Reviews

A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, July 22, 2017

22 July 1964

Once upon a time, TOF was all alone, and reigned in solitary splendor, king of all he surveyed.
Able seaman TOF

Then, one day, while minding his own business, reading a book....
Scholar TOF
...he was suddenly beset by Another.
This pint-sized intrusion was named Dennis Harry Flynn; and all that can be said of our respective personalities can be summarized in the expressions on the two faces above.


The story as I heard it ran thus. Mut and Pere (and baby me) were living with Mut's parents and Uncle Paul. Mut was ironing some clothes, and she stopped and turned to Big Mom and said. "I feel like I did when Michael was born."

Big Mom said something to the effect of "Let's get the hell going" and with Teutonic thoroughness hustled everyone into action. Uncle Paul drove Mut and Pere to Betts' Hospital -- we did not yet have a car -- and they dropped Mut off at the emergency entrance, where a nurse rolled her inside in a wheelchair. Then they parked the car in the lot and hustled to the entrance.

The nurse met Pere at the door. "Congratulations, it's a boy!"

Dennis was always a sudden kind of guy and took you by surprise.
Dennis was 362 days younger than me, which means I have no operational memories whatsoever of being alone. Even our birthdays were close enough together that it seemed like one long celebration, which we confused with Christmas (another birthday, come to think of it.) For three days every year Dennis would go about bragging that he was now the same age as me.  Buying birthday presents was fairly easy. "We'll take two of these."

Such as two Superman suits: 
No Superman suit for Kevin!
There is a photograph somewhere of Dennis and I wearing identical space outfits, complete with goldfish-bowl style helmets, but here is Dennis wearing his.

Spaceman Dennis
The opening in the front of the helmet would be contraindicated in the case of an actual space helmet. Even as kiddies, we knew this. No flies on us. We were Science Fiction Writers.

Pere used to tell us bedtime stories. In one story, benevolent aliens visit earth. They even had a manual: "To Serve Man." But in the end, it turned out to be a cook book! Good night. Sleep tight. In another, Earth spacemen visit Mars and find there people who look just like their beloved, dead relatives and friends. During the night, these prove to be Martians who slaughter them in their sleep. Good night. Pleasant dreams. Pere sure could tell a cool bedtime story. Later, Dennis and I found his stash of Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow and learned that he had lifted those stories from Damon Knight and Ray Bradbury. How disillusioning!

Dennis and I wrote our own collaborations together, in pencil, in Spiral notebooks, with Magic Marker illustrations, the fumes from which explain a great deal. Every planet was visited, usually with exceptionally fatal results.  Later, we hammered them out on a Smith-Corona manual typewriter, using the approved yellow carbon copies. That typewriter still exists down in the basement here at Fortress Flynn, albeit no longer functional.
 
Our first "real" story was an ill-told remake of that dimly-remembered bedtime story: Damon Knight's "To Serve Man." Mut collected these and saved them, and later Bro Pat gathered them into a ring binder, where they still sit on my shelf. We were even interviewed by the local human interest reporter for the paper. (We were the "space-writing Flynn brothers," so our interests were broader than human. And we finished each other's sentences, sometimes silently. Something the reporter took note of.)
One time while running to serve an early mass, I wondered what time it was, and Dennis, who was several paces behind me, stepped into the street so he could see the church's clock tower and called out the time. I hadn't asked him.  
When we had gotten our library cards, Dennis and I quickly ran through all the SF books in the children's section of the branch library and the main library -- Space Captives of the Golden Men, The Time Traders, Witch World, Lucky Starr, Have Space Suit; Will Travel, Star Man's Son, and all the rest -- so we went to the librarian and asked to check out the adult SF books. The librarian was Skeptical and pulled an SF book off the shelf and gave it to Dennis, he being the younger, to read and explain the opening passage. It was a book by Leigh Brackett entitled The Long Tomorrow and Dennis did a credible critique, so we were given permission to read the adult SF: The War Against the Rull, The Puppet Masters, Foundation, and all the rest.

