I was in the fourth grade when I fell, face first, on the blacktop playground surface in the back of Saint Anthony’s Elementary School in Charleston, WV. As my teacher, Mrs. Moore, and a few nuns helped me to my feet, I think they fully expected that I would be distraught and crying as a result of the scrapes on my face and the bits and pieces of my front tooth that I was spitting out. Instead, they just stared at me like I was crazy because I was smiling and beaming with pride as I felt the sharp edges of my fractured tooth with my tongue.
I had always been into hero worshipping. One of my first heroes was Mighty Mouse. My real, first hero, my mother, always came to my rescue when my older brothers and sister tried to prevent me from watching the Mighty Mouse Show at the same time each day on our black and white TV set.
My grandfather tapped into my hero worshipping behavior as he would have me stand up on the kitchen table and tell everyone about his and my adventures fighting the Indians in the Wild West just like the cowboy heroes I knew from TV: Tom Mix; Wyatt Earp; Marshall Dylan, Will Rogers and others.
But, the smile on my face that particular day in the fourth grade was because I had just repeated a feat of my greatest hero of all. The one hero I did then, and for years to come, hold above all others also had broken half of one of his front teeth years before. Although I didn’t lose half the tooth, the chipped portion that was now gone was certainly obvious and I couldn’t wait to display this badge of honor to my hero, all of five years my senior, a freshman in high school at the time, my oldest brother, Johnny.
Although I loved my parents and certainly wanted to make them proud, the real driving force in my life, the one person that had the greatest influence on my behavior, that one individual that I most wanted to please was my brother.
I was the fourth child and third son of my parents, with two more siblings shortly to follow, before the baby of the family surprised us a few years after we thought the family was complete. By the time I came along, my father had gone through a lot of his father son bonding with my older brothers and was certainly busy with six and then seven children, so I didn’t, and couldn’t expect to, have that individual attention that some sons get from their father, but it didn’t matter. Everything my father had to teach me was taught to me second-handedly by my oldest brother. And, I was good with that; I wanted to be just like him.
Johnny was not only small for his age, but usually the smallest in his class and smallest of his peers. But, size notwithstanding, Johnny was a tenacious and fearless participant on the athletic fields and gymnasiums. I was small-ish, but not the smallest and was always disappointed when I had classmates that measured in shorter than me. I lacked the confidence and athletic skills of my brother but I tried my hardest to duplicate his spunk and effort in all sports.
Many times, during neighborhood and sandlot games of football, stickball or basketball, Johnny would allow me to play with him and his friends – all five years older than me – when the sides needed to be evened up. Johnny always used me as his secret weapon just waiting for the older, bigger kids to get tired of having to cover the little kid, before throwing a long touchdown pass to me or setting up a pick and roll giving me a layup to the basket. Nothing was ever more special to me, than to be on his team, playing with his friends.
When it came to discipline, my parents couldn’t possibly correct my behavior or change my wayward course with near the same effectiveness as Johnny. My mother’s disciplinary weapon of choice was the pancake turner, but, as harsh as that may sound, her maternal instincts never quite allowed her to strike with enough force to achieve her intended punishment. In fact, my mother’s attempts to strike fear in me with the pancake turner usually resulted in my laughter. She would, yell, “You think that’s funny, I’ll show you funny!” And I would receive the next spanking, biting my lip trying to prevent more laughter. I remember one time when my mother got so angry that her aim was impacted and, missing the seat of my shorts, hit the top of my bare leg leaving a deep, red welt. I could sense that this did, indeed, hurt her more than it hurt me and I was saddened by how bad I made her feel as my leg wore the red mark for quite some time. I only remember once being on the angry side of my father’s belt, but the reasons why or the impacts it had on me are lost in the haze of a long ago memory. But, none of this physical, corporal punishment could possibly come close to impacting me the way my brother could by simply uttering three words at me. To make me remorseful and determined to change my ways, all Johnny had to do was say, “Act your age.” Those three words had a devastating impact on me. I’d much rather have been hit by the pancake turner or beaten with a belt.
I guarded and polished that pedestal I put my brother on throughout my entire childhood and well into my adult life. Nothing ever made me prouder than to have someone tell me I looked like or acted like or reminded them of my older brother.
When I talked my parents into letting me join the Catholic School 8th grade football team when I was then in the Centerville, Ohio public middle school, I told the coaches I was a running back, even though I had never been a running back, because Johnny told me it would help get me noticed. When Johnny took up wrestling in college, I joined the wrestling team in High School. Johnny spent hours teaching me how to drive in his red mustang in preparation for my drivers license. I don’t ever remember spending one minute in the car practicing with one of my parents. When Johnny took up the guitar, I took up the guitar. I inherited his albums when he came home from college and became a fan of his favorite bands. Even as a growing, high school boy, varsity wrestler, every time Johnny came home from college for a visit and every time he left to return to college again, I had to secretly find a private place I could go to hide my tears of happiness or grief.
I learned about life as a young man and continued to try to emulate my brother by spending week-ends with him in the “Farm House” he lived in near the Salem Mall, caring for the property owned by a number of young Catholic priests who used this as their little retreat getaway. And, Johnny was there for me at three o’clock in the morning sitting in the hospital maternity waiting room after the birth of my first child, when I was still just a twenty-one year old boy.
Johnny was and is, in other words, my hero. And, the reason why I was elated to have fractured my tooth in the fourth grade.