I Had a Brother, Once
I grew up with two older sisters. The eldest, naturally enough, was often the caretaker of the two. My younger sister and I engaged more in the usual sibling interactions, the competition for attention and "the bigger piece of pie" kind of thing. I think we all liked each other well enough; our family life was pretty peaceful. Our mother was our major influence because Dad drove intercity buses and was often away for days at a time. As I look back, and as I consider the dynamics of other families I have known, I think we were all pretty lucky.
Iím sure that being the "baby" of the family, and the only boy, put me in a special situation. I was allowed to do a lot of things boys do that my sisters neither wanted nor were allowed to do. That is to say, I got away with a lot of mischief, just because I was the youngest and because I was a boy. Frequently, a loud, dirty little boy.
I nearly always had friends, or at least a friend, after I entered school. Usually, I didnít fit well with the mainstream boys; I didnít play sports well because Iíd never had anyone teach me how to properly throw or catch or run. I "threw like a girl," they told me. So my activities were more things that I could do alone or perhaps with one or two others like me. Climbing trees, building things, getting lost in the fantasies of toy cars and trucks and airplanes.
As an adolescent, of course, my fantasies changed. World War Two had just started, and a lot of everyoneís attention was turned outward, away from individual problems and activities to what the country was doing. Going off to war was a common theme, as were coping with shortages of food and gas and everything else, and "pulling together." Even the Boy Scouts became militarized. We marched and saluted more than we built campfires and dug trenches around our tents. We collected newspapers and aluminum pans and tin cans for the war effort.
Among my contemporaries there was still the old sports thing, the competitive games that everybody (except me, it seemed) spent their time doing. But even I was recruited into sandlot baseball and sometimes football and, in the winter, wrestling matches. These things didnít interest me, really. They were simply a way to be connected with others.
Then I met a boy who was more like me. Don Fox didnít especially like sports, but he, too, tagged along just for the company. In a short time, he and I began spending more time with each other than with the group where we had met. Neither of us had much experience with girlsóthatís another fact of adolescent social life: the jocks got the girls. The rest of us had to learn different ways to meet females. Or to find other things to occupy our time.
So Don and I (we even had the same middle name: Ellsworth) spent a lot of our time together, going to movies, reading the same books, listening to the same music. We were fixtures in both of our family households, where our common name was a source of confusion and joking. As a young boy, I had been labeled with the name "Pete" after a popular cartoon strip, so that name was resurrected in my own house to make things simpler. We were together so much that even strangers asked us if we were brothers.
Donís father had died when Don was a young boy, and the war gave him the chance to earn money to help support his family. Legally, he was too young to work in a factory, but the labor shortage caused a lot of rules to be bent. He dropped out of school before he finished high school in order to work full time. The summer after I graduated, we joined the Coast Guard together, both of us wanting to learn about diesel engines. We tried to join the Navy, but the recruiters told me that my dental overbite was too large to pass the physical. I believe that the Navy recruiters thought us gay, and used the overbite as an excuse. We were not, but itís not hard to imagine that others might think we were, especially since Don dropped his application after mine had been denied. We were that close. The Coast Guard, however, was not so picky, and in a few weeks we were in boot camp together in Jacksonville, Florida. From boot camp we both went to motor machinistís mate school in Groton, Connecticut, and managed to get assigned to the Thirteenth Coast Guard District in Seattle.
The Coast Guard is a relatively small military service, having been originally part of the Commerce Department, and then during World War Two placed under the control of the Navy. After the war, it became a separate entity, being responsible for patrolling the coastlines and manning lifeboat stations and lighthouses. Most units of the Coast Guard were therefore very small, in some cases consisting of just three men. So it was inevitable that Don and I were split up when we were given our first permanent duty. He went to a lighthouse in the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, and I was assigned to a small cutter operating out of Port Townsend. We stayed in touch, and managed to go on leave together a few times.
However, in the meantime, I had met and married a girl in Port Townsend, and within a short time was a father. Don and I saw less and less of each other. He took an early discharge from the service in order to return to his family in Cincinnati. Service pay in those days was not enough to support a family, and congressional budget cuts had impelled the Coast Guard to offer "family hardship discharges." Within a few months, I took the same opportunity to go back to civilian life. Economic conditions on the outside were no better, however. I struggled to feed my little family, finally landing a manual labor job in a paper factory. When my marriage broke up (and thatís another story), I stayed in Port Townsend for a while until the constrictive atmosphere of small-town life caused me to return to Cincinnati, myself.
I moved in with Donís familyómy own had left town several years beforeóand we again became virtual brothers. We found work in the same factory, and spent most of our evenings either frequenting the same bars or attending evening college. He had passed a high school equivalency exam, and was on his way in an engineering program. By that time I was more interested in psychology and philosophy, and fancied myself a writer. For all the time we had known each other, we recognized a difference in what we wanted out of life. We agreed that he would likely work all his life for a big manufacturing company and live in the same place forever, and I would flit from adventure to adventure.
Then our social lives began to diverge. Eventually, he got married and moved out. I stayed with his family for a short time, and then moved out as well. In a few years I had remarried and started another family. For the next decade, we followed our separate lives, meeting occasionally to drink beer together and talk about old times. But our paths became more and more separate.
A few months ago, going through old photographs, I began to wonder about Don, about where he was and what he was doing. Sure enough, I found that he still lived in the same house he had bought for his young family in 1957, and even had the same phone number. We talked briefly and exchanged letters, catching each other up on our families and what we had been doing for the thirty years since we had last spent time together. Lately, our communications have been occasional emails to each other. The deep connection we used to have, the sharing of intimate details of our hearts as well as the practical activities of daily life, is gone. We have both moved on.
Families are all different. The adult relationships between siblings have always varied immensely. Some families remain close, both emotionally and physically. My own sisters and I have never shared very much since we grew up and went out on our own, although we have retained our mutual affectionóprobably more now than when we were young.
I used to say that I always wished I had a brother, and that I felt that lack many times in my life. Iíve recognized that in some ways Iíve wanted my son to be that missing companion, which, of course, he couldnít be. But in fact, Don was for a time, and perhaps always will be, the brother I had during an important period of my life, and the brother I will always feel, somehow, in my soul.
Donald Skiff, December 2, 2004