Bring On Your Wrecking Ball

                                                                  And I will provide for you  
                                                                 And I’ll stand by your side
                                                                You’ll need a good companion
                                                                For this part of the ride
                                                                                                Bruce Springsteen
                                                                                              From “Land of Hope and Dreams”

It’s no secret that I’ve been a huge Bruce Springsteen fan for over 30 years now.  To me, he is the greatest songwriter (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen may be superior lyricists, but aren’t as good of songwriters, in my humble opinion) and live performer in rock and roll history.

Despite the consistent high quality of his output and the unadulterated articulation of his themes, he remains one of the most misunderstood and polarizing voices in serious rock criticism.   This is hard to understand, because he has never been the enigmatic contrarian that, for example, Dylan or Neil Young have been.

There are some critics who look down on Springsteen because he identifies with and writes about the common man, the working class.  It is a form of elitism, critics who see these people as unsophisticated and simple, and assume that any artist of any integrity would keep them and their culture at arms’ length.  Springsteen has embraced and celebrated their values, even when criticizing some of the ugly specifics.  The result has been tremendous success and frequent misinterpretation.  The biggest example is the song, “Born in the USA”, misinterpreted by many on the right as a jingoistic anthem supporting blind faith patriotism, and by many on the left as a sell-out of his artistic morals to the fist pumping and empty headed masses who fill stadiums and arenas.

Rock and roll, from the beginning, has always belonged to the poor and working class.  This is where one of if its two dominant themes, rebellion (the other one being sex) comes from.   In the 50s and 60s, when the music was being formed, the genre’s biggest stars, from Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came from this class.  The problem always was that, as these stars became successful and wealthy, they lost touch with the class they came from, resulting in the quick artistic burn out and ultimate self-parody of Presley and Berry (who despite longer careers stopped producing original music of any quality after their first 10 years or so).   The Beatles broke up in 1970, and most of their solo work was uninteresting, and the Stones, who started out paying tribute to the black rhythm and blues musicians who inspired them, by the late 60s were struggling to maintain an edge while becoming a part of the jet-set heroin culture (still producing great music from time to time, like Beggar’s Banquet and Exile on Main Street, which found the commonality of the gutter in their R & B roots and the high class drug culture). By the late 70s, even the Stones had become caricatures of themselves.

Springsteen was born into a middle to lower class existence, but he was also born with gifts of intelligence and musical ability.  From the beginning, his songwriting was always very introspective.  He always had an acute sense of who he was and where he came from.  This is why, as time passed on and his craft became stronger, he openly embraced being a spokesman for the working class¸ and has been able to maintain a connection to those roots even after becoming wildly successful.  The ability to maintain this connection and to explore the depths and complexity of these roots, is, I think, Springsteen’s unique gift

With most of rock’s superstars, as they become successful, a distance from their roots always emerges in their work.  Take John Lennon, for example, who came from the slums of Liverpool, and his song, “Working Class Hero”:

                               they keep you doped with religion and sex and T.V.
                              and you think you’re so happy, and classless and free
                              but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
                              A working class hero is something to be

 Compare this to the 1980 Springsteen song, “The River”

                                I got a job working construction
                                For the Johnstown Company
                                But lately there ain’t been much work
                                On account of the economy
                                Now all those things that seemed so important
                                Mister, they’ve just vanished right into the air
                                Now I just act like I don’t remember
                                Mary acts like she don’t care

Both songs are about the exploitation of the working class.  Where Lennon’s song is filled with hurt and rage, it comes from the perspective of one who has gotten out, and that’s how we view it.  Springsteen, however, gets into the character’s heart and mind.  This is Springsteen’s genius and what I think sets him apart from everyone else:  his ability to get inside of a song and make it intimate and immediate and vital.  In doing so, he makes us care about what he cares about

Next Monday (March 6), Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, will be released, and he again takes on the role of spokesperson for the working class.  At 61 years old, and 28 years after Born in the USA, it would seem unlikely that he has anything new to say, particularly about the working class, since it’s been so long since he’s been a member.   But Wrecking Ball may well be the most ambitious and audacious effort of his long and storied career.  In the end,  I don’t think it cracks his top five best albums list, but he still pulls off most of it, and the album is incredibly relevant to what is going on today.  So relevant that I predict it will be one of the most praised and criticized albums of this election year.

