by Stephen P. Brubaker
Into my family were born four brothers and four sisters. You could say we were born in two groups. The first four siblings were born between 1948 to 1952. The eldest child born was Harold Raymond Brubaker. The second group was born between 1957 to 1963. I was the start that second group. Both myself and Harold share the same birth month of June. He was almost nine years older than me. And he was larger than life itself in my eyes. We lived in Memphis Tennessee were we grew up.
What I remember of him in our youth is that he was tall lanky kid. He sported a flat top haircut. And he was tough but with a good and kind heart. He did not seem to be afraid of anything. I remember on time that my other older brother Charles had discovered a copperhead snake near the chicken coop. While we did not live on a farm in Memphis we did live on a large lot of land that had a big barn and a chicken coop. I remember Harold calmly getting a hoe and march up to where the snake was at and chopping of its head. I was about 4 or 5 years old at the time of this incident and knew very well how dangerous a copperhead can be. While a copperhead tends to shy from humans, a small child could easily come upon one and get bitten by one. He killed that snake because he had to protect his younger siblings.
That is what I remember Harold as, my protector. As long as he was around I would be safe. We soon moved to another house shortly after the snake incident not far from the one we previously lived in. But it was in a residential area and had a yard. Here I have one of my favorite memories of Harold. It was Christmas Eve. I shared a big bed with Harold since this house was smaller. I remember waking up and I got up to go see if Santa had come. I was about 6 years old at this time. As I entered the living room the only light was coming from the Christmas Tree lights that blinked on and off. It cast a magical flow over the room. My dad was asleep on the couch. Under the tree were a multitude of presents.
There were some presents that were not wrapped, and sitting out with a name tag stating they were from Santa. A piece of plywood sat in the middle of the room with a electric train set on it. I sat by the train and moved the train around around the track. Then I spied this one colorful package. I went over to it and picked it up and took it back to our bed. I snuck into bed as quiet as possible and pulled the covers over me and the present I had taken. Trying to be quiet as possible not to wake my brother I started to fiddle with the wrapping. I was not as quiet I had hoped to be. Either the noise of trying to unwrap the present or me getting back in bed had woke Harold. Because I heard him say in a deep voice, "Put it back or I'll break your fingers". So I got out of bed and returned the package. Then returned to bed where Harold then pulled the covers up on me and put his arm around me. Probably to make sure I did not get out of bed to go on another raid.
The next morning we got up to open our gifts. As we entered the living room my dad wanted to know who had gotten up and messed with the electric train. It was not in the same position he had left it in. My dad was a stern man. He came from a time where children was seen but not heard. He was born in 1900 and was twenty-nine years older than our mother. He loved his children but when they did something they were not suppose to do you got punished. Everyone played dumb and Harold turned to me and smiled and winked at me. Letting me know this was our little secret. Once again he became my protector.
We continued to live here for a few more years then we moved to another house in another residential area of Memphis. Here we lived for quite a few years. I remember one time I was up at the small baseball field that sprung up in residential areas of Memphis. It was suppertime and Harold was sent to get me. He came up on his motorbike and put me on the seat in front of him. He told me to hold onto the handle bars as we went home. And off we went. I was in heaven. Everything in the world seemed right. There I was riding with my big brother on his bike. Wind blowing in our faces. Hair blowing in the wind. And me sitting there in front of him with the biggest grin a kid could ever had. Here I was riding with who I regarded as my hero. We could have driven past the house and rode into the sunset and I would not have cared. Because I was with my brother.
On October 9, 1967 my brother left high school and joined the US Marines. When he left I knew he would eventually return. But I missed him terribly. He was eventually sent to Viet Nam. He was serving in an Engineers battalion. Of course we worried about his safety over there. In my heart I knew he would return home. Nothing could harm my brother. And he would return to us one day. So life went on for us. He wrote letters to us as often as he could. He sometimes sent pictures. He carried what is known as a BAR over there. A BAR is the Browning Automatic Rifle. A big weapon that shot big rounds. He sent home one picture of him holding his BAR and with the BAR's ammo strapped criss-crossed over his chest and one around his helmet. Sort like you would see Pancho Villa would wear his bullets criss-crossed over his chest.
In one letter he told a story of a fire fight they were in. He called the Viet Cong "Charlie" as the soldiers who served over there did. The BAR was notorious for jamming up in a fire fight. Well his did and the usual remedy would be to pound on it and curse it out loud. Well it seemed Charlie had acquired an American BAR and was shooting back at them with one. And in the middle of this fire fight as Harold pounded and cursed his BAR, Charlie's BAR jammed on him and he could hear him pounding and cursing his BAR. He thought that was very funny.
1968. That was a bad year for us in Memphis. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The riots that occurred afterwards. And on July 2, 1968 my father died of lung cancer at the Veterans Hospital. Harold came home for the funeral. What I remember the most during this time was the food. I never have seen so much food brought to us by people I did not know. He was home for 30 days. We grieved and buried our father. I was glad to see Harold home but wished it could have been on better circumstances. When his thirty days were up he went back to Nam. I knew he didn't have much time left there and he would be home soon.
