My little brother passed away yesterday. Its ironic that I still call him my little brother because as an adult, he was inches taller and pounds heavier than I was. And yet, I still thought of him as my little brother and I think people gave us an odd look when I called him that in introductions. But that’s OK, because people often thought he was the older brother because whereas he inherited his height from our mother’s side of the family, he also inherited his male pattern baldness from our father. Traits that seem to have skipped over me.
As kids, we weren’t close. There was a 5-1/2 year age difference, which when you’re a child, is almost insurmountable. On the other hand, we weren’t distant either. We had our share of arguments, mostly me teasing him until he’d cry. Big brothers do that.
As a child, Tom had this habit of sitting in the comfy chair and rocking his body forward then backward, rebounding off the back springs over and over. It was a comfort thing to him and he’d do it whether happy or sad. Still, you could tell how upset he was by how violently he slammed into the back of the chair. And he’d sing while doing this, or maybe it was a mantra or chant, something that sounded like, “Yappyoo,” over and over. It was years before we finally figured out he was saying, “Happy you,” which to this day makes no sense because he said it even when angry.
I’d get him angry and he’d often just go to his chair and bounce. But one day, I was watching TV and had my back to him as I teased him, and instead of retreating to his “Yappyoo” place, he surprised me by smacking me hard with a toy wooden truck. Not one of those light weight, chintzy, balsawood things. No, this was a high quality, hand-crafted, solid hard wood truck stained red that he crashed down on my head. For once, he made me cry.
But still, whether I deserved it or not, that didn’t change the fact that back in those days he was the annoying little brother who always had to tag along and cramp my style. I was a playa, after all.
“Can you take Tom to the park with you?”
“Gee whiz, Mom. Do I hafta? He’s such a drag.” Yes, that’s how we talked in the 1960s. Just like on “Leave it to Beaver.” He was Beaver to my Wally. And I had to tow him around.
“Hey, Ed! C’mon! We’re playing hide’n’seek!”
“Can’t. I’m watching my little brother. He’d get lost.”
And he did get lost once. I was playing baseball after school on the playground with our Cub Scout pack. A Police car pulled up and a Police officer came looking for me. I had no idea if I’d done anything wrong, but I was called over by the Scout Leader and the Police officer told me, “You’re brother never came home from school.”
I think I must have had a look of fear, because he reassured me that with my help, we’d find him. I could ride with them in the car because I’d be able to recognize Tom better than they would.
My friends were like, “What do the Police want with you?”
And I replied, eating up all the attention, “The Police need me. We have to look for my little brother.”
We never did find him. Not exactly, anyway. Instead, I think we caught up to him hours later as he was on our block walking home. Turns out he wasn’t kidnapped by pirates and taken to some far off exotic island. He had simply gone home with a friend who nobody knew and he hadn’t bothered telling anyone.
Our parents worked different shifts, our dad during the day and our mom worked the late shift at Johnston Municipal Hospital, Milwaukee’s public-run hospital, so we were sort of latchkey kids — at least it felt like that — and I looked after him after school.
One day Tom came home crying. I asked him what was wrong. He said some kids had threatened him and took his money (which probably amounted to the glorious sum of 42 cents, mostly pennies). I asked him to show me where because after all, I was the older brother and then a worldly middle schooler who’d seen his fair share of fights.
Unfortunately — for them — we never found them. But I think the fact that I was ready to beat someone up for him meant a lot to Tom. Another thing about big brothers: we’re the only one’s allowed to pick on the little brother.
Our dad went back to school — to get a degree and to meet women. He was hardly ever home. He was either at work, at school, or at the library “studying.”
Eventually, this studying led to a divorce, which really devastated Tom. I believe that he kept up the hope my parents would remarry until the day dad died.
So essentially, I was his sole male roll model. And I didn’t realize at the time how much he probably looked up to me. Had I known, I wouldn’t have joined the Navy. But I did, a year after our dad left us, and Tom must have felt abandoned.
I never thought about this until now. Never asked him about how he felt back then or how it affected him. And now I’ll never know.
I was in the Navy for about 7 years and only came home 4 times, so from what I gather, Tom just sort of drifted rudderless. He had troubles in school, didn’t finish high school but did eventually receive his GED. He went to a vocational school, MBTI, I believe, for something in computers, but didn’t graduate. And he went from one minimum wage job to another.
Our dad was useless at that point, only thinking of himself and certainly not thinking how Tom was growing as a person.
He did take Tom to see a couple Milwaukee Brewers baseball games, because my dad liked baseball. I guess he thought that’s what dads do to bond. Except Tom wasn’t a sport kid. One time they were at a game and a ball flew into the stands. Tom caught it. My dad was so proud and then Tom, not knowing any better, threw it back onto the field to my dad’s horror and embarrassment (back in those days, no one threw a ball back). More than likely, that was one of the last bonding moments they enjoyed.
But growing up, the two of us were as different as could be. There is an old, grainy 8mm film (that I need to find at my mom’s) where my dad is chasing Tom around the house trying to get him on film. Tom is running away, crying and upset because he didn’t want his picture taken. Sadly, its a silent film or we’d hear his yelling “Stop. Go away. I don’t want my picture.” And all the while this was going on there was this blonde streak trying to be the center of attention, waving his arms and dancing in front of the camera.
Tom was a very emotional child and I don’t mean that in a bad way. He was caring and concerned about others. He was more like our mother whereas I was more like dad. Mr. Spock was my hero. No emotions.
And Tom was inquisitive. Years ago I was going through a toy box at my mom’s from our childhood with my own son, to see if there was anything he might like.
You could tell the difference between my toys and Tom’s. Mine were in fairly decent shape, although sometimes very worn from use. Tom’s on the other hand were in pieces, dismantled and sometimes rearranged in a different order, think along the lines of the misfit toys of the bully kid in “Toy Story.” Except Tom didn’t do it out of any reason other than he was interested in how they worked, so he’d take them apart and just not bother reassembling them.
Its a shame he never was able to apply that interest into a vocation. But sadly, Tom had several talents that were never fulfilled.
He was a very good artist, but he never took it beyond the hobby stage and eventually abandoned it altogether for whatever reason. Shortly after I returned from the Navy and saw what he could do, he and I had talked of creating a comic of some sort, I’d write and he’d draw, but that never came to fruition.
He also was a very good cook, but again, never took it beyond his own kitchen. I think mom had even been willing to pay for schooling to become a chef, but if I recall, he decided instead to try for that computer course which he never finished.
And lastly, he had a wonderful singing voice that no one ever got to hear. I remember one time we were at Summerfest, Milwaukee’s summer music festival, in the crowd for a Jan and Dean revival concert. The whole crowd sang along, but when I heard Tom’s rich, full voice I stopped listening to Jan and Dean and just listened to him. Its a shame, but he let that talent languish, too. His son, however, has inherited Tom’s voice and luckily, Brandon has been encouraged to use his singing talent and now he’s with the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. Tom can at least live on through his son’s voice.
Next: I come home after the Navy.