I was raised in a theater of war. The kind of conflict induced by the typical struggles of siblings trying to carve out their territory and claim their freedom. The most memorable battles were a seamless mix of psychological warfare and hand to hand combat.
Before I share the brilliant bit of strategy from which this blog takes its name, let me introduce the warring factions:
The little sister, 5th in a line going 6 kids deep. Having 4 brothers, I was forced by my survival instinct to become a tomboy. I was annoying and hungry for attention.
The little sister you caught spying on you when you were just trying to set things on fire with your mates? That was me.
I was the kind of sibling that tattled when someone kept their eyes open during a prayer. I was desperate to be cool and fit in with my brothers. Watchful. A quick learner. I soaked up the ways of war like mother’s nectar.
An Ally. The 6th sibling, Frogman was my mostly peaceful little brother. The only one who ever fought by my side. The youngest. A giving, loving soul…and hell-bent on raining vengeance and destruction upon the heads of our mortal enemies, “The Brothers.”
The word “baby” was his hypnotically embedded trigger word. Calling him a baby would unleash the kind of ferocity you typically see in a Jason Bourne movie.
On occasion he could be seduced by The Brothers to do their bidding, but for the most part he took my side. A bold choice as I was the only girl engaged in combat and he ran the risk of looking like a sissy. Or worse, a weewo – a word Critty made up. It meant girl/crybaby/sissy/tattletale/wuss/pansy/idiot/stupid/jerk all rolled into two short syllables.
We called him Frogman because he thought he was a frog. A real frog.
Probably because we told him that.
More than daily.
For many, many, years.
We had to.
He was small and a good jumper.
My main Axis. The 4th sibling in line. Born far too close for us to ever be anything other than childhood adversaries. Conniving. Cunning. Patient. A master planner when it came to revenge. He was a key player in The War of the Siblings.
Wolfman was born old. Though he was less than two years my senior he was somehow 45. He ran with a gang of siblings the Allied Forces referred to as The Brothers. (The only other sister was in college and never experienced the hardened life of a soldier that shaped my early, impressionable years.)
The Brothers were a fearsome and evil trio. Their greatest delight was playing a game called “Skill” that relied on vigorously, brutally, and repeatedly testing the structural integrity of Wolfman’s region we referred to as the “hodgie grodgie.” Such conditioning may be part of the reason Wolfman was always slightly cranky.
(Hodgie grodgie is the term we used to describe any private area. Mom didn’t like us using crass words like “balls,” so we came up with our own descriptions.)
He was a neat freak and didn’t deal well with…agitation. A weakness we used to our war-making advantage whenever possible.
We called him Wolfman because his origin story was that he was raised by wolves. Whenever we heard a dog bark, a wolf howl, a coyote yip, he would translate it and tell us what they were saying. We believed him unquestioningly. He translated Never Cry Wolf for us every time we watched it. Which was frequently, because it featured his heritage and helped us understand him. Even if he engaged in vicious infighting within The Brothers from time to time, he always protected his pack.
An Axis. The 3rd sibling in line, Critty was the second oldest brother. A thinker. He was very inventive. He’s the one who made up the game of Skill. He was the only one allowed to change the rules. His power was quiet, unassuming. He was all knowing. Everyone wanted to win his favor because his favor meant prestige and, more importantly, safety.
He told me I had to learn all about balance before I could ride a bike. I grew up thinking everyone had to walk back and forth on the edge of their discarded lawn-couch before they were ready to sit in the saddle of the family bike.
I don’t know why we called him Critty. That story was before my time.
The Oldest Brother, 2nd in line. An Axis. Rarely a player in the games of war I was a party to, as he was often gone with friends. When he wasn’t, he took Critty’s place as head war commander for The Brothers.
He played football and had the thickly muscled body to go with it.
Except for The Man, he intimidated the hell out of every guy I ever dated.
None of the younger soldiers messed with him.
No one except mom could call him by his nickname. (I don’t even dare do it here.)
Switzerland. The 1st in line. The one who acted in mom’s behalf while mom was at work. I worshipped her like a she was a goddess.
We shared a room. She always knew when I touched her stuff.
She brought home fascinating college friends during her summers off. She read books to us, took us outside at night and told us stories about astronomy, and bought me penny candies and beef stick pops from Hickory Farms.
Her one fault? She wouldn’t play ponies with me.
That’s okay. It prepared me for the harsh realities of life and the fact that the real God wouldn’t always answer my requests, either. I guess that’s just part of being a deity.
One serene Saturday morning Frogman, (a skinny 8 year old), and Wolfman, (equally skinny, but 12), were in the kitchen together. Frogman was hanging out at the kitchen table peacefully eating “Tootie Frootie’s” (off-brand Fruit Loops) in his underoos and a nightshirt.
Mom never let us eat unless we had a shirt on. The woman had standards! And we had the habit of hanging out in our skivvies until the last Saturday morning cartoons had played.
Wolfman, always an overachiever, was already dressed in hand-me-down early-80’s apparel, standing by the sink. The sink was over 10 feet away from Frogman’s post at the kitchen table.
Mom was reading in her bed down the hall.
I (a thickish 10 year old) was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, about to become witness to the most diabolical act of greatness I will ever behold.
