After 50 Years, I Can Speak My Father’s Language

I became Harold’s (my father’s name) youngest son when he was forty-nine years old.  Forty-nine today isn’t what it was in 1958, especially when you lived life full bore.  By the time I became conscious of his presence (three years old) he’d already begun his initial descent.  He had the looks of Walter Cronkite, the physique of Jackie Gleason, the temper of John McEnroe, the contempt for women of August Strindberg (Swedish Playwright and infamous misogynist 1849-1912), the alcoholism of Johnny Cash, and a creative and innovative mind in the areas of electrical and mechanical engineering.

There were just two of us (me and my older (2 years) brother.  That is, until 1972 (I was 14 years old), when the dirty laundry was aired: Our father had a previous marriage which produced two daughters and a son.  As I recall I was excited by the prospect (kind of like the “Brady Bunch“) and my brother was apprehensive and quite angry.  The confession of a first marriage only occurred because the eldest daughter had the strong desire to discover what happened to her “real daddy.”  The first wife’s precept that no one was to try to find their father until she had passed was strictly enforced and subsequently honored by all.  She passed in the early 70’s after which the eldest daughter’s search began.  As to why our mother or father kept this secret and never disclosed anything about it is anyone’s guess.

The marriage bond between my father and mother was broadsided by the wrecking ball in 1963 when the County Sheriff appeared at our front door to serve our dad his notice to vacate immediately which, we learned later, was a bitterly contested condition of their divorce. From that day on and until the day he died he expressed a cruel, ruthless and chronic acrimony and rancor toward our mother which he publicly and conspicuously displayed, especially when we visited on Sunday afternoons.  I don’t know if his brutish and vengeful behavior during our visits was aimed at my brother and I, or if he thought we’d run back to headquarters and repeat verbatim his vitriolic euphemisms such as “that god-damned pollock” (those were the only words he ever used to reference her).  I think his ruthless contention began after his first wife deserted him in the middle of the night with the children and his business partner and their business’s assets liquidated to cash.  The few things he treasured had fled in the night leaving him alone and penniless.

But he was not the victim; he was the perpetrator.

As I was to learn later in life, my father lived fast!  It took me a number of years before I could admit that my dad had already been someone else’s dad before he was mine.  What’s more, he was dad to three kids and husband to some lady some place and neighbors and club members and tavern buddies and business partners and customers all of whom I would never meet, but of whom meant very much or very little to him, and this whole other life never ever in a million years, not even for a split second ever imagined that somewhere some day in the universe there’d be Harold’s youngest child telling you their life story.  Well, until the age of fourteen I thought Harold being my dad was a one-act play; I was shocked to discover that there had been an earlier play, a one-man production entitled The First Dad is the Real Dad penned by his first family, which unbeknownst to me, devolved my one-act into a superfluous epilogue found in ancient Greek dramas.

Yet there were earlier chapters, when he was practically barbaric; young and handsome and strong and libertine.  Chapters in which he had pockets stuffed full of youthful immortality and adventurous hunger. Chapters which bore great resemblance to the stories of Hemingway or Faulkner or Steinbeck.  Chapters of male bonding and passage: acquiring the finesse of fly fishing; developing the patience of a deer hunter; learning how to set up camp.  Chapters about acquiring mechanical and electrical skills when combined with his creativity conjured up devices which awed his employers.  It’s these chapters that are out-of-print, those few siblings able to remember have long passed, names of friends or places or dates abandoned.  It would seem that my understanding of who and what my father really was would be conjecture, similar to explanations of figures in portraits painted by famous artists.

Except, there was one trail which we’d never bothered to follow: a couple of phenomenally heavy boxes which contained an enormous array of hand tools, parts, components, knobs, fuses, and rust.  These boxes had been buried in my brother’s basement for years, neither he nor I had any practical use for them.  In fact, they reminded both of us of particularly painful memories when both of us declined our dad’s invitation to study drafting in high school (and therefore follow his life’s path) and turned our attentions to the performing arts.  That was when I could feel my father’s pride drain from him as though he’d just been gutted.  But fifty years later, after I endured a break down and was determined to entertain my curiosities and creativity I spotted the art of wood working.  And I read a passage: “A Woodworker works wood with hand tools, he doesn’t machine wood with power tools.”  And so began my acquisition of various tools, all with specific purposes, and some which looked distantly familiar, as though I’d stumbled across them long ago but didn’t know what, if any, use they’d have.  What I didn’t understand then, I clearly understand now: Context was missing; meaning was missing; purpose and use and technique and discipline and understanding were all missing the first time, as an adolescent, I had found them.  But today, as I work wood with my hand tools I finally understand my father’s native language.  A language of tools and imagination and creativity.  A language of applied science.  A language which died the same day he did.

