Screened doors slamming and the calls of “Can you play now?” echoed between the houses on Rose Lane during Raleigh summers in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Sometimes it was hard to tell which child lived in which house. Large gardens took over most backyards, and Saturday night’s air filled with the aroma of hot dogs cooking on charcoal grills.
Ray Carter couldn’t wait until the last day of school to run out of the front doors of Poe Elementary in Raleigh, North Carolina, and to his mother waiting for him in the family car. His mind raced with thoughts of endless days with bowls of Sugar Frosted Flakes, riding bikes, peanut butter sandwiches and catching lightning bugs in used mayonnaise jars. Ray shared a lot of his summer days with his friend, Pat. It didn’t matter that she was younger and a girl; Ray liked being her “big brother.” He called her “Tadpole.”
Swinging on a tire across the creek that ran behind Pat’s house, the two lost many a Keds. He taught her how to hit a baseball and how to stand up for herself. “Ray was an old soul with a gentle nature,” Pat said. Ray had a slow smile, his mint-green eyes taking in everything around him. He was known for showing up in the nick of time when a kid was being picked on. “Quick and light on his feet, he would just appear. He never took to someone being bullied and was always there for the underdog,” said Pat.
Sometimes Ray’s gentle yet adventuresome nature would wear thin with his younger brother, Donald. Pat and Ray would ramble into the woods, with Donald tagging along, and Ray would just “accidently” leave Donald behind. “Boy, would he get into trouble,” Pat said with a laugh. “And he would have to go back and find Donald.”
Ray knew Pat could swing a bat and kick a ball just as well as any boy on Rose Lane so it came as a surprise one day to find her playing with dolls. “He looked at me like he couldn’t believe I would play with a doll. I ran home clutching my doll, I felt so embarrassed. I never let him see me with one again,” Pat said.
Pat was Ray’s best friend, but his constant companion was his boxer, Boots. Ray loved his dog and it was not uncommon to see a dark-haired barefoot boy walking down the street with his best buddy tottering beside him, both heading to explore the woods and the creek. Ray could think by the creek. It was quiet and a good place to be alone. Ray liked it there with the only sounds being Boots lapping water and a crow flying by.
When Ray went into first grade and left Pat behind, she was miserable. “My best friend was gone for the whole day. I had no idea what to do with myself,” she said. As the clock got closer to the end of the school day, Pat would sit patiently by the picture window in the living room looking for Ray. “It seemed to take forever for him to come home and jump out of the car,” Pat said.
As Ray was exploring his world on Rose Lane, Jack and his buddies were creating their own fun several miles north in Wake County. Jack lived with his family in an old farmhouse behind his father’s store, Copeland Auto Supplies. “We were typical kids of the times, with a bit of mischief thrown in,” said Dave, Jack’s childhood friend. “There were three of us: me, Dave and Wayne, the preacher’s son.” Jack was full of energy, his sharp hazel eyes carrying a sparkle. His playful grin had a tilt; he was always ready for a joke.
The three had to go to church every Sunday. If they didn’t, they could forget about playing the rest of the day. Summer in Raleigh is sticky and muggy, especially when your mother makes you wear a tight-collared shirt and tie. It didn’t take long for sweat to bead up on young necks in church.
One of those hot, humid Sundays, the preacher wouldn’t stop praying, and the three boys began to fidget. An open window nearby became too enticing, as if the Devil himself were tempting them with the freedom awaiting outside. With all the eight-year-old upper body strength they could muster, they quietly hoisted themselves up and out. The last thing the congregation saw were the soles of a young boy’s Sunday shoes.
The boys would sometimes include Jack’s younger sister Kay in their shenanigans. “It was summertime, and we were out in the woods,” Kay recalled. “Jack and his friends decided we should try to smoke some of the dry straw growing everywhere.” Not much straw got smoked. But in haste to light the straw, they caught the woods on fire. “Jack yelled at me, ‘Go get Mom,”’ Kay said. She raced through the woods back to their house with visions of trees and brush burning up all around them. “I was scared to death,” she said. “I was scared about the woods and also scared about how much trouble we were going to get into.” Kay’s fears overcame her when she finally made it to the threshold of the beauty parlor. She froze. Her mother stared at her and asked what was wrong. “I cried, ‘Jack caught the woods on fire’,” Kay said. Mrs. Copeland and the ladies in the beauty parlor jumped into action. They filled buckets and anything else they could find with water. Off they raced with pink curlers and the smell of permanent solution in the air. “We both got a spanking that night,” Kay said, laughing.
