Alligators 'n Roadkill

Alligators 'n Roadkill
On The Road


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Once I had a Big Brother

           I wasn't around when my big brother, Mike, was born, and it wasn't until 2007, when he was 66 and I was 61, that I learned he was referred to as "Our Mick" by our parents when he was just an infant.  And, that is only one of the things about family history I never knew.
                           Mike and his wife, CJ, in Laredo, around 2006

          While it is true that only five years in time separated us, I always felt that there was a much larger gap.  Mike was not just the big brother, but he was also some sort of almost mythological creature who knew so much more than the rest of us.
          While I was busy playing, he had a heavy load of responsibility to carry.  I was aware that he had to work part time, and in the summers, full time, while I had little responsibility.  I was very much aware that he was just about all that stood between me (and my siblings) and our drunken father.  Mike was doing adult things long before he should have had to do them.
          Mostly, what I remember is that - believe it or not - at least two of us had a very great experience living in the small town of Goldendale, Washington.  Mike was working, winning accolades (he got the Baush and Lomb medal for science when he graduated high school), playing small town high school football, and generally, growing up.  Dennis and I had the run of the town, and spent many hours playing along the creek, or in the fields nearby.  That wonderful time (for Dennis and I) lasted from the when I was in the fourth grade, until right after the school year ended after the seventh grade.
          Mike graduated from high school, one spring evening, and we were on a Greyhound bus that left Goldendale that same night.  The next thing I knew, we were moving in with our paternal grandfather, in Tacoma.  And, then, within a very few days, Mike was gone.  He joined the Army just as soon as he could.  This, by the way, would have been 1959.
          So, the next few years went by with something missing from the family, but to be honest, I did not pay much attention because I was coming into that age when the whole world must revolve around the ego.  Looking back now, I know that I was likely one of the most egocentric teens ever, with time only for me, my interests, and my few friends.  I suppose that had to do with a lousy home life more than I knew, but it was what it was.
          Mike came home (by which time, we had moved out of Grandad's house, to at least three other rentals) after his hitch in the Army ended, in 1962, when I was between my Sophomore and Junior years of high school.  Because of his presence, our parents evidently felt that, for the first and only time in their married lives, they could try to buy a home for the family.  We then moved into the most wonderful house I ever lived in, and I suspect that a portion of the burden and/or the qualifying to buy the house, came from Mike.
          Soon, though, he went his own way, but not before he showed me some things that have stayed with me ever since.  He came home from Germany with the first console stereo I ever got my hands on, and actually listened to.  He had a record collection that showed me that recorded music was much more than 45 rpm records, and could provide a fidelity of sound way better than those little RCA 45 rpm record players that were all I knew up until that time.
          He had record albums (LP's) featuring Ray Conniff and John Gary and Les (and Larry) Elgart and artists with whom I was most definitely not familiar.  (I was into whatever the local top 40 AM radio stations were playing at that time).  More important, his stereo had FM radio, and FM was a whole 'nother ball game in 1962!  So, as you can imagine, my music horizons opened up, all of a sudden.
          When Mike came home from his Army stint, one of the first things he did was buy himself a car.  And, not just any car, but a great big old Chrysler.  I can't be sure after all these years, but I'd guess this was about 1951 or 52 Windsor.  All I remember is that it was four doors, two-toned, and very, very large.  The family car, at this time was a 1956 Chevy, also four door, and two-toned.
          At some point in time, I know that I still did not have a drivers license, so I think it was my Junior year of high school, making this early 1964, I got Mike in trouble.  The old man was not around; I'm thinking he was in Steilacoom for his alcoholism.  One Friday evening, I wanted to go out with my friends, and needed the car, but it was in the garage, with a dead battery.  The garage was detached, and down a short, steep incline from the side street (North 6th Street, for those who would like to know), with the car facing inward.  This, by the way, was a car with an automatic transmission.
