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Cheese, I say to George A., borrowing the camera.

So, you see, he’s happy when I snap him and sticking it to the cameraman a little. I can take it, though. The truth is, when it comes to us, I want to crush him in the dust, but when it comes to anybody else, to the whole outside, other world, I want George A. to win. I want that for us both. And on this day I still feel no less sure of him than of myself.

In the photo you can tell the boy’s an athlete of some kind. Six-foot-seven and 210 or 215, he’s lean-waisted, broad across the shoulders and chest, more man than boy, though there’s still a spindly coltish something in his legs that marks him at the tremble point. From hoisting those heavy cans all summer, he has thick, good arms as ‘good’ was then, in a more casual time… George A.’s proud of the body he’s achieved. In the way his arms fall at his sides, there’s a tad of the gunslinger pose. He’s like someone with a new suit he paid a lot of money for and doesn’t want to wrinkle in the wearing, or a cherry car he parks at the far edge of the lot to ward off dings.

I thought my brother was the best-looking boy I ever knew, among the best-looking I ever saw. As I study this old photo, though, I think perhaps it isn’t Gable that I’m searching for, but those clean-cut all-American boys on lawns and beaches, posing for the camera with their girls and paste-waxed cars, before they went away to World War II. George A.’s smile extends a friendly confidence like theirs, but a little further back, I see something that’s prepared for disappointment, and it strikes me that George A., too, this day in 1975, is going off to war, an inward war no less real. It will last twenty-five years and the rest of his short life, and George A. won’t return from it.  This picture is the last glimpse I’ll ever have of him, which I guess is why I kept it and put it out in every place I ever lived in.”


Pulled from David Payne’s memoir about growing up in North Carolina, published last year, Barefoot to Avalon.

Earlier in the book, he offers this description of his brother, referenced above, “He reminded me of young Clark Gable, only the confidence in Gable that flirted with conceit and smugness was in George A. nuanced, sly and sweet.” You can see David Payne talk to Charlie Rose, a longtime family friend of the Paynes, here.

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