Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The look in his eyes almost stopped me from punching him out.

Fighting with my brother John was second nature. We were trapped by a down and dirty, knee-jerk habit of brawling, arguing, whining, framing and ratting out each other to mom or dad. Betrayal was our daily bread. We hacked our way through growing up together with fiery accusations, roaring jealousies and cutthroat competition. We fought for space and attention. We fought for the sheer fun of it, and because we didn't know what else to do with each other.
Whining, tattling, and confrontations were the cornerstones of our relationship.

I saw myself as the victim of John's devious and sneaky ambushes. He was always setting me up and I was always falling for it. Of course I was a bully venting my rages on John, building myself up by pushing him around. I had no right to resent the sneaky survivor's personality he developed to cope with my moods but I resented him anyway.

 John lived in the shadows, scurrying behind my back knowing my white-hot rage could explode in his direction at any time. His was a bunker mentality. John would tease. I'd explode. We were trigger and bomb, caught in a need to tear each other apart__ yet depending on each other to be there as a vent for all the antsy spleen of growing up in the San Fernando Valley. We fell into the habit of sporadically torturing each other. Long weeks of uneasy truce would reign between battles. I'd swear to myself not to let it get started again. But moments of decency and tenderness seemed unnatural and rare.

At Christmas, we could create a semblance of brotherly love that would sustain a holiday mood. I'd stay clear of John. He'd play in his room. We got along by walking way around each other. The uneasy truce would break down as soon as the holiday glow began to fade.

Now I watch my own kids squabble. I see the passion and gleam in their eyes as they tear at each other's soft spots. I've been there, but it doesn't make it any easier to stand. At least my kids seem to be able to make up quickly. But they're young. Give 'em time.

"You're driving us crazy!" Jan and I scream in chorus. "I just hope that someday your kids treat you like this!" I can remember mom hollering that. Now I've said it too.

 Why do parents say things like that? Is it just desperate rambling induced by sleep deprivation, lack of privacy, and incessant bickering? The prophecy and hex have come true. Now I'm the one who has to drag himself up on weary legs and stagger towards the shrieks and screams of fighting children.

 It does no good that I now regret my part in shattering the brief bits of hard earned peace my parents managed to scrape together. John and I could turn a weekend into madness. How many Sunday mornings did we splinter with our screams and accusations?

I was talking to Dad just the other day. Talking about my memories of epic fights with John, and Dad laughed! "You two never really fought. You guys never had black eyes or split lips." I suppose compared to the beatings my dad took from his brother Tom, my fights with John seemed tame.

 My dad had been the younger brother. Tom had punched him clear through a glass door one time. Dad had an adolescence of black eyes and fist-loosened teeth.

"Tom taught me I could take a punch. I'll say that for him. He hit harder than anybody I ever faced in the ring." Dad's voice was mellow and laughing as he looked back. Did I teach John the same lesson?

I was a hitter. Perhaps not a brawling puncher like my uncle, but I liked to hit John. I usually held something back, I can only remember a few times when I really unloaded on him.

Usually I'd pop John a hard one on the back or arm, shouting in rage, my angry bellow pierced by John's high-pitched scream. He could crack crystal with his air raid siren scream. The scream was John's first line of defense. His scream made an adult's spine stiffen. I'd look at him mean barking at some taunt or smirk of his and he'd let loose with a scream that would drive any parent to their feet. His howls would haul mom and dad out of near exhaustion and drag them on a tractor beam of terror right into whatever dispute I was hoping to solve with my fists. John would poke me like a dog through a chain link fence; laugh in my face and then save his own butt with a scream.

When my folks put in their first pool they were thinking of all the positive, family centered, time we'd get lounging around the pool. Maybe they hoped the pool would absorb some of our energy. I was still going to Langdon Ave. Elementary School, sixth grade. John was in the third. The pool would mean a chance for happy family times a chance to relax and be with each other.

Maybe the Romans were thinking of the same thing when they built the coliseum. For John and me it was the beginning of the great sea battles.

Something still happens to me when I get in a pool. Chlorinated water is like Dr. Jekyll's solution. Layers of civilization peel away. I become a wild man. As a kid I lived to dunk my little brother and strip the trunks off him in the bargain. I had no restraint or remorse. If John got in range he was in for it. I simply wanted to see how close to drowning I could take him every time I could get my hands on him. The two of us in a pool for more than a few minutes meant cannon balls, splashing and mayhem.

It would start innocently enough. We'd both be hot and sweaty, ready for a swim. We'd beg mom for permission to use the pool, swear a double oath not to fight, squabble or hassle each other "Honest mom, honest, we won't fight!"

We broke all our promises as soon as we hit the water. We'd jump into the pool; angling our entries to splash each other, then jump out again and race walk (no running) to the diving board. A cannon ball contest to see how much water we could splash out of the pool would follow. Eventually one of us would tire and stay in the pool providing a perfect target for the next cannon ball.

