If you saw him today, you might dismiss my brother Jack for an oafish, pockmarked yokel. His clothes come from Wal-Mart by way of the Goodwill. His hands bear lumps from bones broken against the faces of truck drivers, farmhands, laborers and the odd lawyer. His own face, remarkably unscarred except by acne and booze, testifies to his prowess. You would never think that this man had designed and built sophisticated machines, that he was a master storyteller and a minor legend in the homemade firearms community.
This story does not deal in morality. I write this to eulogize a tragic hero, a man who would have slammed Ernest Hemingway’s arm down and splintered the table under it; a man who could break a mustang in the morning, train a hunting falcon in the afternoon and preach a sermon by firelight; a man who inspires love and hate in all who know him, but never indifference; a man who might have been a president or a Mongol warlord had the conditions of his birth been different. Yet I have few illusions about my brother; those of us who love him best have been scorched most often by his radiance. But I’ll save the polemic for another time—this is a panegyric.
In my childhood, our small town of Netheredge, Missouri, had more than its share of tough kids, and several took a special dislike to my brother. The worst of the lot was Tommy Kefaufer. He was one of those boys who was born with a desire to crush equal to a Golden Retriever’s desire to please. He was big, and if his mass went mainly to flab, he was no less formidable for it. The kids he roughed up were nearly always smaller than him and he fought dirty even when he didn’t need to. But it was his mouth that really terrified the little ones in town. He would harass a youngster unmercifully and unrelentingly if no grownup were around to intervene. He had a talent for finding a tender spot and prodding it until his victim was brought to tears; then he would call him a sissy, maybe spit on him too. For unaccountable reasons, some of the other older, rougher boys looked up to this lout as their de facto leader.
When my brother Jack was twelve, his lack of deference came to vex Kefaufer and his cronies. One day three of them found him alone catching minnows under the old bridge, his Sparrow Hawk, Bandit, on his shoulder. My brother knew what they wanted and skipped the verbal part of the exchange. He shot Kefaufer between the eyes with his Daisy air rifle. The thugs instantly made that mysterious transformation from aggressors to aggrieved and retreated. Outraged mothers called our house, lodged protests, made threats. My mother reminded them that their sons had started the mischief. Sullen fathers avoided my father’s look, the one that said, “You’d do better to keep your own kids in line than to gripe about mine.” The hubbub died down in time, but forever after when my mother spoke of the incident, it was with a little smile, and she inevitably praised my brother’s marksmanship.
My brother knew instinctively the power of a hard first strike to instill fear in an enemy. But fear is poor soil for peace. Other incidents followed, and though Jack always found a way to come out on top, the older boys vowed revenge. Open warfare would have triggered intervention by adults or even the law, but a low intensity conflict could be waged right under the grownups’ noses.
My brother’s martial instinct found its ultimate expression in the fort. In the early sixties private fortresses were not unusual; most neighborhoods were militarized to some degree by young baby boomers. It was the height of the Cold War and we fed on a gritty diet of war movies and Westerns. Most of these forts were little more than rickety playhouses cobbled together out of odd pieces of lumber. My brother’s was altogether different. It was the Maginot Line of neighborhood forts. It was sturdily engineered, thoughtfully conceived and filled with surprises the Vietcong might have envied. It was in reality a system of fortifications, a central citadel surrounded by redoubts, and the pathway leading to it was a corridor of contusion. He installed fixed artillery, huge slingshots made from inner tubes and sturdy forked branches set in contraband cement.
But the most terrible weapon in my brother’s secret arsenal was the dust bomb. This foul instrument had been developed using my sister and me as guinea pigs. It began with a harmless piece of notebook paper—newspaper proved too fragile—which was distressed so that it barely held together, folded into a packet, and filled with dust. And the finest sources of dust were found at the foot of the trees where our swings hung. This was because our father built the best swings in the neighborhood. He would climb to death-defying heights and attach a steel cable, and below that a rope, so that you could swing at the end of an enormous arc, in one case from a platform built in one tree to another thirty yards away. The swinging children dragging their feet on the dry ground at the bottom of the arc created the finest, weapons-grade dust available. My brother armed his soldiers with dozens of these noxious missiles. They lacked the bruising force of dirt clods, but upon impact, they burst, enveloping their victims in a dense cloud. The dust went everywhere. It coated the tongue, lodged in the teeth, formed an abrasive crust under eyelids, plugged nostrils and seared lungs. At the very least, it blinded you.
