When I Was a Little Guy

By Andrew Looney

My brother Richard goes by the nickname Rash, and is about ten years older than me. One day, he dropped out of college and moved out of the house. After a few years in the job market and on the road, he decided to move back in and finish up college. (We live less than a mile from the University.)

This was in July of 1978; I was fourteen years old, about to start the tenth grade. We had gone on a trip somewhere, and when we returned, there he was, quietly nestled in the unused basement room.

Now, up to this point in my life, I really didn't know Rash very well. I have three older brothers, all much older than me. When I was growing up, they were more like Uncles than siblings: Mysterious, yet friendly, they were Big Guys. I looked up to them, but I didn't understand them.

When Rash moved back in, I noticed something strange. He treated me like an adult, rather than a child. Somehow, in the few short years that he lived elsewhere, I had grown up.

Richard lived at home for 15 months. During that year, he and I became quite close. Before that time, he was almost a stranger, a person I found fascinating, but knew little about. In those months, I learned much about him, and many of his interests and philosophies rubbed off on me. I often reflect upon that year as being one of the great times of my life.

I lived on the top floor of our house, an average size brick house in a middle class suburb of Washington D.C. It was like my own little apartment up there; I was the only one living on that floor, and I had my own bathroom and everything. There was one other bedroom, but it belonged to Jeff, who was off at Princeton studying history, and rarely used it. My sister and parents lived on the ground floor, and Rash lived in the basement room, an enclosed section of the basement originally constructed by Dad as a study.

I encountered Rash several times each day. The first came sometime after school. In those days I usually did my homework as soon as I got home, since it wasn't that hard and I wanted to get it out of the way. Besides, I had to stay in my room and prepare for battle.

Rash always took his bath as soon as he got home, and he chose to use my bathroom rather than the one downstairs. This always led to conflict. He would bound up the stairs and lock himself in, despite my efforts to keep him out and force him to use the downstairs bathroom. I always lost this phase of the battle.

I would sit at my desk, pretending to work, listening to him take his bath. He referred to his bath as his "Daily Water". He made a lot of noise when he took his Water; apart from the splashing, he would sing silly songs, and shout various remarks through the walls at me. And he would laugh - a sort of a "he-he-he" laugh, like the evil snicker of the chief Blue Meanie in the movie "Yellow Submarine". I listened to these sounds as they drifted through the walls, all the while planning my defense. Sometimes, we'd have an actual conversation, or at least as much of one as two people can have when they are separated by a wall.

And suddenly the bathroom door would burst open, and my brother would rush into my room, laughing maniacally and wearing only a pair of shorts. He would attempt to hurl himself onto my bed. When he succeeded, which was most of the time, he would roll back and forth beneath my blankets until he was dry. This was an action that he called "The Drying Process". I always tried to prevent it, by striking him with pillows, and threatening him with more lethal weapons, but these efforts were almost always in vain.

In those days, I was very interested in Medieval history, and was involved with a group that performed re-creations of famous battles of the Middle Ages. I had a full costume, including a shirt of chain mail armour that I had made myself, and a collection of deadly medieval weapons; a sword, mace, battleaxe, and so forth. For a while, I tried dressing in my battle gear while Richard took his Water, and when he emerged, I'd be quite a fearsome opponent. But I couldn't actually strike him with my weaponry, and so he often managed to slip through my defenses and engage in Drying.

He refered to this area of my interest as "Merry Tune Singing." When my friends and I left for a battle re-enactment, he would say, "There they go, marching into battle, Singing a Merry Tune." He would parade about, lifting up one of my weapons and brandishing it in the air, singing, "Let's sing a Merry Tune," to the tune of the theme music from the film "The Lord of the Rings."

At dinner, he sat to my left. Richard is a very funny guy, and I laughed many times during the course of a meal (or any conversation with him, for that matter). Now, as most people know, anything that is funny is much more funny when your mouth is full. This became quite a problem for me in those days. I would be drinking a glass of lemonade, and he would say something, and it would make me laugh. Sometimes it was just the way he said it. In a situation like this I had no option but to put the liquid that was in my mouth back into my cup. Naturally this was quite embarrassing. That year for Christmas, the label on the present from Rash to me read, "To: The Man Who Laughs Into Cups, From: The Future People."