Frogman, hair askew and looking quite sleepy in spite of the massive amount of sibling justice he was about to bring down on the head of Wolfman, our closest sibling and constant tormenter, surprised us all by breaking out into screams of “OW! What’d you do that for?!”
Wolfman, braced for action, swiveled on his heel to see what was going on, “What?! What happened?!”
Me, confused because NOTHING had happened. Frogman was just… eating…reading comics out of the newspaper, then, without looking away from his cereal bowl he yelled like he’d been smacked upside the head.
With a brick.
I looked at him as I gathered my own breakfast supplies and he smiled at me, then jerked his head toward Wolfman ever so slightly in a “Sis, you gotta watch this” expression.
Frogman, still calm as can be, started yelling in an erratic back and forth patter song between Tootie Frootie bites, “WOLFMAN!” Bite of cereal, calm chewing, a relaxed swallow, “QUIT IT! STOP!” Another mouthful, chewing, “LEAVE ME ALONE!” Swallow.
I studied the situation in silence. I knew Frogman had something great planned; no one invited the wrath of Wolfman without an escape strategy and a clear victory in sight.
The risks were too extreme.
I did it. Once. In retaliation, Wolfman recorded silence, then his laughter, over side A of one of my most beloved cassettes. SIDE A!! A hard lesson well learned.
Mom was more than a little exasperated that the first sibling fight of the weekend had already begun…and it wasn’t even 9 a.m. yet. She yelled at them from her sanctuary down the hall “BOYS! STOP IT!”
Wolfman looked around for clues to grasp, his thorough confusion by Frogman’s seemingly Tourette-esque outburst was palpable, “Dude! Calm down! No one’s even touching you!”
Mom was a pro and never left the comforts of her room unless it sounded like blood. Even so, she still grew highly agitated when we fought. She yelled like an announcer at the World Cup. “WOLFMAN! LEAVE YOUR BROTHER ALONE!”
Wolfman started to steam, but he stayed by the sink far away from Frogman. Looking confused, wary, and not understanding the fox-like cunning of Frogman’s plan, Wolfman backed away from him as a slight fear tinged his loud stage whisper “Shut up, ya baby! You’re gonna get us in trouble!”
I shook my head at such a misstep. This was WAR, man! You don’t bandy words like “baby” around! Wolfman’s eyes grew wide as he realized his folly. After years of deep psychological trauma, Frogman’s grenade was set to thermo-nuclear annihilation.
And Wolfman had just pulled the pin.
Frogman’s eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. He put his spoon down, looked directly into Wolfman’s eyes and screamed like a limb was getting ripped off, “MOM! YOU GOTTA COME IN HERE!! HE WON’T STOP HITTING ME!! I DIDN’T EVEN DO ANYTHING!!” Frogman started thrashing his body in a massive contorted fit, stomping his feet on the floor and banging his fists on the table, knocking his breakfast bowl to the floor.
Wolfman couldn’t hold back anymore. Watching Frogman’s display triggered a primal instinct. He had to attack. In his livid bewilderment he ran at Frogman, grabbing him and coiling one arm tightly around his neck. “SHUT UP!” he cried, “I WASN’T EVEN TOUCHING YOU!”
The world slowed down as if everyone was suddenly moving through pudding and I swear I heard strains of O Fortuna as Mom choose that precise moment to enter the fray. Wolfman’s face was a bright red, heated from the intensity of his rage. One arm pinned Frogman to his chest while the other was busy delivering frenzied blows to his gut.
Frogman’s arms flailed like a dropped octopus as he tried to block the next blow. His bowl of cereal, a casualty of war, lay spattered on the floor. Tootie Frooties rolled into the hallway and rested at the feet of Mom, whose wrath was now fully incurred. She stood there. Looming over us. Lips pursed in a dangerously thin line, trying to decide which child to injure first.
I looked at her face. It was like looking into the black, soulless eyes of a wolverine…or Satan himself…if Satan was a single mom with 6 kids that fought like wild dogs over scraps. “WOLFMAN! GET OFF HIM! I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE YOUR BROTHER ALONE!”
Wolfman, not expecting to see Mom wearing the face she wears right before she ritually sacrifices one of us, released his hold on Frogman and tried to convince Mom of his innocence, saying “I WASN’T EVEN TOUCHING HIM! HE MADE THE WHOLE THING UP!”
Mom shot back, “DON’T LIE TO ME! I SAW YOU WHEN I CAME IN THE KITCHEN! YOU’RE ON PROBATION” (Mom’s word for grounded) “FOR THE WEEKEND!”
As Wolfman stood stunned at the injustice, Frogman and I stealthily slinked from the kitchen battlefield. Grinning to ourselves like pompous victors.
In the safety of the living room, where, because of the Kitchenburg War Crimes Tribunal currently underway, Wolfman would be unable to reach us, Wolfman’s useless arguments and mom’s rebuttals played like a sweet angelic balm on our devious little war-strategy-filled hearts.
Frogman turned to me and winked. “Hey sis, wanna come to my room and play Legos? I don’t think we’re gonna have to share today.”
I obediently retrieved the Lego bucket and followed him through the house, awed by his greatness.
The boy was a God among Frogs. But that wasn’t surprising.
After all, at our house, we ate war for breakfast.