And so George returned to the family, and for a few months things were back to, shall we say, readjusted-normal. He moved in with Mom and Dad, to their great joy, and he somewhat diffidently asked Tommy if he could use another hand on the farm. Tommy, looking at George’s state of obvious fitness, said sure. They worked out some financial arrangement without any haggling or difficulty at all, so far as I ever heard, and there George was at 48, working alongside his younger brother, back in the rhythm of a farm’s final weeks before the year’s long sleep.
“It’s like he’d never been away from it,” Tommy told me over the phone one day, “except with motors. You know how George could always take motors apart and fix whatever was broken? Now he won’t deal with them at all. Isn’t that crazy?”
That beat me. “So how much does that leave him to do around the farm, if he can’t even drive a tractor?”
“Oh, he doesn’t seem to have any problem driving them. How could you forget how to drive, you know? It’s fixing them, he seems to have forgotten about. I asked him to tear down the generator motor and he wouldn’t do it. Very apologetic, said he’d be glad to do anything else I had in mind, but he couldn’t work with motors. Weird.”
I saw George the following weekend, and when we got a few moments to ourselves, sitting on Dad’s side porch, I asked him about it.
“It’s better for Tommy that I don’t fool with his motors,” he said. “You know how some people have a green thumb and can grow anything? And others have a black thumb and nothing grows for them? Well, somehow in the past few years I’ve developed a black thumb for working with electric motors.”
“You put it that way to Tommy?”
He grinned. “Definitely not. I just said I was out of touch. But there’s always plenty of other things that need doing on a farm.”
“You don’t need to tell me that. Why do you think I’m in journalism? So does this mean you can’t work on machinery in general?”
“No, I can still fix things. It’s just I know better than to try to fix anything electrical. And you know, everything here revolves around electricity. It’s one of the things you notice when you come back from overseas.”
“I don’t remember noticing, when I came home from Korea,” I said.
“But you were in the Army, and they insulate you.”
“All right, but Connie and I were a month in Europe before the kids were born.”
“Well, you were tourists, for one thing, you weren’t living among the people. And it was only a month, and it was Europe. You live somewhere without electricity for a while, and when you come back to it, it’s a shock.”
I held my nose with my thumb and forefinger, as we had done when we were kids. “Lousy pun,” I said.
He grinned. “Unintentional.”
“But guilty as charged. At some convenient interval, we’ll arrange to have you shot. Tommy tells me you’re hell on wheels with his cattle.”
“I like working with animals,” George said. His eyes softened; he became somehow more inward. “You know Whitman said he thought he could go live with the animals, there was not a one that was respectable or discontented on the face of the earth. I feel a little like that.”
I declined to follow the diversion. “Tommy says he thinks you saved that cow the other day.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. He had given her a shot, you know, and it worked. Those things are supposed to work, aren’t they? What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is that it wasn’t working, and the cow was getting worse, and he figured to lose it and the vet told him the same thing.”
“So it got better, instead. Nothing for Tommy to get upset about.”
“He isn’t upset, he’s tickled, and you damn well know it. But what I want to know is, what did you do, and how did you do it?”
He sat quietly, thinking about the question but still gazing at me, a habit he had developed that I found disconcerting. “Angelo, I don’t know how to answer the question. If I asked you how you write a news story, would you be able to give me an answer that really meant anything?’
“Not the same thing,” I said impatiently.
“Oh, it has it’s analogies. Writing news stories is a skill, and that means it’s a combination of talent and training. You know how to do it, but if you were to try to teach somebody else how to do it, you might find it hard enough. It’s just a skill.”
“Like fixing Connie’s headache, the first day you came back.”
“More or less, yes. It isn’t magic, it’s just something I’ve learned, something I can do.”
“Something I could learn?”
He smiled slowly, and nodded. “I expect you could. Is that something you would you like to do?” I said yes, and he said he’d give some thought to figuring out how to teach me, and so we passed on to other topics of conversation.
I know it can be hard to keep track of a family as large as ours, so here’s a reminder of where we were at the time George came back in late 1984. At this time, our older brother Michael — Mike — was just 50, and he was 10 years into his retirement from a 22-year military career. His last hitch had been at Nellis Air Force Base, in Las Vegas, and he had bought a house there, knowing that this is where he wanted to retire. He had specialized in electronics, and when he retired he started a small electronic-components supply business. Like most of us in the family, he had inherited perfectionist tendencies, which apparently served him well enough in business. At any rate, his business always seemed to be as active as he wanted it to be. People knew he would deliver at least what he promised; and often more. He was a one-man-band kind of guy, again like most of us, and he kept his business small enough that it wouldn’t run away with his life. He and his wife Grace’s promise to come visit were somewhat vague, but their invitation to George hadn’t been vague in the least. “Come now and stay a while,” Mike had reportedly told George. “Come meet your nephews before they get old enough to fly the coop. Our George [their 20-year-old, a sophomore at UNLV] is close enough to doing that already. Plus you can see what it’s like to live out here where there’s space to turn around.”
After Mike had come George, and third in line after Mike and George — two years younger than George — had come Mary, who was now Mary Spees, wife of Richard, mother of John (19), Sarah (17) and Robert (15), and staff assistant to congressman Daniel (Dan) Higgins of Ohio. She and her family lived in Washington, D.C.
After Mary came me, or came I — anyway there I was, at 44 — and after me came Tommy at 42, who was working Dad’s farm. Tommy had married Stephanie Passalaqua the year after George had disappeared. In 1984 Tommy Junior was 20, Louis 18, Jenny 15 and Michael was 12.
And after Tommy, came Patricia, staring 40 in the face soon enough. Since 1966 she had been Patricia Phillips, wife of Walter. She was the mother of Wendell (16), John (13), Mary (11), Margaret (7) and Patrick (4). She and Walter lived in Iowa City, Iowa. Like Mike, she lived too far away for easy visiting
And lastly there was David, 37 that year, somewhat self-isolated from the family, a computer programmer and apparently making decent money, living in San Francisco. David was always his own man. I found it hard to say much about him to George. They’d have to discover each other on their own.
Mary and her family came up right away when they heard about George’s return, and left with George’s promise to come down to D.C. to see how her half of the world lived. George took her up on it before the end of October, and I was interested to hear his reactions when he returned after four days away.
“I had no idea Mary was so liberal politically,” was the first thing he said to me. “I knew her congressman was a Democrat, but she’s really liberal through and through, isn’t she? Imagine.”
Remember, this was 1984, the year of Reagan’s re-election campaign, the year the Democrats seemingly rolled over and died. “What are you, then, George?” I asked. “Are you a conservative?”
“I don’t know what you would call me,” he said absently. “What I am doesn’t have an equivalent in politics, as far as I can see. In fact, I don’t really fit anywhere any more. The longer I’m back in the country, the more I see that I don’t fit.”
“One or two things have changed in 20 years,” I said dryly. “More than you expected, I take it?”
He was silent so long I looked up, to see an unreadable expression on his face. “It isn’t the country that changed, so much as me,” he said finally. “The things people think and do don’t begin to make sense to me. They’re scared of their own shadow — of nothing, really — and the things they ought to be afraid of, they don’t even know exist.”
I told him I didn’t know what he meant.