With Memorial Day drawing near, thoughts turn to those who’ve served our nation and passed on. Our lives have been touched by war for decades. After World War II, which was the first war following the war to end all wars, we engaged in what was termed a Police Action. The Korean War faded to give rise to Vietnam and so on. And, in each of these conflicts there are unavoidable casualties. War is to be kept a last resort because of the price, despite how those in power feel inclined to bring it to our door steps annually. Even though we may not agree with war, respect for servicemen should remain. After all, should another war like WWII come along, it will be those men and women who answer the call to save others, not just of this nation, as they stand strong to preserve our freedom. I will never agree with the treatment Vietnam Veterans suffered at the hands of the American People, regardless of how I feel about that war itself. Things simply are not divisible in that manner, as they are far too complicated to break in two.
This year, someone who had been part of my early life was high on my mind as the Holiday neared: Uncle Skip. His memory is strong in our family, not just his own, as it is with the many whose lives he had touched. He was that well liked, and not without cause.
Howard F. Baird, Jr., or Skip (Skipper) as he was known to those close to him, became part of my family way back when he and my dad forged a friendship in their youth. He was born December 7, 1950, a few months after my dad. The stories my dad tells of their escapades are nothing short of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. He was in my parent’s wedding back in 1970, and he and his wife became god parents to me and my brother. From there on, he was my Uncle and his family was my family.
In his daughter’s words, “He liked puzzles, yard sale-ing, fishing and spending time with his family. He truly was a jack of all trades, it seemed like there wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix. He was very good at operating heavy machinery, fixing cars and anything else that needed attention. He was someone that was always willing to help a friend, or even a stranger.” And, I can attest to this, as well. My dad was the same and they would help each other out.
Skip was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He and my father had both been drafted about the same time in 1970. My father was saved going over, because my mom was expecting my brother. Skip, however, went. He served on a helicopter as a gunner. His wife told me stories of them climbing on top while in flight, just to freak out the pilot. Can you imagine? Your back an inch or so from those deadly blades? What did they have to lose? Surrounded by death and suffering, it must have been quite surreal. Not to mention how young and daring these guys were by nature.
During his tour, the helicopter he flew on was shot down. The War Department reported him killed in action, sending men to his home to let the family know. I asked my dad what that was like, to hear of his best friend’s death, and he had no words. It could have only been suffocatingly painful. The trauma of that moment had settled in and days later, it was discovered that Skip had actually survived, and was recovering in a German hospital from his wounds. Finding the words to express what his family and friends must have felt still elude me. All I know is, I am thankful. His survival ensured our two families would remain connected, and for that I am deeply grateful.
Uncle skip was awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, and an overseas bar. He was buried with full military honors at the Saratoga National Cemetery in Upstate New York.
My first memories of Uncle Skip are around Halloween. His wife, Geri, and he loved the holiday—or maybe she loved it so much he couldn’t help but support its grand celebration. Skip was a fun guy and very loving. In the picture here, you can see him in the background wearing a mask. I always remembered it as a gorilla but it could be a wolfman.
Whatever it was, I was petrified. My mother is sitting next to me to reassure me that Uncle Skip wasn’t going to do any harm. You can see the worry in her face, but rest assured I am not scarred by this. I grew up to adore horror and not be a bit afraid of any of it. I can’t even tell you what about that mask sent me over the edge. Big baby! I can tell you, he felt a little bad for making me cry, though he still chuckled apologetically. Once that mask was gone, everything was fine.
I remember going to Uncle Skip’s house for Halloween parties, and Aunt Geri asking me to take part in a haunted house at their Firehouse as a young teen. It was good times. I always thought of them as the perfect couple, like my parents. Skip and Geri were like peanut butter and jelly. They belonged together. From that union, they had three children. The youngest’s birth still sticks out in my mind. To this day, their daughter and I are still in communication, still like family. I made sure, out of respect to them, that I got her permission to write this. It still feels like Uncle Skip just passed, but it was in March of 2015, over two years ago.
“A couple of summers before he got sick he bought a used pontoon boat he fixed up and we spent a lot if fun times out fishing and cruising around. Another of his loves was his 77 Corvette. My dad always wanted one and he finally for one a few years ago. I remember how excited he was when he brought it home,” his daughter told me. What a great car! I don’t blame him for having wanted that one.
Shortly after, he was diagnosed with small cell cancer (stage 4) in January of 2014. True to his essence, he weathered the treatment regimen with great strength. My dad talked to him about the treatment and his own fight. Brothers by friendship, by experience, and now by illness. I wonder if my dad suspected that, once again, Skip would be going on without him? Although they avoided a permanent separation, this time it was final. And, it hurt.
“He was strong through all of his treatment and aside from losing his hair and being a little tired, you never would have known he was sick. Through it all he was always there for all of us and I was absolutely convinced he would beat it. In the end, it turned out his heart just wasn’t strong enough. On the day he passed, he had actually woke up that morning telling my mom he felt great,” his daughter goes on to say. Uncle Skip was still in treatment for cancer when he passed.
That day, he went with his son in law to a hunting club dinner. While his son in law was getting a plate of food, as if exhausted, Skip lay his head on his hand and slipped away. Like that, our families lost a great member.
When I was told, I was in utter disbelief. I had been of the same mind as his daughter: he’d get through it like my dad and things would go on. Life did not just take one half of peanut butter and jelly. But. It did. And a blank was left behind that couldn’t be answered for or filled.
At his funeral, so many friends and family gathered. Aunt Geri, beautiful as always, looked somehow incomplete. Her tears and words echo still. I feel like I’ve lost an arm. When I say that there’s is a real love story, I can’t express that enough. They had the real thing, and like a fairy tale, it’s not right if it’s ever parted. Through it all, I remained stoic, but when the flag was handed to her in the cemetery service, and her shoulders folded, my own tears would not be held back. His loss reverberates still.
“We know there was no pain or worry, one minute he was there and the next he was gone. It still seems so strange to me for him not to be here, but I guess that’s how it goes,” his daughter remarks.
Thank you for your service, Uncle Skip. December 7, 1950-March 28, 2015