Jack had a big heart. “We had a friend that was blind, and Jack made sure he was not left out of anything,” said Dave. Jack’s hands would guide the boy telling him where to step when they were exploring the woods making sure he wouldn’t trip.
As in a lot of young friendships, Ray and Pat eventually grew apart. “When I was around twelve or thirteen, Ray and I were hanging out together and he asked me if I was wearing a bra. I was so embarrassed I ran home and cried. I knew that moment things were going to change,” recalled Pat. Things changed for Jack and Dave also. Jack became interested in girls and Dave started working in his family’s store. “We weren’t that close anymore, but I never felt disconnected,” said Dave.
It is hard to say if Ray and Jack’s paths ever crossed in Raleigh; they might have seen the same movie at Ambassador Theater in downtown Raleigh on a Saturday afternoon, or they could have passed each other on the Capital Boulevard loop teenagers drove from Shoney’s to Chip’s on Fridays. The downtown YWCA Friday night dance was another place their paths could have crossed; high schoolers came from all over. Donald and Kay both remember having to sit in the back seat of the family car as their brothers were driven to the weekly dance on Jones Street. High school anxiety prevailed on the dance floor as nerves overcame most students. “It was your typical teenaged dance—the boys on one side of the room and the girls on the other until some brave soul got the nerve to ask someone to dance,” Pat recalled.
As high school was ending, in the spring of 1967, a Marine recruiting officer came to Enloe High School where Ray and his buddies went. “Join the Marines,” he encouraged the young men nearing draft age, the same ones who were still getting the nerve up to ask a girl to dance and saving money to take care of their second-hand cars. “I’ll never forget when Ray broke the news to my parents,” said Donald. “If he was going to Vietnam, he was going to join as a Marine; he wasn’t going to wait to be drafted.” They were sitting around the Formica kitchen table; Ray’s father tried to take the news in stride. “My mother was heartbroken,” said Donald. “And she stayed that way.” After graduation, Ray went to boot camp at Parris Island, then was stationed at Camp Lejeune. A long drive to deliver one of Ray’s favorite lemon pies took up many a Sunday afternoon. Mrs. Carter made extra, because someone had to bake those young Marines pies. Almost from the first, Ray counted the days until he returned home. He couldn’t call home, but he often wrote. At the end of many of his letters to his family would be the number of days he had left. They may have been written in anticipation, or maybe in reassurance. Counting days brought him closer to Rose Lane.
Ray came home in early December that year and walked the path he had hundreds of times to Pat’s house. “He knew mistletoe was one of my mother’s favorite things. He had cut some for her,” recalled Pat. “It meant so much to her.” He hugged Pat goodbye and walked out the door. “I just knew I would see him again,” she said.
Mrs. Carter’s only wish that year was for Ray to be stateside for Christmas. It was not granted; Ray left for Vietnam from Camp Pendleton two days before Christmas.
As the war was escalating in early 1968, Jack, who had dropped out of high school, contemplated joining the Marines, too. His abundant energy and desire to work with his hands didn’t mix well with sitting in class. He had also fallen in love with a young lady, Sandra. Jack knew it was only a matter of time before he was drafted. Jack wanted to make his parents proud. He wanted to make Sandra proud. If he was going to Vietnam, he was going to go as a Marine. They weren’t going to draft him, he told his buddy. “When he called me I was shocked,” said Dave. “He was very determined. I always knew I would see Jack again.”
Jack followed Ray’s footsteps, first to Parris Island then to Camp Lejeune. Mrs. Copeland, his younger sister, Kay, and Sandra would visit Jack at Camp Lejeune and take him on trips to the beach. One time Jack sat down next to Kay on the sand dunes and told her how much he loved her. “No matter what happens. I don’t think I will make it back,” he said. “They say it is brutal over there.” Kay sat stunned; not her big brother.
