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Testing the Bonds of Brotherhood

An alternate universe story


The Tahoe Lady Irish 


It was one of those times when you know you are making family history. A hundred plus years ago, a boy‘s rite of passage may have been when he first picked up a gun to shoot something other than a squirrel or a deer. Now, these are more difficult to note. You could say that graduating from high school or college denotes a highpoint in a man‘s life but it is not the first step into manhood for him. No, in this Twentieth century, it comes a little earlier. My own, I of course remember. That of my other brother, Hoss, I also recall but it was not experienced as closely as it was with my youngest brother. I was to be there, close at hand and with a great deal of panic, self-induced, but panic all the same.

That morning, the same arguments were held around the breakfast table that had been going on for the better part of two months. No, don‘t get me wrong. It hadn‘t been constant arguing but the uneasy undercurrent, the knowledge that this day would happen, had been lying there like a sleeping warthog under the table. Every once in a while one of us would accidentally (or purposely too, I suppose) kick the warthog and we would hear its snuffling complaints again. My father had been firm on how he thought it should be and when he dug in like he had, a whole herd of elephants couldn‘t have moved him. Brother Hoss had at first commiserated with me but the more resistance I put up, the more humor he saw in the whole. Now, on the appointed day, I was left with a demanding father, a laughing younger brother and a smug youngest brother.

Have you ever noticed how a boy who has just turned sixteen gets self-satisfied, seemingly overnight? I can‘t say that I saw it in Hoss or myself. Maybe because I was watching Joe so closely, I believed I saw it settle onto his face when he‘d blown out the candles on his birthday cake the night before. He‘s always been a cocky little son of a gun and turning sixteen certainly hadn‘t changed that. He was much too good-looking for his own good, in my opinion. Unfortunately, it wouldn‘t change as he grew older. Girls - no, women, in general - were lured by that boy‘s mannerisms. In short, Joe was cute and he knew and would use it.

That wasn‘t what I wanted to tell you about but it does say something about how I felt that morning, the morning after his birthday party. It was the first full day that he was sixteen and he was about to undergo a rite of passage. And I had to watch, to be there to help, knowing that his being a cute little devil with a ton of charm would not get him anywhere with the one woman I knew waited for him.

That‘s when the first tremor of fear had rushed through me, making my stomach quiver that morning for it would involve my most prized possession.

My most prized possession? For years before that fateful day, for many after and even now, my most prized possession is a set of wheels. To be exact, a 1965 Jaguar XKE with a convertible top, leather seats. I have worked on it and kept it in fine condition even though it is an old car by anyone‘s standards. When I say that I have worked on it, that is exactly what I mean. I don‘t trust mechanics under the hood, messing with those dozen cylinders for anything! I do the maintenance, the oil changes and all myself. I use only the filters I order and get direct from England. I use the finest spark plugs and only fill its gas tank with premium gas from a station I trust. I hand wash and wax it on a regular basis, even in winter. The leather interior I keep supple with a combination of saddle-soap, Neet‘s Foot oil and elbow grease. In short, the car is my baby. I treat it well and in response, it treats me well. I have checked. No one else in northwest Nevada has one. No one in Nevada has one that even looks remotely like it. The color of it, I have come to grudgingly appreciate. The only trouble I have is when everyone refers to it by the name my baby brother gave it when I first bought it. Yes, it is purple. Originally it was a deep burgundy but the sun faded and changed it over the years. I have come to think of it as a claret color, keeping with the alcohol-venue. I don‘t care that everyone else, my father included I am sure, refer to it as The Grape.

Oh, wait, I digress again. Let‘s see, where was I in the story?

So there we were that morning. Again I had tried, before Joe came downstairs, to dissuade my father from the set plan of action. I saw numerous opportunities for harm to come to my brother and I again laid a few of these fateful occurrences on the table but Pa only scowled at me.

"Either you do it or I do it," was his ending statement. I thought again how it would be with Pa and shuddered, not for my brother but for me. In a particular nook and cranny of my memory, I heard the distinctive sound of gears grinding and clashing together just a hair off of a clean mesh. As the memory faded, I knew I had to be the one.

Just about then, Joe came tripping down the stairs, all brightness and glee. He plopped himself at his place at the table, greeting everyone with a cheery good morning as he laid into his breakfast with gusto. I watched as he proceeded to put away as much as Hoss usually did so I figured that if little brother didn‘t have any qualms about the coming day, maybe I was wrong. No, I corrected myself, he had them; it was just that his teenage body required more fuel to overcome them.

The talk around the table dissolved into what the other members of the family were going to be doing today. Pa at that time had been in the Nevada State Legislature for about ten years and had been appointed to the grand position of Speaker of the Assembly. There was talk that when the next clear shot came, he would be nominated and elected to the US Senate but he discouraged that sort of talk. That fine spring morning, he was on his way to the State House in Carson City to oversee some committee work. You see, the full Legislature only meets every other year for sixty days, beginning in February of odd-numbered years. That leaves the workings of the state to committees headed by men like my father: dedicated to the welfare of the state beyond the normal call to duty. As I recall, that year Pa was on the Finance committee and they were working on a new proposal for taxation.

