Big Brother Is Watching Essay written by Theresa Danna
My brother enlisted in the Army the year I was born. When I was twelve, he died in Vietnam. In between those two events fell the 1960s, my childhood.
Joe was the oldest of six children and named after my father. I was the youngest and named after my mother. Since he was usually on duty in parts of the world far, far away from our rural hometown of Vineland, New Jersey, my memories of him are few, yet poignant snippets of a childhood shaped by the effects of hippies, sit-ins, the generation gap, and the first living room war.
This photograph was shot in our front yard the day Joe shipped out to his first of two tours of duty in Vietnam. I was concerned that my posture was erect and my knee socks even. After seeing the developed product, I was upset that the bow on my dress was cocked and that the sun shining in my eyes contorted my face. I wanted so badly for that picture to be perfect. The moments with my only brother were limited, so I felt there was no room for error, no time to waste.
But looking at this snapshot now, I realize Joe lived his twenty-nine years of life as if he did have all the time in the world. A soldier at ease, he ignored the camera and decided to look at his baby sister a bit longer before flying off to the jungle, where little girls in frilly Sunday dresses and patent leather shoes existed only in a GI’s memory.
Joe wore Wayfarer sunglasses long before Tom Cruise’s Risky Business. He also smoked a pipe packed with sweetly exotic tobaccos from countries I would only visit vicariously through View Master slides and his packages in the mail.
When I was four, the mailman delivered a large box from Korea. I climbed on the arm of our big living room chair, anxious for Mom to open it. My sisters were all at school, and Dad was at work. The treasure was exclusively ours to explore.
First, a pair of silver-blue satin pajamas for Rita, then a pair of chopsticks for Cathe. And then, for me, an exquisite Korean rag doll, sad to be away from her homeland, but happy to be out of the parcel. Her head was perfectly round, with fuzzy black hair, and dark slanted eyes and red pursed lips painted on her yellow face. She wore a long red and gold satin dress with an off-white silk slip and ankle-length bloomers beneath. My stiff buxom Barbie doll and her fake kimono paled against the real thing. My Korean doll was huggable and, unlike my Barbie, sits on my bookshelf today.
When Joe came back from Vietnam the first time, I gathered the neighborhood girls together and taught them an original "Hello, Joe!" welcome home cheer. We practiced it on the front lawn for a week so it would be flawless on that special day. We strung cardboard letters to our backs—mine was H, Julie’s was E, Terry’s was L, Renee’s another L, and Liz’s O. However, when we finally premiered our performance, Liz’s letter fell off, and even I laughed when Joe, my family, and our Boody Drive neighbors realized we were displaying "HELL" instead. Oh well, maybe some things are better imperfect.
In 1968, when Joe was stationed at a bomb testing site in Nevada, Mom let me live the summer in Las Vegas with him and his newlywed wife, Joanne. Those two months were the longest continuous period I spent with him, a period that I later recognized as a coming-of-age experience.
That was when I met Joe the person, not Joe the hero. He was the proud owner of a blue Thunderbird and an art deco home in the desert. He cultivated a rose garden near the patio and hung a machete above his fireplace. His front door, padded double panels covered with black leather, opened to a stone foyer protected by a brass statue of Buddha in the pose where his chubby arms are upstretched to hold back evil spirits.
Joe introduced me to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, ending my innocent Monkees years. He also listened to the abstract sounds of Ravi Shankar and the resounding "Impossible Dream" by Jim Nabors, who, until that point, had only been the goofy Gomer Pyle, USMC, to me.
Our best times that summer were Fridays, when he allowed me to stay up late to watch W.C. Fields movies on television with him. I especially liked the one about the trip from New Jersey to California, a trek I journeyed myself seventeen years later.
Even though Joe has been dead for more than four decades, his watchful eye hasn’t disappeared. I’m convinced that my life’s journey has been accomplished with the help of a pipe-smoking guardian angel with dark glasses. One night I had a dream in which Joe and I were walking down a street, both of us adults, laughing and talking. A part of me knew that, as real as it seemed, this situation was impossible. So I asked him, "Am I dead, or are you alive again?" He smiled, looking at me the same way as in this photograph, and replied, "It’s a little of both."