His given name was Thedrick Emerson Wright, but nobody ever called him that.
To anyone who worked with him, played softball for him or just spent time with him, he was just “Tack.”
Or if you were a kid like me, he was “Uncle Tack.”
It was never clear to me, or my dad who befriended Uncle Tack through his work at Ladish, where that name came from. Ted, Thed, TE or even “Big Man” would have made more sense that “Tack.” What was clear was that he was an integral part of my life growing up and loving man-child who always made us laugh, even as he fell apart.
Depending on who was around or how much beer had begun to flow, the stories about Uncle Tack were as legendary as they were outlandish. His supposed height was somewhere between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-8, depending on the length of his Afro and who was telling the story.
When you are 5 years old, the truth of the matter tends to matter very little, as he was simply a giant to me.
His weight fluctuated from a lean and powerful 270 to what he often called “a biscuit,” as in “I’m just a biscuit off of 300” or “a biscuit off of 320” in his later years. Dad used to tell me that Uncle Tack was short-waisted, so when they sat down together, my 5-foot-9 father and Uncle Tack looked to be about the same size. Only when he rose did he unfurl the towering figure he truly was.
I remembered how he would wear those 1970s outfits, including short shorts and long athletic tube socks in the summer. His legs reminded me of a frog’s: long and muscular with a sense that he could leap over anything. I also never forgot his hands: he would envelop my tiny paw with his giant ebony mitt, wrapping his narrow fingers all the way around it as he would say, “How you doin’ there, Little Man?”
Growing up where I did and when I did, I had little concept of the issue of race or how divisive of a topic it truly was. We moved into my parents’ new home when I was 4 and Uncle Tack came to visit. I remember yelling, “Uncle Tack! Uncle Tack!” and rushing up to hug him. Neighbors looked over at us quizzically and asked my parents in an almost “hope against hope” tone, “Uh… UNCLE Tack?”
My parents explained that it was a term of respect for family friends to be designated as “aunt” or “uncle” as opposed to “mister” or “missus.” That part never trickled down to me at that age. He was just as much of a family member as anyone else with that familiar moniker. It’s probably why when I was 7 or so, I asked my parents quite loudly at a McDonald’s, “What color will I be when I grow up?”
Uncle Tack, however, dealt with a lot of the racism of the day, even though he never seemed to let it impact him when he was near us.
One time, Mom and Dad went to Las Vegas with Uncle Tack and wandered around the strip in those halcyon days of the early 1970s. Dad and Uncle Tack went to the bar to order a drink. The bartender served Dad, but skipped Uncle Tack. Dad called the guy back and ordered a drink for Mom, giving the guy another shot to do the right thing.
He skipped Uncle Tack again.
“Hey,” Dad barked at the guy. “Aren’t you going to get my buddy’s drink?”
“Oh,” the barkeep replied. “Sorry, sir. I didn’t see him standing there.”
It could have been an honest mistake, although I somehow doubt it was easy to miss a 6-foot-5 black man standing at an empty bar sporting a fire-engine red three-piece suit.
Other stories came home of people at the factory tossing around what we would now call “casual racism,” but back then they called it “teasing” or “pranking.” One such case happened after Uncle Tack shaved his head. Some guy put five Milk Duds in a row on his desk with a sign that read, “Tack’s family.” Instead of filing a complaint or blowing up in a rage, Uncle Tack simply ate the Milk Duds. Why let them go to waste?
He always was that “gentle giant” in the most clichéd terms possible, but there were also legendary stories of him dispensing justice, or at least putting people on notice that he would.
In one such case, he was attending a Kool and the Gang concert at some local venue when a guy behind him kept kneeing him in the back. Uncle Tack asked the guy to stop, and the man kind of mumbled something in return. A few minutes later, the guy was back at it. Uncle Tack became slightly more firm in his request as the guy gave him kind of a look like, “Hey buddy, I paid for this seat.” A third time, the kneeing returned, so Uncle Tack rose from his seat, turned to face the man and in an even voice declared:
“If you knee me in the back one more time, I’m kicking the shit out of your whole row.”