Kay remembers watching Jack board the plane the day he left for Pendleton and Vietnam. “He turned around and saluted us. He looked just like a president,” she said.
That September two mothers bought raincoats in Raleigh and mailed them to their sons in Vietnam. “Dear Family, Mama and Daddy, I want one thing, send me a rain suit please it rains all the time here,” wrote Jack. “Tell mother to cut that rain jacket off about the length of one of my sport coats and send it on. It has started to rain pretty regularly,” wrote Ray.
A nightmare woke Mr. Carter one late October night. He and Ray were running through darkened woods and Ray suddenly disappeared. Mr. Carter looked frantically for his son then heard an explosion. The dream preoccupied him for days.
Ray had just made corporal and become a radioman. On October 29, 1968, he was a few steps behind his sergeant when the sergeant stepped on a landmine. Ray was killed instantly. Two days later, just twelve miles away, Jack was hit by small arms fire while on patrol. Still alive, he was rushed by helicopter to the naval hospital in Da Nang.
After school one day, Pat was looking out the living room window when she noticed a strange car go slowly past her house. “When it drove by, some of the last leaves swirled in the air behind it. It’s an image I’ll never forget,” she said. She recognized it as a military vehicle. The Carters had told Pat’s family if they ever saw a military car to come straight over. Racing to the next room, she cried to her mother. Pat’s mother ripped the iron cord out of the socket and ran next door, house slippers still on. “I’ll never forget mother’s scream. It was horrible,” said Pat.
The Copelands received a letter informing them Jack’s condition had been upgraded to “good.” But with more than 52,220 Americans killed during the war, cruel mistakes happened.
It was the middle of the school day when Kay was taken out of her English class and met by her preacher and his wife in the principal’s office. They drove her home, where she found her mother sobbing and her father crying, “Not my Jack.” Her mind froze, her heart shattered; a girl needs her big brother.
Their obituaries ran on the same page in the Raleigh News and Observer. Their funerals were two hours apart at the same funeral home. They were buried at the same cemetery. St. Mary’s Street outside Mitchell Funeral Home was lined with cars. Fathers squeezed their vehicles into the crowd of others. Mothers stuffed extra tissues in their pocketbooks. Teenagers had a hard time looking each other in the eye. The steady rhythm of car doors shutting and ladies’ high heels tapping on the pavement were the only sounds. No one talked much. What was there to say?
Kay recalled Mrs. Carter came over to her mother at the visitation. “Mrs. Carter took my mother’s hands and asked if she could pay respects to Jack. My mother said yes. I am sure it was the only time they ever spoke to each other. It was heartbreaking,” she said.
Pat slipped on the black dress her mother had made her to wear to Ray’s funeral. She thought back to those times when they had played barefoot in the creek. She wanted to be barefoot with him one more time. Dave put on his best jacket and straightened his tie just as he had on those hot, summer Sunday mornings when he and Jack fidgeted in church.
A cool autumn mist hung over Raleigh on November 18, 1968. Ray’s parents may have hesitated by his room, looking at all the model cars their son had painted with great patience. Jack’s parents might have looked out their window expecting to see him smiling back at them as he raced through the yard.
Long lines of cars drove down Wilmington Street to Montlawn Cemetery that afternoon. The haunting sound of “Taps” and the honor guard gun salute echoed through the cemetery twice, barely muted by the damp air. “I’ll never forget hearing the gun salutes and ‘Taps’,” said Pat. “It was so final.” “It was too much to wrap my head around,” said Dave. “Jack deserved better than that.”
As the last cars pulled away from Jack’s grave, the day came to a close. November nights fall early. To most people it was like many others. Dads coming home from work picking up The Raleigh Times from the front stoop. Mothers checking if the meat loaf was ready. Porch lights casting shadows on front lawns. Children bundled up in the night air taking their dogs for a walk. The fresh chill on their faces and the feel of a cold nose nudging them.
Two Marines came home that day, as heroes. But to their mothers, they were their little boys. The little boys with the skinned knees and quick hugs. The little boys that had stood on their porches many times, as night fell, and called home.