1968: Viet Nam. Denny Dies.

10245330_10154009475955117_5676306687988169273_nLike most families, we split holiday celebrations between my mother’s family (Christmas) and my father’s family (Thanksgiving and Easter). We spent Thanksgiving at the McCall’s; my aunt Mary Clare was my father’s only sibling and she lived on the north side of Chicago with her husband Fran and their two children, Denny and Dona (I have written about Maloney Thanksgivings, see here). Easter was at our house; once we moved to Milwaukee in 1962, the McCall’s made the drive up on Easter Sunday every year and spent the day with us.

Dona was a bit younger than my sister Marbeth and a bit older than my sister Susan. They sort of “shared” her between themselves. (I had no one to play with on my father’s side of the family, and would much rather have been with my cousin Kathy, the daughter of my mother’s only sibling, Bernadette.) Denny also fell between my two brothers in age, and the three boys were inseparable. As the youngest Maloney, I barely registered on Denny and Dona’s radar screen; they were nearly teenagers by the time I was born, and their lives were utterly remote from mine. I was as uninterested in them as they were in me.

My mother, for reasons that were always murky to me, would turn into a tense and volatile woman about two days before Easter. She and my aunt Mary Clare didn’t have a great deal in common, and they were both outspoken. There were clashes. To my child self, my mother’s reaction to a visit from Mary Clare was mysterious. She would clean and clean and clean the house, and then say, as the McCall’s walked up to the front door, “Mary Clare is going to walk in here and say ‘Oh Merc, the house is so clean!’” My mother’s tone would sound as if she had just quoted Mary Clare saying “’Oh Merc, I hate your house, your dress and you.’” Mary Clare always brought a lamb cake to our Easter feast, and lamb cakes were, we kids thought, really cool. We would ooh and ahh over the sculpted and coconut-iced lamb, only to have my mother hiss later that the cake was stale and not at all tasty.

easter table
Easter Table with Lamb Cake

It didn’t help matters, family-relationship wise, that my father, Mary Clare and Fran enjoyed their drinks and tended to consume quite a few of them. Nor did it help that the McCall’s were staunch Republicans, whereas my parents were Democrats. Every Easter, by the time dinner was over and we were ready to dig into that (stale, my mother would remind us) lamb cake, three of the four grownups were well into their cups and all of them were happy to express their opinions in loud and take-no-prisoners voices.

In 1968, the Easter post-dinner pre-lamb cake conversation lurched into politics. We were only ten days out from the assassination of Martin Luther King on April 4, and America was in turmoil, with riots erupting in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and even Milwaukee. My brother Johnnie, who by then was twenty-one years old, somehow decided it was a good idea to announce to the table that he planned to vote for Bobby Kennedy for President. (Of course, none of us could know that Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated after winning the California primary in June, just two months from that Easter night.)

Mary Clare and Fran were convinced that the Democrats were at fault for getting the United States mired in the Viet Nam War, so Johnnie’s announcement was not received well. He was loudly criticized, and my mother, feeling protective of Johnnie, jumped to his defense. Things escalated from there, until my mother decided her best option was to begin clearing the table in hope that it would end the conversation. Mary Clare was having none of that, and screamed at my mother for being a Democrat when she–my mother–had a twenty-one and a nineteen year old son, and Mary Clare’s son was twenty. She told my mother that if the Democrats won the election, her sons would die in Viet Nam. I was the youngest person at the table that night, but even I knew that a line had been crossed. I have no memory of what followed upon that declaration, but somehow the conversation ended and we all moved on to the living room and away from the lamb cake, the ugly fight, and the specter of Viet Nam.

Shortly after Easter, my mother and father left for Kemper Insurance’s annual “business trip” that was in fact their yearly vacation/getaway from the children. We kids were always very happy about these trips, because it meant that our grandmothers, Mommy Mayme and Mimi, would come up from Chicago on the train to take care of us. Mimi died in 1965, so after that it was just Mommy Mayme, but a week or two under her benevolent and forgiving gaze was always a nice break from the status quo.

About four days into our parents’ trip and Mommy Mayme’s visit, I came home from Christ King School to find Mommy Mayme sitting portentously in the living room. I was nine years old and in the fourth grade; my biggest concern that day was whether my teacher, Sr. Achillea, was going to keep me after school every day that week until I could pass my Music Appreciation Test. Other than dealing with Sr. Achillea, my major preoccupation at the time was my continuing quest to get a dog. (We did in fact have a dog for a short time in 1966, but Connie Jean was sickly and she lived with us for less than a week. Having Connie Jean had only whetted my desire for my own dog. For more about the dogs in my life, click here.)