The man quickly stopped.
Even when he was older, he had no compunction about evening the odds when he felt his family or friends were in a rough spot. My freshman year of college, I had a roommate who was making my life hell with drug use and other shitty behavior. Repeated requests to the hall association to try to fix this fell on deaf ears. When Dad shared the news with Uncle Tack, my protector replied, “So when are we driving up to Madison to take care of this kid?” Uncle Tack had to be in his 50s at that point, but he still was ready to go.
Above all else, I remember laughter surrounding Uncle Tack. He would sit in our kitchen and tell stories and Mom and Dad would howl with laughter. He would even tell stories about things they had all experience, but he did so in such a way that made you think, “Man, I wish I had been there…”
There was the time he came over to meet with my folks around dinnertime: He had just polished off two Big Macs, fries and a Coke, but my folks were eating supper, so he sat down and joined them. He ended up eating almost two-thirds of a full pot roast that was supposed to be sandwich meat for the week.
Nobody minded. It was Uncle Tack.
Each spring, he’d come to the house and coax my mother into joining his softball team. He was a hell of a recruiter and a great motivator, but my mother was getting on in years and each season he asked, it took a little more to get her to bundle up for those frigid March games and play for him.
She had to be in her 40s near the end of his coaching career and he had tons of younger players from which to choose. Still, he always told Mom he needed her left-handed bat and her speed to make the team complete.
I remember hunkering down on those freezing cold bleachers at Beulah Britton Park and watching my mom play each season. I still remember the other players on the team: Sharon, the giant guard from the factor who could crush a homer on to the tennis courts. Joyce (also known as Ice), a sharp short-stop with a quick first step, a wicked bat and a glare in her eyes that would just cut you in half. Steady Betty was there in left, catching everything hit to her and hugging Uncle Tack each time she came in from the field. Carol, the pitcher who was the only one about my mom’s age, who we still see from time to time around Cudahy.
The hard part for me is understanding now that Uncle Tack wasn’t the saint I always remembered. Laughter often covered pain. The “dapper” outfits often hid financial problems. Other positives painted a thin coat of cover on top of the negatives.
He was divorced from his wife, which rumor had it, was because he had been fooling around with some of the younger softball players on his team. He had trouble at work, as he often missed a day or two with no real reason for doing so. His kids were at odds with him and somewhat wandered aimlessly, based on the chatter I overheard.
The biggest problem, though, was his inability or unwillingness to take care of his diabetes. When he retired from Ladish, he headed back to Tennessee to be near family. By then, he was a massive man who loved sweets more than anything. A few years after he left, his health really began to fail. Recently, he had both legs amputated at the knee. Always the joker, Uncle Tack explained in a phone call to my father how he looked:
“I’m the same but now you’re as tall as me.”
That was the last thing Dad heard from him and that was several years back.
When I called home last night, Dad was talking about the weekend card show and other such things, when Mom shouted something from the living room to him. He then told me that he’d just heard from a friend of his that Uncle Tack died earlier this week. He was about 68, Dad said, although that was as much of a mystery as everything else surrounding the man.
It’s hard to write this, not just because it’s so hard to capture the essence of who Uncle Tack was and what he meant to me, but also because I’ve learned that writing like this is often seen as an affront to “more important discussions” of race and human interaction. That makes me worry people will overlook the man I know for the broader picture I have no intention of painting.
Uncle Tack wasn’t the “magical Negro” in my life, to borrow a term from Spike Lee. He wasn’t the “black friend” that got rolled out to counter claims of racism. Even though I hadn’t seen him in quite some time and I’m in my 40s, he will always my Uncle Tack.
He hugged me as a kid. He stood up for me as a young man. He danced with my wife at my wedding (albeit under the watchful gaze of his new protective girlfriend). He made me laugh all the time.
He was family and I’ll miss him something awful.