“Tell me what?” Mother demanded.
I elbowed my little brother hard in the ribs in the backseat of the family station wagon.
“Shut up, Howard!” I snarled under my breath.
Mom glanced back at us through the rearview mirror.
“What have you two done?” My brother had just condemned the both of us to a fate worse than death.
It was one of the few times he ever lost his nerve and had a bigger mouth than I did.
I had a friend named Casey Cox. He was scrawny, had mottled reddish hair and buckteeth. His dad was the owner/manager of the Bandon West Most Golf Course, just up the Beach Loop Road. I used to go to his house to play catch, or to run down on the golf course and find or steal golf balls from the local duffers, hackers and slicer’s. Every once in a while, Casey would walk the half-mile or so toward Devil’s Kitchen Park and my house to play, but mostly I went to his house. Anyway, one day he came to the Palmer place for recreation and we had nothing better to do than to wander the countryside in search of mischief. We found it, in Mr. Palmer’s tool shed.
Old man Palmer, that’s what we called him, although I don’t think he was as old then as I am now, told my dad when we moved in,
“Your kids can have the run of the full eighty acres here, just tell your boys to stay out of my tool sheds.” And, Dad told us to stay out. At least I remember he did. But, we didn’t.
My dad had only one hard and fast rule that was never, under any circumstances, to be violated. Oh, to be sure, he and Mom had more than one imperative for their children, and punishment was strict and severe for any violation, but you had to get caught first! Howard and I were generally pretty slick, and we mostly got away with our largely innocent chicanery, but the one regulation Dad would not permit to be infringed upon, was for us to separate. If one came home without the other, hell would certainly follow both to bed before and probably without supper, and with a spanking. And, you couldn’t hide coming home without your brother.
It wasn’t frivolity. The rule wasn’t there just for because. It was a safety issue. In the early sixties, out in the country where we lived, there were two things sadly lacking- the Law and civilization. The first day we moved onto the wild and sprawling eighty acres of the Palmer place, my Dad pulled us both aside and told us,
“You two stick together and stay within sight of the house for a while.”
Well, come daylight the first morning, we were up and gone, gone, long gone: Lord, we were gone! I mean, we had almost a hundred spacious acres to explore and time was a wasting! Come dusk that first day, when Dad finally figured out we had disobeyed him, he started calling after us and when that didn’t raise a yell from his two errant little boys, he took to honking the car horn. We finally came dragging in about a half an hour after dark, cold, wet and hungry. Dad was very unhappy! He grabbed me by the shoulder and yanked me hard to get my full attention.
“I thought I told you to stay within sight of the house!” He spat.
“But Dad, my butt!” He nearly shouted. “Son, don’t you know that every beast that lives out there- and there surely are some- is bigger than you, faster than you and will eat you both to death? And, don’t you know that five feet off the back porch and you’re on the menu?”
My wide frightened eyes must have told him I hadn’t thought about that. We lived out beyond the trees and gorse among the black bears, porcupines, nutria, bobcats and God knows what else, some of which would have considered two little boys a suitable snack before dinner and after drinks, in the dark little dell of Coastal Bandon, Oregon.
“I’m only going to tell you this once more,” Dad warned, “stay within sight of the house and another thing,” he turned to me, “you’re older so, you’re responsible for Howard. You two stick together!” He said sternly as he stared holes through the both of us. “If either of you ever come home without the other, I’ll tan your hide!” And, I was pretty sure he meant it!
For those of you who did not grow up in the sixties, a period in American history when a spanking was considered the normal, if not the preferred method of correction for sinful little boys; let me tell you, that’s a vivid picture. In short terms, it meant that my Dad would take a tree switch to my behind and heat my little butt until it resembled shoe leather!
Howard and I only violated that rule twice, as I remember. Once was when he and our cousin Wade, wanted to climb a rock out in the perilous surf on the beach near to Devil’s Kitchen to get at some wild strawberries.
“No!” I insisted. “The tide is coming in and we’ll get trapped!”
Wade shrugged nonchalantly.
“So? We’ll just wait until the tide ebbs and then we’ll wade in.”
I was unmoved.
“No.” I said. “I’m not going.”
Howard went with him. Technically, he was not alone but I had separated from him and broke Dad’s immutable rule.
