Today is difficult. I should be working on the story my wife asked me to help plot, but my mind keeps wandering back to a little four room house on Four Mile Road. It was a rundown old farmhouse, without indoor plumbing, and heated by an ancient cast iron stove. The house was a long way from everything. The sun set between our house and the nearest town, a thriving metropolis of nearly 3000 people, that we moved to some years later.
I didn't understand what poverty was, and didn't see anything of the world beyond our holler. Day to day life didn't change much. My brothers picked on me, my older sister bossed me around, and the younger one was a fussy baby who displaced me as the baby. We were Appalachian to the core, proud, independent, dirt poor, hard working, and barely getting by from day to day.
My mother worked ten hour days in a sewing factory. My father worked in a steel mill in Columbus, Ohio. He came home on the weekends bringing most of his paycheck and the occasional treat. Being neither the youngest nor the oldest in the family, my life was a constant attempt to avoid being yelled at, beat up, or given more chores. It was a hard life. Everyone had to do their part to keep the family going. We grew our own food, made most everything we had, and wasted nothing. I didn't understand then how hard it was or how much harder it could get. Between age four and five, the bottom fell out of our isolated little world.
My father got hurt in the mill. I wish I could remember him better before a thousand pounds of steel crushed his back, turned his hair white, and left him in pain for the rest of his life. He eventually was able to return to the labor force, but the years of recovery were a strain on all of us. After his injury, we had to be very quiet around the house. Perhaps that quiet was the beginning of my writing roots. Who knows? We had no books. The biggest comfort I had growing up was my imagination. There I could escape to places where I wasn't little, lonely, or frightened. Heroes populated my imagination and magic worked wonders in my make-believe world.
If any family needed a little magic, ours did.
With Mom at work and Dad laid up, we kids pretty much raised ourselves. The major burden of that fell on my oldest sister, Kay. Believe me, the rest of us were a huge burden. I wouldn't wish my family on any teenager. My youngest sister was just a baby, I was about four and a half, and the brother nearest my age was barely six. Then there was Don. His twin died shortly after he was born. I often wondered if he would have been different if Ronny had survived too. Some of my earliest stories revolved around a brother I never met. Unlike Don, his dead twin liked me. He would never have tied my pigtails to the clothes line and left me hanging there until Mom got home.
My brother Don was the kid who is always a little slower, a little less able. He didn't learn to walk until he was nearly four. My brother Don had about nine tenths of the necessary skills to manage his own life, let alone manage to turn out well under the conditions we grew up in. That missing tenth, that small part that gives us common sense, just wasn't there. That would have held him back in any course his life might have taken. As poor kid in Eastern Kentucky, he never stood a chance at having a decent life. His brain worked just well enough to get him into trouble and his temper worked too well. Over time, Don and trouble became synonyms.
At sixteen Don got tired of walking home, so he stole a bicycle from a classmate. For that lack of impulse control, he was sent to reform school until he turned eighteen. Before his nineteenth birthday, he went to prison for the first time. Perhaps went to prison for a lifetime is a more accurate account. He turned a three year prison sentence into a career as a prisoner. There were brief respites when his keepers granted parole, but those could be measured in months.
On television we see criminals commit complex, well planned crimes. Maybe he was aiming at being one of those criminal masterminds, but if that was the case, his aim fell really short. Don committed crimes like driving the Baptist minister's car up the courthouse steps, and breaking into a hardware store and sleeping in a hammock overnight. My personal favorite crime was his first escape from jail. Yes, there were other escapes. Don's biggest talent was was getting out of or into a locked room. However, that first jail break was the most memorable.
His great jail break was particularly noteworthy because the jailer didn't know it had happened until his next arrest.
In the jailer's defense, the breakout and arrest were only about an hour apart.
That day, my wiry brother decided that if he stripped and soaped himself down he would be able to slide between the bars. At this point, I should point out that the cells were on the second floor of the jail and the jailer lived on the first floor. This is important because Don forgot to throw his clothes down before climbing out. With no way to retrieve his drawers without turning himself in, he tried to run home before anyone saw him.
Even in a small town in Eastern Kentucky it is difficult to run half a mile buck naked through downtown without someone noticing. His subsequent arrest was for “streaking.” The “escape” charge was added when the officer brought him in and the jailer realized he was supposed to already be there.
If you are wondering why I am talking about this, it is because I am thinking about Don today. He has found a new prison to occupy. One he created all by himself through years of smoking, a habit he picked up in reform school and mastered through years of prison. They actually let him come home when his lungs were so bad he had to be on oxygen all the time.
He is hooked to a ventilator now, and sedated so he won't remove the tube. I am not sure how I feel about what's happening to him. I know he doesn't want to be on this ventilator. He has stated frequently that he doesn't want to be kept alive. But the hospital doesn't have a Do Not Resuscitate order on file for him. Whether he neglected to give it to them or they lost it is anybody's guess. He is in no condition to sign a new one. Nothing he or I or anyone else can do can change his situation.
It seems to me that life has been so utterly unfair to him in every possible way that this is a fitting end. From his birth as a premature twin before neonatal care could have helped him develop, to his impoverished childhood and the lack of special education programs in the 1950's, to the years of prison, my brother never stood a chance of having a decent life. Perhaps, it is somehow fitting that the end of his life is as utterly messed up as the rest of it. I would like to think that when his struggle is over, he will be reunited with that missing twin - the twin who was kind and loving and would never stick his little sister in a bucket and drop her down the well.