Twelve years ago today, the late Saturday night/early Sunday morning of Labor Day weekend in 2006, my youngest brother’s life and service to America ended. While my brother’s long-suffering journey reached its conclusion, I was enjoying a particularly entertaining and satisfying holiday. I was in grad school, and I had just started my first full semester as a composition teacher for my college. I was nervous about teaching three full classes for the first time, as well as attending three difficult courses as a student. The college semester had started the week previous to that 2006 Labor Day weekend, and the first week had progressed successfully. I drafted a solid fantasy football squad that Saturday, and I enjoyed good camaraderie with my friends into Sunday night.
That Monday in 2006, the last day off before diving back into classroom appearances for the start of my academic career, I was at home in Gary, Indiana, and the phone rang. I answered the phone with a happy, satisfied “Hello!” One of my other brothers was on the other end of the line, and the tone of his voice halted my capacity for contentment for years to come. He told me I needed to sit down. The agony of his words was apparent, and I began to cry and wail, asking what happened, even though I already knew what he was going to say.
Our youngest brother was dead.
My brother talked some more after he confirmed my worst fears, but I didn’t hear his words. I hung up the phone and raged, destroying furniture and screaming my agony to the heavens.
When I was a young boy, I loved to read magazines (and newspapers and comic books and regular books and encyclopedias and cereal boxes…). My father had copies of Guns and Ammo available for reading, and my mother had copies of magazines published by the Focus on the Family group. I learned about John McCain and his service in Vietnam by reading articles from both of these sources.
I was enthralled by McCain’s story as a boy. This man flew planes! I wanted to fly planes so badly! His own plane was damaged and shot down, he ejected successfully, and he parachuted his way down into the hell of the Vietnam War. He was savagely beaten and tortured. He didn’t go home when at first he had the chance to escape hell. He did come home eventually, and he sought political office after most-honorable service to our country.
From a boy’s point of view, a boy who wanted to join the military and serve his country when he reached the right age, John McCain was who I wanted to be. There was no better example of a real-life American hero.
It’s important to note that my father’s magazines, at that time in American history, were loaded with anti-Russian stories, slogans, and logos. Words like “Kill a Commie for Mommie” and pictures of a knife violently plunging into a heart painted with the Russian hammer and sickle are still etched in my mind today.
My mother’s magazines also painted a bleak picture of Russia. I remember reading an article or two about how Christians were slaughtered by the Russian government for practicing their religion within the Soviet Union. I think it’s interesting to note that the gun lobby and the Christian Right were so adamantly against Russian interference back in the 1980s….
This past Thursday, in 2018, my decades-known friends and I conducted our fantasy-football draft in the evening. I’ve maintained a ceremonial routine for the past 12 years, where I visit my youngest brother on Labor Day weekend, on or about the day of the draft. This year, I arrived at the Veteran’s Garden of his cemetery in Schererville, Indiana, in the early afternoon. When I exited my vehicle, there was a discarded pink, plastic flower at my feet by the car-door. I picked it up and walked solemnly towards my brother’s grave.
The first few years I visited I would stand solemnly in place with my thoughts, crying. About six or seven years ago, I became comfortable enough to speak aloud to my brother. You see, I figured out that what I miss most about my brother was talking to him, so I use this time every year to therapeutically have a conversation with him. I still cry and sob occasionally, but speaking-aloud reduces the emotional impact of the visit, albeit minimally.
I caught him up on my life and the lives of our family members. I told him about how I finally made some peace with our mother about our differences; about how I was hanging up the boxing gloves on my frustrating teaching career; and about how his niece had finally made it to the big college in West Lafayette, instead of the smaller campus I attended in Hammond.
In my mind’s eye (or the mind’s ear?), I formulated my brother’s likely responses: “That’s good because you really hurt our Mom.” “Yeah, right, you’ve been saying you’re going to quit teaching for years. You’ll be back.” “Wow, Scott! I can see how proud you are of your daughter. I’m proud of her, too.”
Then, I started a conversation about John McCain. I told him how hard the news hit me about his death and about how I’d been pondering McCain’s life all week…about how McCain had such dignity when running against Barack Obama in 2008; about how his various appearances on Morning Joe always cracked me up; and about how one of his last patriotic acts was a dramatic thumbs-down to preserve healthcare for thousands…and also perhaps preserve the integrity of America’s Democracy in the process. I told him about how it used to be difficult for me to say nice things about McCain because he never found a war that America could not be a part of, but over the past two years, I found more respect and empathy for John McCain than disagreement or disdain.
