Thursday, June 24, 2010

My Brother Was An Only Child

…..for four years. Then I was born and probably ruined his day and every day after that. I don’t know why I was their favorite. I wasn’t particularly cute or cuddly as far as I can recall. Maybe he bit my mother nursing or just came into this world at the wrong time. My brother, Arthur, was born two months before the market crashed in 1929 under Herbert Hoover. Maybe they took it out on him while I got credit for Franklin Roosevelt.

Recently I wrote about my father; how safe I felt with him and equipped I was going out into the world. I doubt if my brother would agree. He lived a short and unhappy life which ended at age 33. I'm going to try now to step into his shoes and put words in his mouth.

My first memory was being forced to hold the crayon in my right hand. It didn’t feel right. I was also too tall and sent to the back row. I couldn’t see the board well and read slowly. I never got any stars and one day I wet my pants. My first grade teacher, hit me and Mom came to school to complain but she also yelled at me for being left-handed with bad eyes and tall and probably dyslexic though that word hadn’t been born yet. But Norm was right-handed and colored inside the lines and finished his vegetables.

Mom was loud and took up all the air in the room. Dad was too quiet and didn’t shut her up. Maybe he was afraid of her like me. He wasn’t home much. He worked late and didn’t eat with us. He wasn’t there to help with my homework. I got Cs and Ds in class. When Norm started school the teachers compared us; I couldn't wait to get out of P.S. 99.

They sent me to a vocational high school because I flunked most tests. But I heard music, saw movies of Dixieland and Swing bands. This was my world. Nobody could come in. I heard Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa on Decca records and walked to their drums. Metronome and Downbeat magazines were my textbooks. Tunes ran through my head; Hot Lips Page drowned out the subway noise. I argued with myself over Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw and moved in stutter steps to Charlie Parker’s riffs.

Dad was too slow, too cautious behind the wheel; I'd be his opposite. He didn’t know tools. If I’d only had the tools I could fix things. I left home without them. Dad was no hero to me. He didn’t press against the world, didn’t show me how to dazzle women, didn’t make trouble. I needed to make some trouble.

On my last night there was music in my head. I had a few drinks and drove my Austin-Healy through a wall on a mountain road to find the sounds on the other side.

When the police knocked on my door at 4 AM to inform me of my brother’s fatal crash I had to break the news to my parents a few hours later. My father’s response was that he died the way he lived. He meant recklessly. I heard the disappointment in his voice that Arthur never met his expectations. My idealized father dropped a few notches in my estimation. He was merely human, flawed like my brother and all the rest of us.

In an odd turn which can only happen in a small town like Los Angeles my brother had a crush on a jazz singer whose career he would follow. Among his possessions were a stack of her recordings. I credit Arthur with especially good taste. Her name is Ruth Olay and thirty years after his death I was introduced to Ruth by Peggy who had known her since the fifties. I now count her as a dear friend. She is more than a link; she's a vivacious, gifted, funny and politically conscious woman who has no memory of ever meeting Arthur. Yet he and I were both drawn to her. He passed along his ear for jazz; his portal to the other side and my portal through to him.

1 comment:

  1. Powerful. Beautiful. And I think it is great that you put words in your brother's mouth. Sometimes we understand people better if we get under their skin. The comments may not be the real him, but it is the him that you imagine. And in the end that is all we can know of another person -- how we perceive them.