It’s Veteran’s Day today. My brother, David Estes, was a Marine, a veteran and he gave his life earlier this year as a result of his tour of duty in Vietnam.
A tail gunner, Dave was shot down in Vietnam, taking a bullet from below through the abdomen and delicately put, “private area.” Amazingly, he lived, and subsequently received blood transfusions in the hospital in Saigon. The blood was tainted and David learned in 2010, some 27 years later, that he had contracted hepatitis C. For those who don’t know, hep C is generally asymptomatic, right up until about 18 months before it kills you, 25 to 30 years after contracting the disease.
David was an amazing man. I didn’t know him long. Just under 8 years. I didn’t know him as a child and I didn’t get to grow up with him. You see, it was genealogy and DNA that brought us together. He is my half-brother on my father’s side. Our story has enough drama and unexpected twists to make any soap opera jealous. Let me share a bit of our journey and something of Dave’s life with you. After all, it’s Veteran’s Day.
Our father, William Sterling Estes, above, also a veteran of both WWI and WWII, was a bit of a playboy. That’s somewhat of an understatement, kind of like calling an iceberg a large ice cube. In fact, Hugh Hefner’s got nothing on him. Our father managed to maintain two separate families, at the same time. And no, he was not Mormon. He was however, an alcoholic, the son of a bootlegger from the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky, but a very intelligent, functional alcoholic. And handsome to boot. Sadly, David’s mother was also an alcoholic. Mine was not. David grew up mostly under his Irish grandmother’s tutelage. David never knew who his father was. He knew our father, but as the husband of another family member. If you’re confused, it’s OK, so were we. Let’s just say that the words “Peyton Place” come to mind. Below, Dad and David.
In any event, I knew, or had heard rumors, through the family grapevine that I had a sibling. This subject was totally taboo and I knew nothing more until I received a box of letters from my step-mother’s daughter after my step-mother died. In the box of letters were letters from my father’s sister and other family members to my father who died when I was 7, and to his father as well. I read the letters and in them, I discovered that my sibling had been born the same year I was. That was very confusing to me. My mother, horribly embarrassed about the entire situation, refused to talk. Eventually, she told me enough that I was able to determine that the child was a boy, about when he was born, and more importantly, the names of his mother and grandmother. I didn’t even know his name. Mother couldn’t remember, but she clearly remembered the name of the “other woman.” Eventually, in 2002, after many years of searching, with the help of librarians, city directories, obituaries, marriage and divorce records, and ultimately, a private investigator, I located David. The road was not easy or straight and was fraught with false leads and land mines.
After serving in Vietnam, David became a long-haul truck driver and lived in various places throughout the US before settling eventually in Ohio. His path was very difficult to track. The saving grace was a little brush with the law that gave him a police record. I have never been so grateful for a police record in all my life.
However, when I found him, or at least where he lived, I hesitated a bit before contacting him. Actually, for nearly 2 years. A man with a police record. Did I really want to open Pandora’s box? I didn’t know. To put it mildly, David seemed very different than me. Once opened, you can’t close Pandora’s box.
Finally, I knew I had to make the move. I couldn’t NOT contact him, regardless of the outcome. On July 14, 2004, I wrote David a letter. I had tried calling the phone number given to me two years previously by the private investigator, only to discover the number was no longer Dave’s. I will never forget mailing that letter. That letter was returned to me this past year. His wife, my sister-in-law, gave it back to me after Dave’s death. It was well worn and had been read over and over again, probably in many truckstops around the country.
A week later, my phone rang, and a very deep voice asked for me. When I confirmed I was speaking, there was a pause, and then the voice said, “I’m David Estes, your brother.” I could barely talk. It was as if I had waited a lifetime to hear his voice and it was a rich melody to me. We visited for hours, comparing information. It turns out that he never knew about me, and while I assumed he knew who his father was, he didn’t. In fact, he had spent years trying to uncover that missing piece of information. His mother had died without divulging that tidbit to him. There was a reason for that, as she was related (by marriage) to our father and the relationship was ‘improper’ to say the least. This is a perfect example of why these family secrets are so tightly held sometimes.
For David, my envelope full of photos and information was a gift from Heaven, as was the fact that he had a sister. Other than his 2 children, David had no living blood relatives. At one time he had a step-sister, but when she protested against Vietnam and criticized his service, he walked away from her and never looked back. David was exceptionally proud of his military service and sacrificed a great deal for his country, including ultimately, his life.
Dave was what, in Indiana, we used to call a “Billy bad-ass.” He didn’t look for a fight, but he certainly wasn’t afraid of one either. He had been in more than his share, being fiercely protective of family members and taking up for anyone he perceived to be an underdog.
David grew up angry and joined the military instead of finishing high school. The Marines gave his anger and “bad-ass” tendencies focus. He was extremely proud to serve his country. His military records are sealed because of where he served and his unit’s role in the war. In the end, when we desperately needed some of those records, we were unable to obtain them even with the assistance of Ohio’s Senators and Congressional representatives.
When Dave returned from the Marines, he began his long-haul truck driving career. He drove millions of miles accident-free. He was once trapped in riots in some city, and he climbed on top of his (employer’s) truck with a shotgun and defended his turf. He was determined to die fighting for his perception of what was right.
David was never afraid to express his opinion. In fact, he did that often and sometimes loudly. But when it came to his own bravery, he was always entirely silent. I found out most of what I know through others. David was both fearless and humble. Pain meant nothing to him, even in the end. Once, he pulled his own tooth with a pliers while on the road.