The album opens with the anthem, “We Take Care of Our Own”, which has already been compared to “Badlands” but to me, musically at least, conjures up Patty Smith’s “People Have the Power”.  The lyrics are, unlike the rest of the album, unusually ambiguous.  He references Katrina and New Orleans and says “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home”, instances where we obviously didn’t take care of our own.  In the end, the song stands as a cry to return to the shared principles of looking out for one another, as a reaction to the divisive politics of extremism that have recently dominated the national discourse.

Wrecking Ball is, if nothing else, the angriest album Springsteen has ever put out.  In “Easy Money” and “Shackled and Drawn” , he turns to the Irish roots sound of  The Seeger Sessions and spells out who he is angry at: 

Gambling man rolls the dice, working man pays the bills
It’s still fat and easy up on bankers hill
Up on bankers hill the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn

This is followed by one of Springsteen’s best and most poignant ballads ever, the real centerpiece of the album, “Jack of all Trades”.  In “Jack of all Trades,” his ability to inhabit and articulate the soul of one of his characters is at its strongest since “The River.”  It opens with:

I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades, honey, we’ll be alright

Note the element of the spiritual, of work as a God given gift.  One of his consistent themes over the years is the dignity that work provides.  This dignity has repeatedly been the target of exploitation:

The banker man grows fatter, the working man grows thin
It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again
It’ll happen again, they’ll bet your life
I’m a Jack of all trades and, darling, we’ll be alright

“Jack of All Trades” is a slow and beautiful, with simple, repetitive piano scales and strings, and horns and a lovely guitar solo at the end.

This is followed by the angriest and best of the Irish flavored stomps, “Death to my Hometown”, in which the assault from Wall Street on the working class is as invisible as it is insidious:

Oh, no cannonballs did fly, no rifles cut us down
No bombs fell from the sky, no blood soaked the ground
No powder flash blinded the eye, no deathly thunder sound
But just as sure as the hand of God, they brought death to my hometown
They brought death to my hometown, boys

The song concludes with a cry for action, for some form of economic justice:

So listen up, my sonny boy, be ready for when they come
For they’ll be returning sure as the rising sun
Now get yourself a song to sing and sing it ’til you’re done
Yeah, sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
Who walk the streets as free men now

This is followed by another beautiful ballad, the emotional and powerful “This Depression”, in which the deceptively simple lyrics play beautifully on the double meaning of the word “depression:”

Baby, I’ve been down, but never this down
I’ve been lost, but never this lost
This is my confession, I need your heart
In this depression, I need your heart

This song is another illustration of Springsteen’s gift to show what is really at stake.  By getting inside the heart and mind he gets past the statistics of unemployment statistics and empty rhetoric and reminds us that there are real people impacted, and that their suffering is real

And I’ve always been strong, but I’ve never felt so weak
And all my prayers have gone for nothing
I’ve been without love, but never forsaken
Now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking

The next song, “Wrecking Ball”, was written for the concert he gave on the eve of the destruction of the New Jersey sports arena, the Meadowlands, but also stands as an aging man’s defiant stance to the onslaught of age and death:

So if you got the guts mister, yeah if you’ve got the balls
If you think it’s your time, then step to the line, and bring on your wrecking ball

The song concludes with the mixture of resignation and defiance that can only come with age, with the recognition of the cyclical nature of good times and hard times:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided and you’re burning the clock down
And all our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
And hard times come, and hard times go
Yeah just to come again

 The album then takes a more hopeful and gospel inspired tone with “Rocky Ground”,  and “Land of Hope and Dreams” before closing with the inspirational “We Are Alive”, which celebrates the long history of Americans who have died fighting for their rights:

A voice cried out, I was killed in Maryland in 1877
When the railroad workers made their stand
Well, I was killed in 1963 one Sunday morning in Birmingham
Well, I died last year crossing the southern desert
My children left behind in San Pablo
Well they left our bodies here to rot
Oh please let them know
We are alive
Oh, and though we lie alone here in the dark
Our souls will rise to carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart

