(cross posted at daily kos)
When Jack was little, about 2 or 3 years of age, he never told me specifically, his father left. Or maybe he was driven out, Jack was not sure. All he knew was that his father was a WW2 vet and an alcoholic who was later maligned to Jack, or Johnny as he was known then, as a bad man and bad father.
Johnny’s mother remarried when he was six and one day, he found himself at a boarding school for the orphans of Military vets. He had a mother and a father and a step father, but Johnny was left sitting on a bench at a home for orphans, wondering when his mother was coming back to get him. It was a nice place and Johnny was excited to be going to school there. The school was only a short drive from his house, but why was he sitting on a bench alone waiting for his mother and where did she go and when was she coming back? She said he should sit still and that she would be right back. But he waited and waited and she didn’t come back.
Why was the matron carrying his suitcase and where did that come from? He hadn’t packed it and he didn’t know if his mother had, but there is was with his clothes and he was being taken to a room which some strange woman was telling him was his room.
There were a lot of beds all lined up and perfectly made. He wondered who slept in all those beds.
The strange women told him it was almost dinner time. He wanted to go home for dinner. Maybe Mommy was making pot pie. He didn’t want to eat here with other kids he didn’t know. Could they tell he was crying?
A year later Johnny’s little sister, Judy, came to live at Scotland School. It was a little easier for her since her brother was there already. He’d been home for a week and she had seen him at Grandma’s house over the summer. He was happy to have Judy there. She reminded him of home.
During the summers Johnny and Judy spent time with Grandma. She was their father’s mother and the absolutely best thing Johnny could remember about his childhood was sitting in her lap being rocked. She would hold him and rock in the chair and tell him what a good boy he was and how much she loved him.
Johnny was very small for his age, and very blonde. Judy and Johnny made quite a picture, two tiny blonde children born in the 1940s. They grew up together and were very close. They were closer than most brothers and sisters. And they lived in an orphanage just down the road from their mother, step father and half brother and sister who were born after Johnny and Judy went to live at Scotland School.
For one week in the summer they went home. It could only be one week because otherwise the state would give custody back to Mommy and they would get to go home to live. They worked in the fields during the rest of the summer.
When Johnny was in high school he played baseball, and he played the trombone and I think the trumpet. He wanted to be a musician and had some talent. He thought, maybe he could be a music teacher. But his guidance counselor told him to learn a trade; there would be no money for college. So he learned about electronics from the school handyman. He liked working with maintenance man. It gave him a chance to get away from the Matron who beat them for breaking rules, and have some independence on campus.
Johnny was an elf of a young man, all of 5’4″, with a personality both optimistically joyous and despairingly angry by turns, the kind of man who used to be referred to as a bantam Rooster. I didn’t know him then, but I imagine he was as much an endless talker, a laugher and a fighter as the man I met 50 years later. He had dreams. One of them was the dream of family. That was the big one.
When Jack graduated from school he was allowed to live at home for a bit while he found a job. He worked in the local Five and Dime but that didn’t last long. The woman who was his supervisor used him as a scapegoat for her own laziness and he was fired after a time. So he was told to get a job or get out and he joined the Navy. This started the 12 year period that was the best and the worst time of his life. He both loved and hated the Navy. It turned him from a republican to a democrat. He loved the comradery and sense of shared purpose. He came to hate the senseless rules and the senseless war.
The Navy lied to Johnny about his height and for the rest of his life he was convinced he was 5’6″. Johnny’s height was not the only thing the Navy lied about. They told him that he could be on a submarine. They didn’t tell him that very few men made it through the training. Jack couldn’t do the underwater training so he went to electronics and it suited him well. That was 1960 and Jack spent the next 12 years in the military. He served 4 tours of duty in Viet Nam during that time.
Eventually Jack found himself on the battle ship “New Jersey”. Here is the story of his time on the ship. It is no wonder he ended up with PTSD.
“…New Jersey’s third career began 6 April 1968 when she recommissioned at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, Captain J. Edward Snyder in command. Fitted with improved electronics and a helicopter landing pad and with her 40-millimeter battery removed, she was tailored for use as a heavy bombardment ship. Her 16-inch guns, it was expected, would reach targets in Vietnam inaccessible to smaller naval guns and, in foul weather, safe from aerial attack.
New Jersey, now the world’s only active battleship, departed Philadelphia 16 May, calling at Norfolk and transiting the Panama Canal before arriving at her new home port of Long Beach, Calif., 11 June. Further training off southern California followed. On 24 July New Jersey received 16-inch shells and powder tanks from Mount Katmai (AE-16) by conventional highline transfer and by helicopter lift, the first time heavy battleship ammunition had been transferred by helicopter at sea.
Departing Long Beach 3 September, New Jersey touched at Pearl Harbor and Subic Bay before sailing 25 September for her first tour of gunfire support duty along the Vietnamese coast. Near the 17th parallel on 30 September, the dreadnought fired her first shots in battle in over sixteen years. Firing against Communist targets in and near the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), her big guns destroyed two gun positions and two supply areas. She fired against targets north of the DMZ the following day, rescuing the crew of a spotting plane forced down at sea by antiaircraft fire.
The next six months fell into a steady pace of bombardment and fire support missions along the Vietnamese coast, broken only by brief visits to Subic Bay and replenishment operations at sea. In her first two months on the gun line, New Jersey directed nearly ten thousand rounds of ammunition at Communist targets; over: 3,000 of these shells were 16-inch projectiles.
