In the 3rd grade, life had become simpler with just my mom, brother and I living in the house after my parents divorced and my two older siblings had moved in with Dad. I didn’t feel as “lost in the crowd” since we went from 6 people to 3, with me being the youngest. I also didn’t become “invisible” as often, since I felt much safer with Mom and John. John never picked on me the way my other siblings did.
John had a way of making the room come to life when he was in it. These days they may have diagnosed him with ADD, since he could never sit still. The few times we went into a restaurant (which was rare) he would have to get up from his seat and wander around. He would “go off exploring” as my mom would say. If we were playing a board game, he would have to get up and run around a few times throughout the course of the game. He seemed to always be in motion.
He had an imagination that was definitely to my benefit. He’d get a couple of towels from the bathroom and safety pins from Mom’s sewing basket and we would play Batman and Robin. I was Robin of course, being the younger of the two. I was fine with that, because Batman always told Robin what to do. We would fight a lot of villains, that were typically pillows that got knocked around the living room.
“The Wild, Wild West” was another popular TV show back then. James West and his partner Artemus Gordon handled crime in the old west like a James Bond movie. Of course John was James West – the lead character. He led me around fighting bad guys with cool pretend gadgets hidden in our shoes, cuffs and secret compartments.
The Christmas I received my tape recorder, opened the way for playing “Mission Impossible.” The mission was always delivered on a tape that would ‘self-destruct’. John would take my tape recorder without me knowing it and work on a mission for me. Then one day, it would show up on my bed or he would slip an envelope under my bedroom door and the game would begin. It was always fun, and we were always on the good side defeating the bad guys.
There was the typical play with legos and building things. He had toy guns that would shoot plastic pellets but he never shot them at me. Instead he would set up targets so we could see what we could hit. He also taught me how to climb one of our trees in our yard. It had branches that spiraled up like perfect stair steps. He told me to just follow him up and put my feet where his feet went. I climbed that tree easily following his guidance. But then it was time to get down and I froze.
“Just go back the way you came,” he said with ease in his voice.
“I don’t know how. I was just following your steps.” The idea of going backwards was terrifying to me.
“Okay,” he said kindly. “Get as close to the trunk as you can and don’t move. I’m going to come down and go around you. Then I can guide you back down.”
I trusted him completely. I remained very still and he carefully maneuvered around me. Then he showed me each step to take to get back down. It took a little time, but I was so grateful he helped me. And that he gave me the experience of climbing a tree! (It just occurred to me that when one of his sons was about 7 years old, he got stuck in a tree and I helped him down. John wasn’t there and my parents thought he was joking and didn’t believe that he was actually afraid to come down. But because of my experience, I knew he wasn’t kidding! I guess the universe knows how to balance things out.)
John was spontaneous with his ideas. Sometimes he would get on his hands and knees and become a kitten or puppy and invite me to do the same. Then we would crawl into the kitchen barking or mewing and purring around Mom’s legs while she was cooking. She always responded by petting us and telling us what good animals we were. There was always a sense of love in John’s play. As a puppy he would never growl or pretend to be a mean dog. He would only show love and playfulness.
John was also great with real animals. Near our house were several ponds. He would disappear for a whole afternoon, exploring nature. I only went once with him on these excursions. In general, I felt unsafe. And the outside was a much bigger world, where I felt even more unsafe. (Once he came home with leeches on him from one of the ponds. It freaked me out! Leslie was babysitting and helped him get them off.) He would catch turtles and frogs and the occasional harmless Garter snake. His aquarium was a continuous rotation of different animals. He had gerbils (until he got tired of them keeping him up at night), frogs, and even chameleons. He received 3 chameleons one Christmas and dropped the container they were in. All 3 scattered. He found two, but the third one eluded us for several days. One morning I woke up and went behind the Christmas tree to open the curtain. There was a green chameleon sitting on a red ornament right at the level of my face. I screamed. John came running and happily snatched up his lost friend.
