Maybe I’ve mentioned once or twice that my brother, Fred, was a wonderful big brother. I really don’t exaggerate. If you could have made up the perfect big brother, it would have been Fred. But you probably would have given him a better name.
Fred is 3 years older than me. And he played with me all the time. He didn’t beat me up. He wasn’t mean. He let me tag along wherever he went.
He actually seemed to enjoy my company, too. Or at least, it never occurred to me that he might not be enjoying it. Perhaps I was late in picking up some social clues. Anyway, I can honestly not remember Fred ever hurting me, or setting me up to fail, or doing any mean big brother things to me.
He was my hero. When we tucked towels into our jammies and jumped off the back of the couch, I was not just pretending Fred was Superman. He was Superman. Of course I also thought that our dog, Tip, was SuperDog when we called him “Kripto,” tucked a dishtowel into his collar and pushed him off the back of the couch.
It was during the late 1950s and early 60s; we saw Westerns on TV and in the movies — The Lone Ranger, Branded, How the West Was Won, and more. There were a lot of shoot outs at our house, too, because that’s what we played most of the time. Fred invented great games for us. Cowboys and Indians, gun fights, sheriff and posse.
Fred was always the hero. Me?
I was the bad guy who got outgunned and had to keel over and die.
I was the outlaw brought to justice by the handsome sheriff.
I was the squaw who had to skin and cook the deer.
I always lost.
I felt good that at least I had a better part than Tip. Tip was the deer, and Fred and I would chase him around pretending to shoot him with arrows. Fred and his friends once caught Tip and tied him onto our broom and carried him Indian-style, to roast over our pretend fire. Tip escaped and didn’t want to play Indian for a week or so. We did not eat him.
Losing wasn’t a condition for Fred to play with me, but it was reality. Fred always won. He was always first, fastest, bravest. He was always the hero.
Fred’s pretend horse, Thunder, was faster than my horse, Lightning, even after Fred discovered that in real life lightning comes first. Fred showed me pictures of lightning in “the big dictionary” – a huge reference book we loved to look at. It had the coolest pictures and lots of words we couldn’t read. If something was in the big dictionary, it was fact. Period. “In real life,” Fred said, pointing to a picture of a scary bolt in a stormy sky, “Lightning is faster than thunder. But not with horses.”
I really didn’t mind. If Fred’s horse was slightly faster than mine, that was OK. We were a team.
But one day when Fred wanted to play Cowboys and Indians, I’d had enough of losing. Maybe I was growing up.
“I wanna be the cowboy,” I insisted. “You always get to be the cowboy. I always get shot.”
“OK,” Fred said. He didn’t argue or try to convince me to be the Indian. I should have been suspicious. But I’ve always trusted Fred completely. I knew he would never be mean to me.
“OK,” said Fred, again, thinking up a new game. “You can be a General! I’ll be an Indian, ummmm, I’ll be called Crazy Horse.”
“OK!” I said, excitedly. A General! I wasn’t just cowboy. I was gonna be a general!
I blew my bugle, called my troops to arms. My imaginary troops and I rode off on our stallions to fight the Injuns.
I blew my bugle again and my (pretend) troops surrounded me. We heard Indian war whoops from Fred and his Indian braves. Fred/Crazy Horse and his braves came at me, surrounding me and my men on all sides. But I wasn’t worried. I was a general. And even at that age, I knew that the cowboys always win.
And then Fred shot me.
I did not flinch. I did not fall. I did not succumb to my wounds. I screamed bloody murder:
“I’m the cowboy! You can’t shoot me!
I’M THE GENERAL!”
Fred calmed me down and took me by the hand over to the big dictionary. He turned the pages and showed me a picture of a general in a cowboy hat with blond curls. He looked just like me. Except for the mustache (mine grew in many years later).
George Armstrong Custer.
“That’s General Custer,” Fred said. “Crazy Horse killed him. Or Sitting Bull did. Some Indian killed him at the battle of Little Bighorn. The Sioux Indians surrounded General Custer and his men and killed them.”
If it was in a book, in the big dictionary, well then, I had to die. It was right there in black and white with a color picture. It was my fate.
We went back over to the battlefield (the front hall) and started the battle again. Again, I blew my bugle and rallied my troops into a circle around me. Again, the Indians pressed forward, surrounded us.
Again, General Custer got shot. And this time he/I was brave. I clutched my heart, tossed my curls and fell dead.
* * *
I owe my devotion to the underdog and my tendency to look everything up to my big brother, who is still wonderful.
And I looked this up: June 25th is the 137th Anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn. And speaking once more as General Custer, I deserved exactly what I got.