Episode Eight: John
Some people are named by their parents after some great person or family hero. I was named by my brother after no one in particular.
John wanted me to be named Philip Charles. I don’t know why. And I don’t understand why Mom and Pop would allow a ten-year-old to name their baby. What were they thinking? It was 1952. My brother listened to the radio—a lot. He could have chosen Amos or Andy or Lamont or Hopalong, which would have been cool. No, he lobbied for Philip. Was it because a Philip was married to Queen Elizabeth of England? Maybe. Perhaps he thought his new baby brother was a princely fellow. That would explain my middle name being Charles, another princely name. I hated both names. I liked Rick, as in Nelson, but, being a newborn, I was overruled.
John Thomas and Philip Charles, the Baisley brothers, never really knew each other until the early 1990s when I lived in Springfield, Ohio, and John often had to fly from New York to Columbus for training on his employer’s new automated systems. By then he was in his late forties and I in my late thirties. It was time for a friendship.
Prior to 1990, it wasn’t that we disliked each other; we just had nothing in common. For a while we shared a bed, but John topped six feet and 180 pounds in eighth grade. If he’d have rolled onto me I’d have been a goner.
Mom said that one night I rolled onto John. She said I looked so sweet camped up there on his hip. The way John tells it, it was all he could do to keep from throwing me across the room. He restrained himself because he feared he might break something. A lamp or a knickknack, perhaps; I was expendable.
When John got home in 1964, a new TV show premiered that captivated viewers with its quirky humor: The Addams Family. Because of his impressive height and slim muscular build, I began calling my brother Lurch. Acknowledging one of my primary my physical characteristics as a junior high boy, he called me Stench. He also called me Bumble, an affectionate term for bum. It was true brotherly love, the kind the ancient Greeks extolled.
I loved my brother as he did me, each in our own pre- and post-adolescent way. Thanks to television—again—I found a way to demonstrate my affection.
In September 1966, CBS premiered Mission Impossible and I entered ninth grade at Isaac Bildersee Junior High School 68. Mission Impossible had the best opening sequence ever. Mr. Briggs, later Mr. Phelps, would receive the IMF team’s instructions via a reel-to-reel tape that would “self-destruct in five seconds.” It was classic.
At that time, John would sometimes work second shift at the Phone Company. (Back then there was only one “phone company.”) He’d come home about 1:00 a.m. and try not to wake me. It was probably sometime in February when I decided to surprise him.
Today, my son—heck, my grandson—could program into their phone better special effects than I used that night. But this was 1967, and I was a nerd but not a geek, and electronically challenged. I controlled my elaborate plot with extension cords and a four-switch box taken from Pop’s Christmastime Lionel Train layout.
Pop’s train layout took up half my room growing up. During December I’d have to crawl across John’s bed to get to mine. There was so little walking space.
We had a freight train and a passenger train with lighted Pullman cars. They ran in parallel and sometimes intersecting ovals through and around Plasticville, USA. Pop built roads through the town for miniature cars to drive on.
Pop’s sense of humor was odd to say the least, spawning my own, or so folks say. Plasticville had an intersection with a yellow caution sign before it that read, “Stop ahead.” One year Pop found a plastic doll’s head in a trash can on his way home from work. Forever after that head spend the Advent season in the middle of the Plasticville intersection reminding drivers to Stop! A head!
That February, I dug the switch box out of the train layout boxes and used it to power my plan. First I employed my reel-to-reel to record the opening of the latest episode of Mission Impossible. Then I dismantled a lamp so that only the wiring, socket, and bulb remained.
On the night I chose, while John was at work, I hid the tape recorder and the light bulb in his closet, leaving the sliding door open just enough for him to be able to hear the instructions and see the flash as the tape self-destructed. Using extension cords, I ran the wires from the closet, under both our beds to the far side of mine where it couldn’t be seen. I plugged the cords into the switch box and tucked it under my covers. Then I waited. Shortly before 1:00 a.m. John entered the room. “Good evening, Mister Briggs...”
I couldn’t see John’s face, but I imagined surprise. Then, precisely five seconds after the message ended, a bright flash and a whoosh sound as the tape destructed. This was followed by the highest compliment I’d received from John in all my fifteen years. “That was pretty good, Bumble.” Life was wonderful.
Thanks to my brother’s foresight in naming me, life got even better a few years later when I wanted to buy my first car. I was trying to figure out how to come up with the $800 I needed for a 1964 Ford Galaxie. Pop agree to pay half, but I was still several hundred dollars short. That’s when I learned the financial secret of my name.
It seems that somewhere in my family tree lived a man named Charlie, a great-uncle or something. He was so impressed that Mom and Pop named their secondborn, Philip Charles, after him that he left me some money in his will. For 17 years it had been earning interest in a savings account. Some of it went to buy that Galaxie, and the rest purchased furniture for my first apartment five years later.
Thanks, big brother, for choosing my name. That was pretty good, Lurch.
In an era where “tall, dark, and handsome” dominated the TV and movie screens, I was short, pale, and…well, life wasn’t easy. We’ll delve deeper into that next week in Episode Nine of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
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