Friday, June 23, 2006

So Long, Son: Howard Vincent O’Brien’s Column Shook the Nation.

[This is the column that shook the nation and prompted a letter and phone call from Eleanor Roosevelt, January 12, 1945—written after a period of reflection during which time O’Brien wrote other things. Finally he was ready to write about his loss.]

The box came by express the day after Christmas. The children thought it was a belated gift from Santa Claus and jumped up and down, clapping their hands. They thought it was a doll.

The carton was the right size for a doll but I knew it wasn’t a doll. Dolls don’t come from the Army Effects Bureau, Kansas City Quartermaster Depot. Besides, I had a letter.

Nobody but the children wanted to open the carton; so it was taken to the attic and for days stayed out of sight if not out of mind. Then, Sunday afternoon, when I was alone in the house, I got a pair of metal shears and snipped the steel tape with which the carton was bound.

It was packed jus as he might have done it himself—the coats and trousers neatly folded, the socks and handkerchiefs and underwear all helter-skelter.

On top was the made-to-order dress uniform, as fresh as the day it had come from the tailor. He had been so proud of this extravagance, admiring himself in the close-fitting tunic; and he had looked so smart when he stood with long fingers around his wasp waist, buttons gleaming like fire against the dark green. He had so little time to be proud.

In the corner was a pair of officer’s shoes, almost like new. Even less worn were his summer things. He saw no summers in Britain. His work was done before he could hear the skylark or see the meadows “knee-deep in June.”

At the bottom of the carton was a tattered envelope, stuffed with orders and a diploma of graduation from a Louisiana training school.

Beside it was a leather-bound diary, given him by his mother, with her name on the flyleaf. Eagerly I leafed through the pages. They were blank!

The only other record of his life was a couple of flashlight pictures of himself and comrades—all laughing—snapped in New York “spots.”

Under them was a small paper bag, torn in the corner. In it were the following:

A jeweler’s ring box—with no ring.

The silver wings of a navigator.

A wrist watch, minus crystal, which had stopped at 23 minutes to 9:00.

A pair of sunglasses.

A Yellow Cab identification tag, No. 3233.

Three coins—a nickel, a dime and a three-penny piece.

The winter twilight was settling as I finished the inventory and my nostrils ached with the sick-sweetish odor of disinfectant. Methodically I unpinned the gold lieutenant’s bars and the navigator’s wings and snipped off the buttons.

Then I sat staring at the box in which these things had come. It was such a small box to hold all the laughter and tears, all the hope and apprehension which had been packed into it. So much gaiety and tenderness, so much generosity and fun, such talent and eager inquiry, such virile beauty…It was hard to believe it had all vanished like the song of a bird at dusk, leaving only a little heap of clothes and a torn paper bag.

It was incredible that of high adventure in a far land nothing was left but a three-pence and a watch that had stopped ticking.

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