By R.L. Kehoe
Some people were born to invent medicine that would save lives. Others were put on this earth to share their gift of music to enrich the lives of millions. My brother John was born to get a rise out of people.
Oh, he had many other highly refined talents and skills as a chemist, the author of several patents, a marathon runner, to name a few. But those were mere sidelines to his true calling: jacking with people.
In truth, the ability to agitate is a family trait shared by my two late brothers and me. (My half-brother Jim has similar abilities.)
For example, about 12 years ago my daughter was rummaging through a manila envelope my mother had given to me that contained all sorts of mementos from my childhood growing up in Elk Grove Village. My daughter, who has always been an angel in and out of the classroom, carefully examined each piece and quickly confirmed what she long had feared…I was a rotten kid.
As she sifted through the papers that came tumbling out of the envelope, she found my first grade report card. The grades were bad enough, but when she flipped over a couple of the cards to see the comments on the back for each subject she nearly choked herself with laughter. “Robert is an instigator,” she shrieked. Another mused how, “Robert’s grades are slipping.” It was bad enough the teacher shared this last observation with my parents. It was a low blow to use each letter in the word “slipping” in a crude illustration of a descending staircase — an allusion, I’m sure, to where she figured I’d end up in life.
Yet whatever innate abilities I may have had to tweak those around me in ways they didn’t appreciate, I was an amateur, a huckster, a parlor trick next to John. He worked meticulously at agitating all throughout his life.
His skills started crudely, I must admit. Yet even as a child, he could get adults flustered or fuming in a mere instant. And in almost every situation, he was eventually able to disarm their anger or embarrassment — fully realizing they would be subject to a similar exchange with him at a date of his choosing.
The passages that follow illustrate the point.
The Cone of Silence
Our parents were divorced when I was 7 years old. It was tough, but at least we saw my dad every Sunday. My father loved ice cream, and at some point during our Sundays together we’d inevitably stop at Baskin & Robbins 31 Flavors for a cone.
My dad always had a standing rule when we were eating ice cream cones in his car. If he finished before you did, he was going to take a bite of yours. So basically, the race was on as soon as we got situated to devour our ice cream before the car left the lot.
One of the first Sundays after my dad informed us of this policy, I noticed John was taking his time eating his Jamoca Almond Fudge cone (the same flavor he always ordered, never deviating). I kept thinking this wasn’t going to end pretty for John. I was right, but for the wrong reason.
You see — and let me be blunt about this — John was the smartest one in the family. And not by just a little. He could count to 100 as early as he could speak. He amazed my parents and many of his teachers with all sorts of knowledge he had amassed at quite early ages.
Anyway, as my father was slurping the last of his ice cream I heard a faint crunching sound. Ah, I thought, John is going to try to devour the cone in a few huge bites before Dad steps in. But that really wasn’t the case.
John had indeed taken a bite of the cone, but ingeniously, he took only a tiny nibble from the pointy bottom of the sugar cone. And as soon as John had removed the tail end of that point, there were only two things that were going to happen. One, that cone was sure as hell going to be leaking any second. Second, my Dad was going to blow a gasket when he began eating the ice cream from the top of the cone while forcing what was left of the once-frozen confection into the base of the waffle wrapping that suddenly found itself without a bottom. And, sure enough, the old man didn’t let me down.
He grabbed John’s cone and went straight to the ball of ice cream atop the cone as John feigned being upset, railing about how this wasn’t fair. My Dad wasn’t even a bite into his larceny when small droplets of ice cream began to dribble down the sleeve of one of his nice dress shirts that he probably planned to wear to work that week. It took a couple of seconds before he felt the moisture, and then he spotted the droplets on his shirt. Still, he hadn’t seen the chasm at the bottom of the cone that now was flowing with cool liquid. Perplexed at first, my dad began turning the cone side-to-side looking for weakness in the structure of the melting ice cream atop the cone. He found none.
