Only after my grandfather passed away did I start to learn anything about him. I gave him a journal at Christmas in 1991, but never read it until after he passed away in 1997. I never really appreciated him until he was gone. Since I was fourteen years old when he died, I felt like the only member of our family who never related to him as an adult. I wrote this thesis with the intention of connecting with him in a different way, by exploring the character portrayed by the stories he left behind. Papa was always a storyteller, which is a trait the rest of my family shares, and I want to continue that tradition through my own retelling of his stories.
When he died, I knew he had been at Pearl Harbor and in Europe where he was wounded, but the rest of the details meant nothing to me at the time. Once I started reading his stories, however, I began to understand all that happened to him. Coming out of Pearl Harbor without a scratch on him is just as amazing as having a Bible and a compass in his shirt pocket that stopped him from being shot in the chest. These two stories alone convinced me that I needed to expand on them and to make them come alive. These are stories that have to be told; they are not cleverly devised fables, but what actually happened.
Unfortunately, Papa never gave a complete account of his war experiences, only highlights. For this reason, I have had to embellish in some places and make up other things completely from scratch. Papa’s character is the only one I based on real evidence; all of the other soldiers, friends, and family members were written according to his accounts and my own supposition. The names for his family and the other Boy Scouts in the first two pieces are real, but all of the soldiers’ names I made up. For clarification, Papa’s full name was Joseph Cecil Brewer, Jr.; to keep from confusing him and his father, I refer to him as “Junie” (short for Junior) in “Just Like a Real Man.” His parents were Cecil and Florence, the two uncles I mention were Lawrence Wilson and Lemoine “Squirrel” Brewer, and his grandparents living in Ohio were Dab and Granny, aka John Louis and Lila Wilson. He married Martha Lou Kelley, whom he met as a classmate at Louisiana Tech, in San Francisco in 1941, and his firstborn – my father, John Kelley Brewer, was born in Birmingham in 1944.
As for the stories, “Just Like a Real Man” was taken partially from his journal and partially from a short story Papa wrote. “Camping Trip” was a series of vignettes he shared in his journal, which I packed into one event for convenience’s sake. “Sixteen-Inch Guns” is an embellishment of the journal and video interview. “War Games” was mostly made up to explain how I got Papa’s Pearl Harbor companions back together (not terribly likely, but certainly possible) and to tell the story of the exercise and the shell landing where “Some men had been standing….about 30 seconds before it hit” (see journal, pp. 27-28). “Initiation” and “Taking the Lead” were completely made up, mostly for the fact that I couldn’t have him skip over a month and a half of combat experience before getting to the culmination of it all on the day he got shot. The combat maneuver and the wounding parts of “Neither Sleep Nor Slumber” are true according to his account, as is the part about his son John (my father) not taking his first steps until Papa saw him in the hospital. The rest of it is meant to fill in gaps and wrap up the stories.
If I have one theme from this work, it is leadership. From parts about being “a real man” to examples of scout and military leaders to his own responsibility as a leader, I worked to incorporate it into as many circumstances as possible. Leadership has been a major theme in my life, both from my military and civilian experiences, and one thing I tend to observe about people is their leadership style and methods. For this reason, even though this work is not a leadership manual, I hope to give some positive examples of leadership development.
“The doctor tells me I’ll live to be a hundred and five”
– video interview, August 1994
I didn’t cry at Papa’s funeral. I cried three years earlier at Grandpa Coursey’s, right when one of the hymns hit me. I was eleven and his was the first family funeral I had ever attended. Possibly my first funeral ever.
I remember Daddy crying two days before the funeral, in the hospital, just after Papa passed away. We all gathered around the bed and joined hands while Daddy prayed, thanking the Lord for Papa’s life and for taking him. I don’t remember seeing Daddy cry before that.
I wasn’t in the hospital room at the moment Papa passed. I was across the hall, where Saturday morning cartoons entertained me. There was a commercial for a Sesame Street’s Greatest Hits CD that had me pleasantly distracted. Even at fourteen years old, I wanted it. Just as the commercial ended, I jumped up ready to tell someone about the CD when Momma came in the room. Right before the words would have escaped my mouth, I realized Momma was crying. I never got to tell anyone about that CD.
