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GENERATIONS: Art Lee: Change, the only constant in life: Yup, it’s true for families, too

He was a jerk.

Art LeeA big one too, my big brother. He treated my other brother and me like dirt. As if we didn’t exist.  Matter of fact, to him we did not exist. He never talked to us. Well, maybe a snarly order would emanate from his curled lips --“Hey, mouse-brain”-- when he ordered me to pass him the potatoes at the dinner table. He was  a big high school senior; a show-off Big Man On (little) Campus; and, alas, a star athlete, too. He loved to remind us kid brothers of the fact that we were so uncoordinated that it was a miracle we could walk 10 feet without falling over! And all the girls loved him and oohed and awed at his good looks! His outgoing personality was emphasized by his spiffy clothing styles, which showed forth on his social nights-out, namely a wardrobe that always included Arrow-brand shirts showing off his gnatty bowties, and not the kind that clipped on, but the kind that you tied yourself -- which his kid brothers could never do. Fumble fingers. Thus only dumb nerds like his woebegone little brothers wore clip-on ties. Poor things. Sad. Bad.

Dec. 7, 1941

A Sunday morning... The night before It had snowed about 5 inches of the fluffy stuff but not enough to stop the usual routines. So off we walked to the usual Sunday School at church,  followed by the usual joining the folks for church services, and sitting in the fourth pew from the front, as usual, because our Mom was hard-of-hearing and so we had to sit close to the front so she could hear better. Got home about noon for the usual big Sunday Dinner Mom had prepared. After eating too much, came the order for my older brother (he was 13; I was 10) to walk down to the train depot and pick up and haul home on our sled a stuffed turkey just sent to us by our uncle, a farmer in Iowa, who bestowed this fat edible bird as an early Christmas gift.

As we walked along, rather poked along, we dreamed out loud about the gifts we might be receiving on Christmas Eve. Even knowing none of this would be true (a pony?; a puppy?; a $10 bill?) it was still fun to dream about getting anything expensive because we suspected what was coming under the tree -- likely a shirt and underwear and new socks. The practical. And, of course, Big (nasty) Brother had left home early in that morning to participate in another ski-jumping tournament. Yeah, he was also a good skier, too. He was everything; we were nothing.

At the depot we were met by the perpetually Grumpy Old Man, the depot-agent, an ornery curmudgeon who spent most of his waking hours complaining about anything and everything.  But that morning he was excited about something else, having just gotten the news over his telegraph that less than an hour ago, and he half  shouted -- “Would you believe it? Japan just bombed Pearl Harbor early this morning and you know what that means.” But we did not know what that meant. We didn’t even know what Pearl Harbor was or where it was, but we pretended to be equally shocked and surprised, and walking back home, pulling the turkey tied on the sled, we pooled our ignorance about this place called Pearl Harbor and what that attack meant. Not the foggiest conclusion resulted. However, we did conclude we’d maybe find out from Dad about it when we got home. He’d know; he knew everything.

What Pearl Harbor meant

Walking in the front door, we saw a sight we’d never seen before. There was Dad hanging over the blaring radio and muttering about what we thought was "those damn *&$#”, using this naughty word we had never but never ever heard him mutter before that day (yup, trying to act grown-up, we tried to learn how to swear, but only if we knew our father wasn’t around). After all, he was the high school Supervising-Principal. Right then, a very upset one. We also heard Mom’s line of lament, which we had often heard before: “Oh my, oh my, oh my!” And in the ongoing excited  words of both parents, we sure found out what it all meant: War! Wow! Dad had been in the Army and fierce fighting in the front trenches in France in World War I, in combat right up to Armistice Day! He knew too well what war meant. He also knew that that day also meant his his oldest son, soon to turn age 19, would too soon be going into military service. A special day indeed for every American. On that one day our whole country changed; our family changed, our oldest brother also changed.

Into the military

The local county  draft board allowed my big brother to finish high school while also informing him he would be drafted soon after his graduation, and so about a week after the cap-and-gown was worn by him this one and only time, he chose to enlist in the Army Air Corps. He was sent for training to an Air Force base in Mississippi, training there to become a Top-Turret-Gunner on a B-24 airplane. There is little else more significant for an entire family than seeing one of their own getting ready to go off to war. Such changes! The whole family changed!  This included the kid brothers of “the Jerk” and “the Jerk” himself changed. Suddenly. the whole family became important to him, even including his yucky kid brothers. He actually talked to us -- no sarcasm, no meanness, no put-downs, no teasing -- just simply talked civilly, and he cracked jokes and sincerely wondered how things were going at our school. How wonderfully wonderful! So cool.  And immediately my perceptions of him changed so fast that then he became more than a family member, but our  hero! (I realized finally and correctly that the real ‘jerk’ in our relationship was less him than my own envious and selfish self). Anyway, the new admiration and relationship was palpable. Mom wondered by my new dippy mood if was feeling well and put her soft hand on my forehead to check for a likely fever.

Off to England

After basic training, he came home for a week before being shipped off to England with his entire airplane crew. In his new military dress uniform, he looked like. . . well, pure spiff. Wow! For all the family it was a week of controlled emotions. We pretended we did not see Mom slipping off into her bedroom to cry. We pretended that Dad’s extra nose-blowing, along with his new dutiful stiff upper lip, were just aberrations. Lots of pretending. Then it happened: I pretended that I was not moved when, on his last day home, my Air Force brother sought me out down in the basement, carrying his best bow tie, and saying to me so casually: “Hey there little brother, I won’t be using this any anymore and I want you to have it.” (This brief and tiny act for a little 10-year-old, starstruck kid still remains a historic moment to remember.) The next day, he was gone.

Fast forward to today

That oldest brother -- Loren James Lee -- eventually  returned home after Germany’s surrender in  May of ’45. The qualifier is there because their B-24 was then being used to transport “unknown Americans” into Europe where they parachuted out over secret destinations. He didn’t know -- nor was he supposed to know -- who they were or where they landed or what they were doing. (Secret spy stuff?) But he finally returned home at last and soon was off to college, thanks to the G.I. Bill, and he went year-'round, graduating in three years. His new life could then begin in earnest.

He would marry, have four children,  and make a  good living as a salesperson, mainly with Pella Windows (indeed, at summer family reunions, he and his family would arrive in yet another new Pontiac Convertible, the top down, the kids waving and hollering). At this writing, he turns 93 years old this month; he’s now a widower, living in Northfield, Minn., in an assisted living apartment. He still goes every month to the meetings of his Vets Club. At his advanced age now, he yet remains today what he was his entire adult life: a kind, thoughtful, thoughtful- of- others, curious, well-read, fun-and-funny man; empathetic; a quiet emotional person who wears his heart on his sleeve. (Sorry, but all those adjectives are necessary.)

So, hey, anyway,  he’s been a good guy to have around and to be around.

PS: I still have his bow-tie that he gave to me 75 years ago.

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