Crime and Punishment Part Two

(Click here to read Crime and Punishment Part One)

Lois and Jerry were big on church. Not just the attending services on Sunday morning part, but other parts too. They served as deacons, Lois was church treasurer for years, Jerry was chairman of the church board a few times and chairman of the building committee. And there were Wednesday evening prayer meetings, Sunday evening services, the men’s and women’s prayer groups, Sunday School meetings, covered dish suppers, yearly regional meetings for our denomination, and serving as delegates for our denomination’s national Annual Conference. I’m sure you get my drift. The short version is they spent more mental and actual time with church than they did with my brother Rick and me.

I started babysitting Rick when I was in fifth grade so Lois and Jerry could attend meetings multiple evenings a week (I share this with the hope that the statute of limitations on child neglect has passed — just kidding — in Pennsylvania, the parent gets to decide at what age a child can be at home without an adult). Rick first appeared in 1952, sweet but squally and frail, with little advanced notice or explanation, and my first reaction was that I obviously had not been doing a good job, which was why Lois and Jerry brought a new one home.

And as that settled into my brain, a resentment was born that did not diminish until I began to grow up, which occurred sometime in my mid-forties. Neither of my parents were skilled in parenting and lacked empathy in general. Lois had been an occasional port of refuge for me in a storm named Jerry, which periodically raged behind our closed door at 43 Argyle Street in Harrisburg, but that once safe haven figuratively silted in with the arrival of the miniature interloper. I found myself unable to navigate my way to what had been Lois’ sometimes comforting presence, and for four seriously unenlightened decades, I’m fairly certain I blamed Rick for what felt like my mother’s abandonment.

My parents did not understand how to encourage fraternity — Jerry was an only child, and Lois was nine years older than her only sibling — which may be why Rick and I never fully appreciated one another; plus, the power differential of babysitter to kid brother did not help. The following image says it all regarding the relationship between my only sibling (on the left) and me.

Richard Bruce Byrem was named after the two obstetricians who delivered him because my parents were so certain he was going to be a girl that they had not given a thought to selecting a boy’s name, which tells you a lot about our parents.

Compounding the odds against my exhibiting brotherly love was a decision that Lois had made unilaterally during her pregnancy, a decision with which Jerry had finally agreed to support: Rick would be raised differently from me. While I lived the implications of that decision, the intentionality of it was not confirmed until I was in high school. It had been during my sophomore year that Lois had weirdly begun to treat me as an adult confidant instead of the immature, clinically-depressed, and rebel without a clue that even I knew I was.

Over cups of tea in 1963, a day after Jerry had wreaked particular havoc on one of our home’s occasional periods of calm seas by roughing me up, Lois had explained that she had come to believe Jerry’s approach to raising me — beatings and being held, literally, at an arm’s length when I was an infant — had been wrong. Because she believed on the eve of her marriage that her own upbringing had been seriously deficient, she had decided she would follow Jerry’s lead in raising me because his mother and father had been highly respected Christians.

Given the questionable political and social views of many contemporary Evangelical Christians, “highly respected Christians” might be thought of today as an oxymoron, but in the post-war years, it was not. So, when Jerry informed Lois that he didn’t want his infant son to “grow up a goddamned pansy,” she did not think to question the setup my student-engineer-father came up with so that I could take my bottles without having to be held because, after all, that must have been how highly respected Christians went about ensuring that no son of theirs would ever be seen sashaying down the center isle at church.

By the time she had observed enough young mothers — some of whom were considered highly respected Christians — in our State College trailer park holding their sons while nursing them, I was well into Gerbers, which made the bottle arrangement moot. Rick, on the other hand, was the beneficiary of being cuddled while receiving sustenance both from a bottle and from our mother’s breasts.

During the fourteen years that Rick and I cohabitated, years during which I was frequently physically and verbally abused by Jerry, not once did my parents single out my brother for the same treatment. In one of our rare adult conversations, Rick and I discussed the disparity in how we had been treated as kids. It was then that I learned Rick had not escaped emotional harm during those years.

First, I should acknowledge that I was clearly a noodge during the years when Rick and I lived under the same roof: the image above is prima fascia evidence of that assertion. Second, a phrase that was often applied to me — “you never learn” — was absolutely accurate. As a result, in the backseat of our family sedan, I would, time and time again, annoy Rick to the point of distraction, and his subsequent outbursts would infuriate Jerry who would declare at the top of his lungs: “I’ve had it! Just wait until we get home. You’re going to get it!”

Unfortunately for Rick, I was the only one who ever got “it,” which dug the trench between brothers ever deeper and wider. Years later, Rick and I discussed this recurring matter of Jerry delivering on his threat, and my brother shared how tortured he was every time, sweating and worrying on the other side of the wall that separated our tiny bedrooms, waiting for whatever was causing my screams to happen to him, but it never did.

While I outwardly exhibited the behaviors of a typically active, boisterous boy, from the time he was a sickly infant, Rick’s soul was and probably remains a gentle one. Introverted and shy, he spent much of his childhood in reading and playing by himself. He told me that when I went away to college, he could not bear the stress of not having me being the foil between him and Jerry, and within a year, he had done the research necessary to identify how to get himself into a 4-year boarding school in Massachusetts.

