It was nice growing up with someone like you — someone to lean on, someone to count on… someone to tell on! — Anonymous
We were mean as striped snakes when we were kids. Mama told us we were, so it must have been true. She pronounced it “stripe-ed.” A plain ol’ one-syllable striped snake probably wasn’t nearly as mean a stripe-ed one.
The meanest of my siblings was my brother JW. Or J-dubbie as daddy called him. Or sometimes just “Dub.” When he got married he became known as Jay, because that’s what his wife called him. Even though he was older than me, I always called him “little brother” because I was an inch or two taller. His full name is John William Martin Jr., but no one ever called him Junior. Not to his face anyway. I told you he was mean, and everyone knew that, so if you feared for your life, you never called him Junior. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that was, and still is, true.
You would think that with several names he might have had multiple personality disorder or maybe he was in the witness protection program, but, nope, he was neither. He’s been pretty much the same person his whole life, which isn’t necessarily a good thing, but at least you know what to expect from him.
He’s also died many deaths, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
How was he mean? Let me count the ways. When I say he was mean, you have to take that in context. Y’all know how brothers and sisters are — fight like cats and dogs until somebody else attacks them, then you fight like lions and tigers to defend your siblings. Besides, I was spoiled by my maternal grandmother, so it’s no great surprise that maybe he wanted to stifle me. I really can’t blame him.
He told me many times that he was going to hit me so hard that I would wish I was dead. See, he was so mean that for many years he let me believe that he had come up with that line on his own. This was about the time he was trying to memorize the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech for high school, so I’m convinced he stole the line from Shakespeare. Or a comic book. By the way, the only thing that ever made me wish I was dead was a kidney stone, but that was later, long after JW’s Cain and Abel fixation had run its course. For the record, he broke that promise and didn’t hit me, even if I’m sure I often deserved it.
From a very young age JW was a hunter and a fisherman. Still is. At 70-plus years old, he still climbs trees to “hunt” deer, which shows he’s not only mean, but crazy as well. So one day when he was going hunting or fishing I decided I wanted to go, too. After all, he had wandered the woods and banks in search of various furry mammals and scaly fish from the time he could walk, and since I could now walk, maybe I could tag along? “No!” he said. “You’re not going.” I started crying. Pitiful crying. When he realized I wasn’t going to shut up, he issued the ultimate threat, the one threat that the rest of the family wanted to avoid at all costs — “If he goes, I’m not going!” he exclaimed. Well, that settled that.
He was the oldest child, after all, the one who would inherit the throne (we had, by this time, moved up in status from the chamber pot to an indoor bathroom, so it was no idle threat.) We all knew that a mad-as-a-hornet JW was much worse than a sobbing 5-year-old, so daddy decided that he could go and I couldn’t.
I knew right then and there that my future was set. He was the outdoorsman, while I would be the writer in the family. Being a writer seemed much safer. Unfortunately for me, the money I made from writing never put any food on the table, while hunting and fishing did. Literally. And here most everyone thought I was the smart one of the family.
Far and away, though, the meanest thing he ever did was to scare the bejeebers out of our aunt Gladys. Gladys was the scary, anxious type. It’s a family trait, anxiety. My paternal grandmother had it, dad and Gladys had it, and I have it, too. Maybe one day I’ll conquer my anxiety about writing about anxiety and tell you more. Anyway, Gladys’ life was lived in her little grocery store. Out back of the store was the well, with a windlass and bucket for drawing water.
One summer day, little brother got mad at Gladys because she wouldn’t give him something he wanted (probably ice cream or a candy bar or a local delicacy, a can of potted meat), so he told her that if she didn’t give it to him, he was going to jump in the well. Understand, people with anxiety have super hearing. It’s a survival thing, being able to hear all the stuff coming to get you and stomp you flat. JW knew this, so he filled the water bucket with rocks, dropped it into the well, and screamed at the top of his lungs (more Jane- than Tarzan-like, but terrifying nonetheless.) Then he ran and hid. Hilarity did not ensue. I believe that was the moment when the term “freaked out” was coined. Sorry, I can’t bear to describe the scene that followed. Gladys lived for many years after that, but it’s a wonder she survived that day. I’m sure the death certificate would have stated “Fright” as cause of death.
As I said, anxiety ran rampant in my family. Daddy couldn’t stop JW from going hunting or fishing, and neither could he stop worrying about what might happen to him out there in the dark woods and murky waters. Many times he told me, “He’s dead, I know he’s dead.” That meant we were going out looking for little brother.
Traipsing around the bottoms and rivers and ponds searching for my brother’s lifeless body wasn’t as bad as you might think. For one thing, I was reasonably sure that he wasn’t drowned, or dead from an accidental discharge from his rifle (more sure of the latter than the former, because he was a pretty good shot but he couldn’t swim. Daddy’s theory was that if you couldn’t swim you would never drown because you wouldn’t get in water in the first place). For another thing, looking for JW got me out of the house, and for a while, I became a hunter just like him. Plus, if he were dead, that meant I inherited our newly up-scaled throne, didn’t it?
All of the above is true, more or less. Time tends to make certain events bigger and others smaller, but it’s all relative, especially when writing about, well, your relatives. This next part isn’t exaggerated at all, though.
JW wasn’t really mean, you see.
He’s been a wonderful brother. Along the lines of the newspaper adage, “If it bleeds, it leads”, I’ve only told you the bad (or as it looks now, funny) things. There are many, many good things he did. Among them, when I was little he somehow kept me from freezing to death in our upstairs, unheated room. He still delivers, Santa Claus-like, watermelons to my doorstep. Once, he brought, unasked, a load of fire wood. I traded him a car for some lumber and then he gave the car to his brother-in-law. See what I mean about the good stuff? Boring compared to the “bad” stuff, isn’t it?
Above all, I know that when I need him, he’s there for me, and during hunting season he’s pretty easy to find — up a tree somewhere.
I love you little brother, no matter what your name is.
Steve Martin is a lifelong resident of Surry County and lives near the Mitchell River. He hunts old books and records — fortunately, not from trees. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.