My Big Brother

My big brother, you led the way.

As first born son, you took upon your brow the wrath of the almighty Father so that I could be spared, although you did from time to time chase me around the yard with the Father's 22 caliber pistol loaded with blanks, while mom and dad were out partying.

You gave me the red taste of manhood, rewarding me with my first scar, which I still have under my left eye, when you flipped your best friend Dunny Dunham over your shoulder in a cowboy fight while I gazed worshipfully up at you.

It was just like a scene from 'Hoppalong Cassidy,' except that the heel of his boot came down on my cheek. I had to get 14 stitches in the hospital. To this day I point to the scar and proudly declare, "A cowboy did this to me in a fight, but he didn't mean it. He was my brother."

Mother and I went to your little league games where you played third base, and though I still don't comprehend baseball, I listened carefully to your incantations as you urged on the pitcher and pounded your mitt, teaching me the sacred art of chanting: 'Hmmmm baby hmmmm baby hmmmmm baby ki.'

When your team went to a Phillies game at Conny Mack Stadium I followed you right onto the rented school bus and you accepted me as your mascot. That was an act of grace, letting your little brother come. You didn't tease me, you fed me.

I threw up when I got home because I wasn't ready for crackerjacks hotdogs soft pretzels coke and Tasty Cake cakes and pies. But at least it wasn't Ballantine Beer: that would be a few years later.

You taught me other culinary secrets, and a most precious lesson: 'Eat whatever the hell you like,' which has served me well in a world of gluten-free vegans and corn-syrup conspiracy theorists.

I watched you in your cackie work suit come home sweaty from your first job, mowing somebody's lawn. You were fourteen, I was ten. In reverence and bewilderment I witnessed what you ate on those buggy summer afternoons in the kitchen.

Most boys demanded their mother's fish sticks or Oscar Meyer balogna. But you were a gourmet, cobbling together the exotic cuisine of the Chester County farmland, known today by connoisseurs as 'Quaker Kennett Provincal.' Your piéce de resistance: the chipped beef and jelly sandwich, washed down with icy Canada Dry ginger ale loaded with Hershey's chocolate syrup.

And now I sing of you as music mentor, who took piano lessons from weird boney old Mr. Simpson in his purple bathrobe, so that I would never have to. But you taught me the basic rock and role changes of the one-five-four chords, empowering my alto sax at boarding school when I played with the Del Chords wailing 'Louie Louie' and 'Hot Tomales.'

In fact, you led me all through my education. You preceded me at Unionville, Tower Hill, Exeter, Yale. I simply followed your footsteps, and waded joyfully through the slops of your reputation.

One evening you returned on your bicycle from Kennett, having spent the fruits of your labor on two LP's, which taught me the value of work, and the delicious freedom of wages well spent: 'Brenda Lee's Greatest Hits' and 'Elvis Is Back,' his first album after serving in the Army, 1958.
And how can I repay you for walking me home at night through the grave yard from the Kennett Movie Theater, where we watched 'Bridges at Toko Ri,' in which Micky Rooney gives his life for his country, and 'Old Yeller,' which taught me the virile yet tender wisdom of tragedy?

And after all, big brother, what did you really impart to me, if not the intangible spiritual gesture of courage called 'style,' the thing that each must touch within himself, and cultivate by being no one else.

Those were, as they say, 'the days.' And now, the years have withered to late summer gold, like poplar leaves on the lawn at Spottswood; like leaden green magnolia leaves by the edge of the 'Pine Camp.' Oh I am not surprised, big brother, that it is you who yet dwell here, in our sacred mother land, while the rest of us have wandered away...

Please keep a square foot of sod beneath the alfalfa stalks, by the pond, big brother, where the horses stand all day and whisk the flies away, and the mockingbird looks down all night from the willow, singing to reflections of the summer moon.

I want to mingle with your ashes there, and our mothers ashes, and our Father's, heaped under that willow. That would not be death, but returning... Lead the way, big brother, lead me home.

Photo: my brother Clipper strangling me on Dad's tractor

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