In two hours and five minutes, April 3rd, it will be my brother’s birthday. He is dead. I miss him.
My brother was a major star in the constellation of American news production, but about that you can read on Google, in Wikipedia, on by searching the topic as well as the name in tomes written on broadcast journalism. What you can’t learn is what he was like as an older brother. Only I know that. You will too, at least to some degree, when you’ve finished reading this.
Older brothers–he had five years on me– can be hell on their siblings. At times he was. When my mother would make him take me along on the six block walk to the store, his much longer legs would leave me rushing to catch up like a puppy trying to catch it’s master. If I slowed, anxiety arose that I’d get left behind and left alone. The good news, except to my wife who is five feet tall to my six, is that to this day I am a very fast walker, which is healthy.
When he got old enough to baby sit for me he would take my space ship suction cupped dart gun that fired four missiles either singly or all at once, turn out the lights, run upstairs and make me come up after him. My choices: to be scared to death alone downstairs or consumed with fear and anxiety as I crept up the stairs not knowing when the fateful moment of flying darts and screaming brother would arrive.
When his best friend and next door neighbor got a Red Ryder BB gun as a present, he invited me to watch them target shoot. Then they both began to intimidate me, made me run away, and shot me in the butt with a BB. Yes, it hurt.
But coins have two sides. As he got older and very task oriented he saw “big brother” as a job description. Everything changed. When my friend and I sneaked into the garage, found the gun, set up our own targets, and were oblivious to the tinkling sounds we were hearing about a second or so after each shot as we unwittingly shot out Rev. Chadwick’s garage windows, there was hell to pay. With the kind of wrath associated with the God of the Hebrews when He got PO’d, the good Reverend came a-pounding on our door at 9 o’clock at night after Bible study. There was a beating to be had and my brother took it.
During a pillow fight while baby sitting, I flung a couch pillow at him and shattered my mother’s prize living room vase. He took the blame and that beating too.
When he happened outside to see a group from the neighborhood gang, known frighteningly enough as “The Slaughter Gang” after their leader Frankie Slaughter, while they were beating the snot out of me, he charged up the street grabbed two of them quickly turning off my snot and causing cascades of theirs to start flowing.
He got his first car, a VW. He would let me wash it knowing that, still without a driver’s license, I would have to pull it into the driveway. Our dining room had an odd shape to it causing the house to jut out. To get to the backyard and the garage one had to hug the left side of the driveway to miss the “jut.” I forgot creating a several inch long scar on the right side of his brand new car. He didn’t kill me.
He picked up a girl at the beach for me who was so startingly sexy I got palpitations and shortness of breath. But he schooled me before our first date without mocking me at least until I said, “Should I try and kiss her goodnight?” The response, “No schmuck–shake hands…” I often said that but for him I could have been a priest or a nun and not known the difference…. ‘came time for “the talk” my mother actually gave me a book. My brother was less literary and a lot more graphic.
He got tickets from his friend astronaut Alan B. Shepherd, 3rd row orchestra for the hottest show of the day (My Fair Lady). The only hitch was that my brother’s girlfriend had her girlfriend in town and wouldn’t go unless my brother got her a date. None was to be had so in a matter of days he turned me from a 16 year old to a 19 year old. We had but one problem. This woman, a runner up in the Miss Virginia Miss USA beauty pageant, was so beautiful it was unnerving. Reverting to 16 as we exited dinner at a fancy restaurant, also courtesy of Col Shepherd, I was looking at her instead of where I was going and exited the circular glass door one turn too early raising a bump, with a loud bang, on my forehead that kept growing through the play and lasted far longer than the relationship with almost Miss Virginia.
As we grew older, I off in college, he rushed home to run an intervention when my mother’s alcoholism was becoming disheartening and dangerous to me. It failed but he tried. Then came the job world, he was now a correspondent in Vietnam. Through the mail we grew closer. On his return he taught me the economics of adulthood when he discovered my soon to leave me live-in girl friend was spending 30% more than I was making.
He too had problems and now I was old enough to be a confidant. It was a mark of adulthood I cherished. I listened attentively and lovingly as he shared with me, before our parents, the distress of his failing marriage. As I got older I was more and more able to be a peer and friend, a giver as well as taker of advice.
We had our first children within a month of each other and lived a mere 3 miles from one another. We talked, we drank, he laughed and cried about all manner of stuff. We vied with each other as to which one of us could find the strangest greeting cards for birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.
As I would approach each decade age milestone he would council me about what to expect. When I hit 50 he said, “Don’t worry–everything still works, just more slowly.” When he was bonkers at 59, explaining the madness to me by saying, “I have a whole year to think about being a 60 year old.” I said as only a brother could, “You’re f–ing crazy. Nobody has a bad year because they are 59!”
In our 50’s and 60’s with the advent of email, it was like we had an electronic umbilical cord. On some days we could write a dozen or more emails, some only a sentence or clause long. Some were funny, some were Snoopy-like, “Curse you Red Baron” notes railing about some political idiocy of the day, some were reflective, some were sad, We were always in touch.
We argued about little. One subject was Israel. I worked for The American Jewish Committee. Our politics on Israel, Jews and Judaism began to diverge. He had covered the ’67 was and came home a raging Zionist. But as he saw the entangiblements over the West Bank and Gaza issue grow uglier and uglier, he became angrier and angrier. It became a political blood clot in the brotherly umbilical cord. So one night at dinner, alone, in Manhattan, we made a pact. I wouldn’t tell him how to run the news and he wouldn’t tell me how to run the Jews. Case closed. Here’s to what a couple of shots of good scotch and the wonders they can produce.
The other was his smoking. He entered the news room “back in the day.” It was a noisy place from the clacking of typewriters and those doing the clacking were covered in a blue haze from chain smoking, each shift breathing in and adding to the haze from the last. During times of world crisis or personal peril, he could smoke four or five packs of cigarettes a day. That meant he had a cigarette in his mouth from the moment he got out of bed at about 6:30 am until he got back into it about 11 pm. After my mother became the third family casualty of lung cancer, the discussions became heated. I feared for his life and my loss from it. Finally it too got resolved.
One day I had met him in the city and driven home with him to Weston, Ct. for dinner. I said, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’ll tell you how stupid I think you are being and it will be for the last time.” I shouldn’t have relented. It killed him. His first cancer was not in his lung. He did stop–for 6 years but the damage was done. His next one was in the lung. His 3rd was everywhere. If you’re surrounded by a blue haze while you are reading this, there’s a message in here for you from those you love.
I remember my father and his brothers in their growing older years sitting down together and talking about “Pop” and Mom. It always touched me, those reminiscences. It was one of those silly, small things I looked forward to repeating with my brother. It never happened. At 72 he was gone.
April 3rd is my brother’s birthday. He’s dead. I’m now older than my older brother. I miss him.