"Four Years from Home" begins on Christmas 1972 during Harry Ryan's senior year at college. The Ryan family has gathered without Harry for another bittersweet holiday celebration. When an unexpected and unwelcome gift arrives, the family demands answers and Tom Ryan, bully cum laude, must make a reluctant journey of discovery and self-discovery into a mystery that can only end in tragedy.
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Four Years from Home
Tom Ryan -- firstborn of five children in a large, Irish Catholic family, smart and acerbic, a cheat and a bully -- calls himself the future king of the Ryans. There are other opinions. His mother calls him a holy terror. Mrs. Ioli calls the police on him. His father says that had Trouble been a saint, that would have been Tom's middle name. But his parents, neighbors, peers, and siblings all must bow down before him or suffer the consequences. Just ask the Christmas turkey leftovers he buried in the side yard.
Harry, the youngest Ryan, was the shining star of the family. Bright, sensitive, and caring, he was protected by parental radar, called by God and Grandma Ryan to the priesthood, and was in Tom's eyes, a brown-nosing little punk who had become a threat to his kingdom and the primary target of his search and destroy missions.
Then Harry changed. He abandoned his vocation and quit the church, and when he left for college, he left for good. He never called. He rarely wrote. His picture disappeared from the mantle. It was as if he had ceased to exist and his shining star had been but a passing comet. The enemy had retreated and Tom's war was over.
"Four Years from Home" begins on Christmas 1972 during Harry's senior year at college. The Ryan family has gathered without Harry for another bittersweet holiday celebration. When an unexpected and unwelcome gift arrives, the family demands answers and Tom Ryan, bully cum laude, must make a reluctant journey of discovery and self-discovery into a mystery that can only end in tragedy.
Written by the son of Irish Catholic immigrants, "Four Years from Home" redefines brotherly love in the darkly humorous and often poignant actions of its principal skeptic, Tom Ryan.
My name is King Thomas of Ryan, so crowned as firstborn of Daniel, Earl of Ryan and his consort, Helen, and ascendant to the royal throne upon my birth September 12th, 1946. My domain stretches from horizon to horizon, my power is absolute, my word law.
Load of crap, you say? Maybe… But as the firstborn child of five and male, I was special, and my parents, being allegedly of sound mind and body, recognized that. I was the culmination of their union, the be-all and end-all of their existence. I always got the biggest and best of everything, and as for whatever was left over? Well, that went to the others. Examples? Who got all the new clothes and who got the hand-me-downs? Who had the only complete baby photo album and who got maybe a couple dozen snapshots each? With me went the Ryans’ highest expectations, with them, only vague and unspoken hopes for the best.
The others — that's how I had always thought of them — they were an amorphous mass of humanity whose sole purpose was to annoy me. I had never asked for them, nor was there ever the slightest intimation on my part that I preferred some demeaning power-sharing arrangement to absolute rule in my kingdom. I was totally at ease with having two loyal and subservient subjects to do my bidding.
Life was so simple and so right. Life was good. When I was too young to talk, I would simply point and they would fetch. It was a thing of beauty that only got better when I was learning to speak. I could say anything from “goo, goo” to “uh, uh” and they would go to ludicrously extreme lengths to try and figure out exactly what I wanted. “Does Tommy want his bottle?” No, don’t you understand? I want that. “Does Tommy want his Clancy doll?” Poor Clancy, he deserved a Purple Heart for the wounds I inflicted on him. “Does Tommy want to play with his ball?” Bingo! Bring it here, Mom Servant. King Tom wants to take a shot at that lamp over there.
Yes, all was going famously. They seemed overjoyed with me at the center of their world, and I was definitely happy with the five-star service. That was why I was so surprised when Mary came along. First of all, I don’t recall ever granting my permission for her to enter my realm. And second, a sister? Why would anyone want a sister? A dog maybe, a bird possibly, a fish — that was a stretch — but a sister? Why would anyone want something that came with a built-in Guard-all shield? You don’t get it? Just try and hit a girl and you’ll see what I mean. Nowadays we’d call it an invisible force field, but back then, a Colgate metaphor was the best we could do.
