My sister was a flamboyant tomboy.
She was born with superior self-promotional skills used to equal effect on and off the ball field. Like a hummingbird, she darted from one experience to the next, following each with cleverly-built sound bites targeted toward an already adoring fan club of adults.
It did not hurt that she was effortlessly beautiful, with an angelic face and blond hair so silken that no ribbon, however well-secured, could overcome the pull of gravity.
That all of this could reside in one person was an existential challenge to me and I learned early on that it was senseless to compete. She was the Meryl Streep of children.
Although fascinated by her, I was forced to live on the dark side of her eclipse.
Her esteemed repute and the contrast between us was never more obvious than during the Brooklyn summers of our childhood. While she and friends ran around bases chalked onto asphalt, I wall-flowered the front porch, my head in constant tilt toward the sky. Somewhere in that great blue abyss, I would find the next part of my life. The part that did not include her.
The tiny postwar house that vacuum-sealed our young years sat directly beneath the landing approach to New York’s JFK Airport. Every sixty seconds planes and jets flew loud and low as they spent their last few airborne minutes before smacking down on its well-used tarmac.
I dreamed one day I would be scooped up and dropped inside the cabin of a roaring Pan American 707 or an elegant prop-driven TWA Constellation. I would look out from a circular portal toward earth as I flew over and past the square block that held me captive.
Sitting around me, I imagined politely composed fathers and mothers buckling well-groomed children into seats, neatly pressed men in pin-striped suits prepping for afternoon meetings in Manhattan, wide-eyed tourists anxious to explore the 1964 Worlds Fair, elevator up to the tip of the Empire State Building or ferry out to the Statue of Liberty.
For good measure, I pretended that perky blond stewardesses with exquisitely perfect smiles delivered sets of golden wings to little boys like me.
If my sister could rule the ground, I could rule the sky.
It was during the summer of my twelfth year that the optics of my childhood were interrupted by a development that seemed too benign to explode into a lifetime of drama.
The expiration date had come due on my sister’s heralded precociousness.
Frustrated with the constant brushing of her little Rapunzel’s hair, my mother decided to have it cut. It would be cooler during the intense summer heat.
Without permission or opinion from her bewildered daughter, they left the house on what seemed a simple mission.
Hours later, a frazzled mother, accompanied by a child in a hailstorm of tears, returned. My sister’s hair had been transformed from long glistening mane to a short tangle of dry, unkempt waves going every which way.
Partly embarrassed but mostly angry, she was never to be the same. Some dark force had removed her inner light.
Over the next months, her best-little-girl-in-the-world personae was replaced with willful acts of self-destruction. She sought new friends who introduced her to cigarettes, glue-sniffing and shoplifting. Teachers who once loved her sass were now calling several times a week about bad behavior, requesting a conference, threatening to hold her back if this new behavior did not change.
My parent’s tight grip on their beloved daughter began to slip. As a family, we began to shift emotional resources to focus on the onslaught of her erratic behavior.
My value as the quiet, good boy enjoyed a momentary uptick, but this was to be short-lived, as we were on sister-triage now.
Never purposeful or even-handed as we traveled through any experience – good or bad – we hunkered down for the duration. It was all-consuming and I was left in the blind spot of my parent’s rear view mirror.
Increasingly more isolated, I began to adjust to this hostile environment by plotting my way out of it. Pulling threads from my daydreams of flight together into something concrete, I dispatched letters to a dozen best-recognized commercial airlines and to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Although too young by a good number of years for anything resembling the start of a career, it was necessary for the sake of sanity to pin some hopes onto even a slim aspiration.
Please send me your information on pilot training, I wrote. Please let me know the minimum age and education required to join your program. Please deliver me from this sink hole of a life. Please, please, please.
Within a week, glossy color brochures began to arrive. I quickly pulled them from the mailbox so that others with less vision could not pour dampening negativity over my fragile dream.
Each night, under the covers with a flashlight, I would spread the pamphlets before me, pouring over every photograph, memorizing every word, calculating the shortest route to my destiny.
One afternoon, as I neared home on my walk from school, I could see my mother holding purse-lipped vigil on the front porch. My pace slowed. I saw the cherished envelopes containing my master plan inside the tight grip of her hands. The hiding spot I’d thought impervious to discovery had been breached in a full-on invasion of the only thing left to me: my privacy.
“What are these?” she asked.
The short leash she held on temper was betrayed by the shaky cadence of her voice. I felt a creeping shame carve a slow, excruciating path through my body.
“I’ve written to the airlines, mother. I wanted information on how to become a pilot.”
Guided in silence by her bony hand on my back, I was ushered to the side of the house, toward the garbage cans in the driveway. She lifted the bruised aluminum top of one of them and said: “Throw them in.”
It was difficult to gauge what level of volatility would surface if I disobeyed. I took the envelopes from her hand and did as instructed. Better to acquiesce. Be the good boy.
I was then moved into the house. The round Formica table in the kitchen was still damp from a rag she’d recently run over it. Seated across from me, she fiddled nervously with the handkerchief she used as a constant prop.
“Jewish boys do not become pilots,” she said. “The goyim become pilots. You can try. You may even make it. But you will never be happy. You will always be the outsider. Behind your back they will make fun of your nose and your curly hair and talk about how cheap the Jews are. They will snicker at you. They will taunt you. You will be a permanent stranger to them.”
“But – “
“Did you look closely at the brochures?” she asked. I had. “Was there even one person who looked like you in those photographs?”
I dared not reveal that I was looking for those who appeared to be the opposite of me.
Using what I thought was obvious artillery, I said: “Father was a pilot.”
As a measure of her impatience she clutched the handkerchief tightly. “It was a different time. There was a war. People didn’t have choices”.
“But – ”
“Your father is not to know anything about this. Do you understand?”
I did not understand. Why would she protect my ambitions from him?
I agreed to be silent, but with grave reservation.
It would be a year before I would learn the crushing truth. My father had actually washed-out of flight school before his squadron shipped overseas. I had so often bragged to friends about his important part in the war. It was a source of pride, of differentiation. It needed no embellishment.
When I questioned him about the revelation, I could see something deep and hurtful in his eyes. Something that prevented explanation.
I understood his pain as it now seemed a fatal embarrassment to me, as well.
Months later, in a move that was wildly contradictory to my mother’s protestations about those who would persecute us, my sister was sent to a private Catholic girls school in Canada, only to return a few months later without explanation. At least to me. It was clear, though, that whatever her experience, it had deepened the bag of tricks.
Back in survival mode, I began to learn that it was safer to stop communication, to horde dreams and secrets, to search in silence for the door out, to begin to understand what Jewish boys did become.
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