August 3, 1944. It’s a hot afternoon on the farm where, as a little kid, I’m doing some chores. Feeding the chickens, cleaning out the rabbit hutch. For some reason I pause and look around. My mom is on the path to the “privy.” For you so-called millennials a privy is an outhouse, an outdoor toilet very common on farmsteads in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
I watch my mom, and suddenly she collapses. I yell, “Pop!” and my father leaves his blacksmith shop, and we both run to see what had befallen mom. She has fainted and crumpled on the path. I’m scared to death, but my dad cradles her head in his strong arms and fans her face with his hat. Slowly mom comes to and says, “I’m all right.” And gradually she gets to her feet.
After all the excitement, the farm settles down. Mom completes her trip to the privy, and returns to the kitchen. The sun goes down and we have what we in the south call “supper.” Dinner is the noontime meal. And what did we have to eat? From the garden, vegetables mostly, I’m sure. Corn and tomatoes and cucumbers. And string beams cooked with a bit of bacon or fat back.
After supper we all listen to the radio. Maybe it’s “Suspense” or “Lights Out” or “Lux Radio Theater.” After the eight o’clock News program, and a war update on how the Allied forces are crossing France and headed into Germany, it is bedtime. Bedtime comes early on the farm because the next day begins with the sunrise. I go to my little room where the bed seems half empty, because my big brother whom we called “Sonny” and who shared the room with me, is off to fight the wars as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
I’m awakened from deep sleep by a commotion in the house. I don’t know what it is because it is still dark outside my window. There’s a clock on my dresser and it indicates half past one. I’ve never been awake so late. I tumbled out of bed and follow the noise and find my father on our single phone, which is in the living room. My mom and sister are huddled around him. A phone call in the middle of the night is always frightening.
Father hangs up the phone and just sits there. I’m aware of the silence broken by only the sound of crickets and tree frogs coming in the open windows. Finally, my father chokes out eight words. “Sonny has been killed in a plane crash.”
The rest of that night and the next two weeks is a blur. People, friends, relatives, many of whom are strangers to me, fill the house. Food is everywhere. Flowers fill every room. Sonny was loved by many. . I remember a young, blond Lieutenant who has been sent to accompany the casket that brings my brother’s body home. That was the custom. And there was a funeral, a flag folded in triangles and presented to my mom, and someone playing taps on a bugle.
Details of the plane crash are slow to come. My brother, who was a fighter pilot, was being transferred to another air base and the plane that he and 27 other young airmen (Sonny was only 20 years old) were riding in had flown into a thunderstorm and crashed and burned.
The blue star flag in our front window was replaced with a gold star, but that event was the beginning of the end for our family. My sister went off to teach school in the NC mountains, and a year later my parents divorced. My brother was a great influence on my life, and I’m sure that losing his guidance is responsible for many of the missteps I’ve taken in the lifetime since his death. But what I recall most is that August afternoon. When one compares the time Sonny died with the time my mother fainted – they are exactly the same. Somehow she felt the connection break when her first-born son’s heart stopped beating. A mother’s intuition is a phenomenon that a man can never comprehend.