Sidney was not at all impressed with my junk drawer. I can vividly remember spending hours sifting through the rubble and finding worn elastic bands, screws of all shapes and sizes, bruised golf balls, and delicate tools used for watch repair. There were new discoveries to be made each visit. I would sit on my mother's kitchen floor, with the drawer between my legs, and examine every piece like it was a long lost treasure. I was an archeologist of discarded useless junk. I would often sort my work into separate piles, one for outdoor and indoor use, then geometric shapes and colours. It never bored me or failed to fill a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Sid quietly pushed the mess from left to right and in small circles, her hand barely touching the tangled heap of metal and plastic. Her red hair was tightly drawn into a bun, leaving her face and its expression exposed. She couldn't hide her disinterest. She would look up at me on occasion and smile weakly as I nodded and grinned my approval and encouragement. After a few tortuous minutes, I finally asked her, " Did you find anything you liked or wanted to keep, Sweetie?"
"Just this daddy. What is it?" Her tiny hand opened slowly. In it lay one of my brother's World War II medals. I remember mom calling it "one of Richard's souvenirs from overseas." I was shocked and furious that mother would discard it here in the junk drawer. I ran my fingers around its rusted edges and thought about Richard for a moment. Sidney asked what it was. She wanted to keep it. Christmas carols were on the radio in the living room and she lost her interest. She skipped out of the kitchen to join Maggie and my mom, who were decorating the tree. It was Christmas Eve and I had just been given an early gift. I rooted through the cupboard, found a small cup and filled it with vinegar. I clipped the medal with a clothes pin, placed it in the cup, and put it away behind some tins of soup and joined my family.
Dicky was my big brother. He always seemed like a man to me. Even as a young boy he seemed like a man. Richard seemed to know everything. He knew how to stop a nose bleed, how to set a fish hook, and how to skate backwards. But he knew these things without being a show off and he helped me do them without making me feel small or stupid. He was patient with me when my nose dripped with blood, when my hook and bobber flew out of the water as I reefed my line too suddenly, and when I regularly tripped and fell as we skated on the backyard rink we had at home. Dicky was more like a father to me. Dad was always away, busy repairing the lines for the CN. So Dicky naturally took over. I can remember hearing him get up well before school started, throwing on his warmest clothes and setting out to check the miles of trap lines dad had set to help pay the bills. Richard never once complained. He would do his morning work, go to school, and make his way to the Abbot's furniture shop where he would clean up. He was tireless, strong, and quiet, and I loved him without ever telling him.
I was old enough to know that our country was at war. It was always on the radio and our teachers at school talked about it like the Germans would soon be marching down Loyalist Street, their black boots singing in perfect unison as the town folk looked on and secretly organized resistance groups that would blow up bridges and stall the Nazi effort. I half expected an announcement over the school public address system that the Germans had finally arrived and we had a new Gestapo Principal. He would force us at gun point to go on exhaustive cross country runs and do jumping jacks before school started on the playground pavement. We all took action. I became a member of the grade four boys "Freedom Fighters" troop whose job it was to keep a close eye out for anything suspicious as we patrolled our way home from school. We would meet every morning by Mrs. Matson's portable and share any important information. We were all in agreement that Mr. Callan, our butcher, was in cahoots with the Germans and was not to be trusted. We really let him have it on Hell Night. We soaped a sloppy swastika on his shop window that was later photographed and put on the front page of the Beaver. It was scandalous. We were eventually found out and had to apologize to Mr. Callan in person. As punishment, we were all forced to take turns helping Mr. Callan in his shop after school. He loved to sit on his stool and watch as I mopped the blood from his shop floor. He would look over at me out of the corner of his eye while worked and would smile as he chopped and sliced every piece of fresh meat. It was my job to neatly wrap and tie the chicken and beef into the clean brown paper. My sentence was a month of his psychological gamesmanship. To this day, the stench of a butcher shop makes my mouth water and my palms and brow sweat.
I can recall that Saturday morning perfectly. Dad was in Belleville repairing a damaged line and mom was shopping in town. It was December 4, 1940. Richard woke me up early by throwing snow at my bedroom window. I pulled up my blind and there was Dicky. He was leaning on his old Northland hockey stick, his brown bangs matted with sweat under his tasseled hat, his black aviators jacket open at the neck and his scarf thrown on the snow beside him. Steam rose from his slight shoulders. His feet shuffled back and forth on the chipped and snowy ice. "Come on out Bobby, the waters fine," he laughed. I waited a moment when he thought I was gone and watched from the window as he slowly skated figure eights with the puck glued to his stick.
We took turns playing net and shooter. He always left a gaping hole between his legs for me to score. He taught me how to skate, shoot, and carry the puck with my head up on those cold Saturday and Sunday mornings. But today was different. We only skated for an hour or so that morning before Richard told me we had to go into town for some business he had to take care of. Dicky enlisted that morning in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was seventeen years old. He got his orders three weeks later and was shipped out for pilot training in Saskatchewan. We had two more skates together before he had to go.