While mom was mowing the yard, she found four baby rabbits. The mother never came back, so John took them all in. All died but one, and he released it when it was strong and healthy. He found a butterfly with a broken wing, and nursed it back to health. (I didn’t even know that was possible.) He called me out of my room one day to let me know he was going to let it go outside and asked if I wanted to watch. It was a miracle watching it take flight. We were both in awe.
He saved at least one bird that I can remember, but I’m sure there were more. One day he brought home a stray dog. I was never completely convinced it was a stray. I knew John really wanted one, but Mom was afraid of dogs. It’s interesting to look back on that and not be sure if he was telling the truth. There must have been other times that John fabricated stories, because I had a doubt in my mind that the dog was actually a stray. The dog was sweet, but because of Mom’s fear, I was afraid too. It was a full grown dog, probably about 65 – 70 pounds and seemed very healthy. He stayed close to John and Mom agreed that he could have him for a few days while they tried to find the owner, on the condition that the dog had to stay in his room. John was ecstatic. John thought once he got the okay to have the dog for a few days, Mom would fall in love with it and let him keep it. The dog didn’t bark and seemed perfectly happy to be with him. But only a day or two after John found the dog, Mom went into his room to wake him up for school. The dog growled at Mom, and wouldn’t let her come into his bedroom. He became very protective of John and probably sensed Mom’s fear. She insisted that the dog go. I don’t remember if John “found” the owner or if they took it to the pound.
John and I were only 18 months apart, and for most of his childhood, he was small for his age. So there were several times that people asked if we were twins, since we looked similar and were the same size. I know it irritated him, but I liked it. I was proud to be considered his equal, because he was so much fun to be with. Since the divorce and split of the family, he took on the role of “Man of the House”. I remember Dad telling him when he left that he needed to take care of everyone. He was 10 years old. It was not appropriate to tell him that, but he did his best to make sure Mom and I stayed happy. I looked up to him and was grateful to have a kind, fun-loving person in my life.
We played kickball, kick the can, tag and football. John taught me how to throw a football and sometimes we’d throw a baseball for each other too. We had a basketball goal on our garage, and would play “horse”. If you got the ball in the goal, the person following you had to make the exact shot. If the person didn’t get it in, he got an “h”. First person to spell “horse” loses. I didn’t win that often, but I got better and better at making shots.
I didn’t have a 2-wheel bike until I was 9 years old and the main reason I finally got one was because of John. Mom couldn’t afford one, and John finally convinced her that I’ll never ride one if I don’t start soon. (He was right. I was afraid to ride one, but really wanted to have one.) After a lot of badgering (which he did playfully but relentlessly) she decided we would go to the 7-mile fair – a flea market – where we could get a used bike.
We found the perfect bike just my size. We brought it home and John was right there for me – teaching me how to ride in the grass, so when I fell, it wouldn’t hurt as much. It also slowed me down, so I wouldn’t go too fast. He would take me on his bike, and let me ride behind him or one the handle bars so I could feel what it was like. He wouldn’t let me give up when I wanted to give up. And when I finally got it, he was there cheering me on.
Mom took us to a state fair where we enjoyed rides and games. At one of the games, a man tried to guess Mom’s age and was off by at least 10 years. (She was 10 years older than he thought.) She won the big prize that time! (Mom always looked young for her age.) When we got to the rides, John was very excited about the bigger rides – ones that we never had a chance to ride before. There was one he was particularly intrigued with. It was called “Hammerhead” and it was a big stick with 2 bullet-looking capsules on each end. Two or three people would go into the capsule and the stick would spin around, increasing in speed, making the capsules go around in a clock-wise motion. Once it got going good, then the capsules themselves would begin to rotate. John was so excited! He begged me to go on with him. “No, it looks too scary to me,” I answered.
“It will be fun! C’mon, Julie, go with me.”
Why he didn’t just go on it by himself is beyond me. He really wanted me to go with him, but I’m not sure why. (Maybe he was scared too?) I respected the fact that John knew how to have more fun than I did, and he promised that he would be with me and keep me safe. My instincts screamed no, but John was persistent and relentless. When I think about this whole scene, I don’t even see Mom there. I don’t know if she was sitting somewhere else while we went on rides or what, but I know she wasn’t there. I would have felt more comfortable saying no if I had my mom to be with while he was on the ride.
