Branded

My brother was mean.  If I was willing to play baseball or football, Charley could be a wonderful older brother.  The two of us would ride our bikes for miles to other farms in the area for pick-up games, and, though he was always third or fourth in the lineup or he was picked to play quarterback or the primary running back, I swung ninth and stayed deep, deep, deep in the outfield or I was the scrawny lineman at the far, far end of the line.  In pick-up games, though, Charley never let me be the last one chosen, and he always called me to be on his team before it became too embarrassing. I loved him for that and hated to let him down, frequently playing against older kids who often knocked the crap out of me or tramped me into a pulp, and, god forbid, a ball would be hit to the outfield in my direction.  Still, better to be with Charley and wear the accolades of victory or the scars of defeat than be alone with him on a Saturday morning in our bedroom and suffer the punishment for turning him down and being such a wimp.

Charley was good in all sports; he had a natural affinity for baseball, loved contact sports like football, and would play basketball by himself for what seemed like hours. I would wonder, watching him, how anyone could throw a ball at a basket over and over? And not just that, but with no backstop, he would throw the ball, then chase it down, throw the ball, then chase it down, again and again and again. I would stand at the window in the house and watch him out on the gravel driveway where Daddy had put up a basketball hoop for him. How could anyone find satisfaction in that? Or baseball, Charley had a tree he would hit over and over practicing his swing. Over and over he would hit the tree, over and over. My sister Allison and I, playing in the garden, shuddered as the repeated thud against the tree reverberating through the fields and woods, the house itself seemed to shake with each hit until Mother would come out and tell him to leave the poor tree alone. Sometimes he would have me to pitch to him, or tell me to run after his fly balls. I hated pitching to Charley who invariably would chase me down and beat me up for throwing stupid balls he couldn’t hit and wasting time searching for balls I should have caught.

In my defense, I was left-handed and was given Charley’s old hand-me-down, right-hander’s glove. To throw and catch, I would catch the ball with the glove in my left hand, toss the glove, and throw it back with my left hand to Charley. With him watching, rarely did things go smoothly. Sometimes I dropped the ball and threw the glove. Daddy finally bought me a left-handed glove so I wouldn’t get beat up catching balls with Charley, but that only helped a little as I rarely returned the ball to the person to whom I was aiming. Often Charley would be off and running in any one of a number of different directions to catch my missiles to him, which, in turn, also infuriated him. Soon he was running at me and I was running for my life. Daddy didn’t know how to teach me to bat left-handed, so I learned right-handed. That was okay, as I missed the ball most of the time anyway.  

Charley and Daddy had a lot more in common, than Daddy did with me, though we shared a love of reading and theater: plays from community theater to plays on tv, like Peter Pan with Mary Martin, to musicals on the hi-fi, like Oklahoma. I loved Daddy’s enjoyment in watching a musical, explaining the nuances of a song, telling us a good story, sharing with us a magical moment on television. He loved to laugh, and it was something we all shared with him.

Charley, though, shared his enthusiasm for the Pittsburgh Pirates, for golf and the incredible performance of Arnold Palmer, and later, Jack Nicholas who suffered in popularity at our house because he was not from Western Pennsylvania. Charley and Daddy went to the U.S. Open in Boston one year and left me at home. Another year they went to the Indianapolis 500 and, once again, I stayed behind. Sports – the exploits of the players, their stats in the newspaper, the games broadcast on the radio – was something they shared alone and was unique to them. I never entered that world with them, and often found myself watching them from the side, from the window.

It’s just that, unfortunately, Daddy wasn’t around much, and it felt like Charley took out his frustration on me. I knew, though, it had to be more than that. If we were watching tv, I would be punched in the stomach for no reason, or I would be hit in the face with a throw pillow, or suddenly jumped upon and pummeled. If I was walking near him, I would be shoved, or tripped, or smacked, or kicked in the butt. If I was in the pool at the Country Club, I would be dunked and held down until I was sure I was going to drown. If we were at the library, he would hit me over the head with a book, or kick my shin under the table, or cuffed across the head as he walked by.

