My Younger Brother Henry
Henry and I were always combative while growing up on the south side of Kansas City, Missouri during the late 1940s and early 1950s—stereotypical first and second born brothers. I never thought he would amount to much, given his quick temper; propensity for violence, and truthfulness laced with exaggeration, embellishment, and lies. But as it turned out, I was dead wrong.
I will never forget the time I locked him out of the house after we got into one of our many spats. I made faces at him through the back door window and called him runt, shithead, dumbass, and anything else I could think of to irritate him.
His eyes filled with rage. He turned, stormed out to the tool shed in the backyard, and returned with Dad's ax. I stepped back from the door but continued to make faces at him through the window and call him names. I didn't think for a moment he would do anything more than threaten to chop his way into the house and come after me.
At the door, he raised the ax over his head without hesitation and brought it down hard on the door again and again. All the while, he cursed at me in a loud voice with spittle spraying from his mouth.
The first blow of the ax shattered the window. I jumped back farther from the door as pieces of glass flew in my direction and littered the kitchen floor in front of me. Repeated blows to the door left it and the doorframe in shambles as if it had been struck by a tornado.
When it was done, Henry’s rage quickly dissipated. Breathing heavily, he stepped back and surveyed the damage he had done.
“Now you’re in for it, you dipshit!” I shouted. “You just wait till Dad gets home from work. He’ll whip your butt so hard you won’t be able to sit down for a week.”
"We'll just see about that," Henry said and then returned the ax to the tool shed. Afterward, he headed around the house where he perched himself on the retaining wall in the front yard and waited for Dad to come home from work.
I waited at the picture window in the living room. When I spotted Dad coming down the street toward the house,
I ran out the front door to meet him. Henry raced ahead of me.
As the three of us proceeded across the front yard and entered the house, Henry and I vied for Dad’s attention, attempting to over-talk each other with our versions of what happened.
Dad headed for the kitchen with Henry and me close behind. Inside, his eyes fixed on the damaged door and doorframe. “Good God!” he said, shaking his head.
Henry and I became more frantic in our attempts to over-talk each other with our explanations. Finally, Dad raised his voice and told Henry to shut up and let me tell him what happened.
I started at the beginning of my mostly truthful explanation, making myself look as innocent of any wrongdoing as I could. When I finished, Dad glared at Henry. “What do you have to say for yourself, boy?” he asked. “And it better be good. And I mean damn good!”
Without hesitation, Henry defended his behavior. He portrayed himself as the victim of a villainous older brother who belittled, tormented, and bullied him unmercifully. His ability to lace truthfulness with exaggeration, embellishment, and lies was uncanny, and that irritated the hell out of me. He apologized for losing his temper and damaging the backdoor but declared that when I locked him out of the house, he made up his mind to do something that would send a clear message to me. And the message was that he no longer intended to put up with my belittling, tormenting, and bullying.
I interrupted a couple of times in an attempt to defend myself, but each time, Dad told me to shut up. When at last Henry rested his case, Dad glared at me, and I could already feel the pain of the whipping that would follow.
My behavior was inexcusable. I have always known that. But Henry’s behavior was equally inexcusable—or so I thought back then. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why he won the day without so much as a reprimand.
Now that I have taken the time to reflect, however, I am convinced I know why. The primary reason is that Dad, like everyone else in the neighborhood where Henry and I grew up, admired and respected boys who stood up for themselves and demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they would not tolerate someone who belittled, tormented, or bullied them.
These were considered noble and manly objectives, and in order to achieve them, a boy had to possess the noble and manly traits of self-assurance, boldness, and resolve. As long as a boy had those traits, however flawed, a quick temper; violence; and truthfulness laced with exaggeration, embellishment, and lies were more often than not discounted. A boy with those traits was regarded as a diamond with rough edges but a diamond nevertheless.
And one thing was for sure. Henry was all boy. He had more self-assurance, boldness, and resolve, however flawed, than any boy in our neighborhood. He was indeed a diamond with rough edges. And his behavior may well have been the best he could come up with, given the environment in which we grew up and the level of stress I forced him to manage at the young and inexperienced age of twelve.
But be that as it may, Henry's self-assurance, boldness, and resolve are still intact, although now manifested in ways that are much more urbane and socially acceptable. He has learned that a quick temper; violence; and truthfulness laced with exaggeration, embellishment, and lies are counterproductive, although I am willing to bet they still cross his mind in stressful situations. The ax he uses now for dramatic effect is strictly metaphorical.
Experience and maturity have been great teachers, and the results of the transformation have been impressive. Henry is no longer the diamond with rough edges—at least not as many rough edges. He now leads a wildly successful life as a respected entrepreneur and head of a large and prosperous family. The traits he needed for success were all there when he stood up to me and defended himself at the age of twelve. They just needed time to evolve so as to serve his self-interest better. And let me say in a final word that I am no longer surprised that he won the day back then, nor that since then, he continues to win one day after another at the age of seventy-three.
Copyright © 2012 Frank Zahn. Published in The Writings of a Curious Mind: A Collection of Essays, Memoirs, and Short Stories, Vancouver Books (Kindle Edition) 2017.