These will be stories of having a protective and combative older brother all your life who inspired and supported and then died at least 20 years before his time .
I remember him astride Buppo, my grandparent’s German Shepherd, his beret worn proudly and his leggings locked around the patient beast’s belly.
I remember him marching with an older-brother’s righteousness, the envelope held firmly in his right hand, from my teacher’s desk to our Dean Street kitchen, only to hand, despite my pleadings, the incriminating document regarding my despicable classroom behavior to our mother.
I remember him never falling unto or bumping into or running in front of any of the things I fell unto, bumped into or was run over by while I accumulated eighteen broken bones in less than that many years (and not including the numerous occasions requiring stitching of my rather battered scalp).
I remember him not finishing his last year at Saint Francis Prep but sitting at our small dining room table night after night, documents around him, while he completed the Bookkeeper’s course from LaSalle Extension University.
Then we were apart, for three years, from 1943 to 1946, while he served in the U.S. Marine Corps. I remember his letters home, trying to be sure we didn’t worry. While he and the other 2nd Marines fought in the South Pacific. He never mentioned until some thirty years later, (while talking with me at his table at the Downtown Athletic Club) that in one particular landing, five of his closest buddies were gunned down next to him and only the limited radius of the weapon’s mechanics stopped it from arcing through him as well. He was 19 at the time. His last tour brought him to Nagasaki, the first troops to occupy the second city (in history) to have received an atomic bomb.
He died of leukemia at the age of 60, as did many of those marines and soldiers who plowed through the Hiroshima/Nagasaki atomic ash during the first weeks of occupation.
But, the brother I want to tell you about here was not only one tough son-of-a-bitch but a brilliant businessman and a great father as well.
I was “Jackie”.
He was “Dick”.
Jackie was “the smarter one”. A bad boy at school. But an A student.
Dick was “the slower one”. A good boy at school. But a B or below student.
Jackie went on to graduate from Columbia College.
Dick got a completion certificate in Bookkeeping from LaSalle Extension School in Chicago..
But back to his toughness. He returned from Nagasaki on a ship full of marines and GIs and, thanks to his early training at his first home on Dean Street in Brooklyn, he won more than $2000 playing poker during the 25-day passage.
After debarking with his new wealth, he and other 2nd Marines were assigned to barracks in Camp Pendleton, with the Marine Corps intention to issue leave in time for their return home before Christmas Day. A few days later, on his first one-night pass, he and a buddy headed into town for a few brews. They quickly found a friendly place with an owner who greeted them with the respect “Gyrenes” deserved in those days. Unfortunately, there were others there including a rather large civilian football type with his buddy, an aggressive sailor. They were considerably older than my now 20-year old brother and buddy and, for some reason, began amusing themselves by ridiculing the Marine Corps.
The two, just off the boat and just back from two years of fighting dengue and Japanese in various Island paradises, were not receptive to ridicule.
Long story short, both the burly civilian and the sharp-tongued sailor were hurled through the large plate glass window and unto the street. The hurled pair soon got to their feet and hurried off to some unknown refuge. But my brother, somewhat ridden with guilt about what he’d done to the nice owners store front, and flush with a pocket full of poker money, offered to pay the full cost of the damage to the owner. But, the owner, showed no anger and refused the offer, citing that he had seen the taunting and realized our fighting troupes should not be ridiculed. He, instead, offered them free beers and invited them to sit back down. Dick was impressed with this reception by an American businessman and realized that he was going to be seen as a returning hero in many American’s eyes. They sat down, toasted their host and slowly poured down a couple of free brews. As they started their third, they noticed three Marine Corps MPs walk into the bar. Before they could give a comradely nod of acknowledgement, the three strode straight to their table and, with pistols drawn, told Dick and his buddy to lie flat on the floor.
In moments, their hands were behind their backs in handcuffs, and the owner, happily changing colors, was angrily proclaiming he was prepared to press charges because he was “sick and tired” of “all these gung-ho Marines” coming into and messing up his place. He didn’t want my brother’s money, he wanted my brother punished.
He got his wish. Within days, at his court martial, brother Dick was sentenced to thirty days in prison, “piss and bunk”, which meant full meal every three days, among, I guess, other nasty things. He would not be home until mid-January. So much for “Merry Christmas”. So much for “Happy New Year”. So much for “Hero’s Welcome Home”.
I was very proud of his kicking ass. He was my big brother and he had, via his war, become my hero. In fact, I joined the Marine Corps in June 1945 as soon as I turned 18 to be like my brother. But, for me, while in Camp Lejeune, NC, in officer’s training, the war ended in August 1945 and while my brother was shipped to Nagasaki, I was back home by October. I waited for three months, until mid-January before I could welcome back my hero.
But his heroism during WWII was not to end then. Dick grew to be the family hero, the most successful Byrne the family had ever known.