Monday, October 1, 2012


I traveled to Olean a couple of weekends ago for a birthday party.  It was a big one.  My brother Rex turned 60.   His wife Gale rented the pavilion at War Vets Park right across  from Bradner's Stadium, our favorite place to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July.  It seemed fitting.  Rex has always loved to watch things explode,  especially when they're high overhead splattering the sky with color.  There's no one I'd rather watch with than my half-man, half-child brother who shouts out in pure delight and joy at the best of them, his eyes never once leaving the sky.  A couple of years back he had the audacity to go to a major league baseball game on that day and watched the fireworks from the stadium there.  He said they were awesome, some of the best he'd ever seen.   But for me, that day wasn't quite the same.  

I still remember this washtub from my grandparents' house

Rex came along just thirteen days short of my first birthday.  We didn't always get along during those growing up years.  My younger brother Karl was pleasant and easy going.  Rex, on the other hand, was much more intense.  If I annoyed or upset him, which seemed to be quite often, he'd give me a good punch to the stomach, knocking the wind out of me and putting me to the ground.

We were still getting got along when this was taken

But occasionally we got along.  One of our favorite things was to go down into the canal that ran by our house and look for snakes and lizards.  One day we picked up a piece of sheet metal and were suddenly set upon by a swarm of yellow jackets.  I immediately went one way, he went another.  I came through the incident unscathed,  but Rex wasn't so lucky.  In no time he was covered with ugly red welts from the angry bees' stingers.  My mother, hearing the screams, came flying from the house, snatched him up and ran for the driveway where she proceeded to thoroughly roll him in a mud puddle.  Obviously he survived. 

Speaking of puddles, another incident I specifically remember involved a live lobster that my dad was going to prepare for dinner after he got home from work one night.  A meat cutter with five kids doesn't generally include lobster in his food budget, this was a luxury.  But Rex managed to spoil it for all of us when he got a hold of the crustacean and decided to take it for a swim after a good rain. I never heard my mother use one curse word her entire life, but I doubt she was ever closer than she was on that particular day.    I wasn't anywhere near when my father got home from work that night, but he never brought another one home.  It would still be several years before I'd get to taste my first lobster.  I had my brother to thank for that.

Karl would grow up to be the good brother

We loved to fish as kids, and nobody more than Rex.  We'd often walk to Haskell Creek with our poles and spend a couple hours just waiting for a bite. Honesty, I don't ever remember catching a fish in that place. I don't know if any of my siblings ever did either, but we spent more hours there than I could probably count.  One particular day I was standing high on the creek bank with my two brothers when Rex pulled back on his pole and gave it a hard yank, wanting to cast his line out past the trees and into the water below.  As the line jerked forward, I suddenly felt a sharp tug at my upper lip and then heard the snap of the fishing line. There, dangling from my mouth, was his hook and an entire worm, still intact.  First stunned and then upset, I begged him to ride home with me.  But fishing in a creek where we never caught anything obviously came first.  He refused.  But the good brother had ridden on ahead and my mother was waiting for me in the car as I pulled my bike into the driveway.  It would be several days before the swelling would go down because of the stitches,  and for the longest time there was a little bump on my upper lip where the hook had lodged itself, a continual reminder of that day and of my horrible brother.

I'm not sure if over time that little bump simply faded away or if just became so insignificant that I no longer noticed it.  No matter.  That's often how relationships evolve between siblings.  I grew up,  he did the same.  The crises of childhood somehow faded, no longer all that important. I'm not sure  when it was that I began to see my brother as a friend.  I just know that it happened.

Rex and his co-counselor at Circle C Ranch after a ride down a mudslide  
Around eight years ago I noticed that Rex was slowing down.  A lot.  Always full of energy, he was considered the fun uncle.  He loved  baseball, amusement parks and roller coasters and would often  set off  his own private stash of fireworks to the delight of his nieces and nephews.  One day I watched as he put on his jacket, it was as if he were moving in slow motion.  Something was very, very wrong.  We pushed him to see a doctor.  It was Parkinson's. 

When you don't see someone very often, you can't help but notice the changes.  Medications  help, but they don't heal, so he moves somewhat slower, tires more easily,  talks softer.   But he seems to take it all in stride and continues to see his life as blessed and lives it to the fullest.  

Oh, by the way, when I got to the party the first person Rex insisted I meet was some Bona's basketball player.  Rex is probably the biggest St. Bonaventure basketball fan out there.  He never misses a home game and is known by all the players and most of the people in the stands as the flag man.  That's because he has flags representing all the countries that these young players come from and waves them when they're on the floor.  He's even been written up in the newspaper and has been featured on the news. 

There's no bigger St. Bonaventure basketball fan than Rex

Rex has always been a bit crazy for sports.  He knows the teams, the players, the stats.  From the time he was a kid trading baseball cards he's loved the Yankees, and when baseball season is over, he's totally immersed in keeping up with his football team, the Buffalo Bills.   And then there's his beloved Bonnies that kick their basketball season off just as football is winding down. 

The party was scheduled from two o'clock to five.  It wasn't hard to see how tired he was, but there was someone else he wanted me to meet.  One of the bosses from work had come to congratulate Rex on his milestone birthday.  Rex is the manager of the frozen food and dairy department of a large grocery store in Olean, a physically demanding job.  And cold.  The last time I was there he was wearing gloves as he loaded up the ice cream freezer. He sometimes goes in early and often stays late.  It takes him longer nowadays.  But he likes to work and says he wants to do it as long as he possibly can.  He's well-liked and respected there. I can understand why.     

Five o'clock came and we began to take down the decorations and gather up the food and gifts.  We needed to head home, but Larry loaded some of the stuff into our car to drop off at the house on the way out of town.  We found the living room already full of people, some who had come a long ways to share this special day with Rex, and I knew that though the party was officially ended, the celebrating would continue on for a bit longer.   I hope that someone thought to set off a few fireworks in the backyard as the sun dropped behind the horizon.  There's nothing Rex would have liked more.

Rex in his Bills' jacket among his family


Kelley said...

What a touching tribute to a wonderful man. I know your brother from my time working at the library. We always had nice chats when he came in.

32 DieHard Fans - Eagles said...

I liked this read. :). We tried to set off fireworks a few different nights but a combination of bad weather and a recent interaction with the Olean Police about the definition of "city limits" didn't allow it. Rest assured there are several boxes of fireworks ready to go when circumstances allow.


Anonymous said...

Great story of you guys growing up! I have many memories of Rex while swimming in our pool. My husband will also be turning 60 this year in Nov. Where does the time go? I will always remember playing baseball in our side yard with him, he loved to pitch! Memories of sleeping out under the stars also for the neighborhood were in our yard! If you see him, say Happy Belated Birthday from me!

Patty Clark Carpenter