This is a story in three parts about my son, Casey.
VINCENT CASE “CASEY” MACURDY
June 18, 1956 – April 26, 1993
Part #1 Casey’s Place in the Family
Part #2 Casey Contracts HIV from Blood Transfusion
Part #3 Life after Casey’s Death
Part #1: Casey’s Place in the Family
Casey was born with a love of the water. When he was one year old and we picnicked beside the Delaware River, I placed him on a beach blanket and he took off crawling toward the river’s edge as fast as he could go. Years later, when we lived on Siesta Key in Sarasota, FL, and Casey was a teenager, he arrived home one day in nothing but wet cut-off jeans. He told me he had been standing on Shell Beach near our house, wanted to be on Lido so he swam across Big Pass to Lido Key and hitchhiked home. Big Pass is a half-mile wide and the current can be strong. Power boats are speeding along not expecting swimmers. I never before or since heard of anybody swimming across there. It is far too dangerous.
In the mid 1950’s, my husband, Air Force Major H. H. (Mac) Macurdy, and I lived in Media and Chester, PA for four years while Mac was advisor to the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. Both our boys, Eric and Casey, were born in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. The Navy hospital was available to me as a military wife. Mac was not in the Navy, but was a fighter pilot in the USAF. He had flown combat in WWII, where he was shot down in his P-47 and remained missing in action (MIA) and evaded capture behind German lines for eight months, making him a war hero by age twenty-two. Later, at age thirty-one, he flew a combat tour in F-84G’s during the Korean War.
Our first son, Eric, went by the rules, excelled in school, graduated from the Air Force Academy, was pilot and commander of a C-141 cargo aircraft, resigned from the USAF and became a financial director for Verizon. Second son, Casey, moved in more mysterious ways, choosing a life at sea, making music with guitar, harmonica, and voice. He doodled page after page of very funny comic strip drawings. Their younger sister, Clea, came along several years later, born on an icy February day near Truax AFB in Madison, Wisconsin. She became a bookstore manager, thrift store volunteer, wife, mother, teacher, children’s theater advocate, and a records keeper for children with special needs in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
Casey’s first school experience was in Spain. We were living in Canilléjas, a suburb of Madrid, while Mac was stationed at Torrejón AFB flying F-102’s and F-104’s. We enrolled Eric and Casey in the local Catholic school where no one spoke English, including the teaching nuns. We are not Catholic, but were interested in exposure to the local culture. On the first day of school, Eric went willingly. Casey rebelled, but the nun secured him under her left arm and hauled him inside kicking and screaming. Both children excelled in that school, keeping up nicely with their Spanish classmates. I also learned a lot of Spanish, as I helped them every morning with their homework. We had a live-in maid, Dionysia, age fifteen, who walked the boys back and forth to school. They started school at 10:00 a.m., came home at 1:00 p.m. for lunch and a two-hour siesta, and then went back for three more hours of school.
Returning to the U.S. from Spain in 1963, about the time John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Eric and Casey attended elementary school in MacFarland, Wisconsin. Later, in Sarasota, Florida, both finished Phillipi Shores Elementary, Brookside Junior High, and Riverview High School.
In high school Casey was active in gymnastics and became very muscular. From inside our front door, he would walk on his hands through the carpeted living room, across the red brick floor of the Florida room, and enter the large kitchen where I was standing fifteen feet away at the sink. Arriving quietly beside me, his bare feet would appear to the left of my face and, from down below, his voice would ask “What’s for dinner, Mom?” Then he would collapse into a pile of breathless giggles on the floor. Being Casey’s mother was never dull.
Once when I went into Casey’s room to clean, I found a needle suspended horizontally in mid-air over his desk. On closer examination I realized it was held by a barely visible thread attached at the right and was drawn to a magnet placed several inches away on the opposing end to the left. Another time I found Casey at the dining room table with different sized stemmed glasses lined up. With a table fork, he was tapping them and creating recognizable music.
When Eric and Casey were high school age, they used my car as needed. Both boys were involved in sports and other after school activities, and both had night jobs in restaurants. The car was constantly in use by one of the three of us. I seriously considered writing a book titled I AM MOM’S CAR as there could have been numerous chapters about the car being involved in some drama.
One night that old blue/gray American Motors Hornet got stuck on a sandy beach near our house. Mac and I were awakened at 3:00 a.m. by Casey’s teenage voice in our bedroom, saying “Dad, the car is stuck on Shell Beach and the tide is coming in.” Mac didn’t say a word, just got up, threw on some clothes, grabbed a flashlight and a shovel, and took off with Casey. Hours later they told me they dug a hole in the sand the size of the car and then got it stuck again. They lost one flashlight and came home for another one and an additional shovel. I never heard Mac say one cross word to Casey regarding the incident, and I found that very commendable. Mac had love for and a protective attitude toward cars.
