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The picture I looked at first has been the source of countless jokes over the years. It depicts all of my immediate family gathered together at our house. For some reason, we are sporting nametags. Perhaps this was a neighborhood function or family reunion. Though the exact memory has faded, the feeling of those days remains. I look and can almost hear the sounds, can feel the warmth of the day, not quite hot, but warm.
Our mother had arranged us in descending order from oldest to youngest. Granville stands on the far left and is bored and uninterested in the photographer. To his left stands Greg. He has worn a striped tank top identical to Granville’s. I don’t view this imitation with negative judgment. The younger brothers all admired and copied the older ones. Nothing wrong with being a copycat as long as you’re copying the right cat! Apparently, Grant and I had decided it was too warm for full shirts, even tank tops, and instead we chose for the day our standard 80s half shirt. Behind us, tucked under our father’s big legs, huddles the youngest, and our only sister, Gwendolyn.
We kids were uninterested in the task at hand, and a close look at the photo reveals less about our personalities than our boredom. But if you look closely at my parents, you can tell certain things about their life and times. Mom had a rather unfortunate Jerry Curl. She smiles slightly, the smile of someone who understands the difficulties of daily living, yet is happy to have her family around her. Her stance is revealing. She does not stand haughty or proud, but solid. She was in many ways our rock. Dad’s gestures are just as telling. He is shouting in the direction of someone outside the frame. His head is arched back and in one hand he is holding a frosty mug, just emptied, not yet filled with a new beer. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about him is his size. He is broad shouldered and tall. He looks fit. He does not stand like someone who should be trifled with. And that was him. A former marine, he took life seriously and always demanded that we be places punctually. At the same time, he also wasn’t afraid to cut loose a bit with a drink or two.
In photo was taken in Glassboro, New Jersey, where we had just moved from Camden. For those who are unfamiliar with the statistics of crime throughout the country, Camden often takes the dubious prize Most Dangerous City in America. This statistic is based on numbers compiled by the FBI regarding the number of violent crimes per person. Some of Camden’s citizens wear this ranking with pride, with t-shirts that say on the front: # 1 in America, (and on the back) America’s Worst City. Situated just across the river from of the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, many parts of Camden, N.J. are noticeably unbrotherly. Perhaps many of the problems are the result of poverty. Two out of five citizens live below the poverty line, and the school system was recently taken over by the state of New Jersey due to student drop out rates.
Behind us in the photo sits our new home. With four bedrooms and two bathrooms, it was a great improvement over our previous living situation. If the first photo on my computer had been of our home in Camden, it would have pictured a row home with 3 bedrooms and a bathroom that was perpetually broken. Many houses on our row, these were the row houses you hear frequently about in discussions of American crime, were boarded up. Other neighboring houses in Camden suggested a complete lack of civic pride, or perhaps just patchwork ingenuity. From the wide array of building materials, it was clear that when something broke, whatever was cheapest would serve as a replacement. This fix-it fast, fix-it cheap approach created a hodgepodge of architecture. Brick portions of the house ran straight into faux brick shingle material, as if the builder ran out of money mid-way through construction and chose instead a less costly option. Cheap siding of multiple types, asbestos shingles, rotting wood, and even portions of tin, “decorated” the fronts of houses and lent a confused look that bespoke poverty. Paint schemes on houses had only one common characteristic a complete lack of schematic planning and years of age and disuse. The exceptions to the rule, folks bravely holding on to their pride and often defending their homes forcefully, were stuck next to neighbors that neither cared about nor were capable of maintaining appearances. When you account for all the citizens of Camden addicted to drugs of various degrees of illegality, you understand how and why the street came to look the way it did.
The backyard of our Camden house was about the size of a standard jail cell and had a comparable lack of comfort. No lawn, no bushes, just a 10 ft. by 10 ft. section of concrete, just enough room for a picnic table. To many people this lack of a backyard might be a good thingno grass to cut. But with four boys, it was my mother’s nightmare. The lack of space left us with only one option. We had to take our games out into the street up front, dodging cars and drug dealers as we caught passes and ran routes. The most astounding thing to me now is that on that broken and pothole-riddled asphalt, we played tackle. In Camden, toughness developed at a young age. I still have a scar from tackling Greg in the street and catching a piece of glass in my leg. When I finally dragged him down, blood streamed from my knee, tears welled up in the corners of my eyes. Greg carried me inside to get me cleaned up. Even as he sympathetically helped me bandage the wound, he looked at me with stern eyes and said in a clear voice, "You gonna have to be tougher around here to make it, Gary. You can’t go crying about little stuff like this. I know it hurts, but even when you don’t think you can bear it you can. Just reach down for something extra.”
