My brother Alfie wasn’t a typical big brother. Unlike most children who may feel threatened when a newborn sibling enters the picture, he had prepared himself during my nine-month swim in my mother’s uterine pool of amniotic fluid to assume the role of mentor and teacher from the moment I saw daylight. He was going to be a big brother, and even at age four, he realized the gravity of his new responsibilities. My brother was a very serious little kid.
My first formative years were going to be played out in his own imaginary version of “Pygmalion”…. if not a Henry Higgins / Eliza Doolittle dynamic, then a real life version of “Batman”, with me functioning the ever faithful sidekick and ward Dick Grayson to his fantasy role as the master of stately Wayne manor.
I think Alfie came about his official “Big Brother Game Plan” from two different avenues. The obvious one was from my mother, as she made sure during her pregnancy to prepare him in total for the eventual advent of me. He was her sidekick, so he was pretty hip to how important mentoring was. But he also got to see the two-pronged methodology of how big brothers operated with their perspective little brothers in action, in everyday life on Gayle Road, which consisted of:
1. Trying to ditch little brothers and exclude them from every activity:
They were a drag. They couldn’t run, they couldn’t catch, they couldn’t ride bicycles, they were barely verbal, they fell down and cried a lot, and most importantly,
if they were verbal, they tattled… little brothers were viewed as a total liability.
2. If they didn’t get the hint, beat the crap out of them.
If they were going to run home and tell Mommy what kind of shenanigans you were up to, you were going to catch hell anyway. Might as well deliver a clear big brother message that tattling might not be such a good idea the next time that situation arises.
In other words, through daily, direct eyewitness experience, he had a pretty good idea of the kind of big brother he didn’t want to be… much to his credit.
So, just as Spring was sprung on a cold day in March 1960, on my maiden voyage from birth canal to Auburn Memorial Hospital, east on Route 20 and South on Route 41/East Lake Road to 12 Gayle Road, I was arriving into a pretty sweet set-up. Not only was I getting a constant protector and advocate, I was also getting an omnipresent teacher, tutor, and mentor.
Alfie realized early on that along with the basic duties of being a bodyguard, his main tasks were to get me up to speed. …the imperative being that I became an equal as quickly as possible. Both of us had a four-year gap to bridge.
Everything he did, I did… and I was required to keep up, at least intellectually, until my motor skills caught up. When he read, he read aloud to me (A random sampling from one of the 30 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica was always a daily favorite of his, capped off with a healthy dose of comic books). If he didn’t know a definition to a word, we would look in the dictionary together. If he was going to draw, paint or create anything, a pencil, paint brush or pair of scissors was in my hand, and he wasn’t going to let me drift or lose attention until I had a good idea of how to execute what he already knew how to do. We listened to the same records, together. We watched T.V. together. When he played “evil genius scientist”, I was “Igor”.
And if I wasn’t “getting it”, on any level, he did his damnedest to make sure I “got it”, and got it fast.
This was my own, homegrown accelerated learning program, conceptualized by my mother, but administered and executed by my big brother.
My mother made it pretty clear that she wanted a couple of little Leonardo DaVincis running around the house, and he was going to have to do some of the heavy lifting to deliver the product, not only within himself, but for me as well.
To this day, when family stories are dealt out and swapped at the Rossi family dinner table like trading cards, one of my Mother’s favorite tales of yore is a reminiscence and example of how cute I was during the time when I was barely ambulatory on two legs, possessing a rudimentary command of the King’s English when vowels and consonants were being learned:
“ You used to run around the yard yelling, ‘Essie! Essie! Where is you? It’s me… Dosie!’”
I couldn’t say “Alfie” or “Georgie” at the time, evidently. Sometimes my brother and I still affectionately refer to each other with these mangled versions of our names.
It’s a nice family story of the charm of the period of children garbling words as they try to learn how to become verbal.
But as I reach back into my brain matter to plug myself in real time into that moment, one thing is pretty clearly illustrated for me. From age zero to three, I can’t remember ever not being by his side…. and if I wasn’t, it was the exception rather than the rule.
Being separated from him was not only a randomly odd occurrence. To a toddler barely able to run without falling flat on his face, with limited communication skills… it was pretty fucking scary.
When I finally reached the point where I could stay upright on my own in true bi-ped fashion, Alfie made sure that I knew the lay of the enchanted land that surrounded 12 Gayle Road, Skaneateles, NY.
First off was how to get to certain destinations accessible through the back yard, so thorough explorations of the serpentine trails cut in the tall grass and weeds of Gregory’s field were regularly scheduled events.
Gregory’ field was a large T-shaped undeveloped tract of village land adjacent to the Northern edge of the Gayle Road development that spanned all down the way from Grandma Gregory’s house on East Lake Road, and like Gayle Road, took a ninety degree turn to the South along the lake, the other side of the top of the “T” leading up to the back of what was to become Goodspeed Place. Along its lake frontage was an Adirondack style family camp, and a newer home with a permanent dock structure that Bill and Bain Gregory had recently built for their expanding family. Eventually Bill’s brother Rob would build a family home between the boathouse and the abutting edge of Lakeview Circle, on the northwest edge of the beachfront.
