Although there is no clinical proof to my theory, I believe the first time I successfully used the potty and NOT my diaper and was heralded as a good little boy, I did everything possible to maintain that title for my very own. My brother was seven years older than me, the first-born who’d had years to grow quite comfortable with his designation – the only child. It had taken my parents seven years to conceive him, the first-born and only grandson on both sides of the family, so Messiah had also been added to his given name. What could I possibly do to top that? I had been trumped seven years before I was even born. To always be the best good little boy possible was my only ace in the hole.
After my disruptive appearance into his once-perfect little world, the coddled heir apparent began to resent the mere existence of another child. They none of them expected there to even be a ‘me’. I had been a happy surprise addition – well for Mom and Dad at least. By the time I’d reached age three and brother could better determine the threat I was becoming, his hostilities grew and my parents’ one-time golden boy slowly began to show signs of tarnishing. Once precocious me was able to gauge the situation, I sensed there might be a vacancy atop the pedestal, or at least room for us to take turns up there. But I was too cute, far too bright and simply so good at being good that a brooding silence overtook him and by the time I started school the tables had begun to turn.
Now with two sons it was simple for our parents to make comparisons and they constantly did. Son number one didn’t learn his nursery rhymes until he was nearly five, while son number two was performing them at age three and collecting pennies for his charming performances from anyone who’d listen. Son number two was the top student in his first grade class, so why in the world would son number one bring home two progress reports in the same grading period? With great gusto I chalked up each good little boy point, while silently noting my brother’s foibles. Honestly, I couldn’t tally his shortcomings, because it seemed evident it must not have been easy to play big brother to my wunderkind. Yet I would beg my mother to detail, time after time, her comparison chart, then gloat and grin when hearing how much better or faster or more clever I had performed when judged against my older brother’s record.
The better good little boy I became, the further my brother fell from our father’s favor. The two were always at odds with one another. It was there from my first recollections of them both. I never knew why their hostility existed, but as big brother grew older, the stronger was the animosity and the more violent their relationship became. I felt sorry for my brother, but he would never confide in me. He just silently sulked while passionately despising our father and making me feel somehow it was all my fault. My own psychological assessment of the relationship decades later was that my father had been jealous of the attention and affection my mother heaped upon her exalted first-born and so what we all had lived through was a twisted home version of Oedipus Rex. Whatever it was, it did not provide a nurturing environment, but I was determined to hold on to my hard-earned title of heir presumptive.
It was summer, after having completed second grade and making my first best friend, Lee. He had been in my class and we hit it off right from the start. He lived over on the next street. We were inseparable, especially now that we could play the entire week from morning until night. Our mothers knew each other for years, because Lee’s mom was our neighborhood Stanley Home Products representative. He had an older brother too, a year behind mine in high school. Lee’s brother was always nice to me; he talked with me like I was actually another person. My brother called him a twerp, because he played sports and didn’t hang out with the hood-wanna-bees. Lee and I rode bikes, climbed trees in the ‘field’, an over-sized vacant lot at the end of my street and on rainy days, hung out at his house and played his older brother’s 45s on a special record player that let you stack up a dozen or more records to play one after another ad nauseam. It was the time when Ricky Nelson and Elvis ruled supreme.
Across the street from the vacant lot was a house where a family lived with three boys, all close in age like stair steps and all of them bad. At least this was the verdict of the mothers on our block. No one I knew was allowed to play with them, but they had each other, so they didn’t seem to mind being ostracized. Lee and I had run into the two older boys in the field. There were some wonderful old crab apple trees and we had a few crab apple fights with the brothers. There didn’t appear to be anything wrong with them, but being a good little boy, I did not want anyone’s mother on the street finding out I had not respected their boycott. The brothers appeared again in our lot one afternoon while we were climbing trees. Steve, the oldest, who was a year or so older than both of us, said he had stolen a pack of matches from his dad’s pocket. The boys were all worked up and announced they wanted to “burn shit”. I thought it seemed an odd thing to do, but Lee was instantly a captive audience so I was not about to be odd man out.
You used matches to light things, like cigarettes and cigars and birthday candles or occasionally the gas stove when the pilot light went out. It had never occurred to me to burn matches as a pastime. Here were these guys, completely mesmerized by the purloined book of matches and Steve, neighborhood bad boy, elevated to a near deity. He instructed us to gather up the litter that had blown into the overgrown lot. Following his instructions, we brought our collected paper for him to categorize into various piles. He did so purposefully, demonstrating it was something he’d done many times before. We scrunched down into a small circle, squatting on our haunches to shield any wind which might hamper the fire and at the same time protecting ourselves from passersby who might blow the whistle on our illicit play. The Cleveland Transit System bus stop was right around the corner on the busiest thoroughfare in West Buttfok, so we had to be cautious.
