Archive for Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lost family member evokes ‘Little Boy Blue’

August 19, 2010

This is about family; a somewhat circuitous tale.

Joe Timmons was my first cousin and he was named for his father, my mother’s brother Walter and her father Joe Timmons. He was an only child. He took after the Swede side of the family. His mother was Edith Tinberg, one of 12 children.

Joe was the age of my older sisters. In fact, my older sisters, Joe and another cousin grew up together at a time when kids growing up thought of one another as siblings. When I was growing up, it was hard to remember that Joe was my cousin, not an older brother.

What I remember most about Joe was when he came home from the Korean War. I was in grade school — just barely. I was sitting that day on the ground, under the shade of an enormous lilac bush. Stretched out on the ground beside me was Joe’s dog, Spike — a miniature collie sort of dog who moved in with us when Joe went to war and never moved out.

The air was still. In the heat of a late afternoon, everything moved in slow motion — a dreamy kind of day. I became aware of a slow, keening sound. Spike stirred ever so slightly. In the distance, I could hear whistling, faint and far away.

The whistling grew louder and Spike’s keening more persistent. I looked out from under the lilac bush and near the corner of the street, I saw the figure of a man, silhouetted against the sunlight. As the figure drew closer, Spike raised his head, sniffed the air and snapped a bark.

Spike suddenly darted out from under the bush, leaping it seemed to me as he did. The man was dressed in green, had a green heavy bag thrown over one shoulder and his hat was an outline against the sky. His silhouette blocked the sun that day.

I thought about that day when his daughter called to say he had died. I remember him walking down the street, coming home from the war, an experience he spoke of very little.

I thought also about all the Saturdays he came to visit my mom after his own parents died. He was a blonde, quiet Swede, sometimes sad, often reflective; a man of few words. He dressed in a casual shirt and jeans, brown house slippers, smelling of cigarettes.

For me, he will always be that soldier boy, walking down the street, whistling a tune, whose dog runs out to greet him when the war is ended; coming home to us a changed man, the way war tends to change boys into men.

And I think of a line from “Little Boy Blue,” by Eugene Field: “Time was when the little toy dog was new, and the soldier was passing fair. That was when the Boy Blue kissed them and put them there.”

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