My brother was no sucker

Image of Fort Snelling Cemetery 2014 by Vivian McInerny

Rog was my big brother. I cheered his Pony League pitches. I rode shotgun in his Chevy. I swiped his skates to glide across a frozen Wilson Pond. And I cried ’til I felt my soul was going to turn inside out the day we learned he would not be coming home from Vietnam.

Last week I met a man who is the same age my brother would be, should be, and I listened in stunned silence as he bragged about the fact that he had not served in the armed forces. No one with any education, any money, any brains at all, he said, went to Vietnam.

I was horrified.

His observation was not new to me. People had been describing Vietnam as a working class war for many years. But they used to say that with compassion in their voices. They used to say it with a certain sense of sadness about the peg holes society puts us in. But this man’s attitude was new to me. This was the first time I had heard my brother, my family and everyone like us, dismissed as chumps and suckers; dumb enough to die.

Rog was killed April 1, 1970. The pain of that date. My brother was no hero, but neither was he a fool. He was a sweet suburban boy, an altar boy, a paper boy — a boy — all of 19 years old who held onto traditional beliefs of honor and duty to his country a little longer than was fashionable. Certainly, too long.

Rog was not drafted. He joined the Army. He joined not with rugged Rambo illusions, but with the gentle opinion that it was the right thing to do. Classes at the community college weren’t working out. It was tough studying and pulling railroad ties in the summer to pay for schooling, especially since he wasn’t even sure what it was he wanted to learn. A couple years in the service would give him time to find a focus. Besides, there’d be the GI Bill at the end of it all to pay for his education, just as it had for his father and for his father’s brothers. I don’t think it ever occurred to Rog — or anyone else in the family — that he might not get a chance to use that bill.

Rog came home on leave before shipping out to Vietnam. His dark hair was cut in an unfamiliar crop. The uniform made him appear strangely formal. But he still teased his five younger siblings with familiar bad jokes.

I remember him sitting on the sofa with our Grandpa poring over maps of Asia. Our home in Minneapolis was small and always crowded with us six kids, friends, and ongoing visits from extended family, but the two of them had carved out a quiet corner in the chaos.

With one finger, Rog followed a thin, black outline of Vietnam. He located his base camp between the wrinkled folds of the map and pointed it out to Grandpa who, always stubborn, found some point to argue.

Grandpa adjusted his glasses. He drew from his pipe. He said this conflict in Vietnam thing was sure nothing like the First World War he fought in Europe.

Peeking over the top of the map, Rog saw his little sister. He moved his eyebrows up and down like a Saturday morning cartoon character and broke into a broad smile.

A few weeks later Rog’s life ended in a faraway country fighting for a cause he couldn’t possibly understand.

We learned of his death the following afternoon.

Ah, but that morning, that precious, last morning of innocence. The sun was out. The sky was blue. Winter’s blanket of snow had retreated to the shadows and though it managed to hold its ground at night when temperatures and darkness dropped, it was obvious spring soon would triumph.

The combination of sunlight and school bells that Friday afternoon was like a champagne cocktail bubbling straight to my 13-year-old head. I was giddy. I was giggly. I leaped from the school bus. I splashed through melted snow puddles. I challenged my two little brothers to a race for home, confident, even after giving them a generous head start, that I easily would beat them. As I ran, the hard edges of our neighborhood blurred. My short, shallow breaths blended with the sound of the wind rushing past my ears. My toes seemed to touch ground only now and again as a polite gesture to those mere mortals ruled by the laws of gravity, because on this particular spring Friday high, I swore, I could fly.

Maybe it was the time of life. Or maybe it was the time in history. But I think there was never a more optimistic moment than those split seconds spent speeding toward a suburban home in middle America on that spring day.

“I won,” I shouted as I jumped onto the back steps. “I won.”

With one shoulder against the hard wood door, I pushed, shoved and rushed into the kitchen, my two younger brothers tumbling in after me.

Our dad caught us. His eyes were red-rimmed. Our mom and older sister stood behind him holding each other.

“I have sad news,” he said. “Rogie was killed.”

Nothing would ever be the same again.

Almost 20 years later and I still feel the tears when I flip through old family photos of those times. I feel a strange connection to Vietnam veterans, as though they are all my lost brothers. And when I meet men who are the age my brother would be, should be, and hear them brag about how they were too smart or too rich to fight in Vietnam, I feel only sadness for their lack of compassion.

Because I simply remember a more innocent time. I remember when my family was middle America, when we were the people Norman Rockwell painted, when we were the spirit of a country that still believed in itself. And way back then, we weren’t considered corny.

My brother’s Purple Heart hangs in a glass case on a wall in my parents’ home. But I have a different sort of Purple Heart. It was not earned on a battlefront, but granted at the home front. It is not proudly pinned to a uniformed chest, but sadly worn on a civilian sleeve. It is the bruised heart of one who lost her big brother in Vietnam.

NOTE: I wrote this for The Oregonian daily newspaper in 1988. It seemed relevant with The Atlantic story on Trump. I made one small change in the paragraph about my grandfather where I had previously made up a conversation between them. I don’t recall the details of what they talked about.

The other thing I need to note is that April 1970 was bitter cold. I recall standing graveside at Fort Snelling cemetery in Minneapolis and they were unable to bury him because the ground was frozen rock hard. Nearby, several caskets waited. But my memory of running home that day is crystal clear: It was sunny and held the promise of spring.Two weeks passed before my brother’s body came home from Vietnam and by then the temperatures had dropped again.

Career journalist, essayist, fiction writer, and life-long spirit-quester.

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