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JACK'S ROOM

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By Michael Milburn

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The Montréal Review, February 2012

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My three brothers, eighteen, sixteen, and fourteen years my senior, lived away from home for most of my childhood. Our interaction was limited to their week-end visits to our parents' house, or the occasional longer stay when they would reoccupy their rooms during intervals between schools or apartments. Regardless of their proximity, it was hard for a boy of six or seven to feel brotherly toward young men in their twenties. Their main value to me was as role models, especially in my adolescent years when I began to crave more approachable alternatives to my imposing father. But even then our relations were so distant and the age difference so great that I often emulated their behavior without understanding it.

The middle of the three, Jack, was named after my great grandfather John George Milburn, a lawyer and prominent citizen in Buffalo, New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The original John George served as president of the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, a World's Fair opened in 1901 by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and attended by President William McKinley. McKinley was standing next to my great-grandfather in a receiving line when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot him. After being treated in a hospital, the president was taken to my great-grandfather's house to recover and died of his wounds there eight days later.

The last photo ever taken of President McKinley (center), at Buffalo, N.Y., with John G. Milburn (left) and George B. Cortelyou (right), on his way to the Temple of Music where he was fatally wounded on Sept. 6, 1901

Jack's equally glamorous namesake in my eyes was a more recent John George, our uncle Jack who died when his military training plane crashed in South Carolina during World War II. I grew up hearing stories of my father's and uncle's alcohol-fueled escapades, one involving a pet monkey, as students at Oxford University in the late 1930s. I also associated Jack with another dashing, prematurely dead hero, John F. Kennedy, whose brother Bobby he bore a resemblance to. Throughout the 1968 presidential primaries, a copy of Robert F. Kennedy In His Own Words lay on Jack's desk, a windblown RFK grinning out from its front cover. Looking at that photo and reading some of the book's entries, I allowed myself to believe that the author and my brother were close to the same man.

Jack's absences gave me ample time to explore his bedroom, which I hoped might provide clues to his elusive character. Among his possessions were a few items that I identified with, such as the light blue rowing jacket with white piping that he had acquired at St. Paul's School. Like every male in my family, I was destined for St. Paul's, so the jacket felt not just like a garment to try on, but a life that I would grow into. During my own four years at the school, where I was miserable and never stepped into a crew shell, I would still come home and sneak into Jack's closet to slip on the jacket with a feeling of pride in the status that it promised.

The closet's built-in drawer contained another trove of rowing garb-t-shirts bearing the names of Ivy League colleges that Jack had rowed against while at Harvard, winning his counterpart's shirt as the result of a pre-race bet. Eventually I made so bold as to start wearing these trophies. Appearing at my father's country club in the Yale shirt, I was reprimanded by an elderly Yale alumnus who knew of my family's Harvard ties. I was thirteen, wearing my older brother's honorably obtained shirt with pride in his athletic accomplishment, and couldn't understand why a man five decades removed from his own student days would mind.

A bookshelf held Jack's collection of St. Paul's and Harvard yearbooks, page after page of identical looking crew-cut young men in tweed jackets and khakis, erect and unsmiling, posed in orderly rows on stone steps according to classes, dorms, teams, and extra-curricular activities. Comparing them to my own St. Paul's yearbooks from the early 1970s, populated by smirking teenage boys with shoulder-length hair, perched on each other's shoulders wearing hockey equipment or Halloween masks, I realize how great a gulf separated Jack's and my eras.

St. Paul's School class photo, 1961.

St. Paul's School class photo, 1973.

Shelved alongside the yearbooks was a volume with a black and red padded binding, the title Everything a Man Needs to Know embossed in silver on its front cover. This would have identified it as a guide to sex, except that I already knew the locations of each of my brothers' pornography stashes, Jack's being tucked into the space behind his Harold Robbins paperbacks. At least, that's where I repeatedly found and replaced, in increasing states of tatteredness, copies of the erotic novel Candy and a book with a bright yellow cover that contained a description of a man having intercourse with a goat. The question seems quaint in this age of internet porn, but I wonder how boys of that era who didn't have older brothers ever learned anything about sex.

