Sharon’s Blog : Uncle Bill by Sharon J. O’Donnell
by Sharon Johnson O’Donnell, author of humor book, House of Testosterone
When I was little, I was embarrassed of my Uncle Bill — the way he mumbled and laughed to himself, how he would say things to people that didn’t make sense. He helped my father in the family sewing machine repair and sales shop that my grandfather had started; he was competent at repairing machines, but most of the time he watched television from his chair in the shop — game shows in the morning and soap operas in the afternoons with some Andy Griffith re-runs too. Sadly, television was his life.
Uncle Bill was a World War II veteran and served in Italy from the end of 1944 until he came home on a hospital ship in December of 1945. My uncle didn’t die during the war, but he did indeed give his life for his country: when he came back to Raleigh, North Carolina in 1945, he never lived a normal life again. Back then, Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t diagnosed, but he and his family – especially his mother – certainly suffered its consequences. The Veterans Administration initially called it a “nervous condition” and later actually diagnosed him with schizophrenia. But he hadn’t been like that before he’d left home. When he came back, he paced back and forth and mumbled to himself and once even tried to go to Washington, D.C. to “tell the President about something.” He couldn’t function in society and seemed lost in another world, talking little and not making much sense when he did. He was a kind soul who loved animals and was so gentle that if he saw a bug inside the house, he would take it outside instead of killing it the way most people would. Uncle Bill was merely a spectator of other people’s lives. Day in, day out.
For 66 years.
The Sewing Machine Shop
The shop was just across our back yard. A simple, two-room cinderblock building with no air conditioning, which was certainly a drawback in the humid, sweltering North Carolina summers. The back room closest to our house was the repair area, while the front room with a huge picture window looking out onto Lake Wheeler Road was the retail sales area. In the summers when I was a kid, I’d run across our yard to the shop around noon to let Uncle Bill and my daddy know Mama said dinner was ready and to come in and eat. In the south, lunch was called dinner and what most people refer to as dinner — the evening meal — was called supper. My mother cooked for Uncle Bill and did his laundry, while my father gave him a place to go, something to do, and paid him for his services – even though Uncle Bill never spent his money for anything except groceries. I remember my father saying that he wanted Uncle Bill to have his own money so he would have a feeling of self-worth. “When he asks your mama to go grocery shopping, I want him to have the money to give her to pay for those groceries,” he’d explained. “I want him to feel he is contributing.” For that reason, my father paid Uncle Bill and in fact, paid him so well that Uncle Bill did not qualify for regular VA benefits. A lot of people would try to get all they could from the government, but my father wanted Bill to earn a good wage rather than take the benefits. Of course, the only place a person like my uncle could work was with his relatives who understood the way he was and accepted his odd ways. That’s why the shop was so important to Uncle Bill.
There was a small TV set on a table by the desks, and it was on all day – just for Uncle Bill. He’d sit in a chair to watch, while other times, he’d bend his right leg and prop his foot on a stool and lean down, his forearm resting on his right thigh. I remember him smiling, pointing at the television and muttering, “See the pretty girl on the TV set?” That was one of the phrases he would repeat from time to time to those who attempted to start a conversation with him. This was one of the few things I ever heard him say. The other two main sentences he said were: “That’d be nice,” when asked questions such as if he wanted creamed potatoes for dinner and “I reckon I’m all right,” whenever anyone asked how he was doing. During the 1970s, his beloved German Shepherd, Lassie, lay on the shop floor beside him.
When I was in elementary school, sometimes my friends would accompany their mothers to the sewing machine shop, and I would cringe when they’d mention it to me at school. “What’s the matter with that man who works there?” they’d ask, their faces screwed up in a disapproving expression. The inevitable question. I’d reply with the answer I always did: “That’s my uncle who served in World War II. Something happened when he was overseas, and he’s been like that ever since.” That answer would usually suffice and quiet their questions for the moment. An aunt once said that Uncle Bill could be more of a hindrance in the shop than a help, and at times that certainly was true. Although he didn’t have to interact with customers as much as work on machines, I’m sure there were some customers who didn’t return because of my uncle’s odd behavior when he’d mumble and laugh to himself. I knew something wasn’t right about Uncle Bill and that it had something to do with his service in WWII, but when I was eight or nine, I didn’t know much more than that. And to be honest, at that young age, I never wanted to know any details. He was the way he was. He was simply Uncle Bill. To me, he’d always been the same.
