Quiet Sleep and a Sweet Dream
I am listening now to Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”. It’s one of my own favorite pieces of music, tense at times but ending quietly; easily proceeding, one gets the feeling, with a promise of good at the end and the inevitability of that end. That’s me, no heavy lifting. I want to be carried.
When we were little my father told us children, my brother Tom, me and our sister Stephanie, that we all were in God’s pocket before He sent us to our parents. Our angel took us and gave us to them. It made sense to me. We started from a comfortable place, and we would, someday, return; if not to the same safe and cozy place, then, as I later learned, into everlasting bliss. Or, as C.S. Lewis described it rather excitingly in the last of his Narnia books, a place where we could go “further up and further in.”
I have depended on that all these years.
I have long thought my brother Tom was of a mind to choose the Lewis version of eternity. The eldest, he had, I think, a confident optimist’s view of life and what it offered. And what it offered was illimitable opportunity; all good things. He was a happy fellow, and I, three years junior, loved my big brother in a hero worshiping way; more than my following our father, I wanted to grow up to be like my brother Tom.
Maybe that’s the way of it with younger and littler brothers.
I remember our first summer in a primitive little cottage on the Jersey Shore. It was a short walk to the beach from that cottage. Tom must have been nine or ten, and I was six or seven. That was the year we spent several weeks of sunny days on the beach building a boat. I listened to his tales of the adventures to come each evening as we slept in the same bed in the little room. Tales of what would come to pass, the two of us in our boat and the World Ocean around. We would sail the ocean wide, catch fish by the dozens and have great adventures on the wild and stormy sea. Of course, having no idea what the building of a boat required, the project was a failure. It sank quietly into the sandy bottom just a few feet from shore on the afternoon we launched it. I thought it might have been too ambitious a plan. Tom looked for more planks of wood to build a better, safer, boat. Being boys, though, and young, we moved on to other things, exploring the woods up the road from us for signs of ancient Indians. Pretending we were just those ancients.
We may both have been dreamers, but Tom’s dreams were always bigger, more aggressive and more daring; perhaps, I think now, more romantic. He was a kind of Nimrod, I suppose; but always careful of the risks, the limits. He wouldn’t attempt a Babel; but he would, and did, dare much that others would never dream in their wildest fancies. He had a different drummer. In fact, I’d say that he had his own drum!
Its beat attracted others.
We walked back and forth to school, and each morning and afternoon several boys accompanied us. They were there to listen to my brother’s stories. Stories he made up as we went along, of events that never would but might some day in some place happen. They were the kind of stories I did not know then, but came to find out, would indeed happen to the both of us. I have never forgotten one young fellow, a classmate of mine, who traveled several blocks out of his way each morning and afternoon to listen to my brother’s tales. He was there in the morning waiting for us to arrive, and left in the afternoon reluctantly; Bobby Kupka he was named, who lived on Albany Crescent, all of whose residents were the enemies of us who lived on Bailey Avenue.
A year or two later Tom was “christened” Red Beak by the Big Kids on the block. He assumed a kind of ministerial role in the little republic of kids. And he became in many instances a sort of “envoy” to the other blocks when troubles arose, solving problems, ending squabbles. Tom wasn’t a fighter. He was more of a diplomat seeking the sweet middle where all were happy.
Such was my brother’s magic.
That ended when he entered High School, and was certainly put to rest when he graduated. He went to sea, then, in the Merchant Marine, sailing as a deck hand, an Ordinary Seaman, later to become an Able Bodied Seaman in the Seafarer’s Union of the Pacific, a small west coast union which had remained outside the left leaning NMU. His first trip took him around the world, the only kid in the neighborhood to be doing anything like that in forever.
But he was ever Tom when away, and on his return, laconically writing about wandering the streets of Calcutta or Marseilles, or Genoa or Naples as if he was on the subway to Coney Island, continuing life as if he had never left when back. I never questioned him much when he came home. We had begun our own and separate lives by that time. I just knew when he went, one sea bag full of clothes over his shoulder, and dragging another full of books behind him. Aside from the brief letters he would write to me or the family from time to time asking for a pair of work boots to be sent to some distant port, or a shirt, and occasionally a book he could have been away at camp for all that anyone knew. With him back I simply stopped wearing his clothes, and he picked up kidding me the way older brothers do at that age. It was a job he did well.
In the next few years before our marriages, a number of things stand out. At Tom’s urging, and because we so resembled each other, we shared several jobs under his name; working part time in the Post office during the Christmas rush, each year for longer and longer periods until we worked from October through February. We also ushered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It may have been there that he developed his fondness for Madame Butterfly. I know it was there that I developed a fondness for Wagner and the ballet. I have him to thank for that.
There are two other schemes of his which stay with me. He had been away from school for several years, and while he was attending Fordham, and I was in Manhattan, I sometimes attended classes for him, and took one or two exams. One Theology exam I remember taking got him a C in the course. The statute has run on these activities, so we are safe.
But his best was the one in which he interviewed me one Saturday morning on WFUV, where he had a half hour show each week. His scheduled guest had cancelled and he needed someone to fill in at the last minute. We built a boat that sailed a sea of some sort at last. I walked into the studio and he told me that I was L. Peter Schaeffer, a German photographer. And that is who I was for the next half hour as he interviewed me. So convincing was our little game that the engineer told him later he would have sworn we were brothers until we began to talk.
The years intervened with family and work. He was a Marine and a Peace Corps Volunteer; not so violent a yoking of the dissimilar as that may seem, and quite typical of the kind of fellow my brother was. We saw each other irregularly, and briefly at holidays and family visits when our attentions were divided among the company. It is the way of it, of course. But we were brothers, still. These things never change. Just last week when we sat together with our sister, Stephanie, once more three, the years slipped away. I saw, and I like to think he saw, too, the way we were, and have always been. I kissed him when I left and told him that I loved him. So did Stephanie. And, he did the same with us.
My oldest memory of my brother Tom, my first clear memory in fact, is of us both riding down the hall of our apartment at 2820 Bailey Avenue in the Bronx; riding down the hall of the apartment on the back of Stephanie’s crib being pushed by our father and laughing all the way; I a little more than three, and he not yet seven years old, at the beginning of the long voyage now complete for him, and the journey home, a quiet sleep and a sweet dream waiting when the long trip’s over.
Sept. 25, 2015