In the course of time, I learned a valuable skill: laughing with my mouth full. Unless the joke is really funny, I can hold a mouthful of liquid and laugh at the same time.

When laughing into cups became less frequent, Rash devised another method of causing mealtime trauma. He would wait until my cup met my lips, and then nudge my elbow, ever so slighly. This always resulted in a soggy shirt and a laughing brother. Our father had very little patience with this sort of behavior, and sometimes became furious at our dinnertime hi-jinx.

I saw little of Rash in the evenings. He, being a college student, had studying to do. But at about 10:45 each night, we would both head towards the kitchen, to prepare for the Late Night Viewing.

Rash had this alien machine. It was about a foot tall, and sat on a burner on the top of the stove. It was painted brown, and was curved and rounded, with several knobs and levers. He used it to make espresso. The brand name of the machine, written on a small disk set into the top of the thing, was "Atomic".

He took his coffee making very seriously. (He roasted the beans himself, in a roaster he had made from a metal piece of plumbing equipment.) The machine made loud hissing noises as it spat out the coffee. It also shot out jets of steam, which he used to warm up the milk that went into his espresso. In the mornings he drank coffee, but at night he used the heated milk to make his own type of hot chocolate. I would enter the kitchen to find him hunkered over his espresso machine, like a mad scientist adjusting the knobs on a piece of sinister laboratory equipment.

But I had my own preparations to perform. My midnight snack consisted of a cup of properly cooled hot chocolate and a mug of instant macaroni and cheese. The latter was a product manufactured by Betty Crocker, called "Mug-o-Lunch". It was a wonderful, convenient food product. "Make in a mug in 5 min." the box proclaimed, "Just add boiling water." The easy directions on the back of the box even called themselves "EASY DIRECTIONS". But in addition to the simple preparation, it made a very tasty snack. I will never understand why it didn't catch on.

My hot chocolate was also made from an instant mix. (I was a strong advocate of the "just add boiling water" school of cooking in those days.) However, I would add only half of the boiling water recommended in the hot chocolate directions. I would add the water, and mix the stuff up. Then I filled the cup to the top with milk. This gave the instant cocoa a much richer quality, and also brought the fluid to a drinkable temperature quickly. (If there's one thing I hate, it's waiting around for hours while my hot chocolate cools down enough that it won't scald off my tongue.)

Those late night preparations in the kitchen were always very pleasant. We would jostle each other, good naturedly getting in each other's way, as we concocted our snacks. The house was mostly quiet by then, since our parents and sister were already in bed. The kitchen was warm and cozy, lit by a single light bulb in an old yellow lamp shade, which bathed the whole room in a comfortable yellow glow. "But hurry up!" said the chiming grandfather clock, "It's almost time!"

By 11:00 pm, we were in the Television room with our snacks and the lights off. Eleven o'clock was when "The Twilight Zone" came on, and we watched it faithfully every night. We'd seen them all before, but we watched them again anyway. I had this episode guide that I got out of "Starlog", a science fiction fanzine, which listed all of the shows, with credits and little synopses, and the order they were shown in. The local reruns channel showed them in more or less the correct order. Each night I would try to predict in advance which episode would be on. I imagined myself a sorcerer with a crystal ball, or a prophet, examining my charts and observing the alignment of the stars, trying to guess what the future would bring. More often than not, my guess was correct. But from time to time I would predict a high quality episode, only to be presented with a total loser. Rash was always quick to underscore the seriousness of my mistake.

No talking was permitted during Rod Serling's black and white half hour, at least when it was a good episode. But some of the shows have not aged well at all, and some were bad to begin with; in either of these cases laughter and heckling were allowed.

We would sit in the dark, huddled beneath blankets (in the winter) while consuming our snacks. One problem with my Mug-o-Lunch was that it required stirring, and when stirred it made a loud slurping noise. This became another subject of ridicule from Rash, who refered to the sounds as my "Toilet Noises". (He seemed to think that these sounds were similar to those that emerge from a bathroom when the toilet is in use.)

