Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Off the Lot 5: Closing a circle

William J. Stewart, Jr. Born March 12, 1928. A reflection.

He was a marine at the end of World War Two. He did not fight as a Marine but sure could fight when he was living with our family. He was my older brother and afraid of no one. Bill, or Billy, made a hard life for himself and for others. He died an alcoholic at thirty-seven. My brother left home early first to join the Marines, and later to marry -- probably to get away from the rest of us.

Billy married a very decent, somewhat older woman with whom he had two children. He later abandoned all three and had two children with another woman who could have been played on film by an aging worn-out Mary Astor. Continuing his downward spiral, he kept his job working for the railroad, but did two other jobs to keep the alcohol coming: tending bar and as driver on small time grocery store stickups. He drank double Vodkas with a Vodka highball chaser every round I ever drank with him, which was relatively often.

Billy ended up in Bellevue Hospital, in the “drunk section” very similar to that shown in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. My brother died there while experiencing Delirium tremens. It was different from Wilder’s vision but equally depressing to watch.

When he and I were still at home, and throughout his life, he was a voracious reader. The source of most of his books was the mass market paperback. His reading life likely started when that publishing phenomenon was in its infancy.

Billy was raised during the Great Depression in a lower middle, working class background. And like many young from those ranks almost always had a paperback tucked in a pocket somewhere. He left these books all around the apartment where we lived and I was drawn to them. I started to read them but made little distinction between W.R. Burnett, William Faulkner, Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain. There was also a good sampling of books related to the American Revolution -- always Howard Fast and Kenneth Roberts.

My brother was not much interested in movies, so my interest in that all-encompassing world came not from him. But my passion for books did: from his love of reading, his need for the companionship of books, and his joy in what he had learned.

So at least one good legacy can be found among the cinders of a life long gone – that of a person who could have been so much more.

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