I’m posting this story on February 28th, the anniversary of the final episode of one of the highest rated TV series ever, M*A*S*H. “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” aired on this day in 1983 and achieved record ratings in viewership, holding that record until 2010. It was written in part by Alan Alda and directed by him. He provided a bump (shown below) that served as my motivation for this post about my very own ‘Hawkeye,” who I called ‘Uncle John.’
I really hope every kid in the world has a favorite uncle. Mine was ‘Uncle John,’ who was a womanizing, hard-drinking jokester who also happened to be a doctor.
He was married to my Aunt Mary, who happened to be a nurse, which tracks because Uncle John had a thing for nurses. Sadly, that ‘thing’ included a variety of nurses, so Aunt Mary had enough of his womanizing ways after about a decade of marriage, and divorced him around 1975.
Beer was like soda-pop to Uncle John, who also chain-smoked like a chain-chimney. I swear that when I was a little boy I thought he must have owned the Coors factory and the Marlboro factory because he had both those things — one in each hand — at all times, and a steady supply of either that seemingly never ran low.
Uncle John was a Korean war veteran who’d served in a MASH unit, much like the one featured in the well-known 1972-’83 TV series M*A*S*H.
That series sprung from a 1970 feature length film, which had been based on a book by Richard Hooker, which was a pseudonym for a retired US Army surgeon named Dr. H. Richard Hornberger. Dr. Hornberger was the original ‘Hawkeye Pierce,’ the character played by Donald Sutherland in the film and Alan Alda in the series.
One of the reasons that M*A*S*H had been one of my favorite TV shows when I was in my teens was that ‘Hawkeye’ always reminded me of Uncle John.
He was darn near exactly like him except for subtle differences, such as my uncle’s infidelity in marriage. The character of Hawkeye was a bachelor, but he and my uncle both seemed to date nurses with the same regularity, and I’m pretty sure Aunt Mary knew about it.
When I was about 12-years-old, Uncle John made a memory for me that I still have to this day. I actually have lots of memories of him that usually come with guffaws, chuckles, giggles and rip-roaring laughs attached, but this one is more of a grown-up memory, as I witnessed a very grown-up thing happening that I had a hard time getting my little 12-year-old head around.
The other night Dorian and I were listening to Alan Alda’s terrific podcast, ‘Clear+Vived‘, as he interviewed Tom Hanks. They talked about all kinds of showbiz things, and for a bit they touched on M*A*S*H. Then I remembered I’d always wanted to tell Alan Alda about the memory Uncle John had given me, because he played Hawkeye on television and, dammit, Uncle John WAS Hawkeye in real life.
I decided I’d just use Twitter to twell him my story, knowing full well he wasn’t likely to see it, because once a well-known person gets into millions of followers they generally get an avalanche of replies to anything they post and it’s impossible to read them all.
But he did see it, and said this in reply…
Well, that’s a nice little fist-bump!
So I’ve decided to share that little story/memory here, partly in memory of Uncle John and partly in honor of M*A*S*H, Alan Alda, and of course, Hawkeye Pierce (aka Dr. H. Richard Hornberger).
I grew up in the seventies in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern California. We lived about eight miles out of town off a rural Highway, while my mom’s brother, Uncle John, lived in Pasadena with my Aunt Mary. He’d served in Korea, and not only that, he was literally Hawkeye Pierce. He served in a MASH unit.
He was known for his womanizing and hard-drinking, but as a civilian doctor, he was dedicated to medicine and worked at a hospital somewhere in southern California. I remember mom commenting after the MASH pilot, “Oh dear lord, that guy is just like your Uncle John, that’s how he was!”
Years earlier, when I was 12, Uncle John came up for a weekend visit without Aunt Mary. On the second day, he volunteered to make a grocery run into town and asked if I wanted to go with him. You bet I did! He was my favorite uncle, and he always made me laugh.
The town was Georgetown California, with a tiny main street, one little market and The Georgetown Hotel right next to it, with a little old-timey gold-rush era bar on the first floor. After we loaded groceries into the car John said, “C’mon kid, let’s get a drink.”
We walked over to the bar, went in, and found no one in there but the lone barkeep, an attractive Asian woman. We sat at the bar and John ordered up a beer for himself and a coke for me. He spoke to her in Korean, and her eyes got ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ big.
In that mountain town, I’m pretty sure she was completely surprised by some random white guy coming in there with a kid, and not only figuring out right away that she was Korean, instead of guessing Japanese or something, but also actually conversing in her language.
I had no idea what they were saying, but there was a lot of eyelash fluttering, laughing and arm-touching, during the whole 15 minutes we were there. Then John abruptly downed the remnants of his beer and said, “Okay Dave finish that coke, son, we have to go!” I did, then out we went.
It seemed John couldn’t drive fast enough to get us home. I asked what they’d talked about. He said, “Oh not much, I told her I was a Korea vet from US Army and used to patch-up Korean soldiers when they got shot, she liked that part.”
I bet she did.
We pulled up in front of the house and got the groceries in. John had used my mom’s car for the errand, so he gave her the keys and said, “I was just dropping off Dave and the groceries, I’ll be taking my own car back into town, there’s some stuff I need to take care of.
After he left, mom asked me if I knew anything about his sudden urge to get back into town. “Well, we went into the hotel bar and he met this really pretty Korean lady…” She stopped me there and just shook her head, saying, “That’s your Uncle John” She wasn’t surprised at all.
I heard him stumble in at about three in the morning, trying so hard to be quiet that he woke me up. He and Aunt Mary lasted another few years before she’d finally had it and left him sometime around ’78. My favorite funny uncle, my real-life Hawkeye, succumbed to cancer in 1990.
RIP John Mills, US Army veteran, Korea 1953. I will never forget you.
Alan Alda’s podcast ‘CLEAR+VIVID‘