you just save some numbers

(This story is largely not mine. I’ve done everything I can to stick to the details as I remember them. Every word comes from the deepest well of respect I have inside of me.)

My oldest brother wouldn’t hesitate to pick me up and throw me over his shoulder if it fit the joke. We’re adults, but in the right moment he’ll still throw me in a pool or toss me around like a little kid just because he can. He’s strong. Sometimes I forget how strong. Sometimes I forget that slinging his “little” sister around is a whole lot easier than carrying another grown man. I don’t know how much of that he’s done, but I have to imagine that he carried a buddy or two during his time in the Marine Corps. I wonder if he’s slung an injured friend over his shoulder just to get him to safety. I wonder, but I don’t ask.
There’s a lot I don’t want to know about his months overseas. I don’t want to know that the guy who showed me how to properly hold a baseball bat, used those same hands to steady a high-powered gun in the middle of volatile Fallujah at the peak of the war in Iraq. War is not like play… except in some ways it is. In some ways the skills a person learns while playing in the woods as a child enhance his ability to survive in a war. That terrifies me. The troops coming home from various wars are somebody’s kids. They’re someone’s big brother. They’re just a few years past tossing footballs in the backyard with the neighbors. Sometime after September 11th, with our patriotism reloaded, we began to remember this.

I was taking an elective called “The Sixties” when the 9/11 attacks occurred. The class focused on teaching a bunch of 8th graders born at the end of the 1980s about the culture and events of the 1960s. We had a unit on Vietnam, one in which we learned about the way soldiers were treated upon their return to the states. Soldiers who largely hadn’t been volunteers. Kids who were drafted to fight an unpopular war returned home to criticism from neighbors. They found hostility in airports on their return flights.
A few nights ago I was sitting by a fire with my brother. For the first time I heard the story of his journey back from Iraq. I’d never asked about the trip back. It wasn’t something I’d really considered. I guess I never thought much past the fact that he made it back safely.
My brother’s time in the Marine Corps ended before his tour of duty. He left his unit early. He told me his unit made a pact that anyone who had a reason to leave needed to take it no matter what. They’d all agreed, injury or end of duty, an out was an out. No questions asked. No respect lost. They’d all served. They’d all fought with and protected one another. When his time came up he followed through and left.
Normally when troops leave war they leave as a unit. They’re debriefed. They spend time unraveling the experience with each other, breaking down the loss and the gift of making it out alive. They have time to process it. My brother was sent without his unit on a flight from Iraq to Germany where he spent four days trying to unwind without anyone else who understood. He spent four days in Germany trying to drink away the experience, for which I absolutely don’t fault him.

My brother tells the story of his return to American soil so much better than I ever could. It’s his to tell, and I won’t do it justice. He talks about his first flight in. He landed in Pittsburgh, drunk as a man can be. He was alone. He was uniformed. He was returning from physical battle, and facing the mental battle of getting back to normal.

Normal, by the way, is a myth for men who’ve been to war. My brother is changed. He’s still one of my best friends in the world, but I know he’d tell you he is different. I know he knows it.

My brother was drunk in Pittsburgh when a man took him under his wing. He’d been on a four day bender in Germany, followed by uniformed flights where airline employees fed him cocktails on account of his heroism. You’d be drunk as well. Honestly, I don’t know how much time lapsed between his flights. I forgot to ask. The way my parents tell it, it seemed like an eternity. They had no idea if he was okay, or if he’d make it on his final flight. They couldn’t get him on the phone. They were afraid something terrible had happened. My dad describes it as one of the scariest nights of his life. My brother had made it through a war zone, lost friends and coworkers, earned a medal for protecting someone in battle, and the night he landed back in the states was one of the scariest of my parents’ lives.

My brother can’t describe the man who helped him. In fact, the way he tells it, he honestly thought he was being shown around a strange building by a small Iraqi child. His memory of the man is blurred with countless tours through Iraqi schools. He doesn’t remember any phone calls from that night, but my parents do. The stranger called them to let them know he had found my brother, he was drunk but okay, and the man would make sure he made it on to his next flight. The final leg of his journey home.

This is the part of the story when my dad interrupted to tell me he still has that man’s phone number saved into his contacts. It’s not that he’ll ever use it, but in a way the man saved my brother from a lot of things; from himself; from his demons; from missing a flight and spending a few extra hours in a strange city with no one to help him debrief. Some phone numbers are worth saving.

The stranger eventually got my brother to his last plane. He met the pilot who just happened to be a very nice man who later married my aunt. She knew him at the time, but we’d never met him. He’d never seen my brother until he flew him home to North Carolina. Sometimes people are just exactly where they need to be when they need to be there.

My brother laughed a few nights ago as he told me the story by the fire. I don’t know how it even came up. That’s how I learn about his time at war, though. I don’t ask. The stories just flow freely sometimes. We’re far enough removed now that the stories are more entertainment than harsh memories. My brother laughed about how drunk he was. My dad laughed about how scared he and my mom were. I sat quietly astonished at the stranger who decided he should be the one to take over a soldier’s care.

It may not seem remarkable. These things happen, right? I hear the stories of people standing up for troops when they board planes. I know we’re pretty good at tying yellow ribbons around trees, and praying for young men we send to war. I know that sometimes we can all be very patriotic. But are we really that good at it? How many of us would honestly go out of our way to shadow a young marine around a strange airport for hours until he is safely in the seat on his final flight home? Really, think about it.

