Lucas Presson

Lucas Presson is the assistant publisher of the Southeast Missourian.


How a traveling exhibit helped my father grieve the loss of his brother

Don Presson, whose brother served and died in Vietnam, holds the American flag that was draped over his brother's coffin in Cape Girardeau on Tuesday.
Sarah Yenesel

My father and his brother, Jim, were more than brothers. They were best friends.

Separated by only four years in age, the two shared a room growing up and enjoyed wrestling with each other -- sometimes to the chagrin of their dad.

"I felt like I'd really arrived when I put him in a full nelson and he couldn't break it," my dad, Donald Presson, told me recently.

But Jim was more than a wrestling buddy. Incredibly smart, he was the human version of Google for the other five Presson siblings when it came to homework questions.

A voracious reader, he chose not to get a driver's license and instead used public transportation in St. Louis -- a choice he defended as a way to gain more reading time.

Christmas 1969, Jim gave his siblings the current records by The Beatles and his parents several recordings by Tennessee Ernie Ford. During the otherwise joyous occasion, he broke the news that he was being sent to Vietnam.

My father, citing Charles Dickens, described it saying, "It was the best of times and the worst of times."

Just a few months later, life would forever change.

Jim, a cook in the Army, sounded the alarm knowing the stove was malfunctioning. After telling others to evacuate the facility, he went back inside to attempt a fix. The stove, however, exploded and Jim was severely burned.

Shortly after being sent to the VA hospital in Okinawa, Japan, James D. Presson died from injuries sustained. He was 22.

"One of the things that made Jim [who he was] was the thing that actually got him killed in that he was always helping people out," my dad said. "Overly conscientious, I suppose. He'd get between a fight and somebody who was going to get hurt."

At the time, my father was a college student in Oklahoma. Upon his return to St. Louis where the family lived, he hugged and cried with his siblings and then saw his mother and father.

"I looked over at my parents and they were sitting on the sofa and crying. I'd never seen my parents hurt so badly like that, because Mom and Dad were always strong. There wasn't anything Dad wouldn't tackle, and Mom was pretty much the same way. I don't know that I ever really saw them cry, but I did then."

He said coping with the tragedy for his parents was more like "going through the motions for a while," noting his father found some closure when military honors were given at Jim's funeral.

For my dad, however, the grieving process was a lifelong endeavor.

Certainly there were moments where he allowed himself to grieve the loss of his best friend and brother. The 21-gun salute stands out still as an emotionally gripping moment in time. But ultimately he tried to remain strong for his hurting parents.

"When I walked in, Mom and Dad were so broken. I decided that I would be strong for them and my brothers and sisters. And I guess that's why I didn't grieve at that point so they'd have somebody to lean on."

It wasn't until 1989 when the traveling exhibit, a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., made its way to West Park Mall in Cape Girardeau that my dad allowed himself to truly grieve the loss of his brother.

In 2005, my family would visit the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. There's a picture of my dad touching the name of his brother etched in the black granite as snow fell during our early February visit.

You don't get over that kind of loss. Ultimately, you find ways to deal with the pain and grieve. You hear it in my father's voice when he talks about his brother.

I asked my dad what the general feeling is for him on Memorial Day.

"That he [Jim] shouldn't be on the wall. It's a crying shame for somebody to die at 22 years old."

But there's also a bigger legacy to my uncle's service and sounding the alarm of a defective stove.

"Just the number of men that were able to have children because of what he did," he said. "And I suppose that's as good a legacy as he could have. A number of men lived because he did what he did."

Ultimately, that's what Memorial Day is about. It's about the men and women who gave their life so others could live. It's about the ones who bravely served and paid the ultimate sacrifice so we can live in freedom.

For my family, that's personified with my Uncle Jim.

Lucas Presson is assistant publisher of the Southeast Missourian. His email is lpresson@semissourian.com.