My mother is the only survivor in this picture. My eldest brother, David, passed away first. He was an alcoholic. I still wonder if it was environment or chemistry: his biological machine was defective in several ways, and there did not seem to be a cure. Talking to him was often a challenge, because his mid seemed to run in loops that he just couldn’t escape—most strident in his conversations with me was the theme “it’s never too late to get an education.” When I last saw him, he seemed happy that I finally made it back to that task.
My father drank hard all the way into his sixties; then he quit abruptly. He retired early from his job tending oilfield machines; superheated steam was his specialty. He hated that job for 30 years. We moved from Ventura, California to Bakersfield when I was six years old. It was a forced transfer—no one wanted to go. David was nineteen then, and in college working on a degree in electrical engineering. He stayed in Ventura, working for the defense contractor Raytheon.
Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles for a big job with International Business Machines. Got a groovy little bachelor pad in Hermosa Beach in the late sixties, with a Ducati motorcycle and a Sunbeam sports car. We visited once that I can remember. There were marks on the walls where I could tell that paintings had been removed. I peeked into the bedroom and saw them leaning up against the wall—black velvet nude oil paintings removed so as to not offend the parents. But he missed the Kit-Kat Club matches in the ashtray.
In the seventies, David roared into Bakersfield in his purple Dodge Challenger, bringing me electrical project kits. He always had to duck out for that replacement bottle of brandy. He had his first heart attack at 26 while at an IBM training school in Kentucky. When I dropped out of college in 1977, he was quick to tell me that it didn’t have to be permanent—after all, it had taken him 12 years to complete is BA in business. That conversation continued across the 1980s, as David traversed law school on the one class a semester plan.
By day, David wore the plain black IBM suit and showed up to fix Selectric typewriters. He fixed printers and other computer peripherals in Orange County, living a few blocks away from Knott’s Berry farm. His skills with typewriters, and his drinking I suppose, lead him to Hughes Aircraft. Hughes actually made therapy available to deal with the occupational hazards of being a drone (i.e. alcoholism). But it didn’t work. He never managed to pass the bar exam and get out of that particular soul-killing culture.
I always looked up to David, and at the same time he was the shining example of the life I didn’t want—the black suit, the corporate fight song, and the smoky dark room with drinks and depression. I miss him on holidays, and wonder why he could never really quit. Dad did, but he couldn’t. I think part of the answer was: location, location, location. It wasn’t because he didn’t think.
Buried in this, of course, are all the clichés of birth order— including my own intellectual inferiority as the third child. That is, if you believe that sort of thing.