 As dark and angry as he might get, in the end there is always hope:

 Let your mind rest easy, sleep well my friend
It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end

I awoke last night in a dark and dreamy deep
From my head to my feet, my body had gone stone cold
There were worms crawling all around me
Fingers scratching at an earth black and six foot low
And alone in the blackness of my grave
Alone I’d been left to die
Then I heard voices calling all around me
The earth rose above me, my eyes filled with sky
We are alive
And though our bodies lie alone here in the dark
Our souls and spirits rise
To carry the fire and light the spark
To fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
To stand shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
We are alive

Wrecking Ball serves as notice that there is still a place for serious rock and roll.  And as Springsteen and his listeners head for the old folks home, one thing remains true as it has always been for the past nearly 40 years – we’re lucky to have as good a companion as Bruce Springsteen with us for this part of the ride

Kids These Days

Last night, my wife and I attended Choral Fest, the annual concert given by all the student choirs in the Kenosha Unified School District.  Each choir performed separately, and there were several numbers where the combined choirs, under the direction of a guest conductor, joined and sang as one combined choir.  It was, as it has been every year I’ve attended, an impressive and stirring concert.  There’s something incredibly beautiful about the sound of human voices singing live.

My wife and I were there to watch our daughter, a senior in high school, perform as a part of her school choir.   My daughter is the youngest of our three children, and it occurred to me, as the concert went on, that we are nearly done, my wife and I, that we are rapidly approaching the end of a long line of events we’ve been attending for the past twenty four years or so.  From preschool Christmas programs to youth sports leagues to award ceremonies to graduations, we’ve sat in auditoriums or sidelines more times than I can count.   Soon that will be over, and we won’t have to suffer through crowded amphitheatres and uncomfortable bleacher seating and the inconvenience of the inevitability of the event falling on the same evening something else was planned.

One constant that I’ve heard adults complain about over the years, starting with my parents, is “kids these days.”   I’ve been guilty of using this phrase myself.   Amongst the crimes “kids these days” have been accused of over the years are:

–  Having no respect

–   Not understanding the value of a dollar

–   Being lazy

These have always been, of course, legitimate complaints.   Kids have always disrespected their elders, they’ve never understood the true value of a dollar, and, if not pushed, have always been lazy.  These are and have always been among the fringe benefits of being a kid and things like respect and a work ethic are things that have to be learned.  The part that the complaints get wrong is the “these days” part, as if these are sudden attributes that have only become evident with the latest generation.

As I watched the concert last night, it occurred to me that kids these days are really no different than kids ever were.  Sure, they may be better at video games and understand technology better, and they might not have to work as hard as kids say, 100 years ago, but these are environmental and cultural shifts.  At their core, where it matters, they are the same as they ever were.   They are still kids.  Scanning the assembled choirs last night, I noticed that they still come in all sizes and shapes, they still, when it’s not their turn to sing, have trouble sitting still, and they still have best friends that they whisper things to that make them laugh.  I recognized, in some of the boys, the same longing glances at pretty girls that they have secret crushes on that I used to hope nobody noticed, and I remembered the mysterious combination of fears and dreams the world was when I was in 9th grade.  It was easy to spot kids who were popular and kids who were not, kids mature beyond their years and kids who were struggling to contain their immaturity.  These are the things that have always made being a kid both wonderful and painful, both simple and complex.   These are the things that kids need parents for.

As my wife and I drove home from the concert, I thought about all of this, and I thought, our time is over.  There will continue to be school concerts, softball and basketball games, graduation ceremonies, but we won’t be part of them.  Kids will still be kids, and parents will still be parents, but whatever role my wife and I played in this cycle is just about complete, and at some point our children will become parents, and it will be their time.

This morning, I ran to the grocery store to pick up a few items, when I ran into the mother of one of the children I used to coach in recreation league softball.   It was the first time I had seen her in years.   Her husband, who used to occasionally help me out with coaching duties, died unexpectedly a few years ago.    Their son Jimmy was one of my all time favorite kids, sweet and funny, a good player, always respectful and courteous and well mannered, always with a beaming smile on his face.  When I talked to her in the super market aisle this morning, I expressed my condolences about the loss of her husband, and asked her how long it had been.   She said it was in 2006, nearly six years already, and I couldn’t believe it had been that long.  I asked how Jimmy was doing, and she said great, although she wished he could find a job.   She then asked me about my son, and I replied he’s doing well in college, that he is in his second senior year, to which she replied, he always was such a smart boy, and I said, just like a Father, if he was so damned smart he’d be out of school by now.

