Despite a loving, generally happy middle-class home, my brother, Jeff, and I took “sibling rivalry” to a dark and desperate level. It was a class of anarchy like no other, and it drove my mom to counseling, and my dad to a dive bar in San Jose, called The Office, regularly after work.
The turmoil began the day I was adopted at a year old from the Children’s Home Society of Oakland, CA in a svelte 1967 Pontiac station wagon, by an educated, young man and a petite woman with a bouffant hairdo. I believe it was aptly named a “beehive” back then, and was typically accompanied by hip, black, pointy glasses. Upon arrival home, I was stalked about the premises by my brother, Jeff (also adopted). As a toddler, my only hobby was annoying the piss out of Jeff. I had no reason, but hobbies are like that. I was only too eager to kick down, or otherwise destroy, his latest LEGO or Lincoln Log engineering marvels, and he soon lost all patience while harboring some ill-will toward his shelter-baby brother.
By the time we entered junior high, our arguments had escalated into furniture-obliterating brawls. My dad was soon out of options. So he did what any man at his breaking point would do: He dragged our asses into the front yard one evening for his own personal ‘UFC Fight Night.’ He figured, if Jeff and I eradicated one another, he wouldn’t have to do it himself.
Our family life was moments away from detouring into a white-trash sideshow, as Jeff and I laced-up our Keds to release a fury of angst. The twisted irony was that we were never allowed to play – or, even walk – on our front lawn. Dad, being so mentally spent, now fully sanctioned our brawl on his prized terrace. We didn’t have a normal lawn, mind you. We had dichondra.
Dichondra was most popular in Southern California during the 50’s and 60’s as a “lawn substitute”. It does not consist of a blade, like regular grass, but takes the form of a very small stem with a leafy top. Our “lawn substitute”, being extremely difficult to grow and maintain, was rarely without a few basketball-sized patches of dirt where it refused to flourish. We were never permitted to tamper with the lawn. This included mowing. Jeff and I were the only kids raised in the tree-lined suburbs who never mowed their own lawn. This would be a blessing to most kids, but it bothered Jeff, and he was often seen mowing neighboring lawns for free. Mowing is an integral part of every boy’s life, and was often the first real contribution to society by the American male – if not considering car-washing, or the somewhat lucrative job of painting house numbers on curbs.
Our fake lawn was my dad’s retreat from life, and his biggest source of anxiety. He never took vacations, except for the mental resorts he visited while tending to this small parcel of residential land. When he was painstakingly weeding and caring for it, he was no longer subject to the tyranny of family life.
This lasted until one day, many years later, when I surprised him by fertilizing the lawn while he was away on business. Wanting so badly to please my father, I tried to make it greener and fuller than he had ever seen. The measure of any good lawn is the intensity of its emerald hue. So, I opened a bag of granulated fertilizer in his gardening shed, poured it into the spreader, and went about fertilizing.
Unfortunately, however, I used the wrong bag, and within only days I had killed nearly every leafy stem of his dichondra. All these years later, my dad is still unable to speak to the horror of my way. While the lawn was still alive, dad was obsessed and meticulous about every tender sprout. I could never estimate the accumulation of hours he spent crouched over, scrupulously removing any petite stem of grass not matching the others. And, yet, Jeff and I were were about to not only step upon the turf. but smother it altogether in a contorted rage.
It’s not like I would routinely kick Jeff’s ass at the age of 13. Quite the opposite. But, I believed I was just pissed-off enough to destroy him “Hulk” style on that particular day. He was always much larger and more athletic than I. And, he had not yet begun his pack-a-day Marlboro habit. I, on the other hand, was a lanky, Emo version of Doogie Howser, with most of my body weight coming from my large nest of tangled blond hair. I was neither menacing nor the slightest bit intimidating. But, I did have a monstrous and relentless temper. When agitated, I would often snap into fits of fury, possessing super-human strength, with the ability to hurl my brother into the air, then batter his body with my fists and any objects within reach.
Much like a crafty prisoner hones his shanks, I made nearly everything in our house a weapon at one time or another. Book ends, candlestick holders, extension cords, stereo speakers, cook ware, and even the large family Bible were used in my attempts to annihilate Jeff. The most dangerous object that could be found within the Hatcher home was a butter knife. Everything else was placed in locked cabinets or removed altogether. Our house was nothing more than a giant child-proof playroom. Even some of the lighter wooden chairs were replaced with bean bags. This made for awkward dinner parties. When entertaining guests, dad had to unlock the utensils so one of us could set the table with real silverware …. made of metal. He promptly returned them to their locker upon washing after the meal, and before I could quickly sculpt one into a shiv.
As our one-on-one battle in the front yard ensued, the dichondra was pummeled along with my frail, boy-band body. It wasn’t long before the neighbors noticed dad’s parental meltdown. People began peeking out their awning covered tract home windows, much like the citizens of an old western town just before a shoot-out between the sheriff and outlaw. Slowly, neighbors filed out of their homes, one-by-one, to view firsthand what appeared to be my father’s most beleaguered attempt at parenting.
It was disconcerting that his notion of a teenage death-match was going to alleviate any tension between Jeff and me. Instead, I was now infinitely more pissed, as I was having my ass handed to me by my brother in the presence of my neighbor and biggest crush, Lisa Fowler. I thought to myself, “Surely I can muster enough strength to destroy Jeff with Lisa present”. To my detriment, there weren’t enough Frosted Flakes and Otter Pops in the world to give me enough stamina to beat him down on that day.
Oddly, however, this one act had increased my dad’s ‘tough-guy’ street cred tenfold. At little league games and Boy Scout meetings he would later be regarded as a renegade father, and a “man’s man”. And, because of the fear he already instilled through his quiet, mysterious demeanor, he was compared to Clint Eastwood for the remainder of our childhood. My dad single-handedly turned local parenting on it’s head. The fathers of my boyhood peers discarded their books on parenting, and now began to scrutinize and replicate my dad’s techniques in handling his rebel sons. Soon, he was invited to coach a little league team of his own.
Mom would have nothing to do with the lawn fracas on that day. This was unfortunate, as I could have used her compassion and First-Aid skills. But, like my father, she was fresh out of ideas on how to deal with Jeff and me. The fight lasted only about five minutes, during which time I was tossed like a broken department store mannequin all over the yard. I bent and contorted in inhumane ways. I felt like a scarecrow in a Kansas wheat field during a tornado. I’m sure this calamity bordered on child abuse in another country. And, if I had a cell phone, I would have called Child Protective Services myself – with my good arm.
My dad’s soft, cool, leafy grass made for a more comfortable whipping – but, I quickly developed a loathing for the maple tree dead center of the lawn. Jeff realized that knocking me into the tree afforded him a two-for-one return on his shellacking. Dad was an atrocious referee who sorely lacked officiating skills. Why was he not ending the fight?! Clearly, I was losing. I would like to believe he was distracted at the unexpected turnout of nearby residents.
The pubescent combat only ended when I verbally acquiesced, admitting defeat in front of dad, the neighbors, and – most importantly – Lisa. In my mind’s eye, I still see the look on her little face, shaking her head and pursing her lips in disappointment, then walking back up the street to find a more bad-ass love interest. I returned to the house to nurse my wounds, leaving my pride dispersed across dad’s now visibly pulverized lawn substitute.
Never before had I been so humbled. And, the evidence was displayed publicly, in the form of smashed dichondra indentations shaped like my body in various mangled poses. It was like a landscaped crime-scene.
It’s no doubt the beatings incurred by my brother contributed to my adolescent feelings of insecurity. But, it was worth it because we finally got to play on the lawn.