But history teaches us that the very presence of a fort is a provocation. The bullies saw the citadel, envy swelled in their putrid hearts, and they came in the night and tore it up. My brother responded by conscripting his followers into a corps of engineers and rebuilding it bigger and better than before. These followers consisted of his brothers and sisters and most of the little kids of the neighborhood who had suffered at the hands of the older bullies.
As a leader, Jack was something of a Tartar. He expected us to work hard and well, to obey without question, and to endure punishment stoically. Weapons had to be tested and we all saw that to volunteer was to win his singular favor. Shirkers, balkers, and crybabies were beneath contempt. But the lowest creature on the ladder of shame was the rat. Rats were banished from the light of my brother’s presence permanently. (This happened to my sister Scarlett several times.)
My brother’s harsh code was not without reason. He was providing us with a rare and precious commodity: a childhood filled with adventure, drama and the possibility of heroism. To play with my brother was to leave the humdrum modern world and enter the feudal system: one might well end up a serf, but one could also, through hard work, pluck and devotion to one’s lord, win glory. In return he demanded we never deliver him up to the wrath of our father, no matter how much he might deserve it. And if loyalty were not given freely, he was not above coercing it.
He set about turning us into a crack fighting unit. The opposing forces were asymmetric. The older boys ranged in age from twelve to fifteen. Their size and brute strength gave them a significant advantage. Arrayed against them were my brothers and sisters—Jack was twelve, my sister Noel ten, Matt eight, Scarlett seven, and I, six—bolstered by a mob of ragtag recruits. We knew that individually we were easy prey, but Jack had inspired us with a hope: together, through discipline, teamwork and with my brother’s genius to guide us, we might topple the juggernaut.
For our enemies, it seemed a simple enough affair, though perhaps the cleverer boys eyed my brother’s arsenal and began to wonder. But to say anything would have brought down an avalanche of scorn. After all, little kids were physically weak and lacking in warrior spirit. Victory was a foregone conclusion.
The morning of the battle, our general surveyed our ranks. He made clear the consequences of defeat and the rewards of victory. His exact words are lost to history, but those of us who were there will forever remember how they made us feel. His eyes smoldered with solemn bellicosity. He spoke of the wages of bootlicking and the glory of dying for a noble cause. We more than half believed our lives and freedom were at stake, but his words stoked our hopes as well as our fears. He dangled a shiny brass ring within reach of our dimpled hands, and its name was pride. For younger children who live their lives in the shadows of bigger, stronger, brighter siblings, it was a fine prize indeed, one worth bleeding for.
And so, drilled and ready, intoxicated by that heady mix of fear and desire, we awaited the enemy with steely eyes and set jaws. Minutes passed like hours. The sun flared in the tree tops. Tight-stretched nerves threatened to snap. My brother might have felt a touch of apprehension then, like Caesar at Alesia, wondering if his troops would stand firm before the howling Gallic hordes. But like Caesar, Jack trusted his own agility of mind and the mettle of his legions. After all, he had tested us and helped to form us. He knew our strengths and weaknesses, what drove us and what would make us crumble. He understood our characters as only a man who had lowered us into old wells on rotten ropes and pushed us off rooftops with cardboard wings could.
