I think of my cousin Johnny and the life he never lived. I never thanked Johnny, so I’m thanking you now.
My cousin Johnny served in WW2. My mom told me that fighting in that war stole him away from his family. Johnny never married after the war. He never held a “real” job again.
Johnny was a big handsome man. Before he went off to the military, he was engaged to be married. He had a successful small business. But he felt the need to serve his county, so he enlisted.
When he came back, his fiancée broke off their engagement because of his mental problems. She was not yet his wife and decided she did not ever want to be his wife.
He never returned to the business he started. When he came back from WW2, there was no such thing as PTSD. PTSD was defined after the Vietnam war. Back then, it was called battle fatigue.
The definition of battle fatigue was the same as the later definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome or PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it.
Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. (The Mayo Clinic)
No matter what you call it, the illness turned Johnny from an independent business owner before the war into a man that needed others to provide him with room and board after the war.
Johnny babysat me and my five brothers and sisters for room and board. He lived in the basement of our house. I remember playing games with him and him reading stories to us. We were kept clean, fed and taken care of well. I remember him as nice and kind.
He told jokes, laughed loudly and long; he appeared to have an appetite for life that was large and out there. Cousin Johnny lived in my parents’ basement for years.
It was all an act. There were two cousin Johnnys.
In real life, Johnny never left my parents’ home. He would not come out of the basement once my parents came home from work each day.
It was my job to take Johnny his food (and anything else) in the basement. I carried food, laundry, drinks, ice, etc. down the basement stairs.
I got to see the “real” Johnny. Since I was a kid, I didn’t think it was unusual that there were two very different Johnnies; Basement Johnny and Upstairs Johnny.
Basement Johnny didn’t talk. He seemed dull. Upstairs Johnny was talkative and intelligent.
Basement Johnny would not come out of the basement from Friday when my mom came home from work until Monday when she went back to work.
Basement Johnny drank to excess in the evening and on weekends. I never knew Johnny to take a drink while he was watching us kids from 7 am to 6 pm Monday to Friday.
Downstairs Johnny did not talk. Upstairs Johnny talked to all of us and read us stories while making funny noises.
Upstairs Johnny would pick me up and spin me around while I fell yelled and laughed. Downstairs Johnny ignored me unless he needed something.
The other kids were not allowed in the basement.
Over each weekend, there was little eating, bathing, or even moving going on with cousin Johnny. He sat in the old recliner, smoked cigarette after cigarette and drank. He would light a new cigarette from the burning stub of the old cigarette.
There was plenty of drunk staring into space. I ran up and down the basement stairs bringing food, glasses with ice, and clean ashtrays down the stairs and taking empty dirty glasses, full ashtrays and dishes back up.
Johnny smelled; his living area did not. Cousin Johnny had been and was a Marine. The basement was always spotless. The bed was made with crisp corners. Floor swept. Garbage emptied. Dusted. No dirty dishes allowed.
Cousin Johnny would have women come over for the weekend. They also did not bathe. They wore the same clothing each day, smoked, they slept sitting up and sat silently drinking with Johnny.
I seldom saw Johnny in bed. I saw no one in bed with him. He was up very early and dressed. I saw them sloppy drunk and passed out on the floor. I saw them sitting with Johnny, smoking with Johnny and drinking with Johnny.
The women, however, ate. Feeding them provided opportunities for me. I would go to the store to buy lunchmeat, bread, doughnuts and pop for my cousin Johnny and his women.
When I went to the store for their cigarettes and food, I would buy a lot and eat the leftovers
My mom told me that Johnny was traumatized when he was in the war. He was involved in a tough battle, a multi-week battle.
One of his friends died in his arms. Johnny refused to give up the man’s body defending it like a wild animal for days.
His team tranquilized him, took the body. When he returned home, they hospitalized him. He was in a VA hospital for two months then honorably discharged with no mental health care recommendations.
After his release from the hospital, he had nowhere to go. Johnny couch-surfed through his extended family, performing short term work for room and board.
Twenty-plus years later, he was still doing short-term work. For my family, it meant babysitting me and my brothers and sisters: his life in the same tatters from many years ago.
How much discipline did it for him to function daily? His demons never left him. I don’t remember an evening when cousin Johnny did not drink.
The day my youngest sister went to daycare, Johnny left my parents’ house and never came back. By that time, I was old enough to care for my siblings after school. We didn’t need Johnny anymore, so he left. No handouts.
He had got an odd job working for different cousins painting their house inside and out.
Johnny died in the 1970s. I don’t know when or where or how. One of my other cousins mentioned his death in a passing conversation.
I was surprised at the waves of sadness that overcame me. I meant to look Johnny up; I never did. That night I sobbed like a little girl in my bathroom over a life half lived. I didn’t know I had fallen in love with him until he was gone.
I wonder what my cousin Johnny could have been had he not felt the need to serve in the military. What if he had gotten treatment for his issues?
When I think about our veterans, I wonder about Johnny’s life. I contemplate if he could have recovered with psychologists help when he returned. His sacrifice and the sacrifice of others kept America safe.
No one can understand what our service members and their families have sacrificed. I think of my cousins hunted dark eyes and the life he never lived after he returned home.
When I say thank you for your service to anyone in the military, I mean it.
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