The Hearty Buccaneer
Some brothers are the stuff of legends.
EVERY FAMILY HAS THEIR STORIES; tales passed down over generations. These accounts are shared from one family griot to another, each with its heroes and villains. Over time and with each telling, the characters in these stories become larger than life. And sometimes, legends are born. In my family, Wyatt Weems is one such legend.
When I was in elementary school, one day, an older boy approached me on the playground. Once we were face to face, he informed me that he would “get me after school.” For the benefit of the unfamiliar, his statement was the elementary school equivalent of a gloved slap preceding a dual, the throwing down of a gauntlet. It seems that earlier that day, I insulted his younger sister, leaving him little choice but to issue a challenge to defend his sibling’s honor.
By the fourth grade, I’d already developed a reputation as a kid with a smart mouth. What was less well known was that this skill began as a defense mechanism, at least in part. I was the wheezy, four-eyed kid found in every grade-school classroom; in other words, I was a prime target for bullying.
But like the species of fish that puffs itself up to frighten predators, I learned to inflate similarly. When under threat, I puffed up, subjecting would-be schoolyard bullies to ridicule and embarrassment. I have no recollection of exactly what I said except to know I went too far on that day.
Having never been in a serious fight before, I was terrified. When the 3:15 bell rang, marking the end of class, I rushed to meet Wyatt at our usual spot on the school’s playground, hoping for a quick getaway. My plan did not work. As Wyatt and I ran down the concrete stairs behind the school playground, six or seven boys waited for us at the crosswalk below.
I braced for the inevitable scuffle. As the crew of boys closed in, I felt Wyatt nudge me. A last-minute attempt to strategize, or so I thought. “I’ll hold your books for you,” Wyatt said, to my disappointment. My first-grade brother determined there was no upside in joining me in what was sure to be a beat-down.
As I toppled to the asphalt in this single-punch fight, I saw my little brother from the corner of my eye, watching from the concrete stairs, my books in his lap. The story of my first schoolyard fight and the brother who didn’t join in was when the legend of Wyatt Weems was born. Although the story is mine, Wyatt became its star.
Wyatt is the star of so many of our family’s stories. Like the story of my mother’s heart attack. Of course, she never had an actual heart attack; Wyatt just told people she did. At school one day, he ripped the seat of a brand-new pair of pants. But rather than deal directly with the embarrassment of his exposed rear end, he had a plan. Wyatt rushed to the principal’s office, telling anyone who’d listen of his mother’s sudden heart attack, begging to go home to see away his stricken parent.
It’s understandable to wonder how a plan this illogical could succeed. There were no cellphones in the mid-1960s, so how could Wyatt know of his mother’s alleged heart attack? If such an event occurred, wouldn’t the school’s office be the first to know? These are reasonable questions; however, they do not account for Wyatt’s singular persuasiveness. As the story goes, upon hearing of the heart attack, a panicked school secretary instructed Wyatt to rush home to deal with our mother’s medical emergency.
I first heard of my mother’s heart attack after school that day when Wyatt failed to show up at our meeting place on the playground. As I stood waiting, several classmates approached me, shouting, “Why ain’t you at home? Your Mama just had a heart attack!”
All I remember is running and running. I had to make it home fast as possible. By the time I arrived home, I was on the verge of an asthma attack. When my mother saw me, she greeted me with a smile as she raked leaves in our front yard. Although I could barely speak, I shouted, “Mama, shouldn’t you be laying down? You just had a heart attack!” As she stared at me like I was out of my mind, I noticed Wyatt Weems standing behind her in a fresh new pair of pants.
Like any family legend, the stories of Wyatt’s exploits are endless. There’s the one about his homemade boobytrap that nearly sent him to the hospital or the time he secretly tried out for the basketball team in junior high, even though doctors said he could never play sports. Only in family legends could the boy with one leg shorter than the other make the basketball team and play well enough to make the first string.
From the beginning, Wyatt and I were roommates. One of my earliest memories is of a baby boy in a yellow jumper, tumbling over the edge of the crib at the foot of my bed, crawling, then snuggling next to me. Then there was our little bedroom on Little Rock’s Marshall Street, the room with the faux fireplace in Pine Bluff, the duplex across from Brenda’s Bigger Burger in college. It was always the two of us.
In college, we were so inseparable that my Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brothers often greeted Wyatt with the fraternity’s secret handshake, although he was never an official member. Although I’m sure he’d deciphered our greeting, Wyatt always politely refused to accept their proffered hand.
All too soon, we went down our separate paths as brothers do, marrying and starting families of our own. Then as luck would have it, Wyatt and I landed jobs at the same investment firm. For years we worked on an enormous trading floor separately yet in tandem, two young men of color in a sea of whiteness. Occasionally our eyes met from across the trading room, and we’d smile at each other simultaneously, in awe of our good fortune.
Wyatt Weems was larger than life. He was the only person I ever saw watch Australian Rules Football, a NASCAR race, and a rodeo at the same time. He was the boy who knew the name of every sports team, the college kid who always won at dominoes and spades, the man who entered a room of strangers and departed as everyone’s newest friend.
My brothers and I jokingly called him “The Hearty Buccaneer.” I don’t know how he earned the nickname, but it rang true. Maybe it was his zest for a life lived in a hurry, as if he knew by instinct his time with us was short. Even after I left Arkansas for New York City, we spoke every day. We consulted each other on the markets, told dirty jokes, and sought relationship advice.
The last time he visited me in New York City, Wyatt was a shadow of the man I knew. Still, as we shared stories over Mediterranean food that afternoon, I could not know it would be our last meal together. And when he took a rain check on my invitation to visit my wife and two young children later that night, it never occurred to me that the visit would never happen, that he and my two youngest children would never meet.
When I traveled home to see him a few months later, Wyatt was on his death bed. Not long after, my brother, my roommate, my friend, was gone. It was so unfair, I thought to myself. I was the oldest, the sickly one, the asthmatic kid. I should have gone first.
It has been more than ten years since his passing, but Wyatt Weems is an unfaded memory, a beloved ancestor. His loss is marked not with sadness but with the bittersweet ache of joyful, bygone times, moments never to be repeated. He is the star of my family’s mythology, the hero of the stories I tell my children.
And as is the case with legends, my children will pass on to theirs the tale of the boy who would not fight, of the kid who lied about his mother’s heart attack. They will tell the story of the Hearty Buccaneer, the boy with a limp who made the basketball team against all odds.
As for me, I am sure I’ll see Wyatt Weems again. When I reach my destination, I’ll wait there for him, just as I did on the playground of our elementary school so long ago.