Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in Historyby George Howe Colt
From the bestselling National Book Award finalist, a masterful blend of history and memoir featuring the author’s four brothers and iconic brothers in history—the Thoreaus, the Van Goghs, the Kelloggs, the Marx brothers, and the Booths.
George Howe Colt's The Big House is, as the New Yorker said, “full of surprises and contains/i>/i>
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From the bestselling National Book Award finalist, a masterful blend of history and memoir featuring the author’s four brothers and iconic brothers in history—the Thoreaus, the Van Goghs, the Kelloggs, the Marx brothers, and the Booths.
George Howe Colt's The Big House is, as the New Yorker said, “full of surprises and contains more than seems possible: a family memoir, a brief history of the Cape, an investigation of nostalgia, a study of class, and a meditation on the privileges and burdens of the past.” Colt’s new book, Brothers, is an equally idiosyncratic and masterful blend of memoir and history featuring both the author’s three brothers and iconic brothers in history—the Booths, the Van Goghs, the Kelloggs, the Marx Brothers, and the Thoreaus.
Colt believes he would be a different man had he not grown up in a family of four brothers. He movingly recounts the adoration, envy, affection, resentment, and compassion in their shifting relationships from childhood through middle age, also rendering a volatile decade in American life: the 1960s. Some of the Colt men now have children; all have found their own paths; all now consider their brothers to be their closest friends.
In alternate chapters, Colt parallels his quest to understand how his own brothers shaped his life with an examination of the rich and complex relationships between iconic brothers in history. He explores how Edwin Booth grew up to become the greatest actor on the nineteenth-century American stage while his younger brother John grew up to assassinate a president. How Will Kellogg worked for his overbearing older brother John Harvey as a subservient yes-man for two decades until he finally broke free and launched the cereal empire that outlasted all his brother’s enterprises. How Vincent van Gogh would never have survived without the financial and emotional support of his younger brother, Theo, in a claustrophobic relationship that both defined and confined them. How Henry David Thoreau’s life was shadowed by the early death of his older brother, John, who haunted and inspired his writing. And how the Marx Brothers collaborated on the screen but competed offstage for women, money, and fame.
Illuminating and affecting, this book will be revelatory for any parent of sons, any sibling, anyone curious about how a man’s life can be molded by his brothers. Colt’s magnificent book is a testament to the abiding power of fraternal love.
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Read an Excerpt
If the handful of black-and-white snapshots that remain from my childhood is any indication, it’s a wonder I didn’t end up with a permanent crick in my neck from literally and figuratively looking up to my older brother. Harry was born twenty months before me, and I worshiped him with an intensity that must have been both flattering and bewildering to the worshipee. I didn’t want to be like Harry; I wanted to be Harry. I cocked my coonskin cap exactly the way he did when we played Daniel Boone; I made the same pshew-pshew sounds he did when I pulled the trigger on my silver plastic six-shooter; I punched the pocket of my baseball glove every time he punched his. When he woke me in the middle of the night one Christmas Eve and invited me downstairs to open presents while our parents slept, I followed. When he said he could help me get rid of my loose tooth, I let him tie it to the playroom doorknob and slam the door. He was my older brother and I would have agreed to anything he proposed; I would have followed him anywhere. And so, one spring evening not long before I turned six, as we lay in our matching twin beds, when Harry suggested that we run away from home, I said yes.
The following morning before dawn, I woke to find him standing next to my bed in his pajamas, clutching to his chest the gray metal strongbox in which he kept his baseball cards. I tiptoed behind him down the back stairs, through the kitchen, and into the garage. Harry opened the front door to the old blue Ford, climbed in, and shimmied over to the driver’s seat. I scrambled up next to him. We sat awhile in silence before he unlocked the strongbox and offered me some of the saltines with which he had filled it the night before. (To make room, he had left behind all but his most precious Red Sox cards.) We chewed our crackers and stared through the windshield at the closed garage door. I don’t remember what we said, or indeed whether we said anything at all. I don’t remember wondering where, if anywhere, we were going, or how far we could get in our pajamas, or what we would eat when the saltines ran out. I certainly didn’t ask my brother. Because I believed Harry could do anything, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the car had somehow started, the garage door had opened, and we’d sailed off down Village Avenue, our quiet, tree-lined street in suburban Boston, and into the sky.
* * *
It never occurred to me to ask my brother why we were running away. Ours was not the kind of home from which most people would have thought it necessary, or even advisable, to run away. We lived in a comfy old brown house equipped with a corrugated cardboard fort big enough to stand up in; enough wooden blocks to construct several castles simultaneously; a banister to speed our journey from the second floor to the first; and a bathroom in which every fixture—sink, toilet, and tub—was jet-black, a color scheme so unusual that neighborhood kids were always knocking on our door, asking to use the facilities. We had a backyard big enough for games of catch and a sprinkler to run through on hot summer days. Beyond our fence lay a world that seemed designed for a six-year-old boy: houses close together to maximize candy collection on Halloween; enough kids within shouting distance to field a baseball team; sidewalks that could get our bikes every place worth getting to, their curbs so eroded by generations of Raleighs and Schwinns that we didn’t have to dismount when crossing a street; and a huge chestnut tree that provided ammunition for fights, pretend money for card games, and the sheer pleasure of peeling off the rubbery, lime-green skin to uncover the nut within, shiny and polished as a violin.