We said goodbye, and I continued on to the check-out and then drove home, thinking about her and her son and her late husband.   He was such a good guy, and his wife and son are such good people.    I can’t comprehend the depths of their loss, and I can’t comprehend what it would mean to be taken so soon.

Then I thought about the conclusion I had come to after the concert last night that our time is over, and I realized how wrong I was.   My wife and I will always be parents to our children; it’s just that the role changes, that’s all.   Children will always be children, and parents will always be parents, and if nothing else, as we go on, my job will be to make sure that this is understood.

Valentine Dream

I am lost and alone in the grey dark, the wind blowing cold and hard.  The woods are deep and endless and unrecognizable.  Naked trees twist and turn.   Dead leaves cover the worn path.    The whole world is icy and frozen, and I can’t find my way home.

My doubts and fears walk beside me.  I can hear their voices.  I am weak, they say, I am a weak and pathetic fake.  I am not who I say I am.  I am a failure and a fraud.

But then in the impenetrable blackness I feel you against me, breathing in my arms.  I cannot see you, it is too dark, but my arms remember, they remember the soft smooth warmth of your skin, my fingers remember tracing your lips, my chest remembers the way your back fits against it like interlocking pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that rise and fall together to the rhythm of your sleeping breaths.  And the icy dream world dissolves and the voices go silent, because they know, whatever else I might or might not be, I am yours, and nothing else makes any sense or matters.

Him and Her

(My thanks to Robin Rhodes, who hosted a wonderful workshop in tonight’s Kenosha Writer’s Guild meeting that gave me the prompt for the following little tidbit)

Even when we’re not lost, she wants to get the frigging map out.   Have I ever gotten us lost?  We’ve been married for over thirty years; you’d think she’d understand by now that my internal compass is pretty damned good.

He never stops to ask for directions, and he gets pissed off when I get the map out.  He always tells me that in over thirty years, he’s never gotten us lost, and that’s true.  But how can I tell him that he’s slipping, he’s not as sharp as he used to be?  Just the other day, he couldn’t remember Zach’s name, and all those years he was over here with Nick, all those years he coached their softball and basketball teams, it’s not like him to forget anything, let alone a name like that.

I try to be patient with her.   I know she’s been through a lot.  But come on – a map?  When we’re still on the interstate?   What is she afraid of?  What’s the worst that can happen?  We take a wrong turn?   We end up in a bad neighborhood?   We’re a couple of minutes late?   That didn’t seem to bother her when she had to have her coffee this morning.  I always try to tell her, leave room for contingency, it’s better to get there a few minutes early than late.  But nothing can break up her morning routine.   The world might be on fire, but it’ll have to wait until she’s had her morning coffee.

He’s so damn fragile.   I get tired of having to tiptoe around his feelings all the time.  I know that he’s in a rough spot.  He doesn’t want to admit he’s deteriorating.    He tries to hide it.  But I see it all the time.  Usually I don’t say anything, but it’s there.  It’s in the way he walks, the way he’s always crashing into walls and the look on his face when he hopes nobody notices.   It’s in his voice, and in the times I have to ask him to repeat himself.   It’s in the stuttering, the stammering, it’s in the soft and unintelligible syllables.

She knows how I hate being late.

We’ve been together for over thirty years now.   He still makes me laugh.   It hurts me to see what is happening to him.   But he is still a good man.  I still believe in him.  

Sometimes I suspect she is writing me off.  Like when I say something and it comes out garbled, and she’ll nod her head as if she heard me, as if she could understand me, because she gets tired of asking me to repeat myself.  And most of the time, when I get the nod, I’ll silently accept it, even though as a response a nod has no connection with what I was trying to say, and I’ll just let it go, because I know how frustrated she gets having to ask me to repeat myself.

