Greg Lippert and Robert Haydon Jones


Greg Lippert
First Drink

Inspiration Piece

The Woodchuck’s Sleep Coming On
By Robert Haydon Jones

Response

You probably know my younger brother. For nearly forty years, he was a famous television newsman. I guess “world famous” would be more accurate. Even though he appeared only on U.S. Networks, whenever I was with him, practically any place in the world, people would come up and start talking to him like they knew him.

Even though he retired about five years back, people still treat him like a celebrity. That’s great for him – and he does revel in it – but some times we family members forget my brother expects Special Handling from us too. After all, he is just our brother — and our numbers include a well-known actress, a five-novel author, and the executive producer of the top rated TV news program in the nation. The rest of us have regular jobs but we all think we are mighty special.

Well, the brother’s milestone birthday was looming just two weeks ahead, when I e-mailed my side of the family to see about giving a party. That very day, Anne, my wife, Louise, a daughter in law who lives nearby, my three sisters and my houseman, Edmund, hammered out the guest list, the flowers motif and the menu.

For the nonce, my role was Designated Importuner.

My brother loathed the approach of this milestone as if it were the Grim Reaper, himself. He had reluctantly agreed to a dinner in the city on his actual birthday with some of his children and a selected few of his Manhattan friends at one of the last of the great High French restaurants in the city. But he had let it be known he didn’t want a party with us out in the country.

Well, I began by importuning the brother’s wife, Helen, and she, in her genteel, southern, way, said she sure appreciated the thought but it was up to himself; and, she added, he was very unhappy about this birthday.

To be honest, I felt some relief at the prospect he would refuse. The brother and Yours Truly are civil but not close. You might say we live under an armed truce ratified decades ago.

What’s more, our family gatherings have unfailingly been wrought with tension, distance, and often, outright shouting conflict, for as long as I can remember. And I am a reliable source for such history. I am the oldest family member still on the planet. My big milestone birthday zipped by three years ago.

Nevertheless, I bore down; I called my brother’s cell and importuned him on tape; then I e-mailed him a plea for the pleasure of his company out here just a few miles from his palatial summer and weekend home. The next day Helen called Anne and said my brother had agreed to come. She said she was happily surprised.

So, suddenly the party was on. I began to think about what to say about my brother at the party and when I should say it. As the ranking Family Old Guy, it was up to me to say the words. I do words for a living but this was a daunting assignment. After six decades of civil distance, I hardly knew him. I didn’t know what to say.

The day before the party, I was still blank. Then Greg Lippert emailed me his inspiration piece for this round of Spark. The moment I saw it, I flashed back to the time– when we were maybe six and four – when my brother and I escaped from a inattentive nanny and helped ourselves to the remnants of the cocktails my Parents and some of their friends had left when they went out to dinner.

We got drunk! (Of course, we didn’t know what it was.) Looking back (for the first time in 65 years) I realize now that it was my first psychedelic experience. We giggled incessantly and then we must have passed out.

The next day, my father hit us once on the bare butt with a hairbrush. It was the first time he had struck us. He was angry. We were crying and frightened before he did it; Afterward, we were shocked he had hurt us. We never saw the nanny again.

Well, that sudden, unexpected, flashback surprised me with its clarity. It was if a door had suddenly opened inside me. I could see and feel so much detail. The harsh burning, taste of the remnant drinks – the sweetness of the cherries and the slices of orange. Then things got blurry and dizzy – we started up giggling and we couldn’t stop.

I also had vivid recall of my brother trembling with fear the next day as my father prepared to punish us. I could see my father’s face contorted with rage. I could see it all – just a few seconds with one photo had brought it all back. Yet, there was something else under the flashback that I couldn’t see – but I could feel it – and it felt mighty powerful.

The feeling of “almost but not quite” stayed with me as the day wore on. At bedtime, I realized my brother’s party was the next day and I still had no words. Just as I was on the verge of drifting off to sleep, I replayed the flashback of my brother and me finishing up my parent’s cocktails.

As I drifted down through the flashback, a mighty feeling surged up through me. Buried deep down in my recall, like a mound over a fallen city on a bare landscape, was a trove of long-forgotten feeling.

As it surged through me, that flash was like a microdot chock full of detail placed innocuously in a random message. It was no wonder I had missed it all these years!

My brother was my first friend. My brother was my first best friend. We had scuttled across many a floor together. We had conspired against nannies and babysitters. We had been a twosome – my brother and me. Until the next brother came, that’s how we were known and that’s how we knew ourselves: as a twosome!

We went shopping with our mother as a twosome. Our outfits matched. We played as a twosome – most often our playground was our apartment or our playpen.

We were left to our own devices and that was just fine. We were rewarded in tandem and punished as a duo. We talked with each other well before both of us could talk.

Some microdot! We were masters of cajoling extra helpings of pie from the Central Casting, kindly old genius pie-maker tasked with watching us many a long day while our Parents traveled.

We suffered horrific abuse together – the nature of which I will keep secret. We did not know it was abuse. It is practically certain our abuser also didn’t know.

We went through repeated sickness together. Bad sickness. We were bed to bed in the hospital wards. (There was a War on.) We had Panda Bears we loved more than our blankies. Once a mean nurse took them from us, declared them filthy and threw them in a trash can. I can still see the face of the young Doctor passing by who heard our frantic pleas and retrieved our Pandas for us. God bless you Sir in Heaven!

Our enemy was William Ferguson, the bullet-headed son of our apartment building’s Superintendent, five years our senior. He threatened to punch us; he threatened to tell his father we had pissed in the hallway.

We made endless plans for the downfall of William Ferguson. At some point, we decided that “Let’s make plans against William Ferguson.” would be the shibboleth we would use to mark a message genuine. My brother was going to use it when terrorists in Argentina abducted him forty years back – but they let him go.

So there it was in a flash – a vast river of feeling – well beyond the range of any words that I can summon.

My old friend. My first best friend. My tandem partner. My me and him.

Buried there on the plain. A mound. Forgotten but not gone! Hibernating!

Why the civil distance? Another feeling was coming up the chute. Why had we lost each other?

I flinched back away in time.

The birthday party was a great success. Even my brother enjoyed it. After the cake and presents, I told everyone that I had recently realized that my brother was my first friend. And that buried in me was a mighty love for him that was good to feel.

My brother did not seem surprised. He thanked me and told everyone about William Ferguson and our shibboleth pact. Then one of my sisters asked him to discuss the most exciting moments of his career – and we were off to the races.

This all happened just three weeks ago. Well, it is as if the power of my memory has been supercharged. You might want to see for yourself — the next time you are drifting down – if there are any mounds – and if they yield rich microdots.

But, honestly, I am proceeding with caution. Now that I know, when I am on the edge of sleep, I let myself drift down and I can see the mounds but I go no further.

9 Comments

  1. Dave Monroe
    Posted November 13, 2010 at 6:37 pm | #

    A very touching story about a long forgotten bond, forgotten, but never lost, just deeply buried. There’s also the mystical aspect of why suddenly would the narrator be open to remembering, be open to the healing energy of the memory. I guess it doesn’t matter why. But by being open to remembering he also is open to healing. Powerful stuff.

  2. Ed Lambertson
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 8:41 pm | #

    A emotionally warming story. It’s nice to be reminded that no matter how stuck we may be in a relationship we can look back to its beginnings and find the basis for “a fresh start”.

  3. Charles L. DeFanti
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 9:25 pm | #

    Wow, Bob. This is sheer lyricism. Every line jolts my own experience with my similarly-aged younger brother. I also met the fictionalized brother several times, as did my mother-in-law, since he covered the U.N. How well you capture him.
    The genius here is that you can transplant your catharsis to your readers. Pitch perfect word choice is the method.

  4. Posted November 16, 2010 at 10:33 pm | #

    I love love stories with a happy ending. Am I my brothers keeper ? Not always but I am sure as prostate cancer thay I am his and my fraternal memory custodian And then we chose to smile if we are mature and frown if we are in the throes of arseholeism. What a great well told story will do to help us love our brothers again as of old. Its a melody we will always hum

  5. sean beaudoin
    Posted November 17, 2010 at 3:21 am | #

    “Designated Importuner” is my new favorite phrase. “Civil but not close” is an interpersonal philosophy I intend to employ. “Almost but not quite” is a mantra that will lull me to sleep. This story has done wonders for me. Thank you, Mr. Jones.

  6. Posted January 14, 2011 at 3:45 am | #

    Jonsey – Brought an inner flame of my love for my brother Skip that truly was my first best friend and the father image I never had! I forgive him and most importantly me for the distance that we have created over the years. Thanks for touching me with your creative and revealing way of story telling.

  7. John H. Tucker
    Posted February 18, 2011 at 8:29 pm | #

    Wonderful storytelling, and an amazing tapestry of the present woven into past, back to the present, with a message for the future. I loved this!

    My favorite line: “My old friend. My first best friend. My tandem partner. My me and him.” Is there anything else to life?

  8. dan shulman
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 5:50 am | #

    True and moving. I can testify from personal experience.

  9. pam jones
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 6:29 am | #

    So wonderfully written and what a perfect!! illustration to accompany it. I had the marvelous privilege of hearing this story read aloud. There’s no comparison. It was a real treat. Any possibility, in this multi-platform age, that you can include an “audio” version with the published written piece?

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