I'd get keyed up, cranking the game up to the next level, sending walls of water out into John's face while he'd give me neyah neyahs and hyena laughs. "Didn't get me, Ha Ha, didn't get me!"

Before long I'd be chasing him down and throwing him in. Soon the line would be crossed. Adults have the ability to see the line clearly It's that act that goes too far. Older children should be mature enough to back away from the line. On the far side of the line is violence and craziness. But once I was wet I'd loose the ability to reason. The concrete edge of our backyard pool was the line for me.

Of course just as I was closing in on John, just before I could corner him and get my hands on his neck, that air raid siren scream would crank in. My hands would be on his shoulders pushing him under, dunking his head. He'd squirm like a seal, gasping for breath with panic beginning to surface in his eyes. I'd get my hand on top of his skull and push him under. We both would smile until we were right up to the line. Then the smiles would change.

Mom would suddenly be screaming at me from the edge of the pool, threatening us with Dad's vengeance. "Dennis! You stop that this instant! Get out of the Pool! How many times do I have to tell you to leave each other alone in the Pool?" 

There was a weary, desperate, near hysterical edge to mom's voice most of the time. John's air raid scream saved him for a long time. It got so he was over confident, and careless in its use. He'd sit on the edge of the pool and make faces in my direction.

I lurked in the deep end nursing a grudge.

"Just ignore him." My mom would say, "As soon as you stop paying attention to him he'll get bored and quit." It's the classic adult answer to teasing. They don't feel the acid venom of a well-targeted jibe. They have forgotten how a little bother's neyah neyhas can pierce the soul and scratch up rage.

I was trying the ignore him trick. John was making ape arms at me. He'd jut out his jaw and drag his arms low like a chimp. This routine normally drove me crazy.

Just ignore him.

 I floated on my back with my eyes closed. If I don't look at him, it won't bother me. Then I realized that a cannon ball attack could be launched at any time. I got out of the pool, not even looking at him, and walked toward the diving board.

" Dennis is a chicken! Dennis is a sissy!" John was making his shinny grin at me, jutting his jaw out and wagging his head in a way that always made me furious.

"Chicken Fat Chicken Fat!" John grabbed his stomach and pointed at me. I couldn't believe it, he was begging for it. By ignoring him I'd only challenged his god given ability to tease. My feigned indifference drove John crazy. He had to break through my act. Capering like a chimp he gave me his jaw jutting shinny grin again, rolling his eyes he laughed at me, "Chicken Fat Chicken fat, you jiggle like a girl when you walk!"

That tore it. It was the one I couldn't ignore. John sensed that he'd stepped over the line too, because he was instantly silent.

 I stopped dead. I turned toward him, looking down at the shallow end of the pool. He was twenty feet away. I stared at him furious. He began capering and crowing again, pointing his finger at me and laughing. Holding his belly and swaying his hips; John had a death wish. I was going to oblige.

I started for him and the look on my face must have cut through the fog of his teasing. John froze. I was ready to drown him. I was planning on doing him in this time. 15 feet away I raised my fist up by my head, promising him a punch if only he got into range. He began to scream. John screamed with true horror and conviction.

I figured I was doomed. Mom would be sure I was killing him and I was too far out of range to get even get a single shot in. My insufferable, screaming, ratfink of a brother was going to get me into big trouble again, and there was nothing I could do about it.

"John Henry O'Connor You Be Silent This Instant! It saw it all! Dennis didn't lay a hand on you!"  John's ear piercing wail died on the spot. He looked guilty, he was caught red handed and open mouthed.

I couldn't believe it! After all the times I'd been punished for hitting John without ever getting the satisfaction of actually beating him at all he was finally caught! 

There was justice after all.

I trapped John by himself later on. I held him by the wrist and slugged him a good one on the arm. I really enjoyed whispering "Go on, scream no one's gonna believe you this time!" He didn't make a sound. His eyes were filled with tears and desperation.

Suddenly I felt bad for punching my little brother. It really wasn't fair. I let him go. As he scurried around the corner he jutted out his chin and gave me a hyena laugh. I just tried to ignore him.

Years later when I was in high school, I just couldn't ignore him. I was out front at the Teasdale house, raking dry leaves on a fall day. Mom and dad were away. John was in the house playing by himself.

As I bent over to scrape some leaves on to the tarp John turned the hose on me. He soaked me down good, using the high pressure torrent from the brass nozzle to drive me back across the lawn. I was sopping and furious. I charged back into the stinging water and John dropped the hose and sprinted for the door, calling and laughing back over his shoulder. "You're a wet dope! Yeaaah" I charged on and reached the door just as it swung shut with a thundering slam. I could hear the sounds of the chain and dead bolt falling into place.

John looked out of the window at me, laughing and making faces. "Let me in John, and I'll let you live. Let me in Damn it!" John just laughed and stuck his chin out at me.