But others knew he had once been different. He had once thought rational thoughts, had once had a social life, had once had a future. And he had been in good enough mental and physical shape for the US Army to accept him for service in WWII. Uncle Bill had to have been different back then, because our country surely wouldn’t accept someone into service in the mental state I’d seen him in during my entire life.
Uncle Bill served in Livorno (Leghorn) Italy from 1944-1945 after basic training in Alexandria, Louisiana and induction at Fort Bragg. Records say that he was in the 705th Engineer Battalion. He came home in November of 1945 on a hospital ship named The Algonquin and was sent to Camp Butner, a hospital about an hour’s drive from the home he shared with his parents in Raleigh. He received an honorable discharge in February of 1946. Family and friends noticed immediately that he wasn’t the same when he came home, but they couldn’t figure out why he had the problems or what to do about them. Instead of a heartwarming homecoming, it was a startling discovery. His mother watched as her son paced back and forth in the yard, unable to sit still, unable to talk about his experiences. Neighbors saw him, too, as he paced repeatedly. He would get up and go from one room to the other opening and closing cabinets as if he were looking for something he couldn’t find. What was he doing? What was he thinking? Nobody knew. Uncle Bill was the third youngest in a family of twelve children, while my father was the next to the youngest. The family was close, and each of the siblings was affected by the changes in their brother.
The family asked questions that never got answers. Neighbors and friends who had known my uncle before he left for boot camp wrote letters to the VA administrators, attesting to the distinct differences in how he was since returning. In addition to the red tape and forms they had to keep going through, they also had to deal with Uncle Bill’s fear of doctors. This made him not want to go for physicals or evaluations, and family members didn’t want to get him upset over something that would probably not be resolved and maybe only make matters worse. Although my father and grandparents were not interested in my uncle receiving monthly benefits since they’d rather he work at the shop, they did want to find out what had happened so they could help Bill.
My Uncle Ben, the youngest of the twelve, recalled a story when Uncle Bill was first back from the war. Bill had been restless and pacing and couldn’t concentrate enough to hold a job. A friend of his gave him a job at the gas service station; even though the friend’s boss didn’t approve, the friend was able to keep him employed there for a while until Uncle Bill quit due to nausea and other symptoms that prevented him from working. But one day while he was still working there, a young man was hanging around the station and suddenly pulled a gun on the employees to rob the place. It was Uncle Bill who quickly grabbed the gun and wrestled it away from the man. Uncle Ben said Bill acted on instinct but later that night at home Bill was scared and locked all the doors (back then nobody locked their doors). This is a very telling story to me because he shows that all that guard duty he pulled in basic training was instilled in him.
When Uncle Bill was in Louisiana for boot camp, he wrote a few letters to his mother and younger brother back home. My father had saved these letters, and when I read them, it was then I first caught a glimpse of the way my uncle used to be. I was amazed that this man mesmerized by the TV had actually thought and written about his feelings so eloquently. In a letter to his little brother Ben, he wrote: I often think of you and wonder how big you will be the next time I see you. Uncle Bill wrote that? I often think of you? I’d never heard him say the word ‘often’. I was totally floored not just that he wrote it but that he felt it — such emotion from a man I’d never seen express emotions before. He also mentioned ‘the fellas’ that he hung out with, and there were some photos of some of them in all the memorabilia.
