My cousin Frank had a multispeed bike before anyone else in The Bronx. Where he got the money, I still don’t know. No great sportsman, he was a bit short, uninterested in batting and catching and usually chosen last when we picked sides for stickball. We grew up across the street from each other on 163rd and spent lots of time together. My sister, Alice, and Frank’s sister, Annie, were best friends too, and Annie dated our other best friend, Stevie. The three of us were inseparable.

Stevie called Frank “The Dean.” (Not because he was professorial, though he was smart and quick. If you dared enter his conversational classroom, beware!) The nickname was a reference to a teacher who struck fear in the hearts of tough guys at Cardinal Hayes High School – one Monsignor Jablonski, Dean of Discipline. We started calling Frank “The Dean” because his tongue was as sharp as the Monsignor’s. It didn’t catch on with the other guys, who responded with quizzical looks and heavy frowns. “The Dean” remained between the three of us.

I was always bigger and stronger than Frank and he knew it. He spent a lot of time in headlocks when he refused to concede my physical superiority. One day Frank convinced me to ride with him to Ardsley, New York. He loved to go exploring, hopping on his bike and riding all the way to the end of the Grand Concourse, past Woodlawn Cemetery and the Raceway, along Central Avenue in Yonkers. He talked incessantly about places we’d heard of but had never seen.

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Frank, in his high school graduation photo in 1964.

We agreed to not tell our parents about the planned adventure, so as to avoid complications. Ardsley was not part of our parents’ world. I complained the whole way. He was always way out in the lead, every once in a while he’d come back and we’d ride together for a while. I kept wondering when we’d stop for a break. He would push it off until later; he knew a nice place to stop, but it never came. I was caught between wanting to give up and wanting to appear courageous. I didn’t want him to think badly of me. Maybe he would tell Stevie I was chicken. I think mostly he invited me as a challenge, to show he could beat me.

If I remember correctly, it was in Ardsley that we saw a field with a cow. We climbed over the fence to get closer, and maybe actually touch it. Then Frank quietly whispered words that scared the shit out of me: “Does a cow have horns?”

“A bull!” I cried and tore ass outta there with an Olympic-sized jump back over the fence. Frank got over first.

In high school I started to spend a lot more time with Stevie as well. He was a Dodgers fan and I was a Giants fan. He conceded Willie Mays’ supremacy in hitting and fielding and I gave him Sandy Koufax’s utter mastery in pitching. Stevie and I once challenged each other to a fight, to see who was toughest. I knew I was, and he knew what he knew. We didn’t want to hurt each other, so our rule was no punches and we used the high school gym, to avoid the Bronx concrete. I got him in a neck-hold early and held on, until he had no energy left and wasn’t getting out. The fifth time I asked if he’d had enough, he spit out, “Yes!” That cleared it up…kinda. There was never a need for a second fight. We both knew it might be the same, or it might be different the next time, but we had done what we needed to do: show that neither one of us was afraid.

* * *

Frank got a fourth-hand Volkswagen Beetle for graduation. It struggled to start, needed pushing, and only barely and insecurely got us to Iona College each day of the first two semesters. Soon after, he was promptly thrown out, which killed my transportation. He’d failed a couple of subjects. Such a smart guy, too. Too many long bicycle excursions, I’d have said back then. But that wasn’t it. He got thrown out because it bored him to death and he couldn’t give a shit. Someone found him a job downtown filing. He was even more bored.

Eight months later, He was drafted. After one week of army life, he understood how beautiful Iona was. But it was too late.

Stevie didn’t last two semesters either. Don’t get the wrong idea, he was very smart as well – especially in math. He just didn’t like to read, except for box scores and batting averages. He never bothered with books. He was just nineteen when it was his turn to get that dreaded letter from the draft board, with the lonesome single token and directions to Whitehall Street.

Stevie was a patriot. We all were patriots but he was different. He didn’t have any politics; he just loved America. If your country was at war and you were called, you went. End of discussion. I am sure Stevie knew of my ferocious opposition to the war. I hated it, thought it illegal, senseless and murderous. And all for what? Who was our enemy? They hadn’t invaded us. Nobody in America knew anything about them.  

