I lost my brother at 3 AM and I’m posting some essays about us. First one: “The Christmas Machetes”

March 17, 2020

I didn’t really lose him, but I lost out on having him around for another 42 years or so. I like how my mom and Uncle Jim keep in such good touch in their 80’s and I thought that would be really be something if we could be like them. Mostly my heart goes out to Mikey’s wife and daughter Graycee, who is the same age as we were in this essay below. Addiction is a horrible disease though he managed to be a pretty rad dad throughout it. His body could just not keep up.  He was suffering for years as parts of his body failed –some being due to alcohol and some–well probably most due to alcohol. But you put that all together with a 6′ 8″ frame and problems compound.  Sorry if parts of this aren’t edited well. I just wanted to post something and I’m not really “with it.”

The Christmas Machetes

The most responsible decision my parents ever made was to ban all machete use during the wintertime. Even burly lumberjacks can’t handsaw frozen hardwood, so how were my 8-year-old younger brother Mikey and 10-year-old scrawny tomboy me supposed to hack away a frozen branch with our springy, two-foot-long blades and not lose a finger or a nose in the process. Everything in Northern Wisconsin used to be frozen solid until April. My father the woodsman knew this and luckily was paying attention unlike the usual practice of raising us as though we were free range cattle, roaming the earth, making our own decisions, trotting home when we got hungry. Although the machetes—given to us by our super cool, adult sister Katie—were the highlight and the main thing we remembered about Jesus’ birth for years, we would have to wait until spring to use them.

Mikey and I were raised with gender-neutral, equal opportunity gift giving at Christmas, really just an after effect of my parents having to purchase two of every gift so we wouldn’t fight. We were the fifth and sixth-born children of six kids, accidents after my parents had the four kids they really wanted. Well, I was an accident, but I needed a friend, so they had my brother. This is the same rationale behind why people get another pet: We don’t want her to be lonely, because we can’t be with her as much as we’d like.

By the time my brother and I came into the world, Mom and Dad ran out of the patience required to Mikey and me to share. At Christmas my brother and I each got a bald baby doll with soft body and hard head. We each got a yellow Tonka dump truck. We each got a real steal machete. So we wouldn’t fight.

Our real steal machetes came with chintzy, plastic-smelling camouflage sheaths and matching camouflage head ties to hide us in the woods. The head tie or scarf—whatever the nomenclature for that machete accessory is—wasn’t a full bandana and it wasn’t a complete loop of a head band. It was just a strip of camouflage material we were supposed to tie round our foreheads like Sylvester Stalone in the film First Blood, the first of Stalone’s three movie’s where he played machete-wielding Vietnam war vet John Rambo. Mikey and I watched that movie way too many times.*1 We were going to be heroes.

Three and a half months of agonized waiting had to creep by until we could deploy our machetes upon the thawed-out scrub brush and tree branches in the forty acres of woods around our house. Sometimes there’s a fake thaw—a warm streak in March when a person thinks she can use her machete—but then everything freezes again. I really want to stress the importance of heeding wintertime machete prohibition, so no one falls victim to this fake thaw with his or her own machete. Had we not been policed by our dad, not only would my brother and I have tried to hack down frozen branches but we would have tried to chop away at snow and ice. Ice is physically harder and more frozen than concrete, so the ricochet or misdirection of a blade can be severe. It’s not like our Christmas machetes were flimsy, but no one wants to end up like those lumberjacks our dad told us about who have their chainsaws bounce off a knot in a winter-frozen hardwood and then lose a limb and try to walk a mile back to the road and bleed to death or saw their heads off on accident and still try to walk the mile blind and then if someone finds them they don’t even have a head to talk with. We weren’t ending up like that, no matter how antsy we were to start whacking tree limbs.

As a side note, one of the overlooked benefits of global warming in Wisconsin and Minnesota (where I now live) is that the fake thaw has come as early as February or March and has turned into a real thaw for the past six years or so. We’ll get some snow that slushes up, melts right away and floods things, but nothing freezes solid anymore after February. The point being: It’s a great time to buy your children machetes in the upper midwest! They’ll get much more use out of them than they would thirty years ago. In fact, I don’t know why I’m not standing outside my house here in Minneapolis selling machetes right now. That and wedge salads—the salad that’s just a quarter head of lettuce with bacon bits and costs $16. I can get lettuce for a buck. The same with bacon bits. The profit is amazing. I could even use the machetes to cut the lettuce in front of people with one swipe, and that would enhance the machete sales if the early thaw weren’t enough to tempt customers. It’s a self-propelled business really, but surely someone will get to it before me. Someone always does. People may scoff, but do you know how many Ginsu knives they sold this way?  Enough to keep the commercial going for years.

My brother and I strategized during the wait for thaw, or the “cooling off while warming up period” as I could refer to it. We wouldn’t just aimlessly chop away at vegetation; we would map and create more efficient bike trails through the woods free of any undergrowth that prevented us and our patched-together bikes from going wherever we wanted to go without the aid of roads. We would create these trails for ourselves and hopefully for the seasonal cabin and lake kids. Maybe then their parents would let them start playing with us again.