During Casey’s teenage years, he had a salt water aquarium on a ledge between our living room and Florida room. Our backyard boat dock jutted out over Bayou Louise and Casey had use of our canoe for gathering salt water specimens. A young neighbor girl, Julie O’Donnell, who spent a lot of time at our house playing with Casey’s little sister, Clea, remembers that she was somewhat afraid of Casey. He teasingly told the little girls that he had brought an octopus in from the bayou and put it in the aquarium, but it was missing and must be somewhere loose in the house. Julie says that she and Clea searched everywhere in the house for that octopus and Julie was very careful where she stepped.
Casey, along with Julie’s brother, Mike O’Donnell, used the apartment over our garage as a music studio. While in high school, Eric and Casey together had used the garage apartment as their bedroom, but Eric was gone to the Air Force Academy by the fall of 1973, leaving the apartment available to Casey and Michael for experimenting with music. With money earned bussing tables in local restaurants, Casey bought guitars, woofers, tweeters, amplifiers, etc. The music was loud, but the neighbors never complained, at least not to me.
Fresh out of high school, Casey joined the Navy and served aboard the USS Forrestal. Once, while in port near Jacksonville, he invited Mac and me to tour the ship. I was amazed by the compact sleeping quarters for thousands of men. After two years, Casey left the Navy and chose instead to have a non-military life at sea. Using Seattle as a home port, he sailed aboard merchant ships all over the world. Casey’s ships of choice took him to the Suez Canal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Point Barrow in Alaska, Brunei, Singapore, New Orleans, Madagascar, New York Harbor, and Chittagong.
Casey’s method of operating was to go to sea, make a bundle of money, then come back to Seattle and enroll in classes at the University of Washington. When he got low on money he would go to sea again. Casey studied until he met the requirements and passed the Masters License test to be a ship’s Captain. However, due to his young age, and then his illness, HIV, he never held that position, usually signing on as First Mate instead.
Casey called me once from Madagascar to ask for his Grandmother Agie’s shirt size. Agie was Mac’s tiny mother. I told him I bought her size 14 boys flannel shirts and that was all he needed to know. He did send lovely embroidered matching shirts to both his Dad’s parents, Harold and Agie Macurdy, who were in their nineties. Agie was later buried in that shirt.
Clea, Casey, and I spent some happy times together in Sarasota, FL where we lived, and in Fernandina Beach, FL, where Mac’s elderly parents lived. We were happiest in the car with Casey driving after he was grown and well-traveled, and back home for an occasional visit. Casey was good at discussing profound topics like the possibility of life after death. I heard him say once “There might be some kind of life after death, but it wouldn’t have anything to do with Christianity.”
Casey’s love of the sea led him into deep sea diving. He bought the necessary equipment, including an expensive diver’s helmet which is now in my guest closet, and enrolled in diving school in Seattle. He was proud of that helmet and showed it off at every opportunity. I have an underwater photo of him off the coast of Louisiana blasting the barnacle growth off the leg of an oil rig platform to check that the metal seams were still in good condition. Casey led a good life marching to his own drummer.
Part #2: Casey Contracts HIV from Blood Transfusion
On March 4, 1981, Mac, Clea, and I were in our Higel Avenue kitchen on Siesta Key in Sarasota when the phone rang. Our sixteen year old Clea yelled “I’ll get it!”, and on learning it was Casey, handed the phone to me. Casey said “Mom, I need to talk to Dad”, so I turned the phone over to Mac, sensing immediately that something was wrong. It was cocktail hour and we were by then on our second or third martini. Mac’s side of the conversation went something like this. “Nah, Casey, you probably don’t need time in a hyperbaric chamber. Probably best to just ignore it.” Mac’s insensitivity grated on my nerves, but I stayed out of it.
A few weeks later we learned that after that conversation with his Dad, Casey went along with his equally non-sympathetic diving school instructors and, at their insistence, did recreational drugs, further messing up his head. Later that night he wound up back in his little basement apartment cutting himself in a suicide attempt. He believed and feared he had ruined his health and his future by surfacing too fast and getting “the bends” while participating in the deep sea diving class.
