I know events of today have a huge historical significance, and I feel somewhat guilty that I'm not writing about those. I also feel somewhat unqualified to write about them. I'm not very politically aware, nor do I usually care very much who happens to be sitting in the Oval Office. I pretty much feel sorry for all of them and wouldn't take that job on a dare.
But today would also have been my brother Bobby's 57th birthday.
I can't even fathom that. You would have to have known him to know how impossible it would be to picture him at 57. And I didn't know him very well.
Bobby went to Vietnam. Willingly. In fact, he wanted to go so desperately that because he had a kidney disease that might have kept him out of the Marines, he had a friend give his urine specimen. In one of life's great ironies, our mother later married the father of that friend, so his urine donor would have been his step-brother. If Bobby had lived.
In another of life's great ironies, Bobby came home safely from Vietnam, only to be killed in a motorcycle accident the following year. He was exactly two months from being discharged from the Marines, and he was looking forward (as I remember it) to getting on with his life. I think as desperately as he wanted to get IN the Marines, he was eager to get out. Disillusioned, perhaps, or maybe just tired of it all.
I was only 11 years old when Bobby died, so some of these memories are jumbled up mixtures of misunderstandings in some cases and being too young to understand in others.
Some details of that day, however, are imprinted on my mind with a branding iron.
We had just moved into a new rental house the day before, my mom and I. She had finally left the abusive bastard she dated for four years and only stayed married to for eleven months. I remember people being in and out of the house, sisters and brother and aunt and uncle, only I really wasn't paying much attention to the goings-on because I had discovered a creek out behind the house.
It was June, and I was wading in the creek. Wearing a red dress with white polka dots that came down to my ankles. This was in the early 70's when mini-skirts were all the craze, which makes it all the more retarded that I was wading in the creek in an ankle-length dress.
I must have processed some of the comings and goings, because I looked up and noticed that my sister, who had just left our house headed home to hers, was back. I don't know why that struck me as strange, but it made me curious enough to leave the creek and go back to the house.
When I came in the back door, it seemed that everything and everyone just froze. They all stared at me for a minute, and then there was a flurry of activity.
My aunt was making me take off the ridiculous long dress and put on something else. It was a brown dress with a plaid bodice, and it was the butt-UGLIEST article of clothing you would ever want to see. I would have looked much less ridiculous in the granny number I was wearing in the creek. Maybe she thought it was a costume or something. She couldn't find my shoes, and she said never mind, I could just go barefoot.
I should have known then something was terribly wrong.
Only the basest of people went out in public barefoot.
We went to the hospital, and I guess somewhere along the line I ascertained that Bobby had been in an accident. He had wrecked so many cars in my young life that I don't remember being particularly surprised or upset that it had happened again. I was just annoyed that when we got to the hospital, they said only my mother and one male relative could see him. Nurse Jane became almost hysterical at that, so I knew better than to ask if I could go. I was way down the pecking order from her, and if she couldn't go, I knew I didn't have a prayer.
The waiting room was packed with people I knew. Then I heard Katydid on the phone with our father, trying to make him understand. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing he was drunk, because Katydid got frustrated with him.
Then I heard her say, "Daddy, Bobby is dead." And she said something about a motorcycle.
I thought in my 11-year-old brain, "Now that's just wrong. Telling the man his son is dead just to get him to come to the hospital. She has stooped to a new low."
So when she got off the phone, I asked, "Why did you tell Daddy that Bobby was dead?"
Katydid was very puzzled. After all, I'd been right there the whole time. "But he IS dead."
And that's when I knew.
See, there was a reason for the confusion. Grown-ups don't tell kids everything, and rightfully so. I only knew the bits and pieces I had picked up from the snatches of conversation I'd heard that day.
Bobby had also been in an accident the night before. He totaled two cars, both of them his. He was driving one of his cars home from Camp LeJeune and he was towing another one. Somewhere around Columbia, South Carolina, the tow bar broke and flipped both cars. Daddy had to go get him in the middle of the night, and I remember hearing Daddy say later that when he saw the condition of those two cars, he wondered how anyone escaped alive.
Less than 24 hours later, Bobby was dead. He was trying out a motorcycle his friend had just bought, only intending to ride it around the block. He was wild and reckless and a daredevil, and I'm sure he was probably doing something foolish or careless or just plain stupid. Or maybe it just wasn't his weekend.
He was only 20.
The last words he ever spoke to me were on the telephone. He said, "See ya, Fats."
And that's okay.