Sunday, August 19, 2007

Greg

In the 1960s folk singer Bob Dylan warned people that, like it or not, the times were changin’. And changin’ they were. Spurred by Dylan and others, the largest generation in history had entered adulthood and opened their eyes to the world around them—and they didn’t like what they saw. An increasingly unpopular war in Southeast Asia was dragging on and taking the lives of their friends and brothers. Another war, a standoff between the U.S. and Russia had, by then, been going on for almost two decades, and threatened planetary annihilation. The optimism of the 1950s had given way to a new cynicism. Young people were increasingly suspicious of authority, estranged from their parents, and tripping on LSD. They were also highly educated and looking for a fresh direction—one that involved peace and unity. By 1967, opposition to the Vietnam War had grown and the protest movement hit its stride. While the status quo at home was being ripped away by these disaffected baby boomers, overseas, Israel was plotting an attack on Egypt, which would precipitate the Six-Day War and reshape the Middle East for generations. Meanwhile, other, less violent, changes were taking place. At Abbey Road Studios in London, The Beatles transformed music forever with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—a psychedelically influenced album with lush Indian instrumentals and messages of love and peace—the release of which coincided with an influx of nearly 100,000 young people to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district that brought media attention to the hippie counterculture and gave birth to the term “Summer of Love.”

But forty years ago, during that summer, there was one small child in Southern Oregon who, despite being far removed from anything resembling rebellion or counterculture, would have his life changed more than most. Whether it was affection or lust that was on that infant’s parents’ minds on a cold November night in 1966, the thing they conceived that night and spawned nine months later, was anything but love. To that child the disruption to come was greater than the devastation caused by Agent Orange, more traumatic than the displacement of refugees in the Holy Land, and bigger than the threat of nuclear annihilation. I know this because I was that child and, in that fateful summer of 1967, that so-called “Summer of Love,” my brother Greg was born.

In the latter half of 1966 and for two-thirds of the following year, I’d had a fine existence. I was doted on by new parents eager to give their young son a good life—or so I must have thought. In retrospect, it is clear those seemingly loving parents were plotting against me from the beginning. Undoubtedly I needed something from them that November night when I was barely 3 months old. My cries, however—for food, comfort, or a clean diaper—went cruelly unheeded as they traipsed off to begin production of my nemesis. This was the beginning of a long list of resentments I would harbor against them but lying there in my crib—hungry, shivering, and packing a full diaper—I was hardly in a position to stop them. He was born just nine days after my first birthday. My idyllic childhood had come to an end.

I was a sensitive child. Born prematurely at a time when medical science had barely advanced enough to save my life, I needed the care and love of my parents more than most children but, just as I was ready to receive and relish in it, I had to share it. One would think that my mother would have blamed him for the pain of the caesarian section she endured to deliver him and realized her mistake. She could have gone to my father, still stitched up, pointed to the fresh scar and said, “See, I told you this was a bad idea. Let’s give this one up for adoption and go back to giving Mike all of the love and nurturing he so desperately needs.” But she didn’t. Although I was too young to remember that first introduction I am sure I registered something akin to horror or disgust. If only I could have spoken—if only I could have vocalized my disbelief. Couldn’t they see what they were doing to me? They didn’t realize it at the time but they had just started a new war—one that would rage for nearly two decades beginning as a cold war-like standoff in a suburban home with brown shag carpet and avocado green appliances, and then migrating to more violent battles on a rural farm that was rife with conventional armaments like rocks, sticks, and BB guns as well as the more insidious psychological weapons of adolescent boys. There was, of course, the infamous Chinese Water Torture as well as the ever-popular “Buckskin*”—a practice so diabolical in it’s simplicity, yet so menacing to a boy’s burgeoning manhood it was sure to mentally wound a child from pre-puberty through young adulthood. As technology advanced, the tools of warfare would change. A Folgers’ can full of water would give way to a Commodore 64 computer, but the rules never changed. Actually, there was only one rule—kill or be killed.

Things could have been different. In the beginning common enemies in the form of well-meaning but often misguided parents would nurture a strained alliance between us. There was the time we played together near a pile of burning leaves just down the street from our house. We poked at the fire with sticks and threw rocks into the glowing embers to watch the sparks shoot skyward before being snuffed out in the cool fall air. We would jump quickly into the small blaze, our tall black rubber boots protecting our feet from burns. We danced in the flames and smoke, laughing as the soles of our galoshes melted away. Had we not been caught by a neighbor—the purported starter of the fire—and chased home we may have evolved into the type of brothers found on 50s television sitcoms—loving, protective, and bound for life by secrets only we shared. That was how it could have been anyway. Instead, our mother found out and became enraged. She tended to be on the overprotective side—afraid that even the most innocuous household items would lead to our sure demise—but on that day we’d just proved we could get into real danger as well. It was too much for her and it was way too much for our fragile alliance. As she harshly admonished us for our carelessness the finger pointing began. “It was his idea,” Greg whined, pointing at me. “Nuh uh,” I cried, “He started it.” Our little coalition fractured just as it was beginning. Not even our father’s relentless, unforgiving treks into the wilderness as he drug us along, blistered and exhausted, during hunting season were enough to keep us on the same side. In the end, however, what I believe really happened was that I still couldn’t get over his theft of our parents’ love and he couldn’t accept my superiority.


