The Mohicans

Vernon is dying. He is a cousin who inquired about Edna Long three years ago. She was an unknown figure who appeared in one of our family branch’s turn-of-the-century census tracts. Turn of the 20th century.

The people who may’ve known about her, remembered her, they’ve been all good and dead way before curiosity aroused his present-day fascination with this stranger who’ll remain a mystery.

There have been no Longs in our family. At least none until Edna. I surmised that in the post-Reconstruction Era when the notion of “family” fluid among freedmen, she’d been granted a place among us. Edna does not appear in the next tract. In the intervening 10 years, she might’ve moved away, or married and occupied a line elsewhere, or died in the interim.

Until the mystery of Edna Long, who’d known Vernon to have an inquisitive bent? Hadn’t he always appeared a Square John, one who meticulously climbed ladders than clambered up them? Seventeen years older than me and far more experienced for better and worse, these last several years have tasked him further than the army, marriage, and fatherhood.

He suffers from a debilitating respiratory ailment that saps him breath by breath. Often he needs a machine to help him breathe easier. Unlike most of us, Vernon is in the unenviable position of seeing his finish line approaching faster than any of us would appreciate.

Maybe discovering who Edna Long had been was his one great leap beyond conformity, rigidity, and the expected. If so, and take this from someone who’d earned his own father’s chagrin for seldom having been a son who adhered to convention, Vernon should’ve started sooner. Had he perhaps the life he’s examining today – his own – would’ve been fuller and less regimented.

The recent deaths of Aretha Franklin and John McCain must’ve especially pierced him.

The songstress (as the cliché goes) provided a good portion to the soundtrack of his life.

Growing up in a time when religion offered respite if not hope to blacks, Franklin’s soaring Gospel/r&b song phrasings added credence to worthwhile pop culture. When life often tests us, sometimes songs that recall fond moments lets us momentarily shake off our burdens.

With McCain the bind is tighter. Each man served in Vietnam.

Although the senator was an aviator and Vernon an infantryman, they shared that wide confounding stage which defied the easy black & white nature of our previous defining conflict. World War II, the one that portrayed American resolve for the longest; the one which may’ve misguided our later adventures and endeavors; not the Korean War. While neither man knew another, had they met doubtlessly any camaraderie might’ve been corded and bound through having survived the contentious and fatal puzzle which remains our Vietnam.

Vernon declared himself so simpatico with John McCain he admitted voting for the Arizona senator over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. History and qualifications be damned – a fellow Viet vet needed Vernon’s support!

Viewed through a similar lens, it’s easy seeing father pulling the 1952 and ’56 presidential election levers for Eisenhower over Stevenson. Not only had Ike been his commanding general, they’d also met in North Africa. In 1942, they didn’t converse. Ike yelled. The general’s fluency in epithet hurling impressed the private he directed them at all through his life.

Like father who kept mum regarding his World War II combat, Vernon also never spoke of his “in country” fighting. At least not within earshot of those who’d never “walked the walk.”

Draftee as he had been, a combatant in an unpopular, divisive conflict, failed deterring Vernon from something of a military career. Rather than chuck his fatigues the moment his enlistment ended, he continued serving through the National Guard. From there he would retire as a colonel.

How different than his brother Barry. Of the two, Vernon has always been sly, calculating, and contemplative. He lived life as if it a chess match.

Born a few years apart, their numbers nevertheless got picked at the same time. Barry also fought and survived a tour in Vietnam. He too displayed the identical reticence as father and Vernon about his wartime experiences.

Here all similarities end and fates diverge.

After demobilization, the closest father ever got again to the military was as a spectator during Quarropas’ Decoration/Memorial Day Parades and the bugler who blew Taps above his coffin before his remains were interred. War movies didn’t interest father. Westerns gave him much enjoyment.

Outwardly, Barry returned to “the world” much as he’d left it. Always gregarious, always looking to immerse himself in diversion. Yet as years stretched into decades, his “fun” assumed grimmer shades of mirth.

A boozer before Vietnam, Barry became that functional drunk who blacked out more and more. He was fortunate to have grown up in Quarropas when it counted as a New York City bedroom community. Since our boyhoods fresh arrivals bearing Gotham’s moxie have squeezed out most of our former suburban city’s neighborliness.

Barry returned as a local boy who’d gone to war. A label that then still meant more than current and future generations may ever know.