Steve began lighting each pile of litter, while his younger brother provided the play-by-play: “awwhhh how cool”, “neat-oh, Stevie” and “tuff” or “sharp” for those really tall, crackling flames. In a matter of a few minutes he’d burned everything, including the book of matches itself. They crossed the street to go back home and Lee and I got on our bikes and high-tailed out of there. We knew it wasn’t just the forbidden sons we had defied our mothers by being with, but we understood that literally playing with fire was an even more enormous no-no. We had spent a week in our second grade class just a few months before learning about the dangers of forest fires, culminating by learning the “Smokey The Bear Song” in music class. I made my buddy Lee swear we would not hang out with those boys again, fearing we would soon become delinquents just like them.
Which of us was the first to sneak matches out of his house I do not remember. I do remember it came only days after evil Steve’s lesson in pyrotechnics. We both had parents who kept us on very short leashes and likewise trusted us implicitly because they knew we understood the boundaries they had set and that we always respected them – that is – until we began playing with matches. Once we started, we were instantly addicted to fire and we both became brazen scofflaws. Our routine went something like this. If Lee brought matches from his house in the morning, I brought them for the afternoon session. We even created a code word “Can you bring the M & Ms?” I remember one day my mother overheard Lee asking me this as we left my house and she called after me, “Where in the world did you buy candy?” I turned twenty shades of red and ran out the door because I was an excellent match thief but a lousy liar.
My parents always bought Ohio Blue Tip Matches. They were wooden matches that came in small cardboard boxes, the covers decorated in a theme. Sold in a package of about forty of these little boxes, I remember at the time each had a different American Bird pictured. They were kept on the very top shelf in the cupboard over the kitchen sink. I would have to crawl up onto the counter and balance on tippy-toes to reach them. Normally a supply of these lasted months in our house. Now, with our daily needs, they were going quickly. I was clever enough to pilfer my contribution when no one was looking, but not smart enough to consider that soon someone might notice how many were missing. This was not, however, the way we were found out.
Lee had a very small backyard and mine was visible to too many houses, so we had no choice but to use our field. We would carefully enter from the opposite side so that the bad boys didn’t see us, fearing they might hijack our private fire sessions. Unlike Steve who was solely into “burning shit”, we had a true passion for the flame and became creative, putting together unique combinations of things to see how they would blaze, prolonging the fire and constantly striving to maintain its control. We were playing in a wooded lot in the middle of a hot summer, surrounded by feet high of dried grasses and weeds, yet we tried to be as responsible as eight-year-old boys with a two pack a day habit could be. We weren’t being bad, we assured one another, we were like scientists experimenting.
At about two-thirds of the way through my parents’ supply of box matches one late summer afternoon, we were burning inside a discarded cinder block. We learned it contained the fire and directed the flames higher, creating a wonderfully intense tongue of orange and yellow several feet high. As it flared to its pinnacle, the local bus stopped and discharged Mrs. V, a waitress who worked at the restaurant in our shopping center. If we hadn’t been so successful in our endeavor we might have been able to conceal the fire, but it was huge.
“Oh my Lord”, she cried, “what are you boys doing?” She had no idea who Lee was but she certainly knew me all too well. She lived up the street a few houses and my brother was buddies with her sons. She came running towards us in her white uniform and nurses shoes to make sure the fire was under control. We had just about stomped it out by the time she’d reached me. “What would your mother say if she knew you were playing with matches?”, she chastised me inches away from my very guilty face. “Please don’t tell my Mom!” I wailed in fright. “You have to promise me you will never, ever play with fire anymore.” she pleaded. I agreed with all the veracity I could muster. We watched her chubby little legs carry her home. I knew I had been so scared by her discovery that I would have no problem keeping my promise. I only prayed she would keep hers.
A few nights later, as my brother washed dishes, and I dried them, my father came into the kitchen, his unlit after supper cigar between his teeth. He reached into the package of matches on the top shelf to grab a box, grunting “What the hell is your mother burning with all those matches? I just bought these a few weeks ago”. I blanched as white as the kitchen sink, fearing I would soon be found out. Once my father left, my brother turned with a hellish smirk that smacked of trouble. Slowly he began, “Mom isn’t burning anything, is she? I saw Mrs. V today.” He was pacing himself to make me suffer. The last drops of blood from my ashen face oozed into my feet. He knew EVERYTHING. “Please don’t tell Mom!” I quietly squealed so my parents didn’t hear our conversation in the next room. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell Mom. I won’t tell Dad either”. Could he be serious? Would he really cover for me? I could not image him ever being that kind to his little brother, not with this morsel of information which could totally undo all the good I had accomplished in my time on this earth. He told me he’d never say a thing, as long as I did whatever he wanted me to do. In essence, I was to become his personal slave for the remainder of the summer. It seemed little payment for so great a favor.