The much tamer but no less informative Everything a Man Needs to Know featured elegantly drawn figures resembling those in New Yorker cartoons of the period, and diagrams of useful manly accoutrements such as cocktail shakers, hip flasks, and cigar cutters. The book's behavioral lessons covered evenings out, always in an unnamed but recognizable New York City, tailgate parties preceding an unnamed but recognizable Harvard/Yale football game, and debutante balls.

The dandified rowing jacket, the inflammatory t-shirt, the novel-cum-sex-manual, the how-to guide to gentlemanly equipment and conduct-Jack's room afforded me a blueprint both for masculinity and for the life that my parents intended for all their sons. Unlike my brothers Dev and Frank, who had been suspended from Harvard and expelled from St. Paul's, respectively, Jack had completed those schools without detour or delay, continuing on to law school and a job in a prestigious Manhattan firm. Though my own path through St. Paul's and Harvard would proceed just as smoothly, my ambivalence about following in Jack's footsteps originated in my explorations of his room. To an adolescent in the late 1960s, his youth, or at least his education, seemed off-puttingly conformist.

Even in person Jack was a mystery to me. During his visits, my two sisters and I speculated constantly about what he was thinking or doing, especially when it came to his strategies for coping with our quarreling parents. I learned more, and more willingly, from his room than from him in person, though he tried to mentor me whenever he was home. I couldn't tell if he felt guilty about how little time we had spent together or was practicing for fatherhood, but he clearly craved a disciple. He would sit at his desk and hold forth on topics that interested him while I fidgeted in his doorway, alert for any excuse to get away. One lesson was on economics, as he explained the forces that made the stock market go up and down. I was twelve at the time, and sensed that I was disappointing him with the slow pace of my understanding and the mildness of my interest.

The summer that my sister Nancy and I were twelve and ten, respectively, Jack baby—sat for us when our parents were abroad. He named his reign "The Iron Hand" (whatever humor he intended was lost on us at the time) and drew up rules and schedules for us to follow. Our disregard for these exasperated him. The last straw in my case came when he fashioned the New York Giants logo on my football helmet with first-aid tape. The day after receiving this gift I left it outside overnight. Jack's disgust was palpable, as I became in his eyes the worst of ingrates and spoiled brats. I didn't dispute this verdict, but leaving my toys around was what I did, what all kids my age did, and the vehemence of his reaction puzzled me.

II

Our parents' quarreling was a blight on our family life. Their conflict didn't just poison the atmosphere of our household, it was the atmosphere. Their longest periods of cordiality could be measured in minutes, excruciating ones during which one awaited the inevitable flare of impatience. My siblings and I grew to prefer the familiar turbulence to the unnerving calm, and rarely had to wait long for rough weather. Yet no matter how vicious the language we rarely treated one fight more seriously than another or subjected the issues to hand-wringing analysis; rather, whichever of us had witnessed the encounter summarized it to the others in a kind of shorthand. My sisters and I became adept at these diagnoses. Looking at photographs of our parents on vacation, we could instantly gauge their mood: "He's just told her to shut up and she's about to cry."

I observed no highs or lows in my parents' marriage, no times when they got along particularly well or teetered on the brink of divorce. Periodically, my mother would slip the phrase "If I left him" into a conversation with one of her children, but she lacked the resolve and self-sufficiency for such an action. Once, after mentioning a detail of my birth that my father claimed not to remember, she said to him, "You wouldn't remember, you weren't there." The conversation ended then, but I learned from my sister later that my father had moved out just before my birth. Jack, only sixteen years old, had driven my mother to the hospital. I never discovered how or when my parents reconciled, but having lived through my own marital separation I can imagine my mother's loneliness as she lay in the hospital awaiting the arrival of her sixth child.

