Sunday, July 29, 2012

Brother Steals Mom's Car

My Brother thought it would be a good idea to "borrow" Mother's 1973 Vega, for a few weeks...

One of the bizarre stories in my family (and there are many, it gets worse) was the time my Brother decided he had to steal Mom's car.

He had recently flunked out of the Northfield-Mt. Herman school, at age 17, as a Junior, and was smoking pot big time.   He was starting to lose his mind at this point, but of course, no one explained that to me at the time - if indeed anyone knew what was going on.

You always look up to a big brother when you are a kid, and when we were younger, it seemed like he was the smarter of the two of us.  He was always studying science and math, and had a huge collection of model airplanes that he built from Revelle kits that my parents bought him, hoping he would be an Engineer or Scientist.  I remember him and some of the other kids, bringing home slide-rules and building model rockets.  He even formed a model-rocket club, and every year, we would shoot off a few dozen of them.

But at the beginning of high school, the trouble started.  And the trouble started when my older sister,  home from college, thought it would be a cool idea to "mellow out" her younger brothers by introducing them to pot.  Overnight, my brother's grades (and mine) went into the toilet.   Model airplanes and rockets were out, bongs were in.  And my brother found a group of new friends, who didn't hang around with their slide rules.

My parents didn't know what to do.  After a couple of brushes with the law, they decided to send him away to a private school.  That didn't last a year (nor did it for me) and smoking pot was part of the problem (and the official reason for both of us leaving our respective schools).

Returning to our home town, he was restless.  And he decided he wanted to go visit some friends of his from Maine, who he met at the Northfield school.  One of them was a "close friend" and he had promised to visit him, and it was, he said, very important to him.

He asked my Mom if he could borrow her yellow 1973 Vega, and at first she seemed receptive.   But upon reflection, they decided that maybe letting a 17-year-old, with a spotty track-record of responsibility, go off on a booze and beer-filled jaunt across New England, was a bad idea - at least with her car.   Why not take the bus?

By my brother would have none of that.  Bus, schmuss, he was taking the car.  So, early one morning, as I was getting ready for my paper route, he swiped the car keys, some money, and our can of lawnmower gas, and took Mom's car after I had left for the route.

I had a hard time on the route that day, as I was exhausted.  We had been up all night.  I had argued with him not to do it.  He had told me of the plan, and I told him it was idiotic.  What was the point of getting into more trouble now?   It would not end well, of course.  But for some odd reason, I could see that at age 14, and he could not, at age 17.   And many 17-year-olds think along these lines - they don't think about outcomes at all, but rather instant gratification.

Actually, that describes our whole population, doesn't it?

I was, at this point, starting to think that perhaps I was a little smarter than my older brother.  And I was thinking that perhaps, he was starting to get a little unhinged.  Schizophrenia sets in about this age, and there is some evidence to suggest that marijuana may help the process along.  More research may be necessary, but it seems to me there is a causal connection.

So, off he went, and for the next week, I bore the brunt of my parents' fury.  Why hadn't I warned them?   Where was he going?  They wanted a punching bag, and the primary target wasn't around.

He stole gas by going to gas stations and then driving off without paying.  My Dad hired a private detective to try to find him.  I am not sure that they did.  I didn't know where the guy in Maine lived, so I couldn't tell them.

He returned a week or so later, and of course, my parents were furious.  But since they had a week to take it out on me, their reaction was a bit subdued.   My brother brought back a couple of grainy Polaroids of his trip and his friends in Maine and told me what a great time they had, drinking beer and smoking pot.

But a funny thing happened after that - and even today.  My brother never mentioned his "close friend in Maine" ever again.  By the next year, he had moved on to even more odious friends locally (including one dishonorably discharged drug-addled 25-year old, who liked hanging around with high school kids to act the big man).   But I never heard about his friend.  They never called, as far as I know, or wrote or anything.   Two years later, it is like it never happened.

It was so important at the time to see this "close friend" - but like most drug friends, once they stopped hanging out together, they pretty much drifted apart.   And maybe the trip was not about the friend, but just some form of idiotic teenage rebellion.

