One of my heroes looks like a movie-star President. But my love for him has nothing to do with his resemblance to an American icon.
March always makes me think about my great-uncle Weach, one of my paternal grandmother’s four brothers. His name was actually Wade Ruggles, but he got the nickname “Weach” as a child and it stuck.
Uncle Weach was a coal miner in the mountains of Preston County, West Virginia. He had three sons. His oldest, Jimmy, was my father’s age and died of Hodgkin’s Disease as a teenager. His other two boys were born much later. Steve and Dave were teenagers when I was a little girl. They taught me to roller skate and took me swimming in the Cheat River during summer vacations.
Coal mining is hazardous work, and not likely to make the average worker wealthy. But Uncle Weach knew how to spend both time and money on what was most important. His family had a cozy farmhouse on a winding country road with their own small pond nestled behind it. He also had a campsite along the Cheat River, where he built a trailer that a family could live in quite comfortably.
When he retired, he decided the children in his extremely rural mountain community in Tunnelton, West Virginia needed a gathering place. He turned an old building into a roller-skating rink. It was there that Uncle Weach and my older cousins taught me to skate.
I have so many unique and wonderful memories of Uncle Weach, and there’s only room here for a few of my favorites.
– He tamed a raccoon that hung out in his yard, to the point that it would waddle onto his porch and was even allowed in one room of his house.
– He loved sharing his campsite with family. One spring break, my then-fiance’ and I decided to take a trip there. The camper had gone unused most of the winter, and Weach made the mountain drive to air it out for us. We were behind schedule, and didn’t arrive until nearly midnight. When we got there, I found my great-uncle asleep in a recliner with a carton of ice cream melting in his lap. He was snoring and had strawberry goo on his jeans.
– He gave the best bear hugs ever. He wasn’t a tall or big man. By the time I was sixteen, I stood eye-to-eye with him. That year, the daughter of another of my great-uncles got married. I wore heels to the wedding. I saw Uncle Weach and realized that I was looking down at the top of his head. But when he grabbed me up in one of his big, warm hugs, I still felt like a little girl being embraced by a friendly giant.
– He loved children and had a knack for making each and every niece, nephew or skating rink visitor feel like the most special kid in the world.
I was an awkward, clumsy, self-conscious girl who took forever to grow into her body and her sense of self. I hated gym class with a passion. Sports in school are an exercise in humility for clutzy pre-teen girls who stand a head taller than their classmates and have horrible hand-eye coordination. Kids are harsh, especially adolescent girls, and I was the unwilling star of my own freak show. I spent my days trying to disappear into the background.
But Weach could make even a kid with no self-confidence feel talented and special and happy to be alive and out and about in the world. At home, I was the girl who faked injuries to avoid gym class humiliation. On endless summer days with Uncle Weach, I was the girl who swam in a river for hours, rowed a boat, climbed slippery slopes to get to the best fishing spot, and skated like a champ. He made me feel like my uniqueness was a good thing, not something to hide.
– He treated his wife, my Aunt Jeannie, like gold. She was a sweet homebody who raised her children and volunteered at her church. She tolerated a raccoon in her house with a good-natured sigh because she loved Weach as much as he loved her. When he passed away, she was lost.
– Uncle Weach was in perfect health most of his life, in spite of a career with a legacy of lung damage. In his late 70’s he woke one night and asked for an ambulance. He told Aunt Jeannie he didn’t think he would be coming home. He didn’t.
– Long before that night, he purchased their grave plot beside Jimmy, the son he and Jeannie had lost. Many family members rest in that cemetery, and my grandmother would walk my cousins and I there to visit.
Shortly after I learned to read, we stopped by Jimmy’s grave. I saw “Wade and Jeanne Ruggles” etched on the next stone over and flipped out. As a child, I didn’t understand preparing to be dead ahead of time. Grandmom tried to explain it to me, but I would not let it go until I saw Weach for myself, so we walked home and called him. He showed up right away, swooped me up and said “silly girl!”
He has rested in that cemetery almost 20 years now, and I still feel like the wonder of those mountains diminished just a little when he left. He was larger than life in the best way possible, and I still miss his bear hugs.
Some blame a life not lived to the fullest on hardships. But Weach blows their theories away. He had one of the most grueling jobs imaginable. He lost a son. Instead of being bitter, he loved his family, his life and his surroundings all the more. In his retirement years, he extended that love to his community with his skating rink.
Maybe that’s why March makes me think of him so much. It is the time of year when gentle warmth begins to steal over cold barren landscapes. It is a time of hope and happiness.
I miss you, Uncle Weach. You didn’t need to look like Reagan to be an American icon.