The Rotten Little Brother: A Memoir

Updated on 8/1/2011:

Back when I was a skinny little kid in elementary school, I was a member of the Cub Scouts here in Queens, New York. It was a grand time filled with crafts, camaraderie, youthful play, and after-school cartoons on TV. We would always gather just a few blocks from school in the home of one of my classmates, a boy named Victor, and to this day I can recall the sinfully sweet taste of his mother’s cakes and cookies.

We did the usual Cub Scout things when we met, including a few things most wouldn’t expect of a troop based in New York City. My friend had a huge backyard, at least by Queens’ standards, and there were all sorts of things growing, crawling, or oozing within the larger-than-expected space of brown and green hues. Here, a spider in a web; there, a millipede crawled along exposed roots and small plants; over there, a praying mantis waited patiently for a grasshopper main dish; above, crows scrutinized our every move; below, on the underside of rocks and old timbers, were worms, snails, and other creepy-crawlies we little boys just couldn’t get enough of. The yard was practically a nature trail! And though it was very useful to the troop for earth science studies, it was a natural habitat of the really messy kind. Victor’s hygienic mother didn’t want a band of ragamuffins tracking muck and backyard mini-monsters through her immaculate house, so most of our activities were held indoors where her tempting delights held sway over our juvenile attention spans.

Once, during a rainy summer day, we were doing arts and crafts indoors and we learned from Isaac, our scout leader, that our favorite Motown albums were actually made of vinyl. There was nothing shocking there, but when he mentioned that an album could warp or even melt on an extremely hot day if you weren’t careful, he had our rapt attention. Nothing grabs the minds of young boys like thoughts of destruction, that’s for sure! To demonstrate the effect of heat on vinyl and to show how a modern-art “sculpture” could be made with household items, Isaac took an old 331/3 RPM album and a ceramic vase in hand and led us all to the house’s pristine kitchen. He put the vase in the oven upside-down on one of the racks, and then he put the album flat and centered on top of it. Then, to the horror of Victor’s mother, he struck a match and lit the oven. Eyes wide, fists clenched, her entire body shaking in anger, the lady of the house let loose a wail of disbelief that would’ve done a banshee proud. Despite Isaac’s assurances that her oven wouldn’t be damaged and that it was all perfectly safe, Victor’s mother literally dove into the cleaning supplies found under her kitchen sink and emerged with a can of brush-on oven cleaner and a few old rags, all of which she thrust upon the scout leader with a straight-armed push the NFL would’ve been proud of.

The minutes passed slowly. The oven lacked glass to see through, so Isaac frequently opened its door to check his handiwork. Open, peek, close. Not yet. Open, peek, close. Not yet. Open, peek, close. Not yet. My fellow scouts and I, all filled with questions and sugar-rushed, watched impatiently. Very, very impatiently. Every tick of the clock was, to us, another lost opportunity to do something of true importance, such as gobbling down handfuls of chocolate chip cookies. Meanwhile, Victor’s mother stood next to Isaac with a broom in hand, and such was the look on her face that all of us then saw the normally gregarious baker of sweets as a wicked witch preparing for takeoff.

iStockphoto.com/Marcelo Wain

After several minutes had elapsed, Isaac finally said, “That’s it!” He triumphantly opened the door, the entire troop rushed forward, and both he and Victor’s mom were forced to back us away from the still-hot oven. Isaac removed his creation from the oven using a pair of oven mitts, and to our youthful amazement, we saw that the album had softened and assumed the general contours of the vase. Meanwhile, Victor’s mother peered fearfully into her oven, apparently expecting to see a gooey mess to rival the La Brea tar pits. True to the scout leader’s word, it was spotless inside. Isaac let the record and vase combo cool for a few minutes as the breeze from an open window soon caused the vinyl to cool and harden. When he was confident that it was sufficiently rigid and manageable, he gently separated the melted record from the vase. Ta-da! Instant vinyl vase mold, modern art masterpiece, or whatever the heck we wanted to call it. To us Scouts, it was cool! And since we were typical kids, the one thing on our minds was, “Do it again!” Isaac didn’t, but he did warn us that record melting should only be done by adults or with adult supervision.An opportunity to do it again surfaced a few days later. I was in my house, my parents were upstairs, and my big sister was outside with her friends, chattering away about whatever it is that teenage girls talk about. As for me, I was in our recreation room, alone, with nothing but dozens of 45 and 331/3 RPM records and albums to keep me company. All that and a stove on the same level! Hmmm….

“Adult supervision” my rear end! Call me Frank Sinatra because I was going to do things my way! I proceeded to find a candidate for experimentation, a record that would be of better use holding a plant, or loose crayons, or other items of my choosing. Up first was my dad’s collection: Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Lionel Hampton, Artie Shaw, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington ─ all names I knew, so they were out of contention. Next, my mom’s collection: Nipsey Russell, Harry Belafonte, Jamaican steel drum bands, Barbara Streisand, Perry Como, the original cast album of West Side Story ─ more names I knew, so her collection was also out of the running. That brought me to my sister’s collection: the Isley Brothers, James Brown, the Temptations, Jackie Wilson, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles ─ more names that I knew. But, wait a minute! I had a real groovy feeling coming over me because I found not just one, but two beauties in her collection! “A Hard Day’s Night”? “Help”? The Beatles? “Who listens to this junk?” I wondered. You never heard the Beatles on WWRL, and as far as I knew at the time, if a group wasn’t played on WWRL (an AM station that was then the leading music station for black New Yorkers), then they just didn’t count. Ladies and gentlemen, we had two, count ’em, two winners!

Melted Beatles!

It took a few days for people in my house to realize that there were two new, funny-looking vases (bottoms plugged with plastic and candle wax) in the house. My mother and sister were examining one of them, and my sister said, “You know, it almost looks like a record.” She looked closer. “Hey, that is a record!” She held it up and carefully read the label on the bottom. “It’s my record!” she screamed. “MINE!”

Being an honest youth, I admitted that I was responsible for creating the new vases, and that’s when I found out the hard way what it’s like to be in a Japanese monster movie when Godzilla rises from the depths of Tokyo Bay. Wow! I never knew my sister could run so fast or punch so hard! I thanked God for my Pro Keds sneakers because I needed every bit of speed and traction to escape the wrath of my sister, the enraged teenage monster. Run! It’s Girlzilla! I ran so fast, Jesse Owens would’ve been a turtle by comparison. After all was said and done, I was grounded, beaten and bruised, yet wholly satisfied that I could do “the vinyl thing” too. As for my sister, I would always be referred to as “her rotten little brother” (among other terms I can’t repeat in polite company) for years to come.

-Keith V.

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One thought on “The Rotten Little Brother: A Memoir

  1. Now, that's a record – turning music into sculpture! The Beatles certainly needed 'Help'there, it would seem.I liked reading all the little details which were skilfully woven into the memoir,making it come alive and enjoyable to read.

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