What is left

Mike, Al and Don, before they swapped radio-controlled planes for bigger ones. Sometime in the early 1970's, somewhere in the Atlanta area.

Mike, Al and Don, before they swapped radio-controlled planes for bigger ones.
Sometime in the early 1970’s, somewhere in the Atlanta area.

“A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen.”Edward de Bono

I’ve written very little here about my younger brother Al.  I guess there are a lot of reasons why.  As he is my only younger sibling, I’ve always felt a stronger need to protect him, however illogical that impulse has been.  Al’s life has been difficult, for him and for those who love him.  But in our teenage years, I never would have dreamed it.

Tall, athletic, talented, good-looking and witty, Al seemed to have everything going for him.  People used to say he had the world by the tail.  I never knew anyone with a brighter future ahead of him than Al appeared to have in his youth, and looking back at those days, I cannot laugh over the happy memories without feeling at least a trace of sadness.

Al was only five when he and my older brother were injured in the car crash that nearly killed my mother and sister, and it surely must have traumatized him as much or more than it did the rest of us.  For all of his studied bravado as a young man, I now realize that much more must have been going on inside him.  It’s ironic that it was a drunken driver who hit my family’s car and left lasting scars on us all, most of which cannot be seen with the eyes.

In recent years, I’m happy to say, Al has been doing well, and has been an invaluable help and companion to our aging parents. Maybe that’s why I can finally talk about him and the huge role he played in my childhood and young adulthood, without being overcome by sorrow.  He was the sibling closest to me in age, and when our older brother and sister left home, Al and I ended up spending a good bit of time together.  While there were all the usual squabbles, there also was a lot of joy as we shared music, jokes and serious conversations.

I couldn’t talk about Al without talking about his lifelong friend Don.  Long before Wayne and Garth, or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures, there was a zany planet inhabited by Al and Don, where they spoke their own hip (though esoteric) language, and kept me in stitches with their hilarious parodies of everything imaginable. During a time in my life that was full of insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, I could always count on Al and Don to make me laugh no matter what else was going on. Though they have seen each other relatively seldom in adulthood, Don’s friendship, which has remained steadfast and unconditional, has been a point of stability in Al’s life, and I will always be grateful for that.

I’m also grateful for Al’s wonderful sons, and many other gifts that remain with him, as my siblings and I grow ever-closer to what is known as “old age.”  Al can still make me laugh until I cry, and while our adult years may have held more tears than laughter, de Bono is right about all of those youthful fun times.  They will never unhappen, and the memories are a blessing.

What memories will never unhappen for you?  What lovely mental snapshots do you linger over when you turn through the pages of the scrapbook in your imagination?

One year ago today:

Carry your childhood with you


  1. bobmielke

    Your blog has a way of opening up a lot of memories, some fond, some troubling. My brother, Ed, were 19 months apart with me being the oldest. We were inseparable growing up. Our friends called us Fat Man & Ribbon instead of Batman & Robin. I weighed in at 265 and Ed was 145. I love Ed, his wife Connie and his two children Ben & Susan. They’re all grown up with their own families now. Ed is 63 years old. We haven’t spoken in 10 years.

    My dad died 10 years ago of hardening of the arteries brought on by heavy smoking. His feet were amputated first before the blood veins in his brain started to close down. It was a slow, horrible way to die.

    I moved from St. Louis shortly after dad’s death in a nursing home. I had lost my job of 13 years at McDonnell Douglas along with 10,000 other workers there. I lost my house to foreclosure and my wife who was sleeping with 2 other men, one of whom she wanted to marry. I packed all my possessions in the back of my pickup truck and moved to South Carolina for work and to live with my sister. The country was in a terrible recession and I was looking for work.

    My brother never spoke to me again. I’ve tried countless times to find out why but could never get him to answer my letters or talk on the phone. His wife, Connie, would only say it had something to do with my father’s death and my abandonment of Ed to move in with our sister.

    I had to finally give up and let go of these huge losses in my life or I would have gone crazy. I remarried in South Carolina and worked until retirement in 2010. I miss my brother but try not to think about what happened. It’s his decision to ostrasize me from his life.

    • Bob, I think your story is, sadly, typical of many siblings who grow distant from each other when life hits us with blows that send us reeling. Generally I think women are better at being willing to talk through conflicts and hurt feelings, but most men find communication a far more difficult minefield to cross safely, and there are lots of casualties. So many men tend to avoid it altogether, which is what your brother seems to be doing. I have known many people who isolate themselves from others because they are essentially running from hurts and sorrows they don’t want to work through, and perhaps Ed is just not in a place where he is able to deal with unresolved pain. There is a lot of truth to the old saying about time being a great healer. It isn’t always, but often it is. I pray that someday you will be reconnected with your brother, but I agree that one has to acknowledge the losses and move on.

