The day my father, Charles Neubrecht, headed off to college, his mother Lucile pleaded with him not to go. In telling the story, my dad would paint my grandmother as a loving but nervous woman who relied heavily on her youngest son. In contrast, my dad’s characterization of himself depicted a young man who at the age of 17 was wise beyond his years. According to Dad, he took his mother’s hands in his, gazed into her eyes with a calm and confident smile, and assured her that she wasn’t losing him. He then headed out of the house on foot, making his way to the Detroit transit station where he boarded a bus to Columbus Ohio.
Yet, the details of my father’s account didn’t quite jibe when he went on to reveal that later that day, his older brother Richard, threatened Lucile’s life with a knife.
City Boy or Country Boy
My dad grew up on the inner-city streets of Detroit. His parents had rented a two-bedroom home on the city’s west side shortly before he was born, but both hailed from more bucolic settings. My grandfather, Rupert, grew up in Lima, Ohio, the only son of a German-born carpenter whose wife bore him 8 children. Lucile grew up on a farm outside of New Burlington, Ohio. Her youngest brother eventually inherited the family’s property and every summer, starting at the age of 12, my dad would head southward to spend as many weeks as could be afforded, working on his Uncle Charles’ farm.
Before marrying Lucile, Rupert had attended architecture school at Ohio State University. His college roommate, who had been a high school classmate of my grandmother, introduced the pair. Rupert was bright and ambitious and hoped to become rich someday. He planned to work for various big-name architectural firms until he had the expertise necessary to set up his own shop. His 7 sisters were also quite enterprising but according to Dad, part of Rupert’s drive was fueled by his family’s expectation that he would help provide for his parents and his sisters (4 of which were unmarried) in their old age.
My dad loved everything about his Uncle Charles’ farm: the animals, the physical work, the outdoors, the machinery, the homemade meals, breads and pies, and the simplicity of the people. He admired his uncle’s practical knowledge and his lighthearted spirit which was much different than Rupert’s book-fed perspectives and inflexible demeanor. But I suspect there was another reason why my dad looked forward to escaping the city, leaving his school chums and neighborhood playmates behind during the most beautiful and carefree months of a Michigan year. He needed to get away from his big brother.
The Firstborn Son
Richard, born 5 years before my father, was the apple of my grandfather’s eye. He was an extraordinarily talented artist who, season after season, would win big prizes for selling the most magazine subscriptions door-to-door in western Detroit. Richard was always neat, courteous, and self-disciplined and Rupert would proudly speak of Richard’s accomplishments when the family was visiting their relatives in Lima. Unlike Richard, my dad was effusive and energetic, sloppy and distracted. When speaking to his younger son, Rupert’s advice went in one ear and out the other. “Richard is my boy,” Rupert would say to Lucile, “and Chuckie belongs to you.”
During his senior year of high school, however, Richard began coming apart. He found it hard to focus on school and had difficulty sleeping. He became moody and easily upset. For the first time, he found it impossible to tolerate Rupert’s condescending attitude toward Lucile and the persistent pressure he felt to always over-achieve. In the midst of a heated argument, he’d fly from the house, not returning until the wee hours of the morning.
An Unconventional Escape
It was in this context that my dad left Detroit to spend his first full summer at Uncle Charles’ farm. He was so eager to get there that he begged Rupert (who was busy with work) and Lucile to let him ride his bike. He was only 12 years old and the farm was roughly 230 miles away. Surprisingly, my grandparents let him go. He tied a “bedroll” behind the seat of his 3-speed bike, put a couple of days worth of food, water, a map, and various supplies in a knapsack, and off he went.
Dad said that he expected the journey to last 3 days. He spent the first night in a farmer’s field, sleeping between rows of corn beside the road. By the evening of the second day, he was on schedule but feeling terribly weary. As he sat at the side of a 2-lane highway, eating from a can of cold beans, he noticed a familiar car approaching. Richard was behind the wheel. He stopped the car, leaned across the passenger seat, and ordered my pre-pubescent father to hop in.
When my dad would tell this story, he’d claim that his initial instinct was to resist Richard’s demand. He’d set a goal for himself to bike to New Burlington and he hadn’t needed rescuing. He complied with the request, however, because he didn’t want to upset his older brother. He thought that Richard’s feelings would be hurt so he pretended to be grateful, jumped aboard, and they made it to the farm before the supper table was cleared.
