As I mentioned here the other day, My older brother John passed away on Monday, but fortunately much later than expected. When he was diagnosed with his illness, he was given one month with no medication, and just four months with medication. But the disease was of a rare genetic type which responded well to a specific treatment, and he lived another three years, which is remarkable. That's a lot of time to get your life in order, when you'd been given 30 days.
John was a physician – a wonderful one, he loved being a doctor. And he loved camping and fishing. And had a sly sense of humor. But for all the things he loved, which were many, for reasons I never quite knew why he disliked almost anything that was popular. Even as a kid. Not only did I never knew know why, my mother and father never knew why – and even John never knew why. But while some people give lip service to supporting the underdog, John lived it. If something was popular, he just didn’t like it.
This is not hyperbole. When he made his first trip to Los Angeles, I picked him up at the airport, and we talked about what he wanted to see. Noticeably absent from the list was the one thing that pretty much everyone in the known human race (and unknown) wanted to see when coming to Los Angeles. Disneyland. The Happiest Place on Earth.
John did not want to go to Disneyland. Absolutely refused. It was fine with me, it was his vacation, after all, but I was curious and asked him why not. He thought a moment and then said with a laugh, “I’m afraid that I might like it.”
For decades he refused to buy a television. Apparently, televisions were too popular. (Instead, he played Scrabble for entertainment…) It was only years later when they were unable to get babysitters for the kids because there was no TV in the house that a television finally had to be bought.
(The other benefit of finally having a TV is that it allowed him to watch Northwestern football. A team, I must note, that literally had the worst record in the history of the sport.)
John just hated anything popular. Avoided it whenever he could. Which leads to a story.
Actually, it leads to probably my favorite story. Of any story I’ve ever told.
His wife loved reading books by Stephen King. She’d ask John to read them, but no way in the world would he read a novel by Stephen King. Even if he had the time in the middle of his medical practice, Stephen King wasn’t just a popular novelist – he was probably THE most popular current novelist in the world. Stephen King would not be read.
But she didn’t let up. And finally, John – the good husband – gave in. Okay, one Stephen King book. He read Firestarter. And he loved it so much that he finished the book in two days. Probably hating every moment that he liked it so much.
Well, as fate would have it, not long after that, in the days when I was doing publicity on movies, I was hired to work on the film, Pet Sematary, based on the novel by…Stephen King.
The movie was filmed in the state of Maine, very close to where Stephen King lived. So, needless-to-say, he would visit the movie set. We would talk on occasion, about baseball, the movie, writing. And then, one day, I said I had a funny story for him, that I thought he would appreciate.
I told him about my brother. I said he hated anything popular. I explained how my sister-in-law couldn’t get my brother to read his books, specifically because they were popular. I went into great detail about who John was, and why the last thing on earth he wanted to do was read a popular Stephen King novel.
And then I explained that John finally broke down, read Firestarter, and finished it in two days. Because he absolutely loved it.
Now, you must understand, this is the Best Possible Reaction that any writer can ever have. It’s one thing to be praised by fans – but it’s something else entirely to have someone who is so deeply predisposed to hate your books that he’s fought off reading them for years finally read one and love it so much that it’s devoured.
Stephen thought for a moment after being told all this, trying to figure what to say. It was clear he felt wonderful by John’s reaction – which is pretty impressive, considering all the acclaim that Stephen King has had in his renowned career.
And then he leaned over, looked at me and said – “Tell your brother, I apologize. I don’t set out to write popular books. It’s just that people buy them.”
Not long after, I was back home visiting. And I told John this story. His face lit up. One of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen him make. “Stephen King said that about me???!” he asked. Yes – Stephen King said that about you.
He laughed out loud, and said, with much pleasure, and an acknowledgement of his own inexplicable reaction to popularity – “You know, he’s probably right.” And he kept smiling.
So – John didn’t like things that were popular. But he liked plenty else. And when he found something he liked, he inhaled it. He’d record his (and my) beloved Northwestern football games and watch them over and over. I think he watched the 1996 Rose Bowl game with Northwestern probably 20 times, even though they lost. (My theory, by the way, was that he planned to keep watching it until they finally won.)
As you can imagine, he was a low-key guy. And a bit of iconoclast – in a world of HMOs, he refused to work in one, and kept up a family practice. He often rode his bicycle to the hospital – and even sued his own hospital when his bike was stolen. But low-key as he was, he kept people on their toes. His daughters and son learned the lesson that if you get up from the table for any reason, dad was going to eat what you left on your plate before you got back. (“Da-ad,” was I believe the cherished dinner-time cry heard regularly.) Oddly, though, he was thin as a rail.
I don’t think you can describe a person from any one story. But there is one story that I think it’s important to relate, one last story about growing up as kids, because ultimately it a portrait of who John always was.
When John was about 14, he discovered some deeply out-of-date camera equipment of my dad’s. A really old-timey thing. And among it all was an old-style metal hood that you put big flash bulbs in. And you could manually set them off – PLINK. They’d flash.
What he loved about these was realizing he could open the door to my room at night, after I’d gone to bed, the room pitch black, and peek his head in. “Bob?” he’d ask his younger brother, and I’d look over. And in this total darkness. PLINK! The massive flash would explode off. Followed by my scream of, “Aggggghhhhhh,” every time it happened. Night after random night, he did this. PLINK! PLINK! PLINK! Agggggghhhhhh. (What can I say? I was 11. For all I knew, he had something important to say that night. Sometimes I held off looking over – but then I’d always eventually look to see what was going on. And, of course, with the hall light behind him, he could always see the moment I turned. PLINK! Agggghhhh.) I never knew when it was coming. He’d go weeks without doing it – and then, “Bob?” What? PLINK! Agggghhh… And he’d make sure I would always stay wary by just leaving a paper around for me to find that simply had nothing but a flash bulb drawn on it and the word, “PLINK.”
I couldn’t get back at him, because he hid the equipment. And was older and smarter. But finally, I had a brainstorm. The only retribution I could handle. He was taking a shower one night. And I crept towards the closed bathroom with a bucket, full of the absolute coldest ice water. I opened the door, stepped in…and dumped the bucket over the top. I believe the scream of “Aggghhh” he let out is still reverberating back in Glencoe, Illinois.
But being John, that still didn’t stop him from PLINKING me at night. It only ended when he finally used up the last flash bulb. But to me, he will always be opening the door and impishly saying, to everyone –
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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