When we were twelve or so, Pere made a classic 8mm movie, "Around the World in 80 Frames," in which Dennis and I played two spacemen -- this was before "astronaut" had been coined by people too embarrassed to say "spaceman." We piloted a space station around the world, spotting through our viewer (actually a film splicer) denizens on the earth below: Mexico, India, Japan.  (In each case, said denizen was played by 3rdbro Kevin, who was a vast 5 years younger.) We tried to point out to Pere that the sequence in which we passed over these countries made no sense in terms of orbital dynamics; but alas he was the director and we were only the actors. Besides, the denoument was that "it was all a dream," so the orbital parameters did not matter.

Of course, to do that we needed a third brother:
Dennis on left; TOF in center; bro Kevin on right
We had not yet moved into our own house at this point.


We, along with fellow members of the Adventure Club, explored the region, making maps, naming topographical features, building campfires in the woods, cooking weenies and beans, and telling one another that dinosaurs still survived atop the Hexenkopf. "Going on hikes" was something kids did for fun. One time we hiked clear across Mammy Morgan's Hill and down the other side to Raubsville, not quite to Hexenkopf, then came back up via the old canal towpath. Coming up Lincoln St. at sunset, singing, -- the Projects had not yet turned dangerous -- we encountered a line of mothers athwart our path. It seems we had neglected to tell them we were going and they had been scouring the South Side for us.
The proud banner of the Adventure Club
It is almost incomprehensible to people today the liberties that kids had back then: biking all around town and down to the railroad shops along Canal Street, roaming the countryside, building campfires, and the like. Late Moderns will blanch with terror. Very few of our activities were regulated by adult supervision.

Well, we were in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Pack 23 and Troop 23, based at St. Joe's. Spent a summer week at Camp Weygadt. I don't recollect Dennis' patrol. Eagle? Screaming Eagle, more like it. Nor do I remember what rank or merit badges he achieved.

We were also in Little League together, playing for Rice-Ebner, which was not exactly the NY Yankees of the Easton Little League. I can't remember what position Dennis played. (I was right field, third string.) The other teams were Castel, Moose, Pioneer, Elks, and so forth.
Rice-Ebner 1960. TOF: 1st row, center; Dennis: 2nd row, right, sticking out tongue..
We had a chemistry set in the basement where we did experiments, which usually consisted of burning one of the many chemicals supplied, just to see what would happened. (I recently saw an ad on the Internet for a chemistry set which boldly declared on its box "Contains NO chemicals." Oh, the humanity! And we wonder why no one studies the STEM subjects anymore.)  Our lab was in Pere's "workshop," surrounded by paint and turpentine, so it's a wonder the house still stands. We also had woodburning sets. (Helpful hint: Do not touch the tip of a burning iron.) We built crystal radios and other electrical circuits with another science kit.  No one we knew of dreamed of forming a rock band or becoming America's next top model. There was no internet. Computers occupied entire rooms and required special technicians to operate. The four-function hand calculator would not be invented for another decade. There were no satellites in orbit, and storms and hurricanes always came as a surprise.  All the telephones belonged to Ma Bell. The Lehigh Valley Thruway had just been built and Route 22 still meant William Penn Highway. Cartoons were shown on Saturday morning, not 24/7.

Trains still carried passengers and still stopped in Easton; and one time Dennis and I (and Mut and Pere) took the LVRR to New York City, where we ambled in Central Park (not yet a dangerous place to amble) and visited St. Patrick's and the Natural History Museum. We were really into dinosaurs, and had invented an imaginary world with different saurian countries, drew maps, devised their histories, languages, and so on, which we documented on index cards. When real young and supposedly in bed to sleep, we made long-necked brontosauruses with our arms and fists and acted out dramas involving them. We were easily amused. Also we were told to no-fooling go to sleep this time.

I think I could still draw the maps of those saurian countries. 

