I’m Amazed My Brother Dave Survived Childhood


As a writer, I know there are many ways you can approach each story. You can inform and educate; you can evoke sympathy and empathy; you can dramatize and inflame; or you can humor and entertain. I usually find myself grouping everything together into one big lump, taking you, the reader (and me, the writer) on an emotional roller coaster ride.

And here we go.

My brother Dave owns a body shop. He fixes dents and repaints cars, but mostly he customizes high-priced foreign automobiles. He’s good at this and has won dozens of awards from car magazines, which is ironic given his tragic history. (That was the informing and educating. Here comes the sympathy and empathy part.)

Dave is the youngest of my three siblings. I have a sister and another brother, Jim, who is about 12 years older than Dave. Despite this age difference, Jim always let Dave tag along with him and his buddies. Dave revered Jim, as any four-year-old would revere any 16-year-old. And Dave was very useful to Jim.

I say this because Jim and his friends liked to customize things even before Dave came along. They were always painting their bikes and skateboards because there was a paint shop several blocks from our house and, at the end of the day, the shop would throw its leftover spray paint into a special trash container out back. Once the kids discovered this, it became a free-for-all. They were in that thing every evening like rats, helping themselves.

Well, once the shop owner figured this out, he put a lock on the container, but it was a loose lock. Jim figured out a way to get in, and that way was to lower skinny little Dave in by his feet. Dave would root around in there looking for cans of desirable colors and emerge a hero. It was a win-win. Until one fateful night when the police showed up. Jim and his friends were standing around the locked container, Jim holding onto Dave by his feet, when they found themselves looking directly into the headlights of a patrol cruiser.

“Cops!” one of them shouted. “Run!”

So, Jim hurriedly let go of Dave and ran off. He didn’t say, “See ya later!” or anything, just ran, the lid slamming shut behind him. My four-year-old brother was left alone with the trash, shaking with cold and fear, breathing in noxious paint fumes and terrified that he was going to be taken to jail — or the dump — and would never see his family again. You know how four-year-olds think.

Lest these dramatics inflame you, let me say that Jim came back and retrieved Dave when the coast was clear — hours later. It would’ve been way too difficult to explain to mom that he’d lost him. As for Dave, there was nothing wrong with him that years of therapy probably couldn’t cure.

It was a blessing for the rest of us. Any time we want to pick on Dave, we just point out how the paint fumes adversely affected his brain, so he can’t expect to be normal. We do this with sympathy in our voices. It’s fun, and it’s humorous… for us.