What made him do that?  I did not understand it at the time and still do not, today.  It is just one of a number of really idiotic blunders with predictable outcomes that my brother stumbled into - throughout his life.  These were not matters of simple bad luck or a bad break, but things he did intentionally than ended up going very wrong - that even a 14-year-old could see would go very wrong.

And trying to find an explanation for them is futile.   It made no more sense than Mother's periodic fugue states or alcoholic binges.  It was, just, the onset of adolescent Schizophrenia, a mental condition he would struggle with for the rest of his life.  And perhaps one that was hereditary.

I don't know what made me think of this story.  At the time, I felt solidarity with him, as he was my brother, and we felt a need to "stick together" against the parental authority.   But in retrospect, it was yet another act of selfishness on his part (such as when he would steal my paper route money to buy pot) that ended up leaving me with the short end of the stick.

It has taken 50 years or so, but I have come to realize that mental illness is the ultimate form of selfishness, if you think about it.  The mentally ill person is so self-centered and thinks only of his own needs - and views the world only from his point of view.   Other people are just wallpaper to them - whether it is my Mother screaming at me in one of her alcoholic rages, or a rampage shooter gunning down people in a movie theater.  Others just don't register, with them.

And what I have learned, over the years, is to just walk away from Crazy - as you can't fix it.  You have to look after yourself - which is, ironically not being selfish, but an obligation to society.  It is a kindness to the world to be a functioning citizen and not impose on others.  And it is funny, but many people get this the other way around - falling down when it comes to taking care of their own needs, but running to "rescue" others at every available turn.

I wish my brother had learned to take better care of himself - to be kind to himself - instead of doing one foolish thing after another which would end up causing him - and others - no end of grief.

Maybe there is a lesson there.  Maybe it is just a bunch of bad shit that happened.  You pick.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Math Jocks

For a brief period of time, I was a math jock.

It never pays to be smart in school.   You will never be popular for getting good grades, and in fact, it is one sure way to be marked as an outcast.   This is a shame, as many a bright young lad gives up on his education in the 9th grade when he realizes he will be more "popular" if he plays dumb and gets bad grades.

But while you may not be king of the hallways, there are some places were nerds rule.  And math class was one of them.  I remember a 9th - or was it 10th - grade algebra class, I guess it was, where we were solving equations and such.   It was hardly calculus, but a lot of kids struggled with it.

Well, not the math jocks.   There were about five of us, and we all sat in the back corner, swapping stories about where we were planning on going to college - or what programs we were working on, on the school's time-shared PDP-8.   Or maybe someone had a new slide-rule - or one of those fancy new electronic calculators, like the 8-pound Sanyo that my Dad brought back from Japan.

One of the boys, who was particularly sharp at math, was very silent as we talked about our future plans.  He was a thin lad, bony in fact, and I remember he had very blond, almost white hair, and a very pale complexion.  As we talked about our future plans, he looked pained.  And one of the boys asked him if he thought about college.

"I'll probably be dead by then," he replied, and we were deathly silent.  I could tell he was almost crying.  He explained that he had muscular dystrophy (I believe it was) which explained his very thin and bony appearance.

What do you say to that?  We didn't have time to say much, as our Math teacher wandered in.  She was a fireplug of a woman, short and stout and muscular and athletic.  She was the coach of the girl's field hockey team as well.   And years later, I discovered that (duh!) she was a Lesbian.   But at that age, teachers were all cut from the same anonymous cloth of "adult" and we didn't presume they had private lives at all.   In fact, it was sort of awkward and odd when you saw hints of their private lives - seeing them in a non-school context, for example.

But she was a great Math teacher, and we loved her.  I was already skipping school a lot by then, and at one point, when I returned after several days' absence, she announced a major test for the next day.  I approached he after class and asked for extra time, as I had missed the entire chapter.   But she was not impressed.  My unexcused absences were no reason to get a make-up test.  I would have to take the test tomorrow, and it was too bad if I failed it.

