'Everything was upside down that year my brother turned 13.'
MY BROTHER TURNED 13 in the late winter of 1966, the year Ronald Reagan ran against Pat Brown for governor of California. We called him "Reegen," as did all the old lefties with whom my parents gathered to fight the great good fights. Uncle Ed called him Ronnie the Rat. The people who came to our house to stuff envelopes for Brown, over cocktails or wine, with Monk or Mozart on the hi-fi, were by now as often as not divorced, or their marriages so flagrantly on the rocks that the next time we hosted a gathering, one of them wouldn't be there. Soon there were more women than men stuffing envelopes, women about to turn 40. The piper had lured their husbands away, to other towns and cities, sometimes other countries--Mexico, for instance, where Earl Palabinkeses ran off to with Owen Turner's mother. The fathers and the occasional mother came back to visit their first batches of children when they could, weekends or summers or birthdays.
Every year for my brother's birthday, the world outside our house was as green as a rain forest, Ireland green, and then all the trees burst into blossom, apple, plum, fig, and looked like they were covered with snow. Everything was upside down that year my brother turned 13, when the piper came back for the children--Ronald Reagan on the ballot, all the fathers leaving home, what looked like snow on all our trees, and after a bad wind blew, big round tree snowflakes on our porch, on our steps made of rock, on the leaves of ivy, on the webs that spanned the leaves.
For his 13th birthday, Casey declined the usual family party, where our mother would cook you exactly what you wanted, and Peg and Ed and Lynnie and Grandma Bette, and several of our best family friends, the ones we called uncle and aunt, and a couple of commies thrown in for flavor would come bearing gifts, and after dinner we would all sing songs. For his 13th birthday, Casey got to take the ferry into San Francisco with some friends. Some of them were girls. They spent the day in the city, doing God knows what, returning at 10 that night, red-eyed and tired and smelling dirty. My father and I picked them up in our Volkswagen bus at the ferry slip. They seemed very mature to me. No one said very much in the car, just perfunctory answers to my father's questions about what they had done the whole time. They said they had hung out in Golden Gate Park. There had been a concert. The two girls had frail wreaths of tiny daisies in their long blond hair. I was mute with jealousy. When I see 13-year-olds now, I see how terribly, how poignantly young they are, but they seemed almost grown-up to me at 11. Most of the girls had gotten breasts and wore bras, and they all went to dances and didn't play with balls at lunch and recess any more. Now, at lunch and recess, they did what adults did: hung out in small groups and talked, or went behind the shed at the far end of the playing field, where adults sold hot dogs during Little League games, and smoked. We all looked up to them. We still played at lunch--four-square, two-square, tether ball, softball workups--and while we waited for our turns we watched the big kids hanging out. They ignored us, the girls with their breasts and bell-bottom pants, the boys with their shaggy Beatles hair and pegged blue jeans; so blase and world-wise, you almost expected the boys to be smoking pipes.
As it turns out, they were smoking pipes, pipes of marijuana. This was the smoke, hanging in the air as clear as the notes of a lute, that called my brother away.
Because my brother now shunned my parents, I went with them everywhere, as if I could be two children in one. When my father went over the mountain to drink beer and cheap red wine with his writer friends in someone's garden, up on the hillside above the ocean, I went along. When my mother went into the city to register voters, or into town to shop, or over to Peg's to garden, I went along. When my father and mother went to stand outside the gates of San Quentin, in silent vigil with other lefties, Dad's writer friends, Mom's old black Christian friends from church, at dawn on the morning someone was going to die in the electric chair, I went along.