Best of all, within a stone’s throw of our house—if Harry was doing the throwing—there were three places that made our otherwise tame neighborhood seem as thrilling as the wilderness depicted on any explorer’s map. Four houses to the east lay the Norfolk County Jail, an ivy-covered granite hulk in which, our mother told us, two prisoners with Italian names I could never remember had been imprisoned before being sent to the electric chair in 1927, an event whose macabre allure still lingered in the air as I hurried past on my way to the library thirty-five years later. (I could never understand why bad guys were always “sent” to the electric chair, which made it sound as if the post office were somehow involved and begged the all-important question of what happened after they reached their destination.) Across the street from the jail lay the graveyard, where we played freeze tag, hide-and-seek, and war, taking care not to step on the bulges in front of the lichen-embossed headstones, bulges we assumed were the bellies of the dead. A block to the south of us, the tidy lawns gave way to a morass of vines and skunk cabbage we called the swamp, an outpost of botanical anarchy that in well-manicured Dedham seemed as exotic as the Black Lagoon from which the proverbial Creature emerged, and in whose tea-colored water we’d wade in search of smaller but equally slimy creatures. These three landmarks allowed us to believe that we lived in a dangerous world, a world in which an escaped convict, a vengeful ghost, or a hideous monster might appear at any moment. I remember watching Swiss Family Robinson and being impressed that the island on which they had shipwrecked somehow encompassed mountains, waterfalls, beaches, caves, lakes, and quicksand (a wealth of natural wonders ecologically unlikely to be found in one place, I later realized). With its prison, its graveyard, and its swamp—which, I felt sure, contained at least a dollop of quicksand—our neighborhood had been no less blessed.
Even without these attractions, I wouldn’t have been inclined to run away from home. Dedham was the first place my family had lived long enough to call home. Our father was a businessman, and whenever he was promoted, we moved to a new town. (In those days, you went where the company sent you or you wouldn’t be with the company for long.) Before Dedham, we had lived in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Philadelphia—three different places in five years. We had been in Dedham for more than two years, the longest we had ever spent in one place, and I assumed we would be there forever. Dad built us a sandbox and installed a swing set. He and Mum spent Sunday afternoons on their hands and knees, putting in a brick patio. They planted a dogwood tree and a bed of pachysandra. For the first time, our family, too, seemed to be putting down roots.
Nor were our mother and father the type of parents one ran away from. Mum did all the things mothers in the fifties were supposed to do, but she did them a little differently. She made us peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches but cut them into triangles and trapezoids we reassembled like puzzle pieces before eating. She read aloud from Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss—and Oscar Wilde. She drew stick figures and animals with us, as well as squiggles we had to turn into pictures. Or she’d draw a face without letting us see it, fold the paper, then pass it to one of us, who’d draw a torso and arms. That person would fold the paper and pass it to the next brother, who would draw the legs. And so on. We’d unfold the paper to find a goofy-looking, cobbled-together character that made us howl with laughter. She sang us songs about fathers buying mockingbirds and children selling shoes to barefooted angels, as well as songs about coal miners striking, southern women done wrong by their men, calves on their way to the slaughterhouse, young lords poisoned by their lovers—songs she’d learned from the copies of Sing Out! that lay on the coffee table. When she and Dad went out to dinner parties on Friday nights, she wore muumuus she’d made from Indian-print bedspreads, hoop earrings, scarab bracelets, and scarlet lipstick that made her look like a gypsy. Mum was what the neighbors called “artistic.” She painted. She made Christmas ornaments of balsa wood. She played the accordion. She gave guitar lessons to neighborhood teenagers. Sunday-afternoon strollers heard the sounds of “Down in the Valley” and “This Little Light of Mine” wafting from our living room. After one winter snowstorm Mum came out to play with us. By lunchtime she had sculpted a buxom lady so enormous and lifelike it frightened me—surely the first snowwoman our town had ever seen.
Dad was like our friends’ fathers, only handsomer, funnier, and more athletic. His arrival home from work was the big event of our day. (We didn’t really know what he did when he took the train into Boston each morning—it had something to do with bottled gas—but each spring we swelled with pride when he supplied the tank of helium that enabled the balloons at the school fair to fly.) The moment he came through the door and set down his briefcase, we swarmed him, clamoring to have him squeeze our nonexistent biceps (“Feel my muscle!”), vying for the airplane rides he gave us as he lay on his back and held us aloft on his stockinged feet, pleading for another knock-knock joke. Saturday mornings, we’d pile into the car for errands: the dump, the Esso station, the paper store, and what Dad called the package store—a Massachusetts euphemism that had me imagining shelves of empty brown boxes. (It never failed to surprise me when, at home, Dad would reach into the bag he’d bought there and, like a magician, pull out a frosted bottle of Gilbey’s gin and several cartons of Kents.) Fall afternoons, Harry and I sat on either side of Dad in the vast cement horseshoe of Harvard Stadium, cheering the football team I assumed Harry would play for someday. After the final gun, as the sun dipped below the stadium wall, I followed Harry onto the field, where we beseeched the players to sign our programs or give us their sweat-softened chin straps. On Sundays, we helped Dad rake leaves into a pile on the sidewalk, where he’d burn them, one of dozens of piles that smoked like signal fires along the length of Village Avenue.
Dad was a kind of Superman to us, but much cooler than the cape-and-tights-wearing one on TV. Although he couldn’t fly, he could pinch out a candle flame with his bare fingers; place a quarter on his bent elbow and, a second later, make it appear in his hand; throw a tennis ball so high we thought it would never come down. In the car, in those pre-seat-belt days, whenever we came to a red light or had to make a sudden stop, he’d reach his arm across the front seat to keep us from pitching forward. No matter how violent the potential crash, we believed his arm would keep us safe. He was always willing to give us piggyback rides, quiz us on our state capitals, take us sledding, tighten our hockey skates, lead a game of crack the whip, have a snowball fight. It seemed that everything important to Harry and me, we learned from Dad: how to ride a bike, how to skate, how to catch a ball. Each evening after work, he’d throw us popups in the backyard. No matter how many times we pleaded for “just one more,” Dad would always throw us another until, looking up for the ball, we noticed that the first star had appeared in the sky. Everything Dad owned seemed redolent of the manly, grown-up world to which Harry and I aspired: the monogrammed money clip from which he’d extract a few green bills; the silver Zippo that gave off a pungent whiff of gasoline as he flicked the thumbwheel and lit another Kent; the badger-hair brush he swirled in the foaming wooden tub of Old Spice soap as we watched him shave; the parrot-headed can opener with which he punched two triangles in the top of a can of beer; the Purple Heart he’d won in the war and kept in a cigar box; the frayed black high school letter sweater in which we buried our faces as we threw our arms around him for a hug.
