Jerry was my big brother and only sibling. I began this blog a year ago on his birthday, to honor his memory. Now it posts on Mondays, and with the leap year, this first anniversary again falls on his birthday. I’d like you to know more about this extraordinary person who was my first and greatest role model.
I first met him when I was born, but never got the chance to know him until after I graduated from high school. We grew up in a severely dysfunctional family, with both parents being alcoholics. If his childhood with our parents was anything like my own, I can see why he got out the moment he could, when he turned 16 and joined the Navy. I was five. We rarely saw him after that, but I distinctly recall one time when he came home from leave, when I was about seven. He was in his sailor’s uniform, and my dad started slapping mom around. Jerry jumped him, and they rolled around on the floor fighting. Dad threw him out of the house. We didn’t see him for years after that, but one day when I was in 8th grade, a box came in the mail, addressed to me. It was full of books, maybe fifty or more, mostly paperbacks. It started me on a life-long love affair with reading.
I wish I’d made a list of them. I know one of the first I read was Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. That was my introduction to one of my favorite writers. Both Edith Hamilton and Bulfinch’s mythologies, quite a few on WWII (one of his passions), Black Boy by Richard Wright, these are the ones I remember.
After high school, I went out to visit him for a couple weeks in Wisconsin. That was 1964, and he was living in Manitowoc, on the shores of Lake Michigan. While he was at work, I’d look through his books, which were scattered everywhere, while listening to classical music (something else he turned me on to). He was older and smarter than I, and I was eager to learn what he had to say about the world. But there was always something between us, a wall of some kind. He was intimidating and intense, and I was always a little afraid of him. We’d argue about things, and I felt he didn’t respect me — after all, what the hell did I know? Just before he got married the next year, we had an argument about something and I didn’t go to the wedding. That would show him. I’ve always regretted that foolishness, because his life with Ethel was the very best thing that ever happened to him.
Since we lived so far apart, I only saw them occasionally. I loved visiting them, and we got along alright, but there was always that distance, as if he resented me or something. He wore a beard through most of his life, which made him look like an Old Testament prophet. To me he looked angry even when he wasn’t. And he had a really nasty temper. But he was my big brother, I loved him and looked up to him so much, it was worth the uneasiness. Then in 1989, he came out to the West coast alone and we spent a week together. It was wonderful to have some time together. One summer evening, though, it all changed forever.
We were standing outside, talking about our parents, about what it was like to grow up in that atmosphere. Things started bubbling up from our pasts, and it got really ugly. He had always resented me for not standing up to dad; I’d always felt guilty for NOT standing up to dad. He’d felt guilty for years for abandoning me when he went off to the Navy; I resented him abandoning me. This went on and on, and we got louder and louder. We nearly came to blows at one point. That invisible wall that had been between us came crashing down as we unloaded and unpacked all that baggage. Then we suddenly stopped, as if we simultaneously realized what had happened. All of a sudden there was mutual respect and understanding between us, and from then on we became, and remained, best friends until he died thirteen years later. No more than a couple weeks would pass and one of us would call.
I think our best laugh together came just a day or two after that big argument. I was coming out of the bathroom and accidentally knocked a full roll of toilet paper into the toilet. “God damn it!” I yelled. He came over, just as I was holding up the dripping roll. He laughed and said, “How does that work?” I shot back, “It don’t work for shit!”
We had so many interests in common. Science fiction was one of them, and I can remember talking about it during the late 60s, when “Star Trek” was so popular on TV. It had been groundbreaking, although as science fiction, it really wasn’t very good. I asked him why there isn’t good sci-fi on TV. He said, “Because science fiction makes people think, and people don’t want to think.” Another time we were talking about the history of the unions, and all the heads that were busted and the blood that was shed, just so people could have a voice in the workplace. It was during the Reagan years, and he lamented that unions had lost all that ground, and we were going to have to make it all up again. Was he ever right about that.
I think Jerry was the best listener I ever knew, although Ethel may not agree. You know how when people talk to each other, it’s like rather than listening, they’re waiting for a break in the conversation, so they can jump in? When you were talking to him, you always felt he was genuinely interested in what you were saying. He seemed to love hearing what other people had to say, and he delighted in debating them over it. I loved watching him listen to other people.
Another of our commonalities was language. I merely studied it, but he used it as skillfully as a surgeon with a scalpel. He used to talk about life experience as having developed “hard bark.” One of my favorite stories was his telling me about a cat he’d found on his way home from work. It looked homeless and hungry, so he stopped, picked it up, and took it home. Now Ethel, despite the fact that she is a national treasure, was no cat person. But when Jerry walked into the house with that cat, their nine-year-old daughter, Erin, went wild. Ethel walked into the room to see what was happening. Erin said, “Oh mom, can we keep it?” Note that Erin knew who was in charge around there. Ethel, knowing she was caught in a trap, looked at Jerry. He said, “It was like looking down two gun barrels.”
Once we were having one of many discussions about politics, and I was telling him how frustrating it was trying to talk to people on the far right. I was saying how it was if they couldn’t see any other view than their own. “They’re wired that way,” he said. “They’re hard-wired, and you’re not going to get through to them.” I’ve thought about that statement many times over the years, and he was right about that, too. A study by University College of London last year found that in the brains of conservatives, the amygdale is more developed. This is the primitive part of the brain, controlling fight-or-flight responses, and aggression. In liberals a different part of the brain is more highly developed, I think it’s called the anterior singulate, which controls cooperation and compassion.
It was he and he alone who inspired me towards art. I’ve worked hard at it over the years, and I’ve improved my craft. But since he died ten years ago, I’ve never been more prolific. It’s as if I’ve been working for two. Although our dad wasn’t an artist, the three of us had so much in common. All three of us read voraciously. One big thing we had in common was our tempers, and I think I know why, now. We all were smart, worked hard, and were creative, and none of us was ever able to make it work financially. It’s extremely frustrating.
Through all my life, I always looked up to and worshipped my big brother, although he was half a foot shorter. He was almost godlike to me, even if he wasn’t a saint. One of the last conversations I had with him was a couple months before he died. He told me, “You know, Tom, I’ve always looked up to you.” I didn’t know how to respond to that, I was so moved. For those of you who never had the pleasure of meeting him, I think I can sum up what you’ve missed with one story. I spent a week with Ethel after the funeral, and the two girls were there also. We were going through all the condolence letters and cards that people had sent. One lady said, “Whenever I ran into Jerry in town, it just made my whole day.” That was my big brother Jerry, alright.