BY KATHERINE KARR SCHLOSSER
The early morning of May 3, 2017, I awoke to find an email from a stranger that opened a door long held closed. Ordinarily, such emails go straight to my junk file. This one, however, had keywords in the subject line that made me think before blocking the address. “JOHN PRESTON KARR PICTURE” it read. After a short debate with myself, I opened it and read with disbelief. This was a legitimate letter from someone unknown to me who had known my brother.
Siblings bring strange relationships. Love-hate, aggravation-comfort, pride-embarrassment, hopes and fears are all wrapped in the package of a sibling. My younger brother, John, was capable of stirring up all of those emotions and more. Born two years after me, he fit right in with our growing family. He was the spitting image of a beloved uncle and shared the same fun-loving spirit.
My favorite photo of the two of us shows us, ages 5 and 3, at the beach, hand-in-hand, heading out into the water. It was a happy day spent searching the Chesapeake Bay shoreline for treasured sharks teeth, found in those days as easily as shells on the oceanfront.
Years later, as a teenager with a new driver’s license, I was awakened before dawn periodically with pleas from John to drive him on his paper route. Either he got up late, or it was raining, snowing, or too hot. He was so pitiful and so endearing that I actually got up (not every time!) and took him. Once, before I had a license, I even got up and rode my bike with him to help. He was always appreciative, and that “Thanks, Sis!” was all that was needed to reinforce my behavior.
John grew quickly; so quickly in fact that his shirt sleeves and pants often exposed ankles and wrists. With a family that had grown to 6 children, new clothes didn’t come quickly as children grew. Looking at photos of him in outgrown clothing still makes my heart skip, wishing I had paid more attention and used some babysitting money to buy him new clothes. He eventually reached 6’4,” and his childish skinny body filled out to fit the clothing of a Green Beret.
He enrolled at what was then known at VPI, now Virginia Tech. I don’t recall his course of study, and he may not have even decided. It was the time of the Vietnam War, his draft number was close to being called, and funds for the upcoming college year were scarce. He decided to go ahead and enlist rather than wait for The Call.
By this time I was living in Greensboro, having come here for college and stayed because I met a gentleman I rather liked. John visited periodically, especially while at Fort Bragg for training. Those visits were great—lots of fun and laughter. Usually he brought a friend or two along, and always with toys for our daughter Jennifer.
He did well in the U.S. Army and, attaining the rank of 1st Lieutenant, he was headed to Vietnam. Before leaving, he met Jane. This was no real surprise as he was an attractive young man. After a very short courtship, they decided to get married before he left.
He left at the beginning of 1969. Letters that arrived from Vietnam were treasured, and I still have them. He described his new surroundings and asked for simple things, one being packets of Kool-Aid to make the water a bit more palatable, and soft towels. In late May I received a call from our father that John had been killed in action. It was a shock from which I will never recover.
Though he had received a letter from Jane stating that she thought she was pregnant it was only wishful thinking. After John’s death, she eventually remarried and had two children.
For the next 48 years, I rarely spoke John’s name, though he is almost daily on my mind. It was far too painful to discuss his death, except on rare occasions with my older brother and, more recently, a younger sister. John had grown to be a strong, serious, hardworking, loyal man who still had a bent toward fun. He loved the natural world and took particular delight in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley of Virginia—I have missed him for a long time.
That email of a year ago eased open the door that I had held closed. It was opened by Doug Magruder, uncle of the editor of this magazine and acquaintance of John in Vietnam. He wrote because he had searched the name Preston Karr (John was known by his middle name in Vietnam) and found my email address. On a chance, he wrote to say that he had been transferred from the Company to the Battalion Staff in late March, going on R&R shortly thereafter. He met John in late April when he took a picture of him and the other D Company Officers as they passed through LZ Saint Barbara. He thought I might like to see the photo. Indeed, I did.
In the photo John was wearing a small White Skull on his lapel, the Call Sign of the First Platoon of D Company of 2nd Battalion 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division. Doug gave the White Skull to John shortly after John took command of the Platoon when Doug first met him passing thru LZ Saint Barbara. Also in the photo is CPT Rocky Colavita, the Company Commander of D Company, who has been included in the ensuing correspondence between Doug, my sister, and myself.
Doug and Rocky also issued an invitation to a memorial at the National Infantry Museum outside Ft. Benning, Georgia. Doug and Rocky had an engraved stone placed under the Virginia flag at the Museum in honor of John. Family affairs, including an ailing older brother, kept me from attending, but Doug has stayed in touch. Because his niece, Keela Johnson, lives in Clemmons, he visits the area from time to time and just a month ago my sister and I met him for lunch in Winston-Salem.
Doug is an old-fashioned gentleman, and it has been a pleasure getting to know him and hear about his experiences in Vietnam and his extended family. Though John’s death is still painful, I have discovered that the heaviness in my heart is simply a message that John is still with me. I thank Doug for that comfort and welcome him and Rocky as new brothers in the lives of my sister and myself. Those who served in Vietnam, and are lucky, maintain some of the friendships they made overseas. They are a closely-knit group who reach out to others when they can. They are extraordinary people, and I would like to think that John would be doing the same thing.
War affects many people, none more than those who serve their country. We owe a debt of gratitude to them all, those who come home and those who do not. Perhaps a day will come when the world can learn to accept one another for all of our differences and put aside war—in honor of the thousands upon thousands who have served this country and the families who sacrifice with them.