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Brotherly Love

My older brother Michael hasn’t beat the living crap out of me for more than 50 years now. Lucky for him. In this day and age, they’d lock him up for that sort of thing. Fifty years ago he got by with a stern talking-to from Dad. Needless to say, I was (almost) always innocent.

Okay fine, did I once crash his Honda 350 motorcycle – that I wasn’t licensed or allowed to drive? Yeah, but he was living out of town at the time and asked me to winterize and store it away for him. He told me to be sure I drained the gas out of it before I put it in the barn and covered it up. I just thought it would be easier to run the gas out of it than drain it out.

Did I drive his home-built Heathkit mini-bike into a ditch in a field and bend the front forks? Maybe. But in that case, he did say I could ride it. How was I to know about the ditch? I was riding through the middle of a cornfield and all of a sudden it was just there.

While honestly, though those are the only things I can think of that might have set him off, our arguing was pretty . . . . consistent. I can remember any number of family vacations where Dad, driven to the brink by our bickering, would shout from behind the wheel, “If you two don’t stop arguing we’re going to put you on a bus and send you home and Mom and I will finish the vacation ourselves.”

Seriously Dad? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for threatening kids. But you have to be able to follow through. Are you really going to put two kids, ten and thirteen, on a bus by themselves and send them home to a vacant house? Then again, we did quiet down for five minutes so we must have felt it wasn’t a completely empty threat.

We lived, with our much older sisters Sue and Cathy, and our parents, in a three-bedroom brick rambler just south of LaCrosse, Wisconsin in what’s known as the Town of Shelby.

Our house was one of four, all clustered together on the edge of Mormon Coulee Road, a two-lane Highway that ran east to Coon Valley, Viroqua, and the great beyond.

Across the road from our front door stood a 100-foot tall bare sandstone bluff; the southern beginning of wooded rattlesnake-infested bluff lands that ran north to the end of LaCrosse County. To the west were the wide-ranging swamps and backwaters of the Mississippi River and to the east were the valleys and streams of Mormon Coulee. As a kid, I fished, hunted, and hiked, all of it.

Less than a quarter-mile south out our back door was a neighborhood we referred to as The Addition. Five short crisscrossed streets developed with 50 or 60 small homes. I grew up with the luxury of a huge yard with endless explorable acreage in all directions – and a neighborhood full of kids within shouting distance. If you shouted really loud.

Four kids and a set of parents in a three-bedroom house meant Michael and I shared a bedroom. And sharing a bedroom with my older brother meant I was always an easy target whenever he felt like walloping someone. A feeling which overcame him – if I’d had a choice – more frequently than I would have liked.

In the late 60s, when I was in fifth grade, there was this thing everyone did – getting someone to flinch. You pretended you were going to punch somebody in the face and if they flinched you drew an X on their shoulder and you got to punch them on the X ten times. Now that I think about it, maybe that never really was a thing. Maybe my brother just made it up so he could punch me whenever he wanted to.

I should take a moment here to explain that I am a little brother by trade. And if you’ve ever had a little brother or sister, then you know how we can be. We are the down-trodden, the put-upon, the meek that will someday, supposedly, inherit something. Therefore our purpose in life is to take advantage of every opportunity to get back at those – the older brothers and sisters – who would grind us under their oppressive heels.

Did my older brother ever really – literally – beat the living crap out of me? Never.

Well . . . almost never.

As I was saying, I was in the fifth grade, which meant Michael was in eighth grade. We’re in our bedroom and I’m sitting on my bed – completely minding my own business. Apparently, Michael didn’t see it that way. He stepped over to my bed, rears his arm back, and warns, “David, someday I’m gonna beat . . .” and tried to flinch me. Unfortunately, he misjudged his reach just a smidge. Instead of coming up short, he landed a full-speed balled-up fist at the furthest extension of his arm – square in the middle of my forehead.

I sat in stunned silence for all of two seconds before starting in with the screaming and crying. Within minutes I had a yam-sized lump on my forehead and by that evening two bar-fight – sympathy generating – black eyes.

