Men under arms, fallen in battle

Back again to when I was a kid growing up in Suffern, New York.

The main drag in Suffern is Lafayette Avenue. That’s the main street. Running into that at the top of its commercial district is Washington Avenue. (Are we getting the Revolutionary War theme here?)

Right there, on one corner, is Sacred Heart Church. The Washington Avenue tip of the intersection has an island in the center of it. It’s elevated slightly and there are a few steps to bring you up on it. Right in the center of it sits the War Memorial.

I was fascinated by that thing. There’s a statue of a combat soldier on top of a four-sided pedestal and there are big bronze plates on, I think, at least two sides of the pedastal, with the names of men from Suffern who died fighting in WWI and WWII. I actually don’t recall if the names of Korean and Vietnam KIAs were added to it.

There were a lot of names on it. Suffern was not, and still isn’t, a very big town. But there were a lot of names on the monument.

In one of the places we lived around town, after the big family spread was sold off, right down the street was this family that struggled a little harder than the rest of us. Where the father was no one knew. No one asked, either. Not that I ever heard.

The mother was tough, a bit withdrawn, attractive. I remember thinking that I liked her. There were three kids, but I can’t remember whether the youngest was a girl or a boy. The middle kid was around my age, and she was extra tough. First girl I ever recall who could curse back at the boys like a sailor. (“Eat me raw with flavor straw,” was one that opened my delicate eyes.) I liked her, too.

The oldest was this tall handsome kid, Bobby. He was clearly everything that his mother wanted him to be. Quiet, polite, deferential. He was probably four years older than I was. He was the starting wide receiver on the high school football team. He was, in what has become our modern argot, a role model. A big, strong, handsome kid who was unfailingly decent. Like I said, everything his mother wanted him to be.

After we had left Suffern and I was doing high school out in the boondocks of Chemung County, probably during my senior year, I heard from friends back in Suffern that the son had been killed in Vietnam.

I can imagine how his mother must have caved in with anguish when she got the news. It’s difficult to believe that she ever recovered. I always try to remember her son, Bobby Bates, on Memorial Day.

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