Eighteen years ago this week I lost the person closest to me in the world.
That was my year-younger brother James. He died at age 47 of a brain aneurism in Eugene, Ore., where he was working and going to school.
We grew up together in Oklahoma City and Topeka. Until high school, we did most everything together. Shared a room. Caught snakes, lizards and baby raccoons. Fished. Rode bikes. Picked up sticks so the old man could mow the lawn. Read Tarzan and Captain Marvel comics and Classics Illustrated. Fought over encyclopedia books.
Wore Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Went to movies together (we thought maybe Fess Parker had somehow sneaked out of the Alamo right at the end of the Disney film). Served Mass as altar boys. Let Mickey the dog into the room when the other one was getting whipped by Mama (with a switch we had to cut ourselves) because the dog would bite Mama's ankles and make her stop.
In high school we drifted apart some. I was a jock. James ran with a wilder crowd. But we shared a room till my senior year when our folks moved to a new place and we each got our own. And James threw a surprise party for me on my 18th birthday.
I gave him my '55 Ford when I went away to college. First weekend I came home, it was wrecked on the side of the driveway. Let's just say that for a year or so after he graduated high school, James rode 'er down to the rims, literally and figuratively. One night he climbed the wall of the zoo and dropped onto a bison. Rode it aways before he was bucked off. He enlisted in the Army instead of "smellin' cold iron," as Mama put it.
The Army changed him. (Not completely. During a weekend pass from basic training he wrestled a bear for two rounds outside Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.) He found his calling as a leader. Went to OCS as a tanker at Fort Knox, then spent a year in South Korea, another in Georgia when he returned. When I went to visit him after I got out of basic in Texas, he met me on the runway; you could do that back then. We were both in uniform.
I stuck out my hand. He stared at me. Then I got it. The first lieutenant younger brother was gonna make the private E-2 older brother lock his heels and salute. So I did. We hugged and cracked up.
After he got out of the service, he worked for the Santa Fe in Albuquerque; our dad helped him get the job as a special agent dog handler. I was in Dallas. We hooked up several times a year and always kicked out the jams. One of the best stories I ever wrote was about a Tewa Indian potter, Blue Corn. We found her after hanging out in the Land of Enchantment together for a week.
I was on a fast track in journalism. James was searching, trying to figure out what he wanted to do. We could and did talk about anything and everything to each other. Our family reunions in 1970 in Durango, Colo., and in 1973 in Sedona, Ariz., were planned by James after scouting the territory.
His first marriage went south. So did he, down to Las Cruces, where he tried his third or fourth college. Became a fire watcher for the Forest Service, which took him to northern California where he met Linda. After a tornado romance, they got hitched one Christmas Day in Topeka.
Papagene's and Mama's present to him was a blue denim shirt. "That's called a work shirt, James," Papa said. James just grinned. He and Linda wound up in Oakridge, Ore., where they both worked for the Forest Service. The folks and I went there several times in the late '70s because it was so peaceful and pretty and because it was family.