Friday, September 13, 2013
My brother was two years younger than me. Our whole family was close. He and I were not necessarily closer than the rest but we did have a knack for getting into mischief together
The 1960's were a time of extreme change. Many people were demanding changes to the way they were treated. Peaceful demonstrations sometimes turned violent. We were learning to challenge authority not meekly follow what we were told. And of course there was the war in Viet Nam.
My brother who was one year younger had been drafted into the Army. He seemed to get a lot of breaks as far as time at home and assignments. His overseas assignment was to Korea.
The brother two years younger knew he would also be drafted when the time came. He always said that if he was drafted he would be sent to Viet Nam and if he was sent to Viet Nam he would come home in a "baggie". That was his term not mine.
So he was in fact drafted. He did not get any time at home between Basic Training and the second round of training. After that he was home for about a week and a half and he went to Viet Nam.
Before he left he made arrangements for the distribution of his things. And his insurance money was to go to our mother with the exception of a brand new car for our father. The car was to be a red Ford with black interior.
My brother was a person who lived his life to the absolute fullest. Everybody loved him. At the same time he could be so infuriating. He had a circle of friends who saw him as a leader. They occasionally got into a bit of mischief but nothing major.
One of those friends was a boy who had never really had any friends before. He was extremely overweight with an extremely possessive mother. Another boy also had a possessive mother but she had allowed him to have friends so she could entertain her gentleman friends. Another boy came from a large family too. There were others but those three stand out in my mind.
All the boys were drafted except for the one who was so overweight. The boy from the large family ended up in Germany. The boy with the popular mother was sent to Viet Nam as were the others. Members of my family and I wrote to them all regularly.
The overweight boy knew of my brother's prediction for what would become of him. He went on a rigorous diet to lose enough weight so the Army would take him. If he could just get in he reasoned that he could volunteer to be sent to Viet Nam. Once in Viet Nam he felt he could somehow find my brother and protect him. He finally fit into the weight restrictions and joined the Army.
In the meantime my brother was in Viet Nam. We received letters from him. We wrote to him. We sent him "care packages" from home. My mother, my sister, and I tried to take turns so he would receive at least one each week. We included personal items like socks, underwear, and grooming supplies. And they were full of homemade goodies.
He wrote to tell us how much his buddies enjoyed the cookies and candy we made and sent. He told me one time that there was a particular type of cookie that I sent that always arrived in crumbs. I apologized and said I would not send them any more. He wrote back and said to send them because they were one of the most popular items in the box. He suggested I send them in coffee cans so they could just eat the crumbs so that is what I did.
My brother was a tank driver. One time he was driving and his tank hit a land mine. Luckily no one was hurt but it did blow one of the tracks off his tank so he was idle for a few days until they fixed it. He sent my oldest son pictures of himself standing in the hole that was left after the explosion. It was as deep as he was tall.
He missed everyone so much. He sent silk jackets for my oldest son and my youngest brother. He sent silk pajamas to my second son who was my youngest at the time. They wore them until they were completely worn out.
One letter I received was tragic. They had been out on a mission and several of his buddies were killed. It was the first time he had ever seen anyone die. And to die so violently only made it worse. He was drunk when he wrote the letter and there are teardrops on the pages. It broke my heart for him to have to go through that.
My husband, children, and I were preparing for vacation. I had the dreaded feeling that we would be called home from that vacation because my brother had died. I had some last minute shopping to do before we left so I drove to my parents' house to pick up both my sisters to help me. They would spend the night and we would shop the next day.
It was fairly late when we got home. As I did every night I sat in my rocking chair to rock my children before I put them to bed. Suddenly I looked at my sisters and said, "Did you hear that?" Both of them asked what they should have heard. I remember telling them that it must have been the rocker creaking. They remember me telling them what I heard.
It was a young woman's voice. It clearly said, " Emma, Randy's dead." I was a little frightened but I pushed it aside and we all went to bed.