Her first Vietnam combat tour completed, New Jersey departed Subic Bay 3 April 1969 for Japan. She arrived at Yokosuka for a two-day visit, sailing for the United States 9 April. Her homecoming, however, was to be delayed. On the 15th, while New Jersey was still at sea, North Korean jet fighters shot down an unarmed EC-121 Constellation electronic surveillance plane over the Sea of Japan, killing its entire crew. A carrier task force was formed and sent to the Sea of Japan, while New Jersey was ordered to come about and steam toward Japan. On the 22nd she arrived once more at Yokosuka, and immediately put to sea in readiness for what might befall.
As the crisis lessened, New Jersey was released to continue her interrupted voyage. She anchored at Long Beach 5 May 1969, her first visit to her home port in eight months. Through the summer months, New Jersey’s crew toiled to make her ready for another deployment. Deficiencies discovered on the gun line were remedied, as all hands looked forward to another opportunity to prove the mighty warship’s worth in combat. Reasons of economy were to dictate otherwise. On 22 August 1969 the Secretary of Defense released a list of names of ships to be inactivated; at the top of the list was New Jersey. Five days later, Captain Snyder was relieved of command by Captain Robert C. Peniston….” (http://www.battleshipnewjersey.org/…)
During his time in Long Beach Jack met a nurse named Linda. She was from MN and Jack thought, somewhat sheltered. They fell in love and married and their son was born while Jack was in the Navy. Linda told him she could not stay married to him if he stayed in the service so he retired from the Navy and went home to his family. But Linda was mistaken. She didn’t want to remain married to Jack at all. He said it was something about his temper and the lack of communication. I can believe that. He was both temperamental and too scared of losing family to be able to talk about problems in a relationship.
They divorced and she moved to MN only to be followed by Jack who wanted to be near his son. Eventually unable to find work and depressed over losing his family, he moved back to York Pa and started a new life.
That is where he was when I met him on line many years later. He was divorced for the second time. He had spent 23 years working for a union book binder and serving part of that time as Union steward. But in the early 90s he got oral cancer, lost part of his jaw and had it replaced with a steel plate, developed an aortal aneurism, lost part of his foot which would not heal, and that is how I found him on disability and singing fast towards homelessness.
We met on the AOL message boards. On any given day my name was the topic header in 50 percent of the posts as argumentative people tried to harass me off the Clinton impeachment board discussions. Jack thought I was funny and I thought he made great points. Some of my favorite snarky expressions are those I learned from Jack.
Jack and I became friends and really something more than that. He came to live with me in the late 90s because he was falling through the cracks on SS disability and I was in need of someone to share the house keeping and teen age son chauffeuring. Jack had given up on life in some ways I could not accept. So I was frustrated with him and knew I would not spend the rest of my life in this indefinable, platonic but deeply loving companionship. Still, we were like an old married couple.
We had a great deal of fun, Jack and I. He was willing to go to the plant store with me. We spent many Saturdays driving around NE PA looking for interesting Nurseries. He put up bird feeders and we watched birds using a book to identify them. We tried to outsmart the squirrels and lost most of the time. One of them we named “Steelheart” after one particularly odd “survivalist” character on AOL. Our neighbor caught that squirrel and took him fifteen miles away, but damned if the thing didn’t show back up a few days later. We knew it was him because of the big chunk of tail he was missing.
We spent time with each other’s families. He went to my family stuff (which is more than I can say for the man I was married to for 13 years) and I went to his. But the best thing he did for me was this: he kept his temper at me in check.
He sometimes went in to the kitchen and slammed cupboards and mumbled under his breath which used to make me furious. I would yell at him to “say it to my face”. But he couldn’t because he was too mad and he was afraid of this temper and he was giving me a gift. He was showing me that I was worth holding his temper for and that I was worth worrying about losing. I was amazed to learn that he was famous in his family for having an uncontrollable temper and that he had never walked away from a fight in his life. That is not the way he acted with me.
I don’t know if I will ever have another “relationship” in my life. I am not so sure I care. I have not taken good care of my health and I have some personal work to do. But if I ever do, I know that the person will have to spend time doing things I like to do, to work at finding common ground and he will have to be as kind and considerate as Jack tried to be and was. I know I deserve that because Jack showed me so.
Two years ago on the 28th of April, Jack died of Lung Cancer. Several years earlier he had a heart attack and we both quite smoking. But it was way too late for Jack. He was now in his 60s and had smoked since he joined the Navy in 1960. He spent 2 months on the couch taking pain pills and waiting for what the doctor said was a pulled muscle to stop being so painful. For the last few weeks of those 2 months the doctor was looking for cancer all over Jack’s body because Jack was anemic and losing weight. The one place he didn’t look was Jacks lungs because they always sounded so good. Finally one day Jack described his pain in more detail and was sent to the hospital for a chest X-ray. He never left the hospital that day or ever and died three weeks later.
Jack used to drive me out of my mind with his idle chatter. He talked more than anyone I have ever known and sometimes in my head I would chant “shut up shut up”. After a day spent talking to people for a living I just wanted some quiet. After a day with no one to talk to, Jack wanted to talk to me.
When he was dying, those last four days or so, he slept all the time and I would ask people to come to the hospital because I knew when other people were there Jack would wake up and talk to them. With me he was comfortable and so he slept as I sat there hour after hour praying for just a little more idle chatter from him.
Thank you for reading. I wanted to post this on the second anniversary of Jack’s death but I was too busy.