It was and is still a powerful insight that my parents were so glad to get us out of the house that they were willing to go to extreme measures to pay for their sons to live away from home. Attending boarding schools and even private day schools was a rarity for Boomers, but Rick graduated from Tabor Academy and tried mood altering substances, college, and marriage to a young woman who proved unfaithful before deciding to move to Colorado as an avid skier, a licensed surveyor, and ultimately a practicing Mormon. Over the next three decades he only came back east a few times, one of which is documented in the photo that follows. It was taken around 1977 on Jerry’s sailboat (Rick on the left; me on the right) as we daysailed on the North East River at the head of the Chesapeake. Lois would show acquaintances the photo and declare, “This is my western son and my eastern son.”

It is a lasting regret, but I recall that I teased and tormented Rick perhaps a bit more than what was usual between brothers, and worse, I know I did not offer him the attention that a loving brother would normally provide to a little brother. And being the prodigal son who remained near home and had the sole responsibility for tying up the loose ends of our parents’ lives when they passed, the resentments that had been simmering in me for over sixty years were exacerbated by misunderstandings related to my responsibilities as executor. Today, Rick and I have absolutely no contact with one another. My cavalier behavior as a big brother when we were younger is something about which I expressed regret to him two decades ago, but apologies cannot erase the hurt and pain I know my neglect caused him when he was a boy.

My regret may be the reason I have felt compelled to share what follows; the punishment Jerry meted out may have been for the crime I committed at a particular moment in time, but perhaps the punishment was ultimately for the crime of failing to do my duty as a big brother to guide and protect the sweet boy Rick had been.

The Crime: One Sunday evening during the winter of 1959-60, we attended evening church services as a family, and as was not unusual, my parents were the last to leave: Jerry had the keys to the church. We exited out of the basement assembly room through swinging doors into a foyer. I’m not sure these heavy wood doors are too common nowadays; they had heavy-duty hinges that lifted the doors a bit as they were opened, regardless of whether they opened in or out, and when released, gravity caused the doors to return to their closed positions. I was the first to go through the swinging doors. I knew Rick was behind me, assumed he was being characteristically clueless and would not anticipate my giving one of the doors an extra pull to accelerate the door to its closed position. I was right. I heard the door make contact with nine-year-old Rick, which was followed by his crying out in pain.

The Punishment: Rick’s cry was answered immediately by a loud curse from Jerry, and a spit-second later, I was lifted off the floor by Jerry’s left hand around my neck while his right fist drove into my belly with a man’s force.

Jerry dropped me to the floor and attended to Rick along with Lois. I was desperately trying to catch my breath, but Rick’s situation was worse: thanks to me, the door had driven Rick’s upper teeth through his lip and there was blood everywhere. There had been a crime, I had been the perpetrator, and I had been immediately punished.

I still felt awful about what I had done when I left for school the next morning on my two-mile walk to West Shore Junior High School, where I was enrolled in the eighth grade. I did not have much to say to Joel, the backdoor neighbor who always walked with me to school, or to anyone in school that morning. I hope my reticence was due to my being ashamed at what I had done to Rick, but perhaps my silence had something to do with what Jerry had done to me in consequence. When it was lunchtime, I sat unusually quiet at the usual cafeteria table with the usual friends.

After it was our turn to get our lunches — we were sent to the cafeteria line based upon how quietly the cafeteria monitors judged us to be as we waited at our tables — we returned to our table with our trays of food. The details of what transpired next are fuzzy. I’m not sure who was at the table or what was specifically said, but I do remember the gist of what happened. One of my tablemates declared something like, “You’ll never guess what my father did yesterday. He almost knocked me out.” The boy claimed there had been some boyish crime so egregious that his father had decided what his son had done warranted a punch in the jaw. Back then, what my friend had done might have been a simple act of open defiance, probably against his mother and not his father. I assume this because the fact that my tablemate had survived to tell the tale is evidence affirming this assumption. Perhaps I exaggerate.

Or perhaps my tablemate had exaggerated. I do not remember whether there were visible marks on the boy’s face, but the truth of the matter was not what struck me then or what strikes me now (no pun intended). What has stayed with me is the act of describing the punches, slaps, and slams that other boys at the table readily volunteered they had received from their fathers, admissions not expressed with any apparent shame but with something akin to pride. And there I was, presented with the opportunity to open our family door and share what had happened to me, which I did, with the probable ancillary result that my openness may have diminished somewhat the trauma I had experienced.

My father’s slug to my gut was my own “Red Badge of Courage,” which allowed me to be one of the boys, although like Henry, my badge was not earned because of courage but as a result of cowardly behavior: the shameful thing I had done to my brother. I recall acknowledging to my friends that smacking Rick with the door was something I wish I had never done, a mea culpa I hope was sincere. The takeaway for me in the context of growing up Boomer is that I wasn’t the only boy whose father had acknowledged our ascending the foothills of manhood by literally knocking us down.

I’m sure that some fathers still rough up their sons, but it seems incongruous to me, looking at what happened through the lens of today’s perspective, that what may have been fairly common in 1960 is just as common today. With all my heart, I hope it’s not.

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(The featured image of Fyodor Dostoevsky is a copyright-free photo of a painting published by Pixabay under Creative Commons Public Domain deed CCO; No copyright infringement is intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the image in this post.)