Greg should have been more grateful, more willing to accept what were, in essence, minor injustices, mercifully dealt by an older brother to whom he owed his life. Could he have forgotten that day when he was six years old and foolishly toppled into a rain-swollen irrigation ditch and I pulled him to safety just as he was about to be swept to his death under the street? Sure my friend and I had laughed heartily as he clawed, terrified at the muddy bank—his eyes bulging and his little hands raw and scraped—but, even so, where was the thanks when I eventually reached down and gave him several extra decades of life? There is no doubt he wasn’t considering my mercy when the coffee can full of water from our backyard pool accidentally slipped from my hands and hit him between the eyes—the intended face full of chlorinated water replaced with a face full of blood. In retrospect, I suppose I could have shown more empathy as he looked at me, confused and possibly suffering from a concussion, and asked, “why are you bleeding?”—mistaking the blood pouring from his wound and into his eyes for mine—but I had bigger problems at the time than to consider his well being. This unintentional action would surely lead to some form of corporal punishment or grounding. Even the blood in his eyes shouldn’t have prevented him from seeing that I was in greater danger from my father’s belt than he was from the wound to his head. It was a simple joke-gone-awry, a mere accident, but it precipitated many of the battles of our youth. If nothing else, Greg was ungrateful.

As everyone knows it is an older brother’s right to humiliate their younger siblings. Besides, I had my own beefs. There was the time, for instance, when he irrationally slammed on the brakes of his bicycle as we raced down the steep hill in front of our home, causing me to rear end him and fly over both bikes before eventually skidding to a stop on my bloody palms and elbows. I deserved some retribution for his recklessness didn’t I? He obviously hadn’t suffered the pain of rubbing alcohol in open wounds enough to realize the justness of his future torments at my hands. Greg was unsympathetic, as well.

We moved to a farm the summer I turned eleven and Greg turned ten. Our mother’s perceived dangers of suburban existence gave way to very real dangers or rural life. By then, however, she had tired of intervening in our squabbles and the war escalated. It was as if the U.N. had stopped mediating the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and turned on the TV to watch As the World Turns instead. The yelling matches became fistfights, the fistfights morphed into rock fights or sword fights perpetrated with sticks carved to sharp points. Despite eventually outgrowing me in height, Greg could never match my strength. One of my favorite tactics was to throw him to the floor and pin his arms helplessly to the ground with my knees as he screamed and begged for mercy. Those were heady times. Unfortunately, I had underestimated him. Greg, it turned out, was devious.

I had never considered Greg to be a particularly clever kid until Jr. High. In addition to being extremely intelligent, I had the added advantage of being uncommonly handsome. Greg, unable to coast on his looks was forced to rely on his wits alone—which he secretly honed into a keen deceit. Distracted by nubile young girls, I hadn’t noticed that he was adjusting his tactics in our conflict away from conventional warfare toward more covert ones. He had morphed from a fat butterball of a baby to a skinny, gangly kid. I probably should have recognized his commitment to the chess club as a bad omen, but instead it became more fodder for ever-increasing punishments. I have to give him credit though, he had changed the playing field and I completely missed it.

Personality-wise, somewhere around puberty, Greg and I completely diverged. I was outgoing, into the opposite sex, rock music, friends, and clothing. Greg was introverted, into his only friend Brent, classical music, the science fair, and wiretapping. It wasn’t until years later that I would find out the depth of his deceptions. He had somehow rigged a device on my telephone to listen in as I told Barbara how hot she looked in her Guess jeans, or arranged to meet Brenda at “the lake.” These conversations must have fed some sick perversion for Greg—the twisted little brother, unable to meet girls himself, was relying on his older brother’s abundant interactions with the ladies to provide fodder for his own pubescent fantasies. He didn’t stop there, either. Listening in was one thing—a fleeting conversation that he could recount and embellish to his nerdy** clique—but he would also use the latest in 1970s technology to make secret recordings. On one occasion, for instance, using loathsome Nixonian means, he taped the very personal matter of our mother removing a particularly difficult blackhead from my ear; a tape that could be (and has been) used over and over to undermine me. Had he chosen politics as a career, he may very well be working in the Bush/Cheney White House today***.

In addition to the fact that he was practically begging for the batterings, hazings, and random acts of cruelty meted out by my friends and me, how could he have sunk so low? Especially since, barely a half-decade after I’d saved him from certain drowning in the irrigation ditch I rescued him from death by electrocution. On our small, nine-acre farm, one of our neighbors had an unlawful electric fence. Electric fences used for livestock control are legally required to be connected to a charger that drives a 110 electrical current about once per second. This pulse allows a person who inadvertently grabs the fence to let go and avoid electrocution. This particular fence had no such charger. And we knew this because of the birds. Our parent’s property was surrounded by electric fences, but it was only on this particular wire you would find the dead birds. Starlings, sparrows, and blackbirds unlucky enough to both land on this wire and ground themselves by touching the adjacent fence could be found hanging exactly where they died, their little bodies blowing in the breeze until decomposition caused their corpses to drop, leaving only their tiny legs gripping the still deadly line. It was a gruesome scene that contributed to a great deal of the lore of our little farm. It was also the perfect place for a dare.

