Thursday, December 16, 2004

It’s Still Ticking (Part IV)

Not quite the Road Trippin' I had in mind
For guys, the road trip is a rite of manhood. It signifies the tribal bonding instinct of our gender on a number of fronts. It represents freedom, friendship and trust. And it’s usually a helluva lot of fun.

Road trippin' with my two favorite allies
Fully loaded, we got snacks and supplies
It's time to leave this town, it's time to steal away
Let's go get lost, anywhere in the U.S.A.
Let's go get lost, let's go get lost
Blue you sit so pretty, West of the one
Sparkles light with yellow icing
Just a mirror for the sun

— Red Hot Chili Peppers

How ironic it is that while we were all together in April 1992 to take part in the Alzheimer’s testing at IU Medical Center, my brother Alex and I had one of the best times together of our entire lives. I have no way of knowing for sure now, but I believe the testing was to conclude on a Wednesday or Thursday, but we weren’t flying home until the weekend. So we decided that when the tests were over, we’d go up to Chicago to take in a baseball game. I had always wanted to visit Wrigley Field, the hallowed home of the Chicago Cubs. Our older brother TK lived in the Chicago burbs at the time, so the situation was perfect. Alex and I drove up together the day before and the three brothers reveled together that evening.

TK’s house backed up to a large wooded field and his backyard featured a big home-made fire pit. We built a huge bonfire and cooked bratwurst, wrapping them in aluminum foil with chopped onion and green pepper, and burying them in the hot embers. MAN were they good! I will NEVER forget how good those brats tasted!

TK, Alex and I ate brats and drank beer; laughed and told stories all night long. We simply had the most awesome time imaginable.

The next morning we all drove into Chicago around 10:00 AM and took the “L” Train to Wrigley Field. It was my first visit to the storied old ballpark. What a great place! And what you don’t know until you actually go there is that the entire area around Wrigley is one big, continuous party zone! Shops, bars and restaurants, all clumped together make it an exhilarating but safe wonderland of fun.

Our seats were down in the right field corner. The Cubs beat the Philadelphia Phillies that day. I don’t remember paying much attention to the game; I was too busy soaking in the experience. But I’ll always remember the stadium. We had a great time in Chicago, but Alex and I decided, heck, while we’re up here, might as well go for two!

Early the next morning we headed out for Detroit, where the Detroit Tigers were hosting my favorite team, the Angels, who were still known as the California Angels back then. Of course you know whose idea it was to go to this one, right?

Old Tiger Stadium was another great old ballpark that was on its last legs in 1992. Situated at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the surrounding combination business and residential neighborhood had become a ghetto, but in the daylight I never felt a bit of trepidation. In fact the locals, while a little rough looking, were more than friendly. They had a nice little business going, as three or four separate residents that we could see in the residential area directly adjacent to the park ran makeshift parking lots in their yards. You see, they didn’t call Tiger Stadium “The Corner” for nothing. It literally was on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. We’re talking zero lot-lines; the sidewalk met the exterior stadium walls. There was practically no parking lot on the stadium grounds. Instead you had to park in a number of off-campus lots scattered around the area, or the main, yet small lot in the area behind the stadium. I’m not sure why we chose to park in the residential area, maybe it was the most accessible, and we’d never been there before.

At any rate, we paid the man 10 bucks and parked in his front yard. He would sit on the porch and watch guard over our vehicle, situated in a row of four others for the day.

A half a block later we were at the gates of the grand ol’ ballpark gazing at the same brilliant green grass previously graced by the likes of baseball immortals, Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, Foxx, DiMaggio, and Williams.

I felt like I was sitting in a shrine, again with soaking up the experience being my primary focus rather than the game itself. The fact that the Angels won the game handily only added to the magic of the moment for yours truly.

And while my description might otherwise lead you to believe that I was by myself that day, I, of course was not. Alex was a huge part of it all.

Before heading back to Indiana, we took a quick trip across the bridge into Windsor, Ontario. We stopped by the first decent-looking bar we came across and had a beer, so that we could say that we’d had a drink in Canada.

The five-or-so-hour-drive back was another epic AJ & Alex Summit. We talked about everything under the sun, most of which has never left the confines of the rental car in which we were traveling. That two day road trip will be forever etched in my mind as the best time I’ve ever had Alex (with that notable night out clubbing in Nashville two years later coming in a close second). However this ’92 trip gets the nod if for no other reason that we were sober for 90% of the time and still had fun.