We knew nothing about the suicide attempt until several days later when Harborview Medical Center called saying our son was being released from the hospital with both arms in casts. He was going to need a lot of help, and would we take him in at our home. We said yes and they put him on a flight. We drove to Tampa Airport to pick him up. Through blood transfusions administered during that incident, he was infected with HIV, but none of us, not even Casey, knew that at the time. That year, 1981, was four years before blood was being tested for HIV. Casey was twenty-six. He had never seemed suicidal. To the contrary, things switched from black and white to Technicolor whenever he entered a room. He had a big appetite for life and saw things from a different perspective, which made him very interesting to be with.
Casey’s arms were in casts because ligaments had been cut in more than one place in both forearms. The casts went from elbows down to middle knuckles of the fingers, immobilizing the wrists. There were also cuts on each side of his neck. During recovery, Casey told me he first made some cuts on his arms, got impatient because he was still alive, called 911 and got impatient because they didn’t arrive, made some more cuts, couldn’t stand the smell of all the blood, and called 911 again. This information came from him voluntarily, as I was not questioning, just listening to whatever he felt like telling.
During the several weeks while Casey was in our Sarasota home with casts on both arms, he tried to figure a way to play his guitar. Tuning it was a problem for him due to restriction of his fingers by the casts. He asked me to help with turning the keys to tighten guitar strings. I tried but was not very helpful, not having the musical ear for knowing when it sounded right.
Because Casey’s arms were in casts, he was not able to bathe himself. I would fill my bathtub with warm soapy water and he would enjoy sitting naked in it a while before I washed his face and upper body with a washcloth. To shampoo his hair, he would lean forward, putting his head under the faucet while I lathered him up, then rinsed his hair. He so appreciated the fresh clean feeling. More than once, he came to me for help cleaning feces off his right side arm cast. I was glad to help. He was doing the best he could at taking care of himself.
During Casey’s recovery and while the casts were still on, one day in particular was tense, stressful, and difficult. Casey said he needed to see a doctor at the V. A. Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL. Although his reasons were never clear, it seemed urgent and emotional. Mac did not want to drive him there. Casey was so distraught, I offered to drive him there, but Mac gave in and drove him.
When the casts finally came off, Casey’s arms looked terribly scarred and ropey. He stayed on with us until he was well enough to go back to sea and resume his old lifestyle. Clea and I drove him to the Jacksonville port where he boarded the ship he had hired onto. It was not until he donated blood in Seattle a few years later that a doctor called him in and told him he was HIV positive. I do not know the date, but it would have been in the mid-to-late 80’s after testing was started for HIV in the blood supply, probably 1986 or 87. He spent the next seven or so years keeping us in the dark about having HIV. He did not know how he had contracted it. He was, after all, a sailor in seaports all over the world. He did not want to bring shame upon the family. He felt embarrassed and guilty. The prevailing attitude about AIDS at that time was shameful. Due to the stigma and the homophobic gay issue, it was the worst time in history to be infected with HIV.
Casey did not want to go on record as dying of AIDS, so he deliberately started putting himself into situations in which he would likely die of something other than AIDS. Casey told me that he got hired on a merchant ship loaded with military ammunition headed to the Kuwaiti Persian Gulf War zone. No one else wanted the dangerous assignment due to likelihood of the ship being blown to smithereens, so Casey found a doctor who would falsify the health certificate regarding his HIV infection and signed on. To reach their destination of Bahrain, they went through the Suez Canal. Showing his fascination with the process, Casey related to me how the ship’s captain bribed his way past the Suez check point. Part of the trip back home from the war zone was devoted to delivering relief supplies to the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Casey was pleased they could do something helpful for mankind. Returning to the U.S. on that same ship, Casey cared for a highly contagious sick crewman, preferring to contract a dreaded disease and die of it rather than die later of AIDS.
Casey was enjoying membership in a club in Seattle where he could take karate lessons. In the interest of full disclosure, he informed them of his HIV infection and he was voted out of the club. The public was terrified of AIDS at that time. That might have been one of his saddest days.
Casey kept taking courses at the University of Washington, making music, and recording his songs on tape. To earn extra money, he harvested sea urchins as long as he was able. While attached to an air hose he would walk along the sea floor picking up sea urchins and collecting them in a mesh bag which he dragged with him. He kept doing this until he was so weakened by HIV related illnesses he could no longer pull himself back onto THE JULIE K, his boss Randy’s boat. Sea urchins are prized in China as an aphrodisiac.
In the Seattle area, Casey took flying lessons and soloed. He sky dived. In one letter written a few months before he died, he was describing a calculus problem regarding how fast a v-shaped trough would fill up with water. He was still keeping us in the dark about his illness and keeping his own mind busy with calculus and other studies.