A lot of the summer-time city families who vacationed in our area had stopped allowing their poor children to play with us anymore. Usually Mikey and I would convince the city kids to adventure out into the forest with us or way out on the lake or to a few secret lakes we knew about for hours fishing, biking, or hacking trails. Their parents would wonder where they were and were disturbed by all the mosquito and tick bites and random injuries their kids sustained while out with us. Parents claimed it was the “bears” they were worried about and that’s why their kids couldn’t play. If that were so, those new machetes should have really put their minds at ease. We were sure the cabin parents would trust us once they saw us in our full machete uniform—remember the sheaths and headbands? I think that actually turned out scaring the cabin people even more so. My brother and I would remain each other’s main playmate and buddy till I graduated and we stayed fairly close after that. I remember in college I would call him from my beige dorm rotary phone and apologize for pranks I had pulled on him growing up and he would do the same from my parents’ crackly wall phone, even after he was out of school. In hindsight, my parents’ “we don’t want her to be lonely” plan worked.

A big part of our elation in receiving the machetes, as I had mentioned earlier, was due to 1980’s pop culture phenom Sylvester Stalone. Stalone’s Rambo movie was finally available in our region on VHS tape. Rambo was in the theaters in the early eighties, but it wasn’t like the digital releases of today that come out right after a theater release. Movie lovers would have to wait a year or more before some films would be available for in-home VHS tape viewing, and then we had to wait even longer till Yourchucks’ Hardware (and video rental) would get the movie in stock. And even then, sometimes they’d only purchase one copy of the VHS tape and you had to wait until it wasn’t checked out by someone else. Rambo: First Blood Part II (the second of the trilogy) was finishing in the theater when we finally were able to get our hands on 1982’s First Blood the first film of the series.*2

Since no one up in northern Burnett County actually owned a VCR (Videocassette Recorder/Player), Yourchucks’ had an amazing deal where you could rent the VCR and a movie for the entire weekend for five dollars. The VCR machine came in it’s own plastic, internally padded, clunky briefcase. If anyone were to forgetfully leave such an ominous plastic briefcase in La Guardia airport, say tomorrow October 27, 2019, the entire country would shut down.

We had no cable T.V. in our area, and internet was not around then, so the Yourchuck’s Hardware VCR/VHS suitcase rental was a real gateway to the culture of the world. For my brother and me in the eighties, the culture of the world centered mostly around machine guns and machetes. When we did get our hands on the very violent Firstblood (commonly known as Rambo), we watched it at least four times alone in the living room mimicking the handling of the machine guns and of the machetes, both featured prominently in the film. If only there had been bicycles central to Rambo’s struggle, Firstblood could have been the greatest kids’ movie of all time.

During those years in Wisconsin, eight and ten year olds like my brother and me could not purchase machine guns without background checks like Wisconsin children can now. Therefore, we had to concentrate on the machetes, and my oldest sister Katie—the gift giver—knew this. Katie didn’t get a job at Fingerhut the mail order one-stop shop featuring tall, fake-foliaged trees for inside the home because she was stupid.  That Christmas, when we opened our long and narrow presents, wrapped with musty, yellowing wrapping paper from the basement, it was our excitement and yells of “RAMBO. I’m going to kill you!” that drew my parents’ rare attention.

“Wow. Who got you those? It’s gonna be too cold for a while.” Dad said, followed by Mom’s succinct, “Who needs more brandy?” and then Dad’s “Probably have to wait till spring.”

But Katie saved the holiday. “Until then you can wear the outfit at least.”  She balanced her can of Miller Light on the brown, shag carpeting, as she knelt and secured the camouflage head ties around our skulls. Katie wore a folded bandana around her forehead often back then, so she was a real professional at tying these things on. We idolized her. She topped the look off by attaching the plastic camo sheaths to our elastic waist bands, and the machetes went up on the china cupboard.

“Yeah, you’ll have to wait a little while.” Dad tried not to sound too disappointing as he rearranged his plastic Snap-on Tools, half-naked-lady, insulated mug collection into an orderly display now in front of the new machetes upon the antique curio. “Ya just have to wait a while.”

Dressed in our camouflage headgear, we disenchantedly turned to our other gifts. We crammed the new oversized bald baby dolls into the backs of large toy Tonka trucks, crashed them together, and waited.


*1 The other movie we loved at that time was Strange Brew.

*2 The titling of the Rambo movies is somewhat confusing being that the second movie in the trilogy also has the word “first” in the title. See, the second film is also called First Blood even though it’s the second movie of the series. The studio remedied this by sticking “Part II” at the end of the title with a roman numeral two: First Blood Part II.  The Roman numeral usage adds to the confusion, because nowadays no one uses Roman numerals anymore and what with the high frequency movies in a series are able to come out now in the digital process, young people may think that it’s actually part eleven, and that parts two through ten are missing. They didn’t realize this could be a problem in 1985.

Published in: on March 17, 2020 at 9:13 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Oh my gosh. Such an amazing, funny, heartfelt tribute to your adorable freckled little brother. My middle school English teacher had us watch strange brew, like, 5 times instead of learn grammar. Maybe if he’d done his actual job I might be writing funny stuff too. Please keep writing.

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