The Brave & The Bold
Copyright 2003 by author, Timothy Herrick
At the beginning of this summer I went to my Uncle Patrick’s funeral. I had not seen my cousin, Sean, his son, for over a decade. The last time had to be right before or right after Hinkley shot Reagan. Was it 1980, 1981… I’m not sure, but by then Sean’s hair was cut short. He was no longer a hippie. I’ll always remember him best in faded denim and long, wild hair, the way he started dressing after Brian, his brother, died.
Sean looked very Republican for his father’s service. A three piece pinstripe, probably custom tailored, a pair of soft leather Rockports, and he drove a BMW. His children, a five year old girl and seven year old boy were dressed like tiny, chic adults and were very well behaved. Mora wore a tasteful black dress and had kept her figure, although age softly tainted her appearance. I still recalled my adolescence, when I first met her, when she and Sean lived together. She wore a chambray shirt with no bra and I could see clear evidence of nipples pushing against the thin cloth. I remember yearning and trying to be polite but gaping at her chest like some zombie. Still, she was very nice to me.
Mora invited Marci and I down to visit whenever we wanted and I said I could think of no other reason to go to Delaware. Probably the next time we would see each other was if and when Marci and I married, but I did not make any comments along those lines. The funeral was disturbing enough.
Of course, Mora and Sean understood my parents not being able to attend. Uncle Patrick would not want them to sacrifice their vacation plans—a week at Cape Cod than driving to Mount Rushmore—my father was retired, and for at least a month each year my parents traveled around America, intent on visiting or at least driving through all forty eight of the continental U.S. My parents were glad, and relieved, that I went, representing our branch of the family.
After the funeral and burial had concluded, I walked over to pay my respects to Brian. I read his tomb stone:
Brian O’Casey 1949 – 1974
Beloved Son and Brother
Remember The Brave & The Bold
Brian’s funeral was intense. I was thirteen and thought myself too cool to show sorrow, but I cried like a wounded infant all day.
Brian had committed suicide. Close the garage door when no one was home and started his GTO.
Like Sean and dozens of other relatives I see only on family occasions and maybe holidays, I knew very little about Brian when he was alive. I just remember liking him a lot … and missing him when he died.
My generation—or that part of the baby boom who were my age—had the privilege and safety of watching the Sixties on TV. I was aware that Brian and Uncle Patrick fought all the time, but I was too young to connect their troubles with the nation’s social upheaval . One time Brian called my father from prison and he had to drive down to Delaware to bail him out. Uncle Patrick would not. I was chased out of the room when the phone calls came and the events were only hinted at to me.
Brian had gone to Vietnam. He lost part of his foot on a land mine and had to use a cane. The family did not seem either pleased or proud their son had served. The adults resented his long hair and his involvement in a radical organization, The Vietnam Veterans Against The War.
At the time I was barely aware of Vietnam. The adults complained about hippies and protesters so I thought they were cool. But my real heroes were Speed Racer, The Flash and Danny Partridge. Captain Kirk was a lot cooler to me than Neal Armstrong.
Cousin Amanda could not make it to Uncle Patrick’s funeral. My most vivid memory of Brian was at her wedding. It took place after Kent State and as I stared at Brian’s tombstone, images from that wedding came flooding back.
For me and my sisters and my parents, this wedding was the event of the year. My mother took me and my sisters shopping for new clothes. Everybody seemed excited about the wedding, probably because it was the first off spring of my father’s siblings to get married.
I was not yet a teenager, but I wasn’t just a kid and had lost some of the geeky male self-consciousness of puberty. I danced, I drank, I got to stand with the other single men when the garter was tossed.
Brian arrived in a wheel chair, although he could stand up and move around with his cane. He wasn’t crippled, he just had to stay off his feet. He joked around with the youngsters and tended to stay away from the adults. He made us laugh hard, mocking out, as it was called then, the Uncles and Aunts and grandparents.
Uncle Victor, Amanda’s father, was throwing the wedding. Uncle Victor was an officer in the Air Force. My father and Uncle Patrick had both served in the army during World War II, but Uncle Victor was the family’s only military career man. Suppose I should ask my father about the history behind that life. Uncle Victor was retired by the time he died, I think it was during the Carter Administration.
Aside from personal breakthroughs, Amanda’s wedding was typical. The wedding mass was dull and long and some women wept. The bouquet was tossed, the garter belt was tossed. Bride cuts the cake, groom cuts the cake, bride eats the cake, groom eats the cake, the wedding band augmenting the nonsense of these rituals with music, creating the false sense of drama that everyone found entertaining. .
