by Shelby Horn
Mothers occupy such a fundamental and honored place in the lives of most of us that it is no surprise that my earliest memories should be of my mother. She is not a person about whom I can be objective; she always was-to me-a saintly being. My early memories of her are like sepia-tone photographs-bathed in golden light calm, serene, perfect. Other than my only child’s which came later, hers was perhaps the only uncond
itional love I have known. In any case, I was always aware that her love was without qualification and could never be erased. Oftentimes, especially when I found myself alone in the world, such as when I was in the Army in Europe as a very young man or in the war in Vietnam, that love sustained me. It was, I knew, indelible, firm, eternal. There is nothing more comforting than that.
That being said, it is rather my brother who lives fullest in my earliest memories. I must have noticed him—the only other boy—as soon as I was aware of people around me. Most of my childhood recollections involve him, at least in some tangential way. As much as I could control it, he became my constant companion—or to put it more appropriately, I was his shadow. I followed him everywhere and tried to make all his adventures my own adventures. I did not always succeed, of course, and while I know his opinion of me may not always have been as high as I would have wanted, it was not from lack of effort on my part. I cultivated his favor as best I could.
We were unique, he and I, in a family of mostly females—two boys born in succession after seven girls. Sisters may have their sisterhood, but we had our brotherhood. We were obligated to include our sisters in our world, but they occupied only a small portion of it. They would have no memory of the majority of our childhood, for they did not have our experiences.
In the political world, we sometimes hear the statement that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
To make our relationship as brothers more intense than it might have been, we had a common “enemy.”
I cannot recall a time when there was not a pall over our lives, a time when we were free from fear of violating some nebulous rule (known or unknown to us, for the rules might change without notice), freedom from fear of bringing down upon ourselves the wrath of that omnipotent demigod—our father. There was seldom, if ever, the positive word from him, no approval or praise for anything we had done correctly. I can remember none. I can remember fear. Even when, for whatever reason, he was away and we might engage in a bit of play, we had a foreboding sense of danger. He would return. Inevitably, we had done something worthy of at least a tongue-lashing. Like scouts at a frontier fort, we kept watch.
Living under such pressure as a child does many things to one’s psyche, as might be imagined. Childhood abuse, physical or mental, cannot be overcome by some people,; at best, to overcome it takes much effort. We know that some abused children themselves grow up to become abusers. Of course, not everyone is affected in the same way, and in a family of eleven there will be eleven different outcomes. I see that in my siblings and in myself.
Due primarily to his birth order, Vernon was something of a shield for me. As the older boy—by nearly three years—he usually received any criticism first, and probably the harshest criticism. Sometimes, I am certain, he was blamed solely for whatever collectively the two of us may have done or not done. I believe that I was not fully aware of this until much later in life, for I was a child myself and dealt with things from my own childish—and selfish— point of view. No child wants to receive parental disapproval, much less punishment, and so long as he or she is not the recipient, does not always realize or acknowledge what happens to another. No matter what I knew or didn’t know, I do know that my loyalty was to my brother over everyone else.
That was, of course, when “outside” forces threatened; i.e., anything other than something between the two of us, for we could ourselves, engage in something akin to fratricide. While we might sometimes fight with each other, let someone else threaten either of us and immediately we became a closed unit. Admittedly, usually Vernon was the protector, and I was the one being protected. He may have preferred not having a little brother along, but I was indeed his little brother, and he accepted his responsible for my welfare without question. In that, his protection was hardly different from my mother’s love; it too, in retrospect, appears to have been unconditional.
My brother was tough. It seemed to me that nearly every day he got into a fight at school, sometimes about me, sometimes not. I believe that most of the time his fights were about himself; he gradually gained a reputation and some boy always wanted to test him. He may not always have won the fights, but he never backed down. He never backed down.
One of my early memories concerns one of his fights at Hargett School, when I was in first grade. “Harg” as we referred to it, was built upon a shale-covered hill, with sharply sloping sides all around. I remember that fight, although I can’t recall the opponent’s name. I vividly remember that the boy kept climbing up the hill, and as he reached the top, Vernon kept knocking him back down. This is a vignette that I can play and replay in my mind today—the climb up the hill, the fall back down. I imagine that one of the teaching staff stopped the fight.
When I was about eight, Vernon read or heard about David and Goliath in a Sunday school class and decided to make himself a sling shot like David’s. He attached heavy twine to each side of a soft leather shoe tongue, looped one string around his middle finger, put a stone in the leather, held the other line between thumb and forefinger, twirled, and released the held line, sending the stone many yards distant. He practiced until he achieved some degree of accuracy.
He didn’t meet Goliath, but one boy who attended Harg School had a reputation for dishonesty in most all he did. He would draw a knife in a fist fight, which we considered cowardice, and worse. It was unthinkable. We knew him and his reputation, disliked him, but had never had anything to do with him. Vernon might have gotten the worst of it had they tangled; this boy was much bigger and stronger. One day, while we were on our way home from somewhere in the countryside, we encountered this Kenneth, who began to shout obscenities at us and what he’d do to us if we would wait for him to catch up.
Vernon calmly put a stone into his sling, twirled it, let go, and hit Kenneth directly in the forehead! Down he went. I think Vern was as shocked as I was! We waited to see if Kenneth would get up, and when he stirred, we continued on home. We never heard another word from that fellow. I don’t recall any other sling shot incident. I never learned to use the sling shot like that. Perhaps it’s just as well.