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My Hero


Colleen Sweeney

Hot, dry, dusty. That's how I remember my hometown in the Coachella Valley of southern California. The best way to spend a summer day was at the park, with my feet dangling in the fountain, but the cool water washing between my toes made me want to pee my pants.

One particular day in the summer of 1955, stands out in my memory. The day my five-year-old brother, Timmy, got his first haircut. Being twelve at the time, I much wiser to the ways of the world. I knew he'd hate it, but I told him, at my mother's insistence, that he had nothing to worry about.

Mother left me at the park to fend for myself, while she marched up the street to Smitty's barbershop with Timmy in tow. I sat on the edge of the fountain, breathing in the cool, fresh air, letting the water flow across my bare toes. My thin, sun-baked legs protruded like brown sticks from my white shorts. The sun beat down on my head, adding highlights to my long light-brown hair. I was so proud of my ponytail. It took me two years to get it long enough to pull back with a ribbon.

Then all hell broke loose.

Timmy sailed by me. The barber's cape around his neck flew out behind him like a super-hero. Blood was dripped from his left earlobe, and his beautiful, blond curls were neatly shaved from one side of his head. He didn't stop to explain the situation. The last time I saw him, he disappeared around the corner of Wilson's Drug Store.

Mother arrived in hot pursuit. She tried to keep her dignity, something Mother always did. She never left the house without her hat, gloves and girdle firmly in place.

"Tina! Catch up with your brother, Smitty isn't done with his haircut."

"Mother, the next time we see Timmy, he'll have hair down to his ankles and a beard to match."

"Please find him and bring him back. Bribe him with ice cream. Anything. I'm just going to sit here for a minute."

Mother stood before me, her chest heaving from the five-block sprint down Las Cruces Street from Smitty's barbershop. Hat slightly askew, her white gloves stained with my brother's precious blood, she looked positively frazzled. Her dark-brown hair so neatly piled under her hat this morning, now hung limply down the back of her neck. Sweat stains appeared in the armpits of her pale pink dress. Amazing. I'd never seen my mother sweat.

I swung my feet out of the water, and slipped into my sandals. Mother sat on the edge of the fountain, dipped her handkerchief into the water, and dabbed it at the back of her neck.

Timmy wouldn't be hard to find.

Miller's barn stood at the end of Mojave Avenue. The Miller residence, whoever the Miller's were, burned down years ago. All that was left of the place was the old barn. Once painted a bright red, it was now a weathered brown. The barn leaned to one side, and part of the roof had fallen in, but Timmy and I often played there.

In the cool darkness of the barn, I could smell old dust, leather, and sweat. I stepped into the abandoned horse stall and heard Timmy whimpering in the corner. The white cape stood out in the dim light that filtered in through the old boards.

"Timmy, it's me," I said quietly.

"Go away," he sobbed weakly.

"She wants me to bring you back."


"Let me see your ear. Maybe it's not so bad," I said hopefully.

After my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I peered at the injured ear. A small chunk of the lobe was missing and the cape was stained with my brother's priceless blood.

"Wow Timmy," I whistled in appreciation. "That's better than the time I cut my leg shaving." The first attempt at shaving my twelve-year-old legs had not gone very well.

"It is?" Timmy sniffed. The thought that his cut might be better than mine seemed to placate him.

"Come on, Mom's waiting for us at the park. She said I could bribe you with ice cream."

"Okay, but I don't want to get my hair cut anymore," he stated flatly.

"Tell you what," I gulped, "what if I let Smitty trim my hair, too?" I couldn't believe I'd said that.

Timmy's eyes widened in surprise. "You'd do that?"

"If it will help you feel better, sure." I told him bravely.

Timmy contemplated that for a moment. I could see the play of emotions across his tender features. "Tina," he quivered, "you don't have to do that. I'll go."

Relief overwhelmed me and I hugged him tightly. "It's okay, Tim, I'll do it.  Mom says it's good to trim the ends once and a while."

"But Tina...", he began.

"Come on, pal. Let's go find Mom."

We found Mother back at the park perched on the bench beneath the Joshua tree. She'd removed the stained gloves and pinned her hair back under her hat. When she saw us, she stood up and ground out her Lucky Strike with toe of her shoe.

"Timmy, let me see your ear," Mother said softly. She gathered him in her arms and he wept into her neck, wetting the top of her dress. Seeing the damage done, she said, "Oh dear, I know this is bad sweetheart, but we have to let Smitty finish the job."

"No Mommy, please. Don't make me," Timmy begged with a quiver.

"Only half your hair is cut. The rest of it has be done," she insisted. Mother looked at me and pleaded with her eyes.

"Mom, I'll let Smitty trim mine, too," I offered. She knew this was a big sacrifice. I'd vowed to grow my hair out before I began Junior High school in the fall.

"Really, Tina? You'd do that?" she asked in amazement.

"Sure. But I get a double-scoop ice cream cone," I looked at my mother pointedly.

Mother breathed a sigh of relief and heaved herself off the bench. "Okay, kids, let's go. Your dad will be home from work soon, and I don't have any idea what to fix for dinner." My dad, the colonel, liked to have things done on schedule, with no deviations. Dinner must be served at 6:00 without fail.

Off we went down the street to Smitty's. Timmy raised his head courageously. Although he shuffled his feet like a condemned man walking his last mile, he gave it his best effort and looked like the little soldier my father wanted him to be.

A loud car horn brought me back to the present. The long, black limo waited for me at the curb. I pushed myself off the fountain and bravely walked toward the car. The door swung open and my mother called to me.

"Tina, please hurry, they're waiting for us at the cemetery."

The short trip to Valley Fields was stifling. Mother's brown eyes were red-rimmed and hollow. The years had been kind to her. It had been fifteen years since Timmy's first haircut. She stared out the window, twisting her handkerchief. We had no words to comfort each other. It was similar to the funeral we'd attended last year for my father.

The graves were brightly decorated with tiny American flags. Too many flags. I dragged myself out of the car and slowly approached the freshly dug grave. The flag-draped coffin loomed before me.

My brother, my precious little brother, was to have a hero's salute. The gunfire echoed through me. Three volleys. Timmy's dead. Timmy's dead. Timmy's dead.

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