As the youngest, by 10-15 years, of five kids, I grew up looking up.
My older brother and sisters were well on their way to doing adult things when I was at my most impressionable. Before I was 10, my oldest sister Kim had been a Marine, my sister Laurie, married. I held them all in some measure of awe, particularly my brother.
He baptized me at the altar of football. Taught me the sacrament of swearing at the Steelers on Sunday afternoons, Toughened me up (translation: beat the crap out of me) on hundreds of downs of goal-line drills in the living room (he= Jack Lambert; me = Preston Pearson). Ran me ragged running down-and-outs, down-out-and-ups, and posts on the street outside our house, coaxing me well beyond my appetite with pleas of ‘just one more,’ and ‘last one,’ which were seldom what they claimed.
He was responsible for my early musical education. The early lessons came packaged in the 8-track tapes sporting labels faded from wear, and in the FM radio, whose strains wafted from the basement where he lifted weights to the top of the steps where I sat and listened. From his example I learned every word of the hymns of my youth … Clapton, the Doors, the Doobies. The ceiling on early cool for me was riding co-pilot in his immaculate powder blue Buick on summer afternoons, windows down, stereo wide open, while he did his best Jim Morrison on the opening verse of LA Woman.
He was the first mythic figure of my youth. He had an ornery streak, a turn of phrase that pushed the boundaries of euphemism. He and his buddies found a lot of trouble in their fun in their rowdier moments. I remember him coming home one weekend night with a black eye, a sucker punch that, before the transaction was complete, he made sure the sucker regretted. I wish I could forget the aromas in our bedroom on Saturday mornings after his late Friday nights. His football buddies seemed larger than life, in character as well as stature. I hung on every word of his stories of adventure with his band of rogues, and committed them to memory just like the bits from the R-rated Steve Martin albums he let me listen to.
I was also on the receiving end of some of his ornery streak. I remember a school night in seventh grade when I heard him giggling downstairs (we share versions of the same high-pitched giggle when we get wound up). I didn’t discover the source of his mirth until I was at my locker the next morning, when Tom Rocks nearly doubled over in laughter while pointing at my winter coat. I looked down to find my lapel monogrammed with green felt letters spelling out, “Mr. Shitbar.” (I just high-pitch-giggled writing that). Though I initially feared expulsion if discovered, I wore it like a badge for a few days, until our Mom discovered it, ripping the letters off, and him a new one. In full disclosure, being on the receiving end of his ornery streak had its advantages, too. Exhibit A: the six-packs of Heineken I’d find under the Christmas Tree during my teenage years.
He taught me that there was a world beyond the streets of my neighborhood. Aside from our family’s epic Bicentennial excursion to Gettysburg, our family never went on vacation. During his grad school years at WVU, he always reserved a late-summer day for us to road trip to Morgantown to pick up Mountaineer gear. I considered those sacred pilgrimages. Though I’m tempted to blush at the humble geography involved, I can’t overstate how magical those trips were to my pre-teen self, or how cool I thought myself wearing my WVU gear to junior high. After all, I had brought them back myself from exotic far-off lands (ha).
He made time for me even after he got married. When he and Maur got their first apartment in Hopwood, he’d invite Dad and me out to watch Steeler games on Sundays. I remember shooting .22 after the games in the back yard (which was a great way to burn off the frustrations of those mid-80’s Steeler teams.). I also remember one Saturday night when he gave me and a buddy the keys to their apartment while they were out on a date … and full access to his epic stash of video rentals he’d copied on his wickedly awesome two-VCR set-up. The epic-ness of the experience can only be appreciated when remembering that video rental stores were the only way to see movies outside the theater in those days. (Those were the years when HBO pretty much stood for, “Hey, Beastmaster’s On.”). I remember me and my buddy making our own nachos and watching my first screening of The Breakfast Club, with a Chuck Norris chaser. Saturday night boy cave nirvana.
I remember seeing my brother as a father for the first time. Remember Mom and Dad whisking me with them to the hospital to meet their first grandson. Remember awkwardly extending a handshake to my brother when he came out of the operating room to greet us. He ignored my gesture, and, instead scooped me up in the biggest big bear hug and said, “I’m afraid a handshake’s just not going to cut it, bud.”
A version of that hug has marked our every greeting and goodbye since.
For The Win
And I remember, a year later, on my 16th birthday, playing him one-on-one in our tiny, walled driveway. Since it was barely single-car wide, and since he had a good 40-50 pounds on me, the postage stamp size court heavily favored his girth over my moves. For 15 years, I had been the Washington Generals to his Harlem Globetrotters, with him teaching me humility over and over (and over). But we hadn’t played each other in a while, with most of his time of late being soaked up by new parenthood. I’d gotten a little better since the last time we played … my shot a bit more practiced, his showing some rust. I got up on him early. Answered every one of his baskets with one of my own. I was on my way to beating him for the first time in my life. I think we both felt it, and it pushed each of us harder. But his competitive streak always had deeper grooves than mine. He went full bore, contesting every drive, every shot. With the winning score within my reach, I drove left, and he moved quickly to cut off my path. As he did so, it forced me into the wall of the driveway, where my left hand met the corner of the top block, busting it open. It began bleeding pretty good, and the depth of the gash prompted a trip to the ER, where it earned a few stitches.
I remember Mom being super pissed at him for being too rough on me, a refrain she could trace back to those years-ago knee football contests in the living room.
I never blamed him for any part of it. He was giving me his best, and making sure my first win wouldn’t come cheaply. He was more than holding up the Big Brother end of the bargain.
For the record, since we didn’t finish, neither of us counted it as a win in my favor.
For the record, we never played again.
Though I was trying like hell to beat him at the time … looking back, I’m kinda’ glad that we never finished the game.
My brother was always, and in many ways still is, my hero. For all the reasons above, and a million reasons more.
I’m not so blind to believe that he was or is perfect. He’ll be the first to admit that.
But not many heroes get to retire with a perfect record.
And I have the scar to prove it.
On the occasion of his birthday, I suppose I could’ve just dropped a card in the mail. But, to borrow a phrase …
I’m afraid a handshake’s just not going to cut it, bud.