After leaving for boarding school, neither I nor my siblings returned home to live unless we had to. Arriving for visits, we would confer with one another about how long each of us had been back and could stand to stay before escaping. After my first term at St. Paul's, my faculty advisor appended a note to my report card, praising my hard work and good grades. He mentioned that I often seemed glum around campus, and hoped that my family's affection and attention would brighten my spirits over the Christmas holidays. I read and re-read that sentence, trying to picture a home that offered that kind of comfort.

Jack found the atmosphere in the house so intolerable that in his late twenties he adopted a policy of never spending the night. I'm not sure what this accomplished other than allowing him to take a visible stand against our parents (albeit one never verbalized by him or acknowledged by them). Nor can I think of any specific harm he would have incurred by sleeping in his room. Our parents were at their worst during meals, engaging in a continuous cross-table battle over my mother's incompetence in meeting my father's needs, and Jack was always present for those in spite of his best efforts to boycott them.

Typically, he would arrive in the morning or late afternoon and brusquely decline my mother's invitation to stay for whichever meal was approaching. As the rest of the family filed into the dining room, he would prepare to depart and come in to say goodbye, perching on an extra chair by the door. Naturally sociable and reluctant to miss out on his siblings' company, he remained there chatting as we ate, refusing offers of food and insisting that he was about to go until we rose from the table and he accompanied us back into the den. After dinner, he would again sit talking until the last of us headed up to bed, when he left to drive the forty miles from Long Island to his Manhattan apartment.

In the late 1970s my brother Frank moved in with Jack after living at home for two years while recuperating from an illness. Jack had always taken a paternal interest in Frank's welfare, once moving to England to care for him after he injured his leg in a motorcycle accident. One Christmas Eve we were all talking in my parents' living room when Jack stood at midnight and announced his intention of returning to the city. Frank, who had assumed that his next stop that night was his bedroom upstairs, looked incredulous, but loyally accompanied Jack to his car. Both were back in place waiting to open presents when I came downstairs on Christmas morning.

The rest of us saw Jack's behavior as eccentric but justified—we all felt powerless in the face of domestic strife and understood his need to take action, however symbolic. Something in my father precluded confrontation. On the rare occasions when one of us complained about his treatment of my mother, he withdrew into a sulk, making us feel that we had wronged him. While Jack's departures did nothing to reduce the quarrelling or his exposure to it, our parents couldn't help but notice them. My mother regularly expressed her bewilderment at Jack's refusal to join us for meals, and my father mocked his protracted goodbyes. I'm not sure either of them took his behavior exactly as it was intended, as a protest against theirs, but I suspect that my father recognized that he was being stood up to in the only way any of us dared—obliquely and silently.

When I picture our house in those days, it's a hectic group portrait with me at a slight remove; I did far more watching and listening than participating. Though my brothers were intermittently solicitous of me, the truth was that we moved in different circles within the family and simply didn't know each other well. For this reason, I doubt that Jack realized the impact he had on me. His nightly exits planted the seed for future flights that I would undertake on my own. During and after college I stayed away from home for months and in one case a year at a time, attempting the same quixotic statement that Jack made by heading for the front door as his siblings were climbing the stairs to their childhood bedrooms.

Family photo. Author is front row center, his brother Jack to his immediate left. Circa 1968.

My parents were ruthless in appraising outsiders, so we all learned early on not to invite our girlfriends or boyfriends home. My mother was capable of making withering comments directly to a guest's face, going so far as to criticize weight, hairstyle, or schooling. A gracious host, my father held his judgment until after the couple's departure. Then the remaining family members joined him in his critique, full of conspiratorial glee but knowing that anyone we introduced would be subject to the same treatment. Increasingly, we showed up for holidays alone and deflected questions about our personal lives. Jack took this to an extreme when he courted one of his girlfriends for years without ever bringing her home.

