The Only Child

My brother used to tell people that he was an only-child; most of them knew that wasn’t true.

“But what about Mike?” they’d ask. My name is Mike.

“Oh, he’s just a guy that’s staying with us while his parents are in Europe. I think they are spies.”

I was three years older than Tim, so maybe that’s why he didn’t acknowledge me as being a part of the family. He wanted to be the oldest, the only.

It’s not that we didn’t get along. In private, he’d say that he was really glad that I was his brother and that I was his best friend. Actually, Tim didn’t seem to have many friends. To tell the absolute truth, Tim didn’t have any friends.

When my friends came to the house, Tim would go out to the tool shed in the back yard and tinker with his bike or that ancient lawnmower he used to earn spending money. He never seemed to want to be around my friends, which was just as well; they were a pretty worthless bunch.

Eddie, my best friend, besides Tim, was what was usually called in those days a “juvenile delinquent.” He was the stereotypical JD, right down to his motorcycle boots and the pack of cigarettes rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve. He was also Fonzi from “Happy Days” around my parents and the rest of our gangs’ parents, as polite and deferential as he could be. How he managed to stay out of jail was a wonder. He must have been a hypnotist because every time he got into a scrape with the principal or the police, he’d look them right in the eye and talk his way out of it. As far as I know, he never made anyone cluck like a chicken, though. Whenever Ronnie and Ned and I were with him, when Eddie was speeding or stealing soda from the gas station cooler, it was the three of us who were caught and punished, not Eddie. We managed to stay out of jail because of Eddie’s skill at explaining the situation as our youthful indiscretions and his promise to keep us in line in the future. I think I heard that Eddie is in the State Department now, a job that I’m sure he’s very good at.

But back to Tim. Being an only child (well pretending that he was) meant that he got special privileges from my parents, and especially from my grandparents. Not only was he the only child, he was also the first grandchild and the first male grandchild back in the days when that really, really mattered. You’d think that we were English nobility, the way our family rewarded birth order.

The first son, of course, inherited the title and money from his father. The second son was expected to go into the church and the third son joined the army. Subsequent male off-spring and daughters basically didn’t count. If you were the fourth, fifth, or sixth son, you might as well have been born into another family, though there had only been one fourth son in eight generations of Watcyn in the “colonies,” he being a complete surprise. Roy Watcyn was my great-great-great Uncle and that’s about all I know about him. No one talks about him, and the family historian, the Rt. Rev. Norman Watcyn, M Div, PhD Psychology, added an asterisk beside his name in the official account of Watcyns down through the ages, with the footnote saying that he was “the fourth son of Grenville and Hilda Watcyn, and a complete surprise.”

My father, Timothy Franklin Watcyn the third, followed his father, my grandfather, Timothy Franklin Watcyn II, in the family business, namely being a modern day robber baron. The family fortune had been assured in the late 1790s when General Augustus Louis Watcyn was granted 75,500 acres of land in western Virginia (now the state of…. West Virginia) by George Washington. Augustus had been one of Washington’s trusted generals in the later stages of the Revolutionary War. Family legend has it, though not entirely confirmed by recorded history, that he had urged Washington to follow General Cornwallis and the British army down to Yorktown, Virginia and engage them in battle. Washington was always conservative when it came to a big fight and he wanted to stay on his plantation at Mount Vernon and wait for the British to make the first move. Again, according to family legend, Augustus went behind Washington’s back and convinced the French to get into the fight and the rest, as they say is history.

Washington never found out what great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather Augustus had done, but since the result was so favorable, a reward was due, hence the land-grant, under which just happened to be tons and tons of coal. Now in the 1790s, no one was looking for coal, but the forests were exploitable, as Grandfather Augustus certainly did, after he divided up and ostensibly “sold” off the land to the participants in westward settlement of the new country. As it turned out, when coal was finally discovered, the deeds to parcels sitting atop that coal had a clause that stated that if any minerals were ever found, those minerals could be extracted without permission of or compensation to the owner of the land. At first, the disruptions were minimal, with mines that were little more than shallow holes in ground. But by the time of the outbreak of the Civil War, Augustus’ grandson, Grenville, had established an extensive extraction operation that some say (again family legend) helped the Union to win the war. Moving the great amounts of war equipment and provisions necessary for the war effort would not have been possible had it not been for the extensive rail system in the east, railroads that ran on coal.