So that night I cracked the book big time.   And yes, she was more than a little pissed-off when I got an A- on the test the next day.    I guess I could apply myself when I felt the need.   But I rarely did.

But getting back to my skinny friend.   We started chatting more and more and he was a nice guy.   He kind of kept to himself most of the time, as he didn't fit in with a lot of what goes on in high school.  And he was not part of the townies or the rednecks, and that was pretty much the two groups we had in our school.

He lived with his parents in a craftsman-style cottage not far from school.   It was sided with split cedar shakes, painted brown many years ago, with the trim done in a light aqua color, if I recall right.   His Dad had some sort of professional job that paid all right, but obviously not that well.   He was the sort of guy who smoked a pipe, listened to jazz records, and drive a SAAB.  That was pretty "out there" for 1974.

His parents were pretty progressive and hip, I guess, for the era.   But I guess having a son with a serious illness was probably taking a toll on them.   The fact that he was a solitary boy (whether the illness caused this or not, I do not know) made things harder.

One day at school, he asked me if I would like to come over to his house.   And I said yes, because, frankly, I liked him.   I didn't feel sorry for him, but of course, it was hard not to realize what a crappy hand God had dealt him in life.

We went to his house, and up to his room, which was in the garret of the bungalow.  The walls were inclined with the roof and there were a couple of dormers.   One would find it charming today.   I don't remember what we did - listen to records or shoot the crap or what.   I was pretty naive back then.  Still am, I guess.

We were sitting on his bed, when he put his arms around me and started sobbing.   I was a little taken aback.   What was he crying about?  I patted him on the back, feeling a little awkward.   It was not that I didn't want to hug him back, but that, well, back then, such things just weren't done.  Never.  Ever ever.

Hell, today, you can go on YouTube and see videos (PG rated, I guess) that teenage "emo" boys make of themselves, making out with each other after school.   It is pretty bizarre how our world has changed.  When I was that age, if that sort of thing was done, you parents would have to sell their house and you would have to move out of town.   And I know this because it happened to a friend of my brothers.   And when they found out my brother's friend was "that way", well, his Dad had to change jobs and they sold their house and left.  And my brother joined in the chorus of voices condemning the boy who was once his friend.   That's how it worked back then.   It was not that long ago.

Back then, mMen were men, and well, about the worst thing you could be, other than Communist, was Gay.   And well, they'd give you a pass on being Communist.   Being Gay in 1974 was akin to announcing you've decided to join Al Qaeda today.  I am not exaggerating.   You would be instantly hated.   And it is possible you might even be killed.  It happened.   And when it did, the Police didn't bother investigating much.   Hey, its just a few boys getting rowdy, and what's another dead fag, anyway?

So, I was a little uncomfortable, and in retrospect, cowardly.   As here was this young man who didn't have long to live in the world, and the one thing he wanted was someone to love, and I could not provide that for him.   Or I was too scared to.  Or too stupid.

He sensed that, I think, and he pulled away after a moment.   He apologized quickly and was clearly embarrassed.  He said he would have to get some rest, and he made it clear he wanted me to go.   I was confused, and not sure what to do.

"You won't tell anyone about this, will you?"

I said yes.  And I never have, until now.

The next day at School, it was everything back to normal.  He avoided my gaze when I sat down in math class.  It was near the end of the school year, and I did not see him again, as I recall.   Why, I cannot remember.  We did not dislike each other.   But by then, I was starting to hang out with the stoners, and perhaps we went our separate ways.   The next year, I transferred to prep school, and I lost track of him.  I have no idea what happened to him after that.

The memory came back to me the other day - hazy and unclear.   Did it happen the way I remember it did?  Or not?  The mind is a tricky thing.   And maybe we try to forget things that are embarrassing or shameful.

Shameful in the sense that someone wanted to be my friend, and needed a friend, and I was not there for him.  And it hurts today to think about that, and to think about the casual way I walked away from that, without really trying.

Sometimes it is best to leave the past alone, and move on.