Friday, November 11, 2011

Uncle Joe - My Dad's Brother

Joseph Vernon Powell was – and still is - my brother. We shared a special relationship. While he was 16 months older than me, we both, from time to time, were called upon to help – to protect each other. When I was hurt, he felt my pain. When he was being teased at the playground at Grandview Elementary school because of his birthmark, I cried, but was too little or too afraid of the wrath of those evil bullies to do anything to ease – to end his pain.

Once, it must have been when I was 3 years old, Joe was in the hospital and I was called upon to give him my brand new, bright, red fire truck, to play with, in the hospital. At 3 years old, we don’t understand these things, but I was so glad when he came home from the hospital that I never asked about the bright, red fire engine. Having Joe home was far more important than a toy.

Joe paved the way and blazed trails for me all of our lives. In fact, I blame him for a story we’ve heard all our lives. Sometime shortly after Joe had gotten home from the hospital, we somehow moved a very large and very heavy, metal bunk bed set across the room and made a fort to play under. Years later, and often only after a few drinks, adults would add gross details about the stinky and unsanitary mess we smeared on the walls to keep the evil ones away from this, our special fort.

While Joe paved the way and blazed many a trail for me, he was not always the one that caused, or even came up with the things that we did - with the messes we made and the punishments we received. No doubt, he was purely angelic that Saturday morning when we got into a fight and managed to break both his and my brand new eyeglasses. We feared and had fully earned the punishment and mayhem that followed when our Mom and Dad saw what we had done.

Joe taught me to ride a bicycle and together we would roar down a gravel road and across an open field. We were free from parental oversight for a few minutes. We had escaped into a pretend land. Sometimes, we were mountain men exploring the Wild West on our stallions. Sometimes, we were cavalry chasing renegade Indians. Sometimes, we were soldiers charging an unseen but ever present enemy.

With Joe, being just boys was never enough. Joe had ridden these bicycle trails many times. Joe had already blazed these bike trails. He had gone down the road before and he knew where the dangers were and how to avoid them. Joe was my brother and even though we fought over little things, and sometimes we fought just for the fun of fighting, he was always ready to protect me.

When we were given large jobs to do, Joe always found ways to make work more fun. Of course, sometimes, having fun would also mean we were doing something that would get us in trouble later.

When we were sent out to pick up rotting pears, we’d dawdle around. Then, instead of picking up pears, we’d play with the toy soldiers Joe always had in his pockets. No one knew then that he’d later give his entire life to military service and to the veterans and wounded warriors about whom he cared so deeply.

But, when we were little, Joe and I couldn’t just pick up the rotting pears. Instead, we’d pick up a few, stomp on a few, and then we’d very carefully hold them in one hand and yank out the stems, as if they were the pins of hand grenades.

After we’d successfully used these rotten pears to drive off all our imaginary enemies, we'd begin pummeling each other with the most rotten pears we could find. But, due to his wisdom and experience, when we were bored with the pears, we found, nearby, even more powerful weapons. Joe taught me that rotten pears were nothing compared to the long lasting and biting stench of a rotten tomato carefully thrown to land just under a brother’s nose.

Joe was ahead of me in school. He paved the way and blazed trails for me time and time again. The teachers he had, somehow, expected me to be as smart as Joe. I never matched his intelligence, his wisdom, or the understanding he had of philosophy.

Joe excelled in high school ROTC. He paved the way, he blazed trails for me in ROTC. He taught me how to read a topographical map. He taught me how to use a lensatic compass. He showed me how to shine brass, how to iron wool uniforms, and how to do close order drill. At that age, we didn’t fight anymore, but we did practice what he’d learned about hand-to-hand combat.

Outside or inside, it didn’t matter to us. We’d practice the one man carry. We’d practice bayonet: thrusts and parries, and blocking moves. But, the most fun was taking turns with hip throws, leg sweeps, and the other moves we learned in ROTC and in Judo class.

Joe taught me about marksmanship. While we were little, he dared me to use a BB gun and shoot the buttons of shirts hanging on the clothesline. He showed me how to shoot a mud dauber with a BB gun. Joe had shown me the path to great marksmanship.

