My oldest brother used to crack me up when we were little. He would grab mom's apron and drape it around his shoulders like a cape. Then he would stand on the kitchen chair and deliver a resounding fire and brimstone sermon. Everyone thought that someday he might study for the priesthood but that all changed abruptly when he got caught smoking. He never delivered another sermon after that, well, at least not of the fervently religious type. For some vagary that no one understood, the priesthood ambitions disappeared.
Actually, I had two older brothers and an older half-brother. My half-brother ran away from home when he was fourteen, before I was born. Mom and dad never saw him again. I never knew him. It's my oldest brother I remember best of all, the way he made me laugh, he played cowboys and Indians longer than any adolescent in the history of this country, I swear.
Often, when he would return from playing with the other children in the neighborhood, he looked as if he had been in a war. He would be scraped, cut, bruised and his clothes were torn and filthy. Now that I think about it, it was just as well. Our father would beat the living tar out of him inevitably every night, so whatever transpired during the daytime didn't matter; he would have come out of it the worse for wear any way you look at it.
Sometimes it seemed my oldest brother asked for these beatings the way he constantly challenged my father's authority. He may have been deliberately rude to dad, because after every beating our mother would coddle my brother and shower him with affection and kindness. Perhaps he thought it was the only way he could get mom to pay attention to him and show him how much she loved him. Seems silly, I suppose, to think that he would want to endure that kind of punishment from one parent just to receive the opposite from the other in return.
Silly, too, was his singular attempt at running away from home. Dad had locked him in his room that night, he probably knew all along what my brother was up to. When my brother discovered he couldn't fit through the decorative bars on the window, he took off all his clothes and started trying to contort his body through to freedom, albeit nude. Again, dad suspected something was going on and started up the stairs. Hearing dad's footsteps, my brother quickly retreated from the window and covered his naked body with a tablecloth. When dad opened the locked door, there was this little boy looking like a miniature emperor of Rome. I thought he was dead meat but all dad could do was laugh so hard I saw tears come to his eyes.
Dad's laughter hurt my oldest brother far more than the whip and when he started to call him 'The Toga Boy' in front of Mom, I saw my brother start to cry and shudder; a characteristic he would soon put aside. Not long after the failed escape attempt, my oldest brother refused to cry whenever dad whipped him. It appeared to me that he simply stood there, stolidly counting the lashes one by one, expressionless, blocking out the pain.
My oldest brother was an assiduous reader, explaining in part at least, why he could breeze through elementary school with such ease. His favorite books were the old west, heroic cowboys and intrepid Indians. Acting out these stories after school and during recess, he would be the leader of the story de jour. When one of the older boys tired prematurely one day and my brother wanted to continue playing, he even stooped to recruiting me.
'Paula,' he said, 'come take his place. We're not finished yet and you'll be a good Indian. Come on, you'll have fun.'
And I did have fun! Although I was much smaller and younger than the others, my imagination was every bit as good as theirs. I was four or five years old, as I recall, and that would have made my brother around eleven or twelve. From then on, if I were around, I got to play the Indian princess, kidnapped and held for ransom by the evil cattle thieves or variations on similar themes. Not long after that, he became interested in reading war stories. He was adept at switching his playacting from cowboys and Indians to modern war battlefields but that meant that I was back on the sidelines again.
My older brother Edmund died around that time. He was only a couple of years older than I was and his death brought the total to four. Four children in our family were now dead. Edmund died of measles when he was six or seven years old. Two other brothers and a sister of ours died when they were only a couple of years old, if that. I think one of my brothers was only a few days old when he died.
Now my oldest brother was my only brother and the only living offspring to carry on the family name. Instead of softening the relationship between my brother and my father, as we all hoped for, it polarized it further. Neither could agree on what my brother's future should entail. My father wanted him to grow up and be a professional man like himself. My brother had other ideas. For one thing, my brother learned he had a gift. He could draw and paint.
In his last year of elementary school and shortly after his confirmation in the Catholic Church, he started drawing during school hours. He didn't need to study, he was far too intelligent for that, so he would sit in class and sketch. One day he came home from school and showed me a self-portrait. The likeness was exquisite.
In a way, I think my brother's dream of one day being an artist resolved a giant disagreement between him and our father. Once he was out of elementary school, with excellent grades I might add, my brother had a choice: either attend a classical high school to prepare for university, or a trade school. He opted for the trade school because it had courses in drawing. This, too, is what our father wished but for vastly different reasons. A great battle had been avoided and I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief.
It was sad to see him wander off to the technical school that fall, it was so far away. Would dad beat me now that my brother was gone? Would my brother be all right on his own? Only time would tell. The technical high school was in a city only three miles away but it seemed forever on foot. We wished him luck and hugged and kissed him goodbye. Whenever he returned, he was exhausted from the hike.
