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Creative Nonfiction Essay 3
Rough draft, you may have read parts of this before:

The Things That Make Me Sad

I don’t like to visit the sad things in life, but I suppose dropping in on them unannounced like an overbearing relative or neighbour probably develops an appreciation of happier times. Perhaps an examination of my sad items will provide an introspective insight. Senseless death dominates; that of my brother, a tree and a swan in that order, although the tree remains most painful.

In 1969, I was an eighth-grade student at Fassett Junior High School in suburban Oregon, Ohio. When the morning bell rang, it was customary for the students to rise and say the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, despite the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling that such prayers were an unconstitutional exercise of religion by the state.

As a protest against American foreign policy, particularly the war in Vietnam, I remained seated throughout both. My teacher, Mrs. Finkbiener, a distractingly attractive twenty-something, decided my actions were disrupting the class. She ordered me to stand in the hall when the bell rang and re-enter the room after the pledge and prayer. I complied, as I was generally a good kid. However, the next year and particularly as an adult, I would regret my compliance decision.

Very early on or about the morning of March 19, 1970, my mother made me answer a knock on our door. Two men in military uniforms were on our enclosed porch asking for my parents. I told them I’d go get my mom.

My mother came down the stairs and peeked through the door at the men. I lingered on the stairway to hear what was going on. “Are you Mrs. Corlett?” they asked. “Yes.” She replied. “ You have a son, Gerald Ernest Corlett, serving in Vietnam?” they asked. “Yes.” She replied again. “Ma’m, it is my sad duty to inform you that on March 16, 1970, your son Gerald Ernest Corlett was killed in the line of duty in Vietnam.”

I cannot erase the memory of her horrified wail as the news sank in. My own cries quickly drowned them out. My younger sister woke from the commotion and joined in.
The men stayed long enough for us to compose ourselves somewhat. They explained that the Army always sent them out in pairs and the duty of informing families that the worst had happened were rotated among them. They explained that my brother’s best friend, Ken Vas, who was an active-duty Green Beret, would be accompanying my brother’s body home in about a week.

My mother called my dad who was at work at the Toledo Jeep automotive plant. When she got him on the line her exact words were “Bill, come home.” And that was all she said. This was starting to freak me out, because you just didn’t call my dad home from work. Even when one of us kids broke a bone or wrecked a car, it just wasn’t done. But now it was.

My grandfather arrived soon and when given the news, he began to sob. This was the man who could smack his finger with a hammer when he missed a nail and not cry. First my dad gets called home from Jeep and now the strongest man I know on the planet is crying as hard as I am. Two never-seen-before events in my life happen within an hour of each other. If Grandpa is crying, we are in some seriously deep crap. My world has come off its axis.

Perhaps to find some normality, I composed myself, got on the school bus and went to school. My news spread like wildfire.

The week waiting for my brother’s body to come home was the longest of my life. When his body arrived, there was great debate among the adults as to whether or not I, at fifteen years of age, was mature enough to handle seeing him as there would be no open casket. I remember telling them that if they denied me, I would break into the funeral home at night. I would not be denied.

Fortunately, they relented. As they raised the coffin lid, I recognized my brother immediately. There was a sheet of glass between his body and the lid. Apparently the Army embalmed the dead in Vietnam and sealed them in for safety.

His hair was full of static electricity and stuck oddly to the silk pillow on which his head rested. I had never seen my brother wearing make-up until now but that wasn’t nearly as disconcerting as the way the flesh after his chin turned into flesh-colored plastic that was wrinkled unnaturally and stuffed into his collar. Obviously, his neck was missing.

Despite the visual images, I was greatly comforted by the certainty of knowing my brother was really dead. I would survive this tragedy, but my parent’s twenty-five-year marriage would not. They divorced within a year.

The North Vietnamese soldier that shot my brother got three kills in one. My brother died along with my parent’s marriage as well as my adolescence. This completely adult tragedy was laid at the doorstep of a fifteen-year-old.

At a memorial dinner last October, my brother Thomas was told by the guy who held my brother Jerry in his arms as he died that he wasn't shot through the neck and didn't die instantly as the Army claimed. He was shot through the stomach and was conscious as he slowly bled to death, the intense hostile fire making a life-saving rescue impossible.
* * *
My grandfather was the strongest man I have ever known. He was tall and muscular in his prime, and when I was a child, he appeared almost like Superman to me. There was no recalcitrant jar lid he couldn’t open barehanded; it seemed he could lift anything, myself included, without strain.
His powers weren’t only physical. Many times in my childhood I thought “Wow, even grandpa is going to have trouble figuring this one out.” but no, he always did. He taught me how to cut a compound angle on a 2x6 in order to make a model boat hull. Amazing. I could never stump him, no matter the difficulty of the task.