In my freshman year at Iona I had marched to support our boys. Then I had met a sociology professor, Bill Frain, who was totally different from the other teachers. He was socially engaged and encouraged debate. This was far from the norm. His view was that the war was wrong on just about every level – ethical, national interest, international law and expected gain. He articulated these views well and with humor. Soon they became my own. By my second year I marched to get out of Vietnam and bring our boys home.

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Stevie before he was drafted.

I didn’t try to convince Stevie to avoid the draft. How would I? What were the other options, jail? We didn’t know Canada existed then. I was still in college and able to defer. I didn’t know myself how I would solve the problem when it was my turn. But I knew that from the time Stevie received the letter and the token, he was on a fast train to nowhere. I remember hearing once that, after basic training, just before he was about to ship out, they found out he had asthma.  He was informed he would be eligible for an honorable discharge if he wanted it. He said no.

He came back to the neighborhood once, before being shipped out. He had changed. He’d gotten very interested in World War II and was reading up on it. I could see he wasn’t where he wanted to be, but he didn’t seem to want to discuss it. He only wanted to talk about 163rd Street, the neighborhood, the guys.

His girlfriend, my cousin Annie, and my sister Alice went to visit him at Fort Dix before he was shipped out. He was angry. He smashed his fist on a table. He no longer wanted to go. He was in love and did not want to leave his girl. But there was no way out.

I knew the war was wrong and I knew I wouldn’t go. I thought it meant I would go to prison. But as long as I was in college I was safe. When I graduated I applied for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) to work as a civil rights volunteer on the South Side of Chicago, which give me another temporary deferment as it was considered serving your country.

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I can’t remember how many anti war demonstrations I marched in. One was the Nixon Anti-Inauguration demonstration in Washington, D.C. There was a large crowd of protesters and a heavy police presence, which precipitated a riot. A wave of police moved toward us and we dispersed, scattering in every direction. Every minute or so the wave would stop, only to then be followed by another police advance, with those caught arrested.

We marched to live and not send our friends and family to die. When I marched, I felt the fellowship with whomever I walked next to. Decades later I would march again, against George Bush, with 150,000 others in Montréal.

When I finished that year in Chicago and my VISTA deferment was up, I was called by the Selective Service. I tried but did not succeed in getting help from a psychologist who was referred to me by the American Friends Service Committee. I was too innocent or stupid to say yes when she asked if I had drug problems or suicidal thoughts. “No,” I said, “I’m just against the war.” I failed several attempts to recognize how to play this game, “Sorry, young man, I don’t think I can help you,” was all she said.

Eventually I had to go to the induction center at Whitehall Street with all the other prospective draftees, but I soon got lucky. By this time I had realized a lie is sometimes necessary. When they asked if I used drugs I answered yes, and when they asked how much I quadrupled my real consumption and later added my newly-discovered suicidal thoughts.

The author, Jim Olwell, in his high school graduation photo in 1964.
The author, Jim Olwell, in his high school graduation photo in 1964.

When I finally met the military shrink he wrote something on a paper, folded it, handed it to me in an envelope and said, “I don’t think you’d be much of a soldier anyway.”

Twenty-three-year-old college graduate, he had written, has depressive suicidal tendencies and uses drugs and alcohol to ward off depression. I was out.

Frank, who was twenty when he was drafted, spent two glorious years in the heat of Arizona. Then, in a blind blast of good dumb luck, he was discharged in 1968, exactly one month before his entire regiment was deployed overseas to Vietnam. Once out, he worked at odd jobs, fell in love with a woman or two and went to school at night. He finally got his B.A., followed by a Master’s and a Ph.D. At his wedding, in my best man speech I recounted our rivalries and competition over the years, how I thought I had bested him when he got thrown out of Iona and accused him of not being the slightest bit interested in psychology, saying that he only got that doctorate in order to best me.

Frank went on to live a ‘normal’ life. He spent his professional career providing guidance to high school students in Queens. He has more nieces and nephews than a normal man has a right to; he gets up early every morning and goes down to the tennis courts in search of the perfect backhand. I’ll probably see him this year or next; we talk every other month or so. Next time I’ll talk to him about memories of Stevie.

Life is a game of chance. I was the luckiest of the three of us, able to read the signposts better, to maneuverer myself to what I wanted to achieve and away from what I did not. Frank came in second in luck; he made a big mistake but came one month short of paying for it big. Yet he ended up doing what he wanted, accomplishing something big. Maybe he was lucky too.