* * *
Perhaps because he had the same name—in our extended family he was known as Little Harry or Harry Third—my brother seemed like a pocketsize version of our father. I regarded him with hardly less awe. Like Dad, Harry was smart. He knew the twelve times table. He got all As in school. Like Dad, Harry seemed effortlessly good at sports. He could throw a spiral, pitch a fastball, ride a bike faster than anyone else I knew. In games, Harry was always the first pick, and whichever team picked him usually won. He reminded me of Chip Hilton, the straight-arrow star of the football, basketball, and baseball teams at Valley Falls High in the books by Clair Bee that he and I loved. At recess, I watched as Harry and the older boys played flag football, his plastic belt, with its twin, trailing pennants, looking like some sort of below-the-waist military honor. After school, they played Russian Shmuck, an ersatz football game presumably christened in a spasm of Cold War patriotism, in which one boy ran with the ball while everyone else tried to tackle him. I longed to be as tough as Harry. He and his friends skipped rocks in the street. They lugged shirtfuls of chestnuts to the graveyard and, crouching behind the headstones, pelted one another with the knobby brown nuts. Harry never cried when Mum dabbed Mercurochrome on his skinned knees. On Saturday mornings, looking like a lumpy knight in his helmet and shoulder pads, he went across town to the field near the Catholic church in East Dedham, where he played tackle football on a real team with real uniforms. I had read about how, in ancient times, an army sent forth its strongest warrior to challenge the enemy’s champion. If ever our neighborhood had to send forth a champion to defend us, I knew it would be Harry.
Harry would never have put himself forth for the job. Unlike Dad, who was always making people laugh, Harry was quiet, pensive, vigilant. As a baby he had rarely cried, and when he was a toddler he had been so well-behaved that the elderly woman who babysat him in El Paso said that he was “like the return of the Christ child.” In nursery school his teachers wrote to our parents, saying that while Harry was clearly a smart boy, they were concerned that he spoke so little. When I was born, according to Mum, Harry showed no signs of jealousy—nary a tweak, nary a howl-provoking pinch. As I grew, he never lorded it over me that he knew the multiplication tables or that he could hang upside down from the monkey bars. When we played cowboys and Indians, he never made me be the Indian; we were both cowboys. When I began first grade, our parents made it clear to Harry that he was to look out for his little brother. He took his charge to heart. Each morning, we’d ride our bikes the half mile to school together, Harry glancing over his shoulder to make sure I hadn’t fallen too far behind. At recess, seeing him across the playground with the older kids, I felt safe. Whenever I walked alone past the jail on my way to the library, I was tempted to run, but with Harry alongside, I dared look over at its arched, Gothic windows, hoping to see—and afraid I’d see—someone looking back at me from behind the iron bars. When he was nine, Harry was named to the Safety Patrol, the highest honor our little four-grade school could bestow. Although I missed riding to school with him—his duties demanded that he get there early—I was recompensed by the pride I felt as I saw him on High Street, the Safety Patrol’s glistening white plastic sashes crisscrossing his chest. As he waved me and my friends across the road, I knew not to say hi, knew not to distract him from his lifesaving work, but I didn’t need to: everyone knew he was my brother.
It amazed me that this godlike creature deigned to consort with a mere mortal like me. Harry let me watch as he sorted his baseball cards on our bedroom floor. He let me play with the plastic figurine of Willie Mays he’d gotten for Christmas. When he and his friends played baseball in the jailfield, a swatch of weeds that lay in the shadow of the jailhouse wall, he let me tag along. When I called “Wait up,” he waited up. If, occasionally, he went off with his friends and it was clear I wasn’t to follow, I never once heard him say, “Let’s ditch him.” When I asked him whether a watermelon would grow inside me if I swallowed a watermelon seed, he told me the truth. At night, in the room we shared above the kitchen, Harry and I whispered across the gulf between our beds. Unlike Harry, I was a garrulous fellow, so it was mostly me asking questions: “Who would you rather be, Alan Shepard or John Glenn?” “Who do you think is better, Eddie Bressoud or Pumpsie Green?” (A moot point, given that the entire Boston Red Sox lineup was prodigiously inept in the early sixties.) “Who do you like more, Tommy or Cubby? . . . Kennedy or Nixon? . . . Spanky or Alfalfa?” Harry’s reticence made everything he said all the more valuable; his opinions I took as facts; his answers became the answers I gave my friends when they asked me those same questions. I recently came across my third-grade album, which contained snapshots of my classmates and a section (titled “I LIKE”) in which I’d listed my favorite sport (Russian Shmuck), movies (scary), TV shows (Little Rascals). Under “My Pal,” I had written, in capital letters three times the size of my other answers, HARRY COLT.
* * *
I was so preoccupied with my older brother that I sometimes forgot I had a younger brother. Ned was born two years and one day after me. Our mother told us that as the due date approached, the obstetrician offered to induce labor so that we could share a birthday. Mum declined, insisting that she wanted us each to have our own special day to celebrate. When she told me the story, I felt a twinge of relief. I would have been proud to share a birthday with Harry, I realized, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to share one with Ned. Indeed, as Ned grew, I took every opportunity to align myself with my older brother and to distance myself from my younger one. I took satisfaction in the fact that I was closer in age—by a mere four months—to Harry than to Ned; that I looked more like dark-haired Harry than like blond-haired Ned; that Harry and I were right-handed but Ned was a lefty. I focused on the things Harry could do, on the things Ned couldn’t. Ned couldn’t hang from the monkey bars. He didn’t know how to pump. He couldn’t ride a bike without training wheels. The only board games he could play were Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders, his only card game was War. He didn’t know the capital of North Dakota. He didn’t know what seven times twelve equaled. He didn’t even go to school. The fact that Ned was too young to do these things—and that I had only recently learned to do them myself—didn’t prevent me from scorning him for his ineptitude. Oh, the smug triumph as I trailed in Harry’s wake to the jailfield, leaving Ned behind in the sandbox!