Several hours later, near to dark and after they had been trapped for most of the day by the incoming tide, they came straggling back up the beach, cold, wet and their hunger never the less unsatisfied for the wild and seedy strawberries they had eaten. They found me asleep in the sandy dunes where they had left me, curled up in the Cut-Grass and woke me up.
“Let’s go home.” Wade said.
“Yeah,” Howard chimed in, “I’m hungry.”
Me and Casey and Howard wandered the little dirt road down past the cranberry bogs until we came to a clearing that sat off to the right of the last bog and about a fifteen minute walk past where Penny, the ill-tempered Shetland pony would usually balk until you turned her around and then hung on for dear life while she galloped as fast as her short little legs would carry her back to the barn. We looked around the gorse-ringed end of our trail and turned sullenly for home and safety.
“Hey…” Casey asked, “what’s in there?”
Looking into the shed didn’t seem like it would do any real harm. Mr. Palmer had warned Dad to keep us out but actually, that didn’t mean to stay out, just don’t get into anything inside, right? A technicality we were about to test to a dangerous limit.
The inside was large and dark and cavernous. I don’t know how big, of course everything in the world looks big to an eight-year-old but looking back, I’d say it was probably about eighteen by twenty feet; about the size of a small two car garage. It was filled with tools and machinery. There was an old truck parked on the far side near to a workbench lit by a small dirty window. Nearest to the door was a medium sized dory, lashed with a tarp. We lifted the cover and peered inside the small boat. There was an odd assortment of fishing poles, line, floats and crab pots; oars, petrol cans and an oversized cartoon-ish flare gun.
“Wow!” Casey was excited as he grabbed it. “Look at this!”
Casey pointed it at me and pretended to shoot me. I winced, grabbed my chest, let out a garish howl and fell to the ground.
“Let me see!” I shouted as I stood.
Howard was nervous. He knew we shouldn’t be there.
“Hey, guys…” he stammered, “c’mon, put that thing back and let’s get the heck out of here before we get into trouble.”
“What trouble?” Casey asked. “We’re not hurting anything.”
Howard began to squirm as he looked right and left.
“If old man Palmer finds out, he’ll skin us for sure.”
Casey laughed and shrugged Howard off.
“How’s he gonna find out?”
Howard turned to me, his eyes pleading with me to be reasonable.
“Man, if Dad finds out we down here…”
I stayed him with an errant hand.
“Relax,” I told him, “we’re miles from the house. He can’t see us from here.”
Casey had the flare gun and was examining it closely.
“How do you shoot this thing?” He asked.
“I don’t know.” I answered. “Don’t you just pull the trigger?”
Casey handed me the offending weapon.
“I don’t know.” He said. “I tried to pull the trigger when I shot you but nothing happened.”
“Hmmm…” I murmured as I put the gun to my eye and peered down the barrel.
“Is it loaded?” Casey asked me.
By this time, Howard was squirming and dancing around like he was about to pee himself.
“Guys,” he pleaded, “let’s go: we gotta go…”
I peered even harder down the expansive muzzle.
“I can’t tell.” I answered him, as I continued to stare down the barrel.
Casey held up a cardboard box of elongated metal cartridges.
“Well, let’s load it!”
I grabbed the box from him.
“Cool!” I shouted with glee. “We’ll be just like “Rat Patrol!” 1)
To this day, I don’t know if that flare gun was loaded or not. It probably wasn’t. I hope it wasn’t. I don’t think it was but then, I really don’t know. Good God…
We tried for five minutes to find a way to open the breach and load the gun, but we couldn’t figure it out. Finally Casey suggested we just fire the flare without the gun.
“It says right here,” he read from the label on the side of the metal tube, “open and screw off cap.”
The only other time Howard and I separated from each other was in the seventies when we were teenagers. We were cruising chicks one Sunday afternoon in his Firebird in Avery Park in Corvallis and we had an argument. It was something about my none-too-smooth pick-up lines and the fact that I wasn’t being very cavalier that day. I was never any kind of Casanova, so I don’t know why I was in charge of getting the girls, but anyway, Howard seemed to think that I was more of a liability and embarrassment that day, so we quarreled.
“Fine!” I told him. “Get your own girls. I’m going home!”
“Yeah, well…” he cursed, “how are you going to do that? It’s my car!”
“Fine!” I shouted.
“Fine!” He shouted back.
I stomped out of the park and made my way to highway 34 and hitched a ride. I beat him home. When he finally got to the house, he asked me where I had gone?