By the end of the war, Grandfather Grenville was one of the richest men in the country and his sole goal in life was to increase that wealth. He was pretty good at it, but his son, Timothy the first, was even better. Coal mines turned into railroads which turned into oil wells which turned into banks which turned into mansions in Pittsburgh and Manhattan, Grandfather Grenville having abandoned Wheeling for the centers of wealth and power. Pied a terre were planted in London and Paris, and a trek to some far-off locale was an annual occurrence.

The first chink in the wall of the family fortune happened in 1905 when Grenville decided to build a house at Oyster Bay, New York, next to the Summer White House of President Theodore Roosevelt. Grenville and Roosevelt had become acquainted when Roosevelt was the police commissioner of New York City. Grandfather Grenville had been an early backer of Roosevelt’s political career, but had become more and more critical of his progressive ideas. By the time Roosevelt had become President, Grenville was a sworn enemy and the house on Oyster Bay was meant to be a snub to the President, being three times the size and many times more luxurious.

At first, Roosevelt and his family ignored their new neighbors, but when the Watcyn parties (which sometimes went on for several days, with hundreds of guests) began to disrupt the Sagamore Hill tranquility, Teddy started looking for ways to take Grenville down a peg or two. He found it at the Federal Security Trust Bank, owned by Grandfather Grenville. The bank was the center of a web of interlocking companies and financial institutions which controlled much of the economy of the country, and thereby, the politicians in scores of cities, counties, states and Washington, D.C. Now not all of Grandfather Grenville’s dealings were corrupt (he was a noted philanthropist, though there aren’t any Watcyn Libraries around the country; he was more inclined to having the family name on hospitals and, ironically, “insane asylums”), but enough questions were asked on occasion to raise suspicions and along with other notables such as Gould, Frick and Morgan before him, he began to lose his grip on his political power and on his empire. By the time Roosevelt left office, most of the Watcyn family fortune had vanished, as had Grenville’s grasp on the world. For the last years of his life, he was confined to a room in the Watcyn State Lunatic Hospital, an institution he endowed with his money from the sale of a couple of oil fields to some guy named Rockefeller.

My great grandfather, Timothy Franklin Watcyn determined to undue damage done by his father and through the remaining connections the family had, obtained a position on the staff of Congressman Nicholas Longworth, who you may remember was married to Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice. It seems that while their fathers were feuding back in Oyster Bay, Tim and Alice became playmates and life-long friends, which hastened Timothy’s reentry into the world of power and wealth. When Nick Longworth became Speaker of the House in 1925, Timothy was in a position to grant and withhold favors all day long, which he was remarkably good at. When the Republicans lost the majority in the House in 1930, Tim used his influence (and the small fortune he managed to amass on his salary as assistant to Nick Longworth!) to buy a bank in Cincinnati that was about to close as a result of the aftermath of the 1929 crash. He renamed it the Federal Security Trust Bank, thumbing his nose at the people who deserted the family after his father’s fall from grace.

The bank had grown to be one of the largest and most influential in Ohio when my father joined it in 1941, having just graduated from the Wharton School of Business. His fledgling finance career was cut short by the entry of the United States into the Second World War. Given the family connections, it was quite possible that my father could have avoided serving, that honor to have befallen my Uncle Richmond, the third son. But my father’s sense of duty (and my grandfather’s insistence) led him to sign up for the Army Air Corp on the same day that my Uncle Gus joined the navy as a chaplain and Uncle Richmond volunteered for the army.

My father came home from the war a hero, having flown some of the final missions over Germany in 1945. Uncle Gus landed on Iwo Jima and Uncle Richmond served out the war as a clerk at Fort Riley, Kansas. Dad picked up where he left off at the bank and in the early ‘50s was in charge of buying up properties along the Cincinnati waterfront because my grandfather got news that the Federal government was about to begin a program to build a network of “super highways” across the nation. He and Uncle Gus (who had, as a second son was expected to, gone into the church) got into a fight one day because many of the properties dad was buying belonged to some of the poorest of the poor residents of our town. My dad said it was just business, but Uncle Gus said it was immoral to offer almost nothing for their homes, especially since they would have little money to buy anything else. That was the last time I saw my Uncle Gus at our house.

