Thoughts on Family

Today is what is traditionally known in the U.S. as "tax day," the day all income taxes are due. Because it's a Sunday, however, that day has been extended to this Tuesday, April 17. So how, you may ask, does tax day have anything to do with my family? I had an older brother, Rick, who was born April 15, 1952. He would be 66 years old today. My parents always called him their "tax baby."

There are days that I think of Rick often. He died on May 3, 2010, so it's becoming "a while" since his death. To say we fought as children would be a gross understatement. Rick could be a bit of a bully at times. I was three-and-a-half years younger, so I was his easy and constant target. Yet, it's funny how growing up can change things.

We became quite close as we aged into adulthood. I even rented a room from his family on more than one occasion, since that was easier, cheaper, and less lonely than living alone. That arrangement had the added perk of becoming a fixture in the lives of his daughters. To this day, the three of us feel extremely close because of their few childhood years I spent with them.

On days like today, I feel the loss of my brother considerably. It was on his birthday in 2010, eight years ago today, that I spoke to him for the last time. There is no person on Earth I have had better times with - perhaps as good, but not better. Of course, like anyone, I recall particularly fond moments in our lives. The memories that follow, a tribute to him, are a few of them:

In the mid-1970's, I moved back to Florida from the New Orleans area. My Vega did not have the ability to pull a small U-Haul, even with my meager belongings at the time, so I enlisted Rick and his 6-cylinder midsize to help. 

We rented a small trailer for a "local" move because it was cheaper than a one-way move, though it may have been illegal at the time, but the statute of limitations prevents prosecution now, so I'm safe. Leaving one night for the drive to the west side of New Orleans, we drove overnight to our destination. I forget the exact time we left, but it was dark and rather late. It was also cold, in the mid-twenties.

What we didn't count on was the gas consumption when pulling the trailer. The distance from my hometown of Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, to our destination of Kenner, Louisiana, which is on the far western edge of the metro area of New Orleans, was about 260 miles. We started with a full tank and my mother's Union 76 credit card. I doubt we had forty cents between us. By the time we got to Gulfport, Mississippi, perhaps 170 miles from home, we were forced to find an open gas station. It was the middle of the night, around 3 A.M., and we were lucky to finally locate a place that was open. Keep in mind, not everyone was open 24 hours back then, and a gasoline shortage added to our problem.

So on we continued to New Orleans. As the sun came up, we were approaching the exit off I-10 that leads into Slidell, Louisiana, just as you are getting on the L-O-O-O-O-O-N-N-N-N-G-G Interstate-10 bridge that crosses the eastern side of Lake Pontchartrain. (No, this is not the famous, twenty-four-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway that runs from Mandeville, Louisiana, directly into New Orleans, but at about six miles, it's long enough.) Sitting at this exit was a large Union 76 station/truck stop. All we had was the gas card, and it wasn't good at any other places along our route. We had about a half tank in the car - as I said, the gas mileage was abysmal - but we decided to go get the few belongings and stop on our way back.

Big mistake.

After loading my things in the small U-Haul, we headed back toward the Union 76 near Slidell. Just as we topped the rise on the I-10 bridge from the New Orleans side of Lake Pontchartrain, the car sputtered and quit. Rick put the car in neutral to allow it to roll until it stopped.

If you've ever been on this bridge, you know that it is actually two bridges, one for westbound traffic, another for eastbound. Although we had no gas can, the card could be held for ransom, so that wouldn't be a problem. But did I mention it was cold? A lighted time-and-temperature sign in Kenner had said it was twenty-two degrees - without the wind. We flipped a coin to see who would go get the gas. Rick lost the coin-flip. Bundling himself in his thin jacket, he stepped out, glared at me as if it were all my fault, which in a way I guess it was, and started walking, sticking his thumb out for a ride.

The second car to pass stopped for him, figuring out our problem since the car was parked right beside him in the breakdown lane. I sat and waited.

Of course, it was possible to hitch a ride to the gas station at the end of the bridge, get the gas, thumb a ride to the New Orleans end of the bridge, cross over, and finally thumb a ride to the car, but that would require finding two people willing to have a young man with shaggy, long hair and a smelly gas can in their car. Not gonna happen.

So I watched and finally saw a speck in the distance: Rick, carrying the half-full, three-gallon gas can as he walked facing traffic.

I got out of the car, bundled myself against the surprisingly strong and bitterly cold wind blasting over Lake Pontchartrain, and set off to meet him, feeling the least I could do would be to carry the gas can the rest of the way once we met somewhere on that freezing bridge. The wind chill had to be near or below zero. Rick appreciated the gesture.

We filled up at the Union 76 of course, once we got the car running, and stopped again at our previous oasis when the gas level dropped to a half-tank in Gulfport.

