"Then there was Jerry"
here were maybe a dozen in the bunch, each one pure boy.
There were David and Keith, George, Andy, John and Johnny, Steve, Cookie, two or three whose names escape me at the moment.
And then there was Jerry.
They happened to have hatched about the same time, in the same neighborhood and one enjoyment drew them together – basketball.
It didn’t make any difference to them to whose home they went to play, just so there was a basketball goal handy. It happened that my grandfather had the foresight to anticipate that such a group of boys would someday be born and would need a big barn loft in which to play basketball.
So he built a big barn loft.
We put up a single reflector light with a big bulb in it and hung it over the “court.” The floor was rough and dribbling was difficult; roof support posts got in the way, the goal tilted slightly. But these guys didn’t care. In would race their cars or bicycles – occassionally a horse – and they would climb, shouting happily, into the loft and the thumping of balls could be heard a quarter mile away, their shouts a little further.
They’d play for hours, climb down for turns at the water tap in the milk house, then go back up. They were their own referees; when one committed a foul, he gave up the ball to the opponent, no griping allowed.
Jerry was gangly, tow-headed, sober. He excelled in the impromptu ball games and was always in demand because of his proficiency at the jump shot. His excellence wasn’t accidental. He practiced constantly, generally arriving on foot and going by himself to the barn loft and shooting ball by the hour. Often, after the other boys left, he’d remain for another half hour of practice.
There wasn’t any glory in it; there were no school colors flying, no cheer leaders jumping and goading him on. He was just a boy, having fun.
He didn’t care for school, but that just about makes him normal, for a boy. He tried out for the basketball team but his was an independent disposition and it clashed with the coach’s. He didn’t make the team. But there was always the barn loft, and he returned to it, time and time again.
He asked for work, and it always found him; mean, dirty, hard work and then scoffing, as if he really hadn’t done much, “Warn’t nothin’ to it, Sarge,” he’d say.
There was a shyness about him that kept him out of the house for a long time; he would complain that he wasn’t hungry and would just wait outside until the rest of us were through eating. Generally, he could be persuaded to eat a handful of cookies and wash them down with a glass of milk but he really didn’t want them – just ate them so as to keep from hurting anybody’s feelings. Gradually the shyness left, though, and he was the first at putting his feet under the table, and while he never became the champion eater of the bunch, he often was the first to ask for seconds.
Jerry was one of the last of the gang. After the others had graduated from high school, went off to college or got married, he would occassionally return to the barn loft. Alone, he’d thump the floor for hours. Then, finally, no more did he return.
He joined the Army. Last we heard he was in Vietnam.
And we lost track of him.
Yesterday, a couple of Army majors went to Willard, sought out his old grandfather and gave him the news: Jerry had been in battle last Friday. Driving a truck. Missing in action.
Yesterday, a year ago to the day, Jerry had been fighting in Vietnam for a year. Today, he would have been free. Instead, today, his death was confirmed.
He was resourceful, the most resourceful of the old gang. If we had to send any of them into the wilderness and bet on who would have come out alive and laughing, it would have been Jerry.
I hope he didn’t get a direct hit. I hope he had a chance to get out of that truck and head for the stinking jungle. I can see him hiding in it, scared but not showing it except by a widening of the eyes as he used to do when he was scared. I can see him slipping out of the jungle at night, back to safety. And I can hear him, in that laconic, slurring voice of his, saying, “Warn’t nothin’ to it, Sarge.”
I can imagine I see it, and hear it. But I know I am deluding myself. Jerry’s gone.
This article ran in the April 22, 1969 edition of The Leader and Press, alongside a news story reporting the death in Vietnam of Jerry Hughes, 21, of Willard, Mo. Forty years later, Frank allows us to remember a local fallen hero, too.