          Don't ask me how, and don't ask me why, but somehow I, a pimply 16 year old, persuaded big bro, Mike, the adult in this scenario, to assist me with not only getting that damn car up and out onto the street, but to push-start it with his car so I could get it started.  We neither of us knew very much about cars, but we did know that it takes a lot more to start a car with an automatic transmission by pushing it, than it does a car with a standard transmission.  Oh, and we knew that this was called "starting a car on compression."
          We managed to pull the family car out of the garage, and onto the street, headed north, along the very narrow 6th Street.  Now, by this time, the sun was mostly down, and a light rain began to fall.  For those who remember, 1950's cars all had a windshield wiper system that depended on vacuum power, created by the running engine, to operate.  So, not only was I out of luck due to the dead battery, but until and unless that engine was running, there would be no headlights and no wipers.
          Remember, Mike was the adult here, OK?  The next stupid thing we did, together, was start off, with his old boat of a Chrysler pushing me in that '56 Chevy.  We did not get half a block before I hit the rear end of a parked car!  I do not recall what kind of car it was, but it is very likely that it was yet another large and heavy boat, like the two wrecks we created that fateful night.  The upshot?  I did not go out that night.  Mike spent a considerable time with a cop.  We were naturally set for court appearances, and our mother had to go with me, since I was a minor.  My punishment?  By court order, I had to go get my driver license!  (Yes, like all 16 year olds, this was something I wanted, anyway).
          Now, let's jump ahead in time a bit, to 1965, when I finally got fed up and left home.  When it finally dawned on me that I had to get out, I did not even think twice about where I was going (we must have talked about this at some point), but I made one phone call to let Mike know that I was on my way, and I took off from Moses Lake, Washington, where the folks were then living, and headed for Seattle, where Mike and his first wife took me in without, to my recollection, any thought or so much as a pause.
          I believe it may have been during this time that Mike provided me with one of the more valuable man-lessons he ever did teach me.  The manly art of cooking outdoors, over charcoal.  Question:  When is the best time to cook outdoors?  Mike's answer:  Whenever the hell you want, even if you do live in the Pacific Northwest.  Now, that may seem seriously simplistic to you, but remember, we're talking about Seattle here.  And, what does it do in Seattle, all the time?  That's right.  It rains.  Mike's solution?  Open up the garage doors, the old school, double doors?  Heavy, wooden doors?  And, put the grill inside, out of the rain.  Mike taught me how to start a fire with charcoal, and minimal starter fluid.  You see, he once sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners, and he - naturally - knew all their little tricks.  The one necessary for outdoor cooking had to do with putting the hose into the exhaust side of the machine, something the Electrolux was designed to do.  That's right.  They don't just suck.  They also blow.
          Once you see that your charcoal has caught, just a little bit, you direct that blowing, hot air at the glow of your baby fire.  Within a relatively short period of time, that glow grows into actual flame, and before you know it, the flame grows, and spreads until most of your charcoal is involved, and then, shortly, you have a fire hot enough to grill steaks.  And, by the way, in those days, steaks were the only thing we ever grilled.  Mike taught me rules that have lasted for me ever since.  Bring your steaks up to ambient temperature before they go onto the fire.  Make sure all of your charcoal is committed, or involved in the fire, because you want serious heat to properly grill a steak.  This is probably one of the single most important life lessons I ever got from my big brother, and you better believe that I have passed these along to my sons to the extent that they have shown some aptitude for this most manly of activities.
          Unfortunately, I only got to stay with Mike and Alice for a few brief months, before Uncle Sam drafted me.  I think it was probably July when I moved to Seattle, and I got my draft notice within weeks.  During that time, however, I had the chance to learn more things from my big bro.  He was by this time involved in remodeling the kitchen in their home up on Queen Anne Hill, in Seattle, and I got to help his father-in-law with some of the work.  Mike was also doing some hobbyist things in his basement, and I found that to be of great interest.  Imagine this:  He was interested in steam engines, so he did research (and, keep in mind, that research in those days meant going into books, real books).  I think he based what he was doing on an article in Popular Science, or Popular Mechanics, two magazines that we all read at that time.

   Above is a simple illustration of what Mike built, using things he found around the house.