The adventure was not fun at the time, but it was memorable, and remembering it is fun. Had I known what a special memory this would be, I would have tried to enjoy it more back then. But back then, we thought we'd live forever.

Another memory of Rick also involved New Orleans. He was on his way from one place to another by air, and he purposely set up a long layover so we could have some time together. I was living in Metarie at the time, another suburb of New Orleans, and after I picked him up from the airport, we drove downtown to have some beignets and coffee from the original Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter. Our plan from there was to wander around the Quarter and see what we could see.

We ended up strolling around Jackson Square (right across the street from Cafe du Monde) and Rick decided to sit for a portrait. The artist ASSURED us he would be done in plenty of time for Rick to get to the airport and catch his flight. Yeah, right. When the man was FINALLY finished, it was obvious Rick would probably miss his flight, but we decided to try anyway.

We ran to where we parked the car, I paid the attendant for parking, and Rick took my keys and pulled my car up to the lot exit to pick me up. We ran several stop lights on Canal Steet, somehow avoiding getting a ticket. And these lights were not "maybe red" lights; they were red, with cars waiting. Rick would pull around the cars and speed past them when it was clear enough to shoot between oncoming cars to our right and left, only to be forced to do the same at the next light. When we got to I-10, Rick zoomed in and out of traffic. 

I've no idea how we didn't die, but we finally got to the airport, which is about fifteen miles from the French Quarter. Rick told me to circle around and if he'd missed his flight, which was scheduled to leave about twenty minutes before we had arrived, he would be outside waiting for me.

I circled around, and sure enough, Rick stood on the sidewalk, waiting for me. Instead of jumping in, though, he told me his flight was delayed an hour, and he had plenty of time. (Keep in mind that getting to the gate was not the hassle it is today.) Lucky break! We both could breathe again.

The next day, I went out to get in my car to go to work and found a flat tire waiting for me. All I could think was how lucky we were it hadn't happened the day before. I only wish I knew what became of that picture of Rick. It was a good one, done in chalk, and I'd love to have it, or at least be able to give it to his daughters.

Finally, one last memory of my brother:

Anyone who knows me well is aware I am a dyed-in-black-and-gold New Orleans Saints fan and have been since the day they began playing in the NFL in 1967. Rick, on the other hand, ended up in Tampa for his final years and became a Buccaneers fan. I forgave him. But in the last years of his life, he became quite ill and had to use an electric scooter style of wheelchair to get around. I would visit him every summer, and we would do as much as we could together. One year we went to Busch Gardens to enjoy the rides, but the best time was the year we attended Bucs camp in Orlando.

We loaded his truck with the scooter and set off. Arriving at the sports complex where Jon Gruden led the Bucs in their training camp, we pulled up in time to see about the last forty-five minutes of practice. When we got there, Rick bought an official NFL Tampa Bay Bucs football. I bought a t-shirt for my son-in-law (married to my stepdaughter), who is also a Bucs fan. (Don't worry; I've forgiven him too.)

When practice was over, several players stuck around to sign autographs. I managed a few for my son-in-law, and Rick got everyone there to sign the football, though there weren't that many players staying out to sign.

The most gracious among the players was Ike Hilliard, who happens to be the nephew of a former New Orleans Saint, Dalton Hilliard, a star running back for the Saints in the late 1980's and early 1990's. Ike Hilliard was phenomenal. He was going around from fan to fan and posing for pictures, etc. He was, at that time, nearing the end of a good career as a wide receiver, and his willingness to spend time with his fans was amazing. He was out there in the heat long after all the other players had gone inside to shower and enjoy the air conditioning after a long, hard practice.

Mr. Hilliard kept telling Rick, "Don't go anywhere. I'll get with you before you leave." We watched as he went from group to group posing, chatting, and signing autographs. He informed Rick he would be with him and not to leave at least three times.

When he finally made his way to us, he explained he wanted Rick to be his last fan so he could spend as much time with him as Rick wanted. Rick, remember, was in an electric scooter/wheelchair because of his illness, which was apparent to anyone who looked at him. (He was truly skin-and-bones.) Mr. Hilliard talked with Rick, allowed me to take as many pictures of them as I wanted, telling me not to worry as I fumbled nervously with the camera, and signed both the football and the t-shirt. I "confessed" to being a Saints fan, and told Mr. Hilliard to thank his uncle for me for all the great runs when he saw him again. He was a pleasant and wonderful man to someone who obviously was not going to be on this earth for many more years. Rick, of course, loved every second of it, and we thanked Ike Hilliard for keeping us for last so the man wouldn't feel rushed to get to anyone else. A class act.

So, those are three of the fondest memories I have of Rick. He had a great life, but he died far too young. That's what happens when you live in such a way as to flame out. He enjoyed "having fun" a bit too much for his own good. But he enjoyed every second of his life that he could, too.