Little brothers are always a problem. But precocious little brothers with vivid imaginations can be downright vexing and embarrassing, especially when you are seven and they are three. During our childhood spent at our grandparents’ house on the banks of the Ouachita River in West Monroe, Louisiana, my brother Mike developed a most useful strategy. He invented imaginary playmates. Mike and his new found “friends” would have long conversations in the shade of the huge pecan trees next to the house. They would converse in different dialects, most of which I didn’t understand. This didn’t bother me at the time. It didn’t even seem strange at the time, probably because there were no other kids around to observe Mike’s conversations. And didn’t all kids do this to some extent anyway?
Oh, occasionally I heard grownups make mention of what an imagination Mike had, but I thought they were complimenting him on being so smart.
Morgan Drew, a traveling salesman friend of the family came to visit and brought me a Charlie McCarthy mannequin and Mike a stuffed panda bear. Mike promptly named his bear Pandy.
Pandy stood about a foot-and-half tall with a white face and a soft brown and black body. Pandy had dark brown supplicating eyes and a smile with a slight hint of a smirk. As inscrutable as his master, Pandy was a sturdy little rascal, which he needed to be because he became Mike’s constant companion. To be sure, Mike had other playmates, like Stanley, the family German shepherd. And then there were the doodle bugs, the centipedes and the chameleons which, to my knowledge, didn’t have specific names. Other assorted toy soldiers rounded out the playgroup, but Pandy always presided over the gathering.
Mike cared for Pandy in the most loving ways. He saw to it that Pandy got plenty of imaginary food and that he had a blanket over him when he went to imaginary sleep. Mike and Pandy, and the other creatures, would have long sessions of activities and conversations in the shade of the old pecan trees. These talks were most animated and expressive. Mike would talk to Pandy in Mike’s natural voice, but Pandy would respond to Mike in an entirely different dialect and voice. I envied this ability. I couldn’t get Charlie McCarthy to talk to me this way, no matter how hard I tried.
Mike’s play time with Pandy and his other “friends” could go on for hours. Some of the other creatures had different tasks. For example, Mike would make carts out of small match boxes. He would then fashion a harness out of string and gently place it around the neck of one of his chameleons and encourage it to pull a cart loaded with marbles. Mike would gently move the doodle bugs around like bowling balls.
During the World War II era, every child had an extensive collection of toy soldiers, which could be mobilized into war games. Pandy would preside over the battles, supreme commander style, between the Allies, Germans and Japanese. General Pandy even had his own jeep fashioned from an old Coca Cola crate.
In 1943, Dad moved the family, including Pandy of course, to New Orleans so he could work at one of the good paying jobs in the shipyards. Our family rented half a duplex next to the Latuso family. Their house sat on a double lot with lots of shade trees–which provided refuge from the brutal New Orleans sun. The shade also provided a venue to play marbles, mumbley peg, stickup, and other childhood games. These were the games most kids played, but this refuge also gave Mike and Pandy space to build new vehicles and invent their own unique games. They lived in their private fantasy world for hours on end, making plans for future adventures.
The Latusos were of Sicilian decent and had a boy and two girls. The youngest girl, Lana, was small with great dark brown eyes, light hair and olive skin. Lana was a beauty. She was smart and quiet and just a little younger than Mike. Lana, Mike and Pandy became great friends. They were inseparable the first summer we were in the City That Care Forgot. Unlike Mike’s older brother, Lana had no trouble whatsoever understanding and speaking panda language. Lana, Mike and Pandy would spend many hours in the shade of the trees having three-way conversations, seemingly in accord with one another. Their sessions rivaled in intensity the strategic planning of military leaders preparing for battle or corporate executives plotting a hostile takeover.
The sessions with Mike, Pandy and Lana went or through our first and second summer in our new home. Most of the playtime with Pandy occurred outside under the trees in the dirt, which, over time, made for a grungy Pandy. But baths were out of the question. Since Pandy had to get transported everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, he was getting pretty travel-worn, and pieces were coming off him. Mother had to sew on an ear, and do extensive surgery to his right arm. One of the button eyes went missing and the replacement eye was a bit off-color. Mike seemed to accept the off-colored eye, saying “I’ve seen dogs with different colored eyes.”
By the end of the second summer, raggedy, filthy Pandy became a topic of conversation with the older kids. Lana staunchly defended Mike and Pandy. And would fight with anyone who sought to ridicule either. Most of our older friends had come to accept Mike, Pandy and Lana’s unique relationship and behavior. However, as new kids joined our neighborhood “gang”, they would make mocking comments to me such as “Hey boy, your brother is weird. He talks to a stuffed bear.” If they introduced me to some of their friends, it would always be with the caveat, “his brother talks to a stuffed bear.” I had become known by all as the Brother-of-Boy–Who-Talks-to-Stuffed Bear, like a Native American in a Saturday movie matinee.
This situation became unbearable. I implored Mother to do something. Mother would speak to Mike, but Mike would still converse with Pandy. I told Mother that all the kids were talking about Mike and Pandy and suggesting, nay, saying that Mike was strange. I had used the word ‘strange’ thinking this would shock mother into action. But even so, Mike’s attachment to Pandy remained resolute. Attempts to part them only led to great consternation and crying.
I was in a quandary. I didn’t know where to turn. I was a desperate boy and this situation required desperate measures. In the dead of night I went to Mike and Pandy’s bed and slipped Pandy from under Mike’s sleeping arm. I secreted raggedy, dirty old Pandy in the attic of an old storage shed in the back yard. How was I to know that the following month kids, playing with kitchen matches, would accidentally burn down the shed?
Of course, Mike was beside himself when he awoke and found Pandy missing. Mike cried a lot. I even feigned searching for Pandy with mother and Mike, but I knew Pandy had been accidentally cremated and was now in Panda Heaven. Mother consoled a lot and promised to get Mike a new panda bear. This would not do. Panda himself was gone and couldn’t be replaced by some imposter.
I remained silent. I never confessed my hurtful deed. After seeing Mike’s pain, my shame eroded into guilt. I tried to use the bath of the confessional to wash away the guilt. That didn’t work. I often wondered who got hurt worst by my kidnapping Pandy, Mike or Me.
About forty years after I parted Mike from his faithful companion and confidante, I was having lunch at Tavern On The Green in New York City. While paying my bill upon exiting the restaurant, I noticed they had stuffed panda bears for sale. They looked exactly like Pandy. I got one for Mike. I gave it to him the following Christmas with a full confession and request for forgiveness.
Confession is indeed good for the soul.
My brother Mike is a genius.
His imaginative mind has helped this country send men and women into space and create a space station.
Mike has always been my hero.
I love Him like a brother.