Cain in Genesis 4:9 asks God the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
It was the evening of the first Monday in October 1944. I was in the first grade. I was really excited about being in school, riding the school bus, and meeting new friends. When I got off the school bus in the evening I would run up the driveway, shouting at the top of my voice “Mama, Mama, guess what I did in school today?”
Mama would meet me at the door and say “calm down brother, tell me all about it.” Then I would spill whatever I had on my mind. It could have been I met a new friend, I learned a new song in school or we played a new game during recess. This particular evening as I ran up the driveway to the front door I was met at the door by my Aunt Grace. She said “calm down boy, your mother is asleep and you have a new baby brother.” (Later on in life I learned that Aunt Grace was a nurse and midwife and she had helped my mother give birth to my new baby brother.)
A couple of hours later I got to see my new baby brother for the first time. He looked wrinkled and strange to me. This addition was the fifth child to become a part of our family. My sister was the oldest, I was the next oldest and I had two younger brothers. They didn’t give him a name until a couple of days later. Before he was given a name, some kids in the neighborhood asked my sister what was his name? She said, “I don’t know but my daddy calls him ‘Smoke.” I didn’t know what his name was either so when anyone asked me ‘what was his name,’ I always said “baby brother” because that is how my Aunt Grace referred to him that day.
It was the last Saturday in October 1966. Baby Brother was getting married later that evening and I was to be the best man at his wedding. He had met a young lady in college, and they had fallen in love. Both had graduated from college and become school teachers in the neighboring county.
As I was getting dressed to go to the wedding, I began reminiscing about the close relationship I had with my baby brother down through the years. I was close with all my brothers but my relationship with him was special and I always thought of him as ‘baby brother’, even after he had grown. That special relationship grew from an incident that happened on one hot summer day in July 1945. It was a hot, humid day in July 1945. Aunt Grace had a daughter named Ann. Ann being an only child, enjoyed coming out into the country to stay with my sister. Since Ann and my sister were older than I was, they were given the responsibility of babysitting my baby brother. On this particular hot, humid afternoon, my mother had placed Baby brother out in the yard in a crib under a tree for shade.
She had given him a bottle full of milk to drink, and Ann and my sister were given the responsibility to look after Baby brother, while mama cooked and did her housework. My brothers and I were also playing out in the yard but were not close to Ann and my sister. Ann and my sister were playing around and every now and then they would stop by the crib to see if Baby brother was okay. All of a sudden I heard a shrill shriek. And then “Mama, Mama, come quick, snake, snake.” I ran over there to see what was going on. Baby brother was lying at one end of the crib, at the other end of the crib was a big black snake. Baby brother and the snake were eyeing each other. Lying between them was baby brother’s bottle of milk. Mama came running out of the house, snatched baby brother up, gave him to Ann, ran to the shed, got a hoe, and did the snake in. Everyone that witnessed that incident was all shook up.
A couple of days later, mama came to me and said “Young man, you are the big brother in the family, and from now on it is your responsibility to look after your baby brother.” And that is how I became “my baby brother’s keeper.”
Down through the years, I have had the opportunity on several occasions to fulfill the role of “my baby brother’s keeper.” There were some occasions where I fulfilled the role faithfully and other occasions where I wished that my mother had given that responsibility to one of my other brothers. I smiled as these yesterday thoughts, from down through the years, flashed through my mind.
My father had taken Baby brother and me to town one Saturday morning. My father told me to ensure that we kept up with him. My father was a fast walker who didn’t look back. I kept up with him. We were in this department store and my father asked: “where is your baby brother.” I looked around and I didn’t see him. I searched throughout the store and could not find him. Then I went outside the store. I noticed a crowd of people about a block up the street. I went up there to see what was going on. There was my baby brother perched atop a mailbox. He was drinking soda pop, and he had a bar of candy in his hand. A man was asking him questions such as “what was his name, where did he live, etc.?” You could tell he had been crying because his eyes were teary. When he saw me his eyes lit up. I told the man who was talking with him that I was his brother and he had got separated from my father and me. Baby brother was about six years old then. For the rest of the day while we were in town I had to hold Baby brother by the hand.