Stevie never came back again, except for that last time, when they played taps.

He was drafted in 1967, sent to Vietnam and wounded in battle on May 20 of that year. Word trickled back that he had been injured but would survive. Instead, he died of his wounds four days later.

He received a Purple Heart for being wounded in action and a Bronze Star for bravery in action; the citation read:

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. . . near Duc Pho. As his platoon closed with a well-entrenched enemy force, four men were caught in a crossfire while crossing an open area. Seeing this, Private First Class O’Shea moved from his covered position and began directing an accurate and intensive volume of fire on the enemy to his front. Exposing himself both to the entrenched enemy in front and snipers to the rear, he covered the four men until they could move to safety. He was severely wounded in the course of his heroic action and later succumbed.

He was a beautiful, intense, intelligent, athletic young man who had just begun to develop intellectually but was not given the time. He served his country as well as a person can. We were not under attack. We were supposed to be there to prevent all the other dominoes from falling.  We lost and we left.  How absurd this all sounds now.

What had Stevie died for, anyway? Some still can’t admit it but we were destined to lose that war. Stevie died for nothing. He was non-political – a patriot who didn’t see a way out.

His life left us many messages. His gift, his protection of those in need of help, was a sacrifice that rings to us over the years. I would have preferred that he had lived and married his girl, had their children, and given us a long life of sharing and competing and sacrificing and brotherhood. So would he.

RIP, Stevie.

* * *

When I talk with Frank on the phone the conversation always slips on like an old, comfy slipper, as if we are back together again on 163rd Street. Last year he called to tell me Stevie’s brother Kevin O’Shea had died. At first I wondered why he’d called. I wasn’t friends with Kevin. Then I thought, “How stupid.” Why was I reacting this way, almost like I didn’t want to be reminded of something? That’s when I realized I hadn’t thought of Stevie in a long while.

I’d been thinking about how lucky I’ve been. Despite two replaced hips and a few stented arteries, I am quite mobile, happily retired, not wealthy but far from poor. I’ve had great satisfaction from forty-plus years as a community organizer; now a new life as a good and improving poet. Among the joy there has been some sadness. Once my future was taken away when my then-wife, Simonne, and I had a seven-month stillborn son, Jimmy Alexis. Our future together, with him, disappeared. Thinking about it all after Frank called, I realized it wasn’t the first time my future had changed.

The first loss was Stevie, when I was twenty years old. I realized then that I had never mourned him. Not in my own mind, nor did I share with others this great loss. We didn’t talk about it. There were tears shed at the funeral during Taps. But that was all. It was unmanly to talk about it in our early twenties, in the mid 1960s. Everybody knew somebody who’d been killed or returned home wounded, in one way or another. But real men didn’t cry.

At age seventy, I began looking back at what and who was important to me. I was so lucky to have been born in this rich country. This democracy. To loving parents who pointed a way, however imperfectly. That was all luck. Sadly, my great friend had no such luck.

I now live in Montreal and one of my great joys is sitting in my favorite place, Café des Bois. As I watch young children walk together in groups of six or eight or ten, usually holding hands or held by a central chord to keep them together, I note how diverse they are: multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual. Sometimes I wave and get a flurry of waves back. If I could translate into children-ese I would wish them, first of all, a life.

Stevie didn’t get a life because of decisions made far away, for reasons now totally incomprehensible and now completely discredited. I would tell them, “Don’t get sucked in. Don’t listen to propaganda. Learn to think for yourself. Think of what you want out of life. Think what life might want of you. Know that you must make an effort, maybe a great effort, just to have a life. Many people don’t get one of their own.”

Jim Olwell

Jim Olwell was a community organizer for forty years in NYC, Chicago, the Middle East and for the last thirty years in Montréal where in 2013 he won the Cote des Neiges/Notre-Dame-de-Grace Borough Citizen of the Year award. He has co-founded the 2 Susan Poetry Circle and Speakup: The Montreal Inter-Active Poetry Exchange. His handbound, illustrated book of poems, Crossings was published by Iron Rabbit Bindery (Montréal and Toronto) in 2016.
Cornelia Li is a Contributing Illustrator for Narratively based in Toronto. Her works often explore human emotions via storytelling. See her more experimental scribbles on Instagram @cornelia_illo.