I’m sure that forty-five years ago, this undeveloped land with its massive lake frontage (The beach area spanned between Lake View Circle and Gayle Road) had would-be developers salivating. At this writing in 2008, I’m sure that this still undeveloped tract has would-be developers drowning in lakes of their own self-generated greed flavored drool, but that’s a story for another time.
For whatever their reasons, except for their own family’s use, the Gregory’s made sure that this land stayed unsullied by development, which suited my childhood purposes (and all children living in the developed areas surrounding it) just fine. It was our playground, our jungle veldt, and the battlefield of imaginary war games.
The first landmark in the field was directly north of our backyard, and immense unruly apple tree, the last of what probably was once an orchard one hundred years ago. Alfie would hold my hand, the surrounding grasses towering over both our heads, and lead me up the twisted trail to it’s gnarled trunk.
The tree was multi-purposed. It was a good hide-out, a perfect shaded area for a summertime snooze, and was great for climbing as it’s lower limbs were in reach with a well timed boost from your big brother. If brave enough to climb to the top, you could see the curve of the northeast shoreline, all the way to downtown.
In the spring and summer, it’s un-ripened fruit served as perfect ammunition for neighborhood apple wars; in fall, it’s harvest was bountiful…. we were never at a loss for something sweet to snack on while traipsing about. Plus it was the only thing visible to someone only three feet tall above the towering grass, so you always could find your way to it, and by doing so, your way back home.
To the west of the tree, in the crook of the left elbow of the field, was “The Grove of Trees”, a ring of towering pines so thick it blocked out the sun. There was no plant growth within it, just dirt and years of accumulated dead pine needles and cones.
It was cool, quiet, breezeless and serene. When it rained, this is where you ran for cover, if you couldn’t make it home.
Upon entering it, you felt it’s aura, and you became less little boy, and more like an ancient Druid. This is where the little boys of Gayle Road held their secret societal meetings and performed arcane little boy rituals. Many a plot against the neighborhood girls was hatched, war plans gone over, and scenes from the “Knights of The Round Table” were acted out, “sword twigs” being readily easy at hand.
This was also the place of much illicit little kid activity, usually involving stolen goods; a group investigation of a PLAYBOY magazine that a neighborhood kid filched from his father…or where ten or more boys for the first time puffed on a singular cigarette purloined from some mother’s un-suspecting purse. In the daytime, it’s where the younger kids went to play doctor, or to make the really youngest kids eat worms on a dare. At night, it’s where the older kids went to steal their first kiss, or their first sip of Boone’s Farm strawberry wine.
But I digress.
When trying to learn the topography of Gregory’s field, the most important place my big brother showed me was a little access point at the west end of the lot. There was a little rivulet that ran down the western edge, and just in the right spot, if you hopped over it and through a cedar hedge, you landed smack dab in Walser’s back yard on Lake View Circle. “Leaps of faith”, as it were.
Emerging from that darkened hedgerow was like walking through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia, or opening up your sepia colored door and discovering a Technicolor Oz; that was the gateway to the “yellow brick road”, the route that led up Lakeview Circle, down Genesee Street, and into downtown Skaneateles… and to a little kid, downtown was where all the real action was.
Almost every sunny summer day of my third year, Alfie led me by the hand on this route, drilling its landmarks into my tiny brainpan.
Although our usually destination was the magazine and comics rack at Hahn’s Pharmacy, (where we would park our butts in the aisle and read everything we could absorb, much to the chagrin of the Hahn family…but they were pretty sporting about our visitations. Ed Riddler would have thrown us out on our keysters), no trek to the business district would be complete without stops at Mr. McCauley’s Western Auto (models and bicycles), Mr. Talbot’s “Five and Dime” (better models, and a never ending supply and selection of kiddie-crack such as Lik-A-Made, Pixie Stiks, candy necklaces, and those little wax bottles with a pure “flavored” sickeningly sweet shot of liquefied sugar… the small fry’s “Red Bull” of its day), Riddler’s (“Hey! This ain’t no library! Buy it or get the hell out!”… It was always fun to inspire him to hurl gravelly blue invective whilst chomping on a soggy cigar), and my personal Valhalla, The Hitching Post, where the magic kingdom of Steiff animals awaited to be petted and loved by my grubby little three year old hands.
Before Alfie dragged me out of there, I always had every one of them named, and earmarked for eventual purchase. There was really nothing in the place that compelled him, but he was pretty patient with his younger charge… as was the proprietress, Donna Schemeck.