In Pere's movies and photographs, I'm always the sober-sided one and Dennis is the cut-up.  One time filming on the platform of the Jersey Central station, Pere told us to pretend a train was coming and point to it. So I did the Indian scout hand-to-forehead, followed by a straight-arm point. Dennis, sitting on a baggage cart, jumped to his feet, danced like a monkey, and waved his arms. We were a perfect pair.

I did not attend kindergarten, but Dennis did. This was a clever maternal ploy to ensure that Dennis and I both left home the same year, although we went to different schools for that year. Then, briefly, when I was a freshman in HS and Dennis was in 8th grade, we again went to different schools for a year. Then we were back together again. For a while.
As time went on, there were further additions to the Clan na Fhloinn.
Michael, Dennis, Kevin, Sean

 That's Bro Sean there on the end. He has fewer memories of Dennis, given that he was nine years (plus ten days) younger than Dennis. This meant we could torment him. We used to tell him we would put him out in the trash, where he (and 5thbro Patrick) would be picked up by "Hector the Garbage Collector." Apparently, Hector was a scary dude, though I don't recollect him at all.
Dennis (in confirmation jacket) with Sean and Pat
and Pere. TOF is most likely taking the picture.

Mut and her treasures
 Sean tells us
I love seeing the pictures and movies of Michael and Dennis together.  You guys couldn't have seemed more different.  And that makes your stories of always being together so significant.  I can only imagine from those movies some of the characteristics that Michael's described. Playful, fun-loving, smart, trouble-making?  But obviously with a deep, deep faith.
And the last "team picture."
Michael, Dennis, Kevin, Sean, Patrick
Sean remembers an odd incident when he was having lunch at the kitchen table one day and had opened a can of Pepsi.  No one else was around.  Dennis came in and asked if he could have the soda. He was really subdued.  Of course Sean wanted to keep the soda since there wasn't any more in the fridge (5 boys in the house, and all).  So Dennis reached in his pocket and pulled out a dime and offered to buy the soda from him. "At that point," said Sean, "I just slid it across the table for him.  He picked it up, said 'thanks' and went on his way.  I discovered a dime under the pillow of my bed that night, but I didn't make any connection - just felt I got lucky, or maybe I dropped it there somehow.  The story must have gotten around the house after I told Mut, and she let me know later that Dennis had put it there."

But you might notice that Dennis is looking a little puffy in that last picture, and it might be why he was uncharacteristically subdued that day.


It's a side-effect of chemotherapy.

It was called Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and there was in the 1960s no treatment or cure. Dennis became listless and I, not yet knowing, would tease him, trying to goad him into action. I knew he was sick, but I thought in my teenagerish way that I could get him more active. Then Mut took me aside and explained the matter, and at the end she said, "I don't think he's going to make it," and that was the only time I ever saw my mother cry.

When Pere took me out to teach me to drive -- around the cinder road in the cemetery, no less -- he took Dennis, too, even though he was not old enough to get the learner's permit. I thought nothing of it at the time because we always did everything together, so of course we learned to drive together. But Pere told me later that he did that because he suspected that Dennis would not live long enough to get his learner's permit and wanted him to have the experience of having driven the car. 

Our parents tried everything possible in the 1960s. We even went to Philadelphia, to the shrine of then-Bl. John Neumann to pray for a miracle, a trip which BroKevin later wrote up as a newspaper arfticle, but which I don't have handy. 

But miracles were not to be.  



Dennis went into the hospital on June 30, 1964. Sean was six and Pat was four and they were not allowed into the hospital room to see Dennis, so Dennis waved to them in the parking lot from the window of his room; and that was the last time Sean ever saw him.

