23 September 2015

My Big Brother The Unabomber

The one question I am asked over and over and over again, when anyone learns of my unusual childhood history, is:

What was it like to have Theodore Kaczynski as a 'Big Brother?'

The short answer: it was not as much fun as you would think. . .

But anyway, for those still curious, here is the tale told in full:

The year was nineteen hundred and sixty and seven. I was but a seven year old boy at the time. My family (my brother Larry and my mother) lived in the old Willow Run Trailer Park next to the Ford plant. Life was hard. The father/husband, had just succumbed to brain cancer while serving a life sentence in the Southern Michigan State Prison at Jackson (the world's largest walled penal facility) for the murder of a drunken negro in a barroom brawl.

My 28 year old mother supported us as best she could on the modest wages she earned as a check-out girl at the A & P. My mother worked the 9 am - 5:30 pm shift Monday through Saturday--as a result, my brother and I spent much of the week unsupervised. I confess we were rather wild and ill-mannered youths. Dirty-faced, snot-nosed punks--the bane of the trailer park. No other children lived in the park, which, being situated next to the Ford plant, primarily accommodated single male autoworkers. I suppose one of the few saving graces our mother must have felt as she watched her unruly cubs grow to juvenile delinquency derived from the protection her two little lads offered against the horny, beer drinking rivetheads who populated the trailer park. Early on in our tenure in that aluminum garden 2 or 3 of our more "macho" neighbors came scratching and clawing at the door to our tin house--but they all beat a rather hasty retreat to escape a sudden drenching from old Spaghetti-Os cans filled with urine which were dumped upon their heads by my brother and I from our watch guard positions atop our trailer.

With my mother engaged behind a cash register at the A & P for most of the day, it fell upon my brother, two years my elder, to keep me out of harm's way. I thank God to this day for His providence in providing me such a diligent childhood trustee. Despite our numerous pranks and roughhouse antics, the police rarely had occasion to call on lot #16 of the Willow Run Trailer Park. But unfortunately in the summer of nineteen hundred and sixty and seven my brother fell ill with a bad case of the Willow Run grippe--a strange flu-like virus of indeterminate origin. Speculation on its genesis centers around the "Extrusion Pond"--a man-made crater filled with toxic waste at the Ford plant, located just a hundred or so yards from our trailer. My brother and I spent many an afternoon fishing that queer lagoon. One hot afternoon we dragged in a 47 pound Mustang bucket seat frame. We fought that molding for the better part of two hours. I still believe that this is the largest plastic forge ever hooked in that old synthetic fishing hole. But that was in nineteen hundred and sixty and five--and I'm telling a tale from nineteen hundred and sixty and seven. And so, as my brother was bedridden most of the summer of sixty and seven, I was in need of a substitute guardian. Looking back on the course of events (and, when all was said and done, it was a course that took nearly thirty years to complete), I guess you could say that my brother's case of the grippe launched the career of one of America's most notorious criminals--Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. The Unabomber.

Thus, with my brother waging his desperate battle against the grippe's intermittent fever and chills, raising himself from his sweat-soaked sheets only to fight on the virus' second front--the toilet--as he crapped and vomited to the point of near-dehydration, my mother was forced to secure for me a surrogate supervisor. Given my rather raw upbringing, my mother realized it would be an exercise in futility to turn me over to the care of one of those generic, female, teenaged "sitters." A rascal such as myself would require a more mature and masculine authority figure, so my mother placed an ad in the local daily for a "Big Brother."

Of course, my mother was a woman of limited means, and could only offer the paltry remuneration of 50 cents an hour. Needless to say, there weren't many applicants. A fat man came by once, volunteering to take the position without pay. However, my mother was dissuaded from accepting the tempting offer because of the corpulent caretaker's numerous facial tics and most alarming body odor. Just as it looked as if I would be left to my own devices, one Sunday afternoon a quiet, well-mannered and clean cut young man turned up at our trailer seeking the position of Big Brother.

Theodore Kaczynski explained in a soft monotone to my mother that he had just completed his doctoral studies at the nearby University of Michigan and was now seeking a temporary summer position that would pay him enough to cover his expenses until the fall, at which time he would then move on to his new position as an assistant mathematics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. My mother was very impressed to learn of Theodore's mathematical abilities. I remember her stating "I have to be good at numbers, too, in my job. A cashier don't want to short change a customer." Ted nodded politely, and after a few more minutes of small talk he found himself gainfully employed as your narrator's Big Brother.

