I always knew my oldest brother Mike was an artist, but I never imagined him as a soldier. Going to war seemed to conflict with his gentle nature.
The three of us grew up living in lake towns outside of Detroit. Dad worked as an auto engineer. Any time my brothers and I weren’t in school, we’d be in or near the water, swimming out to the raft, boating to the best fishing spot, skating with friends in winter or crammed into a tiny shack with three lines dropped through a hole in the ice.
We all had a flair for the dramatic, with Mike leading the way. He raced cars, even built a three-window coup and a dune buggy out of parts that looked like junk. He played the drums in a boy-band in 1960 with hair like Ricky Nelson wearing a tailored gray silk suit and a smile that could melt any girls heart.
When we lived in Kingman, Arizona Mike purchased his first car, a powder blue clunker with a white rag top. When summer came, he would sometimes take me and our brother Chuck to Lake Mead for a day in the sun. As soon as we arrived, he’d drop us at the beach and disappear into a surge of adoring teenage girls. Mike was tall, 6’3″ with blue eyes as deep as the Pacific Ocean. That summer, he started collecting a series of girlfriends named Sherry, charming them by calling each his Sherry Baby, singing Frankie Valli’s song to them like they were the one and only love of his life.
We moved back to Michigan during Mike’s senior year of high school. On weekends and during the summers, Mike worked at the local Chevy plant where both our parents worked. His job allowed Mike to take out a loan for his first, brand new car, a metallic red Riviera. Mom’s white Riviera and the matching silver blue one Dad brought home as a company car made our driveway look like a patriotic commercial for Chevy.
Mike graduated from high school in 1964 in Flushing, Michigan. The draft was still active and the war was heating up. Unwilling to go to college to avoid being drafted, he joined the Army Reserves and headed to Ft. Hood. After he completed his basic training, he came home to study art, playing soldier on weekends. He spent a year in LA, then came to Peoria, Illinois in 1967 where Dad was working for Caterpillar and I was finishing high school. Ready to settle down, Mike married a girl he’d only known a month.
Soon he learned his wife was cheating on him. Unable to face it, he ran away, signing on with the regular Army, volunteering to fight in Vietnam. It was the first of three tours he would choose when his life became unbearable.
Mike never talked much about his time overseas but I know he built a strong bond with his fellow soldiers while terrible things were happening all around them. I could see it in the photos he sent home. Despite the sniper fire and napalm being dropped from helicopters, the boys had time to dance to the Beach Boys and surf at the beach, packing into his short life the best and worst experiences a young man could never imagine.
Our parents getting divorced in 1968 angered Mike, sending him back to Vietnam because it shattered a core belief. He finished his second tour in Fort Hood in the Military Police. Determined to stay out of Vietnam, he became a civilian cop in Austin, married again and had two kids, a son and a few years later, a daughter. We lost touch with each other as our lives pulled us in different directions. So I have no idea what happened to send him back to Vietnam in 1974, first in the Air Force. In 1975 he joined the Marines, where he spent his last two years in the service.
My big brother and I reconnected in 1980 when I returned to LA after my divorce. Mike had found the love of his life, marrying for the third and final time. After living in the Valley for almost a decade, he and Judy adopted two babies from Honduras and moved to Tehachapi, CA. Although he worked during the day as an engineer building bombs for the war, he pursued his art on weekends, building an art studio. He spent hours in that attic above the garage throwing paint onto large canvases in homage to Jackson Pollock, showing his work in local galleries and museums.
What he went through in Vietnam would haunt my brother for the rest of his life. He survived the battle with those demons through his love of art and his love for his wife and four children–until he died in 2001 from cancer due to Agent Orange exposure overseas.
From the day my big brother first taught me how to draw a face when I was twelve, I wanted to be an artist like him. I followed in his footsteps, taking up a paint brush and going to art school. Eventually I moved into sculpting clay and working with fabric and threads. I ended up with more art education than Mike ever thought about getting–all because I wanted to be as good as he was, so he would be proud of me. I think in the end, I accomplished that goal, though I have many more I have yet to achieve for myself.
Mike also shared with me his joy of being a parent. I never had children of my own. Just before he died, he gave me his two twelve-year-old children to finish raising. They’d lost their mom only eight months before. I became a first time mom at the age of 51. Mike died when he was 56.
The kids interrupted my career in art, but changed me in ways I can’t yet measure, moving me into a life of writing, working to fulfill my need to get it down and figure it out. Now, with the kids off making their own lives, I work to merge my art, my horses and my writing. Some days I feel like I’m twenty-something, still trying to figure my life out.
Of the three things that most shaped my life, two came to me from my big brother Mike–art and kids. My love of horses is the one I claim as my own.
Mike’s been gone almost twelve years, but whenever I pick up a brush or see a painting, I feel his presence. I miss his jokes, his teasing and his laughter, and give thanks for all that my artist/soldier brother gave me.