The dynamics of a brotherhood
I grew up on an Arkansas farm where we raised pigs. I enjoyed living in the country and our house was nestled in a valley where the same dirt road that led you in was the same dirt road that led you out. It was generally a quiet place and from anywhere in the valley, even though you couldn’t see the vehicle, you could hear it quite distinctly as it traveled down the big hill into the valley. The sound of the tires rolling across the dirt sending up pings of gravel into the bottom of the car or the wheel well.
Working with my dad and three older brothers, Nicky, Tom, and Michael, out on the farm was something I really loved. I would help feed the pigs, clean out the pens, and move them from field to pen. When they gave the pigs shots, I would use a red livestock marker to put a line on the pigs’ back so they could keep up with which ones they had finished. When a sow gave birth in the farrow house, my dad would send me scurrying up to tell mom the number of piglets in the litter.
In the main barn, on one side, there were open air pens on concrete with a manure pit dug along one side of all the pens. The pit was about thirty feet long and ten feet across. It was about two feet deep and full of a sludgy combination of manure and water. A plank of wood had been laid across the width of the pit to provide a shortcut so we would not have to walk all the way around. When cleaning out the pens someone would stand on the side under the barn and hose off the manure, washing it into the pit.
One hot summer day, my parents had been gone since before I woke up because they had taken Michael to a doctor’s appointment in Little Rock. My oldest brother, Nicky, and I had spent the majority of the day working in and around the barn. He had me taking care of menial tasks like picking up loose hay to put in the pens to keep me out of his hair. Between those jobs and exploring the barn with my imagination thriving in full effect, I was having a great day.
We were anxious to find out the news about the trip to the doctor so throughout the day we kept one ear peeled for the telling sound of the truck returning to the valley, knowing that if we caught the sound of the truck coming we would have time to scurry up to the house and be there as they pulled in.
It was late afternoon when we heard the sound of the truck swooping down the hill. Nicky called for me to get my butt down from the barn loft where I was engaged in moving the hay bales around to form a secret hiding spot. It took me a while to get down to him; so long in fact we heard the truck go around the curve by the barn that led to the house.
“You took your time getting down here,” Nicky grumped.
“Sorry,” I replied, not really sorry.
Nicky was frustrated we were not going to be there when they pulled in. So me being eight, little, and slow by his standards, he scooped me up so we could get there faster. He took the shortcut across the plank instead of walking all the way around the pit.
About halfway across there was a very loud crack as the board began to break under the weight of one and a half men. Nicky weighed his options in a split second. He dumped the ballast that was weighing him down and performed an Olympic level flat footed long jump. This jump had him clear the pit by a good six inches and land spick and span clean.
Unfortunately, me being the ballast, I found myself tossed in the air and I took an unceremonious dive directly into the manure pit. I hit the manure back first, and my entire body was submerged. Survival instincts kicked in and I popped up like a muck monster oozing stink, stank, and stunk. I shuffled my way to the edge of the pit and rolled out on my belly. The feel of thick muck clung to my clothes and my exposed skin. Sound was muffled through my blocked ears and the overwhelming stink permeated up my nasal passages.
Nicky looked on in relief at his good fortune and in disgust at my bad. Trailing behind him, I waddled crying all the way to the house exuding a trail of sludgy shame. As I trudged behind him I couldn’t help but think if he had just stepped off into the manure pit it would have just reached just to his knees and I would have been spared.
This stands out to me as one of the earliest injustices of having three older brothers. Our dynamics were due in part to our age differences. Nicky was eighteen and had already dropped out of school to get a job to help out with money. He was the nicest of my brothers and was the brother who would take me fishing. Tom was sixteen and the funniest of my brothers. He taught me to play basketball and would go shooting with me. Michael was fourteen and being the closest in age was the one that I would get to hang out with the most. He would take me out to explore the woods and fields that surrounded our farm. Being so much younger than them more often than not tagged me as a first class nuisance. There would be plenty of opportunities for them to deliver torment to me over the coming years.
This might come in a form seemingly inspired by Loki the Norse god of trickery. On numerous occasions I found myself duped into completing a labor in return for the promise of a reward. Sometimes this came in a form such as eating a dozen, still in the shell, green peas in return for five dollars. Another time I was told if I would grab ahold of the electric fence I could have my choice of any baseball card from their envied collections. Never a single time did a reward emerge from the completed labor. It was a lesson I was doomed to repeat again and again, never learning from my, hope springs eternal outlook on life.
Other times, the brothers it appeared, had drawn inspiration from reading about the Spanish Inquisition. This included things such as being forced to run full speed between the long rows of corn, which left me with dozens of little cuts of the arms and legs. The leaf blades of the corn were like razors. One of the worst was to catch me “swimming” in a plastic blue 50 gallon barrel that I had filled with water. They would take turns holding my head underwater and timing to see who would hold me under the longest before what passed for brotherly instincts kicked in and my head was free to pop up for the sweet relief of a breath of air. Thankfully, my saint of a mom caught this horrendous form of water borne torture and quickly put an end to it before the new record attempt reached the two minute mark.
Then sometimes it wasn’t trickery or torture it was just straight to the point embarrassing me. It wasn’t as bad to have my pants torn from my legs around the farmyard and to have to run for the safety of home and a new pair of jeans. The worst was having this done in public. Oftentimes in the middle of the weekly grocery trip to Searcy. I quickly learned to guard myself by wearing a pair of shorts under my jeans so that when the pantsing occurred I could flee with my dignity reasonably intact. When they caught on to that solution, I came up with the most foolproof method to avoid the ensuing distress: become a faster and more elusive runner and a master of concealment. You can’t pants what you can’t catch.