Uncle Bill on the right; a PFC in the middle identified on the back of the photo simply as “PFC Philliapi; and on the left is someone identified as John Reynolds
My family received several ‘denial of service connection” letters from the VA dated throughout the late ‘40s into the ‘60s; evidently, when Uncle Bill would get worse, my family would muster the determination to go through the appeals process again – but it always ended with these letters. My sister, Mary, also made attempts to find out more during the ‘80s in letters she wrote to the VA and to our Congressional representative and Senator Jesse Helms. Then in 2003-2004, she wrote more letters. But the ‘answer’ was always the same: no evidence of Uncle Bill’s problems being service-connected but we could take him for more evaluations if we so desired – which we knew would be a dead-end.
As I grew older and discovered the entire story of Uncle Bill, I was ashamed that ever I’d been embarrassed of him when I was a child. Hell, I should have bowed down to him for what he did. He came back from Italy in 1945 when he was almost 23 years old. Then came the 1950’s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, the new millennium. All around him things were happening: Elvis, Korea, the Beatles, a cure for polio, Kennedy’s assassination, the hippie culture, Vietnam, first man on the moon, Watergate, the hostages taken in Iran, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the falling of the Berlin Wall, September 11th. It’s overwhelming to think that all these things happened in the world since Uncle Bill had been lost in a world of his own. Thank goodness television was also invented during that time because that was only way to pass time. Time passed for the world but stood still for him. One by one, his 11 siblings got married, had children, went to graduations, got jobs and promotions, had grandchildren and great grandchildren. They lived their lives fully the way God intended. But Uncle Bill could only watch as others lived their lives.
A Mother’s Quest
Mary Atkins Johnson, my grandmother and Uncle Bill’s mother, was a noble woman. Married at a young age to my grandfather, Archie, the two of them had 12 children during a span of over twenty years. Seven boys & five girls. Uncle Bill was the 10th of the 12, while my father, Sam, was the 11th, followed by baby brother, Ben. Older brothers Jim and Tap had both been in the service – Jim in the Navy and Tap in the Army. My father Sam finished bombardier training and was going to be sent into battle, but the war ended just as his unit was ready to ship out. Ben later served in Korea. My grandmother was proud of her children and of her sons’ service to their country. But in 1946 when she realized that her son Bill had suffered something that changed him drastically and that he was unable to live a normal life, it was like a dagger went through her. Any parent can understand that. It lit a fire under her. As the years went by, it was my white-haired grandmother who took the lead on trying to find answers for Bill. She set up the appointments, filled out forms, looked after Bill, and she wrote at least two letters to the VA.
Excerpts from the first letter sent in May of 1950, detailing how Uncle Bill acted:
“He sits down for a minute, then gets up and walks to another room, opens the cupboard or refrigerator, slams door, come sits down just a minute and it’s the same over and over until he gets tired and goes to bed. He tosses and turns. . . . . In the daytime, he stays out of doors and walks the yard cutting sticks off trees, laughing and talking to himself in whispers mostly. . . . Some days I think he is getting better. Then he drops back again. You will just have to stay around to see how pitiful he is. He is a good boy, mindful and never has given us any trouble except of course over his sickness. . . . “
Then came the lines of her letter that tore my heart out: “It is hard on me to watch him every day with no improvement. I have hoped so hard.” She ended her first letter with that sentence, and when I first read it in the fall of 2010, it gave me chills. At the time, I was going through an extremely tough time with my then 16-year-old son, my middle boy. He was experiencing severe anxiety, and it was hell on earth for my husband and me, as parents, to watch him endure the mental battles day after day. So when I read my grandmother’s letter written so many years ago, it was heart-wrenching because to a certain extent, I could put myself in her shoes as she watched and worried about her son. I even thought about the possibility that Uncle Bill – who was known to be quiet growing up like my son – might have had anxiety that got exacerbated in the war. Tears formed in my eyes when I first read this, and though my grandmother died when I was only a year old, I felt from that moment on that I knew her.
“I have hoped so hard.” Those words will always haunt me. I could see Uncle Bill through her eyes – he would always be her baby, just as my son would be to me. When she looked at him, I know a part of her was still envisioning what he looked like when she held him in her arms as an infant, when he took his first steps. That’s what was so painful – imagining them as they used to be and thinking of all they would have to go through.
