October 4, 2016: The Rubaiyat of Joe and Kelly

When I noted a couple of weeks ago that in years of working with both Christians and Muslims I’d only witnessed one open but friendly religious disagreement between the two faiths, I didn’t mean I never knew ABOUT any other such quarrels. And there were a very few Muslims in eastern Kentucky well before the 1980s. From what I’ve heard,though, in the old days the most memorable conflicts locally occurred between only two men: my great-uncle Joe Meade, the town dentist of Inez many years ago, and a merchant in the same place, a Syrian pack-peddler or “drummer” who’d finally settled down to run a dry-goods store and who went by the name of Kelly Useem. Now, I don’t know much about Kelly Useem except that he was probably the sole Muslim in Martin County at that time, but Uncle Joe was—well, he was Uncle Joe. He kept an office in Inez but also carried a foot-operated dentist’s drill to house calls, and when working on a patient he’d place two straight chairs back-to-back, have his patient sit in one, put his right foot up in the other, and use his right knee as a cushion for the patient’s head as he drilled or yanked with all the skill the University of Louisville had given him between 1898 and 1902. He’d often drop by to ask my grandmother and my mother to boil his dental instruments, and on almost all these occasions he’d have a cache of pulled teeth with him, many of them, Dad swore, with more than a little gum tissue still clinging to them. I was too young to remember the teeth, although I doubt Dad and Mom would have let me look at them in the first place, but I don’t think the old fellow ever charged much.I’m pretty sure that if a man offered to pay him in whiskey, or a woman by other means of barter, it was just fine with him. I inherited a typescript collection of poems he wrote, his Scrabble board, a pack of his cards, and his dice, and I’ll always remember him by all four—plus a passel of stories.

Uncle Joe, bless his heart, undoubtedly agreed more with his fellow poet Omar Khayyam than he did either Jesus or Muhammad, but for Kelly Useem if no one else he became a Christian apologist, more than likely simply for the sake of the argument. When he wasn’t in his office or out on a call, like as not you’d find him at Kelly Useem’s store, the two quarreling over the relative merits of Christianity and Islam. And in spite of the disagreement, I suspect both combatants enjoyed the fight and either would have been disappointed if the other had given it up.

They did get into trouble together at least once, though. Drinking with Uncle Joe was always a risky proposition. One time he and another friend got drunk together and he pulled all the friend’s teeth. That strained the friendship—as well as the poor guy’s food, afterward.But it so happened when I was a small boy, and Uncle Joe was well past eighty,that Kelly Useem got hold of a large saddle of mutton and whether or not Kelly observed his religion’s ban on alcohol, both he and Uncle Joe ate themselves completely sick on mutton and Uncle Joe got dog-drunk besides. He managed to hitchhike from Inez to Williamsport, where he stumbled into the house of his youngest sister, my great-aunt Mae, and began to curse that mutton with a proficiency that rivaled his persuasive skill as a spiritual apologist to Kelly. As she’d done many times, Aunt Mae put him to bed until he sobered up. After he dried out he came to our house, from whence he visited a Paintsville physician and returned to us to take his cure. Don’t ask. It involved a lot of mineral oil, in more than one place. When I reflect on how moody my mother often was, I try to remember that it was she who had to clean up after him that time, at my grandparents’ insistence. And this was only one of his mishaps.

Uncle Joe’s and Kelly Useem’s long-gone day seems a time of innocence to us now, but it probably appears more pleasant through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia than it really was. It would be nice, though, to see those who differ religiously get along as well as those two did, perhaps over a mutton dinner—but maybe with a little moderation, and minus the whiskey.

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