The first year at the technical school was not an auspicious one for my brother, no longer the leader nor the best at everything, he did poorly and regressed as a result. Like a leaf in a whirlpool he spiraled inward, failing in both math and history. His classmates taunted him for being a country bumpkin and not city folk like them. There was a time, I must admit, that I thought he was doing poorly on purpose to get revenge on dad but later, I was proven wrong. The next year, big brother turned everything around and showed everyone what he could do. His grades improved dramatically and he took over as the leader of the class once again. One of his classmates dubbed him 'the quiet fanatic,' a description we could all relate with.
The next year, however, his grades started to slip again. Near the end of the Christmas break, tragedy struck our family' again. Father had gone down to his favorite watering hole one day and after he sat down at his customary table, he announced he wasn't feeling well. Minutes later, he was dead of a pleural hemorrhage. We buried him two days later in the cemetery visible from the picture window at home.
Mom was granted one-half of dad's pension money to live on, a handsome amount by the day's standards. Not only were we spared abject poverty, our home was virtually free of the tension of old. My brother, no longer under the tyrannical hand of our father, convinced mom that he should be allowed to stay in a boardinghouse near the technical school, thus avoiding the long trek to and from home on foot. She consented, and he moved into a nice house owned by an old woman. There were five other schoolboys staying there as well.
That summer, we packed everything up and headed for the mountains and stayed with friends. My brother, repelled by the notion that he should work in the fields, took to his favorite pastime: reading and drawing. He was becoming quite an accomplished artist; after all, it was his life's ambition and had been for many years. With father gone, no one was in a strong position to stop him from trying. That summer passed all too quickly for our family and soon my brother was off again to school. This time, we would see little of him between breaks.
My brother hated French with a passion but he loved ancient history. His grades reflected this proclivity and he had grown set in his ways and strong-headed. He continued his role as the leader of the class and required his school chums to give him their undivided loyalty. This didn't particularly endear him to all, as there were those that resented his domineering attitude and his demands for their subservience. He failed French and was required to take the makeup exam.
Miraculously, he passed the makeup exam but the school refused to accept him for his final year because of his obstreperous attitude and bilious personality. The next nearest technical school was twenty-five miles away. There, the new schoolmaster made arrangements for him to stay with the Cichini family but he despised the new town and his room. He told me that he spent more time shooting rats from his window than he did on schoolwork. He also took piano lessons but not for long as he soon discovered he didn't have the patience to put in the time required mastering the instrument.
No longer required to take the dreaded French, he nevertheless managed to fail German. I couldn't believe it! He also failed mathematics, his nemesis. His favorite subjects, history and geography, suffered as well, his grades were only 'adequate.' Then he took to making up stories of ill health to avoid attending school at all.
As a great credit to his natural intellect, he graduated in spite of himself. Mom and I were so proud of him we could have burst with joy. That night my brother got so drunk he couldn't remember a thing about the previous evening. The next morning a woman found him on the highway and woke him. He never got drunk again. Later, he came down with a respiratory illness that caused him to hemorrhage, spitting up blood during coughing fits. He received his certificate from the technical school but could not go back for more studies that would have lead to a diploma. He was very ill.
Now there was nothing to stop him from doing whatever he pleased. At sixteen, he became the consummate elitist vagabond. If he weren't reading, he was drawing and sketching. If neither of those, he would be found in a museum or the opera and occasionally a movie theater. He wandered continuously, his thoughts and dreams taking up every second of his waking moments. In parallel, he became more reclusive and withdrawn. He was as thin as a twig and as pale as the winter sky. Finally, mom and I were so worried we moved into his apartment with him if only to make certain he would eat and sleep regularly.
Mom and I slept in the living room. It was small but comfortable and warm. The singular thing I disliked about the room was the large, framed portrait of dad, the stern, authoritarian civil servant expression on his countenance. My brother slept in a room barely big enough for him to lie down, but he didn't seem to mind. The only other room was the kitchen and we spent most of the day there when I wasn't in school. We would often sit around the table listening to him lecture us on the themes concerning history and policy. He rhetoric was moving and sincere.
Mom was convinced that my brother would be a famous, world-renowned artist one day. I was more worried about his frail health, physically and mentally. Then it was mother's turn to get sick and within a short time she fell gravely ill. My brother and I cared for her but to no avail. We met and decided to allow an operation to be performed based on the doctor's advice. In January, she entered the Sisters of Mercy hospital and the next day Dr. Urban removed one of her breasts.
It was about that time that my brother fell hopelessly in love for the first time. She was a striking girl, tall and svelt with rich hair done in a bun. One day, while walking along with his buddy, he excitedly gripped his pal's arm and exclaimed, 'You must know, I'm in love with her.' Her name was Stephanie Jansten. He composed all manner of love letters for her and then read them to his pal. She, conversely, ignored him. Soon, other matters took priority. Unfortunately, I was not one of them and he refused to take responsibility for my care. At the time, I was crushed.
