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 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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