Her appearance on the scene was so inexplicable an occurrence and so completely defied all logic that it took me a good ten minutes to figure it out. I had immediately ruled out an act of God since, after all, I was the only God in my universe. An act of the devil? I didn’t think so — I was also the devil in this world. Just ask my parents after I had made my true aspirations known at age two. No, she was clearly a mistake and, in my infinite mercy, I would allow my parents one mistake. After all, they were only human, and I had no choice.
But to my disappointment, the mistakes continued in Sam and then Kate. Royal pains in the butt they were, I being the royal and they the pains. Yet somehow I survived them and their various assaults on my authority. My shining armor bore no permanent dents. I was, after all, the future king of the Ryan family and my siblings would bow down before me. Or else…
Eventually, I came to enjoy having the others as indentured servants to do my bidding and, more importantly, to take the blame for my dirty work. I could easily bully my weakling sisters and get away with it (though I still had trouble hitting them) and Sam was not physically powerful enough yet to stand up to me. And they realized early on that their sheer numbers were no match for a real king. They knew that I could do whatever I pleased to them and get away with it. And the icing on the cake was that I could just as easily implicate them in whatever scheme I hatched, thus transferring the blame and punishment. I had perfected the "who me?" look quite early in life and had a long list of patented excuses which always worked like a charm. God, life was good then.
But then Harry came along on Christmas Day in 1950 and everything changed. With Harry it was different. My usual tactics didn’t work on him. Mom and Dad took his side in everything. Even my best-selling publication, The Book of Tom, A Field Manual of Dirty Tricks and Assigning Blame, was totally useless. It baffled me. Why was he any different than the others? I mean, I could push Mary down the steps, blame it on our blind cat and get away scot-free. But do the same thing to Harry? Dad would instantly produce the results of DNA testing (which didn’t even exist back then) along with a fingerprint analysis proving the culprit was me and boy would I get walloped. It was unbelievable how far Dad had advanced scientifically and technologically after Harry’s untimely birth.
In desperation, I enlisted the aid of Mary, negotiating a temporary non-aggression pact with her for her help in torturing Harry. Of course I never called it that to her face. I’m not stupid, you know. I called it “The Alphabet Bombing Campaign,” or “ABC” for short. I told her that it was all part of making sure Harry grew up to be smart; that we were really doing him a big favor teaching him the alphabet; that it was all part of the “big” picture. The part I left out was that the “big” picture was actually that now there would be two to share all blame, two for Mom and Dad to choose from when trying to figure out the intricacies of my grand scheme. We were golden, or so I thought.
It just shows how wrong royalty can be. I had developed intercontinental ballistic building block missiles that were effective at an incredible range. I called them ICBBBMs. They were the perfect weapon and left no evidence since the missile ended up where building blocks belonged anyway (in the playpen), leaving no trace of anything out of the ordinary. Any minor injuries caused could easily be explained with a lie-detector-proof “I guess he hit his head on something,” which was true in a manner of speaking – at least my manner of speaking. It was the perfect campaign.
Mary and I positioned ourselves within sight of Harry's playpen and commenced our vigorous and historic bombardment, scoring direct hit after direct hit. It was inspirational, fun, even educational, spelling out things like "Take that!" and "Bye bye, Harry" with a cleverly sequential barrage of wooden blocks.
Mom caught us in mid-victory. It wasn't because Harry was crying, which he wasn't. He was simply watching us and laughing, probably because we were such lousy shots. It was because Mom and Dad always seemed to be keeping a special eye out for Harry with their newly developed state of the art parental radar. They told me that he was a special child, a gift from God, and I had to learn to deal with that.
