The summer of 1970 was full. We were seven years old, Jonathan and I, and nearly grown up. We could ride our bikes most anywhere, even downtown if Bobby led the way. He was ten! Cornfields and sidewalks and apple trees; the sights and smells still fill my mind.
There was another exciting thing going on, as well. My mother was dating a police officer, and he used to come to my grandmother’s house at 351 Main Street in his police car for lunch sometimes. He had a siren. And a real gun! He even had a badge. And some nights he would take my mother out for dinner or a movie for grown-ups.
Summer went on for ages, but it finally ended with the start of second grade. We were pretty far up in Goodwin Elementary by then, and we felt it. We had a big jungle gym, and we didn’t play little kid games so much anymore. And I had a girlfriend, a new girl from another state, who lived at the lighthouse! So exotic. And such deep dimples.
That fall my mother told me she was going to marry the policeman and that we would move to his house over the Christmas vacation. Being seven, the ramifications of that didn’t dawn on me. It was going to be exciting. His little house was on Cranton Street in Chalker Beach, just a short walk to the beach and across the street from a marsh where I could catch fiddlers. It seemed an endless chance to explore.
My friend Jonathan had changes coming in his life, too. His mother was remarrying and he would move to Clinton. I didn’t like that. I was moving but staying in the same school. He was going to be in a different town and a different school. But my mother said he would be close enough to visit, even though she mentioned no plans to do so.
We moved, I rode the bus to school and came home to an empty house. My grandmother sold her place and moved to Old Lyme. Jonathan moved away and soon the summer people came to Chalker Beach. Somehow I got much smaller that year, and by summer the entire world was a much bigger place, and full of people I didn’t know.
In the summer I finally realized that there would be no more cornfields, no sidewalks, no visits to Bobby’s house. The big new thing was that we had a dog. I named her Arrow after the cartoon dog. She was a German Shepherd and Collie mix. We were an energetic pair.
I soon learned that I had new aunts and uncles gained in the marriage. Uncle Ed was fun. Aunt Priscilla liked to laugh. And aunt Bev had an enormous fish tank. I also learned that I had a brother. His name was Richie, and he was only three and lived in Florida. I said hello on the phone once.
That fall I was a big kid. I was in the top grade in my school. Sometimes my step-father was the crossing guard in front of my school. And sometimes I rode in his police car. But we seemed unsettled. We were talking about moving again. And planning a trip to Florida for Richie’s birthday.
Florida. What did kids in 1971 know about Florida? Only one thing: Walt Disney World! I was the coolest kid in school in October 1971. I was going to the brand new Disney World right after it opened! I was getting time off from school; we were taking a camper, and we were driving to Disney. I couldn’t contain my excitement.
Then we moved. To Clinton. I went from cool to MIA. The new school had a fourth grade, so I wasn’t a big kid. Jonathan was in that school, but I couldn’t find him. It turned out they made him do second grade over again. He was downstairs. And he looked foolish, a head taller than the other kids. And he hardly made sense when he talked. He didn’t even seem excited that I was going to Disney.
The drive to Florida took weeks. Or three days, depending on your perspective. We had to drive past Orlando because Richie lived in Ft. Lauderdale. We would pick him up and drive up to Disney, stay over and spend an entire day there. Except, his mother changed her mind. She didn’t want Richie to go anywhere with his father. She was afraid his father would take him to Connecticut.
So there were lawyers and sheriffs. There were arguments and waiting. I learned about thunderheads. Then there was a compromise. We gave him birthday gifts in the driveway. And we took him to Sea World. I got a killer whale made of wax from a vending machine.
When we finally left Fort Lauderdale, we had another argument. Then we drove right by Orlando and went home. Ten days, 2000 miles, and no Disney. If Richie couldn’t go, the Michael kid couldn’t go either. But we arrived home in time for Halloween, and I didn’t have to face my friends at school. I wasn’t at that school anymore. And my wax killer whale got partially crushed while we unpacked the camper.
Soon the chatter at home was about lawyers and visitation and how to pay for airplane tickets. The next summer Richie rode on a plane by himself to come visit us for two weeks. The next year he spent half of the summer. In the fall of 1973, he started school in Florida. They had kept him out the year he turned five because his birthday was near the end of October and he was still immature.
In November 1973, my baby sister was born. I turned eleven in February. I was clashing with teachers in school and my parents were looking for alternatives. In the summer of 1974, everything changed again. Richie came for the entire summer. They signed me up for a private school in Madison. And there was a baby running our lives.
But change is the one thing besides taxes that we can count on. In 1975 Richie moved in permanently. We shared a room. He destroyed most of my models. He wet the bed a lot. We became brothers, with all the strain that entails.
In 1976 we had Bicentennial celebrations everywhere. That July we had another brother. Richie finished his second tour in second grade and finally found his footing academically. But all was not well at home. In 1977 our home broke up. In 1978 it got back together. In 1979, at the first of the year, we moved to Old Saybrook, to 355 Main, next door to where I grew up. I was home. Richie was starting over again.
By 1981 we had moved again, but we stayed in Old Saybrook. I left school in late 1980 and in the spring of ‘81 I bought a car. It was a ratty old Buick, but it had a powerful engine and a rag top. In the summer of 1981, I was working and wrenching on my car. Richie and I were riding up and down, burning expensive premium leaded gas and going too fast. We had a blast, all the more fun because we had some close calls. Through it all, we were still a lot like brothers.
One day my step-father took me aside. He said he’d been to the mechanic down on Route 1, Baldwin Bridge Garage, where they had the police cars serviced sometimes. The owner had told him a brief story about a black convertible that would go by his place loud and fast. One time it had gone by, the idiot driver going about 70 and some asshole standing up screaming at people as they went by.
My mother choked on her coffee. She laughed for half an hour. My step-father just shook his head. He said, “I had to tell him you two belonged to me. He had a hearty laugh about it, too.” He warned me that, if I got a ticket, he wouldn’t fix it for me. And every once in a while he would tell someone the story, then say, “Yep, those are my boys; the idiot and the asshole.”
Did I mention we acted like brothers?