It has been 37 years since he died. Saturday afternoon I was cleaning out my personal junk drawer, the top drawer of my dresser which collects everything I don't want to throw away, when I came across his photo; such a handsome young man.
How much I wanted to be like him. Not consciously of course. I would never have admitted to that. But I would take his button down shirts, three sizes too big, and wear them with the tail out when I'd go out to play. He'd get angry with me for that. Once one of his shirts tore when it caught in the fence I was climbing. No matter what he said I never admitted I was the one who tore it. I'd steal his socks, the black over-the-calf kind, and wear them with my sneakers and shorts. Before he'd come home I'd put them back in his drawer hoping he wouldn't notice. Little brothers can be burdensome at times.
We lived in an old house with wonderful nooks and crannies; secret passageways that led nowhere. His closet was like that. It was built under a stairway, four feet wide and nine feet deep. The ceiling slowly closed in on you as you reached its abyss. I would crawl into the back of his closet and explore. Such stuff he had packed away back there.
He was an All-State guard for the Central High football team, 5 feet 10 inches tall and 165 lbs.; not big but quick and aggressive. He had been a starting catcher in baseball, and he had skated on a speed skating club. I played tight end at Central. I pitched for the baseball team. I won the local silver skate award.
After my sophomore year in high school my mother wanted to move to a better neighborhood. That meant I would be attending Southwest High school. I wanted no part of such a thing. Roger had graduated from Central so would I.
One winter Dad flooded the vacant lot next to our house. It was to be a neighborhood skating pond but we played football on it. Eight degrees above zero, wrapped up in our parkas, with a jerry-rigged floodlight illuminating our way, we played two on two against some neighborhood boys. I was always on his side. At halftime we went inside to make some equipment changes. He rummaged around and found some of his old tennis shoes, again three sizes too big, and I was fitted for success. What a difference those shoes made. Roger would hike the ball to me and lead the way. I would flop around the end behind his bulk and score.
When I was 12, I'd join him for more normal football games. His buddies would pick out the teams. We'd play 3 on 3 or 4 on 4. I was the youngest by at least four years. I was always invited, I always played, and I was always on his team.
He attended almost all of my high school football games, including the Thursday afternoon sophomore games and the second string games on Saturdays. After my first season the starters from the sophomore team suited up with the varsity for the last game of the year.
It was a miserable day, cold and gray with snow flurries. The crowd was small with most in attendance lined up on the field as members of the two teams. I sat on the bench, as did all the sophomores, while he sat in the stands. After the game he got permission from my coach to drive me home. He had brought my girlfriend to the game and along the way home we stopped at Curren's drive-in for hamburgers. "My treat," he said. "To celebrate!" "I'm proud of you."
God, I loved him. He let me drive his `66 Chevelle Super Sport - SS 396. "Let the clutch out slowly," he said, "while you depress the gas pedal." I had never done this before. "Easy now," he said. "Don't worry, you can handle it." The car stalled. "Give it more gas," he said. It stalled again. "Listen," he said, "I'll tell you what, rev the engine up to 3500 rpm's and pop the clutch. You won't stall it this time." I didn't even have a license.
I graduated from high school in June of 1970. After my graduation he left for Europe. He had ordered a red BMW 650 cc road bike and it was being delivered in London. He planned to travel through Europe. I got excited and envious just looking at the pictures. Life had such promise. To be 22 and traveling Europe with nothing but the wind and the sun to order your days. God was he lucky.
His itinerary was set. He would spend two weeks in London preparing for the trip, then travel across the channel to Holland and France, move down through Spain, and back up through Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. His final stop would be Germany before returning home in September.
On August 24th my Uncle Bob was standing in the living room when I got home from work. There was an awkward solemnity about the scene. "Bob, what's wrong?" I asked.
"Sit down Mark," he said.
"Roger's had an accident"
"Is he all right?"
"No. He was killed."
"Oh my God...oh my God, not Roger."
I read the cable that had been delivered from the US Embassy in Austria "START WE ARE SADDENED TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON, ROGER ALLEN RITTMANN, DIED IN A MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT 24 AUGUST, IN TYROLIA, AUSTRIA. STOP. I didn't read further. I held my mom. I didn't cry. I cried later when I was alone. I'm still crying.
The casket was closed for the visitation and funeral. There had been a delay in Austria in preparing his body for burial and he wasn't suitable for viewing. At times I felt like it was all a mistake. At any moment Roger would come home. We'd drive up to Curren's for a hamburger and he'd tell me about his trip, about the girls he'd met and the places he'd been. Any day now that would happen.
Three weeks after the funeral we received a letter from Spain mailed two days before he died. I will never again complain about slow mail. I read the letter a dozen times. Spain had been hard. "The roads are terrible," he wrote. "My hands are swelling from the constant vibrations on the handlebars. I'm having a great time," he said. "I'll see all of you in September. I Love You.
At the funeral a poem I had written for him was included. One of the lines went "He was my Babe Ruth and my Mickey Mantle." It ended "I am a man now, really the only man my mother has left. Roger made me that man. I loved him. I will miss him."
I still do 37 years later, sorting through the memories in my junk drawer. I still miss him. The notebook with his itinerary is here, as is the international driving permit with his photo stapled to the back page. There is also an old photo of him, which I used to carry in my wallet until it seemed morbid to do so any longer. One must get on with life and I have. I am happy. Life is good. But as I sit here looking at the memories I think of how much I loved him and how much he meant to me, and the tears come again freely. Today I miss him. I haven't missed him in years, but today I do, 37 years later.
I am so glad I remember him. It means he hasn't gone away. He is still here. He will always be here, leading the way around the end with his bulk, fitting me with shoes three sizes too big, insisting that I be on his team. Damn it's good to be his brother. It always has been good. It always will be.
Say Hi to God for me Rog! Tell Him it's your little brother sending greetings. By the way - I'm the one who tore your shirt. I bought a new one for you and I have it hanging in my closet. I hope you don't mind if I wear it.
I miss you.