The injustice wasn’t always borne of malicious intent; sometimes it just came from the fact that the pecking order put me fourth on the list of boys. While they got to run the chainsaw cutting wood, I was left to carry and stack. During hay hauling season I had the toughest job of walking and throwing the hay bales on the trailer while one brother drove the truck and one other rode on the trailer stacking the hay. Any low-man-on-the-totem-pole job was assigned to me to carry out.
I knew my brothers didn’t hate me. They were just practitioners of the ancient brotherly art of tough love. They were firm believers in the adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But the hypocrisy of that idea did have bounds. Any older kid who picked on me was going to find himself facing a fight from one of the three of them. A cousin who deemed I wasn’t good enough for a pickup game of basketball found he was the one who had to sit out on the sidelines. Another time in a universe balancing twist of fate, Nicky scooped me up and threw me out of the path of a charging cow. The message was clear: if I was going to be the subject of some type of adversity the brothers were to be the only authors. They may have been rough on me, but in their minds I was still family and ultimately that meant the most.
As time marched on each brother, at some point, moved out. As they each individually left out the dynamic changed. Their interest became less and less focused on me.
I grew older and came into my own.
A little sister, Becky, came along when I was ten and I thought that now I was the older brother I would get my chance to trick and torment. But unfortunately... these rules didn’t apply since she was a girl and especially since my parents had been waiting for the “daughter of prophecy” through the arrival of four boys. After my parents waited twenty years beginning with the birth of Nicky to finally have a little girl, she lived most of her childhood in an aura of off limits. My long-suffering would not be abated by her arrival.
Along the way I carried with me those tough love lessons I learned. I never told them growing up, and despite all the stuff that wasn’t killing but making me stronger, I really looked up to my brothers.
They made life hard, but I was to learn later after high school graduation, life is hard. Sometimes you don’t see the lessons you were given until later in life. And it’s usually much later that you learn that people's motives aren’t always what you make them out to be at the time things are happening.
I learned from them how to make the perfect overhand cast with a rod and reel.
I learned from them the technique to shoot a free throw and hear that swish almost every time.
I learned from them how to throw a punch. And to take a punch.
I learned that hard work pays off. That if you put your all in then you are more likely going to see a positive return.
I learned that earning something is much better than being given something.
I learned from them how to pitch a good solid burn-your-hand- through-the-glove baseball throw.
I learned from them what Kenny Rogers meant when he said sometimes you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.
I learned how to stalk through the woods to hunt for squirrels and to always aim for the head.
I learned that the key to shooting a bottle rocket or Roman candle by hand was to be fearless of the consequences.
I learned that a movie with John Wayne, Chuck Norris, or Clint Eastwood was the best kind.
I carried these lessons that shaped me and used them to show courage when the bullets were flying, the bombs were dropping, and to keep my cool when I was dealing with a weapon that would kill me in seconds without any regard.
I carried these lessons to temper me to get me through the loss of my mother to cancer. The end of a marriage.
I carried these lessons to have the resilience to open myself up again when I found the person to whom my heart belonged.
I carried these lessons to develop some of my best characteristics: a sense of humor, grit, an adventurous spirit, and to put others' needs ahead of my own.
As I left home right after I graduated high school I soon found myself 2,000 miles away from my brothers by blood and now in the company of a band of brothers. I had traveled from Arkansas to a new life in the military stationed in California.
With these brothers new lessons were learned. Gone were the hard knocks lessons of my original brothers and now I was walking through crucibles of fire with these new brothers. Being in hostile locations and dealing with even more hostile people or dealing with a weapon whose sole purpose was to unleash mass destruction is what I faced with them. With these new brothers I traveled the globe to some of the most austere and inhospitable places, some blessed by a natural beauty but with the scars of war.
From this band of brothers I learned commitment, duty, honor, and sacrifice. I came to appreciate these brothers: new forms of music, new genres of books, and the different places from around America in which they grew up.
But if not for my earlier brothers’ influence, I would have struggled more in this new phase. The perseverance, the ingenuity, and the fortitude that Nicky, Tom, and Mike had instilled in me were able to be a sort of North Star guiding me along in this new phase.
I was away from Arkansas for ten years and in that busy time of my life I unfortunately let my relationship with my brothers slip away. We didn’t talk often and I saw them even less. In my new brothers I had found a place and they had become the limbs to help me branch out in comparison to the deep roots that had developed while I was growing up with my brothers.
Just as it goes with trees, the branches mostly get the focus. You can climb on them, build a treehouse, put up a swing--- have fun. But the roots of the tree ground it. From those roots a tree grows tall and strong. My brothers are my roots. They grew me into the man I became. They hold me in place of who I am.
The branches are mostly gone now. Every now and then one will sway and draw my attention and remind me of days gone by. I had a lot of fun in those days. They expanded my world. I grew from my experiences I learned far from home with my brothers in arms.
My roots are firmly in the ground. They made me strong enough to weather the wind and storms. My brothers toughened me up. They taught me lessons to get through life.
About the author
Don Money was raised in Arkansas on a farm. After ten years in the Air Force, he returned to his roots in Arkansas. He is married with five kids. His journey to become a writer began in the sixth grade when he wrote his first short story.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!