Biff America column: A good man, a poor judge of talent
In the eyes of his 4-year-old younger brother, Michael could fly.
He could dive over my father’s Ford, hit the ground in a perfect somersault and end up standing on his feet with a smile on his face and grass stains on his pants. He could climb trees and telephone poles and walk on his hands across the yard. He was 11 years older than me and called me “Little Buddy.”
When he was in junior high school, he wrote a poem about me that read, in part, “He’s a cocky lad, to say the least, and he’s not afraid of man nor beast.” If the truth be told, my natural inclination was to be afraid of both man and beast. Mike wouldn’t hear of that. He described me as a “tough monkey” and was determined to make me, in his words, “a scrappy son of a B.”
Michael’s junior high teachers told my mother that he was a “late bloomer.” He was small and, due to a head injury, wore glasses and for a while had a slight stutter. He was teased, but only to a point, because Michael was also unpredictable. If Michael had been like the other kids, selfish and self-absorbed, he might not have had time to spend with his Little Buddy.
I was the youngest and he the oldest of six children. My parents were fighting their own personal demons, and my other siblings wanted little to do with me, but Michael was different. He would come home from school, ride me down Turnpike Street on the handlebars of his bicycle to Howards Store and buy me ice cream. He taught me how to climb trees, fight and hit the ground running. He bought me my first bat and ball (with his own money) and convinced me a knee to the groin isn’t fighting dirty.
I can remember the first time I realized that I was bigger than my oldest brother. He was leaving to go into the Army when I was 13. He hugged me and said, “Hang in there, Little Buddy.” While holding Michael, I noticed that I was taller and almost as wide. It must have been that way for some time but I just never noticed.
Watching him drive away I imagined the worst. American troops were being sent to Vietnam. Would he be one of them? I was also concerned that the military people wouldn’t see past his peculiarities to his goodness. I was wrong.
Michael flourished in the military. He was surrounded by other recruits who, I’m sure, felt awkward and displaced. This was nothing new to Mike. He served in Army Intelligence. We weren’t sure exactly what he did there, but we assumed that he did it well. When he was discharged from the Army, he was recruited by other governmental organizations. I hoped at the time that he would take up their offers and become a secret agent. But he decided to return home to Boston to drive trucks.
Michael was, and still is, my biggest fan. From Little League baseball to high school football, he was in the stands whenever possible and demanded graphic recaps when not. When it became apparent that, unlike my siblings, I wasn’t college material, he was there to console me. “You don’t need college, Little Buddy. There is a big world out there that doesn’t charge tuition.”
When writing, TV and radio eventually replaced sports for me, Mike was still a devotee. I’d bring home tapes of my shows and copies of my columns. He would read, watch or listen, sit quietly for a minute, as if forming an opinion, then look up and say, “That was perfect.” I knew my stuff wasn’t, and isn’t, perfect, but it still delights me to hear Michael say it is.
I used to tell people that my brother Michael gave me confidence. I was wrong. What Mike gave me was love. Love can come from the outside; confidence comes from within.
If you think you’re ugly, weak, stupid or worthless, no one can tell you differently. But when someone you love and admire treats you like you’re special, you sometimes come to believe it.
In my heart of hearts, I always knew I wasn’t special — or fearless, or perfect or a scrappy son of a B. But after a lifetime of hearing it from Michael, it dawned on me that, in the eyes of love, perhaps I was.
Jeffrey Bergeron, aka Biff America, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.