“Is it true that Alley Cat is your brother?” the older blonde girl demanded breathlessly.
I glanced nervously out the school bus window, relieved to see my stop approaching. “Yes,” I whispered.
Suddenly the bus was filled with squeals, and I was lavished with the attentions of a legion of new preteen best friends.
Such is the life of the sibling of a pop star. My brother, Allan, had begun working at the radio station owned by our next-door neighbor and had adopted the name Alley Cat, using the popular piano song as his intro. In our little town, he was a teenage idol. He had always been an idol to me.
One night, my mom and I huddled in front of the huge radio in our living room, waiting for Allan to deliver on a promise. “This next song goes out to my sister, Cheryl. It’s her sixth birthday today, so this one’s for her. Happy birthday, Sis!” And then my favorite song: “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” The Beatles. I was so in love with Paul—along with my elderly doctor and my mother’s friend’s teenage son, who was oblivious to my existence. Oh, the pitiable romances of little girls.
Those were the halcyon days. My mother later said that they were the happiest years of her life. My sister was a toddler, I was in Miss Ivy’s Gingerbread House kindergarten, and Allan was in high school at Georgia Military College, an all-boys school in town. On weekend afternoons, we would go to watch the military parades, decked out in dresses, hats, and white cotton gloves. On Friday nights, my parents would go to the country club with their friends. We had a close community, and it was a sweet and seemingly innocent existence.
It could not last. When I was in the fourth grade, my father took a job in New York, at least partly because he wanted to send us to Catholic school. Just as we prepared to leave, my brother’s “number came up,” and in order to avoid the draft, he enlisted and was able to go into Army intelligence because of his experience in radio. Our teen idol turned soldier and shipped out to Japan.
We spent the next few years adjusting to living in New Jersey, losing our southern drawls, and listening to the evening news about the Vietnam War. The whole nation was torn apart debating whether our country should participate in the conflict at all. There were over 58,000 American casualties in Vietnam, and one battle could cause thousands of deaths. Our avaricious neighbor once purred that she hoped that the war continued, since her investments were doing fabulously. I thought my mother would throttle her. Mom spent her days and nights dreading a knock on the door or a tragic telegram.
After spending several years in the role of eldest child, I was thrilled when Allan moved back home. These had been tumultuous years for him, a result of the war, the world, and his own life. When Allan entered the military, he was a mildly rebellious kid from a nice family, living in a newly integrated Georgia still in the midst of the civil rights movement. He went into the army wondering why our country was fighting in southeast Asia, and like many soldiers of that era, his heart was not in the cause. Some of his teenage decisions bore the fruit of personal suffering, and somewhere in Hawaii or Japan, Allan grew up. He wrote me long, handwritten letters, musing on life’s meaning while watching the sun come up over the ocean in the Land of the Rising Sun. I still treasure these bundles of lined notebook paper. He decided to go back to college, and after his discharge, he stayed in Monterey, California, working in radio while he finished his bachelor’s degree before coming home to a place he’d never been before.
When Allan moved into our house in New Jersey, I was a moody fourteen-year-old who seemed to do nothing but weep. He knew that I was an avid reader, so he gave me an incredible gift: the first American edition of a new work of literature by J.R.R. Tokien called The Lord of the Rings. He also gave me his paperback copy of The Hobbit, and I think I read the entire boxed set of LOTR four times in a row. My early teen years took place in Middle Earth.
These few years with Allan set my life on a new course. Somewhere, somehow, he had acquired something that had not been present in our family before: culture. My parents were smart, hardworking people who deliberately pulled themselves and their kids out of the working class of their parents and into the middle class. They had a nice house in the suburbs, sent us to Catholic school, dressed well, and went on summer vacations. But they knew nothing and cared nothing about art, literature, classical music, or any intellectual pursuits. Whether it was the influence of that great high school history teacher, his reading during his time in the army, his travels, or the classical music that he had been playing on the radio, by the time Allan arrived in New Jersey, he had matured into the intellectual that he would remain for the rest of his life.
Allan decided to go into graduate school at Rutgers to study medieval history—the whole world was mad about the middle ages at that time– and I was his lecture audience. While he rattled on about Frederick Barbarossa, I read Malory and Gottfried von Strassburg. I learned French and read Le Chanson de Roland and Tristan et Iseult. He taught me about classical music, and we debated Plato and Aquinas. My high school also excelled in the liberal arts, and the theology classes accomplished the opposite of what my father intended and sent me into New Age wanderings, Wicca, Buddhism, and finally, atheism. I did all of these things through storms of tears; I have no idea why Allan put up with me. Perhaps I was eager to learn, and my brother was eager to raise up his kid sister in his own image.
If not for those critical years, I would be a different person today. I learned at least as much at home as I did in school, and the knowledge was deeper and richer when I could discuss it with my revered older brother. Of course, there were unintended consequences of studying at the same university a few years later, such as the shock I felt when I realized that the graduate assistant who would be grading my art history final was the young woman with whom my brother had recently gone through a dramatic and messy break-up. Fortunately, she was a serious student and gave me the A for which I had labored.
I came to true faith in Christ ten years later, and that faith was stronger for being tested and tried. I still read widely, and I taught my own son at home and passed on this desire to live an examined life. I went to graduate school myself late in life and became a librarian, a field that explores all the riches of human knowledge. Allan continues to challenge me to think critically about the world, introducing me to new authors and keeping up with plays and music. In the end, all that I have learned and even the hunger for the mysteries of wisdom have come to me as a result of those years under the tutelage of Alley Cat.