There was nowhere I could go get away from him. I learned always to be aware of where he was in my presence and would try to put as much distance between us as possible, to never find myself next to him, to stay further back when we were walking, to never sit beside him in a restaurant, to never be in front of him in going to church, to never challenge him by looking at him, or saying something back he might take as a personal affront. Surely, if he couldn’t punish me when the infraction occurred, there was always Saturday mornings when we were relegated back to our bedroom to clean up our room and take the sheets off of our beds. Punishment waited for me whether I had done something wrong or not. Charley was the judge and the dispenser of justice and knew no mercy; and me, being three years younger, of a slighter build, less competitive in my disposition, I was guilty as charged.  

Holly didn’t take his guff though.  Many a time, when my mother wasn’t around, Charley would start a fight, challenging her, and they would wrestle on the floor.  When they were younger, Holly invariably ended up on top of him, pinning him down, unless, of course, he could get me to join him.  Holly holding Charley down infuriated him and led to another match and another and another until, as he grew older, she no longer could dominate him.  Charley never could stand being the second oldest child in our family, especially to a girl, but his being three years younger than Holly, really made a difference. Holly who also was involved in sports, worked on the farm, rode horses and skied actively could and would take him on and had the disposition to carry it through.  She was the oldest and the most senior of the “four G’s,” and would never give up her leadership to him.

One time, when Holly was babysitting us, she decided to play a new game with us. As she often did when she was babysitting, she held court in her bedroom playing music from her record player while we sat around on her bed. She was the teenager, and usually a lot of fun – but you never knew, she could be cruel and dangerous too. At one point, Holly came up with the idea of pressing a wire coat hanger against the light bulb in the blue plastic lamp next to her bed. She had opened the hanger and made a strange circle-like configuration with the wire. When it was red-hot she had Charley and me hold Allison down while she pretended to brand her, bringing the hot wire down to her nightie, listening to Allison screaming to get away. We knew she would let Allison go, but we weren’t sure when. That was the scary part, and when she pulled the hanger back and we let Allison go free, we all laughed as Allison cried. Next Charley and Holly were onto me, and soon I was held down by Charley and Allison as, once again, Holly lowered the vivid, red-hot wire to my chest. This time she had opened my pajama top and really was going to do it. I knew her. She could be so mean. I struggled violently against Charley and Allison’s hold, but with Charley, in particular, there was no getting away from his grip.

“Do it.” He said to Holly, and, with his encouragement, she brought the wire down almost to my chest before pausing.

“Holly, Holly, please,” I screamed and screamed, “I’ll do anything. Anything. Don’t. Don’t. I’ll tell. I’ll tell.”

“Do it, do it, do it!” Charley kept saying over and over, excited about what the pain would do to me. “I’ll do it. Let me do it!”

“If I let you up, you are my slave,” she said ignoring Charley, staring at me. “You will do anything I ask. Anything.”

“Yes, yes, anything, Holly, anything,” I wailed, hating the predicament I was in, knowing Charley wasn’t going to save me, hoping Holly would not give Charley the hot wire. I could see Allison wanting to let up on her grip, but she wasn’t going against Holly and Charley.

“Okay, let him go,” she said. I absolutely hated this game, and I knew Allison did too, but we couldn’t leave Holly’s room.

Suddenly Holly was grabbing Charley and yelling for Allison and me to help her hold him down. Charley was surprised by how quickly Holly had turned on him, and as he struggled to break her grip, we jumped on his arms, holding onto him for dear life.

“You have been mean to me for the last time,” she said to Charley when the hanger was red-hot ready.

Charley was furious and frustrated that he couldn’t break our grip. With Holly’s body on him and Allison and I holding down his arms, there was nothing he could do. But he refused to scream and beg to be let go, like Allison and I had done. He refused to play the game.

“Will you be my slave?” Holly asked him as she brought the hot and contorted wire to his face, holding one end with a towel to keep from burning her fingers. “Will you be my slave?”

