I mentioned previously that I grew up among boys. I paid a lot of attention to their behaviors and attitudes so I could fit in (“You can never have too many snowballs stockpiled,” “Shake it off,” etc.). I also wanted to become proficient in the skills pertaining to the activities they enjoyed most so they would always include me (baiting a fishhook with a fat night crawler, getting the yo-yo string twisted and knotted just right, hitting a baseball into the outfield, etc.). I tried real hard to keep up and not slow them down because I never wanted to be left out. (I really didn’t like playing by myself.)
The one I studied most was my older brother. No surprise there, I suppose. I don’t think this was simply because we returned to the same house at the end of the day, but largely because the neighbor boys also considered him the leader of the pack. His opinions always mattered most. If he said I could join in, no one ever objected. (At least that’s my recollection.) He was strong, he was tough, he was clever and he was cool. Very cool. Three incidents would cinch his demigod standing with me. Two happened when we were pretty little, one a few years later.
The first happened when we were on our way home from the local swimming pool. Our routine was to stop by the concession stand to buy some candy for the return trip. A nickel would buy a package of five caramels — our absolute favorite. On this particular summer afternoon, after the attendant handed me my candies I had a hard time opening the cellophane. Meanwhile my brother and the neighbor boys had started walking toward home and were far enough away from me that they didn’t see several bigger, menacing-looking boys surround me and demand my candy. Frightened, I complied. When I finally caught up with my group and told them what had happened, my brother didn’t scold me for lagging behind or for letting the bullies muscle me out of my treat, he just handed me the rest of his candy. That action communicated volumes to my five-year-old heart and persuaded me he was as compassionate as he was tough.
The second incident happened one night while riding in the back seat of our parents’ 1958 Rambler sedan. We were on a two-lane highway returning from a visit at our grandpa’s and I was nodding off to sleep seated next to the right door. Suddenly, while rounding a curve, the door I was sitting next to flew open. (Seat belts were not yet standard issue on cars.) This startled and woke me, but before I could even figure out what had happened, my brother, seated in the middle of the back seat, lunged across my lap, grabbed the door handle and pulled it shut. Dad shouted nervously, “What was that?!!” to which my brother calmly replied, “Don’t worry, Dad. The door flew open but I got it.” Both our parents praised him for reacting quickly, but now I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt he was as brave as he was clever.
The third incident wouldn’t take place until I was almost a teenager. My brother had turned sixteen earlier that summer and had been working full-time for several weeks as a dock worker. I guess he was saving money for a car, or college, or both. One morning I exited the bathroom and opened my bedroom door only to see a pretty bright blue girl’s bicycle parked beside my bed. Taped to the bike seat was a note:“Now you won’t have to ride hand-me-down boy’s bikes any more.” I was blown away. Not only had he spent a big chunk of his very first paycheck to buy it, but his purchase affirmed the girly part of me. I was convinced he was as generous and savvy as he was strong.
Those three snapshots served to seal his status in my heart and no amount of standard-annoying-sibling-type-behavior on his part would ever dissuade me. Of course, he will demur if I say it within earshot, but he has always been very cool. To this day.