“Grab the fence,” I commanded. “No way,” Greg said. “It’s not on,” I replied nonchalantly. “Yes it is—look at the birds!” “I dare you.” As everyone knows, a dare between adolescent boys can’t go unheeded. By refusing my challenge, Greg knew he would face countless future humiliations. What he apparently didn’t realize is that he would face them anyway because he reached out and grabbed the wire. Unable to loosen his grip he stared at me wordlessly, the color draining from his face and his hair standing on end. I hadn’t really worked through this particular prank. What could he have been thinking? Grabbing the deadly wire on a dare? He was supposed to be “the smart one.” The terror crept in. I realized his death would result in punishments I’d never imagined. My parents knew me well enough not to buy any excuse I could have come up with, so I needed to act fast. Even though I played soccer in school, I decided the only way to get him loose was to tackle him NFL-style (a kick to the head, while adding some much needed humor to the tense situation, was not likely to be effective in freeing him). I stepped back and got a running start, leaping into the air as I wrapped my arms around his torso and knocked him from his death-grip and onto the ground. Rescuing him, however, resulted in the worst shock of my life—the current passing through his body into mine, hitting me like a bolt of lightning at the instant of impact. I had saved his life again, and this time it had come with personal pain. Greg would pay.

Unlike his older brother, Greg couldn’t seem to fight fair. What I wouldn’t have given to go mano-a-mano in a gladiator-like fight that would have, once and for all, determined the clear winner (me) and obliged the loser (him) to unquestioningly perform the winner’s (still me) chores until college. Greg had other ideas, however. Aside from trying to unfairly undermine me using the abovementioned mendacities, he found an unlikely ally in our mother. There is an ancient Arabian proverb that states, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a maxim Greg embraced wholeheartedly. Part of his strategy to gain the upper hand in our lifelong feud was to employ our mother as an unwitting pawn in his evil game. It started simply enough. “I’m telling,” he’d say after I’d done something wrong. And then he’d run off and tell. As the quiet kid, or as I liked to call him, “the favorite,” Greg was believed and I was in trouble. Of course he’d just ratcheted up our conflict and put himself at greater risk but, I realize now, it was his plan all along. He was out to destroy my credibility with our mother. And it worked. I spent the next few years having increasingly hostile spats with her while Greg smirked from the sidelines.


Taking a page from those 60s radicals, I rebelled against the authoritarian rule of our parents. Having accomplished his mission to subvert me, Greg laid low through the rest of our adolescence while I was forced to carry the brunt of teenage angst. There were still the occasional clashes—once, for instance, I had to explain to our father the Greg-shaped hole in the drywall of a hallway—but the bigger arguments with our mother and my new driver’s license assured Greg’s survival until we left the farm.

By the time I recognized my culpability in the conflicts with mom and actively began rebuilding my damaged relationship with her, Greg discovered an interest in girls that gave us a common ground to work out our own issues. I saw that, rather than being the annoying arch-rival of my youth, Greg had become a smart, talented, and funny young man—in fact, ironically, he’d turned out a lot like me. It is hard to doubt now that I was responsible for all of Greg’s future successes. Through his illicit monitoring of my phone calls he’d learned how to love—he would certainly never have met someone as lovely and incredible as his wife, Keever, without my (albeit unbeknownst) tutelage. Had he not cut his teeth on the skills of surveillance, he would hardly have been able to make the move to independent film direction. Also, had it not been for the examples I set for him in our youth—compassion, respect, integrity, and especially fear—he would have likely ended up just another disenfranchised burnout, turning tricks for dime bags of smack. Instead he’s become a successful college professor—meting out lessons he learned from me for another generation of youth. We’ve had our ups and downs these past four decades but, even though we’re now friends, Greg should always remember; he still owes me—big time.


Epilogue: Happy Birthday, Greg! You've turned out to be quite an amazing guy. I'm proud to be your brother and lucky to call you my friend. I love you, brother.

* A Buckskin involves two pre-adolescent boys. The first boy, who we’ll call “the initiator,” grabs the back of the head of the second boy, who we’ll call “the victim” and forces it, quickly and violently down to his crotch. When the victim’s head is at crotch level the initiator makes a loud popping noise with his mouth resembling the sound of a cork leaving a champagne bottle and yells, “BUCKSKIN!”

** Bill Gates had yet to make his name as the founder of Microsoft, so it is still unclear where Greg was getting his fashion tips.

*** I am actually taking authorial liberties here—Greg is far too much of a Socialist to work for the likes of G.W.

TO BE CONTINUED…

1 comment:

Susan said...

This is too good, Mike.