          He made all the parts for a miniature steam engine out of available materials, by hand.  He did not have a lot of tools, but he fashioned a piston out of something, and a cylinder out of something else.  I remember he used a penny for a flywheel, and his fuel was rubbing alcohol, burned in an old tin can of some sort.  It was ingenious, and I watched it take shape, and was there the first time he actually ran it.  I was, to say the least, impressed.
          And, that was just one of the many ways this man impressed me during his lifetime.  When he was interested in something, he would research it to the point that he learned all he wanted to know, and from then on, he was an authority on that subject.
          I went off to the Army, and left my car in Mike's garage for the duration, and he never once complained.  When I met my future wife, and we planned to marry, late in my Army enlistment, it was Mike I asked to be my Best Man.  He and his wife traveled, at their own expense, to El Paso, Texas (we got married at Ft. Bliss' main chapel), so that he could stand up for me.  I had no real time to spend with him during that rushed time, but just his presence sort of put a stamp on the event for me, and for my bride.  I doubt if I ever really thanked him for this, either.
          When I took my discharge a few months later, I did not hesitate, but packed my bride and our few possessions into our car, and off we went to Seattle, to move in with Mike and Alice.  We stayed with them for less than six months, and again, spending time with him proved to be instructive, and also entertaining.  Blanca, my bride, has been just as grateful as I for his open minded and open-handed welcome.
          And, that car I had left with him?  It was a 1954 Ford, Crown Vic, with a plexiglass roof.  Again, neither Mike nor I really knew anything about cars, but we did know that a car that had been sitting for nearly three years might have some issues.  So, between the two of us, here's what we did to get my old Ford started:  We removed each of the eight spark plugs, and squirted a few drops of motor oil into each cylinder.  Then, we used cable to jump start it from Mike's nearly new 1967 or '68 Mercury Cougar (one of the very first of those fine cars, and meticulously cared for by Mike for many years).  This jump start seemed to be a no-brainer to us, since we knew we were shooting twelve volts into a six volt system.  And, it worked like a frickin' charm!  That old Ford started right up, hardly smoked at all, and I was back on the road just like that.

                                          Mike's Cougar looked a bit like this one.