What we did do was talk, clearing the bases so to speak of all the issues in our lives. Sure, we spent a good portion of the time talking sports, but that’s a given in my family. But in addition to that, the depth of the personal stuff we covered was amazing. That was always the hallmark of Alex and my times together. Sometimes we would talk a lot, other times not much at all, yet we always seemed to be in tune with each other.

He confided in me things that I’m pretty sure he never told anyone else. I know for a fact that I did the same with him. He was my touchstone for sanity above all others. No matter how “un-AJ-like” the thought or idea that I just had to get out of my head was, I knew I could say it to him without fear of reprisal or judgment. Ohmigod, how I miss those days! But then again, we were young, stupid and a lot less wise than we gave ourselves credit for being. We grew up together. Even though I’m four years his senior, I always considered Alex an equal. He says that I was someone he looked up to, but I looked up to him just as much.

Growing old together
Typically the phrase “growing old together” conjures images of a man and woman in the golden years of their lives having fun, enjoying the finer things; exploring the world in a way that they never had the time to do when they were younger. It speaks to the ripening of an already beautiful relationship, and the deepening of a love everlasting. I look forward to growing old with my Michelle.

But I also looked forward to growing old with my little brother.

That 1992 road trip to Chicago and Detroit set the bar as something I always hoped to duplicate someday, but the years never seemed to present the opportunity. Alex spent a lot of the little free time he had with his family, and who was I to begrudge him that? I just figured that eventually there would come a time in both of our lives when we would be able to see each other more often, perhaps even take another road trip or two.

I had tried off and on to get the ball rolling. In August 2001 I saw a golden opportunity to have a great time and satisfy one of my all-time sports dreams — to attend an induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

The HOF class that year was spectacular, featuring the induction of two of my favorite NFL team, the St. Louis Rams’ all-time greatest players. Better still, the Rams were playing in the Hall of Fame Game that weekend, on the HOF grounds there in Canton. The HOF game is the traditional start of the NFL preseason. It was something I saw as perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

At that point it was fairly common knowledge that Alex and his family were beginning to struggle, although at the time everyone simply attributed it to nothing more than bad luck. I was prepared to offer to pay for the whole shebang, if only my little brother would join me. He declined, however, saying that the week in question was the time he and his family were scheduled to have use of their timeshare in Vermont, and he couldn’t change it.

I know I shouldn’t have been, but inwardly I was so indignant that I could scream. I mean, here he’s struggling to keep his mortgage from being foreclosed on and he's still paying for a freaking TIMESHARE? What was the matter with him? Why couldn’t he see it? This was gonna be epic! This was gonna be great! This was gonna be another dream come true.

And it was obviously, incredibly selfish of me to think that. It just wasn’t meant to be. I just needed to get over it and move on.

I remained optimistic though. Surely there would be other opportunities, later on, when he finally slowed down; when the 20-hour workdays he routinely put in would at last become intolerable; when he’d finally realize that he needed to enjoy life a little more. He’d come around and I’d be waiting.

I never once thought that it would happen under such a circumstance as fate would deliver to us later.

I remember feeling more than a little guilty at the twinge of pleasure I received a year ago when first hearing that Alex’s doctors had permanently disabled him, due to what they attributed were the severe effects of the sleep apnea and depression they’d diagnosed him with. It was their initial attempt to explain Alex’s sudden decline in performance and subsequent failure at the three law firm positions he went through in a two-year span. Nobody even considered that it could be Alzheimer’s disease.

Of course I was justified in my selfish glee by the certainty that his condition was treatable, and that we all knew that he would be alright again at some point in the future. But perhaps in the meantime we could indeed make up for what had now become years of little or no contact or get-togethers; perhaps he could fly up to Nashville or I to Dallas — and recapture our brotherly camaraderie from days of old. I remember telling him over the phone, “Well the good part is, now maybe you and I will be able to spend a little more time together.” He agreed. Little did I know that our long-awaited road trip would more than likely be the last one we’d ever take together, and would be nothing like the experience I had looked forward to for the previous twelve-plus years.

Next: A Golden Boy tarnished
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