When my siblings and I met with the VA in the early summer of 2010, a VA officer took an interest in our story about Uncle Bill. She said there might be one other place she could try to get more documents about him. Several months later, the documents arrived — some of them we had never seen before. It was a letter from my angry grandmother who nicely but firmly told the VA she didn’t know how in the world they could say Bill’s condition was not service- related when he hadn’t been like that when he went over to Italy.
“Dear Sirs: I am the mother of William H. Johnson and I don’t see how you can claim that his trouble was not caused from his army service and I am requesting a VA Form P9. . . .” She then goes on to explain the problems her son had been having since returning from Italy. She follows it up with, “I could write you pages but it would be of no importance to you. I will do all I can to help my son. He is in no condition to help himself.”
Once again, through her words, I came to know my grandmother. I knew her in the role she played for most of her life: that of a mother. And she had been a great one. She died in 1963, about a year after Uncle Bill was hospitalized for worsening PTSD – I mean, ahem, nervous condition – and the last recorded attempts to get help for Uncle Bill – until my sister Mary tried years later. The fact that my grandmother never got any answers made me determined to try again to find those answers, but just as in the past, red tape and files that had been burned in a fire, made it impossible to put all the pieces together. In the VA packet of 2010, there was also a copy of a letter my grandfather had written to the VA about his son, but it is a bad copy, and only a few words here and there can be determined.
Also in the packet of information sent to us from the VA in 2010 were copies of medical evaluations complete with doctors’ handwritten notes. For the life of me, I don’t understand why these forms and the letters were kept from us after all the many years of asking for more information; it makes me wonder what else is out there that we haven’t seen. In 1950, records show that my uncle complained that he vomited twice a day and could not hold a job. He also spoke of things that were only real in his mind. The diagnosis was “Schizophrenic reaction, mild, manifested by flat affect, illogical pattern of thought.” The VA also said that, “Mr. Johnson has a disability which is determined as permanent in nature and of such severity as to prevent the average person from following a substantial gainful occupation.” In all forms, the VA made it clear that despite this diagnosis, it was not enough to warrant compensation.
The story was basically the same in 1962. For some reason, Uncle Bill’s PTSD worsened suddenly, and he was very agitated. He spent some time in the VA Hospital in Durham, NC, and the results again said that his problems were “associated with the paranoid schizophrenic process.” However, I read on-line in the War, Literature, and the Arts Journal (http://wlajournal.com/23_1/images/langer.pdf ) that: “Many WWII veterans with PTSD received such diagnoses as Anxiety Neurosis, Depressive Neurosis, Melancholia, Anti-social Personality, or even Schizophrenia because the correct diagnosis did not yet exist.”
Blaming the Mother
And then there was one more piece of info that just about sent me over the edge. There in the midst of all the details about Uncle Bill was written: “All of his life the patient has had a close over protective relationship with his mother as well as one of his older sisters who took the role of a mother figure while growing up in a large family. Apparently, the older sister has mothered the patient a great deal. . . . Test results indicate that the patient is of average intelligence. The striking difference between his performance on the subtests of information and comprehension on the WAIS apparently reflects the over protection he received at home, allowing him few facts about the world but rather stressing the do’s and do not’s.”
Whoa, wait a second, I thought when I first read that. Are they saying that a lot of Uncle Bill’s problems were attributed to his “overprotective relationship with his mother”? I read it again and realized that yes, that is exactly what they were saying. If these comments hadn’t made me so angry, they would have made me laugh because it was comical that my Uncle Bill or his brothers lived in an overprotective environment. There were 7 boys in that family. Seven. As the mom of three sons, I knew the roughhousing and competitiveness that goes on between brothers. I had heard my father’s stories of growing up, some of which would make me shudder and wonder how Daddy and his brothers ever made it to adulthood. There was the one about how he and Bill accidentally started a fire in the hayloft of a barn and burned it down. These were certainly not stories of Uncle Bill being overprotected. And in 1942 at the age of 19, my uncle left home to attend an aircraft sheet metal school in Baltimore, and he passed all his courses there. Going that far away from home was not something overprotected 19-year-olds did back then. Yet, THIS was the explanation the VA offered as to why Uncle Bill was the way he was? It infuriated me to read that. As a relative of my grandmother and as a mother myself – one who was in the throes of searching for help for her own son’s anxiety battles — I was greatly offended. The part of the report that said his overprotection at home had stressed the do’s and don’ts infuriated me because I thought of the letter my grandmother sent them saying what a good person he was and that he didn’t smoke or drink. They’d taken what she’d said and used it to essentially build a case against her.
