August 1969: Henry, age 21, was discharged from the army after three years including at least one tour of duty in Vietnam as a medivac helicopter mechanic. He had no doubt seen horrific things. He suffered from nightmares as a result. The entire family was elated at his safe return. Henry had always been a bit of a wild child. He was the oldest of four children. Followed by Jan, age 20, Gene, age 19 and me, Patrick, age 10. We all looked up to him.
He bought a dark blue Gran Torino, which he drove at breakneck speeds, for instance, making the 2 1/2 hour drive to Dallas in 1 1/2 hours. Sped to red lights stopping on a dime.
Henry was handsome and charming like his father, James. He seemingly dated all the girls simultaneously. He was a bright light in the world.
I treasure the brief memories I hold in my heart of those last weeks. Shortly after his return he saw my recently purchased LP of the music from "Dark Shadow" and admired a photo of a man with long sideburns on the cover. Subsequently, he grew his longer.
Near the end of September we celebrated our maternal grandparents' 50th anniversary. Henry and our cousin Rick were the same age and bore a strong resemblance to each other right down to their hair length, color, moustaches and sideburns as if they had planned it, but of course, they had not. They entered the house and my Aunt Goldie called out "get me the scissors." So funny, their hair wasn't even over their ears!
I had a mini reel-to-reel tape deck that my other brother, Gene, had given me. An 8-track tape of Henry's had broken. He attempted unsuccessfully to play the tape on the mini deck. I so wanted it to work so I could be cool and help him out.
His main squeeze was a beautiful high school senior named Paula. We sat under the mimosa tree in the front yard as Henry worked on his car one afternoon. Paula told me he'd been in a fight and lost some skin on his neck. She meant my dog, Penny, but I ran to look under Henry's neck immediately.
One evening, they came to the house after seeing Zefferilli's "Romeo & Juliet" and I caught them making out in the hallway.
I was watching Saturday cartoons and heard a voice asking me what I was doing. Thinking it was Gene; I replied none of your business and was appalled it was Henry. I apologized instantly. I loved him and wanted his love and approval too.
I had been home from school a short time the Tuesday before Thanksgiving when Henry and his best friend, Harold, stopped by the house for Henry to change clothes quickly and then they were gone. At 2 or 3am, I awoke (which I never did, from a dream of two cars on a dark highway). I saw a light from the living room and walked down the hall to find my sister, Jan, sitting alone in her pajamas. When I asked what was wrong, she said nothing and for me to go back to bed, which I did.
At 4am, my father, James, who sat on the edge of my bed, awakened me. "Patrick," he said, "Henry was in a car accident." Dad broke down into tears as he said, "We lost him." He ran off a bridge with his friend, Harold, following close behind. Two cars on a dark highway.
Shock enveloped me as Dad took my hand and led me to the living room. By 5am, relatives and family friends began to arrive. It was eerie and I remained silent.
I sat on the sofa between my mother, Elizabeth, and her longtime friend, Betsy. At one point, Betsy looked toward the front door and exclaimed she kept expecting Henry to walk in, which I found inappropriate and insensitive even as a 10 year old.
Dawn began to break. Coffee was brewed in our rarely used percolator. The smell of coffee was good, but unusual in our home.
Around 8am, I asked to go out for a walk. There was a thick fog hovering low to the ground. I did not recall such a fog ever before or since. I walked in the street and stood in front of the garage door contemplating the tragedy that had crashed our world mere hours before.
At some point, Jan and I lay resting in her bed sharing some memories. Mother called me to her bedroom to see Aunt Jody who worked at a local children/teen shop. I needed a new suit and was taken there to shop for one. A surreal outing to say the least.
When we returned home, more relatives had arrived. Right inside the front door sat my Uncle Joseph with my favorite cousin, Ruby, in his lap. Seeing them broke my shock and silence. All this was real and I began to cry uncontrollably as I ran to my bedroom. I heard Ruby ask her father what was wrong with me. He said I was very sad. Yes, I was sad. We were all sad.
I went with Jan and Gene to a junk car lot on Hwy 79 to look at the remains of Henry's totaled car.
That afternoon we also went to the funeral home to plan the service. Being a 10 year old, I protested to my Mother about the 2pm funeral time the next day, Thanksgiving of all things. I would miss "Dark Shadows." Mother quickly hushed me.
The body was ready for the public viewing later that day. I was fascinated by the two-story building. I was happy to make myself helpful by offering coffee to all who entered. I drank a lot of coffee myself for the first time in my life, heavily sweetened and with powdered creamer.
I do recall the drive to the church the following day. It was packed and the floral tributes were extraordinary.
As was not unusual at the time, after the burial, my Father instructed us to never mention Henry's name or discuss what had happened. It would only make us feel worse. What a mistake.
The following year, I came perilously close to suicide. Mother became addicted to pills. Dad was more distant than ever. Jan and Gene became wild partying drinkers.
Though no one knew it at the time (I continually heard how quiet and well-behaved I was) I began a life-long struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide.
More than 45 years later, I still look at photos of Henry, have dreams of him and wonder what might have been.
As my ten year old self would have said at the time: My oldest brother, Henry, was so neat and groovy.
We were blessed to have him for those brief 21 years. I will always miss him.