My little brother and I enjoyed relatively unfettered childhoods. As was typical of the time, we grew up as free-range children, exploring our surroundings as we saw fit—biking, go-carting, camping, fishing, building forts, and playing dangerous games on the railroad tracks, just existing with nary an adult to report to for hours at a time. Some summer days we’d leave the house after breakfast, bicycle into town with our inner tubes slung across our torsos, meet up with friends and spend the entire day floating the river, dragging the inner tubes back up the winding trails and doing it again. We always made it home in time for dinner.
I don’t remember anyone ever telling me to watch out for my brother who was four years younger than I, to make sure he didn’t drown or get chased by the Doberman Pinschers who careened after us as we raced our bikes down the winding country roads. We all stuck together then, in a tight knit pack as we roamed the small logging town that shaped us.
Our parents often left us home alone together at night as well, in the log home that our father had built. At home we’d play elaborately imaginative games, build blanket forts, take the guns out of the gun cabinet, spread the bullets around on the floor, and imagine that we were pioneers who needed to hunt for our supper. We knew better than to ever point a gun, imagined or real, at any human being. We knew to put the key to the gun cabinet back exactly as we had found it before mom and dad got home.
On one of these nights, I took it upon myself to teach my little brother how to fight. As we sparred in his bedroom, I grabbed him by the arm and flung him into his closet where he landed hard upon a sharp bit of metal toy railroad track. Obviously he was not learning how to fight fast enough for my taste. He let out a wail and held up his elbow, which sported a two-inch long gash, a deep gushing gash. I’d never seen blood so thick and dark.
Don’t cry! I admonished as I dragged him into the bathroom. Hush. Be brave. Don’t tell mom and dad! I sat him on the closed toilet seat and gave him a comb to bite on (my dad had done the same for me once when I’d gotten the soft flesh of my palm caught in a pump-action BB gun). Bite! I ordered and dug around in the cabinets for a BandAid and some Bactine.
He screamed as I dumped the Bactine into the wound, and the blood soaked through the BandAids as fast as I could put them over the gash. Hold your arm up! I commanded. Up! Higher! I pushed the loose skin together and peeled more bandages, slapping them on as fast as I could. Finally, the bleeding stopped.
You cannot tell mom and dad, I whispered fiercely so he’d know I was serious. We—I emphasized this—will get in so much trouble if they know you got hurt. Somehow, that wound went undetected for several days. Somehow, I never got in trouble. Somehow, as these things tended to do in the days of unfettered childhood, the injury healed without complication.
He still sports the scar on his elbow, a long jagged coil that has faded over time. We are still close in spite of the occasional childhood brutalities I meted out. He insists he doesn’t remember his childhood. I maintain he must have blocked it out.
He’s grown up to be a lovely man, a wonderful father, and amazingly talented at whatever he tries: banking, woodworking, grilling, restoring houses. He balances a complicated schedule but always has time and his full attention for whoever finds themselves sitting across the table from him. I count myself fortunate when I am that person.
We used to work in the same city—he drove north from his home in Oregon, and I drove south from my house in northern Washington. We each spent the better part of the week away from our homes and families, but we re-forged the bond we’d had in childhood.
I’m grateful we had those few years, the opportunity to reconnect as adults, the two of us away from the usual family settings in which adult siblings generally interact, settings fraught with the emotions of holidays and travel and aging parents. Our paths still occasionally cross when just the two of us can enjoy a meal or meet up to catch a Mariners’ game. When we can enjoy the rare days that are unfettered adulthood.