Momma and I walked out of the room and I saw Granny crying and hugging Uncle Bill, her son-in-law, and saying, “I always thought we’d go together.” I joined Granny, my parents, Aunt Sharon and Uncle Bill in prayer. My cousins, J.T. and Leigh, with her son Austin, arrived right before we left the hospital. Granny told the nurses on duty not to do an autopsy, and thanked the one attending to him. I had spent most of my hospital visitations out of the room watching T.V. Since this time was no different, Momma suggested I take a walk around the park outside the hospital. This was where they had taken Papa in his wheelchair, just a week before, the last time he ever went outside. I went along with it, even though it didn’t mean much to me.
Daddy drove Granny, and Momma drove me, back to Granny and Papa’s house in Wisner, Franklin Parish, Louisiana. When we stopped for gas in Rayville, I pretended to be a bum offering to wash their windshield, with which I managed to get a laugh out of them. When we got to the house, I laid down to take a nap, since I hadn’t slept much that weekend. I woke up to J.T., three years older than me, holding Austin, eighteen months old, over my head. My parents and I left that evening to go back to Coushatta. My brothers, Tim and Luther, arrived later in Wisner, as did Aunt Cecile.
The wake was held on Sunday night. I remembered my Louisiana History teacher telling us an old wives’ tale, “If you touch a dead body, you’ll never dream about the person again.” Well, I didn’t want to say goodbye just yet, so I made sure not to touch his corpse during the wake. I also didn’t have much time, as I was put on Austin duty. That kid had a lot of energy. Since I was the youngest of a small family, I had no real experience with young children. The most rewarding moment for me was, while chasing Austin, he stopped and pointed at a door and said, “Daa?” I told him, “That’s glass.” “Glaa?” he repeated. “Yes! Glass!” I told him, proud that I was responsible for part of his vocabulary.
Monday morning consisted of folks visiting the house to offer condolences. Great-Aunt Jenny arrived from Bridgeport, Texas, driven by her niece Virginia, who lived in Ruston. There was another family prayer before we left the house, led by the current pastor at Wisner United Methodist Church. We went to the church, but the minister who was supposed to be doing the service was late. My daddy quipped, “If she doesn’t show up, Daddy’ll have to get out of the coffin and preach his own funeral.” He got a laugh out of the folks present. When I repeated this joke to my Luther, he chided me for being disrespectful and sacrilegious.
The colorguard from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, of which Papa had been a member, served as pallbearers. Many of the men belonged to their church. The procession went from Wisner UMC to Oakley Cemetery in Gilbert, the next town over. With the coffin in place, the colorguard folded the flag and handed it to Granny. “Taps” sounded off in the distance.
None of these things did I process or even understand at the time; nor did I really know this man I called Papa. My cousins were seventeen and twenty, my brothers twenty-seven and twenty-nine. Out of the entire Brewer family, with the exception of Austin who was too young to remember him, I was the only one who never related to Papa as an adult.
Several years earlier, I gave Papa a journal to write about his life for me. I never read it until he was gone, nor did I pay very close attention to the stories he would tell me. During the next ten years, while I still had Granny with me, I tried to learn as much as I could about him. I also developed a deeper appreciation for the elderly, in hopes that none of them would go unappreciated.
One thing I knew for certain about Granny and Papa was that Jesus was a very important part of their lives. They had always been involved with their church, and had even taken me to a family camp called the Texas Christian Ashram, beginning two years earlier. Up until 1997, I had been in church all of my life, but it was never really personal. That was the first year that church became something real to me. Isaiah 6 begins, “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” Papa was my King Uzziah. That year, at the Ashram, even though I hadn’t dedicated my life to Jesus yet, I received a personal prophecy for the first time ever. A year after that, I gave my heart to the Lord.And I did end up dreaming about Papa. I still do, from time to time. It freaked me out the first couple of times, but I got used to his occasional visit. I even wrote a short story based on one of the dreams. I got what I wished for, and it helped me feel like Papa never left.