When I walked in the door that May afternoon in 1968, I knew immediately that Something Big was going on. Mommy Mayme looked more serious than I had ever seen her. Being nine years old limited my capacity for imagining possibilities, and I immediately hoped that she was going to tell me that we were getting a dog. This, of course, made absolutely no sense; my parents weren’t even home, and Mommy Mayme was in no position to make decisions about acquiring new family pets. The ways of the grownup world were mysterious to me, though, and especially in my house, strange things could just happen. (Just two years after this May day in 1968, I would in fact wake up to find out that we now owned a golden retriever named Cheddar because my father had agreed to take him in after a very festive evening of dinner and many drinks with friends; for more about that, see here.)

Mommy Mayme, however, was not saying anything about a dog. She was talking about a car accident. There had been a crash in Chicago, she said, and Denny was dead. She said those words—“Denny is dead”—and sat back a bit, looking at me gravely. No doubt it had been a very long time since Mommy Mayme had been in charge of delivering such important news. As the earliest child home from school that day, I was her first audience.

I am pretty sure that my reaction was a disappointment. After hearing that Denny was dead, I was quiet for a moment and then asked if I could go upstairs. Mommy Mayme asked me if I had any questions about what happened; I did not. Maybe I was in shock, but I was also nervous about how different my grandmother seemed from her usual cheerful self. Not having ever experienced this solemn version of her, I just wanted to absent myself from the situation until I figured out what she wanted from me. I went upstairs and pulled out my book; I was happily lost in the fictional world of Nancy Drew when, a few minutes later, I heard my sister Susan downstairs, wailing loudly and sobbing. So disconnected was I from the drama of Mommy Mayme’s earlier announcement downstairs that I wondered what Susan was so upset about.

Venturing into the living room to find out what was going on in there, I found Susan sitting on the same spot I had occupied earlier near Mommy Mayme’s chair, her face streaked red and her nose streaming with snot, crying loudly. “Susan!” I yelled. “What is the matter with you?” She howled in reply, “Denny’s dead!” Ah, I thought. That. Yes. I could see that Mommy Mayme was much more gratified by Susan’s response to this terrible news. I was grateful to my sister for supplying the drama that the situation called for. Susan told me the details of Denny’s death; when Mommy Mayme had asked me whether I had any questions, I hadn’t thought to ask for the details, but Susan had.

denny diedDenny had been riding “shotgun” in his friend’s car the night before when the friend lost control of the wheel and hit three parked cars. The driver had suffered only a minor scratch on his hand; Denny’s head had been smashed on impact by something in or outside the car. He had been taken to a hospital and he had died there. Mary Clare and Fran’s parish priest had given him Extreme Unction, as the Sacrament of the Sick was still being called in 1968. After Denny stopped breathing, the attending physician removed his class ring and gave it to Mary Clare.

My parents, of course, were called and immediately came home. My sister Marbeth was married and living in Minneapolis by then with her husband Mel and their two babies, John and Sarah. My brother Johnnie called and told her. I don’t know how or when my brothers heard about Denny, though I am sure Mommy Mayme must have told them as well. They were both very close to their only boy cousin, and it must have been a wrenching blow.

It was already becoming unusual in the 1960’s to have a wake that lasted more than one night, but Denny’s wake spanned two nights. We drove back and forth between Chicago and Milwaukee three times in a row—once for each wake, and then for the funeral. By the time Denny died, I had been to several wakes; my Grandpa Din died when I was three years old (for more about that, here) and my grandmother Mimi died when I was six. As the child of Irish parents from Chicago, I had also been to a good number of other wakes as well. By the time I was nine, I was a seasoned wake-goer. Nothing had prepared me, however, for the wake of a twenty year old boy.