For the first week, things went rather well. I made his bed, straightened up his room, did odd chores he was expected to do. What I resented was doing his biding like: “Get me something to drink”, “Give me your allowance” (25 cents a week!), “Make me a sandwich”. Those things made me boil. But I complied without a peep. It was too dangerous to risk the consequences and he would carry through without hesitation. Not too long after, on a hot Saturday afternoon, my brother was washing our car because we were going on a family picnic to Whipp’s Ledges Reservation the next day. The entire family attended - grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – a dozen of us. We did it every year and it was one of the funnest places to all be together. Not only would we picnic from dawn to dusk in the beautiful wooded park, eating ourselves sick the entire day, the place had incredible rock ledges to climb and we kids played until exhausted. I loved being with my cousins who were like the sisters I didn’t have.
Brother was angry since he couldn’t pass the car cleaning duty off onto me because I was too young and my father expected him to do it. It would give Dad an excuse to criticize my brother and scream at him for doing a disappointing job. Brother drafted me as his go-fer. He was running me ragged and enjoying every second of my indentured duty. In the course of an hour or so I had hauled buckets, rags, sponges of every shape and color, cleaners and towels till I thought I would drop from the sun and his commands. The final blow came when he requested a drink of water. The first time it was too small a glass, the second too warm. He demanded a big glass with tons of ice. I’d had it with being his manservant. I filled one of our tall, aluminum tumblers with ice cubes to the top, added half a dozen healthy shakes of tabasco sauce out of spite, then filled it with cold, cold water. I handed it to him, watching the entire glass gulped in seconds. As he gave it back, ready to belch and make me laugh like always, the hotness hit and he screwed up his face and began choking, fanning his burning open mouth. It took a minute or so, but he found his voice and spat out “You…are…going…to…DIE for this!”
Of course he flew into the house, called our parents into the kitchen and told them what Mrs V had seen and said. He explained to my father where all his Ohio Blue Tip matches had gone. I heard it all through the open kitchen window, standing in the driveway by the dripping car in the sun, realizing that my life as I knew it was now over. This wasn’t a small infraction. They might even send me away to reform school over this. That was always my father’s last resort threat to my brother when he ran out of swear words and insults. I had no idea where this horrendous school was, but I sensed I might find out very soon. I just wanted to die.
They called me into the house and my mother began ranting before I was even in their sight. “How could you do this? Why did you do this? Was it Lee’s idea? You could have burned the field down! You could have burned a house down!! What’s the matter with you?”. I just let her go on and on. I knew she didn’t want me to answer her questions because she wasn’t listening to anyone but herself. And there were no answers to any of her questions anyway. The entire time my father never said a word. He looked at me like he couldn’t believe it, or perhaps didn’t want to believe I could have ever done anything so……bad. My mother continued painfully overacting her private mad scene until I simply tuned her out. Once I did, I remember feeling totally overwhelmed by shame.
Then came the punishment. At first my father said I would not go to the family picnic the next day, but instead be locked in the storage area of the basement for the day. My mother reminded him I was only eight and was not responsible enough to stay in the house alone. “For God’s sake he might burn our house down before we get home!”. No, it was decided I would go to the picnic but I could not talk to anyone or, of course, play at all. I would sit at my own table away from everyone. She immediately got on the telephone, calling everyone in the family to tell them the story of her evil child who’d spent his summer vacation playing with matches. I was mortified.
What should have been a fun car ride was odious. My mother would not stop carrying on the drama of what might have happened, how ashamed she was, or how she could “never ever even hold her head up” the next time she saw Mrs. V. My brother just sat in the back seat next to me, shit eating grin from ear to ear. God how I hated his guts now. He had finally given me a reason to want to see him dead in his coffin and oh I did! Once we arrived at the park, I silently helped unload our car. The family was uneasy and not bubbly and fun like usual. I kept my eyes aimed at my sneakers, not wanting to risk a false move of any kind. I was once again the center of attention, but this time because I was their pariah. My father walked me to the next wooden picnic table over from where my mother was setting up things for our family. “You sit here by yourself and behave”, he said it sternly but without anger. I felt like a fool.
Then it started. One by one each member of the family came to my isolated table, sat next to me and warned me of the many dangers of playing with matches. I knew my mother had put them up to it because it was so obviously choreographed and luckily some were uncomfortable, having to counsel somebody else’s kid so they were brief. It was Gramma who really got to me. She didn’t even sit down. She stood several feet away and shouted “firebug!”, which echoed into the open woods. I wondered where she’d even heard that word before. It stung the most. And with that lone pejorative she turned and walked away from me. It was a public shaming and the bitterest of medicines to swallow.
I didn’t spend the entire day alone at my table of disgrace. Once everyone started eating, my mother fixed me a plate and halfway en route delivering it, she told me to take it and go sit next to my father. When everyone went off to the ledges in the woods, Gramma relented and called me over to her table. The men were all playing cards, drinking beer, listening to the ball game on a transistor radio. She wrapped her arms around me and talked softly, rocking a big eight-year-old baby, telling me I really was a good boy but that I needed to pray hard to keep out of trouble. It was the first time since Mrs. V’s unfortunate discovery that I felt there was still hope for me and my hard-earned status in the family.