When I was a child I used to read a magazine that my parents subscribed to, which had a section called “My unforgettable character” for common people to talk about other common people who had influenced their lives. Of course, at that age (nine or ten), I also had already created my influential personality. On the other hand, I was certain that over the years this model would change, so I decided not to write to the magazine and submit my opinion (today I wonder how in those days they would have received the collaboration of someone my age).
Time has passed by. I have met many interesting people who have helped me at difficult moments and inspired me and shown me paths that had to be traveled. However, the great myths of childhood have always proved more powerful; they go through periods of devaluation, contestation and oblivion, but they remain, appearing on necessary occasions with their values, examples and attitudes.
My unforgettable character was called José, my grandfather’s youngest brother. He never married, worked as an engineer for may years, and when he retired he decided to live in Araruama, a city near Rio de Janeiro. That is where the whole family went to spend the summer holidays with the children. Uncle José was a bachelor, so he probably did not have much patience with that invasion, but that was the only moment when he could share a little of his loneliness with his grandnephews and nieces. He was also an inventor, and to accommodate us he decided to build a house where the rooms only appeared during the summer! He pressed a button and the walls descended from the roof, the beds and cupboards emerged from the outer walls, and there we had four bedrooms to lodge the newly-arrived! When Carnival was over, the walls were raised, the furniture went back inside the outer walls and the house was once more a big empty shed where he kept material for his workshop.
He built cars. Not just that, but he made a special vehicle to take the family to Araruama Lake – a mixture of jeep and train on tires. We went swimming, lived close to nature, spent the whole day playing, and I always wondered: “But why does he live here all alone? He has money, he could live in Rio!” He told stories of his trips to the United States, where he had worked in coal mines and ventured to places never visited before. The family used to say: “It’s all lies”. He was always dressed as a mechanic, and all the relatives commented: “He should get himself some decent clothes”. As soon as television came to Brazil, he bought a set and put it on the sidewalk so that the whole street could see the programs.
He taught me to love things done with the heart. He showed me the importance of doing what you wanted to do, regardless of what the others said. He sheltered me when as a rebellious adolescent I had problems with my parents. One day he told me: “I invented the hydramatic (the automatic gear shift in a car). I went to Detroit, got in touch with General Motors; they offered me US$ 10,000 on the spot or one dollar for every car sold with this new system. I took the ten thousand and lived the most fantastic years of my life.”
The family used to say: “Uncle José is always inventing things, don’t believe him.” And although I felt deep admiration for his adventures, for his style of life, for his generosity, I did not believe that story. I told journalist Fernando Morais about it only because Uncle José was my unforgettable character.
Fernando decided to do some checking and here is what he came up with (the text has been edited, because it is part of a long article):
“The first automatic gear shift was invented by the Sturtevant brothers from Boston in 1904. The system did not work satisfactorily because of a problem with weight. But it was the invention of Brazilians Fernando Iehly de Lemos and José Braz Araripe, sold to GM in 1932, that contributed to the development of the hydramatic system launched by GM in 1939.”
With millions of hydramatic cars being turned out every year, the family who never believed in anything and thought that Uncle José dressed badly could have inherited an incalculable fortune. How good it is to know that he enjoyed some happy years spending his ten thousand dollars!