After the Zone came "The Benny Hill Show". This low brow British comedy show was sometimes very entertaining, and sometimes extremely boring. When it was boring, we would switch over to the other rerun channel, which was showing "The Odd Couple". The decision to change channels was often a point of disagreement. We sat on stools up near the screen, and there would sometimes be battles for control of the knob. Of course, we would always switch over to Felix and Oscar during the commercials.

Commercials on late night T.V. are a real problem for the regularate Night Viewer. They vary only slightly from night to night. It gets to the point were you can tell what time it is by the ad that is showing at a given moment. Among the commercials that we developed a particular dislike for was a phone ad with the refrain "Billpayer! Billpayer! Billpayer phone!" and the Bartender's Academy ad with the unsuccessful bartender saying to the founder of the school, "Say, aren't you Wayne Rodowsky, of Bartender's Academy? I'm doing ok, I guess, but I'd be doing a lot better, Mr. Rodowsky, had I gone to YOUR school." Another featured a woman being told that the whiteners were being removed from Final Touch fabric softener. "You put those whiteners back in my Final Touch!" she objected. Later, when told that the whiteners hadn't really been removed, she said "I'm glad, I'm pleased, I'm tickled to death!"

The one commercial that we did like was the Dave Campo hard sell car commercial. Dave would sell cars like a Television evangelist sells Jesus. He would point to a car and shout "OH! Look at this car right HERE! You give me forty nine dollars down, a hundred forty nine dollars a month! Pick up the PHONE! Give us a CALL!" Each night his rantings and ravings became funnier and funnier.

At midnight, "Perry Mason" came on. Rash always tried to get me to stick around and watch it, but it was an hour long, and I was tired and I had school the next day, so I would usually watch only the opening. Despite his urgings, I just couldn't get interested in Perry. So I would say goodnight, climb the stairs and go to sleep.

One night Rash told me to plan on staying up really late. After the Zone, a film was being shown on the Late Movie that we were going to watch. It was as if I had no choice in the matter. The movie was "Fahrenheit 451", from the novel by Ray Bradbury. It was, and I suppose it still is, Rash's favorite movie. It is an excellent film, though I'm afraid I was too sleepy to enjoy it fully at that time. On another evening, he made me watch "The Illustrated Man," also based on a Bradbury book.

The main character of "Fahrenheit 451" is named Montag. Not long after that night, Rash began to call me "Antag", a sort of derivative translation of my real name, Andy, and Montag. "Montag" is the German word for "Monday", so "Antag" is German for "Andy" - sort of. (The a's in "Antag" are pronounced "ah", as in "stick out your tongue and say ah".)

So my nickname became Antag, just as his was Rash. That name stuck, at least with him; He still calls me that. Just the other day I got a postcard from him addressed to Antag.

Furthermore, a major philosophical point came up not long after watching "Fahrenheit 451". In the film, Montag's wife Linda is a ditz, a total airhead, whose sole activity is watching Television. Rash refered to her as a "Tubehead", i.e. one who watches the Tube too much. Rash explained that watching too much Televison rots your brain. Of course, the only time either of us watched the Tube was during the Late Night Viewing, and we began to refer to anyone who watched more than a small amount of TV as a Tubehead.

Jokes about the Tube and Tubeheads became a constant subject of conversation. Anyone we deemed inferior, which was practically everybody, we called a Tubehead. He drew a picture, called "The March of the Tubeheads", of four men striding forward in R. Crumb "trucking" style, with tall Tubes instead of heads. He drew a similar picture on my table.

Richard was a man who looked to the Future. He often spoke of his ideas for the Future. His concepts incorporated several notions of the Future as it was envisioned in the past. It was the streamlined dream of better living through machines that was seen during the Depression, combined with the mass-marketed, kidney-shaped life of convenience that came about in the Atomic Age, all tied up with State of the Art electronics and his own peculiar concept of Cool. He had visions of streamlined cars with enormous tailfins, of futuristic cafes, with blue glass fixtures and espresso served up from gleaming chrome machines, of neon landscapes and cities populated by Young Ultra-Moderns. His ideas sounded wonderful.