Finally, when prompted by a VA Hospital doctor, that he had only a few days left and should contact his family, Casey advised us and then wrote the following letter:
Dear Mom and Dad: Thanks for your concern about my HIV status. Yes, I’ve been HIV positive for a long time. My present lung problems may or may not be related to this disease. At last count my T4 count was about 570. It varies. I have been receiving drug therapy here in Seattle for years. I’m not sure how I got it but just to set the record straight, I never engaged in any homosexual activity or did any I.V. drugs. I may have picked it up from that blood transfusion I got in 1981. I still really don’t understand what happened to me during that incident, but I’m sure there was something either emotional or physical that was really messing up my brain. The longer I go with this problem the more I think that I may have picked it up in any number of cities along the U.S. East or West coast, Alaska, San Juan Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Brazil, Africa, Madagascar, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, Ceylon, Columbia, Peru, Panama, Chile, Canada, Mexico, Brunei. My guess is I got it in Thailand. But it really doesn’t matter. Please don’t try to help me speculate on how I got it. It is pointless and we will never know. When I found out a long time ago, I had any women that I was going out with checked. None of them were infected. I’m glad I don’t have to watch my wife or girlfriend die of this. The reason I didn’t tell you before was because I was ashamed of it, and I didn’t really see any point in dragging you into this problem. I knew you would support me if I asked you for help. Well, that’s really all I have to say about this right now. I have to get out and start moving around and taking care of business or the whole day just goes to hell. Vince
When I received Casey’s first letter telling us he was infected with HIV and how far advanced it was, I was at home alone in my Patio Home in the Villages of West End. I was not surprised by the news as my mother’s intuition had told me something like this was going on. Mac was further south in Florida in his travel trailer attending a week-long air show. I made no effort to reach him, as he would have been no comfort to me nor would it have done Casey any good. Five days later Mac came back through Gainesville and I showed him the letter then. Mac went on to Little River Airport near McAlpin, FL where he lived in his hangar apartment. We had not been living together for several years.
Toward the end, Eric sent Casey a thousand dollar check but Casey returned it. Twice Eric and I made conference calls with Casey during the next several days. I offered to have him fly home and I would take care of him. He had become too weak to work or earn money. I offered to send money, and Casey said maybe five hundred. I sent 250, with the promise of another 250 in a few days. His death came before I sent the second check, which makes me feel terrible, although I had helped him many times before.
On April 26, 1993, I was talking long distance with my sister, Imogene, when an operator broke in to allow the news of Casey’s death by phone. The news came from a female spokesperson at the V. A. Medical Center in Seattle. I then relayed the information by phone to Mac, Eric, and Clea, then called Imogene back and asked her to notify our other sisters, Dot and Leita. When Mac finally heard my recorded phone message, he drove to my house from his hangar apartment in the middle of the night. Mac needed sympathy and I couldn’t give it. I know now it was a mistake to have him come here that night. He was emotionally unable to deal with his son’s death. It was decided the next day that Eric and Clea would fly to Seattle to deal with issues there.
Ironically, Casey’s mysterious 1981 suicide attempt requiring a blood transfusion resulted in his death twelve years later in 1993 from HIV related illnesses.
Part #3: Life After Casey’s Death:
The day after Casey’s death, Mac and I drove to Jacksonville and stayed in a Holiday Inn near the airport. I was a new resident in my Villages of West End neighborhood. Neighbors didn’t understand that Mac and I were estranged, because Mac was at my house a lot. The last thing we needed was a stream of concerned and well-meaning neighbors who barely knew us stopping by with casseroles.
While in Jacksonville, we shopped for and bought gray tile for my front entrance. I had been in my new patio home only four months and the entryway was incomplete. Casey’s death was not a surprise to us and we needed to deal with grief and each other in our own private way. Sympathetic, but ill-informed strangers would not have been helpful.
Within thirty-six hours of Casey’s death, Eric and Clea were flying to Seattle. They first went to the V.A. Medical Center where he had died. Among his personal effects were his car keys. A security guard accompanied them around the hospital parking lot in search of Casey’s van, which they found. The van was equipped for sleeping and eating. He had driven himself to the hospital. He’d been living in the van and they found his belongings neat and tidy.
Personnel at the V. A. Medical Center in Seattle called and asked my permission to do an autopsy. I gave permission, with the understanding I would be sent a copy of the results. When the results came in the mail a few days later, I sat on my back porch and read every word. He had suffered an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs, internally as well as externally, and according to the death certificate, died of pulmonary hypertension/right heart failure.
