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Sean Kirst: On Memorial Day, keeping faith with a lost brother

The Rev. Robert Beiter is a cemetery person. Some people are and some people are not, he told me last week. That is a matter of intensely personal choice. He understands both perspectives.

For his part, he finds peace in whatever time he can spend on his knees in the graveyard, trowel in his hand.

I met Beiter by chance. He was at the old Buffalo Cemetery in Cheektowaga, where he cares for the graves of his parents and great-grandparents. He spent much of the conversation talking about the gravesite of his brother Roger, an 18-year-old lost in a harsh turn of fate almost 53 years ago, while Roger was on his way to serve in the Vietnam war.

That leads to a truth Beiter tries to honor, a notion that to him is the heart and soul of Memorial Day.

"People think death ends everything," he said. "It doesn't. The bonds can get even stronger."

Sean Kirst: A Memorial Day quest, a quiet grandson and stories that live on

Beiter, 79, now retired as a priest, was the second of five children. Roger, seven years younger, was second to youngest. Their parents, Richard and Delores Beiter, ran a tavern in West Seneca where you could get a beer after work or a Friday night fish fry.

Delores could be "a tough woman," Beiter said with admiration. She not only raised her family but was co-owner of the tavern. She tended bar, waited tables, helped in cleaning the place up. Beiter, as a youth, washed dishes there.

A 7-year difference, in childhood, is a significant gap. While Beiter shared a room with Roger for a couple of years, the older brother graduated from Canisius High School and left for the seminary before Roger was in middle school.

Mass card for Roger J. Beiter of West Seneca, a U.S. Marine, who died at 18 on the first leg of his journey to Vietnam. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

Even now, Beiter often thinks of how much he missed when his kid brother was growing up. Beiter wishes he had known Roger better during the teen years. He remembers he was a good student, that he embraced many programs in the local Catholic Youth Organization, that his parents used to say Roger was a natural leader.

Academically, socially, he seemed prepared to go to college as soon as he graduated from Canisius High in 1964.

Roger had other plans. He spent a semester at Canisius College, then stepped away. "He didn't feel he was ready," Beiter said. Roger joined the Marines. The Vietnam war was starting to escalate, and quickly.

On June 25, 1965, Roger boarded an Air Force C-135 Stratolifter, a transport plane flying out of El Toro, Calif. It was supposed to carry 84 crew members and passengers to Okinawa, including Roger and dozens of other Marines who were on their way to Vietnam.

The plane never made it out of California. Amid fog and rain, it crashed into Loma Ridge, killing everyone aboard.

According to The Los Angeles Times, more than 1,000 more Marines awaiting transport overseas were ordered to call their parents from Camp Pendleton, and tell them they were safe. As for Roger's family, the news about Roger's death came in a telegram. A messenger brought it to the tavern, somehow knowing that was a better choice than  the family home, where Roger's mother might have learned the news, alone.

Years later, because the accident happened so far away from the actual war zone, the Department of Defense decided Roger and the others on the plane did not qualify for placement on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – the famous monument known as the "wall" – in the nation's capital.

That decision, to Beiter, makes no sense. His brother died while going to Vietnam. He gave his life as a direct result of his decision to enlist. Beiter is watching with interest to see if relatives of 74 crew members who died while on board the USS Frank E. Evans – a ship destroyed in a training accident during the war, in the South China Sea – win their long campaign to have those names put on the wall.

If they do, Beiter said, "I think we'd take another look."

Whether it happens or not, he has his own ways of remembering his brother.

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Roger's name is on the downtown Vietnam War Memorial at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park. Beiter still goes there when he can. He takes comfort in knowing his parents lived to see the dedication of that memorial, and that Roger's name is in a place of honor in his hometown.

As for quieter traditions, Beiter gets up every year on Memorial Day and dedicates a Mass to his brother, before following the same routine he does a few times every week, once the weather grows warm.

He goes to Roger's grave, drops to his knees and beautifies the plot.

The plane crash changed his own outlook on life, Beiter said. The Marine Corps sent back a few of Roger's things from the ruins, including a rosary. Beiter, ordained less than a year before Roger's death, said his brother's funeral Mass at Queen of Heaven Church, in West Seneca.

For a few years, in a way even her own children did not know, Delores Beiter would often visit the cemetery by herself, looking for a little time alone with her boy. At home, she and her husband struggled for a while to talk about their son. They would tell themselves that they should have somehow compelled Roger to stay at home, in college.

Yet his parents were strong people, Beiter said, and they did their best to mesh Roger's death with their faith. Bit by bit, they found themselves able to laugh, to remember stories that spoke to who he was. As the war went on, as many veterans returned with physical or emotional wounds, Beiter recalls his mother reflecting on whether Roger, in some hard way, had been lucky.

"She wondered if through the way he died," Beiter said, "maybe he was spared worse suffering."

Rev. Robert Beiter touches the name of his brother, Roger J. Beiter, at the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial along the Buffalo waterfront. (Sharon Cantillon/The Buffalo News)

Both Beiter and a sibling, Sister Michele Beiter of the Sisters of St. Joseph, built careers in the clergy. Beiter believes that losing Roger made him a more empathetic priest, that it helped with a deeper understanding whenever a family in one of his parishes endured a terrible loss.

"You think a lot more about life itself," Beiter said.

Memorial Day quickly took on powerful meaning. His mother always called it "Decoration Day," and made a point of visiting Roger's grave. Beiter follows that same routine throughout the year, part of a quest that intensifies with age.

He loves the cemetery, the solitude, the singing of the birds. While he works at the space around the grave, he often wonders about Roger. If he had made it home, what career would he have followed? Would he have married and raised children and grandchildren? In some fashion, large or small, would he and his family have made their own mark upon the world?

After 53 years, it is clear Roger made that difference for at least one Catholic priest.

On quiet days, hands in the soil, he is there for his kid brother.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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