I escaped, or got cheated out of, that nearly universal rite of passage in a boy’s life when he realizes his father is human, vulnerable, capable of being defeated. For a lot of kids, it’s beating their dads at basketball, although sometimes it’s chess. Or poker. Or eating hot dogs.
That moment did come for me, but only as a one-off event. It wasn’t my dad. Dad had died while he was still perfect, when his casts would always lay a fly on the water without a splash, when his shoes always gleamed with a fresh shine, when each steak he slid from grill to plate tasted better than the one before.
Maybe he was lucky. He went away before I saw him stumble, before I saw the burnt edges, before his hangovers registered with me as more than just groggy mornings. Maybe I was lucky — I didn’t get a chance to lose my hero. Except for the part where he died, of course.
The mantle of head of the family (sub-category, Non-Heroic) settled on the shoulders of my brother Rich in 1962. He was eleven. At four years younger, I already knew he wasn’t perfect, having already endured copious amounts of sibling abuse.
Like the time I hid under a blanket to get away from some atrocity or other and he delivered a kick, hard, right in my ass. I howled and hopped around the room holding my wounded backside as Rich, looking nearly contrite, said, “Geez, Bobby, I’m sorry. I thought that was your head.” That was as much of an apology as I ever got from him.
In the central plaza of my young psyche, my brother was more Stalin’s statue in Budapest than George M. Cohan’s in Times Square, a figure to be toppled rather than admired. I learned the patience of the weak and oppressed, waiting for the opportunity to get the upper hand.
I didn’t hate my brother. At first, I didn’t hate him the way you don’t hate a bear or a water moccasin.
Later, I didn’t hate him the way you don’t hate a sprained ankle.
We eventually crafted a semi-truce borne of a sense of responsibility for our mother. But it was a cold and passive truce. When I was around 13, I tripped in the living room, shattering a glass-topped coffee table and cutting my back, arms and thigh. I was struggling to find a way to stand without slicing myself even more when Rich walked in the front door and in a rare display of filial concern, said, “Need any help?”
“No, I’m fine,” I said, and he walked through the living room to the kitchen without another word, stepping over bloodied shards of glass.
One of the few things Rich and I could do together was shooting. Both of us had learned to handle guns early and we were both pretty good shots. You may think mixing firearms and brothers like us can’t end well. But it wasn’t like that at all. One late spring morning when I was just shy of 15, we sat in the kitchen putting the final touches on cleaning our twin Winchester .22 rifles and then headed out to our favorite turkey shoot in western Fairfax County.
We didn’t shoot live turkeys. We shot at targets with a picture of a turkey printed on them. Five shots per target with your score depending on how close to the turkey’s center mass you got. High score gets a cash prize.
I had never gotten the best of Rich on the firing line. His hand was always a bit steadier, his concentration more intense, his grip more relaxed. On his first target, Rich tallied 43 out of a possible 50, respectable enough. At the adjacent firing position I took my first target and was sure I’d put all five rounds somewhere inside the eight ring or better. But when I showed it to the judge, he said, “Not bad, son. 36.”
In an adolescent breach of etiquette, I protested. “No sir, that can’t be right.”
The judge, already red and sweating in the sticky Virginia morning, leveled his gaze at me. “Boy, I been doin’ this a long time. Learned how to count a while before that. Look here — 1 in the 10 circle, 2 in the 9, 1 in the 8. That’s some good shooting, but you got one clean miss.”
“Yessir, but —”
“I say it’s 36, it’s 36. Y’all go on, now.”
I trudged back to where Rich was reloading his magazine. “Well?”
I thrust the target forward. He looked at the “36” at the bottom and scanned the holes in the turkey.
“What?” I said.
“Look here.” And he pointed to the exact center of the target, where the turkey’s little heart would be if it had been a real turkey. At first it looked as if the hole was just a shade bigger than the normal hole left by a .22 slug. And then I saw it. The hole had two overlapping circular gray streaks. A second slug had passed through the hole left by the first.
Still looking at the target, Rich’s voice was soft and a little sad. “46.”
So there it was: my 46 to his 43. The winner of that round scored a 49 and my official score remained 36.
None of that mattered. I had toppled Stalin’s statue, although it was Stalin who had to point it out to me. We didn’t shoot together after that.
Later that summer, Rich got drafted. It was 1970, which pretty much guaranteed he was Vietnam-bound. He headed off to the woods of Missouri for eight weeks of KP and pushups, followed by eight weeks of learning how to build bridges and then how to blow them up.
He got his orders for Vietnam only a few days after completing advanced training and came home for a week’s leave in late November before he shipped out. I fiercely questioned the historical accuracy of spaghetti and meatballs on Thanksgiving, but since it was his last time at home — “just for a while,” my mother insisted on adding — he got to pick what we’d have for dinner.
He sent letters from time to time over the next few months describing his life at Firebase Something-or-other. I read them with mild interest, relieved that he was still alive — and still half a world away.
As it turned out, the Viet Cong took on the blowing-up-bridges part of Rich’s job, detonating a brick of C-4 they’d attached to a float bridge across the Song Be River just as a deuce-and-a-half full of troops started to cross. According to the official report, Rich raced to the half-submerged truck to help the men of Echo Company to safety. On his third trip down the riverbank, he caught a sniper’s bullet in the neck.
His last letter arrived a week after the chaplain and the major came to the door to deliver the news along with his posthumous Bronze Star.
It was an unremarkable piece of mail, except for a photo one of Rich’s platoon mates had taken of him. In it, lip curled into something like a smile, Rich stands by a wall of sandbags holding an M-16 in one hand and the body of a large bird in the other. The caption scrawled on the back reads: “Flushed this turkey out at 200 yards. One shot. Still think you’re better, little brother?”
Fred Wish operates a small human resources consulting business. With his wife, Loretta, he co-moderates the Writers’ Room at the Princeton Public Library, plays guitar and bass, and is a writer and editor of fiction and nonfiction work.