Towards the end of the reception, Uncle Victor stood up and got everyone’s attention by putting his fingers in his mouth and whistling harshly.“We need one more toast!”
No matter how soft Uncle Victor spoke, he sounded like normal people shouting. Soon a spot light was on him. The medals and buttons on his uniform sparkled. On the tables, flickering candles dimly glowed. The Best Man had toasted the bride and groom; the groom had toasted the bride’s family. Uncle Victor had already toasted the institution of marriage, and Uncle Patrick had already toasted Uncle Victor. Now, Uncle Victor had one final toast to propose.
Waitresses were refilling the champagne glasses as his voice bellowed, “I just wanted to say … I just wanted to say… I don’t care about what problems people say this country has. I don’t care what those hippies and commies and pinkos and freaks say. We can land a man on the moon and we can end poverty and we can beat any world power. That is something to be damned proud of.”
Everyone was standing, except for Brian who was staring at the floor. Uncle Victor’s words caused a smattering of applause. A few men shouted encouragement. Uncle Victor nodded his big head with its shiny crew cut.
“To America!” He said.
Everyone raised their glasses.
“America! America!” We cheered, then we swallowed.
Brian remained in the wheel chair, although all night he had been getting out of it and limping around. His hands were folded on the table. He was calm. His long hair streaked his face like blood on Veronica’s veil. Most of the older men in the family were World War II vets and they muttered mean and nasty comments. I remember wondering why everyone was mad at Brian. Maybe he just didn’t feel like standing; why the commotion? That’s how I felt, but I said nothing. I was just happy to be permitted to drink this sweet carbonated beverage meant for adults.
Uncle Victor cleared his throat. He shared a common family trait. He fancied himself an Irish tenor. He started to sing.“Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…”
Uncle Victor’s face was glazed with anger and he was looking in the unmistakable direction of Brian. Everyone’s voice had joined in, but by then Uncle Victor was singing through his teeth. Uncle Patrick was shouting the words, his face beet red. He had his fists by his sides and stared at his long haired son. Sean just had side burns and aviator sunglasses, but he was younger. He was standing and singing with everyone else.
“At the twilight’s last gleaming.”
Suddenly, Brian stood up and for a moment the song paused and everyone watched Brian pull the cane from the side of his wheel chair and hobble out of the room. People cleared a path and resumed singing.“Oh say can that Star Spangled Banner…”
America’s anthem finished to a flourish of applause. Uncle Patrick moved to follow Brian, but a few men stopped him, including my father. Uncle Victor left the wedding party table and went over to his brothers. The men seemed to calm each other down. The wedding band began When The Saints Come Marching In. The tension evaporated as couples started dancing.
I found glasses of Champaign to finish. Soon my young body felt the need to vomit and I ran into the men’s room, where Sean and Brian were talking. They did not pay attention to me. I found a stall, knelt by the toilet and emptied the contents of my stomach.
“Are you okay, Ricky?” asked Sean.
Brian’s cane banged the tiled floor. “He’s been drinking.”
Next thing Sean was holding the nape of my neck, aiming my head over the toilet bowl so the puke landed in the water and not on my new clothes. When my heaves subsided, I heard polka music coming from the reception.
Brian was smoking a cigarette. I stood up and he handed it to me, told me to take a few puffs, that it would make me feel better. I inhaled, coughed a little, but no longer felt dizzy or the need to throw up.
“You’re fine now,” said Brian. He took the cigarette from me, dropped it on the floor and crushed it with the tip of his cane.“You won’t be sick again.”
Sean wiped my mouth with moistened paper towels. “I don’t think your mom and dad would like you drinking so much at your age.”
“I only had some Champaign,” I said.
Brian tapped his cane again and laughed, “I saw you finish two of my whiskey sours.”
“ Are you going to tell my parents?”
“We won’t tell anybody,” said Brian. “Mixing Champaign and whiskey. You’re ready for action if you drink like that, Ricky. Shows you got some stones.”
“I also had some beer,” I said as I leaned over the sink and splashed water on my face. The two brothers laughed. They did not tell the adults and no one ever found out. Brian said I needed some fresh air and he walked me outside. The night was clear and he pointed out some constellations.
Then an aunt walked over to Brian and kissed him.“Even as a kid, you were always way out, but we still love you.”
As my mind reeled with these memories, I stared at Brian’s grave, my hands in the pockets of my jacket. Marci walked up to me and pointed at the tombstone. “He didn’t live very long, did he?”
