September 28, 2004
My big brother Don is a master musician and songwriter, his perceptions shaped by years riding horseback beside my grandfather, who was a cowboy, naturalist, storyteller, and one of New Mexico’s first forest rangers. He draws his lyrics from life as an Arizona rancher, touring musician, and farrier. His tunes ring true as the strike of a blacksmith’s hammer.
I am his underachieving understudy, with a notebook full of sentimental ballads and one embarrassing children’s song about a rodent. At family reunions, though, “Willy Woodchuck” gets pulled out of its hole for all to hear, sandwiched between my brother’s beautifully crafted works.
My father requests it. Years ago he played a recording of it for my Uncle Bob, hoping to take his little brother’s mind off of the cancer that was sapping his life. The song made Bob smile. I think Dad remembers that smile when I play the thing.
But this year, with Dad’s health failing at what may be his last reunion with us, I couldn’t remember the words. The harder I tried, the more I drew a blank. But my little brother Mike—the first and only person to hear the song when I made it up 25 years ago—remembered, and he sang them to the end.
Then my daughter requested “Little Pieces,” Don’s song about my mother’s death. We started out fine, but choked up on the words halfway through. Again Mike’s strong voice carried us to the song’s hopeful conclusion, bringing my sister, my wife, and the next generation—my daughters, nephew, and nieces—harmonizing along with him. I played along on guitar as younger voices rearranged the old song and washed over their parents’ sorrow with sweet promise and grace.
That moment gave me a new definition for brother: the one who won’t let you forget the words.
In this “Brothers” edition of WM we glimpse the contentment, yearning, fulfillment disappointment, admiration, and envy that also define brotherhood. But in our “Voices” essays from alumni and professors, we turn 180 degrees from the theme. Peter Prengaman ’98, Mike Markland ’94, and professors Melissa Butler and John Agresto wrote to us a world away from Wabash. Today, Markland and Prengaman live in the tension between lessons learned here and the realities of the violent and chaotic places they work—the front lines of the struggle to “live humanely in a difficult world.”
“My only solace is the knowledge that much of the world doesn’t live like this,” Prengaman writes from Haiti. “There are places where people see life as worth protecting, where people have hope in the future.”
“Despite the circumstances that led to my being in Iraq,” Markland says, “I hope to help these people who have long suffered and struggled.”
“I have now spent just under a year seeing what tyranny does to people,“ Agresto says. “I think graduates should go forth in gratitude, in humility, and in pride in their country, actively contributing to hope in this world.”
Their words—the words of our brothers—are worth reading and remembering.