There was a sad irony that this report would condemn my grandmother as being overprotective, thus causing Uncle Bill’s problems; after all, she was the very person pursuing getting help for her son, the very person writing letters to the VA that were filled with anguish, anger, and determination. My heart ached for my grandmother who had tried desperately and in vain to get help for her son. She died about a year later, never getting answers, still wondering what had happened to her son. After seeing these ‘new’ documents we hadn’t seen before, I vowed to take up the cause again and try to find out more answers about my Uncle. In researching it, I’ve read that during that time period, mothers were routinely blamed for problems young men encountered, particularly those affiliated with war. On one website was a research paper that I found of great interest, although I was thoroughly disgusted by the instances of ‘mom blaming’.
Here is an excerpt:
“Wylie’s Generation of Vipers was an immediate best seller, and other writings shortly surfaced espousing the same ideology of condemnation towards mothers. Dr. Edward Strecker introduced his highly political version of momism at a medical convention in New York City in 1945. The New York Times reported his lecture in the article “‘Moms’ Denounced as Peril to Nation.” Strecker titled his speech “Psychiatry Speaks to Democracy,” and in it he explained that many men were unfit to fight in the war due to apron-stringing “Moms” who ruined them emotionally.” “In the same year, Time magazine featured Strecker and his book in an article titled “Mama’s Boys,” which discussed the Army discovery of over 2,400,000 “psychoneurotics,” rejected in the draft or later discharged.”
Note that the Army rejected over two million men due to psychological problems. . . but my Uncle Bill was not rejected or discharged for such problems. Thus, it would seem that the problems he came home were indeed ‘service-connected’. The report also said that “all of his life” my uncle had an overprotective relationship with his mother and one of his sisters. How did this doctor know this? Certainly Uncle Bill didn’t tell him; he rarely said a word and when he did, it was usually nonsensical – as documented in the medical reports themselves. The report also quotes Bill as describing his mother as “wonderful” and “fine”; considering the other negative comments about her as a mother, these quoted words seem almost mocking, as if he says that because she has too much influence over him. The report goes onto to say that Uncle Bill said he spent a lot of time around the house doing chores for his mother — again as if this was more evidence to make the case of her being overprotective. During this time, however, he was not able to hold a job. What was he supposed to do? Sleep all day? She kept him busy with chores rather than have him be idle and dwell on his problems.
I’d venture to say that my grandmother never saw or knew about that 1962 medical evaluation and what it insinuated about her as a mother or she would have been livid and let them know how she felt. I don’t know if anyone had ever said anything to her before or if she had an inkling, but she did add a P.S. on her letter that she had two other sons in the war and they did okay, that they could take it – almost as if she was defending her child-rising capabilities and that she’d raised them too, but things had simply turned out differently with Bill. To this day, I put myself in the place of my grandmother as she watched her son with no improvement, year after year, hoping and praying. My poor grandmother.
Uncle Bill and his mother who waged a war of letters with the VA
One other part of the medical report was particularly disturbing: “The patient gave a history that he had a rising in his head which would not go away so the doctor cut a hole in his head and took the infection out. The patient said that he was able to look into this head at the time of the operation and see where the rising was and it was all red inside. When asked about the scar from the so-called operation, the veteran stated that the doctor did such a good job that there was not a scar left. ” This alarms me because of the relatively new information that some WW2 soldiers received lobotomies for psychological treatment. I contacted a Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote an in-depth series about this. He had access to the names of some lobotomy patients at VA hospitals, but he told me it was not an exhaustive list and he also said he only had records for after the war was over. After checking, he informed me that he had no records for VA hospitals in North Carolina. This was perhaps something Uncle Bill made up, but then again . . . you never know. It is certainly disconcerting to me.
