The following post is part one of a special two part Memorial Day commemorative series at Autographed Letter Signed. I dedicate this series to My brother, my uncles, “willy”, Kim’s son, “Chicago Dude Who Trades”, Real West, Iron Fist, Army Wife, Avanti and anyone who has given themselves in service to our great country, the United States of America. You are all patriots and imperative to our survival. God bless you. God bless America.
One dimension of post 1930’s life that affected me rather indirectly was the Korean and Vietnam Wars. My mother held a very liberal vision of war. It was a bad tool of the white man and it kills people for nothing. She would tell me that if “Women ruled the world, there would be no more war.” Granted she had never experienced the Filene’s Basement annual bridal event, I felt that my mother had a valid point. I believe that women are more inclined to creative problem solving and better negotiators. I can hear my male readers yelling sexism as I write this but usually in my family and I believe this to be true in many others, the women were the backbone that held things together. This quality, this endurance was often catalyzed and necessitated by war. The men would leave and the women folk were left behind to hold down the fort. Being a child of the 1940’s, my mother witnessed this first hand. Grandmother would scrape anything together for supper, grits for breakfast lunch and dinner. You were lucky to get a fried egg sandwich every once in awhile. Rationing stamps for sugar. Holiday gifts were apples and nuts stuffed into socks. From the stories mother told about growing up during World War II, I would not trade places with her for all the gummy bears in the world.
Once the men returned, there was the afterbirth to deal with. It was as though a traumatized child has be reborn, taking place of the man that once was. I had two uncles who both served in the Korean War. After their return, it was difficult for my grandmother to cultivate any sense of what was between the family that remained behind, and her two sons. They had no major physical wounds to recover from, perhaps that would have been better than the mental torture they received. One son, “Fred” experienced extreme racism and was stabbed in his barracks by two white platoon leaders. His money was taken from underneath his mattress. Money that he was saving for college should he return to the states alive. Fred was far too sensitive and romantic for war. He had a baritone singing voice and tried for the Chicago Opera. My grandfather would not or could not afford to pay for the required lessons. The reason I say “would not” is because later it was discovered that my grandfather had another family in Michigan that coexisted outside of ours. Whatever the reason, Fred entered the army in order to receive benefits and hopefully become his family’s first African American college graduate. In life, things have a way of not proceeding as planned. Fred was stabbed and given a medical discharge.
At home, Fred was reeling with something that made him virtually unrecognizable to his mother. It was later was diagnosed as schizophrenia. My grandmother took care of him until old age would no longer allow her to handle a son who was inclined to fits of rage. In 1986, she would make her eldest son’s favorite meal- Spam casserole (yes SPAM!)) for the last time. She packed his bags and a car came for him. His departure was not a quiet one, making it all the more worse for his mother. Fred would live his life in mental institutions and is still in one today- stricken with Parkinson’s disease. He is someone the family has forgotten, an inconvenient truth. Just an address on a holiday parcel containing fruitcake and X-rated magazines.
My other uncle Gavin, also returned from the Korean war in an altered state. Unlike Fred, Gavin was boisterous and a fighter by nature. When bullied, Fred would turn to his younger brother for help. Gavin would assume his role as butt kicking family protector until his death. While Fred joined the service with a goal towards self-improvement, Gavin joined to escape reform school. He had a proclivity towards bucking authority. While a student at Chicago’s Montefiore Reform School for Boys, Gavin was a handful. The Whitey Marsh character in the 1938 classic Boys Town depicts Uncle Gavin perfectly, except Gavin would have been an even bigger pain in the ass for Father Flanagan. You can imagine this lack of respect was a handicap for Gavin in the military. Gavin somehow ended up in Germany, in bed with a German officer’s daughter. She was also pregnant with Gavin’s child. For awhile, the German girl lived with Gavin. The baby boy was born, held only a couple of times by his father. A dishonorable discharge sent Gavin back home. The German girl waved at him from the airstrip with baby in hand. Back in the states, Gavin tried to have her join him, he sent letters to immigration, the US Army. His attempts were blocked mostly by her father. He finally gave up in 1960. Street fights would claim his front teeth. Years of construction work would claim his youth and once thick black curly hair. Crown Royal straight out of the bottle was his soul food, loose women and boxes of Argo Starch would comfort him for the next 40 years . He died in 1992, in an armchair of some woman’s house. A beer in his hand, eyes open, watching TV. The victim of a heart attack.
For my family, what happened to the two brothers served as a familial referendum against war. The chronological span of their pain reached across the generations and by the early 1970’s, there was a pride that they served, a pride that would lead my mother to push my brother into the service. But there was also a sense of disdain for the living ghosts of war.
Tomorrow, I will continue with part 2 of “He will not be Forgotten” Vietnam War and rather unlikely friend for a seven year old Afrocity.
Autographed Letter Signed,