Generations W, X, and Y

The role of a big brother has changed over the years. If Norman Rockwell were painting his version of who a big brother is, he’d paint a young man and a small boy with bamboo fishing poles over their shoulders heading down to the creek to catch some dinner. They’re walking side by side down a dirt road with grass growing in the center. The older boy is telling a story of some crazy adventure with the little brother gazing admiringly up at him, hanging on every word. They’re wearing straw hats, raggedy bib overalls, and no shoes. If it were Mr. Rockwell, I’m sure one of the boys would have freckles and a kind smile. Norman Rockwell has obviously never lived in my house, nor has he ever met my brothers.

I’ve got the rare opportunity to be a big brother and a little brother that spans 23 years. That’s enough for a full generation if you’re doing the math. My older brother, Jeff, is going on 44 years old this year, putting him at 14 years older than me. My younger brother, Joseph, is 18 years old and 9 years younger than I am. The two barely know each other. If my memory serves correct, the Kohler boys, Dad included who will turn 65 this year, were last together the summer of 1998. In spite of the time and distance, any one of us is distinctly Kohler. Each of us may be more or less hairy, younger, older, softer or harder, but it’s attitude that binds us.

My earliest memory of Jeff was of him grabbing my underwear and lifting me skyward until my forehead hit the ceiling. My kicks and screams were futile. I got a new fishing pole for my birthday one year. It wasn’t bamboo and Jeff didn’t walk me down to the creek, but it had a shiny reel on it and push-button casting. I proudly showed Jeff my new birthday present for his approval. He looked it over a few seconds, grabbed it by the tip, and stuck it straight out in front of himself.

“Hey Dad!” he hollered from the living room. “What kind of piece of shit did you get him? Why, I bet it couldn’t even take…”

SNAP! The rod broke and clattered to the floor. Jeff stared in disbelief at the 3-inch piece he still held firmly between his fingers. His eyes bulged.

I wailed. I screamed the scream of a man whose skin was being peeled off his parboiled body with salt and lemon coated tweezers. I was devastated. I was violated. I was ruined. I ran. Jeff never apologized. He just showed up a little while later with a nail with the head cut off stuck in the open ends of the pieces of the broken rod, effectively making them one again. All I could see was a faint line in the fiberglass, but it could’ve been a vision clouded by my tears and sobs only moments before.

“With this nail in there,” he said to me on one knee, “it’s even stronger than before. We just found the weak spot and reinforced it so you can catch the really big ones.” I smiled a duped smile. The man made sense, I had to give him credit. I collected up my slightly less than new rod and reel and padded off with visions of leg sized Northern Pike and record setting Walleye in my mind’s eye.

The big brother role that Jeff played back then was that of tough love. There were no apologies or emotion. Everything was a lesson in life designed to make me stronger. The entire time I was growing up I was barely aware of him more than a few weeks out of the year. He drifted. I rarely knew where he was and never knew what he was doing. When he did come around he unleashed triple helpings of brotherly love, helpings my underwear and forehead never forgot.

I really didn’t get to know Jeff until I was 19 and in college. Out of the blue he called me up saying he was in Bismarck on a contract job and asked if I wanted to help out for some under the table cash. I agreed. We worked so well together I was able to go on jobs in Williston and Minot, installing mezzanines at car dealerships, computer access floors in power substations, and x-ray grids in hospitals. We’d live out of motel rooms and wouldn’t be out of each other’s sight for more than minutes at a time until the job was finished. We worked days or nights or afternoons or mornings, whatever was required to work around the business and complete the job under bid. Every minute of every day we talked. We talked about our pasts and our regrets. We talked about our ambitions and disappointments and goals. We realized that even 19 years of never enough time wasn’t enough to separate brothers at any distance. The conversation would occasionally turn to Joseph, then 11 years old, and how all we wanted was for him to be better than the both of us. Jeff was raised entirely on the farm. I moved to town at 11 and back to the farm at 16, and Joseph had been raised in town since he was two years old. Three brothers covering 23 years and I was in the middle in every way possible. I knew where they both were coming from and I defended each accordingly. Hell, I still do regardless of who I really side with.

