My Older Brother Charley

At the far end of the hall my brother, Charley, and I shared a bedroom, much to his dismay.  It was clear to all of us, at this point in our lives, Charley did not like me, though I am not sure he liked anyone.  To relieve the tension, Mother split the large bedroom into two smaller rooms by placing two desks side-by-side in the middle of the space but facing in opposite directions, with two large poster boards attached to the back of each desk as a way as to keep us from looking in on each other.  On the poster boards were, in fact, posters of Pittsburgh Pirate baseball players, like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Dick Stuart, and such things as local, little league baseball schedules.

We each had a single bed, which, under normal circumstances, would have been one bunk bed, but, fortunately, for my survival, were separated into the opposite corners of the larger room.  Unfortunately, Charley had to walk through my half of the room to get to his half or to go out the door to the hallway, and, thus, began a series of fights that occurred anytime I was in my room when he walked through.  These “fights” lasted through our teenage years, and, given he was three years older, I use the word “fight’ loosely.  It was more like a beating at the hands of my older brother who couldn’t think of anything better to do with his aggression, except, of course, challenge Holly for being the oldest.  Given this effort often failed, he frequently turned his frustration and anger on me.

I learned to hate Saturday mornings.  After an hour or two of cartoons, Mother would direct us to turn off the television, get dressed, clean up our rooms, and take our sheets out to the washing machine near the kitchen.  For my brother, this assignment was nothing more than an excuse to torture me in the privacy of our joint room.  “Hey, you little puke!” he would say, “It’s time to die!” and it wouldn’t be long before I was pinned underneath him.  He would grab my pillow and start to suffocate me, only letting up at the last minute, or force my hands up to slap my face over and over, or simply rain drools of spit onto my forehead, nose and chin.  “Charley,” I would scream as loud as I could, knowing that screaming “Charley! Charley!” was the only relief I could get from his Saturday sadistic ritual, as Mother would – when she had heard enough and after several “If I come back there!” threats – when my cries filled the house –run back to our room and scream, “Charley!” herself, forcing him by any and every means at her disposal to get him up and off of me.  “Why do you do that to your brother?” she would plead questioning Saturday after Saturday after Saturday.

I suspect Charley didn’t know why he picked on me – maybe it was simply because he could.  Charley thought nothing of tripping me when I walked by, cuffing me across the head, punching me when the time was right, or pushing me when I had done nothing wrong but stand near him – never next to him, but, god forbid, if I happened to be in arms length.  I swear, half of the time it was because Mother refused to think of us as anything but twins.  She always wanted us to be together, much to my horror, and undertake the same activities, such after school, on the weekends, or at camp in the summer.  In addition, she frequently would have us dress alike when we went to social functions off the farm.

Looking back, it had to be humiliating for any boy Charley’s age to be dressed like his brother three years younger.  White shorts, knee socks, orange shirts – dressed like twins to go to Somerset or Pittsburgh – only we weren’t twins.  We didn’t even look like twins – Charley was bigger and stockier than me and had vivid red hair.  He was a red head’s red-head, sporting a true “carrot-top,” as the neighbors would say, with hundreds of pronounced freckles all over his face and arms.  I was thinner, my red hair lighter in color.  I too had freckles but less obvious than Charley’s.  In demeanor, Charley was restless and full of energy, he loved organized sports, but I was more of the reader-type and more willing to play making up my own stories.  Though, if ordered by Mother, I could go out into the back yard with Charley to swing the bat or throw the ball, I also was more willing to stop after a few rounds to play “army” or “fight the indians” near the house.

I realized later that constantly putting Charley together with me was Mother’s way of managing us.  Charley and I were bundled as one package, Allison and I were boxed as another, or all three of us were stuffed, together, as a third.  Depending on Mother’s needs, we were a shifting cluster that, for some reason, always included me.  For Mother, it was Holly at the one end, with her teenage issues, and baby Jerry at the other end, with his obvious issues, and Charley, Allison and me in the middle, with no independence from each other what-so-ever, especially for me as the second son and youngest of the three.  Though Mother spent much of my early years coupling me with the two of them, later, as a teenager, I discovered that I needed to be very wary of such family associations.

On one occasion, Mother decided Charley and I should take swimming lessons in Johnstown, though, as it turns out, I was one of the youngest to be signed up for the Saturday afternoon, all-winter-long sessions.  Charley and I would get on a bus at the Somerset YMCA and be driven with a bunch of other boys to Johnstown, about forty-five minutes away, to their large YMCA center where we, along with boys from Johnstown, would be given swimming lessons in their extra-large, indoor pool.

Now, first of all, I have to admit, I never liked Johnstown as a kid, ever since they had had that flood I heard about either from Mother and Daddy or my brother or sisters.  I didn’t know much about floods, but I knew the story of Noah’s Ark, as discussed on more than one occasion in Sunday school, and if Johnstown was the recipient of a similar monster flood, then it had to be for good reason, and, given how gray and dingy the place appeared to me in driving through the city, it clearly was due again.

I remember staring at the river to see if it was rising every Saturday as we drove by on the YMCA bus, and the relief I felt afterward every time we left drab old Johnstown and it’s restless river behind.

I especially hated taking swimming lessons at the Johnstown YMCA swimming pool.  We would proceed off the bus to the boys locker room and undress, but, there in Johnstown, the instructors wouldn’t let us put on bathing suits.  Being a bunch of farm boys and inner-city kids, I guess they thought we were hiding some horrific disease.  I figured, if I wasn’t allowed to wear a swimsuit, it had to be pretty bad, like the Black Plague or something.

After undressing, we would have to go out to the pool area and stand in the nude until we listened to a lecture on hygiene each week by the head of the program.  I would keep my eyes peeled up at the ceiling the whole time as I didn’t want to see, if I could help it, what the Black Plague looked like on the bunch of butts in front of me, but I can remember how relieved I was to get into the pool and cover my butt with the chlorinated water.  To be honest, I didn’t think my swimming was that bad to begin with, but then, after being together in a pool full of nude boys jostling all around me, some of whom could have the Black Plague oozing off their butts, my swimming improved immensely!

Of course, Charley thought I was an idiot for worrying about the Black Plague and called me a “queer” every Saturday morning when he was beating me up.  He quickly left me behind when we arrived at the center, pretending he didn’t know me and that I was some Plague-riddled, queer boy, who happened, just by circumstances, to be in the same pool as him and wearing the same clothes as him when we got back on the bus.



Categories: My Family Story

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