Brother Hoss, on the other hand, was headed out, he said, to do some work on the far side of the ranch. He might have said that he was checking on the fencing but we all knew what he would really be doing. He had then and still does, a favorite old mare - well, she wasn‘t that old then but she wasn‘t a spring chicken either. That mare has given us quality foals every two years since she was first bred. Her own bloodlines are nothing fantastic but when bred to one of our topnotch stallions, and with the mothering she gives the young ones, the offspring are a joy and are much in demand for trail riding stock. There is only one problem. She always chooses some place a little risky to drop her foal. I remember one year when she chose to have the little fellow right down next to a cold running stream. If Hoss and I hadn‘t found her when we had, the colt would have either drowned upon birth or frozen in the cold mountain water. So that May morning, with Fool -the mare- ready to drop her foal any day, we all knew Hoss would be hunting her down. He would most likely spend the day with her in sight and if that was close to where some ranch work needed tending, he‘d do it but his main concern was the horse. You could tell just by how nervous he was eating his breakfast that he wanted to check on her right away. Sure enough, his fork was still rocking on the table when we heard his truck pull out of the yard, probably kicking up rooster tails of dust over the front porch.

"Coward," I muttered to myself and got a frown from my father‘s end of the table.

"Enough!" he roared and I sank on my end of the table. It amazed me that he could hear a whisper at the other end of the table but would miss Joe coming into the house well after curfew. A friend once told me that parents have selective hearing and I believe he was right. Pa can hear me working late in my room, typing away on my computer even though I am at the opposite end of the hall; yet he can‘t hear Hoss banging away in the kitchen after midnight! He can hear Joe pop a beer can on the far side of a big picnic but can‘t tell when I pull in late at night.

Again, I digress. My apologies.

So, that sunny May morning, it was my solemn duty to escort my brother through a rite of passage. I finished eating my breakfast and told Joe he needed to be ready in fifteen minutes. I went back to my room, trying to decide if praying would help. Just in case, I said a few. Then I chastised myself. What did I really have to fear? Nothing! I knew Joe had been doing it over the past few years. Okay, granted it, was where no one could catch him at it. All of us boys had done it and nothing had ever come of it except maybe a little improvement in performance when the time came for real. So what was I worried about? It wasn‘t like he was liable to embarrass the family name and get his picture on the front page of the newspaper.

I sat down on the edge of my bed and for a minute, tried to sort my thoughts out. I saw danger ahead but did no one else in the family? Or was it just that I was so close -too close possibly - and was imagining it? As much as I tried, I couldn‘t come up with a sane answer besides what my own father had pointed out. I was the logical choice. Sighing, I stood up and went downstairs.

Joe had already left the table and through the open front door, I heard him calling something to my father. He sounded so damn cheerful. I wanted to strangle him. Didn‘t he realize the seriousness of the day?

I slipped into my jacket and picked up my briefcase then went outside. With feet much heavier than they should have been, I headed for the garage. I could see that Joe was already there. Pa was standing talking to him, one hand on his shoulder so I knew the discussion was a private and earnest one. I slipped over to my Jaguar. Joe had already been there because I never leave it overnight with the top down and the top was down that morning.

"Make me proud, son," I heard Pa call out then a car door shut and his old gray Volvo station wagon started up with a hiccough and a roar. I tried to remember if he had told me the same thing when I had — I couldn‘t remember but knowing Pa, he had.

Then, there Joe was, standing next to me and the Jag, that wide grin showing off his part of the fortune Pa paid the dentist every year.

"Well? Come on, brother," Joe chirped and I had this insane idea that I could talk him out of it. I got into the car at the same time he did. The click of two seatbelts melted into one sound.

The Jag‘s twelve cylinders roared to life. Not with the gentle purr of a kitten as usual but with the roar of a mountain lion in pursuit of a defenseless deer. I swallowed hard, listening to the throb of that mighty engine and feeling like that deer. Then it dropped to whisper quiet and the car moved smoothly and easily from the garage.

When had I closed my eyes? I didn‘t recall but they popped open as the Jaguar jumped into motion, seemingly to leap for joy at being loosed. Before me, the green of the meadow meshed with the dark gray of the paved lane and the telephone poles suddenly seemed closer together as the car hurtled down toward the main road. Beside me, Joe crowed in exaltation. Clearly, he was enjoying the rush of the wind through his hair. I clutched at the dashboard and shouted for him to slow down. He ignored me, caught up in this preliminary step to the real thing that would come later. As for me, I was in sheer terror that this would be the way Joe would always handle it and there would be no way for me to correct him.

My moaning was lost to the slipstream.

Why was it that I had this responsibility? Simple science, really, and for once that study, to which I had given my passion, had turned and bit me on the butt. Pa‘s Volvo and Hoss‘ pickup had bench seats. Both of them had long legs. I have long legs but the Jag has bucket seats. Ergo, short-legged Joe, who even when he was fully grown wouldn't hit the six foot mark, could only drive my car and take someone in comfort, i.e., not eating their kneecaps. Hoss couldn‘t fit behind the steering wheel of my car and Pa . . . well, Pa never did do well with a stick shift. A silent chant rose in my thoughts: it's only for a little while; it's only for a little while. . . .

And the law was clear: someone had to escort the teenager to take his driving exam.


At the end of that fateful time, and now years later, what do I recall clearest? When Joe came out of the Department of Motor Vehicles, his brand-new driver‘s license still hot from the laminating machine, he grinned at me and wanted the keys to the Jag so he could drive us home. His flawed logic that he had driven us in, as family custom decreed, wasn‘t holding water that morning. I told him so but you know what? It was the only time I ever willingly gave him the keys to my beloved Jag. After all, he had passed his rites.

And my car - all right, yes! The Grape- lived through it. 


The End


The Tahoe Lady Irish

February 2004

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The Tahoe Lady Irish

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