This combination was normal for my brother Greg. He was always caring but firm with me. He had my back, but also insisted that I learn to take up for myself. He helped teach me that valuable lesson about the size of the dog in the fight mattering much less than the size of the fight in the dog. This dog developed particular toughness from playing against older kids early in life, and from words like these from my brothers. I knew as the smallest kid out there that I had to make up for what I lacked somehow. Nobody felt sorry for me, so I had better not feel sorry for myself. This all helped me in the long run. No one gets better from playing against weaker competition. Challenge and adversity stir growth!
One episode is seared into my mind. My brothers and I were out in front of our house in the street. We were playing a game of some sort with neighborhood guys, and for some reason Granville ended up in a tussle with two neighborhood thugs. Without thinking, every one of the Brackett brothers jumped on those poor guys. They ran off, and knew that when you messed with one of us, you had better expect us all to join, even little me at five-years-old.
Granville got into another fight that was even more dangerous. On this day I was near the front door when the altercation broke out. I copied what I had seen on TV, went inside and grabbed one of my father’s handguns and came out of the house shouting. I had no intention of shooting anything, but that did nothing to soften the whipping I got when Dad got home and heard the story.
“This thing is not a toy Gary! You have no idea the kind of pain you can cause with this gun.”
“But Dad, I wasn’t going to use it.”
“One thing I always say about guns Gary, never get one out and point it at something unless you are prepared to go all the way.”
When I was five, my parents decided to move the family to Glassboro, a safer area with more space, and where perhaps we would do a better job of staying out of trouble. Camden’s streets were just too dangerous. Our new home was only about 20 minutes away so my older siblings weren’t going too far from their friends. But it was some distance into the suburbs and away from the big city of Philly next door. We all helped pack, and as we prepared for the big day I grew nervous and lashed out.
“Mom, what our new house be like?”
“You’ll like it Gary. We’ll have more of a yard to play in.”
“Yea, but what about my old room? What about my friends?”
“You will have an even bigger room, and across the street you and your brothers will be able to make forts!”
“Mom, I don’t want to go!”
“Gary, you remember what I always tell you now: don’t fear and don’t be angry. One minute of anger robs you of 60 seconds of happiness.”
As a young kid I had no reason to doubt my mom. She never led me wrong. But I had heard she and dad whispering late at night about the move. They knew it needed to happen, but moving five kids even a short distance is a chore.
In Glassboro, things were definitely better. The schools were friendlier places with fewer students and nicer teachers. Our new house had more room, another bedroom and bathroom to be exact. We thought we had gone to heaven. There was more than one bathroom, and both of them were functional. Even more exciting than the new space inside the house was the new space outside. No more playing in the street and getting glass in our knees. We now had a yard!
The front of the house emptied out into the projects. We lived right across from a federal government housing development, each of the little brick houses were essentially the same design. But in between those projects and our house grew grass. And our backyard stretched back perhaps a half football field into some woods. The side yard extended for about 50 yards before it sloped gently into a drainage ditch. We played football and baseball year round. And here is the best part of growing up with four boys in a house: no need to recruit, because you always have numbers for a game of 2 on 2. We Bracketts had enough to field a game with just the brothers. Since I was the youngest, and Greg was the second oldest, we often ended up playing against Granville and Grant. Greg and I developed our own secret language for plays, used hand signals our brothers never could decipher, and were usually encouraging teammates.
This neighborhood was a more family friendly place. Sometimes at night we would play late, and Dad would come outside and whistle. That whistle covered the whole projects, and reached clearly to the basketball courts where we so often spent our time. If we didn’t hear it, others did. Those who lived around us knew two things: if that whistle sounded, Granville Brackett expected his boys home. And he didn’t expect them sooner or later, he expected them to be there quick! Not now, but RIGHT now. So, that whistle was our family version of: “Thundercats Thundercats Thundercats Ho!” At that sound, we dropped what we were doing, ended whatever game we were playing, and moved.