Uncle Vernon was Dad’s youngest brother. He was the prototype of the Southern baby boy. He never married, spent his adult life on the family farm with his mother and cripple sister, worked hard but not too hard, just enough to keep things going. With most of my aunts and uncles I knew who I was; I was “Speck and Teens youngest boy.” With Uncle Vernon I was Jack. He made eye contact; he smiled; he winked. He had a twinkle in his eye that said he never forgot what it was like to be a child. When I was young he let me ride on the running board of his 53 Chevy pickup as we inched through the woods. (He held my arm.) I have fond memories of topping tobacco, breaking corn and dipping turpentine with him. Trust me, the memories are much better than the experiences.
After I grew up I always went by to visit him when I went home to Mom and Dad’s house, usually as a brief stop on my return trip. No matter what he was doing he took time to stop and sit on the front porch and talk. He asked about my life, the places I had been and my friend he had met. He took an interest in me.
Vernon Johns had that distinctive Johns look. There was no denying our family resemblance. He was thin and bald (thank God the resemblance ended at the forehead – no comments needed on the thin discrepancy either). His distinctive was not in appearance but in speech. He stuttered severely. I have never thought of it until this moment, perhaps that was our connection. Perhaps he had empathized with me over my speech impediment.
His coping mechanism for stuttering was profanity. When he got caught on a word he let a superfluous “God damn” or other profanity, as in “pass the bre-e-e-e-e-e God damn bread.” These expletives were laced throughout every conversation, but because he wasn’t angry and the emphasis wasn’t on the profanity no one seemed to notice them.
I preached a revival at my Grandmother O’Quinn’s church when I was in my early twenties. I visited Uncle Vernon and asked him to come. He did attend a couple of nights but he didn’t come to the altar. As usual I stopped by his place on my way home; I was wanting to seal the deal. I really wanted him to get saved. I presented the plan of salvation and asked him to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior.
He responded, “I haven’t seen it yet.” This puzzled me; I assumed he meant he had not seen the need to repent and believe. As Cheryl and I drove down the lane away him on his front porch, my education kicked in. He was expressing the hyper-Calvinism of our family tree. He had not yet seen a revelation that he was one of the elect.
It was breast cancer that ultimately killed Uncle Vernon. He was a five-year survivor of the first treatment but it returned 1984 or 85. I made a special trip from Cleveland to see him in the hospital in Waycross, Georgia. God was gracious and Uncle Vernon prayed the sinner’s prayer with me before I left. He never came home from the hospital died less than two weeks later.
On my way out of the hospital that day I stopped in the hallway to talk with my Dad’s Aunt Trudy and her daughter, Alma. They were coming to visit Vernon. Aunt Trudy said, “It’s a shame about Vernon, but we never expected him to live long. He was a sickly baby.” It was surreal, my 90 something year old great aunt alluded to my fifty something year old uncle in reference to him being a baby. It was in that conversation she pointed to the connection between the stuttering and the profanity and she confessed in a soft, raspy voice I can still hear, “We probably shouldn’t of laughed at ‘em, but he was so cute trying to talk.”
I am thankful for my Uncle Vernon, for the attention he gave me, the conversations, and the opportunity to lead him to the Lord.
March 23, 2010