Jeff had always been my older brother, but it wasn’t until college until I saw him as my big brother. I never felt I was a big brother to Joseph. I yelled at him too much. I beat him up too much. I never had enough patience with him. I literally wasted the first five years of his life by just being there. I didn’t teach him the things I knew. I was merely an older brother. When I moved back to the farm at 16, Joseph was seven, I spent the first six months looking deep inside myself and trying to figure out exactly what the hell I had been doing for the past five years. I dealt with regrets.

I regretted being a terrible example and even worse brother. I regretted every time I pushed him aside or ragged on him for no reason or was just an all around jackass. I decided that even though we were 1800 miles apart and seemingly in two different worlds, I could make a difference. He wouldn’t have to wait until he was 19 before we got to know each other. So I’d call from time to time or send an occasional letter. I kept my ear to the ground and reported events of Joseph’s life to Dad and Jeff as they unfolded.

They listened to him grow up through my stories. With every passing year Joseph became more the Kohler boy he was meant to be. His sense of humor, his wit, his creativity and intelligence were Kohler trademarks to the core. If there ever was a doubt he was the mailman’s kid, then the mailman had to have been a Kohler too.

The Kohler brothers have continued to defy the Kohler sisters’ predictions. Jeff was once thought to never make it past 25, with drugs and alcohol being the inevitable death of him. But in 2004 he’s still alive and kicking, and the he’s first man I’ll ask who I know will give me a straight, no shit answer that’s worth a damn every time.

I never ended up in a clock tower with a high-powered rifle as was foretold on so many occasions. One jail sentence was enough for me, and I went on to get my college degree with honors, joined the Marine Corps, and am now serving at an American Embassy overseas, a tour only 10% of the Corps ever experiences. A commission as a Marine Corps officer is on my horizon. I enjoy pointing it out with a smirk on my face, laughing in the face of my so-called destiny.

Although a bit behind schedule, Joseph has his eyes set on the Marine Corps as well. I’ll admit that the future I saw for him was a bleak one. His grades suffered. His concentration lacked. His discipline was atrocious. But he’s come a long ways and I can honestly say I’m proud of the progress he’s made with the resources he’s had. I look at him now a see a kid wanting to hit the ground running. I talk to him like man. I talk to him like a friend. He’s a guy

I want in my corner when shit goes down, and by God if it takes us down with it, then we’ll go down together.

So, Mr. Rockwell, I’ve got a picture you can paint of the Kohler boys. Three men are standing shoulder to shoulder with their chins turned slightly up at a red sunrise. The oldest man on the right has a full beard and mustache. His arms are folded tightly across his barrel chest and thick fingers curled into steel fists. He’s of average height but stocky build. He wears worn work clothes, not unlike what you’ve painted before Mr. Rockwell, but his eyes show the years of a life lead less comfortably.

The man in the middle has piercing blue eyes that whisper of war and peace, love and hate. They squint from beneath his cover, decorated with a golden eagle, globe, and anchor, with a story to tell. His head is shaved bald. His hands are crossed lightly in front of his sharply creased military trousers, left over right. The morning sun shines brightly off his brass medals of distant lands. His jaw is clenched.

The man on the left is taller and thinner than the other two. He wears a backwards baseball cap, a t-shirt that’s a little too big for his young frame, and has both hands stuffed deep inside the front pockets of his faded jeans. He’s got one foot on a skateboard at his feet. He’s smiling slightly as if remembering a joke he heard last week. There’s eagerness in his face. He wants to be his own man for his own reasons.

The three men are obviously different, but the blood in their veins is the same and their eyes tell a story that spans almost 50 years. In spite of their years apart they would put their lives on the line for each other. Their conviction and dedication to each other is obvious.

Paint this, Mr. Rockwell. Paint the lives of these men in their faces as I’ve described. Paint the sunrise as you would a new beginning and a better future. But I ask you one thing. I ask you paint them from your heart, because that’s where they are to me.

And if you must, you can paint a few bamboo fishing poles in there too.

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One Response to “Generations W, X, and Y”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent

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The author.Born in the year of the Dragon, the author grudgingly accepts the fact he has too many interests and not enough time. A cyclist as long as he can remember, an avid yet inconsistent writer since age eleven, and a U.S. Marine since age twenty-one, the author also adds peak bagging, diving, snowboarding, and computers to his list of interests. Incidentally, he is aware of his inability to make a living from any but the Corps. The author accepts this as fact and remains optimistic. Feel free to drop him a line.

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