We’ve built a world together, and it’s comfortable, it’s home. 

I guess it’s inevitable that she would look for signs of my decline.  Hell, I look for them, too.  But I think she’s looking a little bit too close.    If I trip over the shoes our daughter left in the middle of the living room, in her mind, I’ve lost my balance, and she accepts it as further evidence of my slide.

He can’t ask directions, he gets pissed off when I get the map out, because he doesn’t want to admit that he’s lost.  And he doesn’t want to admit he’s lost because he’s never been lost before, and he’s afraid of what that means, of what else he might have to admit.  But we’re all going downhill – after all, he is 53 years old. 

I look at her, and I see the same eyes, the same face that I’ve known, that I’ve loved, for more than 30 years now.   I look in the mirror and I see a bald guy with a big gut staring back.  But that bald guy in the mirror is still me, and I still have the same internal compass that all those years ago led me to her.

I don’t want to dwell on things.  He knows that no matter how bad things get, I’ll always be by his side.  I shouldn’t have to tell him this – the past thirty years speak for themselves.  

I guess when you get right down to it, the truth is, the real reason we haven’t gotten lost in all these years is that we’ve navigated the road together.   When we started out, neither one of us had any idea where this journey would take us.   But here we are, after all the twists and turns, the bumps and detours, still riding together, and as we coast down the darkening highways to our uncharted destination, if she thinks a map will help, who am I to question?

The Magic Football Helmet

(To mark the occasion of the Super Bowl and to celebrate Aarron Rodgers being named NFL MVP,  I’m posting a piece I wrote couple of years ago during one of my sleep deprived nights)

In September, 2008, my fellow Wisconsinites and I were nervously facing the end of an era and the beginning of a great unknown:  after 16 seasons, Brett Favre would not be quarterbacking our beloved Green Bay Packers. The amount of angst and consternation caused by this simple fact cannot be overestimated – for example, my son Nick, the college journalist who was three years old the last time someone else took the field as starting quarterback for the Packers, wrote a column about how a close friend of his, upon hearing the news of Favre’s “final” “retirement” earlier that spring, had actually collapsed involuntarily to the ground.  This is utterly believable.  The connection between our state and the Packers is so strong it has an aura of religiosity around it.   People from other states, especially from more urban areas, see the cheese headed fanatics and their tail gates and beer and just don’t understand.  To Wisconsinites, the Packers are Wisconsin, or rather, what they wish Wisconsin is, or was – small town, simple, unsophisticated working class, genuine and true, somehow surviving and even prospering in the harsh reality of the modern urban world.   The Packers of Green Bay are the only small town franchise in all of major sports to still exist, and this exception in the day of modern superstar athletes and unimaginable salaries and media outlets is truly remarkable. 

Forty years earlier, in September of 1968, Packer fans were facing uncertainty with the departure of another icon.  Their great coach, Vince Lombardi, who had just  lead the team to their third consecutive league championship and fifth in seven years, as well as victory in the first two Super Bowls, had retired from coaching.  Although there was great concern in Packer country, no one at the time could know that this event would mark the beginning of a 29 year championship drought, filled with mediocrity and incompetence that would challenge the loyalties of even the most devoted Packer fans. 

In September of 1968, I was two months shy of my 10th birthday, but as young as I was, nobody who knew me would deny that I was already among the most devoted of the most devoted Packer fans.  I had caught the fever a year earlier, in that magical 1967 season that would be Lombardi’s last as coach in Green Bay and would culminate in my hero, Bart Starr, crossing the goal line with 13 seconds left in the greatest game ever played, the Ice Bowl, giving the Packers their still unmatched 3rd consecutive NFL championship. 

