On the day my brother killed
himself, I rose early to substitute for a sick art teacher. By the end
of the day, the third-graders and I were finally fitting into a groove.
But a lingering discourse hung over me following my brother’s
agitated actions the night before. Was everything OK? Then something
grabbed my chest, and my heart began to race. It seemed to suck out
my essence, leaving a hollow place. As I gasped for breath, I wondered
whether the “big one” was not far off.
The phone was ringing as I pulled into the driveway after school, I
don’t recall why I thought there was trouble.
“Hello,” I answered hesitantly.
“This is Dr. Wolfe,” said the voice.
“Can you come to my office right away?” His voice seemed
strange and distant.
“Is it Dave?”
“Is he OK?”
Dave and I both felt as close
as twins rather than brothers, two years apart. He was handsome with
blond, thinning longish hair, and sometimes wore a thin mustache. He
had our family trademark Roman nose, and bragged of his height - an
inch shy of six feet tall. He had a medium build and was always on the
slim side. He was aloof, introverted, and quiet, never outwardly showing
his feelings, completely the opposite of myself. We were best friends,
buddies. We attended Ocean County Junior College together in Toms River,
New Jersey, in the early Seventies, signing up for the same classes
and sharing a set of books as well as an apartment. Smarter than I,
who struggled to maintain a B average, Dave aced every class while hardly
ever looking at a book.
We were supposed to be in college for an education, but it was really
for the women. Dave charmed the ladies with his good looks, articulate
speech and witty personality. He often recited words and phrases I had
never heard, recalling seemingly unimportant details and blending them
into everyday conversations.
I remember our pulling over to the side of the highway just outside
of Montreal one afternoon to pick up two beautiful hitchhikers. They
were tall with blond hair and shiny black knee-high boots. We were two
carefree guys in our twenties. I drove as the two giggling girls squeezed
onto Dave’s eager lap. They directed us to a French restaurant
where we ate and drank bottles of wine. We checked into a motel and
partied until the wee hours of the morning, then paid a cab to take
the young ladies home.
We christened the early morning by sipping Jack Daniels straight from
the bottle until we decided to call our father and wake him from a sound
sleep at 4:30 in the morning. Our male bonding went on for half an hour.
We told dad that we loved him, which was the only time I ever heard
my brother say those words. My father and I always hugged and kissed
but Dave was not the kind of person to show affection. Perhaps he found
trust difficult due to the early abandonment of our mother.
Dave and I took up skydiving soon after we began flying airplanes but
that was the only thing I ever quit after only the unlucky number of
thirteen jumps. Dave went on to become an expert skydiver with well
over three hundred jumps under his belt.
Even though he was the more successful, I never resented Dave. He was
good to me. I was his best friend, next to his silver XKE Jag.
He had purchased it only three years before his death for $6,000–
a showpiece with wire wheels, a wooden steering wheel with matching
shifter knob, and eight-track tape deck and four on the floor. We named
it the silver rocket ship because we were cruising in a capsule cockpit.
The dashboard glowed futuristically at night, its instruments merging
into the control panel as if they had been born there, not installed.
Black pleated leather oversize bucket seats embraced the car’s
passengers like a lover.
On one trip to Canada five years earlier - I believe it was 1969 - we
blasted an Iron Butterfly eight-track, singing and banging percussion
on the dashboard, passing a jug of Balihi wine and a joint back and
forth. My brother loved speed and the Jag seemed to perform best at
100 mph, so the needle remained there for hours as we taunted death,
winding our way north with little regard for the law.
Still, he didn’t mind the establishment. After high school, Dave
spent four years in the Marines, then served off the coast in Vietnam.
After the service, he worked at Autec, a top-secret missile testing
facility operated by the Navy on Andros Island in the Bahamas. During
this time he wrangled me a winter job working a forklift in a warehouse.
While he worked hard on secret projects he could not reveal, I often
sneaked out of my job early to bask in the sun and dive for lobster
He shared my delinquent characteristics, but in a different way. One
late evening after a drunken night out on the sleazy side of Andros,
we stumbled onto the last ferryboat crossing the inlet to return to
base, falling into our seats. The facility commander, shit-faced as
well, belligerently demanded my brother’s seat. Instead of bowing
to authority, my brother punched him in the jaw, knocking him overboard
into the dark waters known to be sharks’ breading grounds. We
fished him out of the sea and escaped, evading the police for eight
days before being apprehended and put on a plane for the States. Those
six months spent with my brother in 1968 were some of our best moments
together. We were fit, brown from the sun, and full of life’s
A couple of weeks earlier, in Nassau we sat at the Tiki Bar sipping
Harvey Wall Bangers and Tom Collins from tall icy glasses. Rich, older
women bought us drinks and often gave us money just for our company.
