Brother Dan

He drove a black Volkswagen Beetle. Dad called it "one of those furrin' death traps." Mom said it worked out as she predicted; Jennifer would marry the first man she dated that was taller than her. I was a kid, recently turned 7 years old, and the first of my many brothers-in-law had come to town. He was there to marry my oldest sister, Jennifer, and I distinctly remember my first interaction with him. Mom had tasked me with setting the table and when Dan sat down at his place, he picked up his fork, looked at me and asked "Can I get a dinner fork instead of a salad fork?" Hell. I didn't know there was a difference. I was embarrassed and immediately subscribed to my parent's skeptical perception of this guy.

Jennifer is 13 years older than me and was more legend than sister. I couldn't imagine anyone being up to the standards required to marry such a smart, pretty and adventurous woman. She had moved away, off to college, only a few years before. I vaguely remember helping my parents move her to Denton, but I distinctly remember everyone being excited when Jennifer came home, even Mom and Dad, who didn't get excited much. Now, getting married, well, we would not be her home anymore. She would still visit, of course, but even a seven year old knows that getting married is a permanent, life altering decision. I expected him to be as worldly and wise and sophisticated as my sister after all, she picked him. I'm not sure he was any of those things, but he was certainly different.

First of all, he was loud. He had a loud, deep voice that got your attention. He was tall and thin, even taller than my big brother Billy. He was direct, and not just about things like salad forks. For example, when asked about the Beetle he didn't just make small talk about affordability and gas mileage, he would explain how it was the superior automotive choice, daring you to challenge his position. He did not defer to my Dad on every discussion of weather or cars or work. He did not react to Mom's subtle insults and comments. Perhaps that's because he did not know her well enough, but I suspect it was because he didn't really care what she thought. All of these characteristics spoke to his confidence which was indeed something foreign to me and my environment, like his car. Dan was the ground-breaker, the first of my many brothers-by-marriage, and I appreciate all the things I learned from him and most of all, his friendship and the mutual respect we shared.

As a boy, Dan taught me many things. I spent a lot of time on summer vacations with Dan and Jennifer, and though the things we did would seem mundane to some, they were quite the adventure for a small town Texas Panhandle kid. Jennifer and Dan were married in August of 1966 at the Central Church of Christ (reception to follow at the Coronado Inn) and I was seven years old. When I turned nine, in the summer of 1968, I spent several weeks with them and continued to spend some time with them every summer until I was a teenager.

We went to Fort Concho in San Angelo while we were visiting his family. Jennifer bought me a souvenir "bull whip" and Dan helped me learn to crack it in his mother's backyard. He told me stories of his own childhood and how he learned a lot from Fess Parker as Daniel Boone, and even had a coonskin cap.

Though my family were big 42 players (it's a domino game for those unfamiliar), Dan was the one who taught me to play, again at his mother's house. He was patient to a point, but you didn't want to make the same mistake twice, especially if it cost you the hand. Dan was competitive.

I would not say that Dan was a "foodie", but he did introduce me to Green Goddess salad dressing, eating raw green onions that have been chilled in a glass of water in the refrigerator, eating scrambled eggs with pickled green pepper sauce and wheat bread. He also took me to Taco Bell, my first exposure to "mexican food" of any kind, though I have yet to see an "enchirito" again. And though I suspect it was more about catching the fish than cooking them, the best fried fish filets I've ever had were cooked by Dan.

His mother kept a pistol, a pearl handled, nickel plated, pocket sized semi-automatic .22 in her apron pocket. Once, when we were playing 42, it clanked against the table as she stood up, so she pulled it out and set it next to her iced tea on the card table. I can't imagine what face I made, but on later adventures, when I was amazed or confused Dan would say, "There's that pistol face again" and remind me of the story.

Once, I sat in the back seat of their '67 Mercury Cougar as Dan and Jennifer fought over the length of my hair. I had been staying with them a while and I suppose my hair was longer than what Dan deemed appropriate for a boy ... it was the late 60s. Jennifer argued to "let him be" and "he's just a kid." There was enough shouting to make me cry. That may sound like a terrible thing, but my only exposure to married people fighting was the deadly silences between Mom and Dad, and then having one or the other vent their side to me while riding alone with them in the car. Note that despite the argument, I did not get my hair cut until I got home to Pampa, at which point Mom took me to Bob & Gip's barber shop and had my hair buzzed, unfortunately for me, right before school started.

Dan took me to work with him. It was summer and hot and humid and the job was roofing lake houses with wood shingles. I did a lot of gopher work in the mornings and then, when it got really hot, he'd let me go fish from the shore while he and his buddy, Gilbert I think, continued shingling. I never caught many fish, but I learned the difference between shingles and shakes, why a rip hammer is different than a claw hammer, how to pop a chalk line and to appreciate a nice piece of shade and a little breeze while eating deviled ham sandwiches on white bread, dill pickles and iced tea.

