Warts and all. That’s the way I like to tell my stories. That’s the way I look at myself and the people I love. There are no perfect people in real life. Just flawed, broken, struggling human beings who make decisions; some good ones, some bad ones.
My nephew has a story that can only be told by starting from the beginning. And so I will. Let’s call him Red. That’s what he was called in the streets of Chicago.
Red was born exactly 8 months after my own son, in the spring of 1970. His mother is my sister, his father a brilliant hometown high school football hero. They married very young – much too young – but not for the usual reason that required fathers to load their shotguns. They were simply in love and wanted to be together.
Red’s Dad joined the U.S. Marine Corps and took my sister off to Santa Ana, California to be a military wife in a very strange land. Eventually, Red’s Dad was shipped over to Viet Nam and his Mom returned to the family to wait out the unbearable days and nights that had Red’s Dad crawling in the muggy jungles of a land unheard of by any of us before The War.
Red’s Dad survived the war, at least physically, and, after his honorable discharge from the Marines, returned to our Midwestern home town to set up housekeeping with his young wife. Red was conceived on purpose, in a two-parent stable home, not too long after that.
War is ugly, especially for those who actually leave their homes to fight them. Red’s Dad was among the walking wounded who saw too much and heard too much and did too many horrible things in order to stay alive. His reward? Flashbacks, screaming night terrors, unspeakable memories. He turned to alcohol, something he had always enjoyed socially.
As much in love as they were, my sister and Red’s Dad couldn’t find room in their relationship for the third party – booze. My sister asked him to leave and live with his “mistress” alone. Eventually, he took up with someone else and she decided to marry a man who lived in Florida. Thinking the best thing for Red at age 6 was to have daily access to his father, my sister made the impossible decision to leave her child in the care of a Wounded Warrior.
Red doesn’t talk much about those years. Suffice it to say his father provided him access to a private school education to foster the child’s unusual intelligence, encouraged his son’s inherited gift of athleticism, and continued to lose his footing from the emotional baggage he brought home from Viet Nam.
Red took his straight A’s and his loneliness to the streets of Chicago. He joined a notorious gang that he says provided a sense of belonging he desperately sought. He did what notorious gang members do, except he simultaneously earned a scholarship to a prominent university in the Southwest.
Red went to college. He couldn’t adjust to the change of environment, from urban and tough, to rustic and serene. He couldn’t relate to his roommate from a country outside the U.S. He couldn’t shake his severe homesickness.
When Red dropped out of college as a freshman, his father and mother were both livid. They didn’t understand how Red could walk away from such a great opportunity. So what did Red do to try to make amends? He joined the U.S. Marine Corps, without talking to anyone. He believed that would restore his father’s pride in him. Instead, it made matters much, much worse.
It has never been clear to me what Red expected to encounter after his ill-conceived decision to join up. It is entirely possible all he had to go on was the glory heaped on the tough guys who manage to make it through boot camp, since his father never, ever wanted to talk about the reality of his own experience.
Whatever his expectations, he found himself in combat, first in Panama. There he saw his buddy die instantly beside him from a shot to the head. Next he was deployed to Operation Desert Storm because Iraq refused to leave Kuwait. There he operated a shoulder-mounted missile launcher. He never talks about the killing he had to do.
Still physically unscathed, Red somehow wound up on the island of Okinawa. This was not combat, so I guess he had way too much time on his hands. He found a way to use his off-the-charts intelligence to figure out a way to “trick” Japanese ATMs into dispensing money he didn’t own. He landed in a Japanese prison where he languished for months and had his leg purposely broken by the guards. He also traded his Catholicism for Islam.
I found a civilian attorney willing to take on the Japanese military prison system and Red’s Mom wrote checks for thousands of dollars as we worked to extricate her child from his own series of very bad decisions. He left the USMC with a General Discharge, which is given to service members whose performance is satisfactory but is marked by a considerable departure in duty performance and conduct expected of military members.
It was far from easy or without speed bumps along the way, but Red finally found his way to becoming a productive human being. While he sowed his wild oats and produced a total of four, maybe five, children in the process, he also entered a university program to work toward a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering Technology. He graduated with honors and landed a job in telecommunications, where he has worked ever since.
In the meantime, he gained primary custody of three of his children, including the two youngest he had with his now ex-wife. He spends all his time with his kids and other people’s kids in his role as sports commissioner in their Georgia town. The children he has raised alone are smart, well-mannered and talented; his oldest son is now a freshman in college.
There is probably enough blame for Red’s troubles to spread around. As a man in his forties now, he places most of the blame on his own poor choices, but that’s only part of the truth. I can say without hesitation that the credit for his ultimate success -- and I consider him a huge success – is the simple fact that no one in his family was willing to write him off.
It was tough. I was involved on a level that had me bailing him out of jail and sitting in courtrooms in support. I cried for my sister, who struggled with guilt for her decision to leave him with his father. I laid awake at night imagining the hell he was enduring in combat.
It is impossible to know how one child can be a relative breeze to raise, while another from the same background and circumstances can make so many wrong turns. There is no magic formula, with the exception of one element:
Never, ever give up on a kid.