The next day we finished our shopping. I had to finish packing for our trip because we were leaving the next day. As I drove my sisters home we heard one of our favorite songs on the radio. It was Creedence Clearwater Revival singing "Looking Out My Back Door". When it was over we switched stations and there was the same song. Once again at the end of it we switched and the same song played again.
As the song was ending we pulled up in front of my parent's house. We were laughing and carrying on. Daddy came out and came right to the car. He worked in a chemical factory and his eyes were all red. I assumed it was from something at work. He told me to turn off the car.
The girls went into the house immediately. I asked him what was wrong, hoping to find out what had happened to his eyes. He told me my brother had been killed.
My first thought was for my mother. How was she? Did she need a doctor? I took my boys into the house to see her but she was not there. I assumed she had gone to her room to try to relax. My youngest brother and sister were sitting on the couch looking totally lost.
My husband who was very close to my brother had gone to see his own brother after work. I called and talked to my sister-in-law. I told her to tell my husband where I was and that he should meet me there instead of at our house.
She could tell from my voice that something was wrong. After she insisted on knowing I told her and asked that she not tell my husband because I wanted to be the one. Then I took my boys outside. They were so small and I did not want them to upset anyone.
The boys and I were sitting on the front porch steps when my husband arrived. I told him what had happened. He didn't believe it. He was certain it was a mistake.
With my husband to support me I went back inside. My mother was sitting on the couch between the two little kids. I asked her if she was okay and told her that I had been in before but I thought she needed to be alone so I had not bothered her. I did ask if she had been lying down. She had seen me when I was in before. She was sitting on the couch with my brother and sister and wondered why I had not said anything to her!
The soldiers who came to notify my mother had stayed with her until my father could get home. They were actually so kind and so helpful. My parents decided to have a military funeral.
The soldiers told my parents that my brother's tank had been in for repairs. Some of his buddies had been caught in an ambush and he volunteered to be part of the rescue team. The vehicle he was riding in hit a land mine and he was killed instantly. They would not tell us if there were other casualties.
We found out many years later that what we were told was not the truth. What actually happened was that they were out on maneuvers. He was driving his tank and there were other tanks there too. They stopped to decide what to do next. My brother was thirsty and knew there was Kool-Aid in one of the other tanks.
That tank driver knew the area and that it was heavily planted with land mines so he told my brother to stay where he was. My brother assured him he would be fine and proceeded to get a drink. He stepped on one of the land mines. It killed him and another man instantly. Either way, he was dead.
For the military funeral there was to be a military honor guard The Army tries to grant as many of the family's wishes as possible in circumstances like ours. We had only one wish. Remember the overweight boy who finally made it into the Army? He was in Basic Training. We asked if he could be part of the honor guard. We were told that Basic Training was rarely interrupted but they would inquire. We got our wish.
My parents were devastated at losing their child. The rest of us were devastated at losing someone who loved living as much as my brother did. The service itself was heartbreaking. But at the cemetery the military took over.
A military funeral is beautiful with all the pomp and majesty involved. They have been trained to do things exactly. There was no milling about wondering what to do next. But for the people who loved the deceased the closing can be heart-wrenching. The playing of taps and the gun salute are something that I wish for no one.
After my brother died my mother, my sister, and I continued to send the "care packages" to his unit. It was the least we could do and I think we knew my brother would have appreciated it. Some of the guys wrote and thanked us. It was comforting.
As we all know life moves forward. We still miss my brother. He was not much more than a baby when he died. It is not right. We have tried to keep his memory alive by introducing his life to our children and grandchildren.
Two years after he died I had another son. I named him after my brother. The strange part of that is that if I had waited until my sons were a bit older to name one of them after him, it would have been this one. He has a lot of the same traits, especially his love for life.
Before my brother was killed I never gave much thought to war. It was something in history books or so far removed from me that it was not real. I wish that a day will come when war is a thing of the past. No families will have to mourn sons and daughters lost so senselessly for what always seem to be petty reasons. I understand there needs to be a balance but there must be a better way to solve disagreements.
My brother died just a couple of months before his 21st birthday. He has been gone more than forty years. Too young. All of them were too young.