“Where the hell were you?” He asked bitterly.
“I hitched a ride.” I barked at him.
He was none too happy. He had doubled back to look for me, taking Dad’s strident advice to heart from all those years before not to come home one without the other, but he hadn’t found me.
“Fine!” He sneered at me.
“Fine!” I called after him.
The directions on the flare tube were clear enough, except we couldn’t open the gun.
“Okay.” I said to Casey. “You help me hold it and we’ll take turns twisting the cap.”
Both of us held the tube. I turn it once. He turned it once and we continued until we thought we were close.
“Okay now,” I cautioned, “When it goes, don’t drop it!”
“Okay.” Casey affirmed.
I gave the cap one more twist and then all hell broke loose.
The phosphorous roman-candle flare began to spit brilliant white/red balls of fire. The tube heated immediately and burned both of our hands. Casey squealed and let go. I squealed and let go. The flare fell to the ground and continued to fire. The first round shot into the darkening sky. The successive rounds fired like white-hot bouncing, careening billiard balls into the neighboring gorse. We were in danger of setting the entire countryside on fire. Howard screamed and took off in a dead run for the house. I screamed and took off in a dead run for the house. Casey screamed and took off in a dead run for home. We left the flare gun and the smoking ammunition tube smoldering on the ground.
“Tell me what?” Mom demanded.
It’s not like we weren’t going to get caught. There was ample evidence everywhere that we had been into Mr. Palmer’s shed and he was sure to notice the next time he drove in, which he did at least once every week and sometimes more. But, Howard’s guilt was burning his little conscience more than my hands. The jig was up and we had to confess. My little brother sang like a death row inmate in an old black and white movie confessing to an evil warden. I had to ante up because he had just fed me to the wolves. A few days later, Mr. Palmer came driving through. My heart sank. He was sure to know what we had done and on his way out he stopped to talk to my Father who was working in the yard.
“It’s not that they could really hurt anything, Pete…” he began, “but they could get hurt.”
My Dad hung his head.
“I know, Bill.” He said. “I’m sorry. It’ll never happen again.”
Mr. Palmer, the soft-spoken and slow moving carpenter got into his truck and drove away. My Dad set his jaw and turned to me.
“Mitchell Lee-Roy Peterson,” he called, “get over here!”
Parents never use your entire name unless you are in real trouble.
“Mr. Palmer says you were in his shed!”
Dad already knew this, of course, because Mom had already told him.
“He says you fired off one of his emergency boat flares!”
He knew that too, because my brother, the convicted little death row inmate had already confessed and so had I, for that matter.
“He says it’s a wonder you and your brother are still alive and that you didn’t burn the whole countryside down!”
I hanged my head.
“Well?” He demanded. “What have you got to say for yourself?”
I didn’t have anything to say.
“Didn’t I tell you to watch out for him?” He asked as he pointed to Howard.
“Yes sir.” I mumbled.
“And, you didn’t, did you?”
I scuffed at the dirt with my toe.
“No sir.” I answered.
“And you disobeyed me, didn’t you?”
“Yes sir.” I confessed.
“And you tried to cover it up?”
What an inquisition this was turning out to be!
“Yes sir.” I whispered.
“And, that’s the same as lying and stealing, isn’t it?”
My Dad stood erect and stared soberly off into the distance as the conspiratorial evening fog began to roll in off the stormy sea. The moisture laded wind pushed at the summer grass and the trees. The salt air tasted of tears and sadness.
“Better go out to the woodpile and cut yourself a switch, son.” He solemnly told me.
Boy! “Rat Patrol” indeed! Nobody on “Rat Patrol” ever got a licking with a switch from his Father that I recalled! But, I had failed to protect my little brother. I had lied and stolen and I had done a very dangerous thing. I trudged out to the woodpile like a death-row felon.
For most of my life, as the eldest son, I have been responsible for my siblings; especially my little Brother, and I have tried to be dependable and trustworthy. Sometimes, maybe even most times, and certainly more often than I like to recall, I have failed my Sisters and my Brother, but the flare gun incident burned a lesson on more than my hands and my narrow little butt, and it’s one I have never forgotten.
Howard and I have never split up or left the other behind since. We are brothers and to the bitter bone. I always know where he is. Though we are both married and have families and careers, live miles and sometimes states apart, neither of us would ever dare to show up at home, one without the other, unless we could report to Dad that the missing brother was safe.