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I Hardly Knew Him
You never expect a brother to die. A father. A mother. Yes, you can expect that. But not a brother. Certainly not Buster.
Buster was three years older than me.
That's a generation between boys. When I was five he was eight. He was fourteen
when I was eleven, and he went to
My mother would say, "Take Thomas with you, Buster, keep an eye on him. You're older than he is you know," when we went off to skate on Dickerson's Pond.
"Stop hollering, Tommy, it's only a splinter. Be a big brave boy like Buster. You wouldn't cry over a splinter, would you Buster," my father would say as he held a burnt needle in one hand and my foot in the other.
Mother called me Thomas and wanted Buster to come down to my level, Father called me Tommy and wanted me to rise to his. Both of them expected more from us than it was possible for us to give.
Buster was strong. Not just stronger than me, but stronger than boys older than he was. He died at the age of twenty-two, at the peak of his strength. I think it was his strength in the end that was his undoing.
I loved him most of his life. Until that day at the sporting goods store he was a hero to me. From then on, an element of fear was mixed with that love. Until that day, I was in awe of him. He taught me to walk through a hostile crowd of high school boys with my head held high, carrying a chip on my shoulder no one would dare knock off. He taught me to wrestle and use my opponent's strength to my advantage, he taught me how to take out two linemen at a time in junior varsity -- I taught him nothing, nothing at all. The little I had to teach was of no use to him.
My father was like him as a boy back in Sandusky, Ohio. But now -- here in Akron, he was an aging bull of a man who sat in a T-shirt by the living room window. With a beer or two under his belt, he would retell his army career -- his personal war with the Wehrmach. Each retelling of the story would grow in consequence and magnitude. He was a mixture of Swedish and Scottish stock, fond of fishing and feats of strength in the local tavern. He was a foreman at Goodyear Tire and the state arm wrestling champion of Ohio. He was not a literary man and he had little time for people who were. To this day I cannot imagine the set of circumstances that brought him and my gentle mother together.
Mother was a voracious reader. Under the seat cushions in the living room she stored magazine articles, book reviews and clippings from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She would read as she sewed -- read as she cooked, her glasses slipping down her nose. With a husband and two boys in the house, she had little time to finish reading anything she started. Every book in the house had a slip of paper marking the place where she had been interrupted by Buster, my father, or me.
It was as though each of my parents had a child of their own, Buster for my father and me for my mother. I wanted my father to be proud of me but I failed him. I was not the all-American boy he wanted me to be. At the age of eleven I was working on the school newspaper while Buster was already on the varsity football team.
I began to fear my brother on the occasion of my father's forty-fourth birthday. Buster and I talked of getting him a present from the two of us, but we couldn't agree on a single gift. We went down to Wallace's Sporting Goods store, and I bought him a new Bass fishing lure. Buster picked out two spring hand exercisers meant to strengthen a man's grip. Both items came to eleven dollars. I gave Buster the money for my present and he paid for both of them with two ten dollar bills. Mr. Wallace put both items in a paper bag and turned to the next customer.
Buster handed the bag to me and said, "I got nine dollars change comin' Mr. Wallace."
"No you don't, kid. You gave me eleven dollars."
"I gave you two tens, Mr. Wallace."
Mr. Wallace opened the cash register and picked out a ten and a one and said, "Here they are, kid -- a ten and a one, just like you give 'em to me."
People were beginning to gather, looking first at Mr. Wallace and then at Buster. I was only thirteen and easily intimidated. I pulled at Buster's sleeve and he shook me off. His eyes were a winter blue, cold as ice and there was a hardness in him that scared me.
"I'm not leavin' 'til I get my nine dollars Mr. Wallace."
Mr. Wallace, all 210 pounds of him, came around the corner of the counter smiling at the other customers. "Little snot nose here, tryin' t'get away with the oldest trick in the book." He took Buster by the arm and started marching him to the front door. In a flash, Buster took the man's arm and stepped behind his back. He bent it halfway up to his shoulder blade. Taken by surprise, Mr. Wallace suddenly felt as though his arm would break. He sank to his knees and gasped in pain.
"What'cha doin' -- Ow! Goddamn it, y'breakin' my arm." His face turned red with pain and rage. His lower jaw jutted out exposing his lower teeth. I was suddenly and absurdly reminded of a toy cash register I once had in the shape of a man's face. The lower jaw would jump out when you pressed a key.
"Tell the people here what you did, Mr. Wallace."
