Johnny, Bob and Me: A Brothers' Story

[This article originally appeared in the Summer 2005 edition of the Voice Male, of which Michael is managing editor.]

By Michael Burke

Who is our family? How do we define it, and what determines who are its members, its constituent parts?

We spend our lives searching for the answers: searching for love and understanding, for like-minded souls to live with. We try to maintain or resuscitate our ties to the family that bore us, to our ancestors and relations both living and dead, even as we create a new family, possibly an alternative family, out of the disparate elements of friends, lovers, children, coworkers, teammates—and even the surrogate families we concoct from among the athletes, musicians, and actors we see on television or in movies. Whether we find them or they find us, these become our “family,” often without our knowing it, without our realizing or acknowledging just what role they play in our lives.

As the last of five children raised in southern California, I grew up in some ways like an only child: all my siblings are at least 10 years older than I, and the oldest was 19 when I was born. The two older ones left for college when I was still a baby; the other two were gone before I hit my teens. My sister Teresa, closest to me in age, remembers taking care of me when I was small. “You were my bud!” she exclaims. I don’t dispute it; but I have no memory of it. The sister I remember was the one who, as a teenager with a car, took me to the movies with her boyfriend, and out for ice cream, and to the high school pool or the beach. I fought with her and always lost; she used to boss me around interminably; and she would have kicked anyone’s ass who messed with me. I missed her when she left home

My brother Robert, on the other hand, is a special case, in every sense. He is 14 years older than I, and was born with impairments both physical and mental. He has cerebral palsy and is prone to epileptic seizures, during which he may grind his teeth or say strange things. His right hand curls forward and down at the wrist, and his legs don’t quite match. Fortunately he’s left-handed, and his left hand was always very strong—I know this from having been seized in its vise-like grip pretty regularly. He couldn’t drive, but he rode his bike—which he called Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse—almost everywhere, and was in great shape as a consequence—in great shape, that is, for a “handicapped” person, as the phrase went then. He also did pretty well for a person with his limitations, holding several jobs—and suffering under bosses who exploited him—even earning an associate’s degree at the local community college. (He attended a Cal State school for a few years as well, before finally having to drop out.)

Robert and I shared a room when I was small, until he too left home to live on his own. He could be kind and generous, patient and funny, and would listen to things my parents didn’t want to hear. He could be frightening, too: he had a terrible temper, and once punched a hole through our bathroom door. (One of my first complete sentences was “Wobet is souting.”) When he and my dad went at it I would run and hide somewhere—it was horrific, like the Clash of the Titans, or the T. rex going up against the Triceratops. It scared me, and I’m sure it contributed to my aversion to conflict and confrontation, which remains to this day.

Bob—as I usually called him—liked to “teach” me things, and he liked to enlist my aid in his own pursuits. In that sense I guess we had a true brotherly relationship—one based on compulsion and manipulation, as well as occasional incentives. Bob’s greatest joy was baseball, specifically the Dodgers, so of course I was drafted to read to him from the box scores and the list of the day’s probable pitchers. (Bob’s other great joy was learning and practicing his Spanish, so naturally I had to pronounce the Latin players’ names correctly. “Try it again: ‘Loo-EES TEE-ont.’”) He showed me how to keep score, and taught me about the game without our ever playing it together, because he couldn’t. But he could watch, and listen (most games were only on radio in those days), and impart his knowledge to his baby brother.

 

“I liked watching The Tonight Show with Bob because it was special; it was something we could enjoy together, our parents were uninterested in it, and I was just becoming old enough to be allowed to stay up and watch.”

Bob Burke on his bike  

It was Bob who also introduced me to The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson, whose death earlier this year brought back some of these recollections. Bob was always a creature of ritual: pot of coffee in the morning, the a.m. TV talk shows, the afternoon radio call-in shows, the same local newscast in the evening, from KNBC in Los Angeles. And late at night, like a religion, The Tonight Show, “starring Johnny Carson.”