  2. singleseatfighterpilot

    The memories in his own mind are one of the most amazing aspects of “our little brother”. Just yesterday, we spoke by telephone about the 65 horsepowerfabric-covered “bigger” airplane in which he learned to fly. He could recite the registration number, without hesitation.

    Once he made a small parachute out of a handkerchief. I climbed out of my singleseatfighter jet, and drove the thirty-five miles to meet him at an old drag-strip-turned-aerodrome. He sat in the front seat of that old Champ, and I sat in the back. we could slow it to thirty-seven mph without falling out of the sky, and we did. Al tossed the parachute out, and I jammed the throttle forward – then a whifferdill brought the tiny parachute into “our gunsights” – not once, not twice, but several times; until Al called “knock it off”, claiming I had caused the parachute to bpass between the propeller arc and the wing strut (a space of only about four feet.
    “That parachute is weighted by a big hex bolt!” He screamed.
    “So I’m in front, you wild man!!!”
    You asked for memories 🙂

    • Eric, as many family stories as we have (and tell again and again) I have never heard this one, but it sounds so typical. Reading it, I thought of how Mama used to refer to the Aeronca Champ as “that crate” and how frightened she was about us being up in it. I used to think her anxiety foolish, but now of course I understand it completely, and would be on the ground wringing my hands with her (while nonetheless unable to resist the urge to take a ride myself now and then). I will never forget the day you took toddler Ryan up for a ride – Dad in one cockpit, you with Ryan in the other. Mother was understandably fit to be tied. “There are three generations up there in that crate!” she told me, as we watched you from the ground (was South Fulton Skyport really an old drag strip? Or did your story take place somewhere else?) Despite Mom’s fears, I always thought she was secretly proud of the old Champ and its pilots (you, Daddy, Tuffy, Al, Don and others).According to Dad, after the tornado destroyed it and the others at the airstrip, Mom re-sewed the (enormous) fabric covering that enabled y’all to rebuild the plane. BTW, do I remember correctly that this is the very same aircraft that you rented, before Dad owned it, so Mr. Howard could teach you to fly?

      • singleseatfighterpilot

        Answers to specific questions: South Fulton Skyport continued to hold drag races (for which the quarter-mile was originally designed) on Saturday nights – in fact Don landed late, one afternoon, and broke one of their drag-race signal lights. Mom sewed the Ceconite fabric, and a high school shop teacher, named David Fowler, used Elmer’s glue-all to splice back together the wooden spars in the wings. Come to think of it, it was a sort of cobbled-together crate 🙂 When it was only 20 years old, I rented it for $6.75 Per hour (actually bought block time – 15 hours for $100) Unheard of today, because that included 80 Octane (red) aviation fuel! Lou Howard taught me up to the point of solo, and through the first cross-country in a Fulton Air Service Cessna 150 (rented for a whopping $11.00 Per hour).

        But back to your original subject: Al, in his leather jacket, and the Aeronca were as “Natural” a picture as Robert Redford in the Baseball movie of that name. Or as in a later movie Redford narrated, “All I know about [AL] is that he was a fine fisherman;” “You known more than that,” my father said. “He was beautiful.” (From “A River Runs Through It”)

        • I believe the Cessna 150 you mentioned is the one you flew me in from Russellville, Alabama to Atlanta? I remember Daddy telling you to “keep your forced landing field in your pocket” so the whole way I pestered you with the question, “Eric, where is your forced landing field?” 😀 And you showed me how to use the throttle/steering wheel to go up and down, or right and left. To my knowledge, that flight was the closest I ever came to learning to fly.

          That framed high-contrast photo of Al in the leather jacket, walking away from the hangars and looking up at the sky, was one of my projects for Advanced Darkroom Techniques class in college. I got an A+ on it; apparently my professor liked the way Al looked as much as you did. I gave it to Mom and Dad for Christmas and as far as I know, it’s still hanging on their bedroom wall. I joked to Daddy that it was his $5,000 picture, since that’s about all he got out of the tuition he paid for me over four years of college! 😀 BTW that photo of Al was made the same day he took this one of me. Check that instrument panel! One last question: was this really the kind of plane Daddy learned to fly in decades earlier? From the simplicity of that panel, it looks as if it could be.

