The Long Shadow, Part III: A Soldier’s Story

The package that arrived  in my mail in mid-January came as a surprise, not because it was unexpected, but because the contents were so much more revealing than I had imagined possible—nearly 70 pages of Photostats, detailing the movements of my late uncle Jack in the three years he spent in the Army Air Force during World War II. Jack’s records were largely intact, having survived a 1973 fire in the National Archives in St. Louis that had destroyed nearly 80 percent of the military records then on file.

 

 

What those records revealed was a short life far more troubled than I had realized.

 

 

Jack’s induction papers, 1942

My mother never spoke of this mysterious younger brother unless prompted by one of us, and even then her stories were spare and brief. What I knew of Jack was that he had been rebellious and bold and that he had died, in an apparent car accident, years before I was born. The few photographs we had of him showed a cheerful, friendly young face with a spark of mischief in his eye;  it was left to us to fill in the details, and I did: in my mind he was reckless but sincere, good-hearted and kind, adventurous and noble—the kind of uncle every girl wanted, who would have taken me on long walks and imparted to me the wisdom he had gleaned from his years of unrest. He might have been a bit wild, but he was not a bad boy; he simply loved a good time and took nothing seriously. We knew this to be true; we could see it in his eyes.

 

 

But the picture that emerges from the documents is much different, much darker—a story of a troubled young man with a fondness for drink—who lost more than 100 days of service to his habit of leaving the base without permission—who married because he had to—and who died in the fall of 1946 by an unspecified cause. I knew the cause—I’d already gotten his death certificate—he died alone in October 1946, killing himself by putting  his head in the oven and turning on the gas.

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The Christmas Card from Hell

I got a Christmas card today from the child molester’s wife.

 

This is not an unusual event. For the past several years, this woman has persisted in sending me birthday cards, Christmas cards, Easter greetings—this despite what should have been a clear directive to her years ago never to contact me again. Yet she persists.

 

For years I evaded her ridiculous missives, but somewhere along the line one of my misguided relatives gave her my current address and so, for the past few years, I have suffered through a series of “greeting cards” from this woman. Usually I throw them away. But tonight, for some reason, I am moved to action.

 

The door that wasn’t opened …

You see, I have the misfortune of being related to her husband and, thus, I was one of his targets. I prefer “target” to “victim” because I decided a long time ago that what he did to me was not going to define me forever. And if I was a victim once, I am no longer. But God knows how many more children have come into his line of fire—how many of his own children? We cannot begin to know; his life is a lie wrapped in denial, embroiled in deception. We can guess, but we don’t have the luxury of the confirmation. Once, long ago, I confronted him in the belief that I owed it to his children to try to stop him. But I could not stop him. The lie was too strong.

 

But his wife is a great curiosity to me. When we undertook to confront him, my sister and I,  in the process, we confronted her as well. Her anger was a sight to behold. She literally shook with rage. Not at him, of course. At us. For daring to tell. For daring to say what had happened and demanding—how dare we demand it!—an apology.

 

We never got it.

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After a Long Absence …

It’s been a month since I posted last. My apologies for my absence.  It was due in part to a family crisis.  My mother-in-law, who had been ill for several years, took a sudden, unexpected turn for the worst on Sept. 23 and died the following Saturday.

 

Doreen was a true lady who grew up amid a great deal of hardship but never saw herself as deprived. She lost her father at an early age, was sent away to Devon as a child to escape the Nazi bombing of London, and came of age at a time of genuine economic privation in post-war Britain. But she took it all in stride.

 

Even during the worst of her illness she never complained. And she slipped away quietly.

 

A rush of activity followed her passing—calling friends, relatives, making arrangements, simply sitting still and holding hands—the initial shock gives way to a grief that is expressed in so many different ways. Not always tears.

 

We struggled with finding the right words to remember her—and this is what we came up with to read at her memorial service on October 8:

 

Doreen Lucy Gregory,  Aug. 4, 1933 – Sept. 29, 2012

Anyone who met Doreen in recent years met a woman who had a great enthusiasm for life even though she was dealing with a debilitating illness.  “Life is sweet,” she said one day, and throughout her life, she found sweetness in many things, large and small—the pleasure of a brisk walk through Wentworth Woods, the excitement of holidays with family and friends, or the  taste of fresh picked raspberries from her own allotment.  Even an experience that was a hardship for many—being evacuated as a child during World War II—was a sweet one for her. She often said the five years she spent in Devon were among the happiest of her life.

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The Long Shadow, Part Two

My mother and her brother in 1937

The death of his mother as a complication of his own birth meant that Jack Collins would be raised by relatives, not all of them vitally interested in his welfare. In his infancy, his care was left largely to his father’s much younger sister, Margaret, then a winsome and cheerful 16-year-old; as he grew older,  he spent more and more time with his mother’s mother, Ida Finch,  and it was to Ida that he fled when his stepmother’s rages became too much to bear.

 

Jack was 15 months younger than my mother, and she described him sometimes as a “pesky little brother” who stole her roller skates and used the wheels to make a skateboard. Her tone of voice betrayed affection, though; I could see that she had loved him.  Generally, she said little of Jack, and we had only a few snapshots to anchor him in our imaginations: Jack at age six, blond and sweet, squinting into the sun as he grasps a croquet mallet; Jack at 14, gazing whimsically at the camera, as if daring the photographer not to laugh; Jack at 17, standing stiffly on a cold Easter morning, his best blue suit not quite fitting as it used to, his hair slicked back in the fashion of the day, his expression no longer so eager nor sweet. The boy who once put on such a good front was by now already grappling with the demons that would eventually destroy him. His attitude seems grim, resigned.

 

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Membership in a Lie

In the summer of 1974, over the objections of my parents, my sister G. and her friend D. set off on a long bicycle trip to New England.  Their ambition was adventure and a much needed change of scenery from the dead-end job she had been working in central Pennsylvania.

 

My parents feared for two 19-year-old girls out on the road alone, and with more reason than any of us could imagine at the time. Of course the obvious danger for any young women traveling alone was to encounter a man with ill intentions; this was probably what my father feared most. He could not have imagined the real dangers that waited for them at a festival in a park in Amherst, Mass., one sunny summer day.

 

The Celebration of Life seemed like a hippie fest—free food, free drink, and a message of love and acceptance for anyone who cared to stay and hear. D., the worldly skeptic, had no great attraction to the raggedy kids who preached the gospel of love and peace that day; G. was a different story.

 

“They all seemed so happy,” G. told me later. “I had to find out why.”

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The Long Shadow, Part One

Late in September 1920, a notice appeared in the Springfield, Ohio, newspaper that the young wife of Bill Collins had died. The cause was edema, a complication of pregnancy that she might have survived had her caregivers not put her to bed—and thus ensured the onset of the pneumonia that took her life. The fluid that swelled her legs also filled her lungs. Feverish and weak, she passed away within a month of giving birth to her only son, my uncle Jack.

 

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