My uncle Jerry was the third of four sons to his parents, my dad being the fourth. He had a sunny disposition and a way with words that enabled him to defuse situations that led to violence in most childhoods of his generation. He loved to tell long, involved stories about his experiences punctuated with his laughter at his own foibles. These only grew longer and more colorful when he reached adolescence.
It became clear early in his teens that he was a natural athlete in football, basketball and baseball. By his sophomore year, he was playing varsity in all three sports, in addition to being elected vice-president of the student body. His junior year Jerry made five out of seven point-after-touchdown kicks in the final game when the football team won the state championship.
In addition to playing well, he made it look easy. On graduating, he was offered a football scholarship to a junior college in Vancouver, Washington. He went and played well, but left college at the end of the season. Nevertheless, he was offered another scholarship the following year and played another season.
By this time, the Korean War was heating up and Jerry and his best friend were drafted into a National Guard infantry unit and sent to Camp Cook for basic training. Because Jerry was six feet two and a well-conditioned athlete, he was designated a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man. Since the weapon was so effective, the man who carried it into battle was a prime target for enemy fire. The life span of a BAR man in battle was said to be measured in minutes. Still, Jerry survived. He wrote to his younger brother from the trenches of frozen Korea describing the horrible conditions in which he was living and imploring the younger man to get into any other branch of the service than Infantry. After most of a year on the front lines, Jerry developed an infection in his heel and was sent to the rear for treatment. While there, he was chosen for the honor guard of General James Van Fleet, and soon rose to the rank of platoon sergeant. It was from that duty he was discharged from the military.
He was quite different when he returned to civilian life. He drank heavily, drove fast and started many programs authorized by the G.I. Bill, but finished none of them – including pilot training even though he had successfully flown his final solo. He married quickly, fathered a girl and went through a divorce just as quickly. He married a second time and fathered two daughters before leaving that relationship as well.
From that point on as Jerry drank more and more heavily, went from job to job, relationship to relationship. Before very long, he was homeless on the streets of Seattle, his body very slowly giving out from alcoholism. One year, after an alcoholism-related surgery, he talked about his experiences on the street, about being mugged, and about trying to protect himself – all couched in stories with humor, still punctuated by his own foibles. As he walked us back our car, he discovered a piece of trash in his pocket. With total grace and barely a look or thought, he threw it in a perfect hook shot to a trash can ten feet away.
One night, he left his campfire to relieve himself and was followed by someone who tried to murder him. He lay on the sidewalk for six hours, being passed by countless people on their way to work, before anyone sought help. He suffered brain damage and was institutionalized for the rest of his short life. When my father went to visit him after the attack, Jerry was sitting up in his bed. “What are you doing here?” he smiled brightly. My dad began to explain that the hospital had notified him about what had happened, then gradually realized as they talked that Jerry was wondering what he was doing in Korea, where Jerry thought he was on patrol.
When Jerry returned from the war, he often drifted into a fugue state in the middle of a conversation. When asked about it, he would brush the question aside with a joke. Once, when he had drunk plenty, he told the story of getting separated from his patrol on a snowy night in Korea. There were Chinese soldiers surrounding the Allied position and Jerry had no idea which way to go. His description of the terror he experienced was vivid. On another evening, he told of the disrespect for life that developed among the troops. When a Chinese soldier on a slope just across the valley kept digging his foxhole long enough to annoy Jerry and his comrades, they called in artillery fire on the man just to quiet him. He would only on occasion make reference to the fire-fights in which people were getting killed all around him and he had no idea why he survived.
He died of pancreatic cancer at 58. But in a lot of ways he never stopped fighting the war. Jerry was a kind and funny soul who spent the rest of his life trying to recover from how he was affected. War changes everyone. War wounds anyone who touches it. And not everyone who is dies in war is killed on the battlefield.
*As related to me by my dad, with minor edits*