The sun was almost above the trees when the enemy began to gather down the street in front of Old Man Miller’s house. They were rabble, the dregs of junior high, though a couple should have been in high school already, and a couple others should have been in reform school. The values of the Enlightenment were not in them. At their head was Kefaufer. Though the scab between his eyes had long since sloughed off, his antipathy for my brother burned more fiercely than ever. He was taller and heavier than Jack, but a fair fight was to him as deep water is to a housecat. Even at twelve, my brother knew how to make the hearts of hard men fail them. That talent only improved over the years, until the night he quelled an angry mob from the porch of his house wearing only cowboy boots and briefs. But that is a story for another time.
On this day, old debts were going to be paid. Menace hung in the air like the smell of burnt hair.
The big boys stood and talked loudly for a while, not making plans but badmouthing us and goading each other to acts of mayhem. The plan was brutally obvious: shower the brats with dirt clods and rocks, knock them down, kick them, knock out some milk-teeth and demolish the fort.
With a rebel yell they advanced. We watched them with the grim faces of the condemned, aware that our two-to-one advantage was an absurd fiction against these human tanks. Nevertheless, none of us deserted.
Thirty yards from our perimeter, our attackers launched a furious barrage of rock-studded clods. Most of them fell short. This was quickly followed by a second volley and a third. Then they charged.
My brother Jack stood in his fortress, protected by a helmet and cardboard armor of his own fabrication. Over this he wore a surcoat, a white sheet emblazoned (by my mother) with the bloody-taloned hawk that was his emblem. He waited calmly, quietly, but a small sneer curled his lips. We knew that he was the real object of the enemy’s wrath, that he had more to lose than any of us, and his mien was a tonic to our hearts.
“Get ready.” His voice was distant thunder. “Find your targets.”
We obeyed but held our breath as the enemy horde rushed ever closer. Dirt clods and rocks fell among us now. I heard a thud and a skinny boy went down clutching his head. We cast nervous looks at our general.
He gave us a wink and conspiratorial smile. “Hold your fire.” If a herd of rhinoceroses had been racing toward us then, I would not have given one inch of ground.
The human rhinos were looming large now and growing larger with every step. We could see the wild expressions on their faces, their missing teeth, even the egg on their chins. They were in the grip of bloodlust now and nothing would stop them. My knees shook and I tears welled in my eyes, but I gritted my teeth, readied myself for the impact and wondered what a broken arm felt like.
At last our general gave the command: “Fire!”
We unleashed Hell. Nineteen skinny white arms flung nineteen dust bombs and the enemy host disappeared in a blossoming cloud of talcum-fine dirt.
But that was only a prelude to destruction. Our gunners opened up with the big mounted slingshots, pummeling the enemy with heavy, jagged dirt clods. Other squads pelted them from behind trees while still others rushed from coverts to assault their flank. Hats were knocked off and trampled. Glasses fell to the ground and were crushed. The sickening splack of sod on flesh punctuated the cacophony. Boys fell choking in the dirt and tried to stagger or crawl clear of the suffocating fog that enveloped them while high-velocity mud-balls thwacked into them from every side. They wailed and hacked and gagged, and with every breath drew more of the caustic stuff into their mouths and lungs. But the stricken found no quarter. That day they were made to pay for the crimes of all bullies everywhere.
Those who could fled, abandoning their fallen comrades to their fate. Soon the ammunition was exhausted and our fury spent. We allowed the coughing, half-blind vanquished to drag themselves from the field, except for one—my brother had taken a captive. Jack clapped Kefaufer in a pillory where we jeered at him until his chin quivered and he cried like a baby. We experienced the unsettling pleasure of hearing a former nemesis beg and screamed for help. But no succor came. Kefaufer languished there, a prisoner of war, until our mother called us in for lunch. A few years later he would find himself in a similar position in a place called Vietnam.
The rejoicing was universal. The downtrodden among us had been given their first taste of victory and my brother had instilled a lasting awe in his would-be tormentors. He had struck a blow for the weak, though how much that mattered to him is anyone’s guess. Like all great soldiers and politicians, he was more concerned with personal glory than higher principles. But the battle would go down in local legend and be indelibly etched into the memories of all the combatants, who learned that day that pride, like love and fear, was a transferable commodity.
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