          • singleseatfighterpilot

            Yes. The Piper J-3 was the classic that deserves the most credit for making Carlyle a bird man, but the panel was much the same (no gas guage on top – in fact no gas gauge at all, just a piece of wire that stuck out of a cork to show how many of the 10 gallons you had in your only fuel tank!
            It and the Aeronca were manufactured at the same time (ours was 1946) and both were powered by 65 horse engines, much like the first Volkswagon motors. J-3 liked the Lycoming, and Aeronca liked the Continental (not Lincoln).

            • For all Ryan’s (justified) fears of your flying “that green airplane,” I can’t help but wonder whether that Aeronca was as potentially dangerous as the F-100!

          • That’s a great picture, Julia. I never managed to develop that sense of style, but you make it look great! How fun!

            • Thanks Susan! It’s been a long time since anyone used the word “style” in connection with me. For years now my apparel of choice could be described as “apathetic casual.” 😀

    • MaryAnn

      Julia, What a beautiful woman! Great shot! Looks like it could be from a movie promo. So I see you get your beauty from your lovely mother (inside & out from the experiences you relate to us).

      • Wow Mary Ann, you are too kind. I got some of my mother’s looks but my big toothy grin is all from my Daddy (whose nickname among some of his pilot friends was “Smiley.”) I wish I had my mother’s profile, though. You must look more like your father. I never saw all that close a resemblance between you and Ms. Annie although she did seem to have the same love of fun, and sometimes when she would grin she would remind me of you a bit.

  3. Sheila

    Good morning, Julia. 🙂 I’m so glad that you have Al in your life now, and he’s in a good place. You’ve written about the auto accident before. It surely had lasting effects! I, too, had a younger brother, but not without heartache. When I was six, my momma had premature twins, little boys. Mitchell only lived three days but Michael lived, sometimes I think for both of them. I’ve read so much about twins, especially separation or absence of one. Michael was a happy child but later years were difficult. He took his life at 29, but I’ll always remember that he said he was “traveling by faith” and remember his goodness. Thank you for giving me a place to share! Love, Sheila

    • Sheila, I am so touched to learn of your brothers. Isn’t it amazing how much we all carry around inside of us every day, that few people ever find out about? I do believe that a twin would always feel the loss of the brother or sister that shared the womb with them, even if only on an unconscious level. Two of my mother’s brothers are twins, and they look so alike that often I can only tell them apart when they are standing next to each other. I think losing a sibling would also be tremendously hard for the older ones such as you. I am thankful that Michael survived, but sad to read about the grief that surely must have returned when he chose to leave this world. Thank God for the good memories we can hold onto when things are dark. I so appreciate your loving, generous and positive spirit, all the more as I come to know more about your life! Thanks so much for being part of our family through this blog.

    • Sheila, this is probably as private a venue as possible for this [you and I are among the few who read so many comments, especially going back to blog posts of the past]:
      You thanked my sister for providing a place to share the story of your twin, little brothers. I want to thank you for taking “us” into your confidence. I am a better person for knowing of Mitchell and Michael, and I cannot adequately thank you. You see, little brother Al has come back into my life, as well.

      • One thing I love about blogging is that we learn so much about people that we could never learn while chit-chatting at some social occasion. Not that there’s anything wrong with a little superficial communication, but it amazes me how much each one of us carries around inside of us, all the time, and nobody can see that on the surface. I think when we come to know people on a deeper level, we learn to be more circumspect about how we see the differences among us. We have had so many heartfelt, candid, touching or funny stories shared here; I feel so thankful for each one.

  4. Great to hear about your other siblings, esp Al and what a blessing he has been to you. Sorry about the tragedy in your life.
    Yes, our relationship with each of the siblings would be totally different. Some may be mentors, some friends, some even rivals. But when we grow up and move away in different directions we realize how special they were to us. We are three sisters and we wait for my vacations to get together and spend some wonderful moments.

    • Bindu, I always used to say that the best gift a parent could give a child was siblings. Then when we all became adults I wondered whether I was mistaken in thinking so 🙂 but now I have come back around to believing that still. There are some things only a sibling can totally understand. I’m so glad you and your sisters have each other!

  5. I suppose being stricken with polio at age four would be a memory that brings forth light times and laughter, strange as that may seem.

    As in a Charlie Brown cartoon, with all his attempts at success that end in failure, we find it humorous, because of how the circumstances play out to that end. And we are all not that different than he.

    I believe, one should see the importance in all things, but don’t take anything in this world too seriously; least of all ourselves. It allows room for a smile and a laugh, which are most important in successful living.