"Whaddya mean, 'what I did'? Buster jerked the arm a little higher. "Ow! Good God almighty kid -- let up will ya. Okay, Okay! I made a mistake, all right? Ow, Ow!! Goddamn! I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I tried to sting you outta nine bucks!" Buster let up and Mr. Wallace got to his feet holding his arm, as red in the face as any man I've ever seen. He glanced sheepishly around him and, muttering to himself, he walked back to the cash register and gave Buster his nine dollars.
"Get outta here!" He turned to his customers and said, "Everybody, get outta here, the store's closed!"
It was a scene I will never forget. A sixteen year old boy bringing a huge man to his knees and making him cry for mercy. On our way home I walked along the edge of the curb and kept the width of the sidewalk between us. I felt we were brothers no longer. Buster sensed it, I think ....
"It was my nine bucks, Tom. I couldn't let him get away with that." We walked in silence a while.
"Some people can't stand pain, Tom. Remember that. Pain is something that brings the truth out of people. Use it when you want the truth."
It was the proudest moment of my father's life when he got the news. My mother was fearful for what might happen to Buster if Mr. Wallace decided to sue or ....
"With all those guns in his store, who knows what he might do."
"Wallace won't do nothin'," my father said. "He's a ruined man, bein' taken down like that by my boy."
It was the beginning of a drifting apart between Buster and me. He finished high school and got a job grooming horses at the Livingston Stables. While I was in college, the war with Vietnam escalated and Buster signed up for his first hitch in the Marine Corps. He was twenty-one then, broad in the chest and he walked with his hands curled, held out at his sides as though he carried something hard and deadly in each of them.
He spent a weekend with us between coming up from Parris Island and leaving for Vietnam. He looked great. Invincible. He wore his head shaved close, and it gave him a bulletproof appearance. All of us were convinced that nothing would ever touch Buster. There was a quiet hardness in him that threatened to break out without warning. At the airport Buster embraced my mother so tightly she winced, my father's knees sagged when he shook his hand and he actually lifted me off my feet when he hugged me goodbye. Nothing could possibly happen to Buster, he was unyielding as steel and enduring as iron -- everything a Marine is supposed to be.
My mother's voice was quiet, very low and almost apologetic when she called me at school and told me Buster was dead. She had gotten a telegram and then a telephone call from his commanding officer.
"He died quickly the officer said, he didn't think there had been any pain. They're flying him home with a Sergeant. He should be here for the weekend." I couldn't believe how calm she was, almost as though he and a Marine buddy were coming home for a visit. My father was in shock, and maybe mother was putting up a front for him. I asked her if she knew how he died.
"A single bullet in the back of the neck," she replied.
The funeral was impressive -- I'm sure Buster would have thought so too. A platoon of Marines was assigned to take up posts at the head and foot of the casket. The casket was closed and draped with an American flag. Neither mother nor father wanted to see him, "It's not right to see him like that -- nobody should see him like that," my father said. I think he felt that by not seeing him dead, Buster would surprise them and turn up again some day. I convinced myself that one of us should have a last look at him, but Sergeant Jefferson said it wouldn't be a good idea.
"He's naked you know, and he's been zipped up in a plastic bag for over a week. If I were you I'd try to remember him the way he was."
"Were you with him when it happened?" I asked.
"I was on the same patrol, but I didn't see it happen. That's the trouble with fightin' over there, you don't see nobody. You never know where it's coming from."
"I have the feeling somebody in the family should see him, just to be sure, that's all."
"Tell you what," Sergeant Jefferson dropped his voice, "You got some time before the laying in tomorrow. Get here early -- just the two of us, okay?"
While my mother and father waited in the black limousine outside, Sergeant Jefferson and the mortician opened the heavy lid of the coffin. It was Buster all right. That was my first concern. Suppose they'd made a mistake? Suppose it wasn't Buster, could there be any chance at all he might be alive?"
Death had taken away all his invincibility. He looked small and vulnerable lying there. I pushed the heavy plastic close to the exit wound in his neck. It was tiny, not much bigger than a quarter. I took a deep breath and kissed him goodbye.
"He was a tough guy, your brother. I suppose you know that," the Sergeant said.
"I know that, that's why I wanted to see him. I couldn't believe something so small as a bullet could kill him."
The sergeant was anxious to close the lid and pull the flag over it again. "He might'a been too tough for his own good."
I have lived with that last remark all my life. I've said it to myself over and over and wondered what Sergeant Jefferson meant. Buster was tough, tough as nails -- but why "too tough?" Who would suffer that toughness more than the men he fought with? There were enemies everywhere; there are no friends in battle.
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