Oh, I dealt with it. I used every weapon in my arsenal to deal with it. But every dismal foray against Harry's impregnable position, even with reinforcements in the form of my conscripted siblings, turned out to be worthless. My best diversionary tactics, picked up from years of watching Combat! on TV were useless, making me wonder what Vic Morrow and Sergeant Saunders had that I didn't. All this led me to the inevitable, sinking feeling that I had been deposed.
But this is not about me. This is about Harry. Oh, I hated him all right. I hated the threat he represented to my world. I hated his lack of reaction to my attacks and his better-than-thou attitude. In short, I hated his guts. I was bent on his destruction. But my parents were right — there was something about Harry that was different, special; I just didn't realize it at the time.
It wasn't his sandy hair or his slightly crossed eyes or even his thin, bony frame or that stupid smile I couldn’t wipe off his face. It was his attitude about things, about everything. Nothing ever seemed to upset him. And believe me, if I couldn't upset his applecart, nobody could. I’m not bragging, but Mom didn't name me the "Holy Terror" for nothing. I remember when he was five, I covered him in cooking oil and chicken feathers and was busily tying him to the porch banister. I was all ready to run him out of town on a rail when I was caught by the parental torture-detector and summarily banished to my room to await further punishment from Dad. Even then Harry only smiled at me and laughed when he saw his tarred and feathered self in the mirror.
I joined a "gang" in fifth grade. Well, it might be more accurate to say I formed a gang in fifth grade. It consisted of every boy in my class who I could beat up. Harry was just starting first grade at Saint Catherine’s. As our collective initiation into the Gang of Seven, we ran Harry down on the playground, dragged him off under cover of a clever nun-diversion (which I devised, naturally), and buried him up to his neck in the dirt on the edge of Miller's field, telling him he would be resurrected if his faith were strong. He believed us and remained quietly entombed until Jean Mykita dimed us out to the principal, Sister Concepta, and she sent the goon squad to save him. I can now tell you just how hard the good Sister can hit one-handed with a belt and just how many nail heads there are on the floor of the sanctuary of the church. My friends and I had to polish every one of them to her liking while she walked among us preaching the gospel and taking her best shots.
As he grew, Harry became the shining star in our family. He was the smartest, the funniest, the most successful at everything he put his mind to. He was, hands down, the best. And when I finally gave up trying to kill him, I must admit I actually liked him. You see, I finally realized that he represented no threat at all to me since his success was of the non-material variety. I could rest easy on my laurels as the secular king of the family.
Of the five children, he was the one Mom and Dad saw as most likely to become a priest. In their Roman Catholic eyes, this was the highest calling for a young man and any material success was entirely secondary for one with “a vocation.” They would settle for material success for their other children. (Well, actually, for me they would have settled for my keeping out of prison, I think.) This, their Irish immigrant ethic looked upon as exemplary, having come from very little to a comfortable middle class life the hard way. But this was not the case for Harry. Harry was special, important. His life was their blessing, and for fifteen years it was just that.
Grandma Ryan always said that she saw "the light" in Harry's eyes, "the light" being the calling to become a priest. She was very old and very Irish and we could hardly understand a word she said, but we all respected her (and, more importantly, the back of her hand). After Sunday dinners at her house and a rousing game of Five Hundred, we would sit on the sofa while she talked on and on about God's calling and the "divil." Harry was the only one who really listened to her. Maybe he was the only one who understood her. I don't know. I had a hard enough time with Five hundred comprehending Grandma when she called out "hearts are the good ones." I never saw what was so good about them. But we could all see that Harry was destined to be a priest. This was the absolute highest calling a boy could aspire to, the dedication of one's life to God and the salvation of others, including me I guess. Mom and Dad prayed every night with us, and in their prayers, we all saw our futures. “God bless Tom (please, dear God, bless Tom) and Mary and Sam and Kate and give them all long, happy and successful lives. And God bless Harry and make him the holiest priest ever.”