Eric and Clea drove Casey’s van from the hospital to a different location in Seattle and went through his belongings in the van. His storage locker information was found, so they went there and had a cursory look at his belongings. Eric and Clea were communicating with Mac and me in our room at the Jacksonville Airport Holiday Inn. By then, the autopsy and cremation had been completed, and at Mac’s request it was decided Casey’s ashes should be scattered in the Seattle area rather than brought back to the east coast. I absolutely agreed with that as Seattle was Casey’s home base. Eric and Clea located Randy on whose boat Casey had worked at harvesting sea urchins until his illness made him too weak.
Randy, and his wife, Lisa, volunteered to take Eric and Clea on their boat, THE JULIE K, out into Admiralty Bay for scattering the ashes. Lisa provided an armful of lilacs from her yard to toss on the water at the spot. Coordinates were recorded as 48 degrees 09.19 minutes north, 122 degrees 45.36 minutes west. That is off Point Wilson Lighthouse with McCurdy Point to the west and Fort Casey State Park to the East.
Several weeks after Casey died, Mac and I flew to Seattle to go through his belongings which remained in his rented storage locker and to arrange a memorial of some kind on Puget Sound.
While in Seattle, Mac and I drove to Port Angeles, the closest town to where Casey’s ashes had been scattered. We walked out toward the light house and looked west onto Admiralty Bay, which is Casey’s grave. Eerily, Fort Casey was visible across the water to our right, and McCurdy Point was on the shore around the corner to our left. Eric and Clea had done a good job depositing his ashes in an appropriate seaward location. We got back in our rental car and drove to a nearby restaurant for some lunch and a glass of wine. Seated in a booth by a west-facing window, after the first sip of wine, my tears started to flow.
We tried, but failed, to leave a memorial marker of some kind, a seaside park bench with his name, for example. Ultimately, it was decided that leaving his ashes between Ft. Casey and McCurdy Point was already more than sufficient.
We arranged for a car to drive back to Florida so we could bring some of Casey’s belongings, such as his guitar, from the storage locker. We had seven unpleasant days on the road driving from Seattle, WA to Gainesville, FL, each of us in grief in our separate ways. We alternated driving duties every two hours.
It is my nature to deal with personal issues privately, so I read several books on death and dying, and how to have a “good” death. Joseph Campbell’s The Power of the Myth was helpful, plus a few sessions being open with a therapist. Inwardly, I made peace with what had happened and vowed to carry Casey with me while proceeding with the happy life he would want me to have. That has worked for me, except for feeling he was cheated of being around to share some of my most enjoyable years. A few days before his death, Casey apologized to me for dying. He didn’t want to be the cause of my having an unhappy life. This has been a major reason for my determination to stay happy, no matter what.
On May 2, 2000, seven years after Casey’s death, I was home alone in West End when a call came from Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. When the woman asked for Vincent Case Macurdy, I told her he was deceased and I was his mother. She was doing her job of tracking blood transfusion recipients from donors who had died of AIDS. Only then, did we know for sure how Casey had been infected. It was a relief to have the answer. Unfortunately for Casey, he never knew for sure.
Casey had introduced me to a lot of folk music. I think of him when I hear Woody or Arlo Guthrie, Loudon Wainwright, or Steve Goodman. Casey left several taped recordings of himself singing while playing guitar. After he died I collected and edited all that and made one tape of his best pieces. Each family member was given a copy. It was the early ’90’s, when we were still doing tapes.
Casey was a letter writer. I have a thick stack of every letter we ever received from him. He was descriptive and always made things interesting. Casey once described to me how remarkable it was to see an actual live walrus in the water off the coast of Alaska. He was on his way to becoming an old salt, with his clipped reddish beard and his anchor tattoo.
In my weekly Gentle Motions exercise class, instructor Paul Gebhart leads us through Chi Kung movements with lovely names such as “lifting the sky,” “gathering chi from the cosmos,” and “separating the yin and the yang.” When we start “scanning the seas,” I can’t help but channel Casey and my tears start to well; but then we change to the stance for “embracing the tiger” and I move on.
One day, I received a call from longtime friend, 95 year-old Mary Boze in Tampa. We had been Air Force wives together since the 1950’s, and she knew my three children when they were babies. When I told her I was writing about Casey’s life she said “be sure to put in there he was the cutest, most adorable person that ever walked this earth.” I agree with her, though some might believe I am prejudiced. Casey was colorful, charming, and full of surprises. I loved his wry, droll, irreverent humor, and that is how I choose to remember him. Casey was exceptional, as was his colorful but tragic life.
I remember sitting in the Sarasota Maas Brothers shoe department once with Casey, waiting for the shoe salesman to bring me high heeled shoes in a different size. When I commented that it was taking the clerk a long time, Casey quipped “Yeah, you’re right, Mom. He’s probably back there trying them on.” I do miss him very much. He should be here right now, making me laugh.