Imagine a man who restored and flew autogyros, the forerunner of the helicopter; who convinced you trolls were living under the bridge on his property; who took you for bumpy rides in hand-cranked antique cars; and who gave you weird food, like chocolate-covered ants, to eat.
That was my uncle, Stephen Pitcairn, who died March 29 at Abington Memorial Hospital near Bryn Athyn, Pa,, where he lived most of his 83 years. He is survived by his wife Jocelyn, my father's sister.
Uncle Steve and Aunt Jock never had children but I'm sure my countless cousins join me in recalling how enriched our childhoods were by them both. I was born in the same hospital where Uncle Steve died, but my parents moved south when I was still an infant. We made regular pilgrimages to Bryn Athyn while I was growing up and moved there for a few years when I was 11.
During our visits we usually stayed at Uncle Steve's home and, for a child, it was paradise. My mother did not like animals, so, with the exception of one year, I was never allowed to have a pet. But Uncle Steve and Aunt Jock were dog lovers and their setter, Rogue, had the run of their house. He was rambunctious, to say the least, and a comedian who would sit with a dog biscuit poised on his nose and not snatch it with his tongue until Uncle Steve gave him a command. Since I was otherwise rarely around dogs, Rogue terrified me at first but was the first animal I remember hugging.
Uncle Steve was the son of Harold Pitcairn, an aviation pioneer who, with the Spanish engineer Juan de la Cierva, developed the first rotary-wing aircraft, the autogyro. Uncle Harold also created the first airmail delivery service with the Pitcairn Mailwing and founded what later became Eastern Airlines, for which Uncle Steve worked as a pilot before joining his family's financial business.
Uncle Steve restored his father's inventions and if you search his name on YouTube you'll find a video of him flying a 1931 Pitcairn Autogiro. I didn't know much about the autogyro when I was a kid, but I remember there was, along with a carousel, a one-man helicopter in the basement of his home. Uncle Steve told me he was not "allowed" to fly it because it made Aunt Jock nervous. I also remember a toy red helicopter from FAO Schwartz that I thought was the coolest toy I'd ever seen. Uncle Steve gave it to me – after I smuggled it home and was made to send it back by my mother.
But, more than aircraft, I remember him for his cars. I'm talking race cars, vintage cars and, later, experimental cars. And go-carts. Up the hill on his property, Uncle Steve built a go-cart track, which, to my recollection, was huge and filled with hairpin curves. Most of the go-carts, as I recall, had twin McCullough engines that reached speeds deemed too fast for kids. But now and then the track was cleared of adults and the older kids got to drive them.
My earliest memories, though, are of Uncle Steve's hand-cranked vintage cars, like the Model T. I remember going on bumpy rides in these. The memory is mainly sensate. I remember bobbing up and down, begging to ride in the rumble seat, and laughing my head off. As the years went by, Uncle Steve became an intensely serious collector and what had earlier seemed to be big toys turned into showpieces housed in huge garages. I remember walking through a garage once and putting my hand on a car. He attacked the handprint I left with a rag and some wax.
When I was 15, Uncle Steve gave us an MG. It was the car I learned to drive in and continued driving until I went off to college. Then it became my brother's. I drove MGs off and on for much of my adult life until I was hit in one by a tractor trailer on I-75 about 10 years ago. I was lucky to survive and, although I bought another one immediately afterward, I had an anxiety attack every time I got into it. Ultimately, I gave it away. Now I'm craving another.
I had not seen my uncle in many years and on the day I learned of his death, I was overwhelmed by childhood memories of him. There is much more that I recall. Suffice it to say that to a shy, withdrawn kid like me, he was an amazing gift of playfulness and imagination.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.