There were times, however, when Harry made it clear I wasn’t to tag along, times my own friends were busy, times when there was no one to play with but Ned. Much as I hated to admit it, Ned’s world, I learned, had its consolations. I began to see the things that Ned could do. Ned could spend hours in the sandbox, sculpting mountains, constructing twig houses, laying out pebble lakes, and building sand roadways over which we steered his extensive collection of Matchbox cars. Ned could fluff up the sheets on his bed to create a vast, wrinkled Arctic over which our plastic army men could roam. Under his imaginative eye, a couch became an island, a pillow a pirate ship, the floor a storm-tossed ocean, a table a fort, an Oriental rug a jungle for plastic lions to prowl. (Ned could make the pinkie-size figures in the crèche Mum put out at Christmas come alive for games of cops and robbers: “Cheese it, Mary, it’s the fuzz!”) Occasionally, when Ned wasn’t around, I’d try it myself, but under my gaze, the fluffed-up bedsheets just looked messy; the rug remained a two-dimensional swatch of wool. Ned was the Frank Lloyd Wright of block castles, Lincoln Log cabins, Erector-set towers, and playing-card houses. In winter, Harry’s snow forts—thick, icy walls terraced with shelves for spare snowballs—were designed for battle. Form followed function. Ned’s creations—elaborate architectural structures with distinct rooms and seating areas—were designed with aesthetics in mind. When a snowball fight broke out, he got creamed.
To Harry, the outdoors was raw material for makeshift baseball diamonds and impromptu football fields; to Ned it was an alluring wilderness filled with extraordinary creatures: lightning bugs he studied in his cupped hands; ladybugs he helped fly away home from his fingertips; fat gray squirrels he tiptoed toward in hopes of taming; miniature toads he scooped up in the backyard, and, unlike me, didn’t drop in disgust when they peed. He wasn’t afraid to touch the swollen, pink, ribbony worms that surfaced on the lawn after a rain. At the beach, he was less interested in going fishing than in roaming the tide pools, tracking down the crabs and clams we used for bait. I associated Harry with the jailfield, Ned with the swamp. Ducking under vines, stepping over rotting logs, I’d follow along, pretending I was just as interested as he was in finding turtles and polliwogs. One Easter, our mother bought us an incubator, a plastic, domed receptacle that resembled the spaceship in which the infant Superman had flown from Krypton to Kansas. Mr. Romaine, our roly-poly, porkpiehatted milkman, supplied us with three fertilized eggs, which we nestled carefully in the incubator’s bowl. After a few days, Harry and I were satisfied with brief daily checks on our way through the living room; Ned sat there, hour after hour, his face illuminated by the unearthly fluorescent glow of the heat lamp, waiting for the eggs to hatch. They never did. Eventually, we gave up and cracked one open to find a glutinous, feathery soup surrounding an embryonic claw. Ned was crushed.
In some ways I had the best of both worlds: an older brother to look up to, a younger brother to boss around. (I was like the common denominator I learned about when we studied fractions.) There was only one problem—Ned showed no desire to be bossed. When I tried to make him play the bad guy in games of war, when I tried to talk him into trading a Hershey Bar for a Tootsie Pop at Halloween, when I tried to dragoon him into making the Kool-Aid for “our” stand out front, he invariably balked. Although the thought of contradicting my older brother never crossed my mind, my younger brother had no problem contradicting me. Or anyone else, for that matter. The boy who showed infinite patience when building a castle of blocks or stalking a gray squirrel could be remarkably stubborn, and was often sent to his room, where he’d slam the door behind him. When our mother gave guitar lessons on Sunday afternoon, Ned would hear the sound of strumming, rush into the living room, pull on her arm, and plead—“Mummeee, Mummeee”—for her to stop. He rarely took no for an answer. When he was five, he happened to throw a tantrum within range of our grandfather, whose parenting technique, based on the belief that children should be seen and not heard, had been honed in the pre-Spock 1920s. He suggested that Mum put Ned into a cold shower, clothes and all. “That will cool him off,” he observed. Indeed, Ned was shocked into momentary silence. But he never forgot the humiliation, and it would be many years before he forgave our mother.
* * *
In the early sixties, the world sorted cleanly into good and evil: Americans and Russians, Americans and Germans, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers. In the books I read and the TV shows I watched, there were heroes and villains and nothing in between: Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Alfalfa and Spike, Rocky and Boris, Bullwinkle and Natasha, Popeye and Bluto, Kennedy and Khrushchev, Superman and Lex Luthor, Fenton Hardy and the swarthy crooks of Bayport, Zorro and an endless supply of chubby, mustachioed Mexicans. On Saturday mornings, after gorging on cartoons, Harry, Ned, and I watched professional wrestling and reveled in its comforting moral divide: Killer Kowalski, the crew-cut villain rumored to have ripped off an opponent’s ear with his famous claw hold, versus Bruno Sammartino, the courtly gentleman who, turning away from his opponent to listen politely to the referee, inevitably got a folding chair to the back of the head—no matter how loudly we yelled at him to turn around; Gorilla Monsoon, the pointy-bearded “Manchurian giant” who looked a lot like Fidel Castro, the Cuban dictator we saw on the news, versus Haystack Calhoun, the gentle “man-mountain” who wore overalls, a T-shirt as big as a sheet, and a lucky horseshoe necklace. The sole exception to this black-white dichotomy seemed to be Sacco and Vanzetti, whose names made them sound like tag-team wrestlers and not the Italian anarchists who had languished in the Norfolk County Jail. It was never entirely clear to me whether they were good guys or bad guys.
