we learned a lot about hard work. I'm sure Phil's business ideas were a big influence on me later in life when in my mid 20s I looked at my wife and said, "Why don't we quit our jobs, move to the small town where I grew up, and start our own newspaper business?" She, not surprisingly, asked, "What if it doesn't work?"
   That was a question I hadn't pondered up until that moment. I guess it's because I grew up watching men come up with ideas, try them out, and then move on to something else if needed.
   Uncle Phil was definitely a "big idea" kind of guy, and not just with business ventures. One year, he said, "Why don't we put three families, plus an extra kid or two, into one motor home, drive from South Georgia across the country to the top of a mountain in Utah, and go snow skiing, then pack back into the vehicle and drive back?" Somehow he convinced the other adults to go along and thus the most legendary vacation in our family's history was born. I am still in awe and will treasure many memories from that week for the rest of my life.
   There were many other ways in which my uncle was unique. He had a way of being both a "cool" adult and also one who kept us kids in line and never let us forget that we were the kids and he was the adult.  When you hit your teenage years, you want to start thinking of yourself as a young man instead of as a boy. That's kind of hard when you're "Richie Poo", which is what Phil called me for many years. I think it was around the time I joined the Navy when he, a former sailor himself, finally gave me a promotion to "Little Richard."
   I remember turning 16 and hitting that milestone where I could drive by myself. I was excited. I was feeling like a young MAN. I pulled out of the driveway and headed to town and whom did I meet coming in the other direction? Uncle Phil. I started waving when he was about a quarter mile away, because I wanted to make sure he saw his "grown up" nephew behind the wheel. When he got a little closer I noticed that he was waving, too. But he wasn't waving with as many fingers as I was. In fact, he was only using one finger. At first I thought he was mad about something, but as the weeks, months, and years rolled by, I realized it was just his way of having fun and messing with me – because I saw it many more times.
   It used to be that when I thought of Heaven, I thought of streets of gold, mansions, and everything that's fine and fancy. Now, I've realized that I really have no idea what it's going to look like, although I imagine there will be a pasture and a creek and perhaps some pecan trees that are nice and tall. However, instead of focusing on what it will look like, now I just think of the loved ones I've lost that I will get to see there again one day.

   I can imagine riding through the clouds in a chariot and being very excited, thinking, "Yes! I've made it. I'm headed to Heaven. I'm somebody!" About that time the clouds will part and I'll see folks standing beside the Pearly Gates to greet me. I'll excitedly throw up my hand to wave and they'll wave back at me. And I bet I know whose wave I'll recognize first.