“No, never.” Charley shouted at her, panting with the exertion of twisting and turning his chest, trying to get up, trying to get free. “I hate you, and I’ll kill you if you touch me. Let me go. Let me go.”

“Charley, tell me.” Holly hissed; she too was getting angry that he wasn’t playing the game. “Tell me you will do what I say from now on.”

“Never, never,” Charley panted, twisting his head back and forth, looking at Allison and me, “ I’ll kill you both if you don’t let me up. I swear, I’ll kill you all.”

Charley threatening Allison and me was a significant change in the game. I knew Allison and I did not want to face Charley’s wrath, even if Holly was with us and often she was not. We started to let up, but Holly screamed,

“Don’t you let him go!”

She turned to Charley, “This is your last chance.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” he said, growling in frustration, turning his attention directly to her. Now it was between the two of them; Holly and Charley one more time; Allison and I spectators to their endless fights.

“Watch me!” she said and pressed the red-hot wire hanger down directly onto his chest.

Charley screamed and Allison and I jumped away, shocked that Holly had gone through with it. Charley, screaming in pain, leaped from the bed and ran out of the room. I ran after him as he raced up the hallway, crying, holding his pajama top against his chest. He ran into the bathroom and slammed the bathroom door, locking it behind him.

“Charley, Charley,” I cried against the door.

“Charley, are you all right? Are you all right?” Allison was beside me.

We could hear his cries in the bathroom, but he wouldn’t talk to us. I turned and looked at Allison. What would happen to us now? What would Charley do to us? How would he punish us? Maybe we should tell…”

“Don’t you dare say a word to Mother,” Holly shouted at us from her doorway, almost like she was reading our thoughts. “I swear, I will brand the both of you if you say a word.”

It was too much. Charley was going to kill us, and now Holly was threatening to kill us too. Mother surely would kill us if she ever found out what we had done.

Charley refused to come out of the bathroom. I could hear him sobbing, as Allison and I walked away not know what else to do. We went back down the hallway, but didn’t go into Holly’s room. Not this time. The game was over. I went to my bed and tried to go to sleep. Later, I heard Charley come into the room and go over to his bed.

“I am sorry, Charley,” I whispered, but Charley didn’t say a word. I could hear him moaning in pain. “Charley, Charley…”

It was a horrible night, as he whimpered for hours in his bed on the other side of our desks, but he never told on Holly or us, and Mother never knew about the incident. The following Saturday, when Mother sent us back to our bedroom to change our sheets and straighten our room, Charley pounded on me, once more, and in screaming in pain, in hollering for Mother to get him to stop, there was a side of me that was glad.  

****

Mother didn’t take Charley’s guff either, though she had no desire to brand him into submission.  Still, with a metal fly swatter or a plastic waffle ball bat, she would go after him and get him to listen to her.  At times it was crazy, and at times we would be horrified by their struggles, but she was bound and determined that he would listen to her, that he would stop beating up on me, and that he would do the chores she had given him.  With our father in Pittsburgh or on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Charley felt that her authority could be challenged and made it clear he was willing to question hers, as well as anyone else’s, all through his elementary, junior high, and high school years – until he encountered the ultimate authority, when a judge gave him a choice the summer after high school: go to jail or join the marines.  Of course, that began Charley’s marine story, which, given we were in the height of the Vietnam War, was a tale to be told unto itself!  But that’s many years later and way ahead in this story.

****



Categories: A Fictionalized Biography, Memoir, My Family Story

2 replies

  1. Yet another story that leaves me wondering how young Jonathan got through childhood without therapeutic intervention. Pretty intense. I always feel so badly for this scrawny boy in your childhood stories. It’s a wonder that adults turn out as well as they do – given our crazy upbringings.

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth. Stories of childhood are interesting to write. Hard to remember the facts. Our memories distort so much of what we believe happened, yet the process of writing them down can be a wholesome exercise in self-awareness and introspection too.

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