When Tommy was deployed to Viet Nam I was only 12, it was 1966. I knew he was being sent off to the other side of the world, to fight in a war, but had no idea that although he would be one of the “lucky” ones to come home, he would never actually return.
I remember being in the car, with my parents as we drove him to Logan airport, in Boston. I sat in the backseat, in the middle, between Tommy and Jack “Tommy” Toney, my brother’s good friend, since childhood. (I had the biggest “crush” on Tommy Toney, but he was like 18 at the time, so I had to keep that to myself!) It seemed to take forever to get to the airport and I remember it being very quiet in the car.
My Mom had been acting particularly quiet and weird, around that same time period. She was moody and detached from us. I believe any healthy, American, 12 year old girl would refer to her as being; “bitchy.” My Dad was always a quiet kind of guy, so there was no noticeable difference there. Things were odd, I just didn’t understand why.
I should have been more aware of what was happening… I really should have gotten it!
We watched Walter Cronkite every night! He always talked about a Viet Nam. He even showed us gritty black and white images and shaky film clips of handsome, young men; looking hot, sweaty and scared to death. They’d usually be sitting on the ground or squatting down in a jungle like setting; smoking a cigarette and looking lost. After Tommy was deployed, I’d watch the news much more closely, I was sure I would see him one of these days, looking up into a camera lens, staring right at me!
He was gone for over 18 months… I wrote him letters all the time, telling him how much I loved and missed him and filling him in on things that were happening in the neighborhood. I remember being so excited every time a letter came from him and it was addressed to me! How special dId I feel, huh?
Mom and I used to put “care packages” together for him and his buddies. Socks, gum, hard candy (never chocolate though!) That first Christmas, we baked Christmas cookies, banana bread and my Mom’s famous “Date Nut Loaf.” I’m not sure how long it took for that package to get around the world, or if any of the baked goods were any good when it did get there, but I’ll bet you he enjoyed receiving it and it reminded him of home.
Almost two years was just long enough for me to go from being a 12 year old “innocent,” to being a 14 (going on 18) year old socially and politically aware teenager. I had heard the stories about the atrocities; about innocent woman and children being killed by our American sons. I heard the stories, but I knew that “my brother” was exempt from these horrors. He was immune to the phycological changes prompted by intense military training and bullshit propaganda techniques. He would never be sucked into hate and prejudice because he was “ordered” to do so!
As I became more aware and my non-violent, anti-war beliefs grew, I didn’t notice he was becoming a ghost of the person he had been. Letters were less than occasional, mine filled with the stories about what I was up to… his a bit more superficial and distant. He was disappearing, but I didn’t see it. If I had only known that the longer he was away, the less of him would come back… I would have tried to rescue him.
He arrived home on the 4th of July weekend. I remember Mom, Dad and I going to Logan to pick him up. The airport was pretty empty and he was no where in sight. My Mom was the first to spot him; in full uniform; slumped down in one of those uncomfortable airport seats; sleeping with his arms folded across his chest; cap pulled down over his eyes. I spotted him, just as my Mom started to run towards him. All I remember are the sounds of her high heels “clicking” against the marble tile floor, as she ran. He must have heard that clicking sound too, because he woke with a start and jumped up in a panic.
The summer went on, and as I hung out at the park with the “hippies,” marched in anti-war rallies and smoked pot… He became cynical and more self hating as he struggled to find his place back in “reality.” The more I grew and expanded my mind, the more he numbed his. As I woke up, he dropped out.
Today, many years later, I am very proud of my brother Tommy. He did what was expected of him, when his country called on him, he responded. I have no idea what happened over there… I don’t want to know. What I do know is that they sent a kid to the bowels of hell and told him to survive… and he did.
I forgave him a very long time ago (as if that means anything!) The world has forgiven him; God has forgiven him; but all that forgiveness is worthless because, I don’t think he has ever forgiven himself.
I love my brother Tommy with all my heart, but will always miss the part of him that didn’t return.