I told him about how Donald Trump insulted McCain, saying he wasn’t a war-hero because he was captured. I told him how asinine it was that this draft-dodger and used-car salesman managed to insult someone who served in both the Vietnam War and the United States Congress, on air for the world to see, yet the Christian-Right and the American military community still voted for him!…and the kicker is that to the moment of–and after–McCain’s death, this vile President would not say a nice word about the cancer-stricken American hero…and this weak-minded, attention-starved President still expects accolades! I told my brother he wouldn’t believe it, as a member of the 101st Airborne division, if he saw it today.
I couldn’t formulate my brother’s response in my mind. I don’t know what he’d think about Trump. It stands to reason he may defend Trump today if he were still alive, as many of his military brethren and their Christian supporters do to this day. He may share my perspective about Trump, as Tim’s best and worst quality was that he listened to what I had to say. I do not know for sure, so my brother simply listened.
After a bit more of a tirade about Trump’s many sins, I told him I’d stop talking about Trump since everybody in America has become tired from being forced to talk about Trump, day-in and day-out. I told him about how I hoped this weekend would be about honoring McCain and not with whatever bullshit Trump would do to reacquire America’s focus back toward Trump. I told my brother about how I was recording the eulogy of Joe Biden for McCain.
At the thought of the Biden eulogy, I exclaimed to my brother that I could probably find it on my cellphone. I joked with Tim about how he was lucky because he never experienced the phenomena of so many Americans, including me, of having our cellphones in our faces for fifty percent or more of the day, every week of the year. In my mind, he laughed again at one of my typically-poor attempts at a joke.
At my brother’s grave-side, I couldn’t find a video of Biden’s eulogy, but I did find a Facebook post from a friend. She had just attended a funeral for a beloved member of her family this week, and she had just started graduate school, just as I had done twelve years ago. She wrote artfully—as she usually does– about her frustration with attempting to read complex academic texts while grieving a loved one. I read her post to my brother, and I started to cry. I asked my brother for permission to share my experience with a comment on the Facebook post, and he approved. I tried to recite to him what I wrote on my cellphone, but it was hard to read through the tears.
I sat for a little while longer by my brother, in silence, happy to be speaking with my lost friend. I bemoaned all the missed moments together over the past twelve years, but I take comfort in being able to create a new moment with Sgt. Timothy Guffey this past Thursday. I bent down, kissed the headstone, and placed the pink, plastic flower to the left of his marker.
I told him I loved him, and I’d be back next year. My last words to him: “I know my words make it sound like our country’s in trouble, but I think when I see you next time, America will get better. America will be better.”
“I’ll do my best to make it so, for you.”
The next morning, Friday, I watched my recording of the eulogies, in Arizona, from Grant Woods, Tommy Espinoza, Larry Fitzgerald, and Joe Biden. Saturday morning, I watched the Washington, D.C., memorial service in its entirety.
For me, Labor Day Weekend is already a time to grieve for a lost hero. This year, in 2018, the country mourns the loss of a hero during the holiday weekend, while I grieve for two.
The eulogies from our former Presidents and McCain’s friends and family were impactful, poignant, and reflective, but Meghan McCain’s words struck my soul. Her emotions were heartfelt, and the love for her father so evident, so moving…I felt John McCain’s pride for his daughter from the heavens, just as many Americans did. I pictured McCain looking down from a place I cannot fathom, beaming about his favorite daughter’s courage, speaking to the country about its lost identity at his own memoriam.
At the point of the television broadcast when the Irish song, Danny Boy, was played for the congregation, a fierce downpour of rain started outside my home. When Cindy McCain was moved during the song, the rain stopped and strong rays of sunlight poured through the clouds outside my window. I have never seen such beauty than at that moment, while that young lady sang so passionately, while this wife let herself mourn her beloved for the country to share, while the heavens opened up to let me see in my mind’s eye a glimpse of my hero, John McCain, smiling down, his hand on the shoulder of another American veteran, my brother, my hero, Timothy Allan Guffey.
This Labor Day Weekend, I grieve for two lost American heroes, but I am not forlorn for America. I am reminded of the beauty and love of America this weekend, and I have hope for its future.
Scott C. Guffey, M.A.
The Maniacal Professor