Growing up with my brother was just one battle after another. We fought all the time. Our parents were always telling us to stop the endless racket. And the tattling: “He hit me!” “Make her give that back!”
But when we were in the mood to work together we could be devilishly fiendish or frighteningly bold, with memorable results.
There was that baby sitter incident when we were very young – just 3 and 4 years old. Bob and I could be quite cooperative with our favorite sitters, but this one was a last-minute stand-in. We quizzed her in the living room after our parents left for the evening. She was obviously trying to make a connection, establish her credentials, and prove she could handle this cute pair of blonds. We asked about the worst thing any kids had ever done to her. She told about the time some little brats took her purse, put it in the oven, and turned the oven on! Simultaneous thoughts like jolts of electricity sparked between my brother and me.
When our parents returned, the sitter probably felt quire pleased about how well the evening had gone. The little angels had gone to bed without a fuss, and the house was quiet. That is, until she had her pay in hand and was ready to go home.
I awoke to hear my brother being questioned. “Where’s the purse?”
Sleepily, he responded, “In the oven.”
“You put her purse in the oven?”
I tried to stay silent in my adjacent room, but couldn’t help snickering into the pillow.
“What? We didn’t turn it on!” My brother was indignant as the exasperated grownups headed toward the kitchen.
Bob and I always felt bolder when we were together. And rather oblivious to what was going on in the adult world. One day we went along with Mom on a visit to Northgate mall. On our way out through the department store we tagged along behind, running our hands along counters and touching everything within reach. Then we came across a drinking fountain. We probably weren’t even thirsty, but the thrill of pushing the button and standing on tiptoes to drink from the arc of water was irresistible to a pair of preschoolers.
“Okay, I’ll meet you at the cards,” Mom said as she left us to enjoy the water.
When the fountain’s novelty wore off, we headed outside. Walking through rows of cars in the vast parking lot we knew exactly what we were looking for: A dark blue Mercedes with that distinctive hood ornament. Up and down, between the cars we wandered, confident of our destination. When we found it, we just leaned against the driver side door and waited, certain Mom was on her way.
After a time, an intriguing three-wheeled vehicle with no doors approached and stopped in front of us. The uniformed man inside leaned out and said, “There you are! Your Mom has been looking for you.” Somehow she had gone to the wrong car, we guessed.
The mall policeman radioed that we’d been found, and then we got to enjoy our second great experience of the day: A ride through the parking lot in the little blue and white vehicle. The day just couldn’t get any better as far as we were concerned.
Mom made a big fuss when we got back to the mall and found her. And she said something about how we were supposed to meet her at the greeting cards, not at the car.
We never felt all that uncomfortable taking off on our own. We freely roamed the neighborhood, at least within the boundaries defined by the busy streets. The unpaved alley behind our house was a superhighway for neighborhood kids as we ducked in and out of each other’s yards. The only yard we avoided was the old farmhouse up the block. The rundown brick structure was the home of the neighborhood bad-boy, Petie, a scruffy kid with no hair and ill manners. The kind of kid who’d knock you to the ground for just looking at him funny. Only once did we summon the courage to sneak into his yard and steal ripe plums off the tree. We filled the hems of our shirts with the dark fruit and took them back to our own yard, placing them under the broad branches of our own tree. Weren’t our parents surprised when the flowering plum tree seemed to have born fruit that summer!
But that Petie was a menace. The classic neighborhood bully. One day I arrived home from school and was intercepted by my brother in the yard. “Why are you crying?” he demanded. I was surprised to find him interested at all in my emotions. Usually my reason for crying was directly related to him.
“Petie took my lunch box,” I said. I was worried about how to tell my parents I no longer had my cherished metal case with Snoopy embossed on the sides.
My brother just turned on his heels and exited the yard. I was left to deal with my distress alone. I sulked in the garden, delaying the dreaded confession.
Later, when I worked up the courage to enter the house, my brother was being interrogated by our parents. “Why did you slug Petie?” they wanted to know.
“Because,” he explained, with a righteous tone, “I’m the only one that gets to be mean to my sister.”
Then there was the time when we were terribly mean to our mother and we thought it was hilarious fun. When you’ve got two scheming kids cooking up trouble, you don’t need anything slowing you down. Unfortunately for Mom, she had broken a bone in an end-of-season skiing accident and was in a full leg cast. Mom was determined to keep the household running, even on crutches. We had other plans.
