Don, You may recall my writing to you about my Uncle Bill a little more than a year ago. He was shot up and left for dead on Okinawa in 45, survived, and was facing up to by pass surgery in 98. He died this past week and I'm forwarding a eulogy as he was an important link to my service in Vietnam. Take care, Forrest Brandt

 

THE PASSING OF A CHARACTER

Forrest Brandt
© 2000

 

"Bad news Woody. Uncle Bill died last night."

I accepted the news with an air of resignation. William Kozmar, the Croatian, Catholic, bookie, was a character who defied everyone's wishes that he, "just be normal." My family, the Brandt's, never knew quite what to make of him.

My earliest memory of Uncle Bill comes from his post war days as a racetrack tout. He showed up in front of my grandparents' house driving a lemon yellow Dodge convertible. A yellow convertible would have been enough, but this one also featured a midsection of red and yellow wood paneling making it stand out from anything on the road. He had a rakish, tan, snap-brimmed straw hat atop his head, and Ray Ban sunglasses shading his eyes. He wore a hound's-tooth sport coat in rust and brown tones, rust colored slacks, his feet decked out in two- tone wing tips of brown and custard yellow. A lavender tie, and a lemon yellow shirt completed the outfit. I'd never seen anything quite so peacock in style and color in our old world German household.

"Hey, Butch, what'cha up to?" he asked as he ran his hand over my head, my nose picking up the scent of expensive after-shave. "What say you and me take a little ride? Let me check in with the old lady here, make sure everything's hunkie-dorie, then we'll go. OK" I barely had time to nod an excited 'yes' in between his sentences.

As a kid, the decorative items found in the house he shared with Aunt Betty fascinated me: bronze and silver-plated statues of horses, Sea Biscuit, Man O' War, and Whirl-away, An ashtray shaped like a horseshoe, a ceramic jockey standing on top of the TV. He'd pull me away from family talks and tell me tales about following the racing season, starting in late March at Pimlico in Miami, north to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby: back east to Baltimore's Laurel Park for the Preakness and then finishing the summer at Saratoga for the Belmont Stakes and a couple of weeks of racing before coming back for the fall season at Keeneland. "Butch, you hear all this God damn bullcrap about Man O' War, but I'm telling you there was something funny going on. I still think Coaltown was the better horse, but, Jesus Christ, the old man who owned him wouldn't let the son of a bitch run his best."

I'd nod my head like I understood it all.

In reality I was more enthralled with his language pattern. "So, you see, I got this little side bet going on this damn filly, and the son of a bitch I'm working againstI had the sense to not display my grasp of his vernacular in front of my parents, but when I entered the army it put me at the head of the class for barrack's talk. Unhappily, his talk, his religion and his career as a bookie would be a source of friction that would lead our side of the family to always judge him unfairly.

Uncle Bill upset the balance in our family, by marrying Aunt Betty he inadvertently rekindled the Catholic - Protestant resentments that had simmered in the family stew pot for more than 30 years. The hard feelings would rest, like land mines, just beneath the surface of all family activities. His hard living, brash manner, and blue tinged language caused tongues to wag among the brothers. I learned to pick up on the key phrase, "Now this is not to be repeated anywhere outside this house" From time to time I would catch a subtle jibe spoken in the presence of Uncle Bill by my dad or Uncle Cliff, usually preceded by the comment, "I don't want to tell you what you should believe" and then followed by the latest sore point in the families' religious relations. Aunt Betty would take his faults in stride, dispensing of them with an acknowledging sigh, "Well, that's Bill for you."

However, family get-togethers also provided Uncle Bill his moments to get back. He would volunteer to serve as bar tender or short order cook in the kitchen while the brothers and Aunt Betty would argue politics in the living room. These bare knuckle, take no prisoners, discussions would get pretty lively, even causing my normally mild mannered mom to get riled up enough to speak her peace.

Uncle Cliff might open with, "You ask me, those big corporations just don't care. You get a Republican in the White House and we'll watch worker's salaries drop like a rock."

Dad would counter, "So instead we should have a situation like we have now, where John L. Lewis and those damn coal miners are holding the whole country hostage? Is that what you want?" and it would be off to the races.

Just when things would get at their most inflammatory, someone would say something that everyone could agree upon. For a few minutes things would become cozy, everyone remembering a favorite story of how the family survived some shared challenge. Uncle Bill would hear the calm and stick his head in, "So what do you think of Truman breaking that coal miners' strike" then he'd duck back into the kitchen and chuckle to himself as the Brandts returned to hammering away at each other, totally unaware of how they had been coaxed back into disagreement.

One snowy Christmas Eve the brothers got into an argument over which theatre had been more difficult on the troops, Europe or the Pacific. Uncle Bill had fought in the Philippines and Okinawa, the rest all served in Europe. Late in the night, a little too much Christmas cheer having passed their lips, they began to challenge each other.

"Well, it was always warm in the Pacific," claimed Uncle Cliff, "you guys didn't have to live and fight in the snow."

"Yeah? Well half the Germans couldn't wait to surrender. You see any damn Nip battalion lay down their arms? You ask me, we had it tougher in the Pacific."

Uncle Cliff peered out the window into the fast falling snow, "OK, this is what it looked like in Belgium. You try sleeping in that. I bet you can't do it."

"No Problem," sniffed Uncle Bill, heading for the door. "I'll do it if you'll do it."