    • Alan, thanks so much for the uplifting spirit you bring to this blog! One of my favorite books about living with disabilities, Changed by a Child by Barbara Gill, reminds us that “there’s a lot of funny stuff in our lives with our kids. Enjoy it!” As traumatic as Matt’s first manic episode was (not least because it so stumped his developmental pediatrician and pediatric neurologist, who put him through endless tests before finally calling in a psychiatrist who immediately knew what was wrong) there are some hilarious memories to come out of it. Though it was truly the second or third hardest time of my life so far, nonetheless there were light moments and laughter included, just as you say. Ultimately, what a blessing to know “this world is not [our] home, [we’re] just-a passing through” as the old song goes. Thanks for being here!

  6. Rene

    Yeah, your mom hates that plane. I can totally see it. 😀

    • Hee-hee! She used to hate other things in that same way. 😀

      • singleseatfighterpilot

        And yet another Al story: The Milwaukee Braves moved to their new home, in Atlanta, in 1966. I was listening to a game on my 8 Transistor AM radio, and Al heard the announcersay, “So at the end of four innings, The Phillies three, the Braves One.”

        Al got all excited, “The Braves Won!”

        • Who can blame him? That hardly ever happened!

          • BTW, speaking of little kids misunderstanding stuff, Milo Hamilton used to pronounce Felipe Alou’s name in two syllables, without the accent on the ending e that people started using later. I always thought his name was “Filee Filoo” (sort of like “obla-di, obla-da” or “Funiculi, Funicula”).” I was also shocked the first time I saw Phil Niekro’s face on a Coke bottle cap. I had assumed he was black, because I thought the announcers were calling him “Phil Negro” (this was the sixties, when that term was considered polite). Ah, the days of radio baseball! I still find it sort of magical to hear those bats cracking over the radio static.

  7. Like Bob commented, your post brought up varied memories. Mostly not so great.
    If we’re sticking to siblings…I am estranged from both my siblings. One by my choice, the other because she refuses to believe the truth about our dad.
    All my years of therapy taught me that often times when siblings don’t get along it’s directly related to unresolved dysfunction/abuse/trauma within the family of origin. Sibling relationships are one of the casualties.

    • Denise, that’s so true, and as you point out, denial often plays a role in one or more siblings breaking off the relationship. There’s honestly not much that can be done in such a situation; basically people run from what they can’t handle, and sometimes that’s the only way they feel they can survive. Some people say there’s too much emphasis on the importance of healthy family dynamics, but my experience has been that if anything, there’s not enough emphasis on it. A healthy family clearly does not happen naturally or without effort, and destructive things can’t be buried or forgotten or painted over; there are ripple effects (or aftershocks might be a better description) that will continue until it’s resolved, which it may never be. For all my family’s faults, the one thing that has kept us together is that we are quite vocal and honest with each other. That’s brutal at times, and not without hurts, but on balance I think that it’s ultimately better than deadly silence or pretension. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us here.

      • singleseatfighterpilot

        Julia, you ignorant slut. (Taken from Dan Akroid’s “debate” rebutal to Jane Curtain.) I hope Raynard likes this comment 😉
        But, how dare you say “brutal at times”!

        • Did you get the video clip of that very SNL moment that I sent you in an earlier comment? 😀

      • Hi Julia,
        I agree about the emphasis not being strong enough on family dynamics and prioritizing the emotional health and well-being of such.
        Unspoken resentments and misconceptions take their toll, and the trickle down can be destructive, if not devastating.

        • Denise, I can’t figure out if most people are just so averse to confrontation that they can’t take it, or if they just honestly believe secrets are best kept quiet. Are they afraid of lancing the infected place, or is it more like a silent cancer they aren’t even aware of? Probably both at times. Outspoken people such as my family are sometimes guilty of the opposite, picking at something that needs to be left alone to heal. Still, I’m more afraid of the silent and deadly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

        • Denise, that last sentence is powerfully poignant!

  8. Jack

    Last day at college, Vanderbilt Univ May 1981. I knew when I was saying goodbye to 15 or 20 with which I had shared that grand adventure that I wouldn’t see most of them again. They’re all still preserved, as I hope am I, in my twenty two-ness, full of confidence and doubt and hope and wonder. Over the years I’ve bumped into a few of them, still dear friends with four…you can’t go back again…can you?

    • Jack, no we can’t go back to those days, and I say “thank God for that!” But I’m also thankful for the friends we still know. I don’t think I knew that you were at Vandy during some of the same years Jeff and I were at Lipscomb. I graduated in 1978 and Jeff graduated in 1980. (I’m two years older than he is.) We might have been at some of the same baseball games! (I was the one running around with a camera.) 🙂 That was during Larry Schmittou’s years at Vandy and Lipscomb was still NAIA then – Vandy, of course, was NCAA but we loved to beat them, which we often did. A love of baseball was one of the first things I discovered I had in common with Jeff. What did you major in? Did you ever know Debbie Schneider? She’s a high school friend of mine who was at Vandy 1974-78.