Perhaps Mom should have been alerted by how quiet the morning had been. Suddenly chaos erupted in the form of two kids wrecking havoc all through the living room, jumping off the couch and running circles around the table. On this day, our trouble was calculated to get attention. No amount of scolding would bring peace to the little house. Then, at just the right moment, Bob and I ran down the stairs. And Mom followed.
The only way she could manage the stairs was on her rear end. Her leg sticking out in front of her, she scooted one step at a time, bumping toward us. We stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched her tedious progress. When she hit the halfway mark we implemented part two of our plan, dashing out the door of the daylight basement. It took just seconds to run around the house and back in the front door. As we appeared at the top of the stairs, Mom was still making her way slowly to the bottom. We were surprised that she didn’t join in our gleeful laughter. In fact, the only words she was able to grumble were, “Just wait ‘til your father gets home!”
As the younger of the two by thirteen months, I was usually content to stay close to home. But emboldened by my brother’s fearlessness, I could be encouraged to flaunt the rules. At age six and seven we lived for a year in Karlsruhe, Germany while Dad was on sabbatical. Our apartment building was adjacent to the city’s iconic palace. Our little gang of expat kids saw the palace garden as an extension of the apartment building’s perfectly boring back yard. In fact, the only interesting thing in that yard was the hole in the fence that led to a wooded section of the palace grounds. From there, as long as we were careful to evade meddling adults, we could roam free.
We often spent time in the woods, swinging sticks and looking for signs of trolls and fairies. A little more risky was the playground, crawling with kids but also teeming with nosy parents. We loved the castle with its suspended log bridges. And we couldn’t get enough of the round pole boats that could be piloted around a little lake.
Our time in the palace garden was always short and stealthy. We kept to the margins, came and went along familiar wooded paths, and were always back in the yard before Mom called us to dinner.
Even when we were a little older, boredom could bring us together to hatch a grand scheme. In our early teens the family was on a second sabbatical in Europe. This included a week of skiing in the Austrian Alps. Our days were full – until the weather caved in. Heavy snow all day trapped us inside the Pension with a bunch of idle adults. Nothing kid-friendly there. Just a lobby full of thick turtlenecks and après-ski boots. We did notice a group of Irish men who seemed to have no problem filling their day – with drink. One of the members had broken his leg on the first day of vacation, so his pals suggested that a trip to the nearby pub would cheer him up. They headed out that evening pulling their lame friend on a borrowed sled. Bob and I headed out too, with plans of our own.
Snow had been plowed into high berms in the parking lot, and layers of fresh flakes had accumulated on top. Lights from the ski lifts lit the area. The maintenance crew was done for the night and their equipment was idle. We snatched a couple of shovels that were leaning against the side of the building and set to work. The snow bank high over our heads was like a pliable mountainside. First, we built our fort, a cave that would easily hide us both. As the heavy snow continued, concealing our construction work, we stocked up on ammunition. Two big piles of snowballs began to accumulate. Occasionally we peeked out over the berm for signs of life as we put the finishing touches on our snow fort and piled up icy hand grenades.
At last we heard sounds coming from across the snowy field. The little ski village was shuttering for the night, and the bars were well past last call. Our Irish men, with injured buddy in tow, were on their way back to the Pension. And we were ready for them. All was quiet in our cozy snow castle. Our unsuspecting victims sang and laughed their way toward us. They must have felt like the only people brave enough to be out in the storm. That is, until they got within reach of our artillery.
Suddenly it began to rain snow. The happy Irishmen were startled and stopped in their tracks as snowballs fell all around them. In the dark, and impaired, they were baffled about where the sudden barrage was coming from. And it kept coming and coming because we’d had lots of time to build our stockpile. Then it stopped as suddenly as it had started. Bob and I crouched noiselessly in our fort. The merry men continued on their way. And we always wondered what story they told to explain the surprise attack that night.
As years went on, our differences became more profound than any interest we may have had in being together, and my brother and I naturally followed our own paths. But one last time, when Bob visited me in graduate school, we got the opportunity to rekindle the scheming spirit.
This time the grenades were ripe zucchinis, the victim was an ice cream truck, and our hiding place was the roof of an apartment building in my midtown L.A. neighborhood. And the guy who hatched the scheme was to become my husband six years later. I think my brother approved.
Copyright Liz Behlke 2015