Uncle Cliff took two steps toward his bedroom, "Be right with you."

"For Christ's sake Cliff, where you going? The doors this way."

"I'm getting a blanket."

"Well you didn't tell me you were going candy ass on me. Bets off."

On other occasions the Brandt brothers would accept Uncle Bill into their circle and the results were usually the stuff of family legend. My stout, tough, German-Irish grandmother had to have a gall bladder operation. The brothers decided to pitch in on a weekend and give her house a thorough cleaning. They were finishing up just about lunchtime on Sunday. Uncle Bill was sent out to pick up sandwiches. This was the era of "blue law Sundays" and the open sale of alcohol anywhere but in a restaurant was strictly forbidden. Uncle Bill returned with a sack full of pork tenderloin sandwiches, a case of cold beer and a fifth of whisky. The men gathered around, eating and drinking, when one of them discovered Grandma's parakeet. Suddenly a mission of great urgency developed. Early in the evening the mellow group left. On Monday afternoon Grandmother returned from the hospital to find her home sparkling cleanif you could ignore the parakeet that now talked like a sailor on leave, "Schwee tah, crap! Schwee tah, God damn! Schwee God damn! Goddamn! crap! Schwee tah!"

Marriage and kids forced Uncle Bill to give up the race circuit he loved. The convertible became a black Kaiser Manhattan sedan. Similar sedate cars followed. He became a banker, specializing in auto loans. When the bank was bought out he became salesman and later, sales manager for a car dealer. When the dealership went under he sold caskets before returning to banking. His ability to bring in business and to keep the customer satisfied, probably honed in his days as a tout, kept him in demand.

Finally, it was my turn to enter the army. Mom and Dad threw a family picnic the Sunday before Labor Day, 1967. A good many war stories were aired out again and I was given all sorts of advice on how to deal with enlisted men and tough old sergeants. There was some confessed confusion as to Vietnam and what was going on along with concern that I might soon end up there. For the most part though, the brothers stuck together and talked about their army days. It was Uncle Bill who pulled me aside, "Butch, don't get caught up in all this army bullcrap. It isn't all craps and grins. You'll see things you'll wish you'd never seen. I wish you didn't have to go at all, but since you do just remember one thing: If you're going to wear that uniform, wear it right. Don't let me hear about you walking around with your hands in your pockets and your jacket unbuttoned. Wear it right and be proud of it. Your men are gonna need that."

At that moment, caught up in my own anxieties, I did not understand all of what he was telling me about leadership and responsibility, but for the next 30 years I tried faithfully to always wear the uniform correctly.

For several years, on Veterans' Day, I made the habit of visiting the graves of Dad, Uncle Cliff, Uncle Ray and Uncle Bobby and then driving over to Springfield to visit Uncle Bill. We'd share war stories, family tales, and then get back to whether Coaltown or Man O' War was the better horse. He was the only man in the family, among all those war heroes of mine, who honestly asked me what Vietnam was like. Maybe it was because he knew that war really wasn't about sleeping in snow, or slogging through mud in tropic heat, it was about your soul.

On those days I could get him to talk about the day and the place when he almost died. "You see, we'd been on Okinawa almost two weeks. The sons of bitches were dug in everywhere, see, and we had to go in and flush 'em out one at a time. We come up to this meadow and the sergeant wants me and Smitty to cross first so he and the rest of the squad can go around the other way and I'm thinking, 'some damn son of bitch is just waiting for me' and sure as hell, I'm about half way across when he opens up with a light machine gun. Knocked me down, stitched me across my legs and here in my side. I'm looking up at the sky and thinking, 'Jesus Christ! This is it!' The rest of the platoon, see, they had to go on. They had to get that God damn machine gun before they could come back and get me. Crap, next thing I know I'm back in the hospital." Then he stopped. "You know Butch, I don't know if it was worth it. You look at all those good kids that we lost there, really good kids, and I just don't think it was worth it."

I thought about his words while on duty during Desert Storm. I was working as a staff officer, keeping track of spare parts for eight infantry and armor divisions. It was intense, nerve- wracking work, but I slept each night in a soft, warm bed in Alexandria, Virginia. A kind of football game mentality developed within the office, a "let's get in there and kick some ass!" enthusiasm for war. One night, just before the ground war was to kick off, I saw a young private from the First Infantry Division, my old unit from Vietnam, being interviewed. I knew that he would be among the very first to leave the safety of his foxhole and push forward. He told the reporter, "The Iraqis are just over there," nodding over his right shoulder, "We see 'em and sometimes we can hear 'em talking and moving around."

"Are you scared?" the reporter asked.

"Yeah, I get scared, but we're well trained and well equipped. When we do go, we'll do all right."

I woke up from my football dreams of glory with those words. I thought back to Uncle Bill and I could imagine him saying the same thing as he rode to battle off Okinawa's shore. It was in his brush with death that he gained the wisdom to later tell me, "You know Butch we lost a lot of good men over there. I don't know if it was worth it." He understood what the generals, the politicians and the reporters didn't begin to grasp: the importance of measuring a war's goals and results against its awful costs.

Bill Kozmar loved the racetrack, hot cars and smart clothes. He could keep book, get you a bottle of Old Forester on a "blue law" Sunday and run a string of expletives together in any sentence, but he also understood the value of human life better than most of us. I shall miss his wise counsel and salty voice.

Forrest Brandt

 

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