The novelty of having a baby brother wore off fairly quickly. In my mind I had expected him to be play-ready when he came home from the hospital, but the reality was actually quite different and, to say the least, disappointing. Danny slept more than my dad did, and it didn’t take long for boredom to settle in. After the chaos of his birth, I had resumed my usual routine except mom had less time for me and started wearing a harried look like a soiled and overused cocktail dress. Luckily, I started kindergarten later that year and had plenty of other things to keep me busy.
While I was distracted, Danny went from being a lump in a bassinet to being this curious, crawling machine to walking and stomping around the house in a short amount of time. By his first Christmas, he could putter around the house after me like it was no one’s business. At first, I had a renewed interest in the little squirt with visions of big brother domination, but it didn’t take long for us to have our first spat, which ended with Danny crying after I popped him one. I got away with that one because he couldn’t talk, but there’d be few that I’d wiggle my way out of going forward. That was but the first shot across the bow in a long line of legendary battles that wouldn’t end until I moved away to college.
I had waited a long time to get a brother (in kid years, it was an eon), but my parents weren’t finished with the surprises. Danny hadn’t even tested the waters of being the baby of the family long before my next brother, Jason, was born. By the end of 1977, our little family was complete, and my mom’s life and sanity would never be the same.
Adding another child to the family meant we’d outgrown the tiny home near my grandparents, so dad decided to move us a few miles down the road to what became known as The Red House. The mere mention of The Red House brings back a bunch of mixed emotions. It was our home for over seven years, and within its walls and beyond occurred many of my best childhood memories, but those years, to this day, remain the toughest of my life. For that reason, I’d rather forget many things, but others I cherish.
The Red House was nothing much at all. I don’t know when it was built, and if I had to guess, I’d say it was built in the 1940s. It had five rooms including a large kitchen in the back and a large living room in the front. Bedrooms were wedged between those two main rooms, but the smaller bedroom, the one Danny and I would share until we moved out, would barely pass for a hallway. In fact, there was no hallway to speak of – we had to pass through every room to go from one end of the house to the other.
The walls, covered in dark paneling on the inside and red asbestos-laden siding on the outside, lacked insulation. In the winter, frost would form on the inside of the paneling in the living room. Like so many houses back in its heyday, if it ever had one, The Red House stood on stacked cement blocks, so air circulated beneath it making the floors very cold in the winter. We heated the house with these terrible stand-alone gas units in each room, and the only air conditioning we had in those long, hot southern summers consisted of over-worked box fans that hummed like a nest of hornets all through the day and night.
The porous walls made heating the house so expensive that my parents permanently closed off the living room, and we lived in the remaining four rooms. The large kitchen had plenty of space for a couple of recliners in the corners, and we put a small TV on top of the refrigerator. We’d come home from school and sit in the recliners and watch Gilligan’s Island as mom flitted about the kitchen making dinner. I’m surprised my brothers and I don’t have necks that are permanently locked in the upward-looking position given the years we spent staring at that damn TV on top of the refrigerator.
To complete the grand misery package, we shared a fickle water well with our neighbors. The water from this well smelled like rot and was so hard that it stained the ceramic tub in the single bathroom. The lime green and rust-colored stains licked the sides of that cold-as-hell tub making baths equal parts torture and mesmerizing. The uneven floors creaked when we walked on them, and the well-worn carpet had permanent grit in it that could not be vacuumed out no matter how hard my mom tried. Foot traffic from three less-than-hygienic boys didn’t help. Sometime around 1980 I think my mom gave up as we wore the carpet down to a dirty nub.
The greatest thing about The Red House certainly wasn’t the living conditions. Although we had a few neighbors in close proximity, the house abutted an old pasture and a seemingly endless woodland that had creeks and a lake. I think I spent most of my formative childhood years exploring those woods. To this day, I still love exploring any woodland area. I had a neighbor who was about my age and lived behind us, and we’d explore it together when we weren’t fighting. Friends would come over and we’d tramp off to the woods. As Danny got older, he’d join us, and we’d run through those woods like a horde of wild horses.
Back then, parents didn’t hover. As long as you were back before dark, you could run around the neighborhood as free as a bird. We’d go fishing, search for crawdads in the creek, or climb trees until our arms and legs ached. We did a lot of things we shouldn’t have like trying to stand on a flimsy sheet of ice on the lake or climbing into an old, dilapidated barn that could have collapsed on us. We got hurt – bumped our heads, cut our hands, skinned many a knee. We may have wanted to cry from the pain, but we didn’t lest we become the object of ridicule at school or in the neighborhood. There were worse things that could have happened, but not to a young boy.
Many years later, I drove by The Red House. It’s still there, but it’s not red anymore, and the woods behind it aren’t as vast as they used to be as development has swallowed up some of my old stomping grounds. I don’t miss it, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I do miss the innocence and wonder that I had there, at least for a time. I miss those long summer nights catching lightning bugs (fireflies for you non-southerners). I miss playing stick ball or baseball in the backyard until it got too dark. I miss running through the creeks and climbing trees without a care in the world. I miss my good, childhood friend, Ronnie, who lived across the street and was like another brother to me. I miss those moments, but I don’t miss The Red House.