Memorial Day is almost upon us. Many use this holiday to mark the beginning of our summer vacation season. But as we all know, Memorial Day is much more meaningful and special. On this national holiday, we honor all those who have died in American wars.
I suspect we have all been touched in some way by the painful reality of knowing someone or knowing of someone who died while serving in the armed forces. But along with the sorrow is deep appreciation for the brave souls who put their lives on the line for our nation. And there is the celebration of the life lived, despite it having been cut short.
I know all too well the suffering of life cut short by war. You see, I am a member of a Gold Star family. I lost my brother who served in the U.S. Army and was deployed in Vietnam. His last day on this earth was March 21, 1969, just months shy of his 21st birthday.
It’s been more than a half a century since my brother Rene’s passing. Yet every day, something triggers a memory of him. You see, my big brother helped me get to where I am in life.
So I thought I’d share some cuentitos (stories) in this blog to pay homage to my brother Rene and the many others who sacrificed their lives for us and our nation.
For context, I was the next to last child in a family of seven. My brother was eight years older than I and died when I was only 14 years old. Although most of my memories of him are from childhood, they remain vivid. He was bigger than life to me. And being so much older, in his eyes I was typically the pest who had to be dealt with out of an obligation of being familia (family).
Spending time with my brother meant that I was always on the short end of the stick when it came to his pranks. And reflecting on all he bestowed upon me, I often wonder whether that’s what he did all day – invent new pranks to try out on me. Interestingly, I didn’t seem to mind too much because I got to hang with an older kid and that was very special to me.
I’ll get to a classic prank in a bit, but first you should know that there were times when we just hung together that were simply awesome—mostly in the summer because we were latchkey kids. In our backyard, we’d search for snakes and horned toads in our cactus garden during the day – and for roaming tarantulas at night. We’d been stung so many times that we’d search for yellow and the more-scary-looking red paper wasp nests that were common in San Antonio. We’d fish together at nearby Woodlawn Lake, getting up at 5 a.m. to head out and using for bait our mom’s tortilla masa or some skinny worms we would dig up in the dry, rocky central Texas soil.
My brother was such a skilled prankster that it would sometimes take me a while to figure out his pranks weren’t real. Here is the one that was most profound to me. When I was about seven years old and Rene was 15, he approached me very seriously one summer evening to have a one-on-one, private chat. He reported that he had become a member of the “junior secret service” and showed me an official-looking, signed letter (he had typed, obviously). He needed me to know, he said, because he had to go out on assignment to protect the city (like Batman, I suppose) after everyone went to bed.
He asked if I wanted to be his deputy. What an honor! He had an “official’ form for me to sign, and I would receive a rank of sergeant while, of course, he had a commissioned rank of captain. I immediately agreed. But as you might expect, my role was to sit tight in our bedroom and “staff HQ” to keep our parents from finding out about his overnight forays while “on duty.” In other words, I would sit around and keep quiet, while he went out and did his thing.
Well, I confess that initially I was very excited to be a sergeant and help him fight crime. But after a couple of weeks, I got bored and insisted that I tag along with him while he was on duty. He promptly claimed that the higher-ups had disbanded our two-man “unit” and that we had to keep the whole mission a secret. I’m sure he feared me complaining to our parents that I was shortchanged an “outside” assignment. And of course, I then realized I had been pranked but I agreed to keep quiet. After all, he was still my awesome big brother.
There are many more rich memories of him that I hold dear. This is just a tiny sampling. It’s hard to believe that only five years after this prank, he was gone. He had enlisted in the army and was on his second tour in Vietnam when he died. But his legacy of loving life to its limits, seeking adventure, and taking measured risks was indelibly ingrained in me.
I credit my brother for fostering my countless dreams of adventure, to do what no one else did and on my own terms, to boot. That is why during my career I have always taken chances with my “next job.” Most of the time, I was quite apprehensive that I would be unsuccessful. My first professional job was as a sampling statistician and manager at Temple University in Philadelphia. I was a shy, 28-year-old, had no supervisory experience and pretty much no common sense. Thank goodness I knew my statistics. Seven years later, I took the inaugural survey operations director job at the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center. I had only supervised a handful of people at that point, yet I was picked to oversee a unit of well over 100, not counting the many remote field representatives across the country. I was scared to the bone and did not know with certainty if I could do the job. But thanks to my brother, I embraced my passion for adventure, and eagerly took on the challenge.
Many challenges and risks have come and gone over a 40-year career, and I now find myself in a position where I get to serve my country as leader of the nation’s largest federal statistical agency. In a real sense, serving my country reflects and honors all that my brother gave to me in the short time we had together.
This year, I will visit his name at the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall. He will always live in my heart. Rene Anthony Santos, thank you for your service to our country. And thank you for making me who I am.