May 26, 2014
The two brothers, ten and eleven, were playing on the enclosed porch of the farmhouse during a rainstorm. The shelves of the porch were lined with empty Mason jars. Their father kept the jars there for emergencies, in case he needed a stiff drink. He would pour remnant drops of whiskey out of each jar into a glass and down it. On this rainy day, the brothers had to pee, and the outhouse was far enough away from the house, they couldn’t see it through the rain. So they peed into a jar, intending to wash it out later. The rain stopped and the boys ran outside. And the old man came home, in need of that emergency drink. And he found a miracle, a jar a third full of amber liquid. He downed it then spit it up. He nearly whipped the hides off his sons. The brothers could laugh about the incident, as adults, but then they would grow silent and contemplative. Ewing served in the Navy, on a mine sweeper in Sydney Harbor. His older brother Fred was in the Air Force, part of the Army in World War II. The brothers arrived home in Mt.Vernon, in 1945. Only then did they find out that their father had died mid-war, and their vengeful mother Olive had kept the death a secret.
Fred Sr. was an alcoholic. He drank a poisonous concoction popularly called Jamaican Ginger and it paralyzed him from the waist down, and he died a horrible death. The deeply religious Olive had been cuckolded many times—her husband was a drummer, selling woodstoves all around southern Illinois and having women in every port of call—and shamed by her husband’s addiction, and she had him buried in the pauper’s section of the Mt. Vernon cemetery, his grave marked by a numbered tin plaque.
Ewing had been a hell raiser in his misspent youth. He was an unwilling participant in his mother’s strident religion. He endured her almost daily hidings with willow sticks and spouting of Bible verses. He smoked at thirteen, ran his own still in the woods, hung out in the local pool hall. Fred had the family gift for music; he was a good bass player. The brothers drifted apart after a local, well-to-do man on Fred’s paper route proposed to Olive that he would send Fred to college if the boy would take his name.
And Fred Summers never looked back, and Ewing Baldwin never looked forward. Ewing was doubly bitter, over his father’s death and Fred’s luck.
One of my earliest memories is of my father, on one of our homecoming visits to Mt.Vernon—we lived in Belleville then—carrying me into the cemetery and discovering that all the plaques of the pauper’s field had been removed. And the records of who was buried where had been destroyed in a fire. And on this day, my father flew into a rage, clutching me and walking rapidly through an open field and cursing my grandmother. He stopped on a patch of earth and wept.
Years later, we stood at Olive’s grave. She was buried between two other, later husbands. There were a lot of jokes about the hapless Cloyd and Floyd (Floyd was the man I knew as Grandfather), beneath our feet. I and one of my male cousins walked to the pauper’s field and I told him the story about our grandfather. My father joined us and was derisive. I couldn’t have remembered such a thing; I was a baby then. I crossed the field and pointed to a place and told them, my grandfather, who had died long before I was born, was buried here. My father was furious. He didn’t understand my gift for finding things. On his deathbed, he would concede that I had been right.
How many more homecomings went wrong for the men of the “Greatest Generation?” The horrors they witnessed in war may have been thought to trump their personal experiences. But horror is horror. Scale is the difference. The great plays of that generation, of Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, depict veterans of war at war once again, in their own houses. Sam Shepherd’s masterpiece “True West” depicts a war between two brothers, played out viciously in a kitchen, while their mother is out shopping.
Ewing’s second war had me as an enemy combatant. We were still poor; he had moved the family to Alton, to work a second job as a handyman at Fred’s motel. My mother had multiple sclerosis. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Cliff Davenport and George Heidbrink, two special teachers, saved my life and steered me towards art. There were no such saviors for Ewing; his wounds and hurts were self-inflicted and he inflicted heinous wounds and hurts on me.
Ironically, Fred failed in business and moved away. Ewing started a business as a house appraiser and proved to be suited for the work. But he could not be happy. His resentments haunted him.
On this Memorial Day, I honor my father and my uncle. They had a chance; they had no chance. War has yet to work—except on its soldiers.