A few months later my father took Baby brother and me to town again. This time he told us to stay in the back seat of the car while he went shopping. He told me to watch out for Baby brother while he was gone. I had brought a book to town with me because I liked to read. I was reading my book and I looked over and saw that Baby brother had dozed off. I got sleepy from reading the book and I dozed off too. I woke up when I heard Baby brother crying like something horrible had happened to him. When I became fully awake I noticed that Baby brother was not in the back seat, he was down on the floor in the front seat of the car. When I got out of the car and went into the front seat to get him, I noticed that he had a burn mark on his face. I asked him what had happened? He said that he had climbed over the front seat, pushed in the cigarette lighter, took it out of the socket, and put it to his face. That is when he got burned. He had seen our father smoke in the car. It fascinated him when he saw my father push the cigarette lighter in, see it pop out with a red glow, and see my father put it to the end of a cigarette or cigar in his mouth to light it. My baby brother never smoked. That incident left a lasting impression on him.
Our grandfather (our father’s father) lived on a farm about a couple of miles from where we lived. Numerous times when we went to visit him I would ride Baby brother on the handlebars of my bicycle. One evening after visiting our grandparents we were on our way home. Baby brother was riding on the handlebars of my bicycle. We took a shortcut through one of our neighbor’s yard. As we were riding down her driveway to get to the main road, Baby brother stuck his feet in the front wheel spokes of the bicycle. Immediately the bicycle stopped. We were both thrown off the bicycle. When we hit the ground we both got the wind knocked out of us. I came to first and I saw Baby brother still laying on the ground. The bicycle was lying between him and me. A lady was in the house and heard the commotion. When she saw both of us laying unmoving on the ground she thought we were both dead. It frightened her so bad that she was afraid to even come outside. Neither one of us was hurt we just got the wind knocked out of us.
Another incident happened during a visit to the same grandparents. The farmland was in a valley surrounded by hills. There were several creeks and streams that ran through the farmland. The farm road to my grandparent’s house crossed over those various waterways. After a very hard rain, those creeks and streams would overflow and flood the road. After a couple of hours, the waters would recede and it would be safe to walk over the road again. My grandparents would not let us go back home until the flow of water in the creeks and streams had receded. One day, while Baby brother and I were visiting our grandparents, there came a hard rain which lasted a couple of hours. As usual, the water in the ditches and streams rose up to the road level. A couple of hours after the rain had stopped my grandfather said “it is safe for you to go home now.” As we were walking down the farm road I noticed that the water in the ditch we crossed covered the pipe that ran under the road. I heard the roar of the rushing water, so as we crossed over the pipe, I stopped, bent over the pipe, and looked to admire the water. Then I turned around and began walking. All of a sudden I heard a splash. I turned around and looked to see what caused the splash. What I saw was a total shock. After I had looked at the water and started walking, Baby brother had bent over to look at the water. Unfortunately, he had fallen in and was sinking fast. Fortunately, he was wearing bib overalls. Without hesitation, I reached in grabbed him by the back of his bib overalls and pulled him out of the water. After I pulled him out we made a beeline for home and did not look back.
We still had a couple of more streams to cross, but we did not linger to look at any of them. My grandfather must have been watching us out of the window and had seen what happened because about five minutes after we got home he walked up to our house. He did not mention the incident nor did I, though I did tell my mother that baby brother had fallen into a puddle of water.
One winter, snowy day when Baby brother was in the first grade we were riding the school bus on our way home. At the bottom of a long steep hill, the driver stopped the bus told everyone to get off and walk up the hill. He said that he didn’t know whether or not he could make it up the hill with the bus loaded. So baby brother, my sister, and I along with the other children on the bus got off the bus and began walking up the hill. There were about six inches of snow on the ground and it was still snowing. I grabbed baby brother by the hand and held his hand all the way up the hill. About halfway up the hill, the bus passed us. At the top of the hill, we got back on the bus and rode home.