In the late 1960s many of those hiring for the municipality had themselves served our nation. Non-veterans seemed odd men out. Then, hiring rules weren’t as stringent. Whoever put Barry on the city pad made sure the job fit the applicant’s qualifications.

Only Barry ever knew whether he found solace working for the City of Quarropas. However, its nurturing environment provided him succor. In another place, employed elsewhere, his increasing alcoholism, the erratic behavior it fueled, would’ve established solid grounds for dismissal.

Again, Barry, our Quarropas then, extended him he sort of lenience today’s hectoring society might deem indulgent into enabling. At the end, Barry’s retirement, his pension in sight, who didn’t run interference while pushing him across the finish line?

Not that Vernon and Barry never discussed their respective Vietnams – of course they did! But in doing so did either ever wonder what life might’ve delivered had their numbers never been plucked?

Strangely if the brothers ever did contemplate lives without wartime such examples existed in our family. Cousins of mine, Vernon and Barry were from mother’s side. On father’s side, Junior and Richard, sons of his oldest brother, were contemporaries of Vernon and Barry.

Eligible as my other cousins were for the draft, chance kept them beyond any random possibility of combat.

Other than the usual jeopardy black men generally faced in 1960s America, Junior and Richard missed being challenged by Vernon’s and Barry’s outsized perils. Their father, my uncle, extended his sons all the advantages possible for a black middle-class male head of household for that era.

Rather than carry weapons in a Southeast Asian jungle, each toted texts on his respective Ohio and Pennsylvania college campus. Upon graduating, their modest comportment and intelligence impressed recruiters feeling the civil rights winds. Better to employ two well-mannered “colored boys” than possibly jousting with an H. Rap Brown or a Stokely Carmichael.

Junior and Richard should’ve succeeded wildly. They exhibited traits and smarts which mollified a nervous and unsure Anglo America. In the end, both fell far short.

Junior ought have filled a corner office somewhere. He ought have been a mentor to blacks who sought entry into the system in order to coopt it from within. Or if that too ambitious how about just earning a corner office like his?

He rose to middling middle-management, stalled, then fell. He’d developed health problems. But severe as these were they could’ve been regarded by the strident as a perfect cop-out mechanism.

Richard would’ve served himself better if he’d become a black radical. At least today’s rappers could’ve used his diatribes for lyrics. He would’ve been referenced. He wouldn’t have been forgotten.

Richard succumbed to drugs. The effort his parents put towards his ultimately succeeding went to waste. Looking back one may wonder whether Richard even chased his own aspirations or just those dreams of my aunt and uncle.

He became part of that “element.” The miniscule element within black communities which may forever divert all light and attention away from the vast majority honestly striving to achieve.

In America, one dreaded-out, gold grill in the mouth, completely tatted, pants sagging down to his ankles, pimp-rolling banger can represent black standards of accomplishment more than any multitude of Obamas or Oprahs. It’s as if the overt and common dignity of the latter pair is the aberration, not the other way around.

Both Junior and Richard died much too soon. One never saw 60, his brother reached no farther than 47. Inertia the disease that carried away the first; the consequences of contaminated works scything the second.

In the end, did travails encountered in Vietnam ultimately extend Vernon’s and Barry’s lives? Make them harder, heartier? Maybe even a little more cautious, suspicious, aware, and surefooted than civilians who never been rattled by the clarity of mind instilled through bullets that miss.

Vernon is one quick day closer to joining his brother in a veterans cemetery. Their final rests will not be adjoining. Three years after his initial inquiry, Edna Long does not preoccupy him now. Prosaically maybe he’ll soon have the chance to question her himself.

Speaking to him today, listeners hear plenty. He resides in a VA hospice. His state is so weakened he needs a wheelchair to ambulate. This being America naturally his veins course with a narcotizing drug sludge.

On the phone he’s lucid through most of our conversations. But out of left field sometimes come stretches of detached association. These instances reveal matters never suspected. They indeed shock when placed against relatives one believed one knew absolutely.

Some of these previous moments had kept him captive throughout his lifetime. Vernon’s unburdening relieves whatever part of his subconscious in which he’s contained them. Unknowingly, or maybe knowingly, Vernon perpetuates our family history. Deepens and thickens it, too.

However, without inheritors as of yet, might it die with me?