Uncle Jim Hentz: A Man of Many Years and Few Words

Cypress tree pole

I don’t know what anyone else plans to be doing when they’re 100, but I expect to be fishing. Now, before you laugh, let me explain that there is historical precedent here. My Uncle Jim Hentz, for whom I was named, continued to hook up his boat trailer and drive to his favorite fishing holes until shortly before his death at 100 years old.

At his funeral, the preacher told the story of Uncle Jim showing up on his doorsteps bright and early one morning the previous summer. Thinking he was there for a visit, the preacher invited him in. It turned out Uncle Jim’s trailer had jumped off the hitch near the preacher’s house. He just needed some help hooking it back up so he could get on with his fishing trip.

Uncle Jim was my mother’s older brother, and he lived for a century though he was born in 1906, when even surviving childhood was an iffy proposition. ‘Old school’ doesn’t begin to describe him; he was more like Old Testament. His faith, hard work and determination enabled him to establish a successful grocery business during the Depression. Later that would grow to multiple stores and shopping centers in the Panama City area. And when he retired from the grocery business at age 80, he immediately turned his attention to real estate and did just as well at that.

The one thing Uncle Jim wasn’t was a talker. He was unfailingly polite, sharp as a tack, and stayed up to date on politics and news. But he didn’t believe in idle chatter.

One night when I was in college, my mother called and said that Uncle Jim wanted to speak with me. In years past, that always meant one thing: He was planning a fishing trip to Iamonia Lake and wanted me to bail out and clean up the old boat he kept there. But that didn’t make sense because I knew he had recently bought a brand-new one.

When I called him later, our phone conversation went like this:

“Uncle Jim, Mama said you needed to speak to me . . .”

He said, “I got a new boat. Do you want the old one?”

“Yes, sir. That would be great.”

“Well, come down here and get the motor and title, too” he said.

I started to thank him profusely. “Uncle Jim, I really appreciate this and I’ll . . .” and then, click. Silence.

Our business was done and he had better things to do than listen to his nephew babble on.

* * *

A few years later, my brother Bill and I caught a mess of fish down at the camp using crickets. We paddled up to the landing just as Uncle Jim had finished launching his boat. We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, when I noticed that he had brought earthworms for bait.

I asked him if he wanted the 20 or 30 crickets we had left and he replied simply, “Nope. Don’t want to give ‘em a choice.”

That was about 20 years ago, but it was only recently that I figured out that what Uncle Jim meant was that he didn’t want to give himself the choice. He had made a decision to fish with earthworms and that was, by God, what he intended to do.

Later that day, I got another reminder of the kind of man he was when I tried to help him as he was stepping out of his boat. I extended my arm just in case he needed the support. He ignored my gesture, jumped out of the boat and shot me a look that is burned into my memory until this day.

Without saying a single word, he let me know that was as close to a whipping as I had come in a long time.

Of course, that was back in his younger days. When he was only 86.

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