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Brian

Posted by on December 14, 2013

scan0003I grew up in a family of three sisters, but I once had a brother. Brian was eight months older than I… my first cousin actually, son of my Mom’s sister, Greta. When we were just old enough to develop memories, Brian was there, living across the court in one of those one-story, U-shaped California apartment buildings that once proliferated in So. Calif. Actually our whole family lived there: aunts, uncles, grandparents, Brian’s family and mine…an Irish-Catholic commune of sorts, where we were often passed from adult to adult for watching, where women might gather to cook or chat in one apartment, men in another for cards or whiskey, and the kids in another for endless games.

In my fifth year, we moved to an actual house a few miles away, but for some reason, Brian seemed to come with us. Each Friday he would arrive and weekends were our time. Brian spent a lot of time alone at home, his older brother, Terry, being more sports-minded, making more friends. But Brian seemed to prefer the action and adventure of our house and we definitely preferred each other’s company. On each weekend and through every summer, we were inseparable. There are few memories that I have from childhood that do not include Brian.

Our particular block had about two dozen kids, ranging from 4-10. While there were a few who were older, Brian and I were the unofficial generals of the block…well, generals is too martial, we were more like ringleaders in a circus. Kids would show up at the house on Saturday morning just to see what was going to happen that day. We would announce, “Today we have a water carnival, a play, or a butterfly hunt, or, in fact, a circus. Everyone would be assigned a role and the event was on. Now these events often included minor mayhem for some of the younger kids, as they were the only ones who might fit into the space capsule or the sailing flexi, or be light enough to ride the parachute off the garage. One summer we invented the skill of moving from one end of the block to the other without ever touching the ground. Scrambling across back fences, through trees, over garages, it was a mark of achievement to complete the circuit, especially through the horrifying dog yard, where a slip of the grip would promise instant Doberman action. There are now spread across California, a number of kids who owe us thanks for an interesting childhood and perhaps a few scars. My two younger sisters seem to have both and they appreciate them to this day. The block fence crawl became an initiation rite for many a new kid over those years.

I think that I was a fairly easy going kid, pretty much open to the entertainment that presented itself. But Brian was a schemer and it was his wont to invent entertainment which often ranged from the shady to the outright illicit.  I was always pleased to jump right onboard. A simple scheme might just involve access to cookies, or how to get the dog into the house unnoticed. A more elaborate plan would include spying on an attractive neighbor, terrorizing the kid next door who slept in a tent in the backyard all summer, or, his favorite, any money-making scheme.

Perhaps our most illegal, yet innocent activity was to sneak into neighboring houses when they were away for summer vacation (OK, burglarize), but not to steal things. We simply liked to see their stuff, to see how they lived. Well, perhaps a few pieces of candy went missing, but never anything more serious. We just liked the experience.

And, yes, Brian liked money…or at least what money could buy. He particularly liked tipping. When we went to Vegas with my folks, Brian would tip the doorman, the waiters, the bellman, and the pool boy….this stayed with him throughout his life. Brian was good with waiters, and was a dream uncle, as Brian was fond of slipping a kid a few bucks, “just so he would have money in his pockets.”

Together we coveted fine things. By the age of ten, we were secretly aspiring to the Playboy lifestyle, idolizing Frank Lloyd Wright, and designing sunken bars, indoor-outdoor pools (grottos), conversation pits, and of course elaborate defense systems into our imaginary modern pads. Odd as it may seem now, we would jump right on the Sunday paper, not for the comics, but for the Home section, which always featured the latest in modern home plans. We had sketchbooks filed with the wildest conceptions of homes which we would share with each other, both freely adding gun turrets, secret rooms, moats, or helipads. We never drew log cabins. Brian seemed born to pursue elegant living, though we grew up in less than elegance. He never let go of it. He became successful as an adult and always lived in stylish homes and drove the coolest cars. Cars were another passion of his. Brian could name any car on the road from a distance and the annual unveiling of next year’s models was an event that we fawned over. Of course, we were of the right age and in the right age, the mid 50’s, the cultural apex of car design: the Corvette, the T-Bird, the XKE, even the unfortunate Edsel, which we tried to like, but never did. As an adult, he often drove Corvettes.

I do not recall a summer vacation with my family that did not include Brian. Perhaps it was just a compensatory balance for my having three sisters, but I am sure that they knew Brian and I could entertain each other indefinitely. The most common trip was a couple of weeks in Yosemite, where we would have our own tent cabin and the freedom to follow marauding bears in the evening and climb the rocks of Yosemite valley in day-long wars of every imaginable kind, most of which involved a lot of sneaking around in rocks. We met adults for meals and this worked perfectly for us. We served Mass in the Yosemite chapel and we both came to associate nature as a much preferable place to find God, if He did in fact exist…we had collectively begun to have our doubts, if not about God, then about the Church that we grew up in.

