I've had a bad, really bad year when it comes to people dying. Last March, I lost 2 friends in the Capitol Hill shooting massacre. Two months later my grandfather suffered from a stroke and died slowly at home. Then yesterday was Veteran's day. First thing yesterday morning I got a call that my Uncle Ed had died. He had served in Vietnam, but like most of the troops back then he wasn't there by choice.
I'm not sure of the exact year or even of the truth of the story (my family being famous for the lack of truth in family stories), but the story I have been told is that my Uncle Ed ended up a paratrooper in Vietnam after he stole a 75 cent jacket from a thrift store and got caught. The judge gave him what was a pretty common choice back then- jail or the army. Had he gone to jail he just would have been sent to Vietnam when he got out, so he skipped the jail part and went to Vietnam.
He didn't talk about the war to us kids, but I remember being 10 years old and sitting in the back seat of the car while we were getting ready to go somewhere. A car backfired and Uncle Ed lost it. This big grown man tried to climb under the steering wheel, pulling whoever was in the passenger seat with him for fear of what the backfire noise meant. "Flashback", my mom whispered while I worried. "Let your uncle be".
Most of my memories of my uncle involve a car. There were the "sailing trips" we used to take early on weekday mornings. This is where we all loaded up into a big van and went scoping out garage sales, but telling people we went "sailing" every weekend was Uncle Ed's big joke. The last time I saw my uncle I drove him to a family reunion in North Carolina. This was the first time I had dealt with him as an adult (our family is not one for regular get togethers). I had my little red Toyota Corrolla, a car not known for power or speed, loaded up with 5 people and all their luggage. Ed didn't think I could possibly have the car in the right gear because it was going too slow, uphill. He grabbed the gearshift while I was driving and dropped it into neutral. If it wasn't for my mother I would have killed him. Shortly thereafter, he decided I was going to miss the exit and jerked the steering wheel hard to the right. I was pissed and had it been anyone besides my mother's darling big brother, he would have been left walking on the roads of North Carolina with his luggage in tow. He found another ride home from the reunion, but that drive has tainted most of my relations with him since.
For the last few years, Uncle Ed has been fighting with the VA over his medical benefits. His kidneys were failing. He needed dialysis and a transplant. Like most government operations, the red tape to get assistance was meant to drive more people off than to actually help them. Uncle Ed, as you can tell by my driving story, was a guy who got what he wanted by charm and took it if he didn't think someone was going to give it to him. I heard the frustration the few times I talked to him after he got sick. He went from being Ed the invincible, someone who really annoyed me but who I respected, to being broken by a system that was ungrateful for the services he had given.
We have a whole new slew of veterans coming home from another war that no wanted but the politicians and new stories about how poorly we treat them when they come home. Uncle Ed is gone, and nothing has improved since he came back from another war where the climate was unbearable and the terms of service were abhorable and no one could see the point in what they were fighting for. I don't know if Ed meant for there to be symbolism in the date of his death or if at that point he was just to sick to care, but I know I am really tired of people dying who shouldn't.