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I like to think my brother was just a victim of circumstances. I like to think he might have been somebody had the forces surrounding him been different. An astronaut, an inventor, who knows? But we can’t alter the things that kidnap our interests. I guess we turn out the way we’re supposed to.
Joey had his sins, that’s for sure. He was fearless and deeply impressionable. Those were his sins, and they were enough.
This kid was curious about everything, threw himself into everything. He once road his little Stingray bike all the way to Chicago, thirty miles away. Police picked him up in Englewood, the city’s toughest neighborhood. Said he just wanted to explore.
Joey learned everything there was to know about our space program, and then he built his own rockets. Accidentally burned down our garage in one of his experiments. Became a ham radio operator and spoke with other hams around the world, including the Prime Minister of Australia who he warned about the spread of Communism. Joey made friends with the hoboes who jungled up under Gardner Road, invited them to our house for a cookout. Oh, and he taught himself poker so he could fleece Greg DeStefano, the mobster’s son, taking all the kid’s savings.
Me being two years older, I found my brother’s feats annoying and awe-inspiring. Mom and Dad were afraid of him, never knowing what their son would get himself into next.
“ You better cool your jets, little brother,” I’d tell him. “Before you get yourself killed.”
“What fun is that?” he’d say, giving me his cracked-tooth smile.
There was a time when Joey’s mood could be measured by rocket launches. When the Soviets launched the world’s first satellite, he moped around our house for weeks. When America made its first satellite attempt, we sat glued to our TV, peering at the little black and white picture, the gleaming rocket on its launch pad. “10, 9, 8, 7,” Joey counted down with the announcer. The stately rocket blasted off, rose four feet, and then exploded. My brother screamed, ran over and kicked our wall, breaking his toe.
“Goddamn Navy rocket,” Joey said in the ER. “We gotta go with von Braun and his Redstones. He knows what he’s doing.”
We all breathed a sigh of relief when, a month later, von Braun’s rocket succeeded. Mom baked a cake for Joey, who danced around our living room, despite the cast on his foot.
I shared a bedroom with my brother, who covered one entire wall with images of the Space Race. He had a beautiful panorama of the great rockets, and he could tell you the attributes of each, the Jupiter, the Atlas, and the Russian ones, the R-7 and the Vostock. He’d carry on about propellants and thrust, apogee and guidance systems. He created a kind of altar with posters of Wernher von Braun, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn. He pinned up a smaller photo of the first man in space, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, which he used as a dartboard.
Never one to pursue interests vicariously, Joey was soon building his own rockets. Dad cleared a workbench for him in our garage, and my kid brother would spend hours experimenting with fuels and nozzles and fins. He compared the performance of paper, wood, and plastic tubes for the rocket’s body. He tested the burn rates of various fuels, from match heads to zinc-sulfur to potassium nitrate and sugar. You could get a lot of stuff from hardware stores and chemistry sets back then.
The giant park behind our house became the scene of many marvelous flights. With every launch Joey’s audience multiplied. Soon his rockets were flying over a quarter mile into the sky. He got more daring with his propellants, and his payloads got bigger. Once he crammed a mouse into a nose cone. After the capsule parachuted safely back to earth, Joey removed his tiny quivering astronaut and was rewarded with a ferocious bite on the hand, necessitating another trip to the ER.
It was during this same time, during grade school, that Joey’s other abiding passion formed. You couldn’t really escape the fear about the Russians, with the duck-and-cover drills at school, our preparation for the coming nuclear war. But for most kids the hysteria over the Russians was for adults to worry about. Not so with Joey. He believed it was his personal responsibility to fight the Communists.
What sparked his fervor? Was it something he ingested, like a tapeworm, from consuming movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Manchurian Candidate? Was it something Dad said, like that time we were watching a track meet on Wide World of Sports? The US team was battling the Russians, and my brother and I were yelling for each American victory, when Dad, an Army vet, surprised us with a comment.
“We shoulda kicked the Russian’s ass at the Elbe when we had the chance.” Joey and I stared over at him. “We could all be sleeping easy now.” It was his sole remark about the war.
