Dad (a.k.a. Chubby Chatterbox) is still on vacation but he wrote this before he and Mom left for Turkey. He asked me to post this for him.
I remember Dad pounding his fists on the kitchen table so hard that his coffee mug tipped over. I watched as he did nothing to clean up the coffee spreading over the table and dripping to the floor. “Damn!”
I’d never known Dad to swear.
He pounded his fists on the table a few more times. “That damn war!” My blood froze to hear the rage in his voice.
It was a Saturday morning in October, 1966, the one and only time I ever saw my Dad lose his temper. His flash of rage was short-lived, quickly turning to sorrow. He swiped his eyes with the back of his hands and dropped his head into his hands, mumbling under his breath over and over, “That damn war…”
Darwin Thomas, one of five children living next door, was the older brother of Andy, two years younger than me but one of the kids I regularly chummed around with. One of Andy’s sisters had knocked on our door to tell us the news: Darwin was dead, killed when his aircraft received a direct hit and disintegrated in a fireball over a secluded jungle in North Vietnam.
At thirteen, Darwin was nine years older than me and one of the oldest kids on the block when his family moved to Briarwood Drive. Darwin and Dad were kindred spirits when it came to airplanes. Dad had caught the flying bug at eighteen when stationed on Guam during the war, and he and Darwin spent hours locked in conversation about planes and the history of aviation. I was too young to remember, but I can imagine Darwin building model airplanes and bringing them over to show Dad. I doubt anyone was surprised when Darwin set his sights on becoming a pilot.
My memories of Darwin are few; he looked like one of the handsome faces on television and reminded me of David and Ricky Nelson from Ozzie and Harriet. I can remember Darwin knocking on our door and asking if he could borrow two slices of bread to make a sandwich before going to work. I must have been around ten at the time. I fetched a kitchen chair and stood on it to reach the freezer section of our fridge. I pulled out a loaf of frozen bread and brought it to him. He smiled at me and said, “Do you have any that isn’t frozen? I want to eat this…now.”
In fact we didn’t. He didn’t want toast and there was no way to defrost the bread in an era before microwaves. I shook my head and he said, “Thanks anyway,” ruffling my hair before heading home.
If I had the ability to choose, I’d pick a better moment than this to remember, but it’s one of the few I have of him. I’d rather remember feeling sorrow for Darwin, but in all honesty I can’t. “Dead” was an abstraction, just a word shouted out during games of Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. I’d seen people killed on film but they often showed up later in other movies. Besides Darwin, I didn’t know anyone who’d really died.
What I do remember are hot summer nights with Darwin watching over me and my older brother David when Mom and Dad went out for a night on the town. At first, David bristled at the idea of having a baby sitter, but he’d shrug it off when Darwin nudged him out of our stifling house to lob baseballs at him in the backyard. I can still hear the rhythmic sound of the ball smacking their mitts. After awhile, David stopped complaining when Darwin came over.
When it got too dark to toss around the baseball, Darwin would pull open the shoeshine kit he’d brought. While the TV blared, he’d sit on the couch and polish his black leather oxfords, over and over. Sometimes he’d spit on them and rub the black leather with a cloth. It seemed to me like a waste of time since his shoes never had any scuff marks and were already shiny enough to see your face in. I learned later that they were part of his Naval dress uniform.
Most of us were in middle school when Darwin graduated from San Jose State, the first on our block to attend college. He entered the Navy as an ensign. Darwin was shipped off to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he earned the wings he proudly showed off when he came home on leave.
This all happened while the evening news was becoming saturated with images of Vietnam. That damn war was absorbing more and more of the nightly news. We’d finally traded in our black and white Zenith for a new TV, one capable of showing us the glorious colors of Bonanza and Gunsmoke, but when I close my eyes and think back to that time it’s the green Vietnamese jungles that color my thoughts. I didn’t know what was going on over there, but it didn’t look like a place I wanted to be. When the Naval officers knocked on the Thomas’ door to deliver the tragic news, that damn war reached through the TV screen to strike at everyone on Briarwood Drive, not that I understood it at the time.
I think Andy, the youngest member of the Thomas family, was hit hardest by Darwin’s death. Darwin had sent Andy a picture of himself in the cockpit of his fighter, an A-1H Skyraider, according to Andy, who shared his older brother’s passion for flying. In it, Darwin poses on the USS Oriskany looking as invincible as Superman defending the American way. With a determined gaze he flashes an assertive “thumbs up.”
Unfortunately, he wasn’t invincible; he was dead within weeks of the picture being taken. I recently came upon that picture while surfing the net. Andy, who I learned had never given up hope that Darwin would one day come home, must have posted the photo. It was like seeing a ghost. Darwin had always seemed old to me, but the serviceman in the photo was painfully young, confident, handsome and brimming with life.
When I look at that picture of a man I hardly knew my thoughts and emotions are muddled, but if I look long enough they slip into a curious order. First, I share my father’s rage at the destruction of such promise. I feel proud that Darwin lived next to us as if, somehow, I’m made better by living close to someone capable of making such a sacrifice. And finally, when I look at that picture, I’m a little kid again, watching TV in my underwear on a hot summer night while Darwin rises over us like a sentinel, polishing his shoes until they are reflective as mirrors. And I recall how safe I felt knowing he was there, as I feel safe now, knowing that young men like Darwin Joel Thomas are always there to keep us safe.
When I climb into my bed at night and snuggle beside my wife, I remember Darwin and those like him in my prayers, those who forfeited the chance to have all that I have, and whose unrecovered bones still deserve the warmth, love and gratitude of our remembrance.