Suddenly, he had an epiphany. He hoisted the now rapidly diminishing cone above his head only to find the real source of the now gushing leak. I could see my dad’s cheeks turn pink, then deep red, then purple before he blew his stack.
“Hells bells, John! Why did you bite the bottom of the cone while you were still eating it? Didn’t you know it would leak out the bottom? What the heck is wrong with you?”
As I was carefully observing John’s facial reaction to being caught, I was amazed. He sat there stone-faced. It wasn’t even the old “Who, me?” reaction. It was almost as if he hadn’t heard the tirade that was blaring directly at him. Suddenly, my dad began flailing around trying to find enough napkins to absorb the great Milky Way that his son had so egregiously left at his doorstep.
As soon as my dad’s gaze had left my brother and focused on the napkins, John and I made eye contact. Just then, the stoic jaw position that he held began to loosen ever so slightly. The sides of his locked lips started to curl up, almost imperceptibly. Yet there it was. The smirk.
Game over, Dad.
It wasn’t until later in childhood that it became clear John was a savant in forcing visceral reactions from just about everyone he came in contact with, whether at home, carousing in the neighborhood, in school, at work or even doing something as mundane as driving in my mom’s car to go grocery shopping.
One day, before we had hit 10 years old, my mom took us with her to Arlington Heights to buy food for the week. John and I were sitting in the back seat looking for something to do to pass the time until we completed the journey that to us seemed like an hour. In reality, it was only a 15-minute trek along heavily traveled Arlington Heights Road to the store.
Now whatever distance there was between Elk Grove to Arlington Heights was nothing compared to the cultural divide that existed between these communities. Elk Grove was comprised of people like our parents. Young adults who had bought their first house by scraping together nickels for a down payment in a new subdivision that bordered an industrial park in the shadows of O’Hare Airport. Still, most people who lived in Elk Grove were proud and aspired (whether they admitted it or not) to one day be like most of the people in Arlington Heights.
The homes that lined Arlington Heights Road in Arlington Heights, in contrast, reeked of status and old money. They had sweeping front lawns nearly the size of a football field. They needed riding mowers to cut the turf. Most of these homes had those repulsive lawn jockey statues and cars that cost as much or more as most of the houses in Elk Grove.
Anyway, as we’re making our way to Arlington Heights John holds up his middle finger and asks me if I know what that means. I was, as I’ve already acknowledged, not as smart as him. So I told the truth and said I didn’t know what that finger meant. So he says he thinks it might make adults mad. Now, it was a warm day and our car windows were open so we both decided to sit up on our knees on opposite sides of the back seat and stick one hand out the window well above the roofline with our middle fingers fully extended for all to see. Then we watched and waited for the reactions.
The payoff was instantaneous. The jaws of old ladies suddenly went slack, as if they feared they were going to crash. Others pointed at us as if we were aiming loaded weapons at them. All I could think of at the time was how could anyone get so upset by a single finger being extended? And in fact I tried this experiment with other fingers, but there was no reaction.
Barely a minute or two into this social experiment, we were really starting to enjoy ourselves. My mom was focusing on her driving, but she could sense something was amiss. So, like all parents, she asked the inevitable question: “What the hell is going on back there?” And we gave the only answer that any brothers would give to such an accusatory inquiry: “Nothing,” we replied in slow, sing-song harmony.
Just then we came to a stoplight as a large truck pulled along side. This wasn’t going to end pretty, I sensed. Suddenly, the truck driver leans way out his window with about half of his upper torso outside the vehicle and screams into our back window in a slow, southern drawl, “Hey sonny, sit on that finger and rotate!”
Game over, Mom…and you too, Big Daddy truck driver.
Into adulthood, John continued to act on just about every impulse he had to force a reaction from those around him while I would usually play straight man to his pranks.