I had no doubt which kind of guy I wanted to be. Harry was good, and I wanted to be good, too. On TV, when Miss Jean, the disconcertingly pert hostess of Romper Room, urged us to be a Do-Bee and not a Don’t-Bee (Do Bee a milk drinker, Don’t Bee a milk waster), I pledged myself to Do-Bee-ism, thinking that if I were good enough, when Miss Jean peered into her Magic Mirror at the end of the show and “saw” some of the children watching at home (I see Denise . . . I see Jimmy . . .), she might someday see me. Each month, as I read the latest issue of Highlights, I turned first to “Goofus and Gallant,” a cartoon in which two curiously named boys reacted differently to the same situation (Goofus takes the last apple; Gallant shares his orange). I wanted to be Gallant, the straight-A student who did the dishes without being asked, picked up litter from the sidewalk, and went through life leaving a trail of little old ladies beaming in his wake. I certainly didn’t want to be Goofus, the sullen ne’er-do-well who refused to take out the trash, played with matches, and seemed destined to end up, like those Italian anarchists, in the Norfolk County Jail. Although the evidence suggested otherwise—indeed, Gallant’s mother and father could often be seen smiling proudly in the background, while Goofus’s parents frowned anxiously—I assumed that Goofus and Gallant were brothers. (If so, they would have made ideal subjects for a nature-versus-nurture study.) It was clear that in life, brothers divided into Goofuses and Gallants. Harry, of course, was Gallant. I worried that left me to be Goofus.
And so I tried even harder to be Gallant. In games, I always wanted to be the cowboy, not the Indian; the American, not the German; Robin Hood, not the Sheriff of Nottingham. My children make gagging sounds when I tell them the story of how one day in kindergarten, after the teacher stepped out of the classroom for a moment, admonishing us to “be good,” I whispered to the other children, without a scintilla of irony, “Let’s be good as gold.” (It is a testament to 1950s conformity that my classmates didn’t immediately stab me to death with their freshly sharpened Eberhard Faber #2 pencils.) I knew that things would go more smoothly if we behaved, and it was important to me that things go smoothly. I disliked confrontation. I learned that if you were polite to grown-ups, they liked you. And I desperately wanted people to like me. No matter how many times I heard my father say “You can’t please all the people all the time,” I secretly believed I’d be the exception.
In elementary school I became an even more shameless teacher’s pet. It wasn’t enough that I knew the answer; I had to be the one to give it, and I had to be first to raise my hand. Before the teacher was halfway through the question, I’d shoot my arm into the air, staking my claim as forcefully as a marine planting the flag at Iwo Jima, waving my hand with a frantic scrubbing motion, fingers splayed to provide an even more visible target, leaning forward so I was as close to the teacher as possible, fanny lifting off my seat, my body on the diagonal, my mouth, fixed in a rictus of need, emitting an occasional sympathy-seeking whimper. I made a point of finishing quizzes and tests first, placing my pencil in its narrow wooden trough and folding my hands on my desk. I lived for spelling bees, when the class lined up in front of the blackboard and one by one, with each mistake, sat back down, until I alone was left standing; for PTA nights, when my parents, after hearing from my teacher how smart I was, would leave a dime in my desk; and for report cards, when with ostentatious humility I’d unfold the mustard-colored paper to find row upon row of carefully inked As like a fleet of sailboats, broken only by a lone C for penmanship. (In my haste to be first, I tended to scribble.) I must have been insufferable.
My brown-nosing wasn’t entirely an act. Like Harry, I loved school. Like Harry, I loved reading. Almost every afternoon, I rode my bike down Village Avenue, between the Scylla and Charybdis of the jail and the graveyard, to the library, where I’d borrow seven books, the maximum allowed and the most I could pile in my bike basket without spilling. At home, I’d ferry a glass of Nestlé chocolate milk and a stack of Oreos out to the wooden picnic table in the backyard, and work my way through the cookies, the milk, and the books. Next day, I’d ride down to the library and borrow seven more. I loved books, but I also loved the librarian’s nod of approval as she stamped the due dates, the impressed looks I got from grown-ups when I told them what I was reading, the pride on my mother’s face when the teacher told her that I was so much further along than the other first-graders that I would skip directly to second grade. I remember the self-satisfaction I felt when I overheard the word precocious applied to my name. (And the mortification I felt when, one afternoon in the car with my brothers, I mispronounced the word Brazil, rhyming it with hazel, and our babysitter, whom I adored, couldn’t stop giggling.) When I was eight, our mother gave us elaborate Christmas presents that she had spent much of the fall making. Ned’s was a vast wooden layout for his treasured Matchbox cars, with handpainted streets, scale-model railroad tracks, and mirror lakes. Mine was a massive plywood desk, painted gray. As we entered the living room on Christmas morning and saw the gifts, we immediately knew whose was whose. Ned and I loved our presents; we each got what we wanted. But I also recall the pride I took in knowing our mother had recognized that I was the good student, the worker, the bookish one, and that—however delightful my brother’s present might be—Ned was the one who played.
Excelling in school, of course, was one way to get attention. Talking was another. If Harry got attention by virtue of his quiet excellence and Ned by his obstreperousness, I got it by gabbing. My tendency to loquaciousness was reinforced by my size. From kindergarten on, I was the smallest kid in my class, the one school photographers invariably placed in the front row center, fanning my classmates out around me as if I were the hub in a Busby Berkeley extravaganza. After skipping first grade I was, relatively speaking, even smaller, which forced me to depend even more on my mouth. When, in the sixth grade, I finally encountered a classmate shorter than I, a sweet round Argentinian boy we called Pygmy, I was both pleased and dismayed. If I couldn’t be big enough to pose a serious threat on the football field, I wanted to be the smallest. It was another way of being noticed.