Dan took me fishing, on a boat, and let me drive it. My Dad was always prompting me to drive cars and tractors and trucks, so I knew the drill. Once we found ourselves right in the middle of a school of sand bass in some sort of feeding frenzy. My cheap Zebco 202 had a silver spoon on and it would no more touch the water than some sandie would hit it. I heard "there's that pistol face." Dan had been driving and had a worm on, which was no good in this situation because they were feeding on some shad. He told me he would get the fish off the hook and for me to keep casting that silver spoon. I don't know how many we caught, but it was a bunch. He taught me to clean and filet fish that day, too.

Dan took me to my first professional sporting event. We sat in the cheap seats at the old Arlington Stadium to see the Texas Rangers. He was too cheap to pay for parking, so we parked out in some trees on some undeveloped land near the stadium and walked a bit further than those who paid to park. Though I had played baseball, Dan explained it. He was openly critical of poor play, and with his loud voice everyone around us would hear him. One time, there was a guy a few rows in front who would shout "Amen, Brother!" when Dan would criticize a weak at bat by Ted Ford or praise a defensive play by Toby Harrah.

By the time I was in my teens I stopped spending summers with them, but they still came up for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Once, at Thanksgiving, just Dan and I went quail hunting at Uncle Ivan's place near Shamrock. We also hunted on my Uncle Joe's place which was near there. Though I had been hunting before with Dad and Bill, their approach was a lot more relaxed, if you see 'em shoot 'em. Dan was more intense, you didn't just hope they were there, you went looking for them, and you kept looking. We got maybe 6 or 8 birds total, with me getting only one of those. The one I hit was only winged, and still alive when we found it. Dan quickly popped its head off and put it in his game bag. There was a dusting of snow when we started that morning. Much of it had melted, but there was still some to be found in the shade of the tall grass or behind a fence post. He washed hands with snow and said "hunting's not about suffering."

I have two fond memories of Dan from when I was in college. Once he loaned me $500, a princely sum in those days, so that I could go on a ski trip during winter break. There was no question he expected to be paid back (and I hope I actually did!), but he told me he thought it was important to have fun when you're young enough to not have responsibilities but old enough for really fun things. The other was during my senior year at NTSU (now UNT). It was nearing the end of the spring semester and I would soon be interviewing for jobs. I was going to Ft. Worth to hand deliver some applications and résumés. When he learned I was coming that way he asked me to meet him at The Pioneer, his regular after work hangout, what some might call a dive bar. As I walked in, my eyes adjusting to the dim lights inside, I heard Dan say "why I could beat you with that skinny long haired kid as my partner!" They invited me over and I began to play shuffle board with Dan as my partner. The standing wager was pitchers of beer and after we won a couple he confessed I was a ringer, since he had taught me to play on a few other occasions. He introduced me to his friends and had me go to the car to get a copy of my résumé. Later, I got an offer from Texas Employer's Insurance, his employer, but I opted to take another offer from Kraft Foods in Garland, which is a whole 'nother story, as they say.

There were so many other things, so many little, insignificant things, that on reflection reveal his impact was on my life. I first heard about Rush Limbaugh from Dan, and I still refer to the Fort Worth Star Telegram as "The Startlegram." I like the smell of pipe tobacco and smoked a pipe for many years. I understand rough, calloused hands are the result of intention, not carelessness. I know the effort involved in investing wisely, and the consequences of debt. I learned that anger can obscure your best intentions and prevent you from being heard or appreciated. I witnessed the sanctity and personal implementation of "in sickness and in health." And I know, from experience with Dan, that a loud voice and confident manner does not replace a fundamental humility, and that being direct, or honest, doesn't mean you don't care. It means that you honestly do care.

As we got older, our relationship changed. Dan mellowed out a bit, and I gained more experience with work and marriage and the world in general, so we eventually ended up with a peer-like relationship, a "brother" relationship. I saw him most recently at Christmas, at Jessica's house, and we talked of sports and politics and the struggles of married men as we often did.  Not long after we learned that Dan had been diagnosed with cancer, and sooner than anticipated he passed away. When I heard about the diagnosis and prognosis I sent the following text to Whitney and Jessica:

"Also, please know and feel free to share with Dan that my life has been better because he has been in it. He's given me much more than he knows. That may be hard for you to see, but it's true."

And it is true. I know that my brother Dan was a stumbling block for many. He had his flaws, as do
we all, but he was good to me, and treated me better than I deserved. As the kid brother of his wife, from a family that did not always accept his "differentness", I have what I think is a unique perspective. I worshipped my sister Jennifer, and still do, because of all the above plus the many other things she has given to me. As kid brother I have witnessed, from an objective position, a 50 year marriage. That does not happen without love. It does not happen without grace and forgiveness and joy and sorrow. It does not happen without being worthy of respect. I once read that men want to be respected by a woman they love, and women want to be loved by a man they can respect. I cannot testify that this was true for Jennifer and Dan, but I hope it was, because I respect them more than they will ever know.

My life has been better because Dan was in it. What more can you ask? I will miss him, but I cannot forget him because he helped shape my life.

And finally, much like my Dad, Dan was not a church-goer. I have no special insight into the workings of the Almighty, but I have faith that his grace is sufficient. I suspect that Dan, always keen to see to the crux of any issue, knew that grace was there, and took full advantage of it. Rest in peace brother Dan. I love you.

No comments:

Post a Comment