But it’s been rediscovered and is as important to me as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I finally understand the language he’d been speaking, how he saw his world, what he’d use to solve problems, and why he was so devastated when my brother and I impolitely snubbed his advice about drafting class and joined glee club instead.  And while I’m overjoyed to finally uncover a common thread uniting me to my dad, it’s also bittersweet: It’s a reminder that he’s gone and a wish that I’d give anything if he and I could, for just one day, sit together in my work space and “talk shop.”

The attached pictures show my dad’s tool at the top or the left and my tool underneath or to the right of his.

The American Lexicon Is Fundamentally Evolutionary

We make all kinds of decisions every day.  I’d assert that a tenet of life is decision.

Decisions are based on a fundamental understanding of options.  These options are often presented through language.  Our language has mirrored our intellectual expansion during the past twenty years (since the commercialization of the internet), but it’s also exponentially increased the likelihood of poor decisions versus good decisions.  And not for the reason you’re probably thinking about right now.

It’s not that our decision-making ability has declined, it’s that our American English lexicon has been stripped of standards and replaced by Idiolects which are varieties of a specific language unique to an individual. In other words, how an individual (all individuals) use parts of speech specific to the language they’re speaking.  Huh?  Are you suggesting that we’re using vocabulary generally accepted but individually defined?

Yes, for example: I’ve had a great evening; would you like to come up for a night cap?  Twenty years ago you had a pretty good idea that the night cap meant some form of refreshment and m-a-y-b-e. . .But today a night cap most likely is prone to interpretation, and depending on the interpreter, the night cap might be the evening’s last tango which spins and dips and clutches its way to dawn, or the night cap might be the gut-wrenching sound of starboard iron scraping along larboard iron in a dense fog on a moonless night in the frigid north sea.  Both invitations were accepted but only one, the former, seemed to coalesce.  The latter was respectfully disharmonious and most likely eliminated any tandem future.  Okay, so what?  What’s this got to do with me?

We’re all assuming that what we say and what they hear are synonymous.  But in this day and age of individuality, identity, and me-me-meism which is reinforced constantly through internet-based social networks and the hardboiled, pragmatic, and mundane personal updates which someone somewhere will proclaim as unique (dismissing our language’s standard usages) and applaud their meism misuse (interpretation) of vocabulary, and whammo!  A word or phrase which held a generalized meaning now has a bastard son.  This phenomenon is known as Language Evolution Based on the Idiolectic Intersection of Individual Adoption.

So what’ve you been blathering on about?

Simply put: What you know you’re saying (standardized use) is being heard as something different (Idiolectic use).  Perhaps if communication was bipartisan (the talkers and listeners understand that their communication is reshaping the English lexicon) then we might lessen misunderstandings and agree to use a mutually standardized language in order to foster a sense of unity.

Do I Look Like A Pigeon?

There’s a basic tenet of parental behavior to which many ascribe:  Whatever you don’t like, don’t understand, or frightens you about your child, you’ll try to ignore it, or threaten it, or eliminate it under the guise of childhood protection.

If you had known me as a child you would never describe me as: bashful, shy, inhibited, reserved, demure, or innocent.  Especially innocent!  I blame my lack of innocence on a creative incarceration complete with shackles, pillory, and thumbscrews (metaphorically speaking) as the adult-authority’s recommended protocol for youngsters that emigrate to the shores of their imaginations.  My crime?  Being entertained by my imagination’s liberty to dream of things or experiences which landed far beyond the limits of our lower-middle-class capabilities, and of which I insisted were possible despite our depressed economic status.  Not that I asked for things that we couldn’t afford.  I asked for things which required creativity or compromise or cunning.  I only asked for things which were possible but perplexing; things which, if I were taller or older or motorized I could procure.  But I was a short, plump, uncoordinated child that wrestled with an unbridled imagination and raw creativity which everyone described as teetering between adaptation (the positive, yet painful struggle of change: unyielding animosity between divorced parents, recent move to the south side) and abdication (an attempt to cope by disengaging himself from his misery by displacing reality with imagination).  I had just begun implementing a plan which might conquer both my hells (before/after move).  Using creativity and imagination I might be able to map my way free of their self-centered, ego-inflamed romantic ideals and out from under the shitty and selfish mess the adults-in-charge created, then forced down my gullet like corn down the throat of the holiday goose.

So authority figures convened to develop a strategy designed to lower the volume of my imagination and increase interest in my new-world order.  By discouraging escape and encouraging capitulation they hