What My Brother Taught Me
When I was a kid, I would never have thought of my brother, Bill, as a teacher. He was not a stellar student and was not particularly fond of school. Okay….the truth is, it was like pulling teeth to get him out the door and on his way before the final bell rang. As a matter of fact, when he graduated from high school, Mom should have been the one congratulated. She had prevailed. Twelve grueling years of pleading, coaxing, wheedling, begging and cajoling to get him to school….then finally, one summer day he donned cap and gown and made her the happiest woman in the world. She only had two more to nudge, prod and persuade through school and I was one of them.
As a kid, I thought my brother Bill was a genius….maybe a diabolical genius, but a genius nonetheless. From time to time, Mom and Dad would leave him in charge of Sheryl and I while they ran to the grocery store. As soon as the door closed behind them, he would rub his palms together and break into a maniacal laugh that would make Vincent Price cringe. It still creeps me out to this day to think of him turning out all the lights in the house and then suddenly shining a flashlight under his chin to make a “floating head” appear and scare the daylights out of us. He never did anything really mean, but the threat was always there in case we got out of hand.
It wasn’t always psychological warfare, though. Sometimes he actually made up silly games to play, like finding the funniest names in the phone book or sometimes he would take a song book out of the piano bench and read song titles back to back to see if some goofy combination would make us giggle…like “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?”….”No, Not One”.
In the summer time, on the rare occasions he could be coaxed outside, he was happy to show us how a magnifying glass positioned “just so” could take advantage of the sun’s rays and set a piece of paper on fire. I seem to recall one time (before I was wise to the trick) that he convinced me to let him demonstrate on my arm. I’m slow, but I do learn.
He knew all kinds of things that fascinated a kid. He showed me how to use waxed paper to polish the sliding board into an ultra fast thrill ride. A drop of six feet is exhilarating when you’re 8. Billie, as we called him, taught me how to make a “whistle” out of a blade of grass between my thumbs and how to “play” the comb and waxed paper.
Mom would often put he and I in charge of washing the dishes. He always got to wash. I always had to dry. It took f-o-r-e-v-e-r, because he couldn’t just wash the dishes. He had to get creative with the suds. He would mound them up and then say, “Empire State Building!” or “Mount Fujiyama!”, or some other landmark, and then make a crash landing with a fork “plane”. He’d make all kinds of creations with the billowy suds and say, “Look, it’s a rhinoceros”, or whatever it looked like to him. I thought I would grow old waiting for him to just get it done.
At Christmas he could take a pair of stretched out hounds tooth stockings, hang them on a cardboard fireplace and fill them with fruit and nuts and arrange them to look just like the feet and legs of a bony, knobby-kneed, bow-legged fellow. He invented and perpetuated the game, “The Annual Christmas Tree Blow”. The object was to see how far you could stand from the Christmas tree, blow with all your might and make the tinsel dance. Of course, he nearly always won, but the laughter was worth the effort.
He would say, “If I had film in this camera, what kind of face would you make?” I would fall for it and he would snap some horrible lizard face I was making and threaten to show it to whatever boy was on my radar at the time.
As a teenager, he could make me laugh hysterically when he would put on an old man hat and kneel on a pair of house shoes, creating the illusion that he was only three feet tall. He made cunning use of the English language at times. I recall once I was in the only bathroom we had, primping as girls do. He kept knocking on the bathroom door, saying “Hurry up, I need in there.” It didn’t sound urgent, so I continued to primp. I’m sure I had somewhere important to be. He kept coming back, again and again, and soon knocking turned to banging. At that point he was just making me mad and I was determined to stay. Finally, I heard, “Hurry up!! I’m about to throw up my socks!” With that, I flung the door open only to see him standing there tossing a pair of argyles into the air. Throw up your socks? Give me a break. But it worked.
Two weeks before he passed away in November, I was visiting him at the rehab facility where he was trying to get stronger. We were in the visitor’s room (he in a wheelchair and me sitting on a couch) when something a resident down the hall said struck us so funny that we both laughed until we cried. We made “sock puppets” and repeated the hilarious phrase over and over like unruly five year olds. He was 71.
Bill was a good-natured, mischievous, fun-loving prankster. Yes, he was all those things…and a whole lot more. He was an evangelist, a writer, an artist, a church and music historian, a dedicated care giver to my aged parents until they passed, ministry supporter, an encourager to everyone, proud and playful uncle to my children, loving and crazy brother, my best buddy and my biggest fan.
He taught me you can walk with Jesus every day and still laugh your sides silly…that you never have to grow up, unless you want to….that music is best when it’s shared….and that you can face the grim reaper with an IV in one hand and a Bible in the other.
No one will miss him and his “Red Back Hymnal’’ column more than I, but I love to think of him in the front row of the great Red Back Hymnal concerts in Heaven….singing the bass line like it was written for him.
Love and miss you, buddy.