UNCLE R.J., Reluctant Hero

My grand-uncle, Richard John Hurley. Dates unknown.
These was taken when he attended St. Ann's Military Academy in New York.


Uncle R.J., as we always knew him, was a rather mysterious and reclusive fellow, to me. He lived with his sisters, my (maternal) grandmother, Cassie, and May, well into their senior years. The three shared a house in the Riverdale neighborhood of The Bronx where my mother grew up.

As a young teenager, R.J. slipped and crashed through a glass skylight atop an apartment building's roof, falling two stories onto a stairwell below. He was never quite the same afterwards, by all accounts. He became very shy and withdrawn, hesitant in his speech and movements. It didn't prevent him from being drafted during the first World War, however, and he was attached to an engineering battalion, shipped off to France, and badly gassed in the trenches during some hideous battles there.

Draftee R.J. Hurley, Fort Benjamin Harrison, Spring Valley, Indiana July 28, 1918


He survived it all, and later joined the Merchant Marine, where he spent a long time as an Oiler aboard various ships at sea. He never married, and lived at the same house he grew up in, along with Cassie and May until they all passed away within a few years of one another.

I saw him there on our occasional visits, and more frequently during the period when we lived in an apartment building across the street. Occasionally he would venture out of his rooms at the rear of the place, seeking something to eat or drink in the kitchen, or fetching a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes from the cupboard in the hallway. He avoided people, mostly, and was very standoffish. I had a hard time imagining this shuffling, wraith-like old fellow as a healthy young thing, going to war, or sailing the seas.

One morning, I was in my Grandma's kitchen drinking a cup of tea she'd made for me, and R.J. came in. We were visiting from Virginia at the time, as I recall. He paused when he saw me, kind of froze, and looked like he was about to turn around and leave when I said "Good morning, Uncle R.J.! Would you like to have a cup of tea with me?" To my surprise, he smiled and nodded, and came and sat at the little kitchen table. I poured him a cup, and he began to haltingly make conversation. His small talk game was pretty sparse, and I could sense it was difficult for him, even though I was probably about 9 or 10 years old at the time.

Photo dated 1960, burnt and smoke damaged.

"So... you live near Washington, D.C., now? Is that right?" he asked. When I replied affirmatively, he told me about being sent there as a young soldier, prior to shipping out to France in 1917. "It was nothing but big, muddy fields around the Capitol building", he said. "My shoes and pants cuffs were wet and filthy, and I worried I might get scolded for it. I got a lot muddier in France, though ” he chuckled. How strange to see him animated and amused! He grew more relaxed as he went on to talk about the Army, and the terrible food they had to eat.

"Say! Do you like flapjacks?" he asked me, brightening considerably. I had no idea what he meant. I'd never heard this term before. "I only know how to make one thing that isn't a ham sandwich-- and that's flapjacks. I like 'em! I make darn good flapjacks! I could make us some now, if you'd like..?" I was rather thrilled that he seemed to be warming up to me. He'd never said more than two words in a row to me, previously-- and those were usually muttered from a distance as he was slinking back to his rooms.

“Sure! I’d like to try some...uh... flapjacks. I’ve never had them before”, I told him.
What? How old are you? How can you be this old and never have eaten a flapjack? Well, we’re going to fix that, I’ll tell you!” and he began to scurry about the kitchen, grabbing various items from the pantry, cupboards and refrigerator. Imagine my surprise when a little while later, he began to stack PANCAKES on our plates. I tried not to show my surprise and slight disappointment that I certainly knew what these things were. He actually made some damn fine flapjacks, as it turned out. “I like to put jelly on mine”, he said, with a big grin. So, of course I tried it. And I liked it a lot. A fine meal with a glass of cold milk, when you're ten-- and sometimes today, when I'm in the right mood.

This little episode seemed to open him up to me, and for the next several years, I would have short conversations with the soft voiced, shy little man who shuffled and mumbled his way around that house. R.J. was a kindly old fellow, and I felt sorry for him.

Photo dated April, 1960. "R.J. out shopping, 231st St., NYC."

One afternoon, late in 1967, the city sent a crew to cut down a big, old tree that grew on the sidewalk near my grandma's house. It had been there for decades, and apparently posed a threat to power lines or something. Some guys rolled up in a truck, used chainsaws to fell the thing (which fell with a huge crash into the street) and cut it up into chunks, hauling it away and leaving a large stump behind. Unknown to everyone at the time, the force of this huge tree crashing to the street ruptured a gas line beneath the houses.

A day or two later, people began to smell a strong odor of gas, and called the gas company to report it. An inspector came out, and while he was checking the area, something triggered a spark which caused a large explosion. Gas from the rupture had pooled beneath the house next door to Grandma's. It blew up, collapsing the upper floor onto the lower, and starting a fire which spread to Grandma's house. People rushed out into the street; flames and smoke and debris were everywhere. Grandma, May and R.J. got out of their place safely, and stood on the sidewalk, gaping at the chaos and destruction.

A woman and her baby were trapped in the ruins of the house next door, and the lady was screaming for help. R.J. ran and climbed into the debris and shoved aside bricks and pipes and began digging them out. He found the baby, and handed her off to a bystander, and then managed to pull the woman out from beneath the rubble. They were safe, but R.J. was cut and bruised and scraped and generally exhausted. He was, by that time, in his early 70's.

Some time later, the local chapter of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars honored him by holding a ceremony at which he was presented with a medal. Against his wishes, and under tremendous duress,he attended, and-- head down, avoiding eye contact, hands folded-- accepted it as graciously as was possible for him.

Following the fire, and destruction of their home-- in which they lost nearly everything-- the three moved into a small apartment a few blocks away. He never spoke of the incident, and I found the medal in a box of odds and ends from my grandmother's place some years after she and May and R.J. had all died.

It now resides in an old jewelry box in my office, with an assortment of bits and pieces of old stuff from my parents, a couple of old watches, some cuff links and tie pins I no longer have any use for. Any time I see it, I think of R.J.'s shy smile, and I smell freshly made flapjacks Helluva guy, that R.J..


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