Although I never want to, I still clearly remember my mom shrieking out my father’s name. The memory comes randomly, sometimes it occurs during the day – but usually it wakes me up at night. It was not just loud; it conveyed an intensity of desperation that could only be felt, never expressed, and it went into and through my ears like a set of ice picks.
I was only half dressed when I heard it, but went racing down the stairs and found her sitting on the floor, looking up towards the front door. Her eyes were wide, her mouth agape, and her jaw quivered uncontrollably. My father was just a few steps behind me, having raced up from the basement, but he stopped cold in his tracks at the sight of the three men at the front door. Two were dressed in the summer khaki uniform of the army. The third was dressed in gray and black with a clerical collar; clearly a minister. We did not have to guess why they were here.
I stepped forward and opened the door.
My brother had wanted to be a helicopter pilot for a very long time. Something about them just fascinated him as they do many young boys, and then he grew up and went off to college. While there he became immersed in the Army ROTC program, and it was there that he became especially enthralled with the flying machine. Some of his classmates were fascinated with tanks, others with artillery; he focused on helicopters. It was 1968 and the Army was starting to experience a shortage of pilots – it was a hazardous job and they were glad to take him. “Everything has its risks,” he would say nonchalantly. “I’d rather be free and in the air than blown up on the ground.” He didn’t know it then, but he would eventually manage to do both at the same time.
One of the soldiers, I recognized him now as a captain, along with the minister came in. The remaining soldier, a sergeant, stayed outside to block the door. There would be no unwanted visitors.
They helped my mom up and led her to the couch, as did my dad. By now she was sobbing uncontrollably.
“Mr. Hollister?” said the captain, as much a statement as it was a question. Upon seeing my father nod in response he introduced himself, and then said something along the lines of “I regret to inform you that your son has been declared missing in action and is presumed dead.”
My father had mixed emotions about my brother’s choice. He was proud of him for becoming an officer, but my dad was also a veteran of intense combat and I know he worried incessantly. Were you to have met my father you would have liked him; most people did. He was gregarious and had a great sense of humor, but you probably never would have met the demon that he brought back from Europe and that lived inside him. Today we call it post-traumatic stress; then we just said he had a temper.
I think I first met the demon when my brother and I were having an argument. My father came flying into the room and I could see the demon in his eyes as he banged our heads together and we collapsed onto the floor. After seeing the demon, there was no doubt that he could kill. I don’t think my father just worried about my brother being killed; I think he also worried that his son might bring back his own demon to live within him.
My mom sat with her face buried in both her hands and I heard the minister say something along the lines of “he’s in a better place.”
“Being here would be a better place,” my mom responded without looking up. The minister started to say something else and then she held up a stiff arm with an open hand; it had the same effect that it does in football. He knew better than to say anything more.
Some details were offered: observed to have been shot down, explosion and fire upon impact, not able to recover the body at this time. For a couple of years my Mom would hold onto this as a hope that just maybe he had survived. My dad knew better. She went to bed, and he went to the backyard where he spent the evening sitting quietly in a lawn chair and drinking scotch. I think he was trying to weep, but didn’t know how.
My mom now had her own demon. It came out on occasion, but mostly it was much quieter and lived insidiously inside her, slowly devouring her soul.
It was quite a few years before we received the remains, which were in a closed casket and we were told had been identified by DNA. My mom refused all military honors. She wanted him buried quietly and somewhere nearby where she could visit him on a regular basis, which she did even after the Alzheimer’s started setting in. On those occasions when she would wander off we knew we would find her at the cemetery, near the grave. She didn’t know why she was there; she just thought it was where she was supposed to be.
I worried that my dad would start drinking heavily but fortunately, this did not occur. I think he realized that it was the one control he had over his demon. He continued to work hard, and took exceptional care of my mom, although there were also times he would just stop what he was doing and then sit quietly for long periods staring into the distance. Oddly though, I never saw the demon in him again. Perhaps the news that killed that part of his soul killed the demon as well. I just don’t know.
Decades have gone by. My parents have since passed away, and my memory of my brother has grown hazy and indistinct. The demons have been laid to rest with the passage of time, except for the small one that now resides inside me, and sometimes shrieks out my father’s name in my mother’s voice.
A former exploration geologist, Simonsen works in environmental project management for PSE&G. He belongs to the writers group at Princeton Public Library.