Whether assembling a backyard swimming pool, building forts or “camping” in the backyard, he always had time for us kids, my sister and me in particular. The pool was a lot of work, especially maintenance, but he got some personal enjoyment from it. My friend Bob Zavac and I disassembled a playhouse gramps had built to recycle the wood into an underground fort. Instead of being angry, he supervised the excavation for the new fort including a five-gallon bucket lined fireplace, which required extensive use of his posthole digger. At my sister’s and my pleadings, he would set up an old Army surplus tent in the backyard in the summer in which we would spend the night. I think he snuck back into the house to bed after we were asleep, but I could never catch him, so I have no proof. In the morning, we would build a campfire and he would fry eggs in a seasoned black skillet; the best I’ve ever had.

When he wasn’t refining for Gulf oil, Gramps was a hobby farmer, growing soybeans. He called me to his desk one day when I was about ten years old. “Sign this.” He said sternly. In my best penmanship, I signed. “Thanks”, he said snarkily, “You just gave me six hundred dollars!” I was stunned. This was back in the days when one could shelter income from taxation by having the elevator where you sold your soybeans make the check out to a person with little or no taxable income, me, in this case.

If I learned some tax dodging from my grandfather, I also learned the value and satisfaction of a hard day’s work. Those soybeans didn’t carry themselves to the second story of the barn to dry; we bagged them from the combine in the back of the pick-up and carried them up the stairs by hand. It was dusty, backbreaking work and some of the best I’ve ever done. I knew I was a man when I’d finally carried as many as gramps. I never caught the farming bug, but steering the tractor with grandpa sitting behind as we ploughed the field in the spring remains one of the fondest memories of my life.

Gramps was a fairly patient man, but if he didn’t like the way the project was going, he had no problem taking over, even if it was your project. He helped the next-door neighbours, the Procaccini’s, when they built their new house in the late sixties. Nello Procaccini was lying on the floor of the kitchen, attempting a dishwasher installation and gramps was getting more annoyed by the minute. Finally, he’d had enough. He didn’t swear much, but he dropped an “F” bomb on Nello, ordering him out of his own kitchen so he could complete the job. Like I would have, Nello complied.

Gramps had an odd sense of humour sometimes. At the very beginning of my carpentry career, I would occasionally smack my finger with my hammer. As I ran and cried for my grandmother’s soothing embrace, my grandfather would exclaim, “I guess you hit the wrong nail!” And laugh. He found our attempts at learning to ride our bikes highly amusing as well. He was lovingly blunt with us, a trait I’ve acquired.
The societal turbulence that was the Vietnam era didn’t miss our family. My grandfather couldn’t understand why so many young people wouldn’t defend their country. Many young people wondered why their country would send them to slaughter in vain. A difficult part of my adolescence was coming to grips with fracturing loyalties to the strongest man I’d ever known. I had to take a stand, and for the first time in my life, it was opposite my grandfather.

My grandpa won the admiration of our family and particularly my wife with the incessant and loving care of my invalid grandmother near the end of her life. He took some marriage vows and meant them. For about five years, he attended to her every need without complaint or much assistance. After she died, we were amazed at his resilience and his resumption of life after his obligation to her ended. He enjoyed fishing trips and horseback riding in his late eighties. However, this “get-er-done” attitude worked against him sometimes, especially in combination with his legendary tightfistedness. Too cheap to hire his tree trimmed; he did it himself and fell off the ladder, seriously twisting an ankle. The ensuing hospital stay and forced doctor visits probably added another decade to his life.

My grandfather was a simple man, most things were black and white for him, suffering little the annoying and complicated stew of philosophical greys that vex the rest of us. Although famously miserly (“Fifteen dollars for a plate of spaghetti?!”), he was generous with family and church. Unlike my grandmother, he wasn’t excessively kind, but compensated with gregariousness. One couldn’t ask for a better role model and grandfather. With the exception of continuing his legacy, his passing leaves a debt I am unable to repay.

About a year before he died, I dropped in on my grandfather. I noticed he had parked my stepfather’s car next to his garage. My stepfather lived next door; gramps owned the property. When I inquired why, he told me it was to keep the car out of the way of the guys coming to cut down the cottonwood tree. I could not believe my ears. Not the cottonwood.
+ + +
As a child, my grandparent’s four-acre farm seemed as big as all of Texas. There were three giant willow trees, the cottonwood, and a front yard of fruit trees. I climbed many and felt great connectedness to the trees, land and home. I would lay in the fields staring up at the clouds in the cold March winds, oblivious and happy. This was my home, even more than that provided by my parents.

When I was a kid, the willows by the side of the house died and were removed, as was the willow next door, but not before dropping a catastrophic branch across my brother Jerry’s ’57 Chevy. My sister’s Chevy with the sticking throttle got away from my grandfather once and was unceremoniously stopped by the side yard maple. The scraped bark fared much better than the door of the Chevy. Jerry brought a cherry tree home from his job at Kmart, a scruffy unsaleable twig. It flourished in the front yard near the pear. A seemingly healthy front yard tree was removed about thirty years ago and I let my grandparents know I was none too happy about it. Throughout, the cottonwood remained. Several hundred years old, a circumference of at least twelve feet, and soaring nearly a hundred feet into the air, it was one of the largest trees in the neighbourhood, possibly the state. It’s sister, nearly equal in size, waved from across the street.