After he was diagnosed with hepatitis C, I wanted to test as a transplant donor, and he would not allow it, nor would he allow his children to be tested. Eventually, over Dave’s objections, I did test…only to discover I was not a candidate. I suspected why, but the medical team would not confirm my suspicions. David died for lack of a donor, but he would not consider allowing his family to suffer in any capacity, even to save his life, which any of us would have welcomed the opportunity to do. Had I matched, I doubt very seriously if he would have accepted part of my liver.
In 2004, I drove to Ohio to meet for the first time the long-haired, tattooed, truck-driving, swearing, hard-scrabble cowboy that was my brother. I discovered that under that very hard veneer was a man with a heart of gold. His dog, who rode with him for years, he had rescued from a man in a truck stop who was beating him as a pup. When the man refused to stop, David gave the man some of his own medicine and then took the dog. It’s amazing David didn’t have more than one police record. And yes, his original record that allowed me to find him was for a bar fight over some man’s unwelcome advances towards a woman.
After David’s hep C was diagnosed, he went on disability for a few months. However, he couldn’t stand it and went back on the road, long-haul driving again. Someplace during those last couple months that he drove, he rescued another dog in need who had been dumped someplace. When he developed cancer in the liver, a common result of hep C, his wife had to call him in California to tell him. He finished his run before he would come home. He pulled into the truck terminal about 12 hours before his appointment with the oncologist where they told him there was nothing they could do. A day later he was in hospice. Ten days later, he was dead. The man was absolutely amazing.
When I met Dave, we looked for physical similarities. We ran into the bathroom together and crowded around a little mirror above the sink looking to see if we looked alike. Were we really siblings? The photo below was taken that day.
Dave told me that he never used the “L word.” His wife confirmed that. The man who feared nothing did not want to be vulnerable. As time went on, he whispered in my ear as I hugged him goodbye “I love you Sis.” He had never had a sibling. From that day on, “I love you Sis” was always his goodbye to me, in person or on the phone. Being a truck driver, we never really knew if it might be our last conversation. It was also the last thing he said to me, in a barely audible whisper.
A few years after we met, I had a cancer scare. I was going to tell him when the time was right, but one day a semi pulled up in front of my house. Yep, Dave was visiting unexpectedly. Often only for an hour or so, but something was better than nothing. My medical paperwork was laying on the kitchen counter. He saw it and held it up, demanding to know “what is this?” It told him that we didn’t know yet, I was still undergoing testing. He looked at me dead in the eye and said “If you have cancer and need someone to take care of you, I’ll sell the house and quit my job and come and take care of you.” I told him he couldn’t. He told me I didn’t get to tell him what he could and could not do, and he would. That discussion was over. I knew beyond a doubt how much he loved me. And I loved him all the more for it, my long haired, tattooed, truck-driving brother who loved me enough to give up everything.
When we met in 2004, Dave wanted to take a Y-line DNA test. We knew what the Estes line looked like, back some generations, but we didn’t have anyone from my father or my father’s father to test. So David would represent our line. He swabbed. Weeks went by, and finally his results arrived in an e-mail from Family Tree DNA. I clicked to open, and to my utter horror, he didn’t match the Estes line. I didn’t know what to think, but I was sure that we had discovered an undocumented adoption someplace up the line, meaning I had just spent 35 years doing someone else’s genealogy. I was dumbstruck. I did not for one minute believe that David was not my father’s child. Everyone, including my father, believed that he was, based on the letters and such, even though it would have been much “better” in the family if Dave were not my father’s child.
I then found the only remaining male descendant of my Estes grandfather who agreed to test, and he matched neither the Estes line, nor Dave. We had gone from bad to worse. That was a dark day.
This was before the days of the wide spectrum chip based autosomal testing we have today that so easily answers these kinds of relationship questions. David and I next submitted our DNA to a lab to have an old-style CODIS test for siblingship done. It came back inconclusive, as did the same test in a second lab. I shudder to think how much I had spent by this time.
The day that 23andMe first offered their test, I ordered one for Dave and I both. The results came back. I held my breath and said a little prayer. I clicked.
No match. David and I were not siblings. At least, we weren’t biological siblings. Let me assure you, David was and is my brother in my heart. But my heart sank.
And then I had a terrifying thought. Maybe David was my father’s child, and I wasn’t. I remembered a chat with my mother some years before when I asked her fundamentally that question, and suffice it to say that suggestion went over like a lead balloon. But when she told me that she would give anything to be able to tell me that was the case, I knew she was telling me the truth. She never forgave my father for that little “other family” indiscretion. Neither did his “other family.”
By this time, I had spent so much money and had so much emotional investment, I had to know. I have many Estes cousins, so we did selective autosomal testing of several who were related on the Estes side and not through other lines so that we could determine if Dave or I either one were descended from the Estes family. By this time, there was so much confusion that all bets were off. The outcome was that, indeed, I am descended from the Estes line and am the child of my father, and David is not. Our father is not his biological father, after all these years of searching and then believing the answer was finally at hand.
I tried to tell Dave, to introduce the topic gently, but he did not want to hear me. I decided at that point to leave things as they were. Dave was my brother and I loved him and nothing in our DNA made any difference.
Thank you David for your service, your bravery in the face of adversity, your dedication, your tenacity, your loyalty, your compassion for those creatures who were helpless or victims, your “bad-ass” attitude, for loving me, for DNA testing in spite of the possible answers, and for your final sacrifice.
The words “thank you” seem so inadequate for someone who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their life, but they’re the only words I have. Dave has given beyond his own life in so many ways, not the least of which is the legacy of his DNA which continues to give to his children and others. And yes, his DNA continues to fish every day for that elusive answer he never received in his lifetime.
Semper Fidelis, Dave. Semper Fi.