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"Poor Mom" my brother Dale kept repeating

Updated: Jan 24, 2020


Leonard Dale Sherman

My brother Dale is more than a memory. In some ways he is still here, a presence that can’t be explained. The warmth of his low bass voice still rings in my ear with his standard greeting to me, “Hey Brother.” Our ten year age difference, a chasm in our youth, closed completely as the years slipped by. I know I should let him go, but I’m not ready. His presence still surrounds me, like the warm welcoming bear hug he was known for. I hope keeping him close doesn’t upset the thin veil between this world and the next.

Nine years ago I picked him up at his home near Saint Louis, and drove him to the Veteran’s Hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was admitted immediately, without his veteran records. After a preliminary exam, they put him in an ambulance. On a rainy night, and with lights flashing, they sped two hundred miles to the larger Veteran’s Hospital in Little Rock Arkansas. I followed in my Ford pick-up. The few nail biting times I glanced down from the rain splattered windshield, the odometer was bouncing in the mid-eighties.

The first two weeks he shared a room with other fading veterans. Then he was moved to an Intensive Care Unit. A young Japanese doctor from the adjoining Research Hospital brought groups of six or seven medical students at a time to surround Dale’s bed. Dale had a rare cancerous neoplasm on his pancreas the doctor was doing research on.

The cancer could have been a genetic weakness, or one rogue cell, but I suspect it was the result of radiation. Dale wrote a letter to my mother in 1954, while on board the U.S.S. Genesee, a gasoline tanker. He was in the Marshall Islands. Their mission was highly secret, and the letter was first sent back to the Fleet Post Office in San Francisco, where all letters from the ship were checked before they were forwarded.

Excerpt from Dale’s letter: “We are here at Eniwetak now. It’s kind of a pretty place, much nicer than Bikini. Yesterday I went skin diving and got a couple of small fish, a rock cod about a foot long, and something else about 8 inches long.”

Eniwetak and Bikini were two of many locations in the Marshall Islands where the United States tested nuclear bombs. Testing began on Enewetak in 1948. In the next ten years there were 43 separate blasts. Enewetak, where Dale was skin diving, was one of the most radioactive places on planet earth. Maybe it still is.

Dale was diving very near the site where a massive nuclear bomb was tested in 1952, 24 months prior to his dive. It had a force 500 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. (That’s no typo) It vaporized one entire island of the Eniwetak atoll, leaving only a massive crater.

I dig back through notes I was writing when I was with Dale in Little Rock in 2009. Visits in ICU were limited to thirty minutes every two hours. On the night he talked about Japan, the night nurse pulled the curtain around us and let our visit go past the two hour time limit.

Years after he was sworn to secrecy, he still seemed unsure whether he should even be talking about the nuclear testing. He lowered his voice, and said he had witnessed two tests from the deck of his ship with other sailors. He said they were not more than a mile from the explosions.

After they left the Marshall Islands the ship sailed to Japan, and their ship docked at the U.S. Naval Base in Sasebo, on the island of Kyushi. Sasebo was headquarters for the Japanese Imperial Navy, before they surrendered. The island was ironically shaped like a mushroom, and so close to Nagasaki that Japanese sailors and citizens who were there August 9th, in 1945, would have seen the mushroom cloud from the blast that rose to a height of 45000 feet. Commercial jets fly much lower than that.

Dale had forgotten he had sent me a Japanese silk jacket with dragons embroidered on it. He said he must have bought it in Hong Kong on a shore leave.

Then he shared a story with me that points out how disconnected he had been from the effects the war had on everyday Japanese citizens. We were a family that never discussed world events in depth. We were too caught up with living, just surviving. I expect it was the same for other young men like my brother on both sides of the conflict.

On one of Dale’s shore leaves in Sasebo he rented a bicycle and pedaled through the town and out into the Japanese countryside. Sasebo had been heavily bombed time after time by allied forces, destroying much of the urban area, and a significant portion of the shipyard. Even though they were not the primary target, the rural areas were also affected.

Dale said he rode by homes that had windows and sliding doors made of translucent rice paper. He saw a lot of homes still showing signs of damage from the bombs. Some men and women were missing limbs. He said he could sense the hostility as he rode his bicycle by them.

I couldn’t help but ask Dale the question that immediately popped into my head.

“What were you wearing Dale?”

“I had on my Navy Whites.”

Dale was just out on a Sunday ride, curious and enjoying nature, in his Navy Uniform. I try to picture the reverse scenario – if we had lost the war: A Japanese soldier in uniform riding a bicycle down South Huttig, past our damaged houses with some of our injured neighbors sitting on their porches.

Poor mom, Poor mom”, my brother repeats this often over the next few weeks, as we talk about our memories from our Fairmount home, where we grew up. Our walk to Fairmount Elementary had been the same; north on Huttig to Kentucky, then west to the school. Total distance was less than a third of a mile. Two diversions presented themselves, a small grocery at the end of Huttig, and Maupin’s candy store at the corner of Cedar, just before you cross the street to the school.