He wrote a short story, about a place called the Cafe Modern. Here is an excerpt: "The cafe was dim and smoky at this hour, when the only white light was on the musicians, and the Technicians [who were attired in black leather and white lab coats], whose work at the gleaming espresso machines behind the bar was illuminated by hooded chromium lamps. The great cobalt glass windows filtered through only a blue glow reflected from the buildings outside, punctuated only by the stray blue neon sign. The blue Hubble-light ashtray units on the tables gave the appearance of an airfield at night."

Rash's room reflected his interest in the Future. I thought it was the coolest place in town. He kept it dimly lit, so that the room had a dark tone, like being under water. The lamps lit only certain areas, pools of light in the darkness. (The room had a long line of flourescent tubes, but Rash never used these, since he despised flourescent lights.) There were three lamps that I was particularly enamored of: a lava lamp, a lamp in a metal cylinder, which was touch activated, and the Martian.

The Martian was a rounded Atomic Age reading lamp that stood on a tall tripod, with a deep red, extremely concave lens through which the light shone. Rash had constructed the Martian himself, by fitting the lens into an existing lamp. The Martian stood guard over Richard's stereo.

This lamp was called the Martian because it had a single, red eye and stood on a tripod. The eye was red because Mars, and all things Martian, is red, and it had three legs because according to H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein, Martians walk on three legs.

Over the mantle was his first crude piece of Neon. Later, he would collect many beautiful Neon tubes, but his first was not very impressive. It was part of an old beer sign: three parallel orange lines, dim and flickering.

Richard's room was a fascinating place. I loved to spend time there with him, though he often sent me away when he was busy with some project. His room always smelled strongly of the freshly roasted coffee beans. (It was equipped with a fire place, which was where he did the roasting.)

And the music! Rash's taste in music also reflected his Futuristic bent. The top radio hits were heavy metal noise and vanilla pop rock. But in Richard's room, music was electronic. It was done with machines and synthesizers and computers. Performers had names like Synergy, Vangelis, Jean Michel Jarre, and Tomita. The music had a pulsating, exciting, electric beat. It was scientific. It was the Future. I loved it.

He tried to expose me to classical music, and to Jazz, and to Frank Sinatra. But I wasn't interested in these things.

One night in the spring of that year it rained. It rained and rained and rained. And the basement, location of Richard's room of wonder, began to flood.

As the flood waters rose, it became clear that if something was not done, Rash and all of his nifty belongings would be soaked. He started building up little walls of rags and towels, and sandbags of old newspapers, trying to make the rising water stay in other parts of the basement. But these measures were insuffient. The water kept coming in. Soon the whole family was involved.

On the far side of the basement, it was dry, because of the drain that let water out. The water was collecting in pools too far from this drain to escape. So we swept the water and bailed the water and urged the water over to the drain. Progess was made, but not fast enough. At last, two pieces of garden hose were brought forth. By placing one end of a hose in the drain and the other in the water, we were able to siphon the water away from Richard's room.

For weeks afterwards, we referred to the ordeal as "The Night of the Long Tubes".

As that year wore on, we began to talk in our own special language. We spoke of the Tube, and of Tubeheads. We held combat over the taking of the Daily Water, and the Drying Process. My name was Antag, and his, Rash. When my friends and I got together, he called us The Little Guys. We sang our Merry Tunes.

I was taking German in school, and since he had studied it, too, we often spoke in that language. Or at least we tried to. He had travelled in Germany, and was taking advanced courses in the language at college. But I was in my first year. So it was a psuedo German, espcially since Rash often made up German sounding words. There was "Rohrkopf", the literal German translation of "Tubehead", and the undefined but decidedly insulting false German word, "Schtumpfen". Once he wrote on my table, "Bist du ein Schtumpfen?", meaning "Are you a Schtumpfen?"

One word we used a lot was "Lappish", which is a real German word, meaning silly. When Rash thought something was foolish, he would say "Lappish!" but he would stretch out the L, so that it was "LLLLLLappish!" After a while, he would just say "LLLLLLLL" and I would know what he meant.

Another thing he did was to make this sound. He would suck air into his mouth with a hissing noise, then clamp his lips shut with a pop. It was a sort of "SHHHHUPH" sound. He made this noise when he wanted to get my attention. Soon, I also started to make the sound. It became a kind of greeting.