Brian was bright and more world-wise than I. It did not occur to me until much later that the eight months he had on me was quite significant as far as development, at least when we were quite young. By the time I was 12, the family moved to Santa Monica and Brian and I were finally in the same school, able to focus our by then well-developed skills of organization into small power bases and endless advantages.

We were altar boys together…. not on its face exceptional, except that Brian realized that it would get us out of class endlessly to serve funerals, let us serve weddings for good money on Saturdays, and let us look at the tongues and closed-eyed religious fervor of every girl in the school during communion. When school got boring, Brian would finagle a priest to let us visit the sick with him and maybe hit a few golf balls after. By high school, Brian realized that his real power was as a kingmaker. Over our four years at St. Monica’s, not a single person was elected Student Body President without Brian as his campaign manager. For Brian invented the position and then became a four year Commissioner of Publicity. Every banner that went up in the school came through Brian. On the other hand, I became the co-editor of the school newspaper, the Mariner, and between us we controlled information in the school, helping adolescent fortunes rise and fall and shining lights where we pleased. If ever there was a 16 year old power broker, Brian was it.

We both always had part-time jobs in those years, beginning with our dual Mirror News routes. While, by high school, I moved on to a busy busboy career, Brian landed a job delivering papers at St. John’s hospital, eventually moving to surgical central supply. Byhis early 20’s Brian was the youngest administrator in any Southern California hospital, becoming head of admissions at St. John’s. His first efforts included sending the entire admission staff to spend a few days under the guidance of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where they could get a better sense of welcoming people. He realized that admission to a hospital could be frightening, and Brian made certain that every new “guest” felt anticipated and welcomed. He also introduced a strange new tool called the computer, which would collect information and assign rooms in an efficient manner. By his late 20’s, Brian was recruited by Centinela Hospital to be the administrator for the new Sports Medicine clinic growing up around Drs. Jobe and Kerlan and the new LA Laker team.

Brian and I drifted apart somewhat in high school, if not at school, in our social lives. I was much more social than he, or at least attracted to a different crowd. I began to party more and Brian seemed to work all of the time, mostly at St. Johns. Brian’s dad, Jimmy, died of cancer when Brian was in the 5th or 6th grade. This left Brian with his mother, who was not the nurturing sort.  Terry managed to escape the house to the seminary at 12, leaving Brian with a self-serving mother. Thus, work was often
a respite from going home to live in a one bedroom apartment with Greta. He slept in a chair that folded out to a single bed. There was another factor working, but it had not yet raised its head. Just after high school, Brian shared with me that he was gay. I did not have to explain to him that I wasn’t. Yet, our relationship was such that I offered that whatever young sexual explorations that we shared together had simply spoiled him for anyone else.  Yes, at the time he blamed his mother, but later reflection , I am told, led him to believe that he was born gay. But after our initial conversations, I never had the opportunity to talk about it with him again. It made no difference to me; it made no difference to us…so we just went on.

At eighteen, I got drafted. Through a series of miracles, I was able to land in an Air Force Reserve unit for a 32 month stint as a medic. About half-way through, I got a desperate call from Brian that he too had his number called and he was due to report. By that time, all reserve units were closed, except for perhaps for the children of the well-connected. I visited my Senior Master Sergeant that afternoon and described Brian’s medical background and skills. He told me to send Brian to him and suddenly Brian was spared Vietnam.

It was a year later when I saw Brian at Xmas. I had served a busy 20 months and was home waiting for my orders. He took me aside and said, “Do you recall that little favor you did for me last year?” I did. “Well I think that I have repaid it.” He related that he was working alone in the medical records office, processing files for active airmen who were ready for reassignment or inactive duty….and there was my file. He smiled to himself and dropped my Air Force documents into the inactive duty file, which went off to the records center in Colorado. I enrolled in classes at the local college and kept waiting for a call from the Air Force. It never came. About a year later, a letter arrived from the government, asking if there was a national emergency was I ready to serve again. I thought for a second and checked “Sure”. That was the last that I heard from the Air Force (Until, years later, when I applied to teach overseas. I had to send for my discharge papers. I wrote the Air Force and they replied, “Sorry, we did not have an address for you”. And thus my service came to a close, just after I had my degree from Cal.)