I was barely tall enough for the ride and the operator opened the capsule as we both slid in the long seat. He placed a bar down in front of us to keep us in place and to have something to hold onto. He closed the capsule and the ceiling above us had holes cut through the metal so we could see out. As the ride started up we slowly started spinning around. As we rounded the apex, the capsule would appear to come crashing to the ground and then miss it as it went back up. It was scary, but still fun, until it started to pick up speed. As we started going faster the capsule began spinning and I started slipping off of the seat. My screams stopped as I realized the implications. If I fell completely under that bar (which I could easily do since I wasn’t big enough), I would lose my grip and start flying loose in the capsule. John was to the point of terror as well – due to the ride and the situation. He realized he couldn’t let go to grab me. He started repeating over and over, yelling over the ride, “Julie, hang on tight. Close your eyes and hang on tight. Close your eyes and hang on tight…” Everything seemed to go black, and all I could hear was his voice. The words turned into a neon sign in my mind and it flashed every time he said it. It was like a mantra and it put me in state of pure focus. I hung on for dear life. The ride began to slow down and eventually I was able to push myself back into the seat. We were silent when the man let us out of the ride, probably pale as a white sheet. John immediately took my hand and as we walked away, he said, “I’m so sorry. That ride was scarier than I thought. You ok? I’m really sorry.” I remained silent. If I spoke the tears would have flooded. “Please don’t tell Mom. It would only upset her. I’m really sorry Julie. I won’t make you go on another ride again.” He kept his promise, and I never told Mom. I knew my intuition was right, but I also felt that John came through and did his best to keep me safe. I feel that it was by the grace of God that I was able to hang on, and John’s continuous words of encouragement kept me focused. I saw him more as a hero, than being at fault that I was on the ride in the first place.
Even with all the play, John was also very protective and looked out for me when we were younger. One of our neighbors, who was a couple of years older than us, invited us to go to a movie with her. They lived on the end of the street in a house twice as big as ours. They also had a bomb shelter, which was a fascinating tunnel-like walk in their basement, which led to a tiny room with low ceilings. The whole thing (including the ceiling) was fully carpeted and it felt like a magic little room to us. Her mother gave us money and drove us to the movie theater and dropped us off. We were going to the movie all by ourselves without an adult! It was thrilling. I had no idea what we were going to watch. I was 9 years old, and John was 10 or 11. Our neighbor was probably 13. As the movie started, my elated mood dropped down significantly, and the movie that we thought was called, “The House” was actually called, “The House that Screams”. It was about a bad guy going after a young woman. How we were ever allowed in that movie is beyond me. But I was terrified. John would look over at me and see my face. He quietly leaned over so the neighbor wouldn’t hear, and said, “I can tell when something really bad is about to happen, so I’ll warn you, ok?”
“Ok” I whispered, terrified, but happy he was with me.
As the music would build, he would say, “Close your eyes!” and I was saved from some horrific images. At one point he asked if I wanted to go and sit in the lobby. I gave him an emphatic yes, and he walked me out to the lobby. I thought he was going to join me there and just wait until the movie was over, but he said he was going to go back into the theater and would come and check on me. Alone in the lobby felt better initially, but then sitting there alone brought a different kind of vulnerability, and fear began to consume me. John didn’t come back for what seemed like an eternity. Once he did, I decided to go back in the theater with him rather than be alone.
I still remember images of that movie, and in the end, when the woman was finally safe in a hospital being treated and protected, the villain found another way to sneak in and killed her in a horrific way. And that’s how the movie ended. I’m pretty sure I never got together with that neighbor again. (Another affirmation that people cannot be trusted.)
John asked me to not tell Mom what had happened. He didn’t want it to affect his future chances of going to another movie without her. I couldn’t afford to lose John as my ally, friend, and protector, so I never told her about it. I had nightmares about that movie on and off for several years. Once again, I saw him as my protector, not the instigator who got me invited to that horror movie in the first place.