“When you’ve done something inexcusable,
You try to ease your conscience by telling yourself
That someone, somewhere would forgive you.”
I have four sisters; no brothers. I often wonder how deeply this lack of a fraternal influence has molded my psyche. Probably a lot. I had two cousins that used to visit my grandfather’s farm with me. They took up some of the slack, although my grandfather favored me so brazenly that we could have never had a fair fight had it occurred to them to disagree with me. As I grew into my teenage years one of these cousins, the one closest to me in age, became a frequent companion. We were as close to brothers as one can be without sharing a home.
He was a year older than me. His dad, my mom’s brother, had a good job at a local luxury hotel. His mom had abandoned the family when he was a child. His dad did a great job for a while; at some point later on he married another woman and had a child with her.
It’s hard to tell why my cousin began to feel alienated in his own home. All teenagers do this to some extent. Yet I could see that where I was constantly praised by my parents, his dad and stepmom frequently complained about his behavior whenever I visited. He was an excellent student; he was not in trouble; he liked to play basketball any chance he could get; which I did not see as a crime.
One thing led to another. My cousin did odd jobs and made some extra money. He came home a bit tipsy one night. His father interrogated him; he responded disrespectfully; my uncle punched him in the mouth and knocked him down.
I know this sounds horrible. I agree. But you have to take these things in context. My grandfather was a stern man. I know that he beat his children whenever he felt that they did not respond to his wishes, respectfully and immediately. This is what my uncle knew. To have a disobedient or wayward child; to be lazy; to not bow down to authority was just not acceptable.
My cousin left his home. My mom prevailed on the husband of one of her friends to give him a job as a night watchman at his warehouse. As a bonus, inside the old barn there was a small bedroom with a cot that he could sleep in.
He was a freshman in college at this point. Although I was a year younger, I was a sophomore because… Let’s just say that my dad was a bit eccentric and pushy in his own way. I was seventeen. I was not surprised when my cousin told me that he was flunking out. He had been admitted to a very demanding faculty. He had days where he did not have enough to eat; most of the time he ate at cheap restaurants that served poor food. He had grown up not needing anything; in a safe home. Now he was up half the night because any noise could mean that there was an intruder. What was he supposed to do if an armed thief came around?
He told me that he didn’t care. He would find a second job and go to college at night. The Vietnam War took care of his plans. He had a low number in the lottery (all of you young pups: look this up. Yes; your chances of staying safe or being sent to get shot at depended on a lottery system).
He was drafted. Yes; in those days you could be sent to war if you preferred to stay at home. All of a sudden he decided that staying in college full-time was not such a bad idea. Yes; for inexplicable reasons all sorts of privileged people, including the smart middle class, got out of having to serve. The poor who could not get into college were deemed expendable.
But he was busy between his two jobs. He partied too much. He was angry that he had to do all of this paperwork; him; the bright student who had gone to the elite high school.
He missed the deadline to apply for readmission. Clearly passive-aggressive; self-destructive behavior. I still felt that I had to help.
I went to my dad. He was a department chairman at the university. Everybody knew my dad. Even if he was not universally liked by his peers, he was respected. All it would take was a phone call, and the dean at my cousin’s faculty would bend the rules a bit.
“No. He missed his chance. He needs to pay the consequences. There are a lot of young men that could have had the spot that he took. No.”
I was flabbergasted. My dad was the epitome of bending yourself backwards to help someone get educated. This was my cousin and frequent companion. And he had helped my cousin numerous times in the past.
I’m sure that he wanted to teach my cousin a lesson. But send him off to war?
I dressed myself in my cleanest shirt and pants. I went to the dean’s office myself. Without an appointment. At age seventeen. I was a child who had been expected to behave as an adult since he was five. I felt completely at ease in the company of a Nobel Prize winner, or a famous musician. I could handle this.
I made sure that the secretary knew who my dad was. The dean received me right away.
I made the case for my cousin. The dean told me that the deadline had passed.
I understand. He had family problems. He’s young. He’ll do well this time.
“The answer is still no.”
I talked about the horrors of military life. That this kid was like a brother to me. The dean did not budge.
He’s my father’s favorite nephew. You wouldn’t want my father angry at you, would you?
He gave me an angry look. The nastiest, most hateful stare that I’ve ever encountered. Here was this pipsqueak threatening him; a full professor; a dean.
“Give me the paper.” He signed.
It was not until I left his office that I realized what I had done. What if he had picked up the phone to call my dad? I had humiliated a proud and hard-working man. I had told myself that I had done it to save my cousin. I know now that I did it just to prove that I could. To throw my weight around.
My cousin went back to college. He flunked out again. A totally predictable outcome, given the circumstances. He was drafted. He was sent to Vietnam. One evening he was sent out on patrol with his unit. Only three of the soldiers made it back to camp. He was one of them.
He wrote to me. About what a crock of ___ this war was. How the politicians had managed to send thousands of kids just like him to get killed or maimed. For nothing. He saw this, from his barracks, clear as daylight.
He told me that he understood where he had made his mistakes. He promised me that when (not if) he got back he would go back to college with his GI bill money.
Which he did. He finished a master’s degree. Became a very successful executive for a large corporation. Married a good woman. Raised four kids; three of them have done extremely well (the fourth was never able to control his anger or keep his mouth shut, just like his dad in early adolescence).
I still carry a large burden of guilt over my abuse of power. One inexcusable behavior led to another. It was my responsibility to break the chain. It is always our responsibility to break the chain of injustice. No matter how noble the end. This I will never forget.