I first remember watching The Tonight Show with Bob on New Year’s Eve, which was always a special show But then I discovered that it was just as entertaining every weeknight: it was always the same, and always different. It had jokes, comedy skits, music, rising young comedians and established stars who came on and schmoozed and chattered—not to mention the goofy guests, like the lady from the San Diego Zoo and her animals, who could be counted on to crawl on Johnny’s head or poop on his desk, or the Amazing Kreskin, or the bright young boy who’d won the big spelling bee.

I liked watching The Tonight Show with Bob because it was special; it was something we could enjoy together, our parents were uninterested in it, and I was just becoming old enough to be allowed to stay up and watch. And even though there was a sameness to the show, with all its little rituals (like my brother’s life), there was also an unpredictability: who knew if maybe Dean Martin would show up drunk? Or Shelley Winters blathering about the good old days in Hollywood when she was sexy and not obese? Or some new comedian we’d never seen before (and didn’t really get)?

During high school and college I worked in a restaurant, as a dishwasher, prep cook, and cook, and I would come home after work, tired and covered with grease, make myself an ice cream soda and kick back to watch The Tonight Show. Something about its combination of sameness and difference, ritual and the unexpected, was soothing to me, as were Johnny’s voice and the familiar music, the TV studio backdrop, the late-night ambience. If the “cast” of the show formed a family, then Johnny should have been the father, the leader—except he was more like a wisecracking uncle. Unburdened by the responsibilities of actual parenthood, he just dropped in late at night and made you laugh. He was self-deprecating and Nebraska-humble, but at the same time rich, smooth, well dressed, seemingly at ease in the world of Hollywood and Malibu, and the television world of “beautiful downtown Burbank.”

That world was an illusion, but a beautiful, comforting one, a refuge from the stress and strife of reality: Vietnam, gas lines, recessions, the Iran hostage crisis, Reaganomics, the Gulf War. Johnny was an entertainer—“America’s nightlight”— and in real life apparently not quite so smooth or at ease with other people. But on TV, where he reigned as the late-night king for many years, Johnny was a soothing presence, for me and many others. He was, as the saying goes, “like family.”

I only vaguely recall seeing the last show in 1992, when Johnny sang duets with Bette Midler and wiped away tears, and the band played “I’ll Be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places.” I was the father of a young daughter by then, immersed in parenting, far from California, and struggling with the demands of adulthood: marriage, work, childcare, male isolation, depression, confusion. But I appreciated Johnny’s familiar patter, the cozy way he could still fit into my life.

After that, Johnny abruptly retired and withdrew from the public eye. Johnny’s world, his persona and his time now seem increasingly dated, long past—but no one has taken his place, either for me personally or in our culture. Perhaps no one will.

Three years after Johnny called it quits, my brother Bob, then living independently in his own apartment, suffered a severe head injury—whether from a bike accident or as the victim of an assault, we never learned—and wound up in the hospital, having lost his memory of the last 20 years or so. (“Why am I not at 7904 Indiana Avenue?” he asked, referring to a home we left in 1969, to a house that’s no longer there.)

Today Bob lives in a nursing home, cannot walk and needs help caring for himself, and I don’t know whether he’s heard that Johnny is gone, or whether it registered if he did. He’s not the man he was, by any means: for one thing, in his nearly immobile current state he’s gained a lot of weight, whereas the Bob I knew was a thin, vigorous guy who did walkathons for charity in the summer heat. It’s hard to see him now, when I make the infrequent cross-country trip; my oldest sister, who lives closer and visits him more often, says she cries as soon as she gets out the door of the facility he’s in, and doesn’t pull herself back together until she reaches our parents’ house, several miles across town. Sometimes one of us visits and he doesn’t remember the next day that we were there.

His memories are not of today or yesterday, but of the old familiar places of his life in the ’60s and ’70s, when he was out on his own, riding Rocinante or taking the bus downtown, announcing youth league baseball games, following the Dodgers, speaking Spanish, and watching Johnny. He’s still my brother and I still love him, even in his altered circumstances, but it’s those memories of him that I would choose to hold on to as well.

[Used with the permission of Voice Male, a publication of the Men's Resource Center for Change, Amherst, MA. www.mrcforchange.org.]