The phone rang as I was hurrying out the door for pre-Midnight Mass caroling on Christmas Eve with the choir.
It was a few minutes before 11 with barely enough time to get there. I hesitated about answering. It was Larry calling from California, so I dropped everything and didn't worry about getting to the church on time.
Larry was in a somber mood, celebrating his birthday alone and with no apologies for having had a few drinks. He talked about the old days when we were kids, building clubhouse sheds, playing kick-the-can, sledding down the hillside and, of course, anticipating Christmas.
It seemed that every year Larry got cheated out of a birthday, being born on Christmas Eve. He said he never thought about it that way.
"Why should I get two presents? That would have been tough on Mom and Dad and the rest of yinz," he said.
As he poured another glass, Larry reminded me that he couldn't drink anything cold. "I've gotten used to drinking beer warm," he said. "You get a lot more taste that way."
He stoically accepted his restrictions since the onset of scleroderma, often making light of things most of us complain about. That dreaded disease, the hardening of the skin externally and internally, would take him down a few years later, at 56. He lived with it eight years longer than average, which was 10.
When Larry was 5 and I was 6, we sang and danced to entertain the government-hired workmen building our new hillside steps in Lawrenceville during the Depression. We rocked back and forth singing songs like "Yankee Doodle Dandy." They roared in delight and threw pennies at our feet, sometimes even a nickel.
Larry soon was entertaining on another level, playing the role of Ignatz Stupovitz in a locally written musical called "Night Winds." He stood on stage, motionless, while his mother sang: "Ignatz my dumpling, he sure must be something ..." Larry didn't utter a word or sing a note, but he stole the show.
He once stole some of my Post-Gazette paper route money -- $1.47, to be exact. Larry admitted the theft but told me he was just trying to teach me a lesson: "You shouldn't leave all that money lying loose where anyone could get it." But he soon paid me back with his profits from selling as many as a hundred Post-Gazettes a day to workers leaving the nearby mills.
He excelled at baseball and, despite his size, football. Larry was only 5-feet-4, the "runt" of the litter in our family of 12, our dad said. At 17 though, he was captain of the Stanton Heights football team, the smallest quarterback in anyone's memory. Most players outweighed him by 50 to 100 pounds.
His team often scrimmaged at a small field near our house. Larry once made them a breakfast of ham and eggs, using eggs gathered from a neighbor's henhouse. In appreciation, the team rolled a long-abandoned car next to our house down a nearby ravine.
Larry led Stanton Heights to several winning seasons against teams from Bloomfield, East Liberty, Lawrenceville, Millvale, Sharpsburg and elsewhere. A wrist fracture -- his left, fortunately -- didn't sideline him. He just threw the ball faster and ran like hell as the 1952 team won the championship at Arsenal Park Field.
Larry took electrical and mechanical trade skills learned at Connelly Vocational High School with him to the Navy. Afterward, he became a field engineer at Westinghouse Electric and one of the company's best troubleshooters. He kept a model of one of his patents, a compact super magnet, in his room for years. In a real way, it reminded us of his own magnetism.
Sometime after the onset of his disease in 1973, Larry and his wife Frances divorced in the most civil way possible. "We just sat down, with no lawyers, and had this understanding," he said. The understanding has held up well. Fran and Vince, their son, have remained close friends with the rest of our family.
During his later years, I called Larry now and then. He had a way with words, the right ones.
After that Christmas Eve phone call, I got to church just a few minutes before Midnight Mass. One of my colleagues said it was too bad that I missed the caroling before Mass.
"No, it wasn't really," I replied. "I just got a long-distance phone call from my little brother who was born on Christmas Eve, and that is something I wouldn't have missed for the world."
Gene Scott, a retired publicist and editor now living in Livonia, Mich., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.