It is the solemn duty of every older brother to amuse himself by making his younger brother’s life a living hell – or at least as close to that as possible without running afoul of parental concern. In other words – don’t leave any marks or bruises. For example, if you hold your little brother down and tickle him until he turns funny colors, use your fingertips on his rib cage and not your knuckles.
My little brother Donald is, and was, a pretty even-tempered guy with a sunny disposition and he managed to run this gauntlet of older-brother cruelty relatively unscathed. In fact, I think this positive attitude was probably the best defense for him. The usual older-brother games like “quit hitting yourself” and “follow our pal” rarely resulted in the hoped-for and very rewarding angry blow-up. Don usually enjoyed the attention more than he hated the frustration.
The one truly exploitable area in Donald’s personality was his tendency to believe anything his older brothers told him. We were, after all, his closest blood relations. We wouldn’t be so mean as to tell him outrageous stories and get him to fall for them just for our own entertainment, would we? Well of course we would.
Our pranks on Don were sometimes verbal and at other times they were physical with just enough story to get him to buy in. For example:
“Hey Don, we saw this neat trick on the Ed Sullivan show.It’s a way to make this egg disappear. But we need an assistant. You want to help us?”
“Great. Get behind this door so nobody can see you. Now put your index finger and thumb through the crack.”
“You’re not going to slam the door on my fingers, are you?”
“No. We promise we won’t do that. So put your fingers through… good. Now I’m going to secretly hand you the egg, you’ll pull it through, and the audience won’t know what happened. Ready? Allikazing, Allikazam! And the egg is gone! Don? You were supposed to pull it through.”
“It won’t fit. It’s too big.”
”Oh I see. Well, don’t drop it, whatever you do. Mom will have a fit. We’re going to go into the kitchen and try to figure it out.”
Fifteen minutes later, Don’s fingers are cramping and we’re in the kitchen saying loudly, “Oh look! Chocolate cake!”
This sort of ploy, with variations, worked equally well with an empty aluminum pie tin held against the ceiling with a broom (“Here, hold this and don’t drop it. There’s an angry black widow spider in there”) and a funnel stuck into his belt (“Betcha can’t let this penny slide off the end of your nose so it drops right into the funnel”). While he is concentrating on the penny he can’t see the pitcher of warm water that is being poured into the funnel).
When he was a few years older, there was a game that he was always eager to play, despite the fact that he never won. It was “Who Can Escape.” We’d get lengths of clothesline cord, rope, or whatever was handy and first he would try to tie me up, then I would escape. Then it was my turn to tie him up and because I was better at knots than he was, he could never escape. How he didn’t realize beforehand that he would then be tickled, taunted, or have imaginary bugs put down the neck of his shirt I’ll never know.
One summer day he came up to me with a length of cord in his hand and a desire to tie me up to the point of helplessness burning in his eyes. I suggested we go outside on the lawn. Although he did his best, it only took me about five minutes to wriggle out of the ropes. Then it was his turn.Despite the fact that I was a Cub Scout dropout, I did learn how to tie a square knot and a bowline. In a few minutes I had him trussed up like a goose.
“Wait a sec,” I said. “There’s one more thing.”
I picked up the sprinkler hose from the other side of the lawn, dragged it over and wrapped him up in it. A sprinkler hose is a twenty-five foot, flattened, plastic tube with pin-holes in it every few inches.
“Okay,” I announced, “escape!”
While he struggled, I mosied over to the water spigot and turned it on full. Brother Donald suddenly became a writhing, squealing water fountain. I admit, I laughed so hard I nearly wet my pants. The chewing-out I got from my mother for soaking Donald was well-deserved and totally worth it.
The other brand of tomfoolery we enjoyed (and he didn’t) was to tell him a ridiculous lie and get him to believe it. One evening, for example, Lewis and I sauntered into his room just as he was getting ready for bed.
“Hey, Don, are you feeling okay?”
“Oh, good. ‘Cause we’ve heard there’s a rare disease going around and you’ve been looking kinda pale.”
“It’s probably nothing. Unless you can see little red blood veins around the edges of your eyeball.”
“Don runs to the bathroom to check. “Oh no.”
“You weren’t playing in the park today were you?”
“I was looking for four-leaf clovers.”
“Uh-oh. There were tsetse flies infesting the park today.They’re so small you can hardly see them and you don’t even feel it when they bite, but they can give you Sleeping Sickness.”
“If you have it and you fall asleep, you might sleep for days. You might not wake up for weeks! Quick, pull up the legs of your pajamas. Oooh noo! Look. There’s the bite mark!”
What can I do? I don’t want to have sleeping sickness.”
“The only thing you can do is to stay awake. If you don’t go to sleep, it can’t get you.”
When I went to bed a couple of hours later, Don was still sitting up in bed, yawning and squinting, reading comic books, trying desperately to keep himself awake.
When Lewis and came into the room the next morning he was fast asleep, sprawled on top of a couple of comic books that had been under him when he fell over.
“Wake up, Don, wake up!” we shouted as we gave him a good shaking.
“Oh, thank God you’re finally awake. You’ve been asleep for two weeks! You slept right through Valentine’s Day!”
Don ran to Mom, in tears, to see if anyone saved his valentines for him. Once again, we were in trouble.
Several months later, the family was planning to take a trip to see relatives in Southern California. Donald was so excited to go to Disneyland that he could not stop talking about it. Not having learned our lesson at all, Lewis and I barged into his room early on the morning we were to leave.
“Don, Don, wake up! We just heard on the radio that Disneyland has burned to the ground!”
My poor mother. Not only was she in the midst of last-minute packing, she had to deal with a crying five year-old. And two giggling older brothers.
Several years later, when Donald was in second grade, Lewis and I were eating breakfast when Don came upstairs. He was still in his pajamas and looking sleepy. I don’t remember if we had planned something in advance or we were just winging it, but one of us said, “Why aren’t you in school?”
“There isn’t any school on Saturday.”
“Well it’s Friday. Saturday is tomorrow,” Lewis said as he went to the wall calendar and tapped it. “See? Friday.”
Since Donald had not yet learned how to read a calendar, he could only accept that as being the truth.
He was beginning to look worried as he asked, “So how come you guys aren’t in school?”
“The Junior High is having teacher conferences,” I lied glibly. “We have the day off.”
“Oh no. What am I gonna do?”
“I guess you’d better get dressed as fast as you can and run over there. Maybe your teacher will let you into class. Who is your teacher by the way?”
Lewis and I looked at each other and said, “Uh-oh.”
Within minutes Don was dressed and running out the door with the mittens that were clipped to his coat sleeves and his untied shoe-laces fluttering in the breeze. Since Beitel School was only a block away, Lewis and I had about twenty minutes to giggle into our cereal bowls before the front door opened and a downhearted and sniffling Donald entered.
“What happened?” we asked. “Wouldn’t they let you in?”
“The doors were all locked. I went around the building to my classroom and looked in the windows, but nobody was there. So I thought they must have gone to the gym. I put my ear to the gym door and I could hear them singing in there.”