Of course, now everyone wants to know what it was like to have Ted as a Big Brother. What type of guidance did one of our nation's most infamous felons provide? Did I have any idea that Ted was capable of committing cold blooded murder? Did I ever feel threatened or in danger? I can honestly answer "no." Ted seemed to me just a nerdy, over-serious egghead. Truthfully, the only risk one faced with Ted was the possibility of lapsing into a catatonic trance, as he was not the most exciting companion a young fellow could have. That is, until I introduced him to the joys of explosives. But I am getting ahead of myself.

For most of the summer the daily routine was numbingly the same. Ted would arrive promptly at 8:45 am, just as my mother was departing for the A & P. After playing nursemaid to my sick brother for most of the morning, Ted and I would leave the trailer for 3 hours "recreation." It was these 3 hours that I most dreaded. At least while he was taking care of my brother I could amuse myself with TV, but the daily recreation session was monotonous beyond compare. It began with a 20 minute bus ride to the arboretum, and was then followed by a torturous 2 1/2 hour trek through the nature preserve, each excruciating minute seeming elongated by Ted's monotone discourse on the wonders of nature. Yes, most of my memories of Ted--master criminal, genius malcontent--are of him droning on about this plant or the other, about squirrels and rabbits and deer, about insects, about the fine, mathematically precise balance that exists in nature. It was like being in school, only worse because there were no other kids around to bully. Nothing to do but walk, hike, climb, sweat and listen to the world according to Kaczynski.

I don't know, perhaps a different type of youngster would have responded more favorably to Ted's instruction. And then perhaps those 3 people Ted killed might still be alive today. And those others, the maimed, why, even Ted himself--maybe none of it would have ever happened if only I would have liked trees. But I was literally a child of the industrial world. The Ford auto plant was my natural habitat. Nature to me was a rusty freight car carrying 40 tons of processed steel screeching to a halt at a 2 story receiving bay. Ted's trees and raccoons left me cold. And so one afternoon I brought along a toy on our daily excursion through that vast green wasteland that Ted called nature. A little toy to help get me through another one of Ted's private National Geographic specials. I had my toy tucked into the back of my pants, concealed under my shirt. About 30 minutes into the day's trek, as Ted was lecturing about a family of gophers, I pulled out my cap gun and snapped off 6 solid blasts. Ted ran one way and the gophers ran the other. It was the most fun I'd had all summer.

Of course, Ted was pretty upset. And the incident inspired a new monologue. But this one was more interesting than the usual ones. Ted said that any sort of violence, even an artificial form designed for children's amusement, was completely unjustifiable--and doubly so when interjected into the natural setting. Ted said man was already threatening to destroy the delicate balance of nature, and to have one of our few remaining unspoiled sanctuaries defiled. . .and then right at that point he suddenly stopped talking. A peculiar look came over his face. The type of look that crosses your face as a fantastic new idea pops into your head. Ted grabbed my cap gun and unthreaded the little paper roll of blasting caps. He examined them with great curiosity. After a minute or so he started speaking again, but for the first time I heard genuine emotion in his voice. I remember his exact words: "You triggered a small explosion! This little bit of paper and gun powder produced an explosion sufficient to frighten a grown man and a family of gophers! Imagine the power if we were to just enlarge the. . .the capsule! And we will definitely need some sort of remote detonating device! Yes. That will be the difficult part of the equation."

Well, I imagine you can see what this lead to. There were still a few weeks left to that fateful summer of sixty and seven, but Ted and I never again returned to his cherished arboretum. Instead we spent the remaining recreation periods foraging through my beloved Ford plant, looking for scraps of metal and bits of plastic with which to construct a remote detonating device. By the time Ted had to leave for California, he seemed a changed man. He appeared energized and full of enthusiasm. Of course, being a boy of only 7 years of age, I had only a very imprecise understanding of what this change in Ted meant. I recall thinking that Ted was happy now because he had discovered that scaring people could be good for gophers and trees.

And so there you have it--the true story of my Big Brother, The Unabomber. People ask how I feel about Ted, after knowing him as I did as a seven year old boy, and now as an adult fully aware of his crimes. I find the best way to answer that question is to quote King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived:

"Every way of a man is right in his own eyes: but the Lord pondereth the hearts."

1 comment:

  1. So glad you're writing again, brother. Much love!