On Memorial Day I remember particularly my missing kid brother, Arnold, who died in a small war a long time ago: the Korean War, 1950-1953.
There have been so many wars, all sizes, in the interim that probably few people remember the issues in Korea. But I remember.
Soviet-backed Communist North Korea invaded UN backed South Korea; President Truman immediately ordered movement of the American troops from Japan – post-World War II occupation forces – into South Korea. My kid brother was declared missing in action during the second week of the war.
What was Arnold doing in the army? He was sixteen years old, a kid with a zany sense of humor, when he enlisted. He was the third child and only son of an indigent, Orthodox Jewish family in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hating the trade high school he attended and bitterly unhappy at home, one day he took the BMT subway to Times Square. He headed for the military recruiting booth. He’d run away to join the army.
My mother blamed me bitterly. Indeed, he had followed my suit.
I, after high school, had immediately left home to go to Brooklyn College (which was free if one passed the entrance exam)! My parents were absolutely opposed to my going to college. I was female, “too smart” and “always with the reading”. I was unattractively myopic and already could not do without eyeglasses. Who would marry me, they worried. Who?
I got a live-in babysitting job and I managed. I finished college. I went on to graduate school in Iowa. Someone nice married me. I was lucky.
We had hardworking, decent, honorable parents – badly matched in marriage and totally unworldly. Though they struggled mightily they could not cope. There had never been enough money. Mama walked across the Williamsburg Bridge to save the three cents in trolley fare; she shopped from the pushcarts on the East Side then carried the laden shopping bags back home. She was miserly. For some bad years the family had been on “Home Relief” (Welfare) and so she saved pennies and nickels and hoarded them in a small bank account against future crises. She, and only she, handled the family funds. We had an ice box but no ice and a coal stove but no coal. She argued that icy food was bad for you but bracing winter air was good for you. My parents truly loved their children but they were ground down by poverty and the pressures of living. One bright spot was my older sister, Marilyn, who married a neighborhood boy of appropriate religion; my parents rejoiced and loved their grandchildren.
My kid brother Arnold was so happy in the army in Tokyo those first two years; he wrote often. In time, he finished his high school courses and earned his diploma. He was an M.P in Japan fascinated by the new culture, the food, and the language. The world with all its possibilities was opening for him.
Then came Korea.
He went missing the third week of the war and then remained missing for many months. The army found his “remains” and sent a coffin to Williamsburg with an Honor Guard of soldiers. There was a funeral, but my mother, oddly, would not obey the mourning ritual. Nor would she observe the religious rules. She wouldn’t sit shivah. She began to behave erratically, disappearing secretly on Sundays without explanation. Arnold’s room and his possessions were kept like a shrine.
After graduate school, when I was back in New York, I observed her closely and I could see she believed Arnold was still alive. She was too busy and silent and abstracted and there were those disappearances without explanation. Nor would she show me her bankbook. I asked.
Confronted and threatened that police would come to the house if she did not explain her strange behavior, she became hysterical. The neighbors would see the police! She accompanied me to police headquarters bringing her bankbook, and there the “Confidence Squad” recognized her story at once.
On Mother’s Day, 1951, a gypsy fortuneteller in Coney Island had assured her that Arnold was alive. The only thing preventing his return was the “dirty money” Mama had in the bank, some of which she brought afterwards weekly to Coney Island.
“She burns the money in a barrel,” The policeman said. “Dry ice makes good smoke.” He went on to describe the ceremony.
Weeping, Mama collapsed and we tried to comfort her. The Gypsy was gone when the police went to pick her up – and with her my mother’s pitiful savings – but a few months later, greedy for Arnold’s GI insurance, the Gypsy returned. She was arrested, tried, and found guilty. The angry judge ordered full restitution. And because my mother was not used to handling large sums of money, she made an arithmetical error which gained her a small profit.
My kid brother Arnold would have loved the end of the story!
(My novel IN A COLD OPEN FIELD: Black Heron Press, 1997 deals with this incredible experience.)