With great anticipation, my brother took the exam for admission to the Academy of Fine Arts but the verdict was shocking; his test drawing was unsatisfactory. After a few days he realized what few friends he had already guessed' his painting was only a hobby and his future was that of an architect.
Obtaining a degree in architecture was problematic. In order to qualify for the Academy's School of Architecture, he needed the diploma from the technical high school. The diploma he was too ill to study for. He was committed to success in life, in some fashion but spent the next few months wandering aimlessly about the city, examining the architecture. Meanwhile, our mother was dying.
By November, still receiving painful and fruitless treatments, it was clear she would not recover. My brother dedicated himself to her in those last days and even helped me around the house with the chores' without complaining! In the two months that he tended to her every need, he never lost his temper. He was uncharacteristically considerate of all around him.
Four days before Christmas, she quietly passed away. My brother was shattered. As she lay there, he sketched her one last time. I never saw him look so forlorn, so grief stricken, so hopelessly alone.
In the void of time that followed, my brother tried in vain for acceptance into the Academy of Fine Arts. After reviewing his samples, they wouldn't even allow him to take the test. Not long after that, he disappeared into the homeless society of the poor. He left us no address, as he had none and spent the next several years sleeping in doorways, parks and alleys. During the brutally cold and harsh winters, he found refuge in the sleazy bars and safehouses and other dirty places filled with destitute men and women. He resorted to selling his few remaining clothes to eat.
'Even now I shudder,' he later wrote, 'when I think of those pitiful dens, the shelters and lodging houses, those sinister pictures of dirt and repugnant filth and worse still. I am sorry to say, that I am merely the living memory of the saddest period of my life.' Just prior to one particular winter, he had already sold most of his own clothing and the unforgiving environment cascaded him into further shame and mortification.
No one, other than those poor souls that have been made to endure similar emotions, could understand his suffering. A once proud and intelligent young man was finally forced by law into a building that cared only for the indigent. That winter, he lived in a bug infested, macabre room and became a prisoner of poverty.
Upon his release months later, he tried begging but had neither talent nor stomach for it. His constant drifting mystified those that knew him, knew of his intellect and education and his health continued to deteriorate. His painful and sometimes bloody cough was getting worse.
His salvation, oddly enough, came when a homeless acquaintance coaxed him into painting postcards. Disguising himself as a blind man, he sold his miniature art works in many of the many taverns in the city. Within a few weeks he was basking in the cleanliness of tile showers and relatively clean clothes. His disinfected clothing, long hair and beard remained his pathetic trademarks. His frail frame and gaunt face fit the image of the starving artist perfectly. His ardent love, painting, never left him and he continued to paint but now he confined his works to structures, buildings old and new. His creations showed marked improvement and he sold almost everything he finished. The quality of his life was also considerably better.
Encouraged by his honed talents, he reapplied to the Academy of Fine Arts. Again, however, they turned him down. As an artist, he was a technician. As a technician, he was an architect without credentials. Then, desolate and dejected, my brother's worst nightmare came true. He was inducted into the army. War had begun.
His tenuous future became decidedly more ominous. During an intense battle in the trenches, he was blinded and treated in an army hospital only to suffer a relapse and lose his sight again. How does a blind artist earn a living painting? Only after months and months of painful suffering and equally painful treatment did his sight return to normal. By then, he was thankful for that, if nothing else.
While in the army, he was noticed and inducted into a debating club that included a few high-ranking officers. It seemed as though he had been given yet another gift. They insisted my brother was a natural-born orator. Eloquent and articulate, he would deliver his debates with convincing emotion and fervor.
Upon his release at the war's end, he became more pragmatic although he continued to paint. One day, a close friend and army buddy asked my brother to join the friend's debating club. He did so and within a short time my brother had turned the small club into a new, albeit miniscule, political party. The war had left the reining government in shambles, drenched in corruption and brazenly uncaring of its people. Within a few years, my brother's new political party had grown by orders of magnitude.
It was yet another new beginning for him. Wealthy and influential people surrounded him. More importantly, these same people listened, in fact hung on his every word, as he delivered his powerful speeches and not, this time, from the kitchen chair. This was only the beginning of the fame he now enjoys and rightfully so.
All this happened many years ago now, of course, and I have left out quite a few details. Little did we know he would one day rise to the fame our mother always said was latent, hidden within him, in his genius. I followed his feats in the press and on the radio. His ideas were eclectic, but unified. No one could accuse him of having no purpose now. Neither a drifter nor a homeless artist, he loved his country passionately and the people followed him with equal fervor.
In the fall of 1938, Time Magazine elected him 'Man of the Year.' I was so proud! It was such an honor to see his portrait on the cover for the whole world to observe and it was published in fourteen languages! If only our parents could have been alive. Finally the family name meant something. At last, frail, gaunt and obstreperous Adolf Hitler had fulfilled their dreams' but, unfortunately, not his own.