I can hardly remember his smell, but I will never forget his smile. Even his face is fading in my memories, but his physical presence has left an inexplicable imprint on my heart. On this day of remembrance and honor for those who served our Country, we often think of those brave souls most who laid down their lives to keep us safe. We memorialize most those fallen soldiers who fought in wars and in countries far away and did not come home alive. Yet we don’t always think of those who came home from war and touched our soil physically complete, but mentally and spiritually deceased. I write about these fallen soldiers because I loved one..my Uncle Bay. His name was Robert Austin but his nick name was “Bay” so we grew up calling him Uncle Bay. He had a beautiful brown-skinned wife, my Aunt Barbara and she loved me as if I were her own daughter. She had a beautiful smile and contagious laugh and she and my mother grew close because they were both married to Austin men who also had a close bond. My father and Uncle Bay were both very charismatic and handsome men and were famous for the trouble they would get into when they would frequent the night clubs and speakeasy’s in Philly and South Jersey. For some reason I also took fondly to Uncle Bay. Maybe it was because I sensed his bravery, maybe because I knew how much my father loved him, or maybe it was because I knew he adored me, but I felt s special bond. I would see him whenever he came to our home or when we visited our grandparent’s and he always gave me a big hug, told me how pretty I was and like my dad would spoil me rotten. I was very young, not quite seven years old when I remember sitting, talking to him and he insisted on giving me a piece of his jewelry. I of course loved jewelry and the idea that he would want me to have what I thought was an expensive piece of jewelry it made me feel so adored. I chose a name bracelet that was not engraved, but had big beautiful silver links and I kept it safely tucked away in a box in my room.
It would be not even a year later that I would be told of my uncle’s passing. My Uncle was a Vietnam War Veteran. He was fortunate to be one of the ones to come home alive, but the person who left never really came home. He was sad, he was depressed, he struggled with the choices he was forced to make at war and never really felt comfortable in his skin when he came home. He was a walking casualty of war. I remember the newspaper article and feeling so angry that his precious life could be ended in a corner bar brawl. I was seven but I wanted to know where it happened and I didn’t feel right until I saw the place myself. I wanted to find someone to blame. I wanted my Uncle Bay back. I couldn’t wrap my head around it; how some strange person could have the right to take the life of a brave soul who served his country so easily and quickly. My uncle wanted to escape from himself and couldn’t wait for my dad to come to the house to pick him up so he went out on his own. My dad never got over the guilt and the anger. I am no longer angry because I understand that back then they often did not diagnose post traumatic stress disorder, nor provided the necessary help, especially to Veterans of color. I understand that Uncle Bay felt the only relief was to provoke someone to take him from this life. I understand that he is in a better place watching over me and my family. I understand that he did not choose to serve in Vietnam. I understand and because of that I have never forgotten.
I love you Uncle Bay. Happy Memorial Day!