One summer day a bunch of kids were out playing baseball in the backyard area. Baby brother hit the ball and was running to the base. On the way to the base, he tripped and fell. When I helped him get up I noticed that his arm was bleeding profusely. I took him in to see mama. She noticed that he had a huge cut on his forearm and some of his skin was dangling. She stopped the bleeding and cleaned the wound up the best she could. But she also realized that baby brother had to have medical attention because the wound had to be stitched up. We had one car in the family and my father was at work with that car. The clinic was three miles away from our home. We did not have a telephone. Mama told me to put Baby brother on my bicycle and ride him to the clinic. I put Baby brother on my bicycle, rode him to the clinic, the doctor cleaned the wound, put in several stitches to reattach the skin, and told me to bring him back in a couple of weeks. After the doctor had released him, I rode Baby brother those three miles back home on my bicycle. There was an old saying back in the day “make do.” So I suppose that on that particular day my bicycle was a ‘make do’ rescue squad. My father took him back to get the stitches removed a couple of weeks later.
One Friday night several years later I was in high school and Baby brother was in middle school. I was planning on taking my girlfriend at the time to a football game. Baby brother asked me could he go to the game with me. I told him ‘no.’ He went and told mama that he wanted to go to the football game and I told him he couldn’t go. Mama came and told me that if baby brother wanted to go to the football game with me, he could go. Then I told mama, that he doesn’t even attend the same school I go to, and he doesn’t know anyone over there. Mama’s reply was “If you want to use Daddy’s car, you will have to take him to that football game.” So I went and told Baby brother that I was going to take him to the football game, but I was going to drop him off at the stadium, go pick up my girlfriend and then come back to the game. He went and told mama what I had said. Mama came back and told me “You better not take him to the stadium and leave him there. You said he doesn’t know anyone at the school, he doesn’t go to the same school you go to, so you take him with you to pick up your girlfriend and then all of you go to the game together.”
Well, I knew that if I wanted to use the family car to go to the game with my girlfriend I had to take Baby brother to the game. On the night of the game as we were leaving home I told baby brother “I am going to take you to the game and then go pick up my girlfriend.” Baby brother replied, “you know what mama told you, if you do that I am going to tell mama as soon as I get home.” So reluctantly I drove toward my girlfriend’s house to pick her up. On the way I came up with an idea, I said ‘baby brother, just before I get to my girlfriend’s house I am going to stop the car and I want you to get in the back. When I get out of the car I want you to lay down on the floor between the front and back seat. I want you to stay on the floor until we get to the game. After my girlfriend and I get out of the car and start walking to the stadium, you can get out of the car. He said ‘okay he would do that” and he did. Well my girlfriend lived out in the country and some of the roads we had to travel over were kind of bumpy. On the way to the game we hit one of those bumps and baby brother said “ouch.’ My girlfriend looked over the back seat and said ‘there is someone in the back.’ Baby brother got up sat on the back seat and spoke to my girlfriend. Of course that put a damper on the rest of the evening. There was a cousin at the game who lived about a mile from our parents. I told Baby brother to catch a ride home with that cousin. He said, “if I get home before you do, what do you think mama is going to think?” So baby brother rode back home with me after the game.
Looking back over the past twenty-two years and some of the instances where I had to look out for baby brother, I smiled and said to myself “things weren’t all that bad.” I thought about Father Flanagan’s Boys Town Motto “He Ain’t Heavy, He is my brother.” Even though he will later on today be walking down the aisle, and being his best man I will be walking beside him, and he will say “I do”, and join in Holy Matrimony with his lovely bride, he will always be “baby brother” and I will always be available to help him out whenever he needs me because we are family and “I am my brother’s keeper.”
FRANK M. WHITE