And of course, every Saturday was the kiddie matinee at “The Rat Palace”, (A.K.A. The Colonial Theater). The marquee featuring “traveling” light bulbs and the patriotic town crier ringing a bell in all his animated neon glory being worth the price of admission alone… “Rat Palace” was really a misnomer, the myth being that the clanging sound of the ever expanding and contracting steam pipes was actually the sounds of rats wagging their tails against the cast-iron conduits and radiators… but the thought that a real rat might actually run between your legs during the un-spooling of some grade B horror flick whilst hordes of screaming Skaneateles kids hurled what seemed to me to be never ending bursts of popcorn rain and a tri-colored hail of Good N’ Plenty, made the experience all the more thrilling.
And of course, you knew you were really doing your little kid job correctly when things got so out of hand that the projector got stopped, the house lights went up, and the ancient Dove sisters made their crew-cut coiffed brother Sam run down the aisle to the front of the theater to red-facedly yell at all of us to “shut-the-hell-up-and-behave-or-they-were shutting-the-joint-down-for-the-day!”… A well rehearsed soliloquy.
And so through what seemed to be daily repetition with brotherly guidance, I learned to navigate that yellow brick road in that summer of my third year… the only true obstacle being the bent-wood fence and imposing driveway gate of the Stella Maris Retreat House, which looked to me more like the gates of Hell than the gate to a retreat.
If a Wicked Witch of the East existed… I was pretty sure that’s where she lived.
MY FIERCE INDEPENDENCE SUDDENLY REARS ITS LITTLE HEAD
In late August of my third year, my parents (Nick and Linda) were planting bulbs around the posts of a split rail fence that they just recently had installed on the eastern border of the Rossi “manse” (A cedar sided ranch home with four bedrooms and two baths).
It was one of those days where my brother was preoccupied doing “big boy” stuff… and I was bored. I had ten cents burning a hole in the pocket of my shorts; just enough for the latest Donald Duck comic book I’d previously dog-eared the day before in Hahn’s Pharmacy… but my chaperone to all things downtown was pre-disposed.
So I walked up to my parents on the eastern hill, she on her knees in a sun bonnet and cat’s eye shades digging in the dirt, and my father approaching with a wheelbarrow full of cedar chips, sweat pouring down his face, his shirt pasted to his back.
Me: “Mommy, I wanna go downtown an’ get a comic”
Linda: “Ask your brother.”
Me: “He can’t go”
Linda: “Well Honey, I’m kind of busy, as you can see…. maybe tomorrow”
Me: “I wanna go now”
Linda: “You can’t go by yourself”
Me: “Yes I can”
Linda: (sensing an upcoming argument with a three year old) “Out of the question.”
Here was the implied childhood deal with my parents: If you could present an airtight argument, and exhibit advanced critical thinking skills and a rudimentary grasp of the concept of Platonic logic, they pretty much would accede to sound reasoning. I knew this, even at three and a half years of age, and I was ready for them.
Me: “ No… I’m gonna walk down to Gregory’s, short-cut through Walser’s to Lake View Circle, stay on the left side of Lake View Circle an’keep on the grass up to Genesee, take a left on the sidewalk an’ go to Hahn’s…
I knew the route. My brother had taught me well. And here was my kicker… the point that my little brain came up with that I knew would drive a stake through the heart their already anticipated usually automatic parental negative “ruling”.
Me: “So I’ll never have to cross a street… and I’ll come back the same way”
They both looked at me slack-jawed and slightly dumbfounded. Point: three year old.
Linda: “What about the Hitching Post?”
Mom was slick. She smelled subterfuge. Linda knew that it would be nearly impossible for me to resist the siren call of all my imported-from-Germany-fuzzy-stuffed-animal-friends-with-tags-in-their-ears, but that would entail crossing Genesee Street at the intersection of Jordan Street…a task I had never done solo. But I was prepared for her.
Me: “No Hitching Post…. just Hahn’s and back home. I’ll never cross a street. Promise.”
Linda: “ If you do exactly what you said you were going to do... you should go.”
Nick: “Linda! Are you nuts? I am not allowing a three year old to walk downtown by
Linda: “No…. he should go”
And after a brief parental pow-wow, it was so ruled. I got my shot at traveling solo.
So I hit the road, an un-shackled free spirit, my little brown Steiff monkey “Jocko” crushed in my clenched fist for courage… my first attempt at doing something on my own, without being my brother’s shadow.
When I finally got downtown (after much dawdling), I walked into Hahn’s, climbed up the rack, grabbed my Donald Duck Comic, and plunked my shiny dime on the counter overhead (much to the confused amusement of Mr. Hahn), did an “about face” and headed for home. It felt good.
It was hard to resist the allure of the Hitching Post, the home of my beloved Steiff toys and the charming Mrs. Schemeck… but I was a boy of my word, integrity being a big part of the lessons my big brother taught me so well.
It was revealed to me many years later that as I started my solo flight down Gayle Road and towards my independence, the implements of gardening destruction were dropped and Moms and Pops followed me; about twenty feet behind, just far enough back for me not to notice.
I had been “tailed”, not only for safety’s sake, but also for verification of my own veracity.
But I did what I said I would do, and from that day forward, I walked downtown anytime I wanted to, alone.
I had been taught well.