I adopted this strategy when I began dating, and more than one relationship ended when my girlfriend concluded that I was ashamed of her. I don't blame Jack for this outcome; his way of protecting himself from our parents worked for him, and he couldn't have known how closely his younger brother was monitoring and emulating his behavior. Nor did I realize that he was making such an impression on me. He was so much older and our interactions so infrequent that in some ways he didn't seem like a brother at all. I wish I could say that we eventually overcame this distance to establish an adult friendship, but what unites us today is little more than empathy for the upbringing that we shared.

In retrospect, it makes sense that I chose Jack over my other brothers for a primary role model. He was the only one who visibly—and to my impressionable eye, successfully—rebelled against the craziness at home. Dev, the oldest, had inherited my father's gruff personality and parried much of the dinnertime tension with sarcasm. Frank was too damaged by our parents' marriage for me feel safe following his lead. In his late twenties he began to suffer from severe phobias that he attributed to growing up in that household. Only Jack resisted being sucked in.

I never asked him how or if his defiance helped him to survive; the lessons that I learned were based solely on observation. I was most comfortable studying him from a distance—exploring his room, watching his drawn—out departures from my seat at the dining room table. This gave him more power over me than if I had submitted to his lectures and rules, and also put me at risk for misusing his example. In blindly adopting his behavior, I failed to account for our different temperaments; his withdrawals may have enabled him to detach from our parents, but mine only made me think about them more. By the time I left home, their strife had seeped into me, making their physical proximity irrelevant.

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Several years after I departed for St. Paul's, my parents moved into Jack's room, citing high heating costs and the need to close off the wing where their bedroom was located. Jack's years of refusing to spend the night removed any concern they might have had about usurping his space. Their time there, as they succumbed to old age, brought about a change in their relationship, as they began to treat each other with more solicitude. When I picture Jack's room now, it's still the site of my childhood explorations and a symbol of a marriage's destructive effect, but I also see my parents reading in the matching twin beds, their exasperated remarks to and about each other failing to mask their enjoyment of this mutual pleasure. It's my first image of them as a happy couple.

By then Jack's attitude had softened, too. He never slept in that room again, but when my parents sold the house and retired to Rhode Island, he stopped enforcing his no overnight rule when he came to visit. I abandoned my own efforts to distance myself, but kept my stays brief out of fear that my parents' antagonism would resurface; I never felt at ease in their company. Maybe that's why I grew up studying Jack so carefully—he seemed to have them figured out in areas that were important to me, from navigating their expectations to dealing with their conflict. And while I resisted his attempts to play father, the most lasting lesson I learned from him governs my relationship with my son—that examples are powerful teachers, but when unexplained or unqualified, dangerous ones.

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MICHAEL MILBURN:

ON PERSONALITY

There's at least one at every party, in every classroom, commanding attention, enlivening conversation. And invariably, off to the side or in the back row, there's another watching and listening, as withdrawn as the first is outgoing... | read |

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ON INTELLIGENCE

Although I recognized the concept of intelligence from an early age, it wasn't until high school that I realized that being smart meant more than getting good grades, and that different people could be smart in different ways. | read |

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Michael Milburn's book of essays, Odd Man In, won the First Series Award for Creative Nonfiction and was published by MidList Press in 2005.  His second book of poems, Drive By Heart, was published by Word Press in 2009.  A new book of poems, Carpe Something, is forthcoming from Word Press in 2012. You can find more of his work at michael-milburn.com

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"Odd Man In: And Other Essays"

"Not many poets coach lacrosse teams. But it is the improbable connections in his life that make Milburn such a refreshingly unpredictable essayist. Whether pondering the affinity between uncoached athletic talent and untutored poetic genius or comparing his own social status as an oft-stereotyped WASP to that of an oft-discriminated-against African American, Milburn cuts through conventional wisdom to reach fresh insights... An authentic and engaging voice."

-- Bryce Christensen

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