Do you remember Uncle Sam wanting you? You know the guy I mean. Top hat made with various parts of the American flag, white goatee, accusative eyes, pointing his finger at us. If you remember any of this, you are old.

A good place to give a speech in Portland during World War II was the cornerstone of the Libby Building, at High and Free streets, where the art museum now stands. It was the perfect spot for a 5-year-old to pontificate on behalf of Uncle Sam and his war bonds. I did this without any shame whatsoever.

The Libby Building was a vast and busy place. You could get your eyes checked by Dr. Frohock or take a piano lesson with Ocy Downs. The underground part of the building on High Street held a bowling alley. Three Arts Studio sat just above. Their slogan was: “Dance, Drama, Song.”

But that’s not what this story is about.

His name was Sam, and he asked me to call him “Uncle Sam.” Even though he wasn’t a real uncle, I quickly agreed.

He was tall, handsome and wore pinstriped suits and white shirts with cufflinks. He drove a shiny black Buick and he didn’t treat me like a child – unlike his wife, Anna, who didn’t like me one bit but pretended to because she was a friend of my mother’s. Sometimes Anna would ask me to leave the room or send me on some fool’s errand so she could tell my mother things she didn’t want me to hear.

But that’s not what this story is about.

Sam was kind and generous, a real gentleman. Another thing I liked about him was all the cash he carried around.

It was about the time Sam and Anna sold their tiny house on Preble Street in Cape Elizabeth and moved to South Portland that Mama told me there was talk about Sam going “up the river.” I had questions. What river? Could I visit him? No, I could not visit him, and it was not really about a river, it was jail.

I wondered why one of the nicest men on earth – who gave me coins and treated me like a grown-up – could ever be a bad man. Everyone knew only bad guys went to jail. I secretly thought it was something Anna did and Sam was willing to take the rap.

The Portland paper said he was a bookie, something to do with gambling, horses, odds – complicated. It didn’t sound like a crime to me. My father gambled every chance he got. He called it “poker.” That’s what soldiers did, among other things.

As I grew older, I lost track of Uncle Sam, but I never forgot him.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. I guess that’s what this story is about.

I can’t say for sure that my personal Uncle Sam was a good guy, but I’d make book on it.

— Special to the Telegram

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