I also talked a lot because I loved words. Almost as much as I liked playing sports, I liked the vocabulary that came with them. Even before the actual game took place, there were the rhymes we used to choose up sides: the traditional eeny meeny miny moe; the slightly more comprehensible Engine engine number nine, going down Chicago line. If the train goes off the track, do you want your money back? (I always said yes; I couldn’t imagine turning down money, however hypothetical it might be); and the transgressively violent My mother and your mother were hanging out clothes. My mother socked your mother right in the nose. What color blood came out? (I always chose an obscure hue—scarlet, maroon, burgundy—to prolong the rhyme and to show off my vocabulary). Then there was the comforting, ambient chatter of the game itself. The way you called Swing batter swing at the right moment, with the right inflection, at a volume that didn’t call attention to yourself but was nevertheless audible, could almost compensate for lack of actual skill. And if you passed muster on the more elementary exhortations—dropping the r with just the right nonchalance on old chestnuts like Hey battah battah or Little peppah, little peppah—you might graduate to something more provocative, like We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher, or the koanlike We want a pitcher, not a glass of water. On summer nights, when we played hide-and-seek or kick the can, I thrilled to the polysyllabic wonder of what was surely the most beautiful word in the English language, a word that had the power to summon children from the darkness like bats at dusk: Oleyoleyincomefree.
* * *
Part of the reason I craved attention was that with three young boys in one house, I harbored the suspicion that there might not be enough to go around and I’d better make sure I got my fair share—or, preferably, a little more. Harry, Ned, and I rarely fought physically, but there seemed to be nothing we didn’t contest: who found the most foil-wrapped chocolate eggs in the backyard on Easter; who collected the most Halloween candy; who could make a popsicle last the longest; who got the first look at the Sears Christmas catalogue; who got the Sunday funnies first; who had the best godparents (i.e., whose godparents gave the best presents). Stakes were especially high at the dinner table. Who got the biggest chicken breast? Who got the biggest piece of bacon on his cheese dream? Who got the most cherries in his fruit cocktail? Who got the lamb chop with the marrow—a substance that, according to my mother, would make us as strong as Charles Atlas? Who got the largest slice of pie? (In a vain attempt to forestall quarrels, our mother cut portions so nearly identical it would have taken a micrometer to tell them apart.) Who got praised for turning in a “soldier’s plate”? Who ended up holding the biggest end of the wishbone?
Our Holy Grail was the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. In theory, it went to the brother into whose bowl it was poured during the natural order of things—which meant that each of us usually gulped down two helpings, in hopes of eating our way to the prize. In practice, things were more elemental. Ned soon deduced that he could improve his odds by shaking the cereal box upside down before filling his bowl, so the prize might resettle near the top. Whereupon I took to reaching directly into the box, digging down through the sticky layers of Sugar Smacks or Frosted Flakes till my fingers found the plastic geegaw that rested near the bottom. Eventually Ned and I cut to the chase, sneaking into the kitchen to rip open a new box of cereal before we’d finished the old one and fish out the sought-after treasure, which was abandoned as soon as it had been brandished in the losing brother’s face.
At the time, I didn’t think of our fraternal skirmishing as remarkable. It seemed as inevitable and instinctive as breathing. And if someone had suggested to me that wrestling for the prize at the bottom of the cereal box might have been, as a therapist would suggest to me many years later, a way of vying for the attention of our parents, I would have snorted incredulously. But looking back, I can see that we engaged in a constant jockeying for position in the presence of Mum and Dad. With three of us and two of them, it was like a game of musical chairs in which I worried that I might be the one left standing. If we seemed to vie more openly for the attention of our father—Who got to sit next to him on Saturday morning errands? Who got the longest airplane ride?—it was because Mum, always at home, the constant in our lives, was the less-exotic prize. And yet, deep down, it was Mum’s love we longed for. Our father was the battle; our mother was the war. We’d vie to put a finger on the ribbon when she wrapped a present, to sit next to her as she read to us on the couch before bed. And though, like Dad, Mum never showed favoritism, I was alert to the most infinitesimal slight, real or imagined. She taught us a game in which she’d squeeze our hand in time to the unspoken words “DO-YOU-LOVE-ME?” “YES-I-DO,” we’d silently squeeze back. “HOW MUCH?” she’d squeeze. And we’d squeeze as hard as we could. Then we’d repeat the game with roles reversed. And whenever I squeezed “How much?” I couldn’t help wondering and worrying: Did Mum squeeze Harry’s or Ned’s hand harder than she squeezed mine?
* * *
The notion that my brothers and I were rivals for our parents’ affection was reinforced every Sunday morning. When I was six, I joined the choir at the Episcopal church whose spire rose above the graveyard at the end of our street. Harry had joined a few months earlier, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. At the same time, I took an overweening pride in the fact that I was the youngest boy ever to sing in the St. Paul’s choir, even younger than my brother had been when he joined. I liked the pay—a dollar or two a month, enough to keep me in red licorice. I liked the starchy smell of the freshly laundered white surplice as I pulled it over my head. I liked the hierarchy of the silver crosses we wore around our necks, the color of the ribbon denoting the length of our servitude. I found the service itself stupefying. I spent much of the sermon writing on the sides of my hymnal, then riffling the pages to create a sort of visual Doppler effect in which the words grew simultaneously larger and fainter. (We were nauseatingly proper vandals; rather than write what our mothers referred to as “swear words,” we inscribed the names of the Ivy League schools our fathers had attended.)
The only time I perked up was when the minister talked about brothers. The Bible fairly teemed with brothers (apparently, they had even larger families B.C. than in the baby-booming 1950s) who, from what I gathered, did little else but fight, cheat, and kill each other. I found it shocking that the first fraternal relationship in the Bible—the very first brothers, we were led to believe, from the very first family on earth—ended in murder. From the facts of the case, I couldn’t understand why Cain was the villain. Everything seemed to be going fine in Adam and Eve’s household until Cain made God an offering of his crops. Whereupon Abel, in a brazen act of brotherly one-upmanship, brought the Lord the firstborn of his lambs. Cain was understandably upset when, without explanation, God refused his gift and accepted his brother’s. (Did God, like me, hate vegetables?) Even as a child, I could see that Cain’s anger was misplaced. Cain, however, couldn’t take revenge on God, and so—long before Freud identified the psychological parlor trick he called projection—he took revenge on his brother. Abel’s murder, while not justifiable, was understandable. God acknowledged as much when, in a rare instance of Old Testament temperance, he punished Cain not with death but with banishment.