My kid brother’s interest in the Communists took off during his participation in the Boy Scouts under Scoutmaster Nancy. Though the Boy Scouts were not my thing, I kept hearing about the charismatic leader of the troop. Ted Nancy had been an MP in the Korean War, and now he worked as a security guard for Sears. His scout uniform was really crisp. He ran his troop like a boot camp, drilling his boys on perfect pushups and leading them on epic hikes. But the main focus of Nancy’s instruction was crime fighting. He schooled his charges on fingerprinting, surveillance, radio, and codes. He demanded all members earn a merit badge in Citizenship of the Nation.
The boys loved Scoutmaster Nancy and would have died for him, if asked.
Nancy’s hero was J. Edgar Hoover. On overnights around the campfire, Scoutmaster would regale his wide-eyed troopers with stories of the Bureau’s famous busts of bad guys like Baby Face Nelson, the Nazi Eight, and Creepy Alvin Karpis.
Scoutmaster would send his boys to their tents for the night with a warning: “Boys, we are engaged in a new and terrible struggle against Communism.” Nancy’s gaze was steely in the light of the campfire. “Reds could be anywhere, could be on your block, trying to harm our country. Be watchful, boys!”
My kid brother, an ardent disciple of Nancy’s, adopted the scoutmaster’s reverence for the FBI. He wrote to Washington for a signed photo of J. Edgar Hoover, and it arrived at our house in a sleek package stamped FBI. Along with the photo came an article titled “Young People Can Help Defeat Communism.” In our bedroom, Joey displayed photo and article side by side. With a felt pen he highlighted the last sentence in the article: “America is depending on you.”
We had a next-door neighbor by the name of Anton Soucek. He and his wife had emigrated from Eastern Europe following the war. They had no children. Mr. Soucek was in his forties but had stooped shoulders and looked perpetually tired, probably because he worked two jobs, one as a gas station attendant and one in the maintenance department of Chemkol, a company that manufactured rocket fuel.
Though Mrs. Soucek spoke no English, she was a pleasant woman whose ample body equaled three Mr. Souceks. She would invite Joey and me over for her kolachki cookies, just out of the oven. I have never tasted anything so fine as those cookies—they made you close your eyes.
I enjoyed the Soucek house. There were always great smells, and everything was orderly and neat.
Joey spent hours in the basement playing with his ham radio. I’m not sure he slept at all some nights. In the morning he’d tell me, “I talked to a girl in Iceland” or he’d say, “An old guy from Baton Rouge told me a joke. Wanna hear it?”
“You’re weird,” I’d tell him. “Go to sleep.” But one time he shook me awake in the middle of the night.
“Ed, you gotta hear this,” he whispered. “Come with me. You gotta hear it.”
“This better be good,” I warned him.
In our basement a small, bendable lamp shone on a wooden table strewn with ham equipment. I had the feeling I was stepping into a conspiracy.
“Don’t say anything,” Joey whispered. “Just listen.”
“Joey twisted the volume dial on his receiver. I heard two voices speaking a foreign language. One voice, in a low tone, went on for awhile.
Joey came close to my ear. “Do you recognize that voice?”
I listened some more. “Soucek?”
Back in our bedroom my brother paced as he laid out his conclusions. “Why would Soucek be talking on a ham radio in the middle of the night?”
“Same as you.”
“Well, who’s he talking to? And, why are they talking Russian?”
“Russian? How do you know it’s Russian?”
“It sounds Russian, don’t it?” Joey scoffed at me like I was his dimwitted partner at a crime scene. “It’s OBVIOUS our quiet neighbor is up to NO GOOD!”
“Turn off the light and go to bed, you weirdo.”
For a long time I listened to my brother, knowing he lay awake, his imagination on fire.
By now Joey was in a league of his own as a rocketeer. He had won an award from the National Association of Rocketry for the record-setting flight of his Atlas model. He’d spoken with scientists at Chemkol for tips on design. All of his money from odd jobs was going toward rocket fuel.
Joey was experimenting with placing gunpowder in nose cones that would detonate on impact. “I know how to make mortars now,” he confided.
That summer I had a job as a gopher at Chemkol. Mr. Soucek helped me get it. I’d been there a week when Joey started bugging me to bring home some high-grade propellant.
“I can’t just waltz in there and steal their fuel. Are you nuts?”
“I betcha, if you look, you can find some lying around.”
Joey was dogged. “They got the good stuff. Ammonium perchlorate! Just think what a rocket we could build!”
“Since when is it ‘we’?”
The following week I removed a packet from my shoe and handed it to my brother. I won’t go into how I got the stuff, except to say it was shockingly easy. I began to take a perverse interest in my brother’s next rocket. He was either going to send something into orbit or blow himself up.