      • Jack

        Majored mostly in fun, double minor in Southern Lit and Economics. Dan Young, my hero in the English dept taught me to love Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor. Went to many baseball games, think you’ve got some revisionist memories, no way Lipscomb ever beat the mighty Dores! We won, I think, six football games in my four years. And you can’t go back, grace only goes forward. Thank God!

        Didn’t know Debbie, lordy, I hope she didn’t know me!

        • Jack, I have a very happy memory of the afternoon Schmittou’s team supposedly came to Lipscomb with a cake all ready for what was to be his 500th win. Toward the end of the game when it became obvious it wasn’t going to be a win after all, some of the Lipscomb fans (a rowdy bunch) started to yell “you’d better put your cake in the freezer!” In our relatively tiny Onion Dell field (before the big Ken Dugan field was built) there is no way anyone on either team could miss anything coming from the stands, and some people thought that jeer was mean. I don’t know how many times we beat Vandy in baseball, but it did happen. I’m sure they beat us more often though. But we were the NAIA National Champions in 1977 and 1979, and in the running all the other years I was there. Lipscomb even beat Eddie Stankey’s University of South Alabama NCAA defending champs in BOTH games of a double header in 1975, but that was during the days of fastballer Bo McLaughlin – who, amazingly, pitched BOTH winning games that day. (By the time he got to the majors he had pretty much thrown his arm out from such stuff.) Not surprisingly, Stankey ended up being thrown out of the second game for bad behavior. He probably thought he was padding the team’s schedule coming to play our tiny little school, but those Bisons were the toughest bunch of underdogs I’ve ever seen. Now and forever, they were my favorite part of being at Lipscomb — aside from Jeff, who didn’t come along to rescue me from all that nonsense until my senior year.

  9. raynard

    Julia, the first comment i read here today reminded me of my sister who is 1 year younger than I am. We live in the same apartment complex and use to attend the same church. It’s been 40 years and you would think that her and Cre De Ville( from the 101 dalmations) flunked ” charm school” I digress ,nuff said. Me and my oldest brother when I was a kid, put up a milk crate as a basketball hoop, .We also in my teens attended the annual auto show in Manhatten NY. Shared a common interest in music. As the saying goes”One day we all gotta get old.” I did and we went in different directions afte I joined the army. He wasnt able to join as the military back then did let the one boy in the family join so I was told. Just came back from Shady Maple Smorgasborg and ” I feel fattered ” lol be blessed

    • Hi Raynard! I am so glad you guys had a good trip. I got your email but didn’t answer yet because I knew you would be on the road, and have not caught up with my mail yet. One of these days we will get the timing right and be able to get together in Virginia Beach. I am sure there are people who would say of me what you said of your sister and Ms. DeVille. I can be pretty hard to take at times but I would never dream of wearing dalmatian fur! One year my brother sent me a birthday card that had an old school teacher at a chalkboard on the front of the card, saying “Now we will conjugate the phrase “am old.” Then it said on the chalkboard “I am old, you am old, he, she and it am old” and inside it said “WE IS ALL OLD!!!” That was one of my favorite birthday cards ever and now my siblings and I say that to each other all the time. 😀 Hope the rest of the weekend is nice too!

  10. Julia, hello. thanks for sharing your childhood memories. 🙂
    My younger sister and brother always shares memories that I don’t remember! Maybe because I’m several years older!…I don’t share the same memories…but we talk often. Keeping the family bond strong, since we’ve lost our parents and a brother.

    • Merry, I think siblings often have different versions of the same story – that’s part of what makes it fun (usually fun, anyway 😀 ) I do know that Al and I have lots of stories Eric and Carla wouldn’t remember since they happened after they were grown or at least old enough to be off with their friends someplace most of the time. I’m glad you are still visiting with your sister and brother!

  11. I’m glad you opened the window, just a little, to share some of your story. I sense the angst and the sadness and understand that mixture of happiness and sorrow. I’ve shared some of this on my blog once before. Some days it’s just exhausting to bring it all up again. Thoughtful post, Julia.

    • Alys, I agree with you that it does take emotional energy and stamina to process this stuff, and there are days when that is just impossible. In a way, it’s not too different from the de-cluttering process when one is going through emotionally laden belongings that have accumulated in hidden closets and corners. I will have to look for the blog post you refer to. Thanks for being here, and for understanding!

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