One time when I went to visit he started to hurt. His eyes rolled back and he clenched his jaw. The doctors rushed in and Pere rushed me out. I remember that Dennis did not cry out. He had told another patient down the hall that he knew how sick he was, but he didn't want to tell our parents (or me) because he didn't want to worry us. "So," said Bro Sean, "if I ever feel sorry for myself for any reason, I remember the suffering Dennis endured and the courage he showed. He's my hero in that regard."
On July 18, Dennis received a visitor, described in the local paper, the Easton Express:
Michael Landon visits Dennis in hospital
Just in from Virginia City: "Dennis Flynn, 15, a patient in Easton Hospital since June 30, is a staunch follower of television's 'Bonanza.' This morning he got a close look at one of the stalwarts of the Ponderosa. Little Joe Cartwright (Michael Landon), youngest of the Ponderosa brothers, strode into the hospital room, sank to one knee beside the bed and told Dennis about big Hoss Cartwright. 'You know how much he weighs?' he said wonderingly. 'Three hundred pounds. And he's six feet four, any way you want to measure him.' There was more talk of the Ponderosa. Then a big brown hand grasped a small white hand. 'Take care of yourself, Dennis,' said Little Joe. The tall tanned visitor then walked to the elevator. Dennis is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Flynn, 518 Folk St. Little Joe was brought to Easton by Ann Brewster, of Hess's department store." 
Landon had been making an appearance at Hess' Dept. Store in Allentown, which was in those days the "Macy's" of the Lehigh Valley. The woman who had arranged it knew my mother and mentioned that Dennis was in the hospital with terminal cancer. Landon immediately set out to pay a visit. His picture was taken by the newspaper at Dennis' bedside, but he never so far as I know exploited the visit for publicity. Dennis was surprised and delighted. "Thanks a lot," he said. It was an unaffectedly kind act on Landon's part, and one for which I always afterward held a good opinion of him. He didn't have to do it, and no one would have known if he hadn't.

Four days later, I was playing street football with the gang on James St. This is the sort of game where you go long then cut between the Chevy and the Ford to receive the pass. Mut came to the backyard of our house and cried out in the traditional manner that I was to come home right now. This was a cry that usually went out at sunset from a dozen homes in the neighborhood. And at that moment, without a word being said, I knew that Dennis had died. It was the first time I ever heard the ban sidhe. I walked home, past Mut, into the bedroom that Dennis and I had shared all our lives, where we had created a world of intelligent dinosaurs, and I lay down on one of the beds. For the first time in my life, I was alone.
Kevin was 11 at the time. He writes on Facebook:
As the end drew near for Dennis, my parents sent me, Sean and youngest brother Patrick (4 at the time) up to our Uncle Fran’s cabin at Foul Rift, N.J. (a very fitting name for this story) on the bank of the Delaware River just upstream from our hometown Easton, Pa., so they could spend all their time at the hospital. Michael, 16 at the time, was at home.

It was a hot humid Wednesday afternoon, and I saw Pere walking down from the cabin toward me. We were playing with some of the couple dozen cousins we had. He took me down to a bench swing hanging on twin chains from a tree branch facing the riverbank. Here is one of the most difficult days of my life. My dad says: “You know how Dennis has been in and out of the hospital and having all that pain and taking all that medicine?” No look on his face prepared me for anything but the reaction I was having: Dennis was finally all better and was coming home! Doctors fix people who are sick, right? I think I started to break out with a smile. “Yeah?” I said in anticipation.”

“Well, he’s not going to have to go through that any more,” my dad told me.

Wow, now I was sure Dennis was waiting at home.

“He died about one o’clock.”

If you’ve ever experienced the shock of going full in one direction and suddenly being yanked back around, like bouncing off a concrete wall, that’s what happened to me. The whole world changed. What was death? I’d read about it, remembered faintly my grandmother dying when I was four, but that was an old person and people die when they’re old, not young (in reality, Big Mom was 59 when she died of cancer).

Suddenly I was flowing with tears and sobbing and couldn’t stop, couldn’t understand. My dad asked me to go back to the cabin and pack up my things for the ride home.
Sean was watching. He wrote a short story in high school (Yes, we all wrote stories) called "Reverie on a Sunday Afternoon" which recounted the day Dennis died and how he remembered feeling about it.  He remembers Pere with his arm around Kevin sitting on a tree swing and Kevin was crying.  He asked Aunt Ann why Kevin was crying and she said, "He probably stubbed his toe."  Funny some of the details that stick with you.  A couple minutes went by and Pere escorted Kevin up the yard toward him.
I asked what happened to Kevin [Sean wrote] and I can still see Pere's large, sad face lean down to mine and he simply whispered, 'Dennis died.'  We got in the car.  I sat in the back seat and leaned my head as far back under the rear window as I could.  As we drove home, I kept seeing the trees, telephone poles and lines, and all their shadows rhythmically passing over my head through that rear window.  Kind of hypnotic. 