“Wait till you see this one, Ed. Oh, boy!”
Joey’s creation was gorgeous. The rocket stood taller than he was and thicker than my leg. He called it the Red Scare.
I expected to witness the launch of the Red Scare, so I was taken off guard when, late on the night of July 4th, I heard an explosion and ran outside to see the Souceks’ home in flames.
I’ll never forget how they looked sitting in their front yard, their clothes smoking, as they watched the firemen working on their house. Mr. Soucek sat with his arm draped over Mrs. Soucek’s shoulder. Behind their smoldering home the holiday fireworks filled the night sky.
Joey gave a great performance. He insisted it was all a big accident. Said his launch tower fell over as his rocket lifted off. He apologized profusely for the Red Scare setting fire to the Soucek house.
To everyone’s surprise, the Souceks didn’t press the issue. “Boys vil be boys,” he sighed. “But, how ‘bout have adult dere when does launch?”
Our liability insurance paid for all the damages. But, that was a turning point for Dad. He never really trusted Joey after that. He feared for him. Joey was only fifteen. What kind of trouble would find him next? That was the summer Dad removed Joey from Milford High and enrolled him at the Northwestern Military Academy up in Lake Geneva. Maybe they could keep my brother out of trouble.
Joey loved the Academy. His teachers encouraged his zeal and his enterprise. He shone in ROTC, quickly moving through the ranks to First Captain of his company. He cherished the early morning reveille and the uniforms. Even when his transgressions got more outlandish—setting fire to the chemistry lab, “borrowing” the rival school’s tank—and the consequent punishments stiffened, the officers at the Academy continued to smile at his daring.
Despite Joey’s success and Northwestern’s warm embrace, I can’t help wonder about something: At night when the lights went out after taps, as my little brother lay on his bunk in the dorm filled with other disaffected boys, was he lonesome? Did he ever think of us?
Joey graduated from the Academy in 1969. He, along with half his class, immediately enlisted in the Army. They didn’t want to miss the war.
We were both home that summer. We had grown apart—my brother had his GI Joe schooling, while I was picking daisies and studying theology at one of those pretty Midwestern colleges, a liberal hotbed.
“Don’t be stupid, Joey,” I told him. “Go to college. You’ll have a student deferment. This isn’t our war.”
He just looked at me with his sweet smile. “Aw, what fun would that be, big brother?” He gave me a mock salute. “Now, I get to shoot at Commies.”
By August, Joey was off to Basic Training at Fort Campbell, and by Christmas he was in the A Shau Valley near the border of North Vietnam. Over the next few months, I’d send him Playboy magazines, and he’d send me back little updates. I kept all his notes because they tell a story:
“Hue is hotter than shit, and so are the women!”
“War is a lot like the movies, big brother. Some really cool explosions.”
“Been in the field for three weeks. Can’t believe how bad I smell. I’m always wet.”
The enemy used A Shau Valley as a main entry point to the south. As such, it was the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the war. The enemy dug tunnels to transport their troops and materiel. My brother’s job was to use a flamethrower to burn out the enemy and seal tunnels. He carried fifty pounds of fuel on his back; it was an unforgiving weapon.
“Our unit got pretty shot up this week.”
“Here’s something funny. A monkey threw a rock at me! Seems like everything is trying to kill us here.”
“Been on patrol forever. Roasted a bunch of gooks today.”
“You can’t trust the people here. I hate them all. Have to kill women sometimes.”
The last thing I heard from Joey was when a small package arrived for me. Inside was another of his notes. This one read: “Here’s a little gook souvenir for you, big brother.”
I shook the package, and something slid out. It looked to be a burnt potato chip, but I knew what it was. And, I knew that my kid brother had gone down a rabbit hole and was not coming back alive.
Joey’s body returned exactly one year from when I last saw him. So, I found myself thinking a lot about our final night together. Our family was all together in the living room. We’d been sitting around the TV all day watching the astronauts approach the moon. Joey told us they wouldn’t have much fuel left when they landed the module, that they better set it down soon, so we were pretty on edge. We drank a lot after that, celebrating.
Later, when Armstrong stepped on the moon’s surface, Joey got this look. “Yeah! Thatta boy, Neal!” He shook his fist in the air.
I’d never seen him so happy and proud, like he was part of the mission.
“We did it, we did it,” he kept saying.