And I thought, “Wow – who gets two black eyes at one time? The fifth-grade women are gonna love me.”

Maybe the fifth-grade women would have loved me more if my Mom had let me wear jeans and a t-shirt like Ronnie Riek and all the other cool fifth-grade boys. Instead, I boarded the bus the next morning, the same bespeckled pudgy fifth-grader carrying a cello and wearing plaid dress pants with a puffy-sleeved shirt. I still looked like a nerd – just a nerd who’d had the shit beat out of him.

My Dad took me to Gunderson Clinic just to make sure I didn’t have (more) brain damage and the Emergency Room staff gave him the third degree about potential child abuse. But this was 1969, he probably just told them, “No I don’t hit my kid! I have his brother do it for me!” And then he and the doctors and nurses laughed and laughed.

In school the next day my fifth-grade teacher asked, “What happened to you?”

What was I going to say?

“My brother hit me.”

“Your brother hit you?!?” as if that was something that didn’t happen in the real world.

Could I have explained the entire story to her as I just did for you? Sure. But she was busy and I didn’t want to bother her with the trivial details. As I said, I’m a little brother by trade.

Time passed and we both got older, just not necessarily wiser. We didn’t make trouble as much as we made mischief. As the first children, our sisters got the actual trial-by-fire parenting. I think our parents figured that since Sue and Cathy made it out of the house alive by the time Michael and I were in Junior High and High School, things in the parenting department became pretty lax.

Back then the drinking age was 18 and since Michael and I both looked older than we were, going to the store to buy beer wasn’t a problem. Plus this was Wisconsin in the 1970s, the drinking age was more of a suggestion than a law. Actually, in Wisconsin, I’d say that’s still the case.

Whenever Mom and Dad would leave on vacation the first thing we’d do was move all of the food off the top shelf of the fridge and fill it side to side front to back with those beautiful little seven-ounce bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon. In today’s world of craft-beer Pabst is probably considered rotgut by many, but back then it was our go-to. Let me tell ya, there’s nothing quite like the sight of an entire refrigerator packed to the gills with seven-ounce bottles of Pabst.

Mom and Dad were away for the weekend and we’d filled the fridge with beer. Micahel and I and his friend Jim were sitting around the kitchen table drinking Pabst, playing Black-Jack, smoking cigarettes, and eating cheese and crackers.

Mom had this little wood cutting board that was shaped like a pig. At the back end where the pig’s tail would have been was a hole to store a paring knife. The paring knife had been lost long before and we were using a chrome Chinese meat cleaver to cut up the cheese. The cleaver had a razor-thin blade and was sharp enough to shave the hair off your arm. Which we had of course proven – by shaving the hair off our arms.

We were halfway through the top shelf of seven ouncers and getting sillier and slower by the minute. Michael was dealing and winning so for fun I dropped his package of Camels on the carpeted kitchen floor, grabbed the cleaver, and whack! Like Marie Antoinette’s head on a guillotine, it sliced those Camels clean in half.

A few minutes later it was my turn to deal and Michael decided it was time for payback. He dropped my Tareytons on the floor and grabbed the cleaver. As I said, our – in particular my – reflexes were somewhat stymied by alcohol. In a made-for-TeeVee slow-motion blur, he brought down the cleaver while I reached to save my pack of cigarettes. Whack! This time the cleaver didn’t quite make it through the cigarettes, what with the tip of my middle finger being in the way.

Fortunately for both of us, the cleaver didn’t cleave my finger completely. But 45+ years later, as I type this, I can still see the scar on my finger.

The kitchen sink was nearby so we ran my finger under cold water for three and a half hours. By then the flow of blood had been reduced to that of a gently undulating stream instead of a swollen raging river, so we wrapped it with gauze. Rolls and rolls and rolls of gauze and medical tape. And more gauze. And more medical tape – just to be safe. This is, apparently, why paramedics aren’t allowed to drink on the job.

Mom and Dad were home early the next morning. We hadn’t cleaned up the kitchen as well as we thought and when I and my finger – showed up at the breakfast table before Michael – in unison Mom and Dad asked, “What happened to you?”

What was I going to say?

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