My brother turned 65 the day Osama bin Laden was killed, but he didn’t hear about it until the next morning. By the time the President came on TV to tell the world what had happened, Fred was already asleep. The party was over, candles extinguished, dinner served, guests gone home.
When he turned on the news the next morning he learned of the helicopter raid on the compound in Abbottabad, the shooting, the extraction of the remains, the religious ceremony aboard ship, and the dumping of the body in the Adriatic Sea. He saw reruns of Obama’s speech delivered at 11:35 PM the previous night. He watched, he marveled, he felt a surge of pride in the Navy Seals who had pulled off this daring feat, and he got ready to go to work. Though he’d reached the age when men usually retire, he had no intention of doing that. He liked his work too much, couldn’t imagine what he’d do if he didn’t have a string of jobs laid out ahead of him.
My brother is an excavator, a road-builder, a man who’s been self-employed for most of his life. He owns bobcats, backhoes, trucks, trailers, and those heavy metal plates they use to cover road excavations. Among his clients are the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (they call him when they need help clearing snow from public roads), the Phone Company (they’re always needing trenches dug so they can bury their cables), builders needing roads, foundations, and septic systems, farmers needing to bury dead horses. He’s good at his job, charges a fair price, and he’s earned the respect of nearly everyone in Adams County and beyond.
His client that morning needed a drain field, so my brother went outside and loaded up his backhoe, and it didn’t occur to him the ten-year hunt for bin Laden had ended on his birthday.
And a momentous birthday it was. His wife, Edna, and daughter, Teresa, had thrown a surprise party, and they’d pulled it off. When the three of them walked into the banquet room at The Pike Restaurant in Gettysburg, a hundred of Fred’s closest friends were there, waiting for him. Someone turned up the lights, and we began to sing Happy Birthday. Fred stood there, totally shocked, looking around the room, nearly overcome at the turnout. At one point he made a half-hearted run for the door, but Edna caught him and dragged him back. We finished the song, and the party began.
He said later he knew something was up when he spotted me, his favorite sister, in the crowd. I’d come a long way to be with him that day – seven hundred miles – driving from Nashville, TN to Gettysburg, PA.
The birthday was momentous for another reason. On the day bin Laden died, May 1st, 2011, Fred joined the ranks of those covered by Medicare. He’d been waiting a long time. For years he’d bought private health insurance, which, for the self-employed, is a nightmare. He paid the premiums, and time after time the insurance company denied his claims.
He had cornea repair. To save his eyesight. A man can’t drive a truck without good eyesight. The state of Pennsylvania will yank your drivers’ license, if they know your vision is less than perfect. He can’t operate a backhoe or any other piece of heavy equipment.
The bill for the surgery was over $3000. The insurance company paid $200. When he complained, they said that’s the amount it should have cost, and that was what they were authorized to pay. Fred had no choice but to pay the balance.
His eyesight did not improve. Something was wrong. Some stitches have broken loose, the doctor said. It happens sometimes. We’ll have to go in again. It’ll be more involved this time. The outcome is less certain.
The final cost was $4000 and change. The insurance company kicked in $1000.
A year later Fred developed frozen shoulder. This time he did his homework: the cost for surgical repair of the rotator cuff would be around $10,000. He decided to do physical therapy instead. Insurance would pay for three visits to a therapist. It took six months, but the shoulder healed, and he was able to go back to work.
Going on Medicare was a blessing. Two months before his birthday, he went to the Social Security office and signed the papers. He bought medigap insurance, but skipped the prescription drug benefit. He’d take generics. If he needed more expensive drugs, which seemed unlikely, he’d bite the bullet.
There are other sides to my brother; he’s an antique car aficionado, a storyteller, and a history buff. I never visit him that he doesn’t at some point take me down to his garage to show me the car he’s working on. He likes to tell the story of the day he chauffeured a bride and groom from the church to the reception in his 1940 Buick Super. On the climb up Caledonia Mountain the car overheated. He thought he could make it to the top, but the radiator blew, spraying coolant over the engine compartment, the hood, the windshield. My brother pulled to the side of the road, and they waited, bride and groom, Fred and Edna, for someone to come to their rescue.
Here’s what he’s never been: a reader. His days were long and when the sun set in the evening, he still had work to do, keeping his books, maintaining his equipment, repairing things that had broken. When he was laid up with frozen shoulder, and the pain was so fierce he couldn’t drive his truck or operate his backhoe, I bought him a copy of David L. Robbins book, The Last Citadel: A Novel of the Battle of Kurst. He’d always been interested in the Second World War. He knew about tank warfare, knew the battle at Kurst was the greatest tank battle in history, could tell you the names of the different tanks used by each side, knew of the super-tank called Tiger that was terrified the Russians, knew that the Germans went down to defeat despite their superior weaponry. He read the book and loved it.
For his 65th birthday I gave him another Robbins book, The War of the Rats. I’d heard him talk about the battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest battle in history, the horrendous cruelty on both sides, the total destruction of Germany’s 6th Army. This tale of a Russian and a German sniper pitted against each other was a different side of the battle, and I thought he might like it.
Osama bin Laden is dead, my brother is on Medicare, his shoulder is fine, his retinas are intact. He intends to keep working as long as he’s able. And when he’s not, there are war stories he might read, and enjoy.
There are other books. One I think he might like is Larry Brown’s collection, Billy Ray’s Farm: Essays from a Place Called Tula.
Larry Brown is a literary writer, but he writes of ordinary things, and that is his genius. I think my brother might see a connection between his life and that of Larry Brown. I think he’d like to read the story of how Brown built his “little house” in the woods, and how one of the walls fell on him as he was trying to raise it, and it hurt so bad he cried. If he read the two essays about Billy Ray’s farm and the cows that kept dying because their calves were either breach or too big or some other unexpected thing, he’d think of our father and how hard it is to be a farmer. He’d understand Brown’s anger at the coyote who stole the baby goats. Because he’s operated a backhoe himself, he’d love to know just how “Lynn Hewlett… once loaded up a bad bull in a backhoe bucket.”
It would be a cornucopia of deliciousness, for Fred to read Larry Brown’s collection of essays. I just know it would.
If his shoulder should freeze up again, or his retinas or corneas do something to cause new problems, or his arthritis become too painful for him to jump onto his trailer to chain the backhoe or the bobcat in place, there are other books I can send him.