I'm sure the words were not exactly like that. Years have a way of clouding the memories. But that is my recollection of it, and Harry did indeed grow in God's grace and gentleness throughout his years at Saint Catherine's. He went on retreats all the time, spent hours on end with the parish priests and nuns being disgustingly helpful, became an altar boy, and even spent a summer after sixth grade at a seminary to get himself acclimated. He did it all. It was nauseating. The nuns talked in stage whispers about the first saint to come out of Saint Catherine's and the girls idolized Harry to the point of making me want to puke. Of course this made the school bullies torture him relentlessly. I was in the ex-bully category by then, having graduated from grade school "bully cum laude." But I saw it all and Harry was totally oblivious to it. Ultimately, the decision was made that he would skip the eighth grade and go right into seminary, so seventh grade was to be his final, crowning year. That was the year Grandma Ryan died. That was the year she made him promise on her deathbed to become a priest. That was the year Harry changed.
I doubt if my parents realized it at first, but I knew. I still had quite an intelligence network in the parish even though I had moved on to high school, and I was the first to know that Harry was skipping daily mass and going to the park. And it wasn't like he was meeting a girl there. That I could understand completely. He would sit on a bench alone, seemingly enjoying the day — very weird for a seventh grader. He started doing that the week after Grandma's funeral. Then he started skipping Sunday mass, lying to Dad about having to serve an early service. Midway through seventh grade, Harry announced at the dinner table that he had changed his mind about going to seminary; that he wasn't ready for it; that he wanted to finish eighth grade at Saint Catherine's and go to South Catholic and maybe do seminary after that. That bombshell took weeks for my parents to come to grips with. Dad had Father Harkins, our Methuselahn pastor, talk to him. Mom had Sister Jean Lorette, his sixth grade teacher and most trusted confidante on matters of utter holiness and penmanship, talk to him. Both were usually quite influential with Harry but not this time. I even offered to come out of retirement and intimidate Harry into going. I told Dad I wouldn't even charge them for the service. Oddly enough, I think that is what finally did it for my folks and made them give it up. But it might also have been a major conference with a seminary counselor from Saint Anselm's. I never actually heard what went on in that meeting between Mom, Dad, Harry, and the priest, but when I asked Harry later, he just said that the priest understood about his calling and explained it to the folks. So seminary was pushed off for four years until high school graduation. I had an uneasy feeling about all that.
Mom eventually accepted this as just a little bump on the road less traveled. To her way of thinking, Harry was still destined for sainthood but, like Paul, had to endure some hardships along the way. (You know Paul, that guy who wrote all those indecipherable epistles in the Bible in a secret code unbreakable even by my Captain Midnight Decoder Ring?) And I could not agree with her more that South Catholic High School was a hardship, having endured more detentions with Mr. Baracco than I could count.
Dad, on the other hand, seemed to take it harder than Mom. He actually became friendlier with me after that, and we did things together without Harry there to bug me. I suppose desperation drives people to do crazier things, but I can't say that regaining some of my former stature with him was much of a plus. Dad and I had little in common at that point. I loved him but I was a deposed king and he a workaholic engineer. And being a junior in high school, I was more interested in girls and in making trouble than in baseball games and grabbing a bite to eat at the diner to talk about life.
The road less traveled became even bumpier after I left home for college. God, I was hell on my parents, even from hundreds of miles away. And Harry? Well Harry was now officially a fallen away Catholic. He traded in his clarinet for a guitar, spent all his free time teaching himself to play folk music, let his hair grow long, and began frequenting the coffee houses in Oakland and Shadyside — Pittsburgh's dreaded hippy districts of the sixties. He was never into drugs — I knew that for sure from my Pittsburgh-based spy organization — but he had definitely gone weird. To say that he had joined the fringes of society would have been a major understatement. Harry was out there, way out there.
So, it was no surprise to me when he chose the seminary-avoidance route again and applied to only one college — Kenyon — some non-sectarian place in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio, that I had never heard of. I mean, they had zero computers on campus, no mainframe, not even a mini-computer. Zero. Even in the late sixties that was a sign of a totally backward institution. Mom and Dad were crushed, absolutely devastated, and totally against it. I wanted to kill him for going back on his promise to go to seminary not only because he was threatening my rule by refusing to move quietly into the non-aggressive realm of the religious, but also because he really hurt Mom and Dad with this one, him and his damned independent thinking. What a jerk!
