My brother’s life had a very tragic ending. He was fifty-three when he died in the veteran’s hospital. I watched him suffer in a life that offered him no relief from the paranoia. He came home from Vietnam with glassy, angry eyes, and a hard bitter mouth. He was too quiet, too observant, and even though we didn’t know at the time, he was suffering from shock. The military sent him back for a second tour. He walked point again with his pistol and a knife. He hid in canals with leeches sucking the blood out of his veins; he cut throats and shot the enemy. When he got home after that tour he rarely put his knife down. He snapped the blade in and out constantly; he threw it long distances hitting targets with amazing accuracy. He could move around the house like a ghost, and hinted he could slip in and out of any building he wanted. I was just a little girl trying to start school and he terrified me. My heart would pound, and I could barely breathe when he came into the room. He never hurt me, but I was afraid he would accidently do something terrible. I loved him desperately, and my heart was broken. The brother I knew was completely gone, and I would have given my life to see him get well. Gradually, we adjusted to the problems he caused us. Slowly, we became a little bit like him so we could comprehend what he was putting us through. Several years later we were forced to remove him from our lives. We drove him out to highway 81, and my mother opened the door for him. An empty feeling crept into my heart that night; it was almost as if she had abandoned me on the side of the road. It was many years before we ever saw him again. The lessons my brother taught me: his view of the government, and the American cover up of the Vietnam catastrophe are components that predetermined my outlook and explain my unwillingness to trust authority, or accept the surface motives of any individual, or organization.
He is another dimension of me; the side of me that weeps hysterically. He lived in complete dependence on drugs, alcohol, and street wise wisdom. The tragedy we were learning to accept was that we were losing a man who should have become a great writer or teacher. His IQ was extremely high and he used to love to show off his knowledge and skill. But when he came back from Vietnam his vanity and personal style had disappeared. He taught me to be wary of people who were concerned about the way they looked in the mirror. He hated materialism, advertising, capitalism, and superficiality. He preached his ideas to me, his small captive audience. Too afraid to run from him, I started to listen. He was passionate in his beliefs. He could tell you the names of the arms makers and who the corrupt politicians were. He believed The United States of America was becoming a mutant fascist state. Our president was nothing but a puppet, and the authentic power rested in the hands of an elite secret group. He hated the middle class most of all. Not what we now label as middle class; he meant the nouveau-riche, the greedy, the white trash. I find myself influenced by his ideas even now when I occasionally read about a business person, or politician, that has risen to power barely competent enough to string two words together. I see the person as he does: snot-faced, dirty, greedy, ignorant and toothless with grimy fingers clutching a buck.
He also warned me about drugs, forgetting that small children learn by example. I knew all about substance abuse by the time I was ten. It was the early 70’s and we listened to “The Doors,” and “Deep Purple.” His friends carried guns, syringes, and wads of cash rolled up neat in their front pockets. The hopelessness of needle addiction broke my heart. I knew who the junkie was; what they were; and why they were. I witnessed the terrible lie the needle told my brother and his friends. My soul ached with terror and pity; I just knew I would come home from school and find my brother dead in the house. We took a trip to Houston to the methadone clinic. We picked one junkie up, hoping to drop off another. My brother would not get out of the car.
And now I walk quietly past the corporate world and watch it from the corners of my eyes. Unlike my brother, I really have no aversion to money or material wealth; I just don’t want to acquire anything the way that they do. They are so cold, heartless, and numerical. Their tall buildings jut into the sky like shafts of ice, filled with people involved in mechanical paper sorting activity, looking for ways to compete, profit, and cheat. If he was wrong about anything, it was not about them. I dipped my toe into their glassy, incandescent pool just to see for myself; but the water was too toxic, too chilled, and I walked softly on hoping they never really noticed me. But for a long time after that experience I could hear my brother’s blade snapping, click click, behind me. I ran harder, and harder, until it stopped.
There were many reasons to respect my brother and his blade was only one of them. People he chose to share his views with had a sense he was possibly correct. His vision was not blurred; he was very intellectual and literate. It seemed as if he was really in on some terrible truth and we all needed to know what it was. My innocence about my country, certain individuals, and authority suffered a shattering blow; but it wasn’t an altering of reality that I regretted. Instead, I felt fortunate, as if I had eaten from the tree of knowledge and hence was safe. I became determined to never sell myself out, or support anyone or anything I perceived to be false. I had my guard up early, and I am thankful to this very day.
While he served in Vietnam, my brother received a Purple Heart, and it earned him a small article in the local paper. Private Jessica Lynch, of the Iraqi conflict, got captured riding on the lost lunch truck. Special Forces made a rescue at great risk. Yet, Jessica and her comrades were labeled heroes by the national press. She got a movie deal; my brother and his fellow soldiers were villified by the 1960’s public, or they were completely ignored. These attitudes, and injustices, convince me his vision was both accurate and prophetic.
I deal with the tragedy of my brother in the only ways I can. I remember and honor his military service, and I take pride in his wisdom. He was a daring foot soldier in the Vietnam War. He deserves a movie, a parade, and a chance to relive his life with his family; a chance he will never get. I emulate him when times are harsh, and I persevere as courageously as possible. But most importantly, I keep one precious fact tucked tightly in my heart: we were brother and sister at a terrible time in our nation’s history. It was not that he lacked love for me, or intended to take away my childhood. These problems connected to his experiences in Vietnam made it impossible for my brother to buy me ice cream and walk me to school. Instead he made me tough enough to walk by myself, and made it unlikely I will ever believe their story.