While I was the obvious choice to be the Problem Child in our family, my idolized older brother Nolen Robert had some clear Problem Child tendencies of his own. He just hid them from our parents better than I did. He was subtle. I wasn’t. He was obedient. I wasn’t. He respected authority. I didn’t. He was my parents’ favorite. I wasn’t.
He taught me to smoke when he was eight, but I was the one who got caught smoking so often over the seven years that I partook. He was better at hiding, being discreet, smoking under the radar, looking innocent. Since he was my role model, as I got older I learned from his example but never came to be like him. We never tattled on each other. We kept each other’s secrets. We were brothers in the truest, best sense of the word.
There was one chilling example of his Problem Child tendencies that I never wanted to emulate. He loved pranks all his life, but he pulled one on me that set an early high standard for growth-stunting, bone-chilling fright.
One day when I was about eight and he was about fourteen, I was riding behind him on our bright red Farmall Super A tractor from our house down the gravel road toward Highway 13 as we were on the way to do some work on my grandparents’ farm that our parents had recently bought. I stood on the tractor hitch and held onto the seat and left fender so I could see ahead. Uncle W. G.’s grocery store sat across the highway on our right at the intersection.
At the top of the hill above the busy highway—often with big trucks and busses whizzing by—he kicked the gearshift into neutral and let it rip. The gravel road continued straight ahead past the highway, so the tractor could, theoretically, coast down to a crawl on the other side. Nolen Robert leaned into the steering wheel, gripping it tight with both hands, laughing and whooping it up as we flew down the two ruts in the gravel road. As the wind started to roar in our ears, I yelled,
“Are you crazy? You’re going to get us killed!”
As we got within a hundred yards of Highway 13, we both fell silent. What if a car turned up the hill and we had to pull over into the loose gravel doing over fifty miles an hour? He’d lose control of the tractor and that would be it, a bloody mess created by our two young bodies. But luckily no one turned up the hill toward us.
In only seconds that moved like slow motion taking its sweet time, we sped across Highway 13 on a blinding red streak and coasted down on the other side. No truck or bus or car or pedestrian on the way to Uncle W. G.’s store happened into our path. This is a good example of how history—particularly our history and that of others who traveled on that part of Highway 13—could have turned on a dime.
As the tractor slowed and Nolen Robert regained control of it, he was smiling but no longer laughing and whooping it up. If his sole objective was to scare me silly, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. I was too scared to be mad at him. What he had done had to rank among the dumbest teenage behavior since Homo sapiens took their first steps.
Just over a quarter century later, on a warm fall afternoon a few months after Nolen Robert’s untimely death, I told Daddy this story for the first time. We were sitting in two lawn chairs in front of his little house, facing east. Off a bit to our left, through the barren trees beyond the creek, we could see the hill across Highway 13 where Nolen Robert and I had come speeding down in neutral on that tractor.
As I got to the end of the story, Daddy took a deep breath and said slowly in a low voice,
His voice trailed off. That was all he said about it as we both stared off into the distance in silence for a time, lost in our own thoughts.