Because Denny’s head had been crushed, the casket was closed, with Denny’s high school graduation picture perched on the closed lid.  I had never been to a closed casket wake, and it made the reality seem much more ominous somehow—no opportunity to witness Denny looking peaceful and “at rest”—the fact of that closed lid spoke of violence and harm too terrible for any of us to see. The funeral home was packed with teenagers and young people, and I was bowled over by the drama of their anguish. One young man threw himself on Denny’s casket, wailing loudly. As jarring as all that drama was, however, even more ominous to me was Mary Clare’s serenity. She was sitting in a chair near her son’s casket, greeting guests and even smiling a bit. Seeing that, I turned to Mommy Mayme with my eyebrows raised; before I could even ask what was going on, she leaned over and said, “The doctor gave her some drugs, thank God, and she isn’t having to feel anything.” Oh, I thought to myself. Well, I hope he gave her a lifetime supply.

I could not imagine how Mary Clare was ever going to survive this catastrophe. Denny and Dona were her entire world and now Denny was gone for good. The finality of that closed casket really brought it home to me. On the way home from the first night of the wake, I asked my mother why God had let Denny die when he was just twenty years old.  My mother told me that God has a special plan for every single person, and when a person’s special plan was completed, he went to heaven. Since God had taken Denny, she explained, he must have already fulfilled God’s special plan for his life. Hearing that, I was really sorry for Denny that his special plan meant he would miss so much of life—falling in love, getting married, having kids of his own, all the Christmases and Easters and summer vacations he would never have. That night, I prayed that God had a long term plan in mind for me; I was a lot more wary around God after Denny died, because He seemed suddenly very unpredictable.

The death of a young man is no doubt always a surreal and unnatural experience; our sorrow and confusion over Denny’s death was compounded rather than alleviated by his funeral mass. Denny died just as the changes wrought by Vatican II were starting to show up in the liturgy. The old “Dies Irae” dark-and-gloomy approach to Catholic funerals had been abruptly jettisoned and replaced with a liturgy that focused exclusively on the joy of the resurrection. While this new liturgy might have seemed fitting had we encountered it for the first time at the funeral of an elderly aunt or uncle, it was jarring at this funeral mass. The priest’s vestments were white—for joy–and there seemed to be nothing but constant talk of the Resurrection and how happy we were. My parents were utterly dumbfounded, and even I felt weird about all the joyful talk when this young man was just arbitrarily snatched from his life and his family. My mother said later that the entire experience was just awful, because we had to pretend to be joyful and sing Alleluia when a twenty year old boy was inexplicably lying in a coffin in front of the altar.

After the mass concluded, we got into our cars and drove to All Saints Cemetery. Here, too, things were different. The focus was on new life, not death, and so there was no prayer at Denny’s grave and we did not see him lowered into the earth. Instead, we said our goodbyes to his casket in the little chapel at the cemetery and then we were sent home.  Back at Mary Clare and Fran’s apartment, I was shocked to see platters of food everywhere, as if we were going to have a party. To my literal fourth grade mind, this was no time for sandwiches. Who could eat at such a time? Apparently, as I soon discovered, a great many people. Before long, the apartment was packed with people who were drinking and smoking and acting as if this were just another get-together. I often wondered about the strange ways of grownups but never more than I did on that day, staring at a platter of sliced meats while people stood around drinking high balls and laughing, as if we hadn’t just left my cousin at a cemetery in Des Plaines, Illinois when he should have been in his back bedroom next to the kitchen, listening to his beloved 45’s and goofing off with my brothers.

Unsurprisingly, Mary Clare and Fran never fully “recovered” from the loss of their son; always drinkers, they drank even more after Denny died.  Their loss was unfathomable to us; Denny’s death was the greatest calamity our family had ever suffered. Just three years later, Fran would die of a massive coronary while driving to my brother Johnnie’s wedding, but of course we didn’t know that then. Nor did we know on the day that we buried Denny that in a little over a year the United States would conduct its first Draft Lottery; the order in which young men would be drafted for service in Viet Nam would be determined by a random draw of balls inscribed with birth dates.

Every family in America watched the television that night, mesmerized and filled with

The Boys: Johnnie, Jamie and Denny

dread, fearing that their beloved brothers, sons, and husbands would be the unlucky losers. As the balls were drawn, we Maloney’s heaved sighs of relief–both of my brothers, Johnnie born October 17 and Jamie born October 27, were safe. The second birthday drawn that night, however, was Denny’s—April 24. At our Easter table just two weeks before Denny was killed, his mother had wailed her fear that Viet Nam would kill our family’s sons. When they drew Denny’s birth date out of that barrel and my father repeated it incredulously—almost to himself—I remember thinking that grownups almost always worry about the wrong things.

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