I’ve had a tendency over the years, once developing an interest in something, to throw myself completely and obsessively into it until I have established an indisputable level of expertise in it.  Prior to the Packers and football, when I was about seven, my first obsession was animals.  I loved going to the zoo and at some point determined I would know as much about as many animals as humanly possible.  I remember getting a book entitled “The Mammals”, put together by Desmond Morris (more famously the author of the book The Naked Ape).  It was a very thick book, and quite scholastic – it was in fact merely a catalog listing of every mammal known to man, with a black and white picture of the animal (usually some drab photo taken in a zoo somewhere) and a couple paragraphs describing where it was found, diet, habitat, etc.  I committed to memory virtually every animal in the book, from all the different apes and monkeys to the various Yaks of Asia. I could tell you the difference between even and odd toed ungulates, and that rabbits and hares were not rodents but rather lagomorphs.  Precocious? You bet I was.   What can be more obnoxious than a seven year old who is an expert at anything?  I remember one time we were at the Milwaukee Zoo, and as we approached a savannah display, a nearby Mother sweetly said to her toddler, “Oh, look at the deer!”   Mr.  Expert here laughed derisively out loud. 

“What’s so funny?” my Mom asked me. 

“That’s not a deer”, I said, barely able to contain myself, “that’s a kudu.”

“Oh, a kudu”, my Mom replied, as we turned the corner to the sign that said “Greater Upland Kudu.”  My Mom had never heard of a kudu before.

So it was in the same manner in 1967 that I threw myself into football, learning and watching and reading everything I could about the subject matter (baseball would follow the next summer).  I was a little kid, younger than all but one in my grade in school and thus smaller than most, so I wasn’t much at playing football.  But as a fan, I went from at the beginning of the season not even knowing what was going on on a punt (I thought they were trying to kick the ball thru the goalpost) to by the end of the season knowing the different pass defense schemes run by most of the NFL teams (Don Shula’s Baltimore Colts, for example, played primarily a zone defense, where the St.Louis Cardinals blitzed more than almost any other team, especially safety blitzes from their  great safety, Larry Wilson, while the Packers, with what I still think is the greatest secondary in the history of the game, played mostly simple man to man and rarely blitzed).  I watched every Packer game and any other NFL game that was televised (I despised the American Football League as a weak imposter and refused to watch its games).  My brother Mike had an APBA professional football game that he never let me play, but it did inspire me to ask for and receive on my ninth birthday the great board game, “Fran Tarkenton’s Pro Football”, which I played and played for hours at a time.  And best of all, for Christmas that year, I got a Green Bay Packers helmet.

If you’ve never believed in the mystical powers of magic, you never put that helmet on.  That helmet was imbued with Arabian genie-like powers.  You’ve heard the myth that when you put a sea shell to your ear, you can hear the roar of the ocean?  The first time and every time afterwards I put that loose fitting helmet on my small head, inside I would hear the roar of 50,000 fans  in Lambeau field.  I would wear that helmet all the time, and for a while, even take it to bed with me, to put back on first thing in the morning (although I never was able to figure out how to eat breakfast thru the face guard).

My roommate was my brother Don, almost five years older than me.  Don recognized early on the power of my imagination, and, as he is one of the most gifted story tellers I have ever known, was able to turn that imagination against me and plant mind numbingly horrifying visions in my head, visions of the dead woman in our closet, Madeline from “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Don had read Poe’s story and retold it to me, adding additional plot twists  and turns and a level of detail that would have made even good old Edgar Allan himself sleep with the lights on), sasquatches, dead Indians, escaped black panthers and rabid German shepherds on the prowl.  But when he wasn’t scaring the snot out of me, he was a pretty good older brother, and would let me follow him around everywhere, which I did just about every day.   He always included me when his friends were over, although being a little guy, there were usually special rules for me.  For example, our big thing would be playing war (Combat was our favorite television show at the time) with our toy rifles and grenades, and if you got the drop on someone and shot them (by making a shooting sound, like rat-a-tat-tat!), they’d have to feign getting hit and die a dramatic death right there in the yard, and stay down until one side or the other was completely vanquished –unless, of course, they were shot by me.  I was too little, and thus “didn’t count.”  I don’t know how many times when we were lining up to play I’d hear those dreaded words, “Dave’s on our team – but he doesn’t count.”  There was always a depressingly existential ring to those words that I’m only now beginning to understand.