With the pragmatism learned from my grandfather, I believed that if I could appeal to his stinginess, I could not only save him a few bucks, but also save the cottonwood from the landfill. I called a few arborists for an estimate on trimming the branches overhanging the neighbour’s property, the apparent cause of the tree removal decision. I had pleaded with the neighbours for a trimming only and they had agreed. Trimming the overhanging branches would not only be less expensive as I would pay the tab, the tree would survive. Gramps was unreceptive. He didn’t want a mutilated tree.

When I had a firm price from a reputable arborist, I called Gramps to pitch my plan. I cajoled and begged. “I don’t want to hear your sob story” he said. I knew the tree was doomed; its fate confirmed by a family friend several weeks later. I couldn’t drive by to see for myself. In fact, I never visited my grandfather at home again after the first night I learned of his plans.

It took me a while to realize it, but my grandfather had waited for the death of my mother before he killed the tree. The neighbours had put up with it for forty years; it was there before they were so a sudden concern for limb dropping seems unlikely. Gramps could stonily resist my pleadings, but the double whammy of my mother’s harmony would have been overwhelming. It was silenced by her grave. The strongest man I had ever known was a sadist. He was getting pleasure from hearing me beg for the life of the tree and I indulged him thoroughly. There is no other explanation.
* * *
Several years ago the local paper carried a story of a person slowly operating a jet ski in a canal within walking distance of my home and being “attacked” by a swan. The jet skier complained to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which promptly investigated and decided that since white swans weren’t an endangered or even rare species, euthanasia would best serve the public’s interest. Initially, I thought the chances of this actually happening were remote.

I was familiar with this particular swan and his mate because my wife and I walk over the footbridge adjacent to their nest. On several occasions, we stopped and watched the big male puff his wings and chase away geese that came too close to home. This instinctual behaviour, directed against a sputtering noxious jet ski, would cost the swan his life.

Swans mate for life. After her mate’s state-sanctioned execution, the female hung around for a few weeks, but eventually abandoned her nest. I can’t walk over the bridge without seeing it and thinking of the swan couple, guilty only of protecting their family, murdered with my tax dollars.
* * *
While the senseless death of my brother at the hands of his own government remains one of the defining events of my life, forty years wears out a lot of sting. I let it go about twenty years ago. While the swan murder sucks, the state is right in that they aren’t endangered or even rare. As a taxpayer, I stood to lose more if the asshole on the jet ski got his eye poked out by a swan beak and won his lawsuit against the state for not taking any action. Unlike the swan or my brother, the thing that haunts me as I lay in bed fighting insomnia is the rustle of cottonwood leaves in the breeze and the way the wind simultaneously flips the leaves from green to the underside grey like “the wave” in a crowd in a stadium. I replay the night I wrapped my arms around its trunk, not making half way around, and sobbed for its life. The cruelty of my government is understandable, even somewhat expected. The cruelty of family, and especially that of icons, is not.


All comments are encouraged and welcome. Please don't let the dark subject inhibit your criticism of my writing. I'm getting graded on this, so let 'er rip.
Edited by Kowboy on 11/08/2010 20:23
Not bad at all, although very 'dark' as you said. You should remove the apostrophe in the second paragraph about the cottonwood (the concluding sentence "It's sister, nearly equal in size, waved from across the street.").
Edited by catman on 11/09/2010 14:23
"If I owned both Hell and Texas, I'd live in Hell and rent out Texas." - General Sheridan
Bob of QF

Only nit I spotted: inconsistent use of transitional markers:

You used three apostrophes *** in each case save one, where you used three pluses +++ (2nd divide).

It may have been intentional, but it looks as if it was a mistake.
Quantum Junction: Use both lanes

Reality is that which is left, after you stop believing.
Thanks everyone, good calls.
Kowboy, you write very well and I enjoy reading your stories.

While this story includes three very sad losses in your life, I didn't feel the story is dark, over all. I found the way you portrayed the incidences and interwove them to be very touching and poignant.

Well done.
I scored a 3.8 out of 4 on this one. She called it "superb", but didn't like the title.
Nice, Kowboy. Please keep posting your "homework". Wink
Kowboy, I intended to post this when you initially put this essay here, but I did not. I had a native oak on my property which was overhanging the chimney of the house next door. It had to be removed. The night before the killers arrived I went up to the tree and kissed it and asked it for its forgiveness.

We should all respect those things we kill for food or by necessity.
Kowboy wrote:
I scored a 3.8 out of 4 on this one. She called it "superb", but didn't like the title.

WTG Kowboy, and I agree with Skeeve - keep sharing your stories with us.
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