Their husbands went out for days on their luxury fishing boats and unknowingly
- or maybe uncaringly - left their wives in our competent young hands.
We rubbed their wrinkled bodies with Johnson’s baby oil and sang
them songs. After one memorable weekend in Nassau, we each received
a $500 tip. I think we went through four bottles of oil that weekend
and I remember the ladies’ glistening, wrinkled skin deflecting
the hot tropical sun. We were on a patio of the Paradise hotel, sipping
champagne from fluted crystal glasses, waiting for the husbands’
return from fishing expeditions. I can still see the men’s’
sunburned faces and their bloated bellies sticking out from under their
Hawaiian shirts, as they waved up to their waiting spouses, holding
up dead fish, so proudly - warriors returning home as conquering heroes.
Days after his death, I recalled
those times in his home in Seaside Park, a half mile from my Pelican
Island house. I replaced the vacuum cleaner hose on the old Hoover upright
after removing the black electrical tape, which had held the tube connecting
the Jag’s exhaust through the driver’s window when Dave
had attached it after parking the car in the woods. How fitting that
the last few hours of his life were spent in the car that he loved so
dearly, the car that remained the most tangible proof of his existence.
Soon after, his wife Sharon sold their house and left town, never to
be heard from again.
Death by suicide leaves so many unanswered questions. I was the last
person to see Dave alive at my house the night before. He seemed depressed
and lonely. We were both a little drunk, but he was deeply disturbed
that Sharon, who had married him two years earlier, decided to go to
New York City to spend a weekend with some old friends without inviting
him along. What happened? I think there was an issue of infidelity because
he seemed more irritated than I had ever seen him as he paced around
my house like a caged cat in a zoo. He rambled on about needing a stronger
drug to get him through the night, as if a half dozen double rum and
cokes weren’t enough. I remember giving him a long hug just before
he left and it was the last time I would feel his breathing body in
my arms. I didn’t want him to leave but when he was depressed,
as he often was in those days, he needed to be alone. When he walked
down my front steps that night, I had an eerie feeling. I felt totally
alone and completely helpless.
A hunter found him the next day, lifeless in his car on a dirt road
near where we kept our Cessna 152 airplane. Our Iron Butterfly cassette
was blasting. Years later, while struggling with the vast void his death
left in my heart, I would smile with the knowledge that at least he
didn’t go out with a sappy Barry Manilow or Frank Sinatra tune.
Dave’s burial was be the second time I had been a gravedigger
in a hands-on family burial. My father had died rather young at 63.
We buried him - Uncle Frank, Dave and I – unceremoniously, in
a family burial site in Southern New Jersey, depositing him at the head
of their parents’ tombstone to the disapproval from my Aunt Pearl,
whose self-appointed mission was to determine a ground arrangement for
dead family members. We chose to ignore this absurdity: if she didn’t
like our choice she could dig them up and move them to wherever she
After we received Dave’s ashes, we headed there and found a place
near a cranberry bog. The glorious scent of pine trees and the damp
Southern New Jersey earth could not sweeten the aura of death. We found
the posthole digger, with its familiar duct taped handle leaning against
a small marker with a lamb. The inscription was blurred, but we knew
that beneath it laid my Grandma Sarah’s two-year-old child who
died of pneumonia in 1920. I pondered our family legacy as I stared
into the deep hole as Uncle Frank’s posthole digger crunched into
the earth. Early death seemed to be a theme.
It was Dave’s turn. Within a period of six years, I had lost half
my family. Abiding loneliness lingered like a shroud. Aside from a younger
sister, there was our mother, who hadn’t communicated with us
for 20 years, my entire family now lay beneath my feet. Thirteen down,
three to go, I reflected as I placed the urn, into the hole and shoveled
in the white sand, which would quickly disappear under patches of moss
What was next? I was free falling into an eternal dark bottomless well,
this time without my brother, my symbolic parachute. I could not conceive
of continuing my life without him.
Shortly after we buried my brother, I drove his Jag with the top down
over the Barnegat Bay Bridge that connects Toms River to Pelican Island
in New Jersey. As I revved up to 100 m.p.h., I considered the fragility
of my own life when my brother’s was so easily lost. Perhaps I
would not be able to cheat time. I didn’t care
Today, with a family of my own,
I still wonder what pushed him over the edge. Was there something I
could have said to make him change his mind? I sometimes think that
if he waited a day or two until his desperation dissipated, both our
worlds would be different. The notion that we will never be those adventurous
young men is brightened by the fact that we were able to briefly share
an exciting life. I still drive by Dave’s old house daily. Some
evenings I watch it across the street a mere block from my current seashore
home. And always, whenever I hear Iron Butterfly, I recall how good
life was with him.
here to purchase the book The Crow Flies.
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