Spiral into Madness
I imagine that this was one of the last normal interactions that my dad had with my Uncle Richard. In the fall of that year, Richard began attending classes at Wayne State University but his inability to focus worsened. He had many concerns about his sexuality which my father never expanded upon, probably because he didn’t fully understand them himself. Instead of going to classes, Richard would spend time in the university’s library, looking up articles and books on psychology and psychiatry.
After reading Freud, Richard felt certain that his mounting neurosis was grounded in the Oedipus complex. Somehow, his early development had been arrested and he continued to view his father with hostility while worshiping his mother. He presented this theory to Rupert and Lucile who were already devastated by the state of Richard’s steadily deteriorating mental health. At a loss for how to help his brilliant firstborn who he’d once viewed as a prodigy, Rupert called his sister Ruth to ask her advice.
A Controversial Cure
Apparently, Rupert had been confiding in his family for some time about Richard’s decline. His sisters had been doing their own research and Ruth had recently read of a new therapy in which electrical currents were passed through a patient’s brain. The treatment showed promise for helping people suffering from delusions.
In the days that followed, Rupert located a sanitarium in Detroit that was practicing the hopeful procedure. Doctors there assured him that Richard was an ideal candidate who would benefit highly from receiving treatment. Richard, however, was not in agreement. Again, after a heated scene where all four members of the family frantically argued about what should be done, Richard ran from the house.
During his absence, my father (now 13) and Lucile pleaded with Rupert to let Richard stay home. Richard’s intense dread of being committed to a mental institution aligned with their own instincts and they didn’t want to see him locked up. But my grandfather, desperate to take control of the situation, insisted that Richard would have to submit. Shortly after Richard reappeared, medics arrived, put him in a straight jacket, and hauled him off to the psychiatric hospital.
This was one of the worst night’s of my father’s life. He often repeated the story as if the retelling would somehow result in healing. When Richard returned home after many months, my dad said his personality was unrecognizable. He’d withstood tremendous abuse and was lost to them forever. My father blamed Rupert for his brother’s decrepit mental state, but he also conceded that my grandfather would have done anything to save his son, including giving his own life in exchange for Richard’s salvation.
Over the next several years, Richard, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, alternated between living at home and living in the most expensive sanitariums that my grandfather could afford. Everyone in the family naturally wanted him to get better and all agreed that home was the best environment for him. But at home, he was more than a handful. My father was often tasked with following his older brother to make sure he stayed out of trouble.
One night, Richard jumped on a streetcar and rode it to the end of the line, far outside the city and into a neighboring suburb. Finding himself again in the unwanted role of an undercover agent, Dad tried to go unnoticed. However, when Richard hopped off the interurban train and headed across a rural field, my father’s frustration kicked in and he accosted his brother, trying to wrestle him back to the railway. My dad was extremely strong and Richard was frail by comparison so my dad’s efforts in this regard were not as desperate as one might think, given the difference in age.
Yet somehow, Richard wriggled and writhed his way free of Dad’s grip. He began shedding his clothes and running in circles. My father wanted nothing to do with him but ever the obedient son, he found a payphone and called my grandfather. “Stick with him,” Rupert insisted, “until the police can find you.” I don’t know how old my dad was at the time but he was still in high school. I’ve tried to imagine how he might have felt. Terrified? Angry? Numb? Nauseated? Despite having pictured the scene on numerous occasions, I don’t know how to answer this question and perhaps that is a blessing.
Choosing a Vocation
My father’s secret desire was to be a farmer. His uncle Charles had one child, a daughter named Miriam. Dad hoped that Uncle Charles would offer him the job of running the farm when he retired. However, that proposition was never made. Instead, Charles gave the farm to Miriam and her husband Roose, who according to my father had neither the experience nor the inclination to run such an enterprise.
Who knows what conversations might have taken place behind the scenes. With Richard’s future lying in ruins, my grandfather pinned his hopes on Lucile’s boy. He now wanted his youngest son to follow in his footsteps and get an architectural degree from OSU. Perhaps, he spoke with my great uncle about his vision for my dad’s future. Perhaps Uncle Charles, wanting the best for his nephew, felt that the life of an architect was somehow a better and more fitting choice. No need to tempt fate.
Smoke and Mirrors
So on that day, when my dad headed off to college, I have to wonder if he was actually as self-assured as he always claimed to be. Did he really look calmly into his mother’s eyes and deliver just the right words to ease her mind? Did he walk to the bus station, with the carefree stride of a young man with his entire life ahead of him? Life is rarely that simple. But for my dad, it was about as complex as the human mind can possibly withstand.