tom landry's brother dies -- 7/28/14

Today's selection -- from The Last Cowboy by Mark Ribowsky. In 1942, future hall of fame football coach Tom Landry was an eighteen-year-old attending college. His older brother Robert had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was serving as a bomber pilot in World War II. (Tom would later serve as a bomber pilot as well.) Three years older than Tom, Robert was the golden boy -- outgoing and magnetic. Tom was more reserved, and worshipped his older brother:

"Then, with the 1942 season in full bloom and [Tom] Landry moving up on the [University of Texas] jayvee depth chart, a bitter wind came blowing in from across the Atlantic, ... ending ... his cloistered existence and tearing out a piece of his heart forever.

"On an early November day that year, with Thanksgiving a few weeks away, a special-delivery letter reached [Tom's father] Ray Landry down in [his hometown of] Mission, Texas. As soon as he took it from the messenger and saw 'War Department: The Adjutant General's Office' on the masthead -- a heading that during war normally meant one thing, the worst news of all -- Ray's legs weakened and he had to struggle for breath. Swallowing hard, he read the letter, desperately hoping it was a mere formality. But the first sentence of most such missives was merciless, and this one told him that his son, First Lieutenant Robert Landry, was missing in action, his plane unaccounted for after going down in the murky, freezing waters of the Greenland Sea near Iceland. No body had been recovered, and Lieutenant Landry was presumed dead.

"Tom returned home for the holidays to find his family's optimism about Robert abating. By then his indomitable mother could put up only a brave but cracking front. As Ruth Langston said, 'Ruth wasn't in shock, but she was in grief beyond words .... You could see on her face how much she was suffering.' After they ate their Thanksgiving meal in near silence, the family went over to First United Methodist Church to pray as one and to light candles for Robert, a ritual Tom would recall with great sadness, saying, 'Naturally my parents weren't ready to concede Robert's death. We all hoped and prayed that by some miracle he would be found alive,' but his gut told him otherwise. He went back to school dreading the inevitable, which came just before Christmas when another messenger delivered a Western Union telegram, again from the War Department, to the Landrys' door.

"This time the words were even more blunt, heartbreaking, and final. Signed by Adjutant General of the Army James Alexander Ulio, it began with the boilerplate language read by too many parents: 'It is my sad duty to inform you of the death of your son.'

"There were no details revealed, but several days later another letter from the department arrived with the explanation that Robert's B-17 had exploded near the coast of Iceland. Even worse, his remains were never found, nor were his dog tags or any other personal effects. 'Please accept my sincere sympathy for your great loss,' such cruel missives always read, hardly enough to alleviate the pain of losing a young man who died so horrifically in service to his country. When the family buried an empty casket in a symbolic funeral service in Mission in early January, the Army had sent duplicate tags, which Ray and Ruth placed inside the casket before it was lowered into the ground.

Color Photographed B-17E in Flight

"They were all stolid as ever that grim day, but the family had been blown apart, never again to be whole or even close as the years unwound. Robert's kid brother, bitten by the cruelty of life for the first time, would never be quite the same; the cavity would remain until his death. Nothing that he would write in his rather wooden autobiography bore any more emotional heft than a brief passage about the tragedy: 'Robert dead? It couldn't be .... The big brother I had looked up to all my life was gone forever from the face of the earth -- without my ever having told him how much he meant to me.' And yet, as with the rest of the family, his manner of dealing with inestimable pain and loss was to push emotions of that sort deeper into the insular part of him that could filter out intensely personal pain. As he would go on, 'I tried to shut it out.'

"And so he did, and well. Rarely, if ever, did he speak about his brother's death, heroic as it was. It was as if summoning up the memory of his brother would tear off the scab that allowed him to go forward. If Tom had been conditioned to be furtive in his emotions as a child, now he determined by choice to benumb them; demonstrativeness would become restrained, quiescence ingrained, and the far ends of the behavioral spectrum chopped off. In the world erected for himself, things like giddiness and out-of-control anger were associated with manifestations of weakness."

"Ray, holding the letter tightly in his hands as if wanting to strangle it, steeled himself and walked into the laundry room, where [his wife] Ruth was doing the wash. Without saying a word, he put the paper in her hands. While she read the same words, her face became flushed, but she was stoic as always, refusing to break down or betray emotions. Given that there was no confirmation of Robert's death, she said he might have survived. He was a good boy, a good Christian. God would save his mortal soul. She grabbed Ray's hand and told him he should go to the body shop and be optimistic. As usual, Ray did what his wife said. Most of all, as a family friend and neighbor named Ruth Langston once recalled, 'they didn't put their grief on others, going around talking about it so many would have. They handled it themselves.

"She trusted it would turn out to have a happy ending and urged him to keep the faith. But that was an instruction he couldn't obey for long. As soon as he heard about Robert, a hole was carved into the pit of his gut. He could not focus on his work or football, and sometimes sat in his room alone, nearly catatonic. Years later he would describe that 'sickening emptiness' as weeks passed with no word about his brother, whose only shot at surviving was if he had been miraculously pulled from the ocean within hours of going down. Even if he had been alive when he hit the water, by Thanksgiving that possibility was nil.


Mark Ribowsky


The Last Cowboy: A Life of Tom Landry


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2014 by Mark Ribowsky


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