I wish I could have processed that loss better over the years.  I think I'd have been less of a pain in the ass at home if I'd appreciated the pain Mut and Pere and my brothers were putting up with.

Chapel at the friary, now a retreat house
The year before, Dennis and I had served mass at the Franciscan Friary, and Dennis had gotten friendly with some of the monks -- the cook was known as the "fish friar" and/or the "chip monk" -- and he asked about the Order, and stuff. Now, one of the monks approached my father and told him that he had enrolled Dennis in the Third Order. He brought a mendicant's brown robe and asked if Dennis could be buried in it. Well, yes, and so he was.

I remember him lying in the casket in the Franciscan robes and Patrick looking up at me and asking in a whisper, "Is Dennis dead?" as if it was only then just starting to sink in.  People shuffled past me and shook my hand, but the only clear memory I have is of Sharon, my girl friend, who seemed to appear out of nowhere and then vanish. Otherwise, I was encased in glass and completely numb, like I had been stunned with a knacker's hammer. I could feel literally nothing.

They say the second stage of grief is anger, and I think that must be true because not too long after, Sharon, who is the sweetest and kindest of all God's creatures, yanked my class ring off her finger and threw it at me because I had been acting like a complete jerk. It hit me in the face, too; and it hit hard enough to shatter that glass in which I had been encased for perhaps a month or two, and I pulled his picture out of my wallet and started sobbing.

This picture. I still carry it.
 
Sean says:
These days I teach Juniors and Seniors in high school.  Every year when the semester starts, I think about Dennis not making it to where these kids are.  I have to be careful when that happens not to lose my patience when they get out of hand.  I picture Dennis as a bright and funny student.  The kind I really enjoy teaching.
 In the years since, I have sometimes wondered what Dennis would have been like had he made it past sophomore year. What sort of adult would he have become; what would he have done with his life? My father has no doubts. He would have been a priest.

Bro Kevin concurs:
“Maybe because Dennis will forever be frozen in time for me, or maybe because it was really the case, I’ve often thought he was the best of us. He was funny, intelligent, kind, devilish, sometimes a PIA (but what brother isn’t?). ...[F]or all my life since he died, I’ve always wondered at various stages of his unlived life, what would he have been doing? I’d like to chat with him and find out. Mostly, I imagine he’d have been the one brother who became a priest. It was just before Vatican II reforms brought the vernacular into the Catholic Church and we still used Latin. Dennis studied Latin in school and used it to launch a version of his own language: Flynnianiab, complete with a written summary of its rules of grammar and declension. I think it’s still up in a chest in the homestead’s attic in Pennsylvania."
TOF remembers that -ab was the nom. sig. ending of the noun declension. If I can make it up the ladder, I'll look for it one day. Dennis' Latin Pocket Dictionary bears the inscription "This here book belongs to D. Flynn So. 2 NDHS." There is a drawing of a sign with a devil's head and the warning "Cave! Hic est signum diaboli latini."


The only thing I have ever really wanted for Christmas is the one thing I can never have.

6 comments:

  1. Kevin - what an amazing, heartfelt story. You describe Dennis and his journey (and your's with him) so well. What a loss for you when you had to say goodbye. I'm glad you took the time to write your story. Thank you.

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  2. Very beautifully written! God Bless you and your family!

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  3. beautiful remembrance of your brother, my cousin--a sad distant time that seems like yesterday reading your words--jim singley

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  4. Very moving. May he rest in peace, and may you and all who love him be comforted.

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  5. Eternal memory. May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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  6. What Mark said mostly because I can't think of anything else. God bless you TOF

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