We were asking Rex today what he thought it would be like to have a brother or two. Some of his friends have multiple brothers, and we asked how they get along. He said sometimes they fight, but most of the time they get along.
That’s about how it was with me and my brothers. We pretty much just got along. But sometimes, not. Brothers that get along are all alike. Every unhappy set of brothers is unhappy in its own way. These are the stories of the most vivid memory I have of fighting with each of my three brothers. (I honestly have no recollection of any fight with either of my sisters).
As we have already chronicled, Braden was sort of the self-appointed potentate of the fiefdom of our back yard and beyond. He was the boss, and I alternated between minion and secessionist. I don’t remember the lead up. I just remember that we were battling in the yard one day. I was probably nine or ten, and he would have been fourteen-ish. The sword fight took a turn for the serious, and I got mad. My wooden blade (a trusty, stripped down tree branch) flew more briskly, and he could tell I was playing for keeps. Not wanting to stay in a pretend swordfight with a really angry little brother, he began to beat a retreat toward the swing-set. It developed into a full-on chase, and he ran under the trapeze bar in a sprint. I still don’t know if it was an accident or a more devious stratagem, but as he flew under the bar, his hand caught the bar (pushing it out of his way? giving it a good hard swing?) and by the time I was under it, the big, thick steel bar was in full backswing. It clocked me HARD, right in the forehead. What had been anger with my cheating, conniving older brother turned into one of the deepest, most consuming rages I can remember in my life. Braden kept running. I stopped. First, I tried to get my head clear. Then, I reached up and detached the big, thick steel bar from its hooks at the end of the swing-set chains. Braden slowed down at the other end of the yard thinking the pursuit had ended. I raised the bar above my head, screamed in deepest bloodlust, and charged.
A deadly weapon available right in your backyard.
Braden had been laughing, and stopped instantly, and took off as fast as he could. I really wish I had caught him, just so I’d know what I would have done with that huge metal weapon with my tormentor in range. But after about two laps around the back yard, my mom appeared and talked the steel bar out of my hands. It’s fun to picture your brother’s head as an eminently smashable melon. Whatever I would have done, he had it coming.
Several years later, in the range of thirteen-ish, my parents had a summer party with all the neighbors on the block invited. None of them had kids our age, so Davis and I got to invite the Nielsen boys, two brothers approximately the same ages as us. While the parents barbecued on the patio, we started throwing a football around on the adjacent lawn. Jeff and I were pretty sure that we had established that this was a tackle game. Davis and Matt would later take blood oaths that it had always remained a touch contest. Any evidence that would resolve this dispute remains elusive these many years later. Regardless, the first play of the game, Davis got the ball, and slowed down upon reaching our outstretched hands, only to be demolished under an avalanche of fully adolesced male force (Jeff), followed by some bones and a little hair (me).
Unexpected, but totally legal
The dog-pile settled for a minute, and then Jeff and I got up. Davis, who had been completely unprepared for a tackle, struggled to his feet the second we were off him. The sight of his crazed face, a shade of red I had never seen in a human before, is one of maybe ten images still in my visual memory from that long ago. He wisely looked right past the chief aggressor (who would have been a match for all three of the rest of us at the time) and turned directly to me, raised his fists, and yelled at the top of his voice, in manic frenzy, “COME ON BIG BOY!”
Twenty feet away, a polite gaggle of 12 or 14 neighborly suburbanites looked up from their iced Sprites, and went totally silent. My dad looked up the grill with that look that said he didn’t really care about the welfare and relationship of his two sons right now, but dangit! they had better not make this any more awkward for him. Twenty feet away from the grill, the two brothers in a strange, hotly emotional standoff, with their seconds standing loyally at their backs, suddenly felt very sheepish. Davis, always the brother that lived to seem cool and sophisticated to adults, took a moment to let the blood drain from his face, and then kind of just gulped backed away for a minute.
We found ourselves several minutes later sitting around a bedroom inside just sort of staring at each other. “Man, that really got out of hand.”
That’s pretty much how we felt. We were buddies soon after. But Davis’s reaction to the little scuffle had escalated so far beyond any conflict we’d ever had before that it took us all by surprise. Neither of us had ever even thrown and earnest punch in our lives. That scene at the party because a shorthand for the farthest reach of contention we were capable of reaching. We are lucky there were no huge metal bars at hand.
Several years later, I came home from a mission in Portugal. Although I left home a schlubby teenager, I came home a pious Man of God. By that I mean I was better than everyone else. And when you’re better than everyone else, you are waaaaaaaaaaaay better than your painfully adolescent, grumpy, self-involved, sulking, hulking seventeen year old brother, Kook. It didn’t take long after my return for me to assess the new situation on the homefront. Davis was still away on his mission. Eliza, the quiet twelve year old sister, jumped whenever anyone made any sudden movements. Her default attitude was ‘cower.’ Mom and Dad, still putatively in control, had ceded so much influence to the tyrant of the home that I checked the master bedroom to make sure they hadn’t been evicted yet. And here was I, returning from the crusades like Richard the Lionheart to the oppressed people abandoned in the homeland.
This was right after they picked me up at the airport
I made some subtle gestures of protectiveness for Eliza, and subtly interrupted Kook in the middle of a critical remark to my Dad. I could feel him bridling with resentment, preparing himself for a power play from his meddling older brother. It came to a head one night at dinner, maybe just a week after I’d come home. My mom had made a nice dinner and we had all settled in to eat. My mom never sat down right when the rest of us did, because she had to fetch this and that item to complete the meal. After she had finally sat down and dug into her dinner, Kook looked up from his roll. “Mom? Butter?” No one looked askance. Eliza slumped down, her face just inches from her plate. Everyone concentrated on their food. My mom set down her cob of corn with an indulgent half-smile, and pushed back in her chair, about to quietly get up. It was a moment that needed a hero. “Chris, why don’t you get it yourself?” said the Man of God. Eliza’s silverware hit the floor. She reached down to grab it, and then disappeared entirely under the table.
Kook screwed his face up into an inhuman scowl, summoning all of the misanthropy that is the unique gift of the upper-teenager when surrounded by his immediate family. “Ryan,” he sneered, “you think you can just come home and tell us all what to do! You’re not the boss here!” The strange effect of this outright challenge by the omega male directly to the alpha male, was to make the alpha male, so used to the cloistered life of preaching and spiritual study, and so unused to life in the hurly-burly jungle of family life, kind of almost start to cry. I’ve never been much of a crier, but there had already been a few such incidents since my return, which I chalked up mostly to the emotional trauma of the mission-to-home transition. And Kook’s snarling defiance reduced me almost to tears. I choked up and my eyes got a little watery, but I stayed firm. “Chris, I just want you to treat our mother with respect,” said the Alpha Male of God, between muffled sobs. Kook lept over the table and sank his fangs into my throat, and I fainted. No, he snarled and just ate his roll without butter, I think. The natives kept looking at their plates, and the dinner quietly ended. But my mother snuck a grateful look my way, and a new dawn had broken in that home. The tyrant no longer bossed my mom around, at least no when Mister Holy Pants was around. And four years later, he came home from his mission a Man of God himself, and quietly excoriated me and Macy for having gone to see a depraved movie called Shrek.