By Teresa Swartz Roberts
Blog post 50. Copyright 2022
In just about every picture of little kid me with my three brothers, Gordon is carrying me. I don’t remember all that well, but the photographic evidence shows that I must have spent a lot of time on his hip. I do remember watching out the front window for my big brother to come home from school and cheering for him at football games. I remember my confusion when, after a meal, he pushed back from the table and said he was going to join the Marine Corps. I didn’t know what the Marine Corps was, but I think I knew it had something to do with the pictures I saw on the news each evening right after supper, the ones that showed black-and-white helicopters landing on the edge of black-and-white jungles. Men with bandages around their heads were carried to the helicopters. Every day.
For first grade show and tell I was allowed to take a picture of Gordon in a uniform to school. It was in color and had the word proof printed down the side. Gordon looked very serious in the photo. His eyes were not smiling behind his black horn-rimmed glasses. I almost didn’t recognize the eyes. Except for the days Mother put me in charge of waking up my brothers, I always saw a smile in Gordon’s eyes.
One day Mrs. Kimball was in front of my first-grade class demonstrating how to draw a capital G. I had not learned to write yet, but I had seen the letter G before. I knew that it began Gordon’s name. Suddenly I was so very lonely. I wanted my big brother, and I cried openly, unembarrassed by my tears.
I remember when Gordon came home. The giant teddy bear he had given me sat in my little wooden rocking chair while I sat on the floor. Gordon was on the couch, and the big stereo that I was too small to peer into was playing “Mama Tried” over and over again. When Gordon was home, there was always music playing. I could count on it.
I understood that he would have to go away again. The first time I watched him leave, Mother took me to the airport. We hugged Gordon goodbye and watched him climb the steps to board a plane to California. Mother had looked wistful and said something about her boy being bow-legged. This time was different, and Mother seemed more apprehensive than pensive. I didn’t get to watch his plane take off.
Mother kept in touch with Gordon. He was a good letter writer. Meanwhile, we watched war footage and the Vietnam lottery to see whether my middle brother would also be going away. He didn’t go to Vietnam. Ultimately, neither did Gordon. He came back to West Virginia, and he was done with the Marine Corps.
But the Corps wasn’t done with him. Gordon had lived at Camp LeJeune in North Carolina long enough to be poisoned by chemicals that had contaminated the water there. The result was multiple myeloma, a blood and bone marrow cancer.
For many marines who served at Camp LeJeune for as little as 30 days from 1953 to 1987, the result was Parkinson’s Disease. Or one of seven more conditions.
My brother fought multiple myeloma ferociously. But the one-two punch of cancer plus covid was too much, even for a fighter like Gordon.
I am angry at the marine corps and frightened at my powerlessness. The USMC was only a small part of my brother’s life. He was a husband, father to six kids, grandpa, uncle, cousin, nephew, friend, historian, writer, coal miner, fisherman, son. And he was my brother.