Uncle Joe was the seventh son born to Thomas Frederick and Mary Ellen Ball on January 10, 1912. His birth name was Joe Vell Ball. Of all the seven Ball brothers and the youngest one, Uncle Joe was the tallest. He probably stood about six feet four. He had sparkling blue eyes and brown hair. He held his lean frame in a self-conscious pose most of the time. The Ball brothers all had nicknames. Uncle Joe _________ , and my dad (who was just older than Uncle Joe) was Muck. The origin of these nicknames remains a mystery.
Uncle Joe was a character in the truest sense of the word, and I always wished for him to be interviewed by Charles Karalt of “On the Road with Charles Karalt.” He was unique in that the only time he ever traveled out of Southwest Arkansas was a trip to West Texas, and I am not sure he was too thrilled that he made that trip because I think the driver’s speeding scared him to death . He refused to go the Georgia to visit his sister Mary because he said, “George went to Georgia one time and he died, and Theo went to Georgia one time and she died.” So he never went to Georgia. Now, understand that neither George (one of his brothers) nor Theo (one of his sisters) died after making the trips to Georgia. They died long afterwards from cancer and heart attack.
Another story that gives some great insight to this dear man comes from my brother Rowland. This story occurred when he was a little boy, and this is how he tells it. "Gloria (our daddy's cousin and Uncle Joe's cousin) was taking me and Joe to Blevins to the ball game. The road to Blevins back then, of course, was gravel and there was a very steep hill. As we headed up the hill, the engine started lugging down as if it wasn't getting enough gas. Back then, in the 40's the cars had choke cables that were mounted on the dash. This one was on the right side, in front of Uncle Joe. Gloria hollered "choke er Joe." So he pulled it all the way out, and the engine started spitting and missing like it was going to die. Gloria hollers, "Damn it Joe your choking the sum-b**** to death." He pushed it back in, and it started running smooth again, and we made it on up the hill. We have had many laughs over the years with this story.
To my knowledge, as that story suggests, Uncle Joe never had a car, never learned to drive and likely remained skeptical of those who did. Also he didn't have what one would call a real job, went very few places, never married, and had only the most meager education, maybe through the 7th or 8th grade. He had very few material possessions.
My first recollections of Uncle Joe are of the times when I was about five years old, and we spent many weekends with my grandfather Daddy Ball. Uncle Joe lived with him in the old shack that had been their home place in Redland Township, Hempstead County, near McCaskill, AR. This was a three room house not counting the kitchen, with a front porch that stretched all across the front of the house. There was a barn, a well, and maybe a smokehouse. I do not remember an outhouse. This is what I remember. In later years there was nothing left but the house.
Some of the things that made Uncle Joe a character have to do with his life style and his way of describing things. He lived so simply. When I recall these things I am filled with great joy. The most humorous is the summer that he came up to my mother’s with his sister Winifred, my aunt Freddy from Big Springs, TX. This was sometime around 1975 or 1976. My mother was gone somewhere, which was unfortunate because it meant that there was no one there to prepare a delicious lunch for them. My only option was to take them to Joda’s, the local restaurant. So we piled in the car and off we went. In the summertime, Joda always had a vegetable plate available due to fresh vegetables from local farmers. This was served with cornbread and was most attractive to Aunt Freddy who rarely had this since she no longer lived on the farm. Being excited she said, “Look, Joe, they have fresh corn, peas, pintos, squash, and cornbread.” He replied rather matter of fact, “Shoot, I can get that at home. I’m gonna get me a hamburger!” I loved that day. That scene. I wouldn’t take anything for having been there to see him excited over getting a hamburger. I don’t know anyone else who would ever have been that thrilled with such a meal.
Another incident that I hold dear in my memories of Uncle Joe was the time I bought a new waffle iron. I invited Jean, my sister, and her children Beau, Todd, (her daughter) and Jason, and Uncle Joe up on Saturday morning for testing out the new waffle iron. We all had our treat of the waffles, and later Todd told me that on the way up that Uncle Joe had asked her, “Toddie, what is a waffle?” I loved it. She explained to him what he was about to indulge in. I wrapped all the leftover waffles in foil and gave them to him to take home, instructing him that he could warm them in the toaster or oven and have a good breakfast the next few mornings. Jean said that he would never take time to warm them. He would just eat them cold.
This was a story that Jean told. When Jason would go over to spend the night with him, Jason would often take cans of things from home (which was just cross the field from Uncle Joe’s shack). Uncle Joe liked the canned items, and called it “town food.” We all thought this was very funny.
My Uncle Pat (an older brother to Uncle Joe, his nickname was Duck) owned the land there during the time that my grandfather and Uncle lived there. When my grandfather died, Uncle Joe continued to live there, and he kept up the place and looked after my Uncle Pat’s cows. This was the only job I ever knew him to have. When Uncle Pat sold the farm, the man who bought it told Uncle Joe he could continue to live in the little shack if he would keep the gate closed. This meant that Uncle Joe was solely responsible for the cattle that this man owned. Often times I remember going down the lane to visit him. He would always meet us at the gate, open it; we’d drive through, and he’d close the gate, and walk back up to the shack. When we left, he would always say, “I’ll walk out and close the gate behind you.” He never allowed us to be responsible for the gate.
In later years he bought a little house in Blevins, AR, a town about six miles down the road. Now, I do not know how he managed to buy the house, but somehow he must have earned a small salary in addition to keeping the gate closed, because he had Social Security from the time he was sixty-five. Living in town he saw things he had never seen living in the country. One such observation was the living arrangements of the late 20th century. An acquaintance we all knew had his girl friend living with him. Uncle Joe said to Jean, “I wonder if she leaves him, will she try to get ‘shackamony’?” From then on he referred to that street as Shackamony Row. He had such a cute sense of humor.
The move to Blevins brought changes in his life and there he discovered the Senior Citizens Center. At the Senior Center he enjoyed playing dominoes, cards, and the companionship of other seniors as well as a hot lunch. He spent the last years of his life sharing joys he had never experienced before, as his social life had primarily been shared with family.
Other family members could probably add to these memories of Uncle Joe. I just know that these are special remembrances that I have of someone who simply and purely touched my life, one whose memory will bring me happy and joyous moments as long as I live.
Uncle Joe, I am thankful for you. Maybe other people have someone like you, but I know of no other person quite like you in my family. Only the song by John Denver called “Matthew” evokes the same feeling in me as does the memory of you.
words and music by John Denver
I had an Uncle name of Matthew
Was his father’s only boy
Born just south of Colby, Kansas
He was his mother's pride and joy
Yes and joy was just a thing
that he was raised on
Love was just a way to live and die
Gold was just a windy Kansas wheat field
Blue was just the Kansas summer sky.
All the stories that he told me
Back when I was just a lad
All the memories that he gave me
All the good times that he had.
Growin’ up a Kansas farm boy
Life is mostly havin’ fun
Ridin’ on his daddy’s shoulders
Behind a mule beneath the sun.
Well, I guess there were some hard times
And I’m told some years were lean
They had a storm in ‘47
A twister came and stripped them clean.
He lost the farm and lost his family
He lost the wheat and lost his home.
But he found the family bible
A faith as solid a a stone.
And so he came to live at our house
And he came to work the land
He came to ease my daddy's burden
And he came to be my friend.
And so I wrote this down for Matthew
And it’s for him this song is sung
Ridin’ on his Daddy’s shoulders
Behind the mule beneath the sun.