My following Don around more often than not lead to great adventure and fun, but there were times I paid a cost.  One time a large group of us was playing army in Krause’s woods.  There was a part of the woods that was populated by a thick stand of young maple trees that provided a low ceiling of green leaves, allowing only splotches of sunlight to hit the mossy ground underneath.  I crept thru the brush and came upon Don in the middle of this patch.  Suddenly he let out a scream, his body writhing, his toy rifle extended in his arms up above his head.  “Good lord!” I thought, “My brother’s been hit!”   I did what any heroic little brother would do – I ran in, my toy rifle blazing, while at the same time Don ran out of the woods.  What I didn’t know but soon discovered was that it wasn’t an imaginary enemy machine gun nest Don had chanced upon – rather it was an all-too real hornet’s nest he had stepped in.  Don quickly ran out and away from the nest, leaving its entire aroused and angry population swarming in clouds that the heroic younger brother ran into just as their angry frenzy reached its fevered peak.  I think Don ended up with about nine stings; I on the other hand had in excess of thirty, my Mother putting lotion and gauze on each one.

In September of 1968, Don was just beginning high school, and I was entering fifth grade.  Don was now a big kid, and there would be no more war games, and soon he’d be meeting new friends, going to high school football games, spending more time away from the house.  But when he was home, he still let me follow him around, and he still made time for me – still scaring the crap out of me with his horror stories (which I of course secretly loved), but also taking the time to engage in my interests and obsessions. 

As the 1968 football season approached, I had brought the annual version of Street and Smith’s Pro Football yearbook, reading all of the predictions and memorizing all the starting lineups and statistics.  Then there was one magical page that had the entire 1968 NFL schedule printed on it.  I would read it and re-read it, charting out who I thought would win each game and keeping track of what the standings would be, often times while wearing my treasured Packers helmet.  And I remember one bright Saturday morning in early September Don and I heading out to our backyard, me with my helmet on my head and my Street and Smith’s 1968 yearbook in my hand, with the purpose of playing the entire 1968 NFL schedule.  How exactly do two kids play an entire NFL schedule?   Well, I’d call a play, Don would pitch me the ball, and I’d run with it, and he’d tackle me and announce how many yards I gained, and what the down and yardage was.  He’d adjust the quality of the tackling based upon which runner I was portraying – for example, if I was the big fullback Bill Brown of the Minnesota Vikings running up the middle, he’d let me run over him for a few extra yards, and if I was Gayle Sayers of the Bears, he might let me get around him on the outside for a big gainer.  On pass plays, Don was the quarterback, and I was the receiver.  We’d work patterns and developed pretty good timing – Don had a strong and accurate arm, and we spent enough hours together in the back yard that I perfected sharp cuts and fakes on my patterns, and as soon as I made my cut and looked back, a perfect spiral would be in the air for me to haul in.  I dare say I also developed pretty good hands, too.

We simulated entire games (though we never got through the entire schedule, of course), and they were as real as anything on CBS or NBC on Sundays.  I’d tell him the strengths and weaknesses of each player, and Don would make dramatic tackles and relay descriptive accounts of what happened on each play.  There under the warm blue September sky, falling to the soft grass with a football in my hands in the tackling arms of my brother and with the roar of the stadium echoing inside that Packer helmet, nothing else existed, nothing else mattered, but the sheer bliss and joy of a living, waking dream, a dream that was realized thanks to the heart and mind of who at times like this was the greatest older brother any goofy, undersized, helmet wearing little brother could ever possibly hope for.

That was more than 40 years ago.  In the past ten years or so, for reasons too complex I think for either of us to fully understand, our relationship has disintegrated.  But however great the space is between us now, and however unlikely it seems that it will ever be bridged, nothing can or ever will happen to change the fact that once upon a time, when I was small, my brother’s generosity and imagination provided fuel to my dreams, fuel I continue to draw upon to this day.  For that, I owe him my sincere thanks and best wishes.

Time and distance are incredibly corrosive forces, dimming and distorting the half light we view memories in.   Each of us twists and manipulates events until they are consistent with and support our current view of the world.  We all do it – it is part of how we make sense of things, how we rationalize the universe to fit who we have become, or more accurately, who we want to believe we have become.   But in the process we lose track of who we were, and we can never really understand who we have become without the knowledge of who we used to be. Whatever I am or to be, I know that when I was small, I was the little kid with the football helmet who followed his brother around all the time.