Richard went over to fight in Italy in1941. My parents were terrified for him. Our lives were all touched with death and loss. Students in my school were suddenly pulled from class by crying parents. We all knew why. There were no more silly groups fighting phantom enemies here at home. It was all real and we grew up quickly. A car in the driveway at night would bring all neighbours to their windows because the men in those cars brought messages of death to the family it visited. Coats would be slung over night clothes and kettles would be put on and mothers would cry and fathers would talk in whispers on the driveway.
For some unknown reason I never really worried about Dicky too much. I never dreamed about him, or wrote about him in my school journal like many of the others did. I never made him a card on his birthday like our teachers wanted us to do. Richard was bigger than the World War to me and I expected him home. He sent us letters from Europe. Most included some candy for me and the odd photograph of him and an unnamed friend or two. They were always smiling so I thought that he must be happy.
I was getting older as the war dragged on. Dad relied on me to man the trap lines. My bedroom clock was set for five every morning and I pulled myself out of bed to start my chores. The kitchen light was on so I expected to get an ear full from dad about being late. I rubbed my eyes and stepped into the kitchen prepared for the worst and there he was. Dicky Markle was home from the war. We both stopped in our tracks and looked one another over. I could see he was amazed at how I had grown so much over the years he was away. But I think I was equally startled at what I found in our kitchen that morning in May of 1945. Richard hadn't changed a bit. His face and body were unmarked, his smile was the same, he didn't look any wiser, sadder or any less confident than the day he left us. I had heard from some of my school friends that many of their brothers and fathers came home and drank too much, or couldn't keep a job or had to stay in the hospital so they could get better. Not Dicky. It was like he just went to the store to get some milk for mom and was four years in doing so. I didn't care to over think it. Richard was home and life would go back to normal. I didn't scream or rush out to embrace him. I just smiled and told him that I'd wake mom and dad. He casually winked and nodded his head. That morning we checked the lines together.
We all stepped back into our normal routines. I was in Middle School. Mother kept us all fed and put clean clothes on our backs. Dad's work was busy and he was away more than ever. Richard stepped into an apprentice carpenter position at the furniture shop. I often asked Richard about his life overseas but he never wanted to talk about it much. He told me the people were a bit different and that it was hotter in the parts of Europe he stayed in, and that was all. He never told stories of exaggerated heroics, or girls he had met, or the battles he was in. He was simply glad to be home and that was it. I grew tired of asking him, and as 1945 was blowing into1946, I never bothered to ask him again.
Life changed for all of us in December of 1946. I was getting ready for bed on a Friday night when I heard a howl from the kitchen. I quickly dressed and bolted down the stairs. My father was holding mom, who had collapsed in his arms. Our eyes met and I knew something was terribly wrong. Richard had been killed in an accident. My brother, who had survived some of the most brutal fighting in human history, was killed when his car lost control on some black ice. He was dead. I buried my brother ten days before Christmas, 1946.
The Markle family was left deflated and beaten. The air had been sucked out of our lives in a flash second. The CN let my dad work from the station here in Napanee so he didn't have to be away from home so often. I would often find my mother, alone and crying, at the kitchen table. It was during one of these break downs that she told me our family secret. I've never told anyone, not even my wife. I keep it close. I don't know what else to do.
My brother Dicky had really killed himself with one of my dad's deer rifles. He took it and walked back into the woods and sat on the old couch we used to play on out there and ripped himself out of our lives and I don't know why. I will never know why. I have thought and ached and cried and I still do not have any answers. The police chief, Mr. Curwen, a drinking buddy of my father's, reluctantly shared our secret to his grave to preserve my brother's dignity. Mom said it did.
It has been seven years since my father passed. Mother refuses to sell the old house. She seems to be rejuvenated with Sidney in her life. Dad died of Alzheimer's disease, a broken and confused old man. We rarely speak of Dicky at all. My wife enjoys looking at pictures of us in the old albums mother keeps in the living room closet.
It's late now. The four of us have had our dinner. The dishes have been washed and put away. Sidney is in bed with us because she is too excited to sleep. I listen to the two of them breath while the wind and snow stroke the bedroom window. I leave the bed as quietly as I can so that I don't wake Sidney. My wife turns to me in the darkness and I whisper that it is time for me to play Santa. I quietly put on my dad's old terry cloth robe and head for the middle bedroom where the presents are. I know and love this old house my father built with his own hands. I can navigate it without light like a sailor in familiar waters.
The presents we have for Sidney and mom fill the living room. I decide to sit awhile in the darkness. Lights from the cars off Highway #2 seep into the room like soft flashes from a distant lighthouse. I close my eyes and think of Dicky. As hard as I try, I can't conjure up an image of my brother, so I make my way into the kitchen. Mother has left a night light on. The light is faint as I reach into the cupboard and take out the cup. I decide to sit on the floor, where the light is better. I pull the clothes pin out and examine the medal in the half light. The vinegar has worked. I can see two crossing swords that are surrounded by jutting points. In the heart of the medal is a swirling flower. I get to my feet and walk towards the garbage pail and remove the clothes pin from the medal. Both are soaking with freed rust and memories. I place the clothes pin in the garbage and rub the moisture slowly between my fingers. I put my fingers gently to my lips and taste them. It is cold and bitter and indistinguishable. I place the wet souvenir into my robe pocket and shuffle back to bed to my sleeping family.
Copyright © 1998 Glynn SharpeSend us your comments on this article