by Leroy Morganti
If you were blessed with one, you know big brothers are special, always looking out for you and coming to your rescue during various childhood crises such as forgetting your school lunchroom money.
No two brothers could have been more different than Robert and I. If you had put Robert and 10 other guys in a room and asked people who know me to pick out my brother, you might not have gotten a single match. Five years older, much nicer and far more intelligent, Robert and I shared few traits in interests, personality or physical appearance. But the brotherly bond we shared was far more important, even though it took me almost a lifetime to fully comprehend and appreciate its depth.
Life was not particularly fair to Robert during his childhood, although I never heard him complain at any point during his 69 years on this earth. Following the death of our father in 1945, we moved from Clarksdale to Rosedale, where my mother had grown up. Money was scarce. We lived in a two-room shotgun house my grandmother owned, and my mother took a job in a department store for $25 per week.
At the tender age of 12, Robert landed a job in a grocery store where he worked before and after school, Saturdays, and during the summers – riding his bike the two miles into town and back home in all kinds of weather. And each Saturday, he faithfully turned over his pay to our mother, rarely keeping a dime for himself. That kind of responsibility deprived him of a typical childhood of fun and games but instilled a life-long sense of duty and discipline well beyond anything I ever gleaned from hours in the pool hall.
A straight “A” student in a time of few scholarships, Robert figured his only way to a college education was through the GI Bill, so he signed up for four years in the Air Force. Following an intelligence test, he was offered the opportunity to enroll in an officer candidate school, but that fit neither his quiet personality nor his ambition.
Halfway through my senior year in high school, the mail brought perhaps the only letter I ever received from Robert. One of my great regrets in life is having misplaced it, but I read the words so many times I still remember the opening lines.
“No one in our family has ever graduated from college, and I want you to be the first. I have saved enough to pay for three years for you and will have more by the time I get out. I will have the GI Bill to pay my way.”
It was at that point I fully realized just how unselfish and loving my brother was to have scrimped and saved on an enlisted man’s pay to send his undeserving kid brother to college. Fortunately, I had discovered the profitability of holiday fireworks sales and was able to gratefully decline his offer.
Robert joined me at the University of Southern Mississippi at the start of my sophomore year and went on to compile a perfect 4.0 grade point average and to be inducted into the college’s top academic honor society. We took only one class together, a marketing course where the teacher gave all essay questions and then ranked and posted the grades on the blackboard. At the top of the “A’s” was always one score much higher than the rest and everyone in the class wondered who the curve setter was – well, everyone but the Morganti boys.
Robert was the only student exempted from the final exam and I borrowed his typed, doubled-spaced and bound notes to raise a high “C” to a low “A.”
Never married, Robert dutifully looked after our mother in her final years as no other son (or daughter) could have done.
A few years ago, Robert suffered heart problems and had a choice of continual problems or a risky operation. He chose the latter and even though he survived the surgery, his soft heart gave out a few hours later.
From the time Robert left home to join the Air Force until his illness, we had little opportunity to spend time together except for holidays and special occasions, yet each of us knew the other was there. Phone calls were so infrequent we always started them off with a reassuring “Nothing’s wrong.”
The months between his heart attack and death gave us the opportunity to make up for lost time as I would spend 4 or 5 days a week with him in Jackson. It was time for me to assume the big brother caretaker role and make an effort at repayment.
Each evening, we would drive around to find a restaurant that suited us while playing a game of “Name that Tune” on the varied channels of satellite radio. And whether the category was country, classical, jazz, “50s” or opera, he usually won – even to the point of not only naming the tune but reciting a bit of obscure history of the song or the performer. Did you know the breath-taking “Song of Liberty” was passed over as Italy’s national anthem? Robert did.
I’m glad we had that brotherly time together after so many years of infrequent contact. It taught me that I admired, respected and loved my brother just as much as I had our first time around.
There ought to be a “Big Brother’s Day.”
Leroy Morganti is a native of Rosedale, Mississippi. He spent the early years of his professional life as a reporter for various Mississippi newspapers and The Associated Press. He joined Delta State University in 1971 as Director of Public Information and retired in 2002 as Vice President for Executive Affairs. He resides at the Benoit Outing Club.
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