I used to force my brother Dustin to listen to my records — the Beatles, Hall and Oates, Journey, all of it. I made him learn every “nah nah” on “Hey Jude,” every deep cut off Voices, every Neal Schon guitar lick.
Come to find out, Dustin hated that stuff. He was into something called the Dead Milkmen, skateboarding, video games. My albums were, like, old. Separated by five years, we were just that much more different by the time he was old enough to be his own kid. Before that, I wanted him to like everything I liked, do everything I did.
I think I was more excited by his arrival than our parents. Old Super 8s bear this out. In the home movies, I’m bottle-feeding him through the rails of his crib, a crescent-moon smile plastered across my face. I’m chasing him around as he struggles to crawl. My parents, as far as I was concerned, had brought home my new best friend. And at first he was.
I remember a club that a kid from up the street and I formed when we were young, the major innovation of which was that we folded the brim of our baseball caps — like an upside-down “V” — rather than curved it. Dustin wanted in, even though he had no means to purchase said cap. I lobbied hard, nevertheless. Finally, my friend Jamie (a few years older) came up with this very adult concession: My brother could be “sergeant-at-arms” of the club — meaning he put up the folding chairs after the regular meeting we had in the garage. Those hats, like our parents’ marriage, were lost in the 1970s.
We were always friends — I guess, deep down, still are — and always linked in that we’d seen our folks happy together, and could talk about that after they split. I taught him how to ride a bike, made him swear not to tell about the nudie magazines Jamie and I had hidden down by the ditch, actually beat up several smart-ass kids who gave him trouble.
But when our father died, 25 years ago this May, things began to change. And the funny part is, it wasn’t a choice either of us made. What were once small differences grew into bigger ones, as he became more like Dad and I simply didn’t. Dustin always worked with his hands, always drove a truck. Me? I was known as College Boy.
Funny enough, it’s actually Dad’s fault: My father had bought the great classics for me — a series of blue books that began with “Robinson Crusoe.” He and Mom would make me read this stuff, sitting between their recliners as they watched TV. Then, my father was stunned when I announced my intention to major in English and journalism. My brother? Well, he was more like it: Dad and Dustin would take transistors apart, out of pure curiosity about how the thing worked, and for the thrill of trying to put them back together. They’d sit out in the garage for hours, tinkering. I just wanted my radio back, so I could catch the new song from Queen.
These differences mattered more, I guess, as we got older. We’ll go too long, often years, without talking. A funny thing happened, though, something that made all of that time apart — for me and Dad, for Dustin and me — seem like nothing more than a blink of the eye.
I saw Dustin again, and he looks just like our father, just as an impossibly young Jimmy did in his senior yearbook from the now-renamed Thomas Jefferson High in Port Arthur, Texas. It’s uncanny, and perhaps never more so than on a day like this one — on the 70th anniversary of our Dad’s birth.
He is, and will always be, my brother Dustin: The one who wore my football helmet for those first skateboard runs, the one who got an earful for scratching my Bachman-Turner Overdrive record. But, at the same time, he’s grown into being his own man, with his own life. Along the way, too, Dustin has always owned a little bit more of our father’s legacy than I ever will — and that’s especially true now. It’s right there, in his eyes, in the way he talks, even in the way he walks.
I can’t tell you what a comfort all of that is to me today.