Because of Joe's teaching, before I ever heard my first screaming drill sergeant, Joe had taught me how to obtain and maintain a sharp sight picture. It was Joe who taught me that while shooting I always had to go through the process of: breathe, relax, aim, slack and, only then, gently squeeze the trigger of a rifle or pistol.

Joe left home and joined the U.S. Army, after high school. He stopped back, in his uniform, after Basic Training, and between his assignments. I would see him, from time to time, but sadly we did not keep in touch, as we should have. He served his country in foreign deployment after foreign deployment. He faced dangers and horrors about which he never told any of his family.

Joe paved the way and blazed trails. He dedicated his entire life for you and for all of us. When he finished his military career he had a burning desire to help those, who, like he, had become wounded warriors.

He knew, because of the trails he had blazed, the ways he had traveled, and the post-traumatic stress that he had endured that he could help those who followed in his footsteps. After retirement, he used his superior intellect and he quickly finished his undergraduate requirements, studied hard and earned his Master’s degree in Social Work.

Joe was special. His experience had given him a perspective and a depth of understanding those he served could just sense. Joe had faced, time and time again, the horror that is war. He had fought and learned to deal with the ever present memories of Post-Traumatic Stress. Once again, Joe was paving the way, blazing safe trails for those who came after him.

As Joe’s military career continued, he and I, for no good reason, never kept in close contact. That was my loss. Folks, we all know that when Joe was serious, we could tell. I remember him, from time to time, saying, “Listen up, and pay attention. What I am telling you is not BS."

So, folks, now that Joe is not here to say it, I’ll say it, "Listen up, pay attention. This is not BS." Let me tell you, if you have brother or sister, never, never lose touch with them. Reconnecting later in life is good, but it’s not the same. Spend time with them before they are suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness. As a trained therapist, Joe would, no doubt, challenge – dare you - to leave here, this morning, committed to face your fears, to overcome them and to embrace life and love.

Joe paved the way and blazed, for me, a trail, in Vietnam. I will never forget getting a letter from him, while we were both in Vietnam, telling me to come and see him. I will never forget walking into his supply depot, in Pleiku, Vietnam. I will never forget having coffee with First Sergeant Joseph Powell, thousands and thousands of miles away from here. I will never forget as he told me that since he had returned to Vietnam I didn’t have to stay in Vietnam any longer.

Joe’s return to danger paved for me a path to return to the good ole USA. I will never forget listening to Joe as he told me that he was much safer as a supply sergeant than I was as an Infantry Platoon leader, going out into the bush, day after day, on “search and destroy” missions.

I will never forget when Joe shoved an already signed U.S. Army form across the table, releasing his right to be transferred back to the US, to me. I will never forget when Joe stood up and said, “Now get your ass back to your unit, fill out the rest of this form and get the hell out of Vietnam."

Thank you. Thank you, Brother Joe. Once again, you prepared the way. This time, you saved my life.

Joe, I wish that I could have done the same for you, as you lay there, in that hospital bed, and at Rosewood. When you called out and said, “I am going to die. I don’t want to die. Bill, make it go away," I could do nothing but pray and cry.

As the horrible brain tumor was eating away at Joe, my brother that had always blazed trails for me and had always paved the way, I could do nothing. I could remind him of the fun and mayhem we had caused as kids. I could remind him of the rotten pears. And, yes, when he laid there in that hospital bed and asked me to pull his finger, I did. Then, a sly smile would come to his face and the odor of the room changed.

Oh, I so wish I could have done more for you, Joe. I could not blaze the trail for you, or pave the way for you. I could do nothing to save you, Joe. I could not even go with you. Joe, I am so sorry that I could not ease the struggle of this, your last and hardest, battle.

But, I know, deep down inside of my soul, when I, like you, lie on my hospital bed, when I, see the bright light, and when I see angels coming for me, you will have, once again, gone before me to prepare the way.

Thank you for being my brother. -  Brother Bill

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