God seemed even more cavalier in the case of Jacob and Esau. The elder brother by a matter of seconds, Esau was his father’s son, a skillful hunter who trapped game for the family table. Jacob was a mama’s boy, hanging out near the tents with Rebekah and the other women. When Rebekah helped Jacob cheat Esau out of his blind father’s blessing by wrapping him in animal hides and disguising him as his hirsute brother, both his earthly father (Isaac) and his heavenly father (God) let them get away with it. I was secretly pleased that God, once again, had come down on the side of the younger brother (although, as a middle child, I wasn’t sure where this left me), but I couldn’t help concluding that there was something unfair about the episode.
Neither God nor Jacob expressed regret for their duplicity, so it didn’t surprise me that when Jacob became a father he played favorites, too, giving Joseph an ornamental robe of many colors (the famous “technicolor dreamcoat” that Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber would one day immortalize), to the dismay of his eleven other sons. Joseph, more adept at prophecy than diplomacy, insisted on making his jealous siblings listen to his vainglorious dreams, in which, to take one example, his brothers’ sheaves of wheat were forced to bow down to his. The brothers, who constituted a sort of faceless fraternal mob, began to refer to Joseph as their father’s son instead of their brother. Eventually they decided to kill him. At the behest of the eldest brother, however, they contented themselves with tossing him down an empty well, then selling him to passing merchants. Joseph ended up in Egypt, where he made an entire nation jealous by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams.
Listening to these stories, I felt a glimmer of recognition. Rough-and-tumble Esau brought Harry to mind, and I couldn’t help wondering whether I—already learning to use words to wheedle my way out of trouble—had something in common with Jacob. Conversely, as I listened to the story of Joseph, I identified with those jealous older brothers. And though I doubted that Harry harbored any fratricidal thoughts in his heart, he seemed, like Cain, to be the strong, silent type, while I suspected that, like Abel, I myself was not above some mild duplicity if it meant currying favor among grown-ups and other authoritative types. Even channeled through the rheumy baritone of our pink-faced, silver-haired, clammy-handed minister, the Bible’s lessons were unmistakable: brothers compete for the attention of their parents and for the attention of their symbolic parent, God.
* * *
But our sibling rivalry was no real rivalry. How could it be? Harry always won. Indeed, in deference to Harry’s seniority, size, and general superiority, Ned and I often preemptively conceded, according Harry, as eldest, a sort of droit du seigneur. I didn’t resent that he got to take the last bath; that he got to stay up a half-hour later; that he got to sit on Dad’s lap and steer the car down the driveway at our grandparents’ summer home. It seemed only right that the construction-paper angel he’d made in first grade was always the last ornament to be hung on the Christmas tree, Dad lifting Harry up on his shoulders to settle it on the topmost bough, its halo scraping the living room ceiling. In some ways I liked being second. I liked getting Harry’s hand-me-down clothes, his outgrown ice skates, his old bike. They came with his imprimatur. They were pieces of him. I liked that he’d already had my teachers. He could warn me about them, the way a batter coming back to the dugout tells his teammates what the pitcher is throwing. I liked that, having taught Harry, my teachers had high expectations of me. I liked having someone to live up to, and I felt a sense of proprietorship in Harry’s achievements. His flawless report cards and his leads in the class plays elevated me by association. In any case, Harry was so superior to Ned and me that it would never have occurred to us to challenge him. The real battle was between Ned and me for what was left after Harry had taken his share. If I couldn’t beat Harry, I was all the more determined to beat my friends, my classmates, my younger brother.
And yet it must have been more important to compete with Harry than I realized. When Harry began collecting coins, I began collecting them, too. We scrutinized the dates on every penny, nickel, and dime that came into our hands. Anything worth saving we kept in albums, thick blue cardboard triptychs that unfolded to reveal rows of circles into which coins could be inserted over the appropriate date and place of mint. Around the same time, I discovered the delights of Saturday matinees at the Dedham Community Theatre. At twenty-five cents, however, the price of a ticket was five times my weekly allowance, and I was soon forced to finance my excursions by dipping into my coin collection. At some point, my interest in film exceeded my financial and ethical resources, and when I had plucked my last penny from its circular sanctuary, I began—even now I don’t know how I dared—to steal coins from Harry. I started with the newer, less-valuable coins, which let me imagine that my crime was somewhat less reprehensible. When those ran out, I moved back in time, from the 1950s to the 1940s to the 1930s, stealing his collection Mercury dime by Mercury dime, Buffalo nickel by Buffalo nickel, Lincoln penny by Lincoln penny. The further back I went, of course, the more valuable the coins. By the end I was using several dollars’ worth to pay for a twenty-five-cent movie. (I left Harry’s Indian-head pennies untouched, but only because I worried that the woman at the box office might get suspicious.) I tried to cover my tracks by spreading my crime among different albums and by varying my pattern within each album—taking a coin from the upper right, a coin from the lower left, and so on, in a numismatic version of a barber taking a little off the top. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that Harry unwittingly funded not only my budding appreciation for the cinematic arts but my prodigious appetite for Raisinets.)
I justified my crime by telling myself I couldn’t help it, but looking back, I wonder whether it wasn’t, however unconsciously, a way of showing I could beat my older brother at something, of proving he wasn’t as powerful as I thought by besting him in a competition he didn’t know he had entered. Or perhaps it was a way of taking some of his power and adding it to mine, the way certain New Guinea tribesmen ate the flesh of their dead ancestors in order to augment their strength. Eventually, however, there were so few coins left that it was impossible not to notice that the once-heavy albums were now as light as comic books. One day Harry opened them and found more empty circles than coins. I was terrified. I tried to blame my crime on Ned, but Mum’s gentle questioning soon elicited a full confession. What shocked me was that Harry took it so calmly. He didn’t beat me up. He didn’t yell at me. He didn’t remind me of my crime every day for the next ten years. And that, of course, made him seem all the more admirable. Soon afterward, Harry gave up collecting coins and began to collect stamps, which, thank goodness, were not an acceptable form of currency at the Dedham Community Theatre. I began collecting stamps, too.
