Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Watch HBOs WARTORN Veterans' Day November 11, 2010

...Remembering my Uncle Mike

This Thursday, November 11, 2010, HBO will debut their latest documentary, WARTORN: 1861-2010. I learned about this film almost by accident. I was watching MSNBC's Morning Joe on November 9 and happened to catch an interview with the film's director, Jon Alpert, and what caught my attention was Mr. Alpert's observation, "Everybody might have an uncle who behaved strangely..." (See the interview below)

I immediately thought of my Uncle Mike. Mike was born July 31, 1922 and died February 6, 2001. He was one my mother's two younger brothers. He never married and never had children. He served in the US Army during World War II, but where and how he served I do not know (I have asked myself why I don't know this detail about his life - see my P.S. below). He was raised in Butte, Montana, and I think he had a high-school education.

My earliest memory of Uncle Mike is the photo you see above (click on it-it will get larger). As you can see, the photo is taken in Tijuana, Mexico, 1953. I am the little girl with the sombrero that says "Maria". Uncle Mike is to my immediate right. He was 31 years old and WWII ended when he was 23!  You may wonder how we all came to be together on this day in 1953. My father (On My Ass sombrero) had been retired from the US Navy on June 30, 1953, due to a medical disability. Upon his discharge he and my mother set off from Fort Campbell, KY to return home to San Diego, CA; however, we took a long road trip stopping in Montana so that we could visit with both my father's family and my mother's family. My guess is that my father felt some compassion for his brother-in-law, Mike, and invited him to accompany us back to San Diego.

My Uncle Mike did not stay too long with us in 1953. Why? I don't know, but I do think he made some kind of impression on me as a little 3-4 year old. When I turned four my birthday gift was a boy baby doll that I named Michael. And when my brother was born in 1956 I insisted that my parents name our baby brother Michael!

My next clear memory of Uncle Mike is from 1958. I think that the economy in Butte was bad and my parents arranged for my mother's widowed twin sister and her two teen-age sons and her brother, my Uncle Mike, to move to San Diego. The four of them joined our family of six in our three bedroom one bath home. They lived with us for nine months, long enough for my father to find jobs for Uncle Mike, Auntie, and my cousin John and enroll my cousin Michael in high-school. Additionally, my father found a nice home for them to rent. 

Now I was older and for the most part my Uncle Mike frightened me. Most weekends we would all get together for dinner and Uncle Mike would "join" us, but he was almost always drunk. He would arrive from the local bar either by taxi or my mother or father would pick him up. Looking back I know my mother and her sister catered to his demands and responded to his demands as only a frightened sibling could respond. In the early years I don't remember anyone ever referring to him as an alcoholic. I don't remember anyone ever remarking that he suffered from melancholia, battle fatigue, combat fatigue, shell-shock, operational exhaustion or PTSD. He was just different. He never learned to drive, but he did like to draw.  He called us "Darlin" with a sort of southern twang and if it were early in the day he would always ask us "How did you sleep, Darlin?"  Typically, I said "Fine, thank you."

By the late 60's my Uncle Mike, in a drunken stupor, fell and broke his leg. I am told he lay in the curbside in San Diego for a couple of days until someone took the time to notice him. He spent many weeks in the hospital recuperating from the surgery to repair the compound fracture and "drying out."  From that point on, I remember he walked with a cane, he could not hold a job, and he lived in a small apartment that my aunt would visit once a week to do his laundry and bring him groceries. He lost most of his teeth because he refused to go to the dentist. He would attend family events very occasionally. His presence at any event provoked tension and we all watched what we said and how we said it, so that we didn't engage his rage.

In 1991 I traveled with my two sons (then 10 and 7) to San Diego to visit my mother. She asked if I would like to visit Uncle Mike. I agreed that we would stop in and take Uncle Mike to lunch.  We had a nice visit, with Uncle Mike sharing his pencil drawings with Aaron and Daniel. He gave each of them a drawing. They were genuinely taken by him and his artwork. I still have these drawings tucked away.

Over the next 10 years I saw my Uncle Mike on rare occasions. The years passed, my mother aged and needed to live in assisted living and my aunt's health didn't permit her to physically care for or visit  Uncle Mike. He lived in an assisted living/rest home and I know my cousin John visited him almost daily until my Uncle Mike died February 6, 2001.  There was no service, no memorial and I don't even think there was an obituary written.

Every year on Veterans' Day I remember fondly my father, my brother Michael and my brother-in-law Phil. Each one a veteran that impacted my life in wonderful positive ways, but this year I will remember them and I will sadly remember my Uncle Mike and hope that we, as a country, will come to terms with what war does to our fellow human beings, to our fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, husbands, and our families.

I know this much. I wasn't always a good niece. Fear is toxic.

If you can, tune in and watch WARTORN: 1861-2010. Let me know what you think.
P.S. Last night I watched HBO's documentary WARTORN: 1861-2010. Should not be missed. This morning I found an e-mail invitation from to search military records. I looked up my Uncle Mike's record. It turns out he enlisted October 16, 1945, one month after the war ended! It says for the Term of Enlistment: "Enlistment for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President or otherwise according to law."

So, I learned a little more about my uncle. It seems he did not serve in combat; however, I have read that PTSD can result from fear of the anticipated. The bottom line is this, I will keep learning.
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ridgely johnson said...

Judy, you encapsulate the events in your life in the most thought-provoking way... your Uncle Mike knew you cared, believe me, even when you feared him, a little.
I miss my Daddy so much today- he was such a proud veteran of the Korean War- thank you and the rest of the Americans who honor our veterans.
I wish I had HBO, if only for today-

Judy Helfand said...

So much we have in common. My father served all throughout WWII and all of Korea. I will watch HBO tonight. The good news is that you can buy their documentaries on DVD. I will let you know what I think. I understand it is very powerful.
Today we recall all veterans who have served us.

Anonymous said...

Hi Judy, May I offer an unusual twist on the subject of Veteran's Day? During the Korean War it was my mother who went off to Japan and then on to Korea as an Air Force nurse. My father, on the other hand, suffered an eye injury (in 1939)which effectively kept him on the homefront for the duration of both wars.
-Will Moore

Judy Helfand said...

I am so honored that you stopped by to read my post. While I remember your Mom was a nurse and I remember my Mom being so impressed that your mother was a Public Health Nurse, right? I did not know that she served in the military. Somehow I can easily picture her in that role. I always loved being around your Mom and Dad.
A few months back I wrote a post on our Webconsuls blog about "The Importance of Story in Your Life" which includes a letter my Dad sent to my Mom during the Korean War. You might enjoy reading it.
The Importance of Story in Your Life.
In that post you can click on the images of my Dad's letter and then you can read his account.

Thanks again.

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