On one summer vacation we took to Las Vegas with our wives while we were in our early 30s, we found new ways to be obnoxious. During the flight to Las Vegas, we all ended up in the front row of coach on a very wide jumbo jet. My wife and I were on one side of the row with a window and aisle seat followed by four or five seats in a middle section to the row and John and Jane were on the other two seats at the end of the row by the window.
The flight attendants were handing out meals that looked inedible. About the only thing that looked semi-appealing was a bunch of large red grapes. I was thinking about eating them until I scanned across the aisle to where John and Jane were seated. I figured I could probably loft a grape over the heads of those in the middle sections and hit John. So I did. But instead of hitting him, the grape landed without a sound on his plate. John was busy talking to Jane and didn’t react initially. I figured he must not have noticed the incoming fruit. I was wrong.
Soon, grapes were hitting my wife Cathy and me at an alarming rate. This continued until he ran out of ammo. I kept wondering what this must have looked like to people in the rows behind us.
Once in Vegas, the foolishness continued. We proceeded to get tossed out of a really bad lounge performance late one afternoon. It was a big room with lots of leather couches around cocktail tables and we were pretty far from the stage, where a really lame country band was trying to get the crowd to liven up. It wasn’t working.
Virtually no one was paying attention to the female singer’s urgings for everyone to “make some noise.” About four songs into the performance, John and I started snickering to ourselves about the festivities.
Displaying no timing or rhythm, the singer kept motioning for the crowd to clap along. The response: Crickets chirping. Then she implored, “C’mon everybody, get into it.”
As we were now deep into about our sixth bottle of Heineken, John and I looked at each other and made some bad white man dance moves in our seats and mouthed to each other, “C’mon, get into it.” We were so far from the performers we thought this couldn’t possibly be detected.
Moments later two very large Italian-looking men in dark suits appeared out of nowhere. They tapped us on the shoulder and simply said, “Okay guys, that’s it. You’ve had enough. Let’s go,” one of them grumbled. “Go where?” John deadpanned. “Out,” said Vito (or whatever his name was). “But we were just getting into it,” John smirked. “Let’s go guys!!!!” The show was over. It was time to make our own entertainment.
As we spilled out into the old Vegas strip looking for somewhere to eat, we ended up on a side street amid some depressing looking bars and restaurants that must have opened before the Sinatra era. Not much to pick from here, but for whatever reason we chose a restaurant with a façade that looked like a Swiss chalet. Now I’ve never dropped acid, but I’m sure that if I ever did this is the kind of hallucination one would have. We staggered into the lobby, which looked like it was designed by a funeral home foyer. There was an attended hostess station and a guest book that tourists apparently were supposed to sign and share the city and state where they lived. Who would even admit they came here, we wondered.
We waited and waited for any sign of a hostess or manager or waitress but none materialized. It couldn’t be this busy, we thought.
To pass the time, John sauntered over to the guest book. He looked over the listings at first and Jane said something about how cute this was before she drifted away. Not long after, John picked up the pen and began writing in the book. This continued for a couple of minutes and I walked over to see what the hell he was writing.
His list started with names like Rusty Nail and Jim Nasium and quickly grew. I added my alias: Al Cohol, Buster Hymen and a few others.
The competition was on. We must have come up with about 20 names like this before staggering away in laughter. Then John went back for one last wisecrack and scampered away sheepishly as two blue-haired ladies and their husbands approached the registry.
By the pace of John’s hasty retreat, I figured he must have come up with an appropriate closer for our name game. As the elderly couples began to look at the book, I could hear them saying things like, “Oh, I wonder if any famous entertainers signed the book.” That’s when I snuck up behind one of the ladies and looked over her shoulder as she bent down closer to read some of the names.
And there it was, John’s final entry: Hugh G. Rection.
Maybe it was the beer or how hard I was laughing, but John had to hold me up to get me out of that restaurant. Once outside, our wives were pretty indignant about us being so impatient. I told them the real reason we left, at least as much as I could spit out between the fits of laughter. Suddenly, despite it being well over 100 degrees outside, things got pretty cold.