How I Met My Brother, Charlie

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To a youngster, life can be very puzzling. Things happen. Everybody else knows why they happen, but you don't. And the more they tell you, the less you understand.

It was like that with my brother, Charlie.

From as far back as I can remember I knew that I had a brother named Charlie, but I had never seen him. I knew he existed because there was a picture of Mom's four boys hanging on the wall of her bedroom, taken right out in our own back yard. There we sat, on the grass, Billy, 12; Frankie, 8; Charlie, 4; and me, a bit under a year old.

I still have that picture. We all look quite ordinary except for Charlie.

There's a bandage around his head that partly hides a beautiful set of blond curls.

Because of that picture I knew there were four of us even though I'd never seen more than three. And Mom also used to get letters from Charlie, so she said, which sort of clinched it.

For a long time I accepted the fact that I had an absentee sibling without worrying about it, but about the time I entered school I began to think that it was downright mysterious.

Then one day when I was about 6, Mom explained that Charlie lived in upstate New York with some folks named Aunt Letty and Uncle Raub.

That was fine until she added that they weren't really his aunt and uncle, or mine. It didn't help.

A year or so later Mom told me the reason for the bandage on Charlie's head in the picture, something which always puzzled me. When Charlie was 4, she said, he got hit by an armored car.

It made him nervous about cars and he wouldn't play outside anymore. The city being what it was, with cars running up and down our street all the time, a doctor recommended he spend some time in the country, so he got shipped off to upstate New York.

Now, to a 7-year-old who was just finding out that Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and assorted others of the same ilk, were ersatz individuals cooked up to deceive little children, that story had the unmistakable ring of adult bushwah.

An armored car driving down our street? Right in front of our house? On Staten Island? In New York City?

Ho! Ho! Ho!

I had seen an armored car in the weekly newsreels at the Victory Theater -- ungainly things with rotating turrets and machine guns, driven by Italian soldiers chasing Arabs around some desert.

Yeah, sure, Ma. Tell me more about Santa Claus.

And though Mom fed me more interesting tidbits about Charlie over the years, the whole thing remained highly suspect.

I found out that it was actually an Armour Meat Company truck that hit Charlie, but nobody bothered to explain why.

I found out that when Charlie got sent up the river it was only supposed to be for two weeks.

According to Mom, though, that ersatz aunt and uncle of ours fell in love with his blond curls and angel face and asked if they could keep him for another two weeks. One thing led to another and ... goodbye Charlie!

Seven years after Charlie left home, Mom told me that when summer came I was going on a trip. Some outfit called the Fresh Air Fund, which I vaguely remembered in connection with Charlie's odd disappearance, had awarded me two weeks in upstate New York.

Uh-oh!

Summer, 1943. I said goodbye to Mom and got herded onto a New York Central train as one of a ragged pack of kids. Two prison matrons with gray hair and grim faces frowned us into our seats.

The train lurched. Off we went into a dark tunnel.

Goodbye New York!

That first leg of the trip, which took all day and most of the night wasn't too bad. At least I had company.

But during the night we switched to the Rutland Railroad, everybody else left the train, including the two prison matrons, and I was told to stay where I was until someone told me to get off.

I sat staring at the countryside flashing by and thinking it was going to be a long walk home if I ever got out of this mess.

At last we stopped at a dusty little station and a man in a black suit told me to grab my suitcase and take a hike.

I got off. Five or six other people got off. They left. The train pulled out. I was left standing on the platform, all alone.

I knew it!

But then a teenager came running around the station, a tall thin 15-year-old with neatly trimmed blond curls.

"Tommy?"

"Uh-huh."

"C'mon, Aunt Letty is waiting in the car with Lois and Jimmy. We had a flat tire. That's why we're late."

He looked like Charlie's picture. What did I have to lose?

Sitting in back with Charlie -- maybe -- and Jimmy, who turned out to be a 4-year-old pain in the neck who never shut up and kept grabbing anything in sight, I took a better look.

Mom's nose. Mom's mouth. Could maybe be Charlie.

Jimmy kept grabbing the door handle on the right rear door, which, unlike the ones we have these days, opened from the front, so that if you opened it a crack while the car was moving the wind would whip it full open.

Charlie kept telling him to leave it alone, but Jimmy kept whining and grabbing at the door handle.

Lois, obviously the brat's mother, leaned around and yelled at Charlie to quit picking on Jimmy.

"Okay," Charlie said, waving Jimmy toward the handle.

A minute later, while we were doing about 30 on a road with a grassy shoulder, Jimmy turned the handle and flew out.

"Aunt Letty," Charlie said.

"You hush up! And leave poor Jimmy alone!"

"OK," Charlie said, reaching out and slamming the door.

"Why did you open that door?" Aunt Letty demanded.

"I didn't. Jimmy did."

"You leave poor Jimmy alone!"

"OK."

"Are you all right, Jimmy? Is Charlie picking on you?"

"Jimmy flew out the door a quarter mile back."

Brakes screeched.

I grinned. Yeah! That was my brother Charlie, all right!

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