One day, Tim asked, “Mike, do you think it would be OK if we went to St. Auben’s to see Uncle Gus?” Tim knew about the fight between the adults, but he and Uncle Gus seemed to have a special bond and Tim didn’t want to lose that connection.

“Well, I don’t think it would hurt, as long as dad doesn’t find out.”

“Does your dad know Uncle Gus?” Tim asked. I couldn’t tell if he was just kidding or if he was really puzzled by my statement.

This was a new development in our relationship. In public, he never acknowledged that we were brothers, but in private, it was never a question. Something had changed.

“Tim, he’s my uncle, too. You know that. Why would you ask that question?”

“Sorry, Mike, I forgot.”

Maybe Tim was beginning to think that I really wasn’t his brother. Maybe he’d said it so many times that it was becoming real.

A few days later, we hopped on a streetcar and went to St.Auben’s to see Uncle Gus. St.Auben’s was one of the largest Episcopal churches in Cincinnati and Uncle Gus was the Assistant Rector. Our great Uncle Harrison had once been the Rector at St.Auben’s until his elevation to Bishop of Cincinnati. It was assumed that Uncle Gus would become Rector when Rev. Nelson retired, which seemed imminent, family connections paving the way even in the world of religion.

When we got to St.Auben’s, we found Uncle Gus in the garden, tending to the roses; he was an avid gardener, having won medals at the Cincinnati Rose Show, three years in a row. When he saw us he said, “Hi, Tim. How are you doing? Whose your friend?”

Whose your friend?

“This is Mike. He’s staying with us until his parents get back from Europe.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mike. Having a good time with Tim and his family?”

I was so taken aback by this that I didn’t respond right away. By the time I had gained some composure, Tim was asking Uncle Gus what kind of roses he was growing.

“Uncle Gus, quit kidding around. Have you forgotten that I’m Tim’s older brother?”

Tim and Uncle Gus looked at each other with one of those looks that you use when you want to humor someone.

“Mike, I’m sure that Tim appreciates having an ‘older brother.’ It’s always been hard on him, being an only child.”

Uncle Gus was trying to be kind, but it came across as slightly condescending, like somehow I couldn’t possibly be a part of the family. It was also clear that no other discussion or explanation was possible. Tim was an only child and I was a friend whose parents were in Europe. Period. Full stop. OK, that’s redundant, but you get the point.

On the way home, Tim was quieter than usual. Several times I started to ask about what had just happened, but it didn’t seem to be something he wanted to talk about. I let it drop, but a few days later, I heard our dad talking to Tim.

“Tim, I know that you are just a freshman in high school, but you need to be thinking about your future,” dad began. “This is the time in your life to start getting serious about your studies. You know that after high school, your grandfather and I want you to go to Wharton and then come work with us in the bank.”

Wait, he wants Tim to go to work in the bank? That’s what I’m supposed to do when I graduate. I’m going to send my college application off in a few weeks and I have no doubt that I’ll be accepted, considering who my father and grandfather are. Before I knew what I was doing, I walked into the next room where Tim and my dad were talking and I said, “Why are you making plans with Tim when the oldest son in this family always goes into the family business? That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
For the first time in my life, I actually felt like an outsider. Perhaps that was when I realized that I was an outsider.

“Mike, I’d be happy to talk to you about making banking a career, but I have some news for you that I think will make you much happier: I got a telegram from your parents this morning. They are coming home from Europe and will land tomorrow afternoon in Washington. They’ve asked me to get a ticket for you on the Friday morning flight to Dulles, so you’d better go start packing. They’ll meet you at the airport.”

I suppose the look on my face could have been mistaken for joy, but in fact it must have reflected my incredulity. The man I thought was my dad wasn’t and Tim wasn’t my brother. Like my Uncle Gus said, Tim really was an only child.

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