I joined the US Marines in large part to get away from family problems, but three times during my four-year enlistment I scurried back on a month’s leave to escape the military and relax at what I still considered home. I was always homesick and happy to return. During my third year’s visit—it was pre-Vietnam War, 1962—Mom asked me to “explain the-birds-and-the-bees” to my 11-year-old brother Tommy, who was “at the age” to learn. He was watching Rawhide in the den downstairs. She pinched my arm. “Okay?”
She must have known I hated these kinds of snags. And why would she think I knew anything about the subject? She and my father had avoided ever mentioning it. True, I was just back from a tour of duty in the Far East, but what I’d learned about brothels and their employees was definitely something I wouldn’t mention to Mom or my kid brother. In fact the information about sex imparted by the military seemed unsuitable for the general population.
My answer to her request was automatic. Having learned the military way of shirking nasty responsibilities without visibly rejecting them, I nodded vaguely as if I’d do it, but thought the hell with that. I’d simply act as if I’d forgotten her request, avoid the issue, and run back to the Marines without having done it. This plan worked fine until the day before my train left, when Mom dragged Tommy and me out onto the front porch, said, “Your big brother wants to tell you something,” then slammed the door behind us.
Innocent little Tommy looked up at me. “What’s wrong?”
I sighed. “Nothing. Come on. Let’s take a walk.”
Why didn’t I just refuse to do it? Tommy seemed too young. Admittedly, I’d wondered about sex at his age but never learned much. Being in this state of ignorance seemed normal to me. But I did owe Mom more than a few favors. If she wasn’t concerned about the talk’s quality, why should I be? I’d be careful what I said, but it’d still be awkward.
I led Tommy to the bridge above the creek that crossed under South West Street, and there we sat, legs dangling. I looked at him sideways. He’d become a string bean, taller since I’d seen him last time, all legs, almost a stranger, and what he was thinking was beyond me.
I said, “Mom wants me to tell you about sex.”
He didn’t look at me. “I know all about it.”
I grinned. “You don’t either.”
“Do too. I’ve talked to people.” He still didn’t look at me.
“Who? A priest?”
“No.” He turned toward me then. “Is that who told you?”
Just that easily the kid understood me. “Mom had Father Klenke talk to me after I served mass one Sunday.”
Now he was all eyes. “What’d he say?”
I plunked a pebble down into the creek. “It was stupid. He told me that girls were different from boys. I told him I knew. I’d seen some naked.”
I threw another pebble. “Father Klenke said, ‘Oh, yeah?’ So I said, ‘Sure. I’d changed the diapers of little girls like my niece.’ He said, ‘Oh.’”
Tom laughed again. “Then what?”
I shrugged and studied the circles in the water. “He said to respect girls and not get one pregnant. Then he offered me some Wheaties and I ate breakfast with him.”
Tom found a few pebbles himself, gathered a handful, and started thumb-flicking them into the creek.
Watching him I said, “I was a high school sophomore when she had him talk to me. What grade are you in?”
“And you’re at St. Aloysius Academy now?”
“The last two years. I’ll be Captain next year.”
The pictures I’d seen of Tommy in uniform made me uncomfortable. Wasn’t he imitating his Marine Corps brother? Not that he’d had a choice. Mom had sent him there, she’d said, to keep him out of trouble. I didn’t know what kind of trouble. A lot of things were left unsaid in my family.
After a while we strolled back to the house, telling each other humorous stories about ourselves, avoiding any further mention of sex.
In the darkness before sleep that evening, Truth knocked on my skull and asked to get in. I’d never taken a biology course. Dad had never explained sex to me before he died. I was still uncertain about the mechanics of sex and even confused about using protection. I figured people learned about sex when they were involved in it. When they married. I’d avoided almost all contact with the opposite sex the last three years except for watching two strip shows. I really couldn’t have given the kid any better advice than not to have sex. Then again I hadn’t even said that straight out. I knew, though, that he’d been getting the same thing from Mom and priests and nuns.
When Mom asked if we’d had our talk, I’d said yes, but I was relieved she hadn’t asked what I’d told him. I was even more relieved to let the train take me away the next day bound for Cherry Point in North Carolina. A sense of failure was bugging me.
As the rails clacked beneath my seat and I was carried out of Cincinnati into the countryside, I thought that if it was my responsibility to educate the boy about sex, I just hadn’t known what to say. Tommy was on his own.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. His poems, stories, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.