By Joe Rector
Dal Gene …that’s what everyone called him from birth until sometime after he went away to college. Then he became Dallas or Dal, and the “Gene” disappeared. Even at the young age of seventeen, he was older and much wiser than his years.
According to our parents, this first-born child was almost perfect. He rarely cried; he played by himself happily; he was polite to all. His life was almost perfect…at least until his twin brothers arrived. Then havoc poured into the household. Quiet was replaced with racket and raucous play by two boys who were so rowdy that their parents fenced them in the front yard as one would do dogs. Through it all, Dal Gene remained the perfect child.
Little did our parents know that nothing gave the eldest child more pleasure than tormenting Jim and me. He’d grab our teddy bears and pummel them while we wailed. When we refused to make him sandwiches or complete his chores, he’d wait until our parents left home for a while and then threaten to leave home for good. He walked to the woods at the edge of the yard and stood until cries and capitulation from us floated to him. Then he’d come back and be served like a king.
One of his demands was that Jim and I take the blame for things that occurred around the house. On one occasion, he pushed me onto a bed, and the frame collapsed. He begged until I agreed to take the blame for the accident.
Our dad died August 31, 1965, at the age of 53. The family moved numbly through the visitation, funeral, and burial and then went back at to life. Suddenly, the man whom we loved, respected, and feared wasn’t there. The emptiness gnawed at all of our hearts. It was worse for Mother. She now took sole responsibility to rearing three boys on a teacher’s salary.
That’s when Dal Gene stepped up. He was then a senior in high school. In helping Mother, our big brother began persuading, then cajoling, and finally shaming us into doing the things that were right. Jim and I rebelled at times, but when he left for college, the emptiness returned.
Jim and I began our freshman year in high school, and with it came all sorts of changes. Most of them involved the normal temptations associated with adolescence. We began smoking to fit in with older guys, and we downed our first alcohol. Dal chastised and reminded us about the trouble we’d be in if Mother discovered our participation in these activities.
“Daddy Dal” mailed scathing letters to us younger brothers when Mother talked about the difficulties she encountered with us. He especially chewed our butts for being disrespectful to her and for failing to help around the house. Again, we straightened up for a time because we didn’t want to let him down.
Dal’s fathering didn’t end after our high school years. We all attended Tennessee Tech University, and there he rode herd on us concerning our grades and behavior. Sometimes the blues would envelope me, and I always knew I could go to Dal for advice and for answers, even if they weren’t necessarily the ones I wanted to hear. He and his wife Brenda took us under their wings and helped us through the gate from youth to adulthood.
Even after Jim and I married and began our families, we looked to Dal for advice. He’d walk us through problems until we could see the paths to follow. At other times, we’d call just to talk about music or to share jokes. Over the years, we’d become good friends and close brothers.
Dal died in 2003; he lived only a few weeks past his 54 birthday. By then, our kids had grown up, and we were on the edge of 50 ourselves. The loss was devastating. Not only did we lose a brother but we also lost a surrogate father. Dal had become a different kind of father by then as he and Brenda had taken in four nephews and nieces and had become their parents. Their pain over his death might have been deeper for them, but I’m not sure how.
What I know is that my brother died too early. He’d had been a father for 38 years of his life and missed out on just being young. I’d like to have the chance to say thanks to him for all he did.