          It was Mike who let me use his Sears account to buy the tools required so that I could go to work at Boeing, and it was Mike again, who helped Blanca and I move into our own home, down at the bottom of Queen Anne Hill, in Seattle's Fremont area.  And, Mike, who bought a compressor, and came over to our little house, along with little brother, David, to help me paint that little house.
          We only stayed in Seattle for about 14 months, before we headed back to El Paso, where we finally settled down and started to raise a family.  Mike and CJ came to spend a bit of time with us in the early 70's, as they had decided to try a new start in Texas.  At one point, during that brief stay, CJ had gone to visit family, I think in Minnesota, and Mike was left alone with Blanca and I for a few days.  I don't remember why or how we decided to do this thing, but the two of us went drinking across the border to an area that we still refer to as Zaragoza, Mexico (immediately across the border from what used to be Ysleta, Texas, was the tiny Mexican village of Waterfill, which was mostly stores and bars).  I remember we drank Singapore Slings up to the time we came back across to our house in El Paso, and then we got serious about our drinking.
          Actually, we were not serious, because we decided to play some game where we each had to invent a drink that could have anything in it, as long alcohol was involved.  I only remember the drinking and some of the ingredients, and have no recollection of what decided who got to mix and who had to drink, OK?  I do recall one drink that we named (of course we had to not only create an original drink, but we named them, too) something like "A Fart In A Sleeping Bag."  It had, among other things, instant coffee granules, and perhaps a dash of tomato juice (or paste or sauce or ketchup).  I think the main alcoholic beverage we had, upon which to base our inventions, was most likely Bacardi Superior, the clear one.  We put our hearts and souls into these inventions, along with everything we could find in the kitchen, and we did manage to get just a bit stinko.  I don't recall who won, but I know we both benefited greatly from the experience.
          A few years later, just to illustrate one of the ways in which Mike was special, I had graduated from Nursing School, in El Paso, and I had to travel, on my own hook, to Austin, in order to take what we called the "State Boards," the exam for Nursing licensure.  I suppose they were called the 'Boards' because this was two days of testing administered by the State Board of Nurse Examiners.  At any rate, for those who do not know Texas geography, it is over six hundred miles from El Paso, to Austin. 
          There was no question of trying to bear the cost of flying.  Hell, I was a recent graduate, with two kids at the time!  So, we had no choice but to drive.  Another story could be inserted here, but since it does not concern Mike, we'll skip it.  The main thing to understand here is that I had just gotten our car out of the shop, where the engine had been rebuilt.  This was February of 1977.  The Interstate (I-10) was still under construction between El Paso and San Antonio, so our trip was made in our 1969 VW Bug, with a brand new engine (that had not yet been broken in; and, breaking in new engines was important in those days).
          Well, we made it to Austin, and found a cheap motel on what I now believe was South Congress Street,  just a few blocks from the site where statewide testing was to be done.  I think this may have been the Palmer Auditorium, but I no longer remember.  As I recall, the testing was conducted over two full days, on a Thursday and Friday.  As soon as I finished the last part of the test, Blanca picked me up (actually, she had been pretty much on her own for those two days, in a strange town, with little or no money), and we stopped at a gas station to fill up, and I bought a case of the cheapest beer we could find.  This was likely Texas Pride, a particularly vile brew that was indeed cheap.
          We had already decided to drive home to El Paso through Del Rio, where Mike and CJ were then living.  So, we got onto I-35, headed for San Antonio, and then, found US 90, going west through Uvalde, to Del Rio.  I do not recall if we bothered to call ahead to warn Mike and CJ, but I do know that it was not very early when we finally got to Del Rio.  The first thing I remember, after our arrival, is that Mike proceeded to help me finish off that case of beer, and while we were sitting on the floor, he got out an Atlas, and satisfied his curiosity about the journey that Blanca and I were making.
          What he was looking for, and what he found, was that, in order for me to take my State Boards, I had traveled a distance equivalent to crossing four or five states back east.  This was a pretty large and costly undertaking for a new graduate with a family.  Fortunately, at some point in time since those days,  Texas did modernize so that today's graduates can take the test (which is no longer called State Boards, by the way) close to home.   But, the point of this little anecdote is to illustrate what kind of guy my big brother was.  Something struck his wonder, so he went to the source, in this case an Atlas.
          Beginning in the late 90's, Blanca and I started to visit Costa Rica, and asked Mike and CJ to join us down there on one of our visits.  They did so, and fit right in with a group of mostly Blanca's relatives, in 2005.  Later, Blanca and I retired and moved to Costa Rica, and Mike and CJ came to visit us in our little house in 2010 or 2011.  We really enjoyed showing them our little piece of that tiny country, and it was very special to us how well they fit in, and - for me - it was gratifying to be able to show Mike some things that perhaps he did not know before.  An important thing to note here is that he always kept an open mind, and he was always willing to try new things. 
          Over the years, Mike always stood for so much more than I ever was.  He was the father that I wanted to please, and from whom I wanted recognition.  God knows none of us ever got much of anything from the old man.  When people would ask me if I knew an honest man, Mike was the first person who came to mind.  He never professed much by way of any organized religion, but you know, in my mind, big brother Mike was the most moral man I ever knew.
          But, he was more than that, as I'm sure all who knew him can attest.  He was the one I thought of when I encountered some new and very stupid thing, because I knew he'd get a kick out of it.  He was the one I tried to memorize jokes for, so that I could recount them to him the next time I saw him, or spoke to him.   He was the one person I always tried to make laugh, if you know what I mean.  While it is true that it was easy to make him laugh, I always tried extra hard to say witty or funny things just for him.  For one thing, you have to admit that when Mike laughed, he laughed with his whole being, and everybody knew he was around.  Not only was it a great pleasure to make him laugh, but he always had a line, or a joke to make YOU laugh, too.
          And,  maybe that brings us back to what counted, at least for me.  I know that the words I posted on my Facebook the day he died were these:  "He Made Me Laugh."

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