We had two similar experiences as six year olds that prompted another “Poor Mom” from his bedside. Dale pilfered a dollar bill from the top of a buffet in a neighbor’s house, walked to the grocery at the end of the street, and purchased four little colorful knives that were attached to a cardboard backing, and a toy gun. Money went further in the forties, and he probably got change back from the dollar. Mom discovered the ill gotten gains in his sock drawer, and the inquiry began. Dale’s initial lie that his friend Billy gave them to him was quickly proven false, and Dale’s subsequent remorse, repentance, and forgiveness were the substance of a story my mother wrote forty seven years later.

As a six year old, nearly ten years later, (after Dale’s childhood misdeeds), I walked halfway to school, turned around and went back home to an empty house. My mother had left for work several hours before, my two older sisters were at school, Ruth was being cared for by Mrs. Cathy, and fifteen year old Dale was probably with his friend Wally, waiting for the Pool Hall to open in Fairmount. So we were both playing hooky on the same day. “Poor Mom.”

When mother got home, and discovered I had spent the day alone entertaining myself, the inquiry began. My story was that a man had stopped his car and offered me candy from a briefcase he opened. I told her I became frightened and went back home. This alarmed my mother naturally, and the next day she took sick leave and went with me to the school. As we waited in the principal’s office for Mr. Maclin to get the school started, I polished my cover story. By the time he closed the door and sat down behind his desk I was a nervous wreck, but I thought I had every detail covered. The story broke down somewhere during the description of the car, and the man’s clothes. ‘Big - black -shiny black new car. Black suit with black hat. (Too much black I was thinking.) And a purple tie, and purple shoes.’ Purple Shoes? The principal and my mother shared a knowing look. Busted!. “Poor Mom.” I think she was so relieved that there wasn’t some creep roaming the neighborhood with a briefcase full of candy that I got a very light punishment.

We talked about the day he took me with him to Crisp Lake on the back of his bike. It was in direct disobedience of mother’s wishes. She had specifically asked him not to take me with him. “Poor Mom.” Dale was fourteen, and I was five. We got to the corner of Ash and Arlington the next road over, and as Dale stood up on the pedals, to get us up a small incline, we wobbled, and I shifted on the uncomfortable fender rim behind him, making it worse.. My sandaled foot got caught in the wheel and broke out twelve spokes. “Sixteen spokes,” Dale corrects me. This prompted another story my mother wrote, about my miraculous healing.

We talked about other shenanigans that Mom never caught wind of. With money earned from working at Byam’s Drugstore, Dale eventually had enough money to retire his bicycle, and buy a car for less than a hundred dollars. Dale was having his share of teenage rebellion, and hot rods were a big thing in the late forties. Teenagers would have impromptu drag races on the old highway out by the Lake City Arsenal, and also the long lonely strip of highway before you came to the MissouriBridge, headed to Liberty, Missouri. There were times Dale would take me with him. Mother would have been horrified if she had known about the car racing, especially the day Dale and I nearly bought the farm.

We were on the long downhill stretch of the Highway, with the Missouri Bridge in sight. We were in the passing lane, neck and neck with the car Dale was racing. The odometer was bouncing at the top of the dial, which was 110. We were creeping ahead, inch by inch, when a tractor with a trailer loaded with hay pulled onto the highway in our lane, at the base of the hill. Dale never let up on the accelerator, and we were able to barely pass the other unrelenting teenager, with only a few feet between us and the oncoming tractor. “Poor Mom.” Dale and I both cringed at the memory of what could have been.

It wasn’t long after that, when Mom was doing a routine sheet switch in Dale’s small bedroom, that I heard her muttering loudly. When I got to the doorway she had uncovered a mass of letters from beneath the mattress. They were from the principal at Northeast High School, about Dale's chronic truancy. He had gotten away with it for most of the school year, because our sister Sherry was writing letters back to the principal,with mother’s name perfectly forged. “Poor Mom.”

My mother’s antidote for this teenage rebellion was a trip to the Navy Recruiting Station in Kansas City. She signed him up for a four year tour of duty. The remedy worked to perfection, and Dale was soon put in charge of other men in his unit because of his maturity and leadership skills. The letters I’ve been reading between my mother and Dale during those following four years reveal the depth of love they had for each other, and the enduring religious influence she had on him.

As Dale’s time became short, and his food was fed through a tube, he dreamed of people he was meeting and conversing with on the other side. I’m sure they found that he was always planning a great venture, a lover of nature and gardens, and always spiritual, even if at times it was subdued. It’s not surprising that “spirit” dominated much of his thought, as he vacillated somewhere between this life and the next, meeting people in his dreams that he'd always wanted to meet.

“God is love and energy---------not a white haired man-----------I carried that for years!” Dale’s demeanor got animated when he talked about God and the scriptures. I hadn’t realized he was such a student of the bible.

Dale talks about the fractious nature of Peter that does not allow him to see the other side of the veil. By the look in Dale’s eyes, I think the veil had been lifted for him, and what he saw was the true nature of God’s love in the spiritual beings he was conversing with.

I had plans to scatter Dale’s ashes. but they remain in a beautiful silver metallic envelope, with a black and silver bow tied lovingly by his wife Bess.  They sit on the table by the front door. I’m having second thoughts about disturbing them.. His presence still brings warmth each time I pass. “Hey, brother.” is what I hear, as if it was yesterday. Time and distance between loved ones living on either side of the veil are not as significant as we think they are.

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