By David McGrath

I remember battalions of kids. Children of war, swarming over every block. No adults supervised, but we had safety in numbers. Fathers were at work, mothers in the kitchen. An organized, natural dynamic was in place on the streets, sidewalks, parks, and vacant lots.

Of course, if there was trouble — and I don't mean a fair fight between a couple of school kids, but an emergency like a bicycle injury that needed stitches, or when the older, retarded kid, Pete, was showing other children a brown paper bag full of .38 caliber bullets — a mother or two materialized in the doorways to deal with it.

A late afternoon aerial view of our neighborhood resembled one of those highly detailed New Yorker cartoons, showing children at play: one group kicking a can, another lining up against one another for football, a loose tangle of girls playing hopscotch, and yet another mixed group losing hold of a kite sailing high in the sky, a boy chasing after a Beagle, the dog running away with a snatched string.

My brother Henry was among the leaders of the kid battalions, though I could never articulate the reason. He was different from my oldest brother Carl and his friends, who commanded respect and obedience for their size and age and, sometimes, sadistic pleasure in bossing the other kids around. Henry just seemed to magnetize those who met him.

In our own house, say on a Saturday, when everyone was home, and Carl would turn on the TV and control whether we would watch Woody Woodpecker or Sky King, Henry might remain in another room, lying spoon-style on the floor, playing a game by himself with a pencil and a marble.

Meanwhile, we watched the hero of Sky King, a chubby-faced lead actor, heroically flying through a rainstorm to deliver the veterinarian on an emergency call. Carl walked to the TV to turn up the volume, to drown out the "dialogues" that Henry was conducting in the other room with his staged pencil-and-marble drama.

At the commercial, Ruth went to see what exactly Henry was up to, and we could hear him ratchet up the pace of dialogue and action, whatever it was, for Ruth's benefit.

When the commercial ended and the TV station reverted to the pilot's view of the torrents outside his windshield, the wiper blades barely coping, I noticed that Ruth had not come back, prompting me to get up and join what was surely something more exciting and interesting. Eric followed. Then Pete.

All four of us ended up standing or sitting around Henry's little circle, rooting for the pencil to get a hit against Henry's "mouthy" left hand.

"Did you break your glasses?" said one of Henry's voices to the umpire of his extemporaneous ball game.

Pretty soon, although Sky King's B-52's engine was still droning from the front room, Carl was now watching Henry from the doorway, acting as if he were there only to jump up and down and trying to touch the top sill.

The same kind of thing happened when other kids came over. When the Vincennes family arrived with all 10 of their kids for a birthday party, four of them would not even waste time with the rest of us but would walk right over to where Henry was and where the evening's real kid-entertainment would be, even if not necessarily of the conventional kind.

If the cousins wanted to play hockey in the basement with brooms and sticks and a volleyball, it was Donny Vincennes or Larry Perry who had commanded the action.
Football was Carl's territory. On a balmy autumn day, when we wanted to play football in the vacant lot next door, it was my brother Carl who divided us into teams and both quarterbacked and refereed the game.

But ghost stories on the front porch at sunset, or hanging a blanket over the clothesline in the laundry room, to stage a Christmas play, and Henry was your guy.