"I locked all the doors! You can't get in! You can't get in!"

It was his certainty that drove me over the edge. He was so damn smug. It was too much to bear. I ran for the door, kicking at it with both feet, I felt the door start to give. I kicked again and again.

John was screaming in the background. "You're gonna get it for breaking the door. Stop! Dad will kill you!"

I drove my shoulder into the door and it gave way, whipping open. The chain was still attached and tore the molding from around the door. John stood frozen in horror on the other side of the gaping door. The look in his eyes almost stopped me from punching him out.

After I dried off and cooled out I was really worried about that door. I did my best to nail things back into place. I was really sweating it, but the folks didn't seem to notice the damage. Years later Dad admitted that he was puzzled and confused by the intermittent damage around the front door. "I just couldn't figure out what was causing it. It seemed like I had to putty that door up every 3 months."

I only remember going through the door after John that one time. Maybe it became a habit.

Dad built a pool at the Teasdale house too. But by this time I was on my way to college at USC and didn't get much use out of it. By then John and I had lost interest in tormenting each other.

 In fact, things had been cooling down between us ever since I'd kicked the door in to get at him. We didn't become great buddies. We just got busy with our lives and began to ignore each other even more. But you can't just forget a history like ours and walk away. Little brothers grow up, and I suppose they all hope to settle the score.

I 'd been away from home for years. I'd transferred from USC to Berkeley and started my own life in Northern California. Then I came back home from Berkeley for a visit. John was still living at the Teasdale house.  He was living in my old room. It was a great room with a private entrance, it's own bathroom, a fireplace in one corner, and built in bookshelves. I'd spent a lot of my teenage in that room waiting for my life to start.

 John looked me right in the eyes. "It's my room now. I had to wait a long time for it." I just shrugged I was used to sleeping on the floor in a bag.

John was in the middle of his training at the police academy. We were the same size now, but being three years older and his big brother still gave me a psychological advantage.

It was an interesting trip home. The hippy son back from Telegraph Avenue and the little red school house bumps up against the straight arrow son training to be a policeman like his dad.

We danced around each other. A lot of things had changed in our lives. But one thing hadn't. We shouldn't have gotten in the pool together. The Teasdale pool was a novelty to me. I'd grown up in the backyard before it had been filled up with concrete and water. We all got into the pool together. John, me, and our little brother Paul.

Paul was about 10 at the time and it soon became apparent that he'd inherited the O'Connor water curse. John and I tossed Paul around like a beach ball for awhile. Paul wiggled, giggled, kicked, and screamed. John and I took turns dunking and tormenting Paul until he finally ran screaming from the pool. Paul had a good scream, but it couldn't compare to John's.

I can't remember who made the first move but soon we were trying to dunk each other. John had been learning some interesting wrist and choke holds at the academy. I'd been taking judo at Cal and working as a warehouseman at the Ice Company. I once figured I lifted about 60,000 pounds of ice a night working that job.

We both knew it was time for a showdown.

He kept trying to spin me around and get a hold on my back and neck. I was slapping at his head with open palms, trying to push him under like I'd done years ago.

We started out laughing. Then the shoves and slaps started to land a little harder. We both slipped across the line before we knew it. This time no one was going to scream for mom.

I slapped John hard in the face. He countered and managed to spin me around. His forearm slid across my throat. I elbowed back at him, catching him in the ribs. Then John pressured his arm up. I rose up on my toes, and then things started to darken. I couldn't move anymore. Next thing I knew I was hanging on the edge of the pool coughing and vomiting up water.

"Are you all right Den? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you." John was really upset. I was stunned and I was never going to think of John as my little brother anymore. We both grew up some that day.

 I left and lived my life. After awhile, John left home too.

John was best man at my wedding. It was a big wedding, about 150 guests I knew about 20 people. It was the night of the USC-UCLA football game, just before Thanksgiving. The ushers were having trouble getting the judge who was to marry us out of the bar and away from the game. It was a close game and a lot of people were shouting.

While I waited for the call John and I started talking about growing up. John was dressed in a sport coat and slacks. He was goofing around, laughing, trying to loosen me up. He pointed out the small hand painted Mickey Mouse on his necktie. I grinned. "John, I gained a lot of respect for you when you choked me out in that pool."

"Man, I'll never forget your face when you came through that door. I thought I was dead. I always had respect for you after that." John amazed me that day. I hadn't seen him in a long time. We never really talked much to begin with. He was standing up with me now. It helped. I was feeling nervous. It was good to have my brother standing by my side.

Finally the game ended and the call came. John was still laughing and cool headed. He was a veteran police officer by then. John pulled me aside just before I was to walk down the isle. "I can still get you outta here if you want." He said it with a grin on his face as he held open his coat to reveal a pistol in a shoulder holster. I didn't take him up on the offer.

John's my brother and I love him.  We rarely see each other.

We haven't been swimming together for years.

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