, Newburyport, MA

May 27, 2013

Remembering a family's demise

As I See It
Stuart Deane

---- — As Memorial Day approaches each year, I think of Christopher O’Brien, the only person I have known who was killed in combat.

He was two years behind me in high school. I remember him as having a goofy sense of humor, though a peer remembers him as “kind of a witty guy, a comedian.” He was on the chubby side, and he wore glasses. He also played tackle on the high school football team — my position. I remember scrimmaging against him. He was rather easy to block, and sometimes I would let up on him a little. I didn’t want to embarrass or discourage him.

However, two years after my graduation, his senior-year team would be the undefeated league champion. Chris would be the starting right guard.

After high school, I believe he went on to UMass for a while, but the next that I heard of him, he had joined the U.S. Marines and been shipped out for Vietnam.

In the summer of 1967, between my junior and senior years of college, after completing my own three-year enlistment, I was working as a summer camp counselor in Contoocook, N.H. Word reached me that Chris had been killed in action.

“Are you OK?” asked the head counselor as I stood with my group of boys at a camp meeting. My eyes had misted over, but I bore up.

For some reason, long since forgotten, I did not attend the services. But I can imagine the pomp and circumstance of the military funeral, as I can imagine the anguish of the family. What must it have been like to have heard the knock on the door, to have seen the bearers of bad news?

Chris’s father, Tom O’Brien, was my high school baseball coach. Further, his father and my own father were baseball teammates in the Cape Cod Baseball League in the 1930s. And my father had served as coaching assistant to Tom O’Brien’s Athol High School football team, also in the 1930s. So Coach O’Brien called me by my father’s name — “Pete” — as he called many of my teammates by their fathers’ names.

Tom O’Brien was a tough man, a catcher in his day. He was both critical and colorful. I still remember his barbs — “You couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a snow shovel.”

Tom also had another son, Terry, who was, how do I say this? “Different.” Still, he lived independently, and he for years helped out with the high school sports teams. Both he and his father are now in the Athol High School Athletic Hall of Fame, one as “Coach,” the other as “Contributor.” Terry also served as a volunteer fireman. He had an impeccable memory for dates and certain facts, but, still, something was different.

Christopher was the hope for the long-range future.

But the future ended in Vietnam.

The news escalated health problems for Tom O’Brien and his wife, Catherine. The two of them died within a month of each other in 1970, three years after the death of their son. Catherine died of cancer. Tom, with cancer himself, would die of a heart attack, though most ascribed his death to a broken heart.

Some 20 years later, in 1988, my family and I were on a camping trip around America. On our trip back up the East Coast, we stopped in Washington, D.C., to see, among other things, the Vietnam War Memorial. I took a close-up photo of Chris’s panel. It is now in the family album as part of our photographic history.

My life has gone on, while Chris’s was frozen in time as a young Marine. So, too, was the future of the O’Brien family cut short, though Terry lived on for many years in his bachelor’s existence.

A few years ago I was sitting high up in the centerfield bleachers at Fenway Park with my two sons. Climbing up the aisle came an older man in plaid pants and a red athletic jacket. He was being assisted up the long climb by what I assumed to be a friend. The old man was laboring, but he had a smile on his face.

Suddenly it dawned on me that the jacket was an Athol High School “Red Raider” jacket. By the time that I had put two and two together and realized that the wearer was Terry O’Brien, however, he had passed me and ascended farther up into the bleachers. I thought of following him up to say hello, but I didn’t. I still regret that.

Then he, too, the last of the O’Briens, was gone. Money was found throughout his apartment. Commented one who knew him, “He did very well with what he had.”

So, on Memorial Day, I remember — an old family friend, a former coach, a teammate, a fellow serviceman, a surviving older brother. It’s a sad story, one in which I find it difficult to find meaning.

One consequence of this war was the end of a family. The line lives on only in memory, which, of course, is the purpose of Memorial Day.


Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.