I sobbed and Marci put her arm around me. “He was a great guy, my cousin Brian,”
Brian’s funeral was the first family funeral I attended. I remember women fainting during mass. The priest had to stop the service at one point, left the altar and went over to the family’s pew to console Brian’s mother. We were all ravaged by grief. The congregation sounded like the wails of dozens of off key saxophones.
Marci nodded, mentioned something about everyone going over to Sean and Mora’s home for the reception. Sean walked up to us, patted my back. He looked tired, drained.
“I’ve lost them both now. But I’ve worked it out.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“I’ve always regretted Brian not meeting Mora or seeing my kids. We were thinking of naming Dylan, Brian, but it would have been too much of a constant reminder. That can’t be healthy, to always have to deal with that. Maybe he’ll take it as a Confirmation name.”
“My memories of Brian are so clear and vivid. I know I was young when he was alive, but he was so special compared to the rest of the family. I looked forward to those family get togethers because I knew you and he would be there.”
“And the get togethers have not been as fun since he’s been gone.” Sean laughed, perhaps for the first time that day. After a pause, he said, “You know, when Brian was in high school he drove a bulldozer through town. There was some construction crew near the school, and they were taking a break and they left the key in the ignition. Brian climbed into the bulldozer and started that sucker up and drove down the street. I’m not kidding. He drove it by the high school and everyone started running after it. I was in Junior High School, and we were outside playing and then we see this bulldozer with my brother driving. It pulled up right in front of the playground and stopped, knocked over some sign. It was so funny. My brother in this big, yellow machine.”
“That must have been something,” I said. Marci excused herself, walked over to Mora, who was standing with her children and talking to some other relatives.
“He was no juvenile delinquent. He wasn’t a greaser, like some kids in town. He just got into trouble a lot. He was just wild. He never got good grades, and back then, if you didn’t go to college, you got drafted.”
“And he went to Vietnam.”
“Whatever happened over there sucked him dry. He was the never the same. And, after Brian died, Dad, well he just got real quiet. He never bothered me about long hair or roaring across the country. Never said a word. Let me do anything I wanted. Brian just wore him out.”
At this point, we both sniffled back tears. My voice cracked, “Sean, what does the Brave and The Bold mean?”
“It was the name of his platoon. That was in his will, to put that on his grave. I still get a Christmas card from a guy he served with. Every year. You know, I never talked to him much about Vietnam. I was busy with college and all that. He just never talked about it. I know that dad didn’t talk to him about it. Him, and Uncle Victor, they like never considered it a real war, could never understand why Brian acted like he did afterwards. Why he was so disrespectful. Seems so stupid now, with that memorial in Washington and all those movies and TV shows a few years ago.”
“Those veterans were neglected too long,” I said .
“You know, dad was harder on Brian after he came back from the war. But Brian was mellow then, he never got in trouble after he came back. He was just too depressed to do anything, except stare at the television and when he wasn’t watching television, he was going to War Protests.”
“They’re probably going at it in Heaven.”
Sean chuckled, patted my back. “I was thinking the same thing. `where have you been dad, let’s just start arguing.”
Neighbors of Sean walked over to us and shook our hands. The sky was an obese blue and the sun made us squint. Everyone started going to their cars.
Marci and I followed one of the neighbors to the house where the caterer had set out food. We did not stay long; we had to get back to New Jersey.
About an hour into the trip, I said to Marci. “You know, it was real nice of you, Marci, to drive down with me. I appreciate it, it meant a lot to me. I have to thank you real special. I’ll take you to Petite Auberge in Cresskill.”
“Not that I don’t want to eat there, but you don’t have to do that. My car is new.
Your car is broken. I could get off work, so there is no problem. I’m glad I could do it.”
“Still … thanks.”
“You have to go to these things and besides, I like your family.”
“I wish my sisters could have come. I guess I’ll call my parents later and tell them all about it. I’m glad they didn’t change their plans. They wanted to be here, but my father had already started grieving when we found out about my Uncle’s cancer. They had spent time with him a few weeks ago. I know Uncle Patrick wanted them to go on vacation.”
Marci nodded as sunlight glimmered on her black sunglasses. I had said the similar words several times these last few days; sometimes you just repeat the obvious in order to gain some kind of confidence to endure a difficult responsibility. I was happy she was with me and relaxed that her presence made me happy.
Should we get married? Move in together? I did not know. I only knew, right then and there, that I wanted this relationship to continue. I wanted to need her. I looked at her and said, “I love you.”