Happy Veterans Day!
This is my brother Billy during his time in the U.S. Marine Corps in the late 1970s. He joined in 1978, when I was 11. He was only five-and-a-half years older than me, which means he was only 16 when he actually signed papers. He left right after his 17th birthday.
I’ve never mentioned it to another living soul, but when the Marine recruiter came to our house I wanted to kick him in the shins. I hated his guts for taking my brother away from us. I thought he’d tricked him into joining the Marines, convincing him that they’d be better for him than we were. What did he know anyway?
We lived near the Ozark Mountains when Billy joined the military. But, just six weeks before he left for Camp Pendleton, we packed up and moved to East Texas. He never had a room in that old farmhouse. I used to wish he did as I spent a lot of time in his room growing up. I’d play with his Matchbox cars, lay on his wagon wheel bed, and listen to his music.
The thing is, if he’d had a room, the sting of his always-made bed would have just added to the sorrow already on us. My parents knocked around the walls and halls for at least two years, learning to cope with the disappointment of his early departure.
I adjusted to my brother’s absence as well as any pre-adolescent girl would. I became absorbed with my 10-speed, my baton, and my friends. And, I read Are You There God? Its Me, Margaret with Linda Wilson at least 25 times.
But, sometimes, when I reached into the linen closet for a washcloth or towel, I’d see Billy’s bedspread neatly folded on the shelf. I’d run my hand across it. Coffee-colored with threads of orange and gold forming lines and squares. And, I never cried, I just grew angry with the secret I kept to myself of why he really left home.
It was OK to be mad at the recruiter. It was not OK to be mad at my father. I still had to love and adore him so he would love and adore me back. But, I blamed him for Billy leaving. His grief and his tears made it easy to forgive him, though.
In the four years that followed, we moved again and again and again. To Dallas, to Kansas, and when I was 15, to Oklahoma. And, while I loved the classic 80s music that would later define Generation X – Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, REO Speedwagon, etc. – I gravitated to Springsteen. His lyrics were a catharsis for me as I discovered that many of my life experiences were not unique. They were ordinary and woven into the fabric of many American families.
The album that resonated with me the most was The River, which came out in 1980. The video below features a story Springsteen told about his father at a concert just prior to singing The River. It’s about the conflict between the man he was becoming and the man his father wanted him to be.
I have now lived in Oklahoma for 29 years. More than 25 of them have been in Oklahoma City. All things considered, I haven’t spent much time with my brother over the last three decades. We do keep in touch, and I love him. I’m proud of his service in the U.S. Marines. I’m very glad every time he went away, he made it back home to the States, safe and sound!
God bless our veterans! And, God bless my brother Bill.