But Harry had received a full scholarship and was going. He wouldn't argue about it. There was no fighting, nothing to talk about. He simply said that this was the next step on his life's journey. Believe it or not, Dad even had me talk to him at one point toward the end of the summer after high school, right before he went away, but I confess that metaphysics has never been my strong suit. I freaked on him when he lost me in the distinction between rationalization and conceptualization, and that was that for my “talk.” To me there were good guys and bad guys, black and white, Vic Morrows and Sergeant Krugers. Harry simply couldn’t understand this at all.
When Harry left for school for his freshman year at Kenyon, he almost left without saying good-bye. I remember to this day the last thing he said to Mom and Dad. I know you're expecting something profound and flowery from the boy who cut his own path through life, but all he said was, "Don’t worry about me, Mom, Dad. I'll see you later. I love you." And that was that. He was gone.
For four years Harry never came home, and Mom and Dad never went to visit him. He wouldn’t let them and he always had some lame excuse for it. He rarely wrote, never called, and invariably found a job there over the breaks and summer vacations. His letters were overly formal typed, report card-like messages — “Got all As, very happy with classes, people are great, miss everyone…” Even I realized they were emotionless and not like Harry at all. He had transformed into someone so completely different that he was unrecognizable as Harry to any of us. No one spoke of him at the dinner table or wondered aloud how he was really doing or why he had changed. His picture disappeared from the living room mantle. It was as if he had ceased to exist, had never existed, that the shining star had in fact been but a passing comet lost in time and memory. It hurt Mom and Dad a lot, so much that even I realized it. It hurt everyone — except me. I didn’t care.
But enough of that… Me? Miracle of miracles, I was headed to grad school at M.I.T. My parents had tolerated well my rebellious years and apparently it paid off. I turned a corner my junior year, my ship came in, my star rose in the East, and the king was reborn. Actually, it wasn't quite that dramatic but I'll take what I can get.
I had lucked into getting partnered with Kelly Erickson for our junior honors Computer Science project at Pitt and we (well, actually she more than me, but who's keeping track?) invented "in concept" a punchcardless computer that would revolutionize the industry. All we had to do was build it. Kelly and I continued the project through our senior year and were both accepted at M.I.T. on full fellowship with the expectation that we would continue the grandiose plan, making us famous and them richer. So when Harry left, I left, too, though my departure was with far more fanfare, pomp, and circumstance.
But believe it or not, I somehow missed that boat, as big and unstoppable as it appeared, and ended up a designer for a board game company that was looking to the computer as the future of its business. They sent a recruiter to campus the first week of school, he found me, and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I accepted on the spot. All I had to do was work with them to develop games and my invention and get it patented before Kelly did the same at M.I.T. Piece of cake. I had their resources behind me and Kelly had nothing. No contest.
That was the last I saw of M.I.T. and it was good riddance — what a bunch of over-achieving dopes. I didn’t have to leave if I didn’t want to, though. I could have stayed and gotten my degree and enjoyed torturing the nerds. The company didn’t care. They would have paid for it. They just wanted the technology and the games. But it was better that I left then — it never sat well with Kelly that all our work had somehow been mysteriously lost in the move to M.I.T.
In one of those spur of the moment decisions, I made up my mind not to tell anyone in the family that I had left. After all, it was none of their business and it made for better dinner conversation. “Oh yes, Tom is at M.I.T., you know. He’s working on a fellowship with... What’s her name, Tom? Judy? Kelly? How is she doing anyway? Any future plans for you two?” It was just so much more convenient for them to think I was still there. Actually, the company told me I could work from anywhere as long as I kept in touch and fed them work on a regular basis. I could have set up shop in Hawaii, or Alaska, or even Nowhere, Ohio.