At the picnic after the parade, while vets still in pieces of once-better-fitting uniforms hugged and slapped backs, laughing or whispering recollections, my cousin Brian sat at a table away from everyone drinking two sixes of Miller he’d lined up in columns of two, holding each one up in front of him before he chugged it down.
When I asked him if he was okay, he just shrugged and said, “Billy, this is what I do for the real heroes every Memorial Day…and for a few days before and after.”
“Man, you’ve gotta be kidding, what with all that heavy-metal certification of your courage — pulling your buds from a burning Humvee and fighting off bad guys while you’re burned and wounded from the IED yourself — right there on the front of your jacket,” I said. I pointed to a pile of camo wrapped around a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.
Brian said in his scorched-throat rasp, “Bein’ a hero sometimes ain’t more than a roll of the fuckin’ dice, Billy, a guy doin’ what he has to do when shit happens, just bein’ scared enough to run in the wrong or right direction — it don’t really matter at that moment — and bein’ lucky enough to make it out with a beating heart and most of his original parts.”
He popped the top on another Miller, lifted it above his head while murmuring something that sounded like “Ramirez,” took three long pulls on it. Then he said, “Sometimes what folks who were never in combat call a hero turns out to be not much more than a wind-blown empty potato chip bag chasin’ a squirrel up a tree.”