We moved in August to a house nearer the Catholic School we attended. In late September of 1968 my mother picked us up from school in our red van. She was softly crying and I asked what was wrong. She said she had some news to tell us. I asked her what it was. And she replied she would tell us when we were all home. Once we were home she sat us in the living room and told us that Harold would not be coming back. It turned out he was killed in a vehicle accident over there. He was thrown from the back of a truck and his head was crushed by the bridge trailer they were pulling. But I did not find this out until later on in life.
I remember going to my room and laying on my bed. I was in shock. It had to be a mistake. He couldn't be dead. He was larger than life. he was my hero and protector. Maybe they got the name wrong or the wrong person. And we would hear from him soon. I even fantasized that he was actually been captured and there was a mix up. That he was still alive. He just could not be dead. I could not conceptualize that he was gone.
His body was shipped home and laid to rest in Veteran's Cemetery in Memphis not far from where my father lay buried. At his burial they fired a twenty one gun salute in his honor and played the mournful tune called "Taps". They then folded his flag and presented it to my mother. During this whole process and from the moment of learning that he had died. I never wept a single tear. I was a guy, we don't shed tears in public. But on the inside I was in torment and anguish. But I had to be strong for my mother and siblings. It was here that I knew the awful truth he would not return to us. That he was gone only after being here on this world for only twenty years. Nevermore would I see my hero and protector.
They say life goes on. And it is true. But there was something missing now. Inside there was a pain I kept hidden. I went through the daily routines of living. But I felt empty and alone. I went on to graduate high school and joined the Air Force. I served four years as a medic. I got out and proceeded with going on with life. I met my wife Debbie and we had three children. Went to work, moved the family around the country. It was like I was trying to find something or someone. Many times I felt lost. I heard about the Viet Nam Memorial being built in Washington D.C. and wished to visit it.
It would not be until 1988 before I got that chance. We were living in a small community in West Virginia about three hours from Washington D.C. I found a construction job there in Washington that required a three and half hour commute. I don't know why but one day I was driving into work and decided that once I got close to the job site to call in sick. I then went into D.C. to find the Memorial. On arriving there I stood in front of a black granite wall that tapered from the highest point in the center to the lowest points to the ground east and west of the center. Upon the wall stood all these names. Persons who never returned from Viet Nam alive. Just east of the wall stands a statue of three soldiers representing the soldiers who fought over there. They seem to have just come out of the jungles of Viet Nam and come face to face with the Memorial and seeing all those names.
They have registries near the ends of the Memorial where you can look up who you are searching for and find them on the wall. I located Harold's name, Panel 43W, Row 60. I went in search of the panel. After a few minutes of searching I find the panel. I stand there in front of it. I can feel the emotions building inside of me. Emotions that I kept under bottled up for nearly twenty years. Part of me wants to turn and leave another wants me to stay. I elect to stay. I search down the rows of names. My gaze comes across HAROLD BRUBAKER, suddenly without reason the emotions burst out of me. I start to cry unashamedly in front of his name. I weep for the years lost to him, for the family he will never have. I weep for his fiancee that he was going to marry upon leaving the Marines. I weep for my family for having lost a son, a brother. And I weep for the loss of my hero, my protector.
I fall to my knees and with a trembling hand reach out and touch the letters of his name. I continue to cry while touching his name head bent low. Then it seems like I can feel a hand on my shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. I look over to see who is there. No one is. And it's as if I can hear his voice say, "Hey bro, it's OK, bro. Everything is OK and all right. I'm here with you now and have always been and always will be". I feel a calming effect in my soul. And a heavy burden lifted from my heart. I can hear the birds singing in the trees. The sky and the world around me brighten. Then I realize that as long as I keep his memory of him alive in my heart he will always be there, he will never be gone.
To this day I have kept his memory alive in me. During some of my darkest hours I have felt his presence about me. Letting me know things will get better. Even my daughter, my oldest child is keeping his memory alive. For in her house sits his picture, an uncle she never met and never knew. I'm sure his spirit protects her as it protects me and other members of my family. And one day it is my hope that my sons will also honor his memory. For as long as we honor that, he is never really gone.
There's a picture I would like to have. I saw it once in a store. It shows a an older man standing in front of the Wall with all those names. With a head bent low he reaches out to touch the name of his son. Just like I did with my brothers name on my knees. You can feel and see his grief. On the other side of the Wall as if inside the Wall stands his son, reaching out to touch his father's hand. As to comfort him. With him are some of his friends, obviously representing the others named on the Wall. They stand there comforting the son with hands touching him. I like to thank that is what happened that one summer day in Washington. No, in fact I know deep down in my heart that is what happened. Harold, my brother, was there to comfort me. Still being my protector and Hero.