* * *
Even as I jostled for position with my brothers, I felt an unaccountable surge of pride when the three of us were together in public: getting identical crew cuts every second Saturday at Sergi’s barbershop, where I looked in the wall-length mirror and saw us waiting our turn to climb onto the red leather chair; piling on Dad’s back and seeing how long we could hold on as we sledded down the Community House hill on our Flexible Flyer; lining up with Mum at nursing homes and singing “Rock My Soul” and “Wade in the Water” to roomfuls of frighteningly ancient men and women; stomping down the sidewalk behind Dad as we chanted his old army marching songs (Left . . . left . . . I had a good job but I left. Left my wife with eighteen babies on the point of starvation when there wasn’t any gingerbread left). I remember seeing our family Christmas card on a neighbor’s mantelpiece, a photo of Harry, Ned, and me posed in front of the living room fireplace in matching outfits. This is how the world sees us, I thought. We were a trio, a team. “The Colt boys,” my parents’ friends called us. I liked hearing that; it made us sound like a gang of Wild West desperados. Together, my brothers and I constituted an undiluted fraternal concentration in which the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. I sometimes imagined the three of us as tag-team wrestlers, each with a special talent, each of us doing his best in the ring and then, exhausted, stumbling to the ropes and clapping the hand of the next brother, who would take over. With Harry’s physical strength, Ned’s stubbornness, and my vocabulary, we’d be invincible.
* * *
One day when I was seven, Mum and Dad gathered us in the kitchen and announced that we were going to have a baby brother or sister. (I was less interested in the news itself than in Harry’s insistence that this new sibling would make its appearance from our mother’s belly button.) To make room for the baby, Ned was moved out of the bedroom next to our parents and into the room Harry and I shared; nine-year-old Harry was moved up to the spare room on the third floor. My dismay at losing Harry as a roommate was overshadowed by my awe at his ascension. It seemed an extraordinarily grown-up step to me. He would be alone up there all night. One Saturday, Dad showed Harry how to use the flimsy aluminum fire ladder that lay folded on the floor. Ned and I watched Harry back out the window, his head disappearing as he carefully lowered himself two stories to the ground. We rushed to the window in time to see him looking up from the pachysandra far below.
One winter afternoon, when I returned from school, I was surprised to find Dad at home. He told me to come upstairs. Our mother, looking exhausted, lay in bed; the lump in her arms, she told us, was our baby brother. His name was Mark. “Oh,” I said, pausing barely long enough to notice a scraggle of wispy red hair before I rushed off to ride my bike to the library.
My indifference wouldn’t last. But Mark’s arrival seemed less important than the effect it had on our mother, who no longer had as much time to draw with us or make us jigsaw-puzzle sandwiches. From time to time, she felt so beleaguered that, trying to get what she called “a moment’s peace” with her youngest son, she’d lock herself in the bathroom to nurse him, while Harry, Ned, and I pounded on the door, shouting, “Let us in, Mummy! Let us in!” One evening, in a rare moment of tranquility, while Mark lay sleeping in her arms, Mum took my finger and guided it across the top of Mark’s head to a silver-dollar-size spot that gave a little, like the rubber surface of Ned’s tom-tom. This soft spot, she said, was called a fontanel. I loved the sound of the word. Sometime in the next year, she told me, the bones of Mark’s skull would knit together and the fontanel would disappear. For now, like an unexpected patch of thin ice on a winter pond, it made Mark seem strangely vulnerable.
Our new sleeping arrangements didn’t last. A few months after Mark was born, our father was promoted to company headquarters in New York City. That summer we loaded up our station wagon and drove down Village Avenue, past the jail, past the graveyard, past the Community House, and got on the highway, heading west.
* * *
In the end, Harry and I didn’t really run away from home. We sat in the car in the garage. After about twenty minutes, as we finished the last of the saltines, we heard our father in the kitchen. A short time later, the familiar scent of frying bacon seeped into the garage. Harry silently opened the car door and slid out. I followed him inside.
Harry doesn’t remember running away. He doubts he would have wanted to run away; he remembers those early years in Dedham as the happiest of his childhood. Indeed, over the following decade, Harry never literally ran away from home, but he gradually pulled away from it. In the process, I couldn’t help feeling he was pulling away from me. Perhaps that’s why this scene has stayed with me for nearly half a century—because those twenty minutes I spent next to Harry in the car seemed to be the last time for many years that we were truly brothers.
* * *
Long after we had grown, my brothers, parents, and I undertook a course of family therapy. During one session, to my surprise—I had always been considered the well-adjusted one, the one who never complained—I found myself talking about my closeness with Harry during those prelapsarian years and wondering what had happened. As Harry described some of the forces that had tugged him away from the family, our father reached into his pocket, pulled out his worn leather wallet, and slipped a photograph from its sleeve. Without saying a word, he unfolded it and held it up. It was an old snapshot, soft and powdery with age. In the photo, I am two, Harry is nearly four; sitting in the sandbox, I’m looking up at him in adoration, he’s looking at me with undisguised affection. Dad had kept this photo in his wallet for nearly fifty years. I felt a sort of vindication—here was proof that Harry and I had been close, we had loved each other! As Dad passed it toward us, the photo, like an ancient artifact that has been dug up and exposed to light for the first time in centuries, split down the middle between Harry and me.
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Meet the Author
George Howe Colt is the bestselling author of November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide and The Big House, which was a National Book Award finalist and a New York Times notable book. He lives with his family in Western Massachusetts.
- Whately, Massachusetts
- Place of Birth:
- El Paso, Texas
- B.A., Harvard University, 1976; M.A., Johns Hopkins University, 1978
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