Growing up wild on a ranch north of Lewistown is an idyllic, even utopian existence for any boy at any time, but in the innocent 1950's it was absolute bliss. You couldn't ask for a more perfect childhood. Unless you had a big sister. Then it might have been a season in Hell, as it was for me.
Because I did have a big sister, four years older than me, and most of my memories of early childhood are of her dominating me in every way. With the exception of a few moments in which she displayed a little Christian virtue, I mostly recall her standing over me, making a fist.
She was a bit of a Tomboy, as I suppose most ranch-raised girls tend to be. She preferred her 500 pound Shetland pony to her Barbie dolls. A 100-pound German Sheppard guard dog named Buster was her constant shadow. Buster was aptly named since if you tried to sneak up on sis with a squirt gun, or even considered it in your mind, Buster would sense it with his keen perception and bust you. Buster curled his lips up at me on more than one occasion, seeming to know that I had an ax to grind with Elaine. His master's voice, you know.
Elaine could hold her own in athletic competition with any boy. She could run faster, punch harder, jump higher, throw further, hide better, and seek better. But I think that women might cheat at the game of hide and seek, since they have women's intuition on their side.
The worst part is, she stayed four years older than me her whole life. I was never able to catch up with her. She was to be respected, and if she was mad at me, earnestly feared. She used to knock me down as I passed by, and just for the fun in it. But her most audacious atrocity, the one I can still feel drumming at my nerves today, was the one she called "Chinese torture." She would tackle me, lay me flat on my back, pin me down with her legs while she got a good angle of leverage over me, and then poke me, hard, over and over with her index fingers.
"Chinese torture, you little twerp! This is what they do in Hong Kong, you hear me?"
At first there was some giggling, but quickly, it turned into agony. I would squirm without the effort bearing fruit, twisting and turning underneath her, but unable to ward off the blows. My god, I thought, China must be an awful place. I was still probably 12 or 13 before I realized that the Great Wall of China wasn't constructed under the constant threat of aggressive poking.
There was no way to know where, or when, or most importantly, why, the torture would descend upon me. She would stalk me like a tigress around the ranch, even on days when I had been extra deferential, sure to smile and be polite and make all the little obeisances to her, including offering her half of my morning biscuit. Those times, there was simply no making sense of it. It was a lesson in the moral vacuum of the universe.
Slowly, inexorably, I grew, like a tiny plant at the foot of a large oak tree. I became stronger, more fleet of feet until one day, when I was about 11, she jumped out of nowhere and took me down. As always, I struggled, but this time I prevailed, and the tables were finally turned. I detected a chink in her armor, sensing that I was strong enough to be her match. At last, with herculean effort, I turned her on her back. I put my knees over her arms, and readied the old pointin' fingers for some serious jabs.
Then someone grabbed my collar and yanked me off of her, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It was a force so powerful that I was lifted off the ground and well into the air. Karma had caught up with me, as it has so many times since.
A deep voice boomed, seemingly out of the clouds as I stared up and into the sun. It said "boy, now that you can take your sister, never touch her again."
"Aw jeez, Dad, what are you kidding? She's done it thousands of times, an' you never stopped her."
"Don't say jeez, you little mongrel. And she can do it to you whenever she likes."
It was at that moment, the curtain was lifted, and I realized he liked her best. I had suspected it all along.
Often since have I pitied her poor husband! What must that be like? How many times must he have endured such treatment in their decades of marriage? He's probably suffered through a whole Chinese prison camp's worth of abuse and persecution.
Yet, in the intervening years, I have forgiven her.
There were some compensations, it has to be admitted: she taught me how to talk to girls, how to dance, how to water ski, how to snow ski, among other things. She has often given me sage advice, and not just when I hadn't asked for it. I'm proud to call her my sister, and one of my best friends.
That having been said, ole Dad is long gone, which means the coast is clear and what he doesn't know won't hurt him. So don't tell her, but the next time I see her, whether it's at Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or God help me, her birthday, I'm finally going to make this right. I'm 70 now, and she's 74, so it might take us a half hour to get back up off the floor, but she'd better watch out, because there are two index fingers heading for her like a pair of Chinese cruise missiles.
Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy. Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV. Hell, scratch that. Enough to buy the whole RV. He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations. Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.