And Units! A Unit was a piece of chocolate. Just as gold was the basis of value behind the dollar, chocolate was the commodity of value that backed our own special currency, which we called the Unit. Almost any kind of chocolate could be called a Unit, as there was no precise definition of just how much chocolate equalled one Unit. One favorite was the marble-sized spheres of chocolate manufactured by Russell Stover Candies at Christmas time, in the two-toned foil wrappers. (The wrappers came in five color combinations: red and green, blue and yellow, yellow and green, yellow and red, and yellow and magenta. The blue and yellow ones were somehow more tasty than the others.) But the very best Units of all were fudge, from the old family recipe for Four Minute Fudge, which we both cooked and ate frequently.

When you felt or inflicted physical pain, you had "Damaged the Tissue." The word "Tissue" was not pronounced in the usual way; the "s" letters were not given the familar "sh" sound. Instead, it rhymed with "miss you".

Rash would stomp upstairs to my room to see me, making the "Shhupp" noise. We would laugh and talk and hang out. My clothes would be lying about on the floor, and he would kick them around and say "You'll never get into the Academy with a messy room like this!" Sometimes, he'd help me with my homework. I remember one time when he showed me how to do a problem that I couldn't figure out. He went into great detail. Eventually he concluded that the answer was 1/6. But then we turned to the back of the book, to check his answer against those provided. The book's answer was -1. In his irritation, he drew a big picture over his calculations, of a "Star Trek" crewman shooting his phaser into the air and shouting, enragedly, "-1?". I still have that picture.

Rash would often demand "tribute". Tribute was payment of some kind that he felt was automatically due to him, just as The Pound of Flesh was rendered unto Caeser. "You must render Tribute," he would say. I never gave him any Tribute, but he often demanded it.

Then there were the Schlager battles. A Schlager was a shaft of wood, about two feet long. The name is another German word, from the verb "Schlag", to strike. He'd learned about this in his Germanic studies, and in his fencing class. German students dueled with short swords called "Schlagers", which is how they got those fashionable dueling scars. But we used these thick wooden rods, like in a movie he'd seen once. We'd stand in the basement or in the back yard, and duel with these sticks. The idea was really just to hit the other guy's Schlager, but the battles usually ended with one or the other of us having his thumb smashed. Usually it was Rash. He eventually refused to continue this sport, until we could obtain some steel gloves. We never did.

Sometimes Rash loaned me comic books to read. He had a library of reprints of the old EC "Weird Science" and "Weird Fantasy" comic books. These comics came out in the 50's and were later banned because so many parents objected to having their children read them. They were shocking and graphic, but also thrilling, thought provoking, imaginative, well written, and extremely well drawn.

He also had a full collection of "The Silver Surfer" comics, and a large number of very old "Fantastic Four" books, in which the Surfer was orignially introduced.

The Silver Surfer was the ultimate superhero of the 1960's. He was a spaceman with gleaming silver skin, who rode a surfboard through the cosmos. He was Cool.

Among the many lessons Rash taught me, the most important one was, I think, being cool. Cool is a whole way of life, a whole way of thinking. "Everyone is a jerk when they are born," said Rash. "To be cool is to learn to leave the jerk at home." Being cool is being relaxed and in control in any situation. It is a code of ethics, with rules of comportment and behavior and manners. It is looking good at all times. If Rash ever called me uncool, it was a burning insult, a failing grade on an exam of life. Being called a Tubehead was really just a joke, an insult cast in good clean fun. Being told I was uncool meant a serious error on my part.

Eventually, those golden days passed on. Rash graduated, found a good job, and moved back out. I was sad to see him go, but he was not gone, not really. He dropped in often. He would sometimes hang around all day of a summer Saturday, working on his car. He would leave notes for me on my desk if I wasn't around when he stopped in.

We remain very close. We still joke and laugh and speak our own language. Rash lives in California now. I miss him, and hated to see him leave. But I remember once, before he left, he said to me, "I can go now; your training is almost complete."

"Almost?" I said. "When will it be complete?"

"Well," he said, "It will never really be complete. One is always learning. But I've taught you all I can. That's partly why I've stuck around this town so long. The rest is up to you."

I wasn't a Little Guy anymore.


Copyright © 1987 by Andrew Looney.