From time to time, I’d try to start a conversation with Uncle Bill about the time he spent in the war; sometimes he’d respond but usually he’d just mumble something and ignore me. About five times, though, in all the years I knew Uncle Bill, I was able to get him to talk about it, even though some of it didn’t make any sense. In 1983, I wrote a story about him when I was a journalism student at UNC-Chapel Hill. Here is a quote from that conversation (this was not spoken in a clear voice – he always mumbled.) “War is over yonder in two or three countries. Some of the countries in the Middle East have a lot of problems. You can see them drop bombs on TV. That’s the way it was over there [in Italy]. I’d see parts of buildings all crumbled up. It was the wrong thing to do. Some of the fellas over there wanted to kill. I didn’t think it was right. War doesn’t make a difference. It’s just like a family feud with this family fighting that family. If you kill somebody, then how does his family feel? You’re supposed to get along.”
Throughout the years, there were many government and VA forms that Uncle Bill had to complete. In late November of 2011, he signed yet another form that would prove to be his last one. He signed off on our family resuming efforts to have his condition deemed service-related.
Three days later – a few days shy of his 89th birthday – Uncle Bill got sick on his stomach and had trouble walking. My brother-in-law, a former paramedic who lived nearby, examined him and thought that his vision wasn’t good and that perhaps Uncle Bill had suffered a stroke. So my parents called an ambulance, and he was taken to the hospital. When my siblings and I arrived at the hospital, doctors had already examined him and done some tests, which they were analyzing. Uncle Bill was lying in the hospital bed, unconscious, breathing heavily. He looked pale, and a few strands of his gray hair stuck up a bit on the top of his head. I hadn’t seen him without his glasses on in a long time, and it was strange to see him like that. We waited along with Uncle Ben, the youngest of my grandparents’ twelve children. My mother and father didn’t go to the hospital because they both weren’t feeling well due to bad colds; however, I think they also knew what was coming and weren’t perhaps physically or emotionally equipped to deal with it.
When the doctor came into our curtained area in the ER, he said, “Your uncle suffered a brain aneurism.” His Adam’s apple moved higher as he swallowed hard. “I’m afraid this will be your uncle’s final illness.” Tears welled up in our eyes, but nobody spoke for a few moments as we processed the finality of the information. The doctor turned to go but added, “Say something to him if you want.” I walked over and stood beside the head of the bed and caressed Uncle Bill’s forehead with my fingers. As I touched his head, I thought of the brain inside of it and all the many things that had gone on inside it since 1945. Things we would never understand. Suddenly, I was sobbing. I felt so many emotions. Sadness, of course, but it was different than the grief I had felt before when other loved ones had died. It was this indescribable emptiness that I had never really known my uncle. No one had. We hadn’t known his thoughts or his memories. We never knew the truth about what had happened to him. Yet, there we were all crying. We MUST have known the part of him that really mattered or we wouldn’t have felt like that. He was a gentle man, an innocent soul.
Then I started to feel guilty. Through my sobs I spoke to my uncle: “I’m so sorry we couldn’t – we didn’t include you in our lives more than we did, but it was hard to do. But you know we all love you.” I wiped my nose on my sleeve. I stroked the hair on top of his head, and could barely get out my next words. “You can finally see your mama again, and she will be so glad to be with you.”
And that is the image I kept in my head as I left the hospital that day: my little white-haired grandmother reaching out for her son’s hand as he crossed over into heaven. A mother and her son together again.
From left to right in 2010: Uncle Bill in the coat with checkered shirt; my father, Sam, who is about 4 years younger than Bill; their older sister, Mary Stewart (holding Uncle Bill’s hand) who recently celebrated her 100th birthday; their older brother, Jack – who passed away in June of 2014; and their younger brother and baby of the family, Ben.