A timely, unexpected bequest from my late godfather and uncle, Ray Sieve, helped finance my bicycle ride across America.
Here are a few words about Uncle Ray:
Raymond John Sieve died at age 87 in a nursing home in a St. Louis suburb on Dec. 1, 2007. He was the second-oldest of my mother’s four younger brothers: Clarence (Corky), Ray, Larry and Harold (Hally).
They were city boys from a German neighborhood of south St. Louis called “Dutchtown,” where the residents had names like Kleekamp, Straatmann and Eichelberger, and the streets were named for states or Indian tribes — as in Virginia and Meramec, an intersection a short walk from the Sieve homestead at 3920 Virginia Ave.
In 1866, his son, Herman Henry Sieve, my great-great-grandfather, headed west to Missouri and established a farm in the rolling foothills of the Ozarks in the Franklin County hamlet of Moselle, Mo., about 60 miles southwest of St. Louis. Sieve relatives still live in the area.
Ray and two of his brothers, Larry and Hally, enlisted in the Marines during World War II and fought in such Pacific hellholes as Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan. Corky, as the oldest, had to stay home to help support the fatherless family (their father, my grandfather, Henry Sieve, died in 1925 after his ice truck rolled over near Union, Mo., when my mother and uncles were children).
Ray was somewhere in the Pacific on the Marines’ island-hopping campaign to Japan when I was born in 1942. He was my godfather by proxy at my christening. But I met him for the first time on Dec. 6, 1944, when my mother, Virginia, took me to Union Station in St. Louis along with Ray’s girlfriend, Jeanne Duffy, to meet a special furlough train that brought Ray, a 24-year-old sergeant, and 10 other St. Louis-area Marines home from the war. “At the station to greet him was a two-year-old nephew, Jimmy Piper of Alton, born during Sgt. Sieve’s absence,” said a Dec. 8 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story, which misspelled my last name.
As his first-born nephew, or niece, I guess I enjoyed a short-lived special status. And Uncle Ray showered me with gifts as a child — a baseball glove, a football, a basketball — long before I was able to use them.
From late childhood to budding adolescence, I spent time every summer at a fishing cabin — known in the family as “the clubhouse” — that Corky and Ray kept on the banks of the Bourbeuse River, a tributary of the Meremac, on a bottomland farm run by my Great Uncle George Sieve, his wife, Tante (Aunt) Dina, and their son Jake.
As surrogate fathers, my uncles taught me how to do things that I never saw my own father do: shoot a .22 rifle; hunt squirrels; set and tend a trot line; gut, scale and fillet a fish; drive a 1950 John Deere tractor; build a wooden rowboat for use on the river; tie a thread to the leg of a June bug and fly it around like a tiny motorized kite; and hypnotize a chicken.
Uncle Ray, who always had at hand a pipe and a leather tobacco pouch, was a blue-collar guy, a steam-fitter/pipe-fitter like my dad.
After the war, he went to work for the Shell Oil Co. refinery in Wood River, Ill., across the Mississippi from St. Louis, and worked there until he retired.
Ray and Jeanne, who married shortly after the war, never had any children. But they always had dogs, who would appear on their annual Christmas cards bedecked in bows and Santa hats. The one I remember best from childhood was a black-and-white cocker spaniel named Sparky.
Jeanne died in 2001 and Ray eventually went into a nursing home. After the move out of his house, the nieces closest to him in his last years salvaged some mementos and passed them out to their cousins. I got a 1940s vintage floor fan, which will be a thing of surpassing beauty when I’ve finished restoring it, and a handsome Westclox electric clock that sits beside my computer, a daily reminder of Uncle Ray.
The fan and clock were fine remembrances, and all I expected. But last year, as I was planning this bike ride, I received a check for a substantial sum from Uncle Ray’s estate. I learned from one of my sisters that all of Ray’s nephews and nieces — 35 on our side of the family alone (Larry and Hally were particularly prolific) — received the same amount.
So in gratitude for all that Uncle Ray and his brothers taught me as I was growing up, and for Ray’s generosity to his nieces and nephews after his death, I called this transcontinental journey “The Uncle Ray Memorial Bicycle Ride Across America.”