My brother took what I always believed to be a lonesome trip back from Iraq, without his unit, without anyone who understood. But he wasn’t completely alone, because some guy, whose number is still saved in my dad’s phone, decided the least he could do was get him back to his family safely.

muggsy bogues and other lies brothers tell

I don’t blame my brothers for the many lies they told me as a kid. In fact, I’m impressed by their creativity. I don’t think I was particularly gullible when I was young. I prefer to think I just really trusted my big brothers. They are four and six years older than me so there’s a certain amount of worldly experience and knowledge they’ll always have ahead of me. As a kid, I trusted that to a fault.

The house that was my first home had a playroom. The playroom had an original Nintendo. The boxy gray one with the gloriously simple controllers. They used to let me play Super Mario Brothers with them. Correction: I thought they let me play Super Mario Brothers with them. Mario was the game to beat in the early 90s. Really, why would my brothers want their annoying little sister making that more difficult than it already was? So they’d hand me a controller, set the game on one player, and tell me I was controlling the mushrooms. The mushrooms: the computer controlled bad guys who were trying to kill Mario. I wish I was making this up because I don’t think it says much for my intelligence (although I was 5 or 6 at the time). I remember being confused when I’d hit A and the mushroom wouldn’t jump, but I never got frustrated enough to stop playing. I can’t be mad about this now, because it was kind of genius. I had the joy of thinking my brothers wanted me to play with them. They had the satisfaction of knowing I wasn’t going to ruin their game.

I could probably tell you a thousand other lies my brothers told me when I was a kid. There was a short period when I thought that maybe I really had been a happy meal prize and they really had wanted the toy instead.

There were several instances when one or both of them convinced me our dog liked to be ridden and I just needed to hold her collar a little tighter. “It’s safe! It’s fun!”

There were plenty of times when they pushed me to ask for something they wanted because I was the baby and it would work. Actually, this one wasn’t really a lie… it’s just good business.

I don’t mean to call my brothers liars. I just mean they were talented little sister manipulators. Like I said, I don’t blame them.

Before this goes any further you need to know something about me: I was a Muggsy Bogues superfan as a child. I thought the little guy wearing the #1 for the Charlotte Hornets was worthy of his number. He was the greatest (for what it’s worth, Muggsy is the Hornets’ career leader in minutes played, assists, and steals… but I digress). I get the irony of my Muggsy passion now. I’m 6’1″ and my childhood basketball hero is 5’3″ and weighed in somewhere around 140. At the time, I was somewhere around 50 lbs and whatever height is just an inch or two above average for a 6 year old. When I played basketball it was with my older, taller brothers. I was a little kid among giants. I got Muggsy. I understood his struggle. I admired his skill. And I was six, so I thought he had a really cool name. His name… is what ultimately got me.

For Christmas 1993 I asked for twin cabbage patch dolls. Apparently that wasn’t actually a thing at the time. I don’t know where I got the idea that it was. Lucky for my parents all cabbage patch dolls (the baby ones) pretty much looked the same. They just grabbed a couple in different colored outfits and gave them to me as twins. I didn’t know the difference. I was happy.

Sometime Christmas day, around the first changing of the doll diapers, I noticed a signature on each of their butts. That is, apparently, a thing cabbage patch dolls just have. It’s weird, but whatever. When I discovered it I was old enough to know the blue writing said someone’s name, but too young to read cursive.

“Can you read this to me?” I asked my brothers.

I trusted I’d get an honest answer from the 6th grader. Or the 4th grader, who was pretty new to cursive, would try to help me figure it out. They saw a signature and an opportunity.

“Muggsy Bogues” my brother said. I swear. Almost immediately he told me it read “Muggsy Bogues”.

Forget that the signature clearly began with an X. It didn’t matter. I wouldn’t learn cursive for another two years and they knew it.

Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve ever been as excited about anything as I was the day I found out Muggsy Bogues had, for some unknown reason, signed the left butt cheek of each of my cabbage patch dolls. I told everyone. I mean everyone. I took those dolls up and down the street. I let those dolls sit at the base of our basketball goal while I practiced my granny shots. I was inspired. I didn’t question why Muggsy would take the time to sign my dolls. I just understood it to be true.

When school came back around I took those dolls to show and tell. I’m pretty sure that’s where the whole thing started to fall apart. Some mean kid tried to ruin my fun, telling me there’s no way Muggsy signed those dolls. I guess I questioned it a little. I probably wondered for a few minutes about why Muggsy would’ve signed them anyway, but I believed that more than I believed my brothers would just make something like that up. The truth is I never really stopped believing it until third grade when I learned how to read and write in cursive.

Xavier Roberts. That’s the real name on the butts. Roberts was an art student who created the cabbage patch dolls that swept the 80s and 90s. I guess that’s pretty cool. You could argue he’s #1 in doll making, which is… a lot less exciting than basketball. I’m told the dolls with his signature are worth something now. I looked them up on ebay and found I could get around $125 for mine (if I had any idea where they were). Maybe I’ll dig them out of an attic someday and make a little cash. I just can’t help but wonder how much more I could get if they just said “Muggsy Bogues”.