My two-years-older brother, was an inspiration to me—a giant. As a teenager, he was fascinated with military airplanes. Hanging on strings from our basement bedroom ceiling and covering every shelf were more than a hundred plastic model planes he had meticulously assembled and painted, making sure every color and decal matched the real thing. His airplane collection ran from the de Havilland biplanes and Fokker triplanes of the First World War to the Vietnam-era F-111 “fast movers” and B-52 bombers. He even had Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft models.
His interests included the whole universe, and he bought his own telescope so he could look at planets and measure the magnitude of stars. Even through the light pollution of all the city streetlamps, he would find the planets and star formations and explain their sizes and distances to me. My brother gave me my first look outside our galaxy, at one of the Milky Way’s nearest neighbors: a very faraway spiral called Andromeda.
My brother had mountains of books and magazines about warplanes, and he knew all about the big fighter aces from each war. But the Korean War and the Cold War made it personal. “Fight MIGs!” he would say, pointing to a picture that showed rows of F-86 Saber jets in Korea, below an arched sign marked “MIG Alley.” His dream was to be a carrier fighter pilot wearing wings of gold.
He studied algebra, trigonometry, and calculus and could measure the speed and altitude of the multistage rockets the two of us launched in Patton Park behind our Detroit home. Using one simple instrument—an inclinometer—and a notepad and stopwatch, my brother figured it all out.
Unlike me, he never got into trouble. He completed Junior ROTC and graduated from Western High School. He was big into sports—played ice hockey, football, and baseball. He was a natural leader, and Congressman John Dingell nominated him for the U.S. Naval Academy. When his nomination didn’t pan out, my brother rode buses to Highland Park Community College, in the slums of Detroit, so he could complete an associate degree and be a pilot.
He graduated in 1970 and joined the Marines. It was a perfect choice: he was smart and confident, and he completed Officer Candidate School at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, becoming the second commissioned officer from our neighborhood. He then went to Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida, for flight training. He flew dozens of sorties in a T-34 Mentor, and twice that number in a T-28 Trojan (a large radial single-engine aircraft). But his accomplishments and success turned into cockiness. Three days before my second-lieutenant brother was scheduled to receive his wings, he mouthed off to an instructor, was given a fourth down, and got dropped from flight school.
That set him on a downward spiral of bitter thinking and not learning from his mistakes. He was offered navigator training, but he refused, blaming the flight instructors for his woes. “If I can’t fly,” he said, “I don’t want anything!” Meanwhile, he broke up with his beautiful sweetheart. The Marines sent him to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as a platoon leader in a combat engineer unit. But he kept calling home, blaming one sergeant after another for his disappointments.
Two years later, he got out of the Marines, returned home, and went to the University of Michigan, Dearborn. I was home from Vietnam by then and working as a Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy. I kept encouraging him to become a police officer since there were lots of openings and the pay was great. “I don’t wanna be a dummy cop!” my brother would say, preferring to stay on unemployment and live in the basement of our parents’ home.
My first wife and I took him on vacations to Mackinac Island and Niagara Falls, but nothing seemed to make him happy. He was bitter that all the firearms I had been collecting over the years were selling for a profit while his model airplanes just gathered dust, so I eventually had to move everything of mine from my parents’ home to my flat.
Several months later, my brother signed up as a police officer in Dearborn, a suburb just west of Detroit. Things were looking good. He was back into running—even doing the Boston Marathon—and other cops loved him for his wit and sense of humor.
That is, until he fell in love with a secretary from Dearborn. For whatever reason, she didn’t respect my brother’s history, his friends, or our family. She needed to have him all to herself, and he did little to resist.
And just like that, my handsome, six-foot-one, critical-thinking former Marine captain, police officer brother was gone. He found more and more fault with his own family and adored hers. His friendships faded as he drifted away from neighborhood buddies, fellow officers, best friends, and family.
The final break between my brother and me happened at Lee’s Imperial Tavern in Windsor, Ontario, in spring 1983. For years, we had a weekly ritual of going to Canada with our dad and neighborhood buddies, but my brother was becoming increasingly angry because his plan of making it big in the stock market kept failing and he was often short of money. We were sitting in the bar, talking about the new television series Cosmos, and I expressed admiration for Carl Sagan and the series.
I don’t know what he heard in my comments, but something enraged him. “You’re an atheist! An atheist!” my brother shouted, and he swung a fist at my face.
A friend of ours, sitting between us, blocked the punch. “If you need to hit somebody, hit me, not your brother!” he shouted.
I refused to fight with someone I loved, so I stood up and started to walk out of the bar. All the while, my brother kept jabbing his finger at me and shouting, “You’re an atheist! You didn’t listen to anything I told you! You atheist!”
My brother had talked a lot about religion, and I did listen. But what he failed to recognize was, he never asked what I thought. I was always just his little brother, “Dummy Bob.”
I stepped out of the tavern and ran twelve miles from Windsor, Ontario, across the Ambassador Bridge and back to my parents’ house and my car in southwest Detroit.
My brother never apologized. Instead, he blamed our lifelong friend, Tom Howard, who had blocked the punch—a devout Catholic and former Vietnam combat Marine—for starting it.
And that provided the excuse my brother needed to write off his last best friends and me.
In March 1989, my brother drove to our parents’ new home on Grosse Ile and rang the doorbell. He hadn’t talked to our mother and father in months. It was night, and our parents opened the door.
“There’s your Christmas presents!” he said, gesturing to a large garbage bag on the driveway before walking back to his car.
Our mother called his name, pleading from the porch for him to come in.
“I don’t have time!” my brother said, getting back in his car.
Two months later, my mother had a stroke and could no longer talk. She died that November.
* * *
The decades of bitter, jealous thinking took a toll on my brother. He lost his bright smile and sparkle and turned into an angry-looking overweight guy with an implanted pacemaker and defibrillator. I’ll never understand why someone so gifted and enlightened could take such a dark turn. He was such a giant to so many people—me first among them. I just wish he had been stronger for himself.