War in the Mailbox

A little tribute to my brother Michael who passed away last Thursday afternoon. This was written several years ago for my book, Rich People Shop Here:


Every month from a distant sky it came -- a reel to reel tape wrapped in plain brown paper and bearing the name of PFC Michael J. Simmons, Vietnam. He was my brother, and it was at once unsettling and comforting to hear his voice. My mother usually cried a little when he would begin to speak.

"Hello, this is Michael," the tape would begin, as if we didn't know who would be sending a tape all the way from Viet Nam. Michael was always kind of formal like that, and he has always marched to the beat of his own drummer. In high school, he shunned the cool cars and clothes of his day and rode a bicycle all over town. He worked at the "Dairy Dream" over on Irvington Drive, and that trip was many miles from our house. He never missed a day as I recall, a testament to his ability to stick with the plan, even if it was his own plan, and even if it included difficulties and challenges most people would avoid.

His boss at the Dairy Dream called him "Creeping Jesus" because he moved sort of slow, and because he spent all of his break time reading his Bible. He is smart. He taught himself to read Greek and Hebrew while he was still in high school. He has staying power. When he undertakes a task he doesn't quit until it's done. He graduated from college and majored in Greek and Hebrew. When he was a very young kid, he was so skinny you could see his bones sticking out. He decided that he would take up weightlifting. For years he lifted weights and drank all the protein drinks and before we knew it he was a chiseled specimen.

He also became, as Eddie Murphy says, a "Karate Man." He determined to learn karate and Judo, and in typical Michael fashion, he bought some books and learned how to break a brick and how to remove your heart with his bare hand while it was still thumping (we never saw him do that, actually, but Keith and I were convinced he could do it, so we didn't have a lot of cross words with him.). He could break a house brick in half with his bare hand. It was fun to bring my friends around to watch him do that. I probably could have sold tickets.

One time, his karate expertise came in real handy. We had these wooden bar stools that were pretty worn out and mom wasn't going to get rid of them until they literally fell down. That was her way. They were still usable, so why spend the money? That is why she still has enough money. No whims, no impulse buys. Anyway, these bar stools creaked and sometimes leaned a little when people sat in them. That alone was not enough to convince mom of their potential dangers. Dad, on the other hand, was less than thrilled with them. When a good friend of the family, Edith (who happened to be pregnant at the time) sat one night, creaking and leaning, dad had seen enough. The next day he ordered Michael to take the bar stools out behind the garage and in his words "make kindling out of them." All afternoon I heard Michael out behind the garage, giving the official karate yell over and over again interrupted only by the sound of snapping wood. He made kindling out of those bar stools, all right. There was hardly a piece left that was longer than six inches. You give Mike a task, he does it. The Army must have loved that quality in him.

His faith made him fearless. When other young men were heading for Canada to avoid the draft, Michael never considered that, and dutifully went to the Army to serve his country. I remember the day he left for Vietnam, and my dad's prayer at our dinner table the night before, and how his voice broke when he asked God to watch over my brother as he faced the perils of war. His voice broke. More evidence of dad's commitment to Michael. People who don't commit don't care like that. They don't care deeply if they are not fully invested in the outcome. Michael didn't carry dad's last name, but he was a full member of his family nonetheless. Dad never cried much, at least in public. But, he had a deep soul, and moments like this gave a little insight into what really mattered to him. It was hard not to cry with him.

It was also hard not to worry about Michael. The numbers on the daily news were not encouraging. Thousands were dying, the Houston Chronicle would report every day that a transport helicopter had gone down or that an American base camp had been napalmed. Much of this happened near Michael. He was in the thick of it, and we prayed every morning before school for his safety.

Then, those tapes would show up. Michael's voice would be strong and courageous. After introducing himself again, he would say "I'd like to sing a song for you now." We would all gather around the kitchen table to listen, the hum of the old reel to reel tape machine ever-present. Michael always had his guitar and his Bible with him, and my guess is he wore out both of them on this tour of duty.

He began to sing:

"O Lord My God, when I in awesome wonder..." and the sound of gunfire and the zing of ricocheting bullets could be heard in the distance, but his voice never wavered and he didn't miss a note.

"Consider all the worlds thy hands have made...." Low flying planes, strafing the jungle and destroying a piece of one of those worlds, thundered overhead, overdriving the tape, slightly distorting the hymn.

"Then sings my soul, my Savior, God, to thee..." no dry eyes at the table now. The curious mixture of a familiar voice surrounded by weapons bent on silencing it was too much to bear for some of us. Michael sang on, though, and every month for all 14 months he was there, he kept on singing.

Then, one day he came home. He has never talked much about Vietnam, but a friend of his who served with him there told us that Michael would volunteer for the most dangerous duty because he believed that he had an angel who watched over him, and that everybody has an appointed time to die. He reasoned that he was completely safe if it wasn't his time. He was greatly admired for his actions. In fact, "Creeping Jesus" was something of a hero and considered to be one of the bravest in his platoon.