(Uncle Frankie (right) telling stories in his garage workshop. He wore that green jacket as long as I knew him.)
My Uncle Frankie was mythic. I would say he was like John Wayne, but I doubt the Duke was man enough to carry Frankie’s tackle box. He was our family’s patriarch. The first responder in a crisis. Wise and witty. He drank Budweiser and smoked a pipe. He was a fisherman. A dentist. A gardener. He understood the way things worked. The way people worked.
Frankie passed away yesterday. He enjoyed a full life and died the way he lived—dignified and fighting. My brother’s last words to our uncle were, “You sure are a tough son of a bitch.” He was.
I related to Frankie best when he was telling stories. He was a master at it. He had a gift for timing. He brilliantly set hooks, built drama, and delivered perfect endings.
Frankie had an odd phrase he periodically dropped into every story—“At-Tuh.” I think it was a variation of “And, uh,” and it was usually transitional and kept the action moving. Anyone who ever heard Frankie heard “At-tuh.” It was his signature.
“The Art of the At-Tuh”
My Uncle Frankie Vines was a storyteller.
To be fair to my family, I believe this trait to be embedded in the DNA makeup of just about every Vines I’ve ever met. Our holiday lunches are full of fuzzy yarns of humor, wonderfully rambling remembrances, and flat-out lies.
But Frankie was the master. He always commanded our attention. He told stories about discovering and sipping on moonshine as a toddler. How he hitchhiked from Korea to Birmingham, AL, when his daughter was born. About fishing on lakes and backwaters and gulfs. About gold bars purloined from the attic of his garage. And the working prosthetic leg he made for his children’s pet bird.
He usually had the last say. He usually had the best say.
For years, his pipe was his prop. He’d slip it out of the breast pocket of his flannel shirt then palm his tartan-printed tobacco pouch. He’d tamp the tobacco into the bowl with his ring finger then work the pipe—like it was a wrench—around that same finger.
He did all this in the midst of setting up the story. The pipe became the focus. It was a decoy.
Frankie would light it with a fierce four-to-five pulls, scratch his nose, then dig in.
By this point, his motor was running. He had lassoed us all, and he knew it. We knew it. He was the captain. We were aboard.
And when he got to something really important—some lynchpin detail, some twist, some surprise—he would give a tell tale sign, a signal of intensity. (This sign was another Vines trait, because I’ve seen my mother do it often, and I’ve seen my Aunt Mary and my cousin Laura do it as well.) Frankie would lean in, squint his eyes, and cinch his lips until they wrinkled, baring the tops of his bottom teeth.
As a master storyteller, Frankie understood his audience couldn’t sustain that kind of seriousness for long. We listeners needed breathers.
So, it was in these moments that he would pause. Only it wasn’t a quiet pause. He’d lean back, flop his right arm over his head so he could scratch his left ear, and he’d say “At-Tuh.”
I’m still not fully sure what that meant. It was probably some kind of verbal qualifier. Something akin to the words “And, uh.” But it was the perfect break we all needed. It was a distraction.
The last thing I told Frankie before he died was that I would keep telling his stories. That’s all I know to do. He chuckled from his death bed then raised his left hand and gave me the "OK” sign.
I watched the second half of the game at a house full of people on Ursulines Street in the French Quarter. As soon as the Super Bowl ended we all spilled out into the street.
Packs of people just like us did the same--dribbling from alleys and side streets like they had just heard the clang of a signal bell clapper. It was as if a giant magnet or a bright and shining light was summoning a sea of black and gold to Bourbon Street. Every encounter was a high-five and a "WhoDat!"
We all knew where to go. This was an entire city moving in the same direction. Screaming the same chant. It was a beautiful communion.
We passed a three-piece band--snare, bass drum, and trumpet. Then a four-piece. A lone accordion player. They all played as they marched.
The rest of the night continued following the same script. We hopped from bar to bar, and everyone repeated the same things. Shaking their heads in disbelief. Begging to be pinched.
I got a wild hair to road-trip to New Orleans to watch the Saints' first Super Bowl with the Who Dat Nation. I knew the experience would be rich, no matter the outcome. And in the back of my mind, I thought, "How phenomenal would it be if they actually won?"
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Authentic Us Podcast
Click to Hear the Podcast Authentic Us is a sound-rich, storytelling platform that explores our culture through food, art, music, land, literature and characters. The nationally-distributed platform first launched in the Spring of 2013 as Authentic South.