Adventures growing up as an identical twin

by Alec Clayton

My twin brother saved my life when I was a year old. Then, for the next 17 years he tried his damnedest to kill me. And I returned the gesture. We were the living embodiment of the clichť about brothers who beat hell out of each other but team up to defend each other against anyone else.

We came into this world in 1943, weighing four and a half pounds each, with hard little knots of muscle in our arms and legs that our mother said came from fighting in the womb. Nobody could tell us apart. In fact, I donít know if I am really me, or if Iím my brother; because the only way the family could tell who was who was by the little identification bracelets that were slipped on our wrists at birth, and those bracelets kept slipping off. For most of our childhood, parents and siblings tended to address us as if we were one person: Billalec (heís Bill and I am Alec, or is it the other way Ďround?).

One night, when we were about a year old, Bill woke up in the middle of the night and started screaming. Mom and Pop came running from their bedroom. Our older sisters dashed in from their rooms. Our older brother shouted for us to cut out the racket. Somebody picked Bill up and tried rocking him and burping him and changing his diaper, but nothing they did succeeded in getting him to quit crying. Then my oldest sister looked into the crib and saw that I was balled into a knot, turning blue and not making a sound. She picked me up, and Bill immediately quit crying and went back to sleep. Somehow he had sensed in his sleep that I was in danger, and he cried until someone came to help me. They rushed me to the hospital, and the doctor said in a few more minutes I would have been dead.

The problem was an intestinal obstruction that continued to plague me over the next five years. A few years later, during the summer before we entered first grade, I was back in the hospital for a second operation. This time they removed large sections of my intestines, and that apparently solved the problem. 

But there was another problem during this hospital visit: I was starving myself. I refused to eat. When they brought food in, I would divide everything in half and set Billís half aside and wait for him. But Bill was not allowed in the room. Hospital rules. Children were not allowed on that floor. The doctor told the hospital administrators that I was literally dying because they would not allow my twin brother in to see me. But the administrators, being administrators, administered the rules without exception. To get around that little problem, Dr. Peegrim, God bless him, put Bill in a hospital gown, laid him on a gurney, and wheeled him into my room, where we shared a big meal, and I began to recover.

The operation left me with a ghastly scar that ran from belly button to scrotum, and I went home with a big bandage around my belly. It was summertime, and all we ever wore back then were T-shirts and shorts with elastic waist bands. Under my shorts and shirt was a big, white bundle of gauze. I was standing in front of our house when a neighbor came by and said, "Bill, how is your brother?"
Indignant, I yanked my shorts down to my knees to expose my bandage and said, "Canít you see Iím Alec?"

It was along about that time when our mother explained to us why we looked alike. She told us that we came from a single egg in her stomach. After she told us that, we went off to play. And, as so often happened when we went off to play, we managed to disappear for hours, sending the household into panic. They searched the house, the attic and the basement, the back yard. They finally found us on a top shelf in a walk-in pantry, buck naked and wrapped up in a sheet. When Mom asked, "Why didnít you answer when we called you?" we replied, "We couldnít. We werenít born yet. We were still in a single egg in your stomach."

When we werenít hiding from everyone or fighting each other, we were risking life and limb with daredevil stunts. Like the time we saw the knife throwing act in the circus and went home and locked ourselves in the attic and threw butcher knives at each other. We were pretty good, as well as I can recall; we came really close, but nobody got cut. Or the time when Bill fell off a trapeze and knocked himself out for 24 hours on the same day I took a swan dive off the top of a refrigerator and landed on top of the pointy spike of a pressure cooker (we have identical scars from those fiascoes).

I had a good excuse for such shenanigans. I still had a lot of pain from my operations, and I was doped up on Paregoric most of the time. I was stoned. I donít know what Billís excuse was.
Then there were the countless times when we were mistaken for each other or when we pretended to be each other. Sometimes we even confused ourselves. Once, the whole family went out to dinner. Bill and I always finished long before anyone else, and then weíd go running around the restaurant and playing outside on the street. This one time we had been outside. I came back in to see if I could beg a bite of someoneís dessert, and my mother said, "Alec (she had finally learned to tell us apart), go get your brother and tell him itís time to go."
"Okay," I said.

I dashed to the front of the restaurant. Next to the front door there was a full-length mirror. I saw my reflection in the mirror and said, "Come on, Bill. Itís time to go."

Being identical had its ups and its downs. If I got caught doing something wrong at school, I would always identify myself as Bill, and the next day he would be called to the office and be punished. He always took his punishment in silence and then retaliated by pulling the same nasty trick on me the next time he got caught. And we both got caught more than any of the other trouble-makers did, because everybody recognized us. Someone would see a bunch of boys skipping out of school or sneaking into the swimming pool, or whatever the particular offense was, and call the school to report: "I saw a bunch of boys doing (whatever). I couldnít recognize any of them, but I know the Clayton twins were there." The Clayton twins always got caught, even when we werenít guilty. If there were any two boys in a group who happened to look alike, the Clayton twins got the blame.

Eventually, as we grew older, we began to look somewhat less identical and the novelty of pretending to be the other slowly wore thin. The last time I remember pretending to be Bill was during my senior year in high school. Bill was out of town, and I took his girlfriend to a party. I canít remember if she ever figured it out or not, but I do remember that she was a pretty good kisser.
And the last time he pretended to be me was when we were both in the Navy. I was married to my first wife at the time, and stationed in Norfolk, Va. Bill was on a ship stationed in Florida. His ship pulled into Norfolk and he came over to my apartment while I was at work. When he knocked on the door, my wife looked through the peephole and said, "Did you forget your keys again?"

Of course he couldnít resist that opportunity to trick her. She let him in, and he managed to keep the pretense going for quite some time before she figured it out. Later, when I asked, "Just what all happened before she finally figured out you werenít me?" Bill laughed and said, "Youíll never know."

We now live on opposite sides of the country and havenít seen each other in years. We still look alike, but I have a beard and he doesnít. If anyone asks him if he ever wanted to grow a beard, just to see how heíd look, he tells them he can look at his twin brother and tell how ugly heíd be. If anybody asks me about maybe shaving my beard off, I have the same retort.

The last time we got together in our old hometown was more than 10 years ago. At that time, we started telling our wives stories about our childhood and discovered that for years we had each been telling the same stories, but in his version of the stories he always said the funny lines, and in my version I did. The truth is, neither of us know, for instance, which one of us it was who spoke to himself in the mirror.

At one point during that visit Bill made a run to the neighborhood grocery store, and while he was there he bumped into an old friend from high school. The friend said, "Hey, Clayton. Are you you, or are you your brother?" Hell, weíve been trying to figure that one out for more than half a century.

copyright © Alec Clayton 2009

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