My Brother Al

My two brothers were both pilots, but Al’s the one who tried to teach me how to fly. We’d climb high in the sky and pull stunts that he warned me never to try near the ground—say, a tailspin. Then, as the plane spun towards earth in a death spiral, he’d demonstrate how to pull out of it. One time he had me landing the plane in a crosswind. I felt I had it made but he said no, then I said yes, and so we argued over control as the wobbly plane crabbed sideways above the landing strip. But as a gust of wind pushed us towards some treetops, I relented and, at the last second, Al calmly guided us onto the runway. He got me a job pumping gas at the airport.

We shared a farmhouse out in the sticks and took road trips in his little MG or sometimes his ’48 Cadillac, a car so massive that I kidded him that he had to step on the gas just to roll downhill. We drove to the Porcupine Mountains. There we took a hike and ended up scaling a cliff. I climbed first and—after some very anxious moments, made it to the top. Al was behind me, clinging white-knuckled to the craggy precipice from which there was no turning back, and asked me how I got up there. I pointed to the toehold I’d used, but muttered that I’ll never try that again. He, too, managed to pull himself safely over the top—and promptly chewed me out for having voiced discouraging words during his critical moment.

We once walked across the Mackinac Bridge.

Al could be eccentric, but he was also an entrepreneur and impresario. He married Debbie and they managed a swanky restaurant before buying into a tavern of their own, occasionally hiring me to play musical gigs or paint signs. They had two beautiful children and a house on the lake. Things seemed fine. But although Al was always the life of the party, business success was elusive. Some say he drank the profits from the bar. I say he went broke going for broke. Still, he was good-natured, a gentle person who accepted fate in stride.

I don’t remember when or where the good times went, but he was now divorced and became estranged from his family. Sometimes he’d mail me letters or photos with odd mementos in the envelope, like a coin or a rock or the pencil that he wrote the letter with. He always called on my birthday. He worked different jobs, from personal trainer to plumbing supplies to auto sales. And, judging by the letters I recently found, he earned the gratitude of many a troubled soul through his work with The Salvation Army. Meanwhile, he and I had lost touch until there was a decades-long void in our relationship.

Al was a Detroit sports fan, especially of hockey. An early memory has him sporting a shiner from a puck to the noggin on the frozen pond. How cool. He was seven years older than me and we became good buddies only after he decided I was old enough to drink beer and party with the big boys.

Eino Allen III was the only one of us four siblings to graduate from college. I was intrigued by the books he brought home, for instance the theory of cognitive dissonance. Al and I chatted recently and, after almost fifty years, I mentioned that book to him. He not only remembered it, but cited the author and gave me a synopsis off the top of his head. Al never portrayed himself as an intellectual, but he was. He was a good writer who inspired me. I gave him a copy of my latest book with a note saying that I had a bad case of the smarts thanks to him.

That book was lying nearby in his apartment when he passed away. On his wall, a bulletin board displayed, most prominently, pictures of his son Tobin, daughter Trisha, and his new grandson William. Among the other greeting cards and memos, was a picture of Gordie Howe and also some hand-scrawled lyrics about dying which I needn't print here but suffice to say they're from one of Al’s old favorite record albums by the Louvin Brothers, Tragic Songs of Life.

Al and I did some catching up over the last couple of years and we even took a quick road trip together. “Love you, brother” was how we always ended our phone conversations, some that lasted for hours. I’m going to miss those phone calls.

. . .

1945 - 2012


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