In the ’70s, Brian went off to Lubbock, Texas, earning a Masters in Marketing and Hospital Administration, and began to find himself as a gay man. He returned to the Southland to find success in a variety of positions rehabilitating failing hospitals. By the ’80s, he was living in Laguna Beach and life was, well, gay. Brian came out to the broader family not long after his mother died, though the younger family knew for years. He threw a big party in his Laguna Beach house and invited the aunts. Co-hosting the party was Brian’s flamboyant partner, Brad. Clad in tight white shorts and a pastel shirt, Brad played the piano and knew every tune, especially Irish ones. He was like a dainty, musical Robert Redford. By the end of the evening, my Mom and aunts were all taken by him and Brian was officially out. My mother loved Brian as one of her own and her only response to me was, “If God made Brian gay, he must have known what he was doing.” I was so proud of her.

Then the first of his friends died. And then another. Brian suffered a back injury in a falling elevator, causing him to retire from hospital administration. Wishing to also escape the tragedies unfolding in the gay community, he and Brad moved to Oregon and bought a small ranch near the Rogue River. He told me that he wanted to raise dogs, but in fact he just gathered lots of dogs around him and gave a shot at raising pigmy goats instead.

I dug in to run a small boarding school and raise a family, which took all that I had. By the next time we saw each other, he was very thin. He had sold the ranch and was down to a couple of dogs in a one story place on the Rogue River. His brother, Terry, had married a big-hearted Canadian nurse named Maureen, and she pretty much moved to Oregon to care for Brian. Brad was around, but was not able to give much support. We sat on a couch in the living room. I quietly shared the recent dissolution of my marriage and he then gave my kids a sweeping lesson in Irish history.

My last visit with Brian is etched on my heart. As my next school year came to a close, I left the kids at home this time and shot up the coast to Oregon. My heart sunk when I saw him. At 6’2”, Brian was down to about 70lbs. He would doze and wake and I would sit on the deck above the river with Maureen, smoking a little of the pot that I brought for him, and simply being present in the moment. As Brian needed bathed, I volunteered. I stripped him down and then stripped myself down and carried him into the shower, where we stood in a naked embrace while I scrubbed him. “I hope that you are enjoying this”, I said. And he whispered “Indeed I am, thanks.” I toweled him and carried him back to bed. He then whispered something else: “How about a wee scotch…in my crystal glasses?” So I trooped off to find his Waterford crystal and pour a drop of the good stuff. It really was only a drop. I barely wet his lips with it, but he smiled and whispered again.

“What was that?”, I said.

“We certainly gave each other a childhood, didn’t we?”

And I toasted that we certainly did. He went to sleep and he was asleep again when I left in the morning.

Brian left me a bit of money when he died. He spread it around the family really, mostly supporting the education of his nephews and nieces. I used my share to contribute to a place called Christopher House, a home in Ventura, CA, where an AIDS victim (it now had a name) could go to die with dignity and love. While Brian had a family that loved him, many gay men had suffered rejection from their families and were facing their end alone. I am sure that Brian would have approved.

I once had a brother that I loved deeply. We gave each other a childhood. If there is a heaven, I am sure that St. Peter got a good tip at the gate.

7 Responses to Brian

  1. Sharon Ortale

    Oh, Dennis, Having known Brian at school, but, apparently, not really knowing him; you have given me such an intimate, poignant look at him, and your relationship with him. I am sure that you miss him and I especially loved hearing about your childhood “antics”. Wasn’t just showing up “to play” at a friend’s house, just the best a Sat morning could offer.
    I applaud your memoirs and look forward to reading each one. I think that I’ll reread this one.
    Write on!
    Love,
    Sharon

  2. eileen

    Oh Dennis, I was waiting for this one as I knew it was coming. You captured so much of our childhood, our family and most of all the awesome, funny, bigger than life person Brian was. I love him so much, he is always in my heart and so many of my memories. Thank you, thank you so much for this….xoxo

  3. Maureen

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful story. I did not know until about 15 years ago about what happened to Brian. Your recounting of your lives together allowed me to know Brian a bit more through your recollections of your times together. What wonderful times you two had. It’s a testament to your upbringing and the unconditional love you all received from your parents that instilled in all of you the ability afford Brian the compassion he so needed from his family at such a difficult time in his life.

    I have often wished that our side of the family had been closer to your side through the early years. I feel that I missed so many opportunities to get to know all of you so much better. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all of you welcoming me into your families all these years later. I will always think of Aunt Jo with much love and affection for her generosity and love afforded to Larry and me. I have some mementoes of her that I keep in a place where I see them every day and remember her with so much love and gratitude.

    I love all of you so much and think about you so very often. Larry and I are so grateful to have all of you in our lives.

    Love,

    Maureen

    • drice

      Thanks, Maureen. I do indeed miss Brian deeply, but this brief piece only touches a part of him. He also had a wonderful relationship with Terry and Maureen and the boys. He loved them like his own. I am only able to write my own experience, but, like me, I know their lives are richer for him. I can’t get my head around writing Jo…just too much there…maybe a simple Jo story or two might be possible. Love to you and Larry.

  4. Sheila

    Thank you for this beautiful trip down memory lane and the loving tribute to Brian. Even though I have 2 years on you, I also have no memory of a weekend or family vacation that didn’t include Brian. It was just like having another brother. The six of us were often referred to by the adults as “the big kids” (Terry and I), “the boys” (you and Brian), and “the little kids” (Colleen and Eileen). I remember that everything that happened was somehow instigated by the 2 of you. The worst of all your crimes being the fort the 2 of you built in Mom’s beautiful yellow daisy bed that ran the length of the driveway. She had babied those flowers and that single miserable orange tree since the day we moved in …. and it took her weeks to get over the loss. I remember you both talking Colleen and Eileen into hiding out down in the sewer (dry as a bone in the August heat) and then “forgetting them” for over almost an hour after the game was over. Sweating, but neither of them tall enough to climb out on their own, Brian correctly assessed the situation as “this is something we could all get in trouble for” so the 2 of you went down into the sewer to give them each a ‘leg up’ to about 5 or 6 of us to pull up their bodies. Later when they invariably and dramatically related this mishap to Mom, the 2 of you – but mostly Brian – told Mom and Dad the most twisted version imaginable about somehow the little kids got stuck in the sewer and wasn’t it lucky for them that the 2 of you came along – casting danger aside – went down and practically saved their lives. For this bravery, you were both given double dessert. Your invention of the “block crawl” is one of my most vivid memories of our childhood on Federal Ave. I am almost positive you are wrong about the dogs though. It was three killer german shepherds in the yard right behind our house. I remember the fence ledge was only 5 or 6 inches wide and while we traversed it all of them were snarling at us and jumping up on the fence. There were 13 houses on our side of the street, but once we made it across our redwood back fence the rest of the block was a piece of cake. I remember being terrified every time we all did this, but nevertheless considered it perfectly appropriate summer entertainment …. that and the catching of the same little butterflies in a jar on the Baumgartener’s hedge every single night after dinner until total darkness set and we were called to come in, so we reluctantly turned them loose until the next night. I can’t help but think that if those things could have talked, every evening they’d be moaning “god, here come those kids with their glass jars”. When I was about 12 and deemed old enough to be the babysitter when Mom and Dad went out for a couple of hours the power of authority clearly went to my head, how indignant I was that neither you or Brian ever had any intention of deferring to me, much less “obeying” me.
    You and I would fight, but Brian negotiated the situation with “look, you don’t bother us and we won’t bother you, and none of us will tell.” As far as the tipping went, the highlight was the 40 dollars Dad gave to me to take you all to dinner in the coffee shop in the Jack Tarr Hotel in San Francisco. The minute they left, Brian took the $40., saying that the men should handle the money. With my new driver’s license in hand, I drove that 1958 gun metal grey Cadillac Dad had as a company car 6 blocks to the ultra-modern high-brow Jack Tarr which had just had it’s grand opening. Brian tipped the guy who took the car, the doorman, the bellboy who gave us directions to the coffee shop, the hostess, the waitress, the busboy, paid for the hamburgers, then when we went up to the 4th floor to see the ice rink, and Eileen leaned a little too far over the edge of the pool and fell in, he paid $2.00 for a beach towel at the “Sip ‘n Skate Shoppe” to wrap her in, and we went down and across that white lobby carpet – Eileen dripping all the way – passing all the tuxedos and bejeweled ball gowns, tipped the doorman again, and, of course, the valet driver who brought us the car. We made it back to our hotel and Brian had 50 cents left to spare. Since the hamburgers only ran about a dollar each, It was interesting explaining to Dad where all the money had gone. We had been taken out to dinner by two Diamond Jim Brady’s. Brian was easy to love in so many ways. I distinctly remember Mom saying word for word as you quoted her, when she found out Brian was gay, and I also felt really proud of her. His own mother could never have coped with it, much less accept it. I think he thought of Mom as a mother for all the rest of his life. I know Brian is a huge part of all of our childhood memories, and am sure he is held close in our hearts forever. This was a gift. Thank you so so much. Love, Sheila

  5. Richard Robinson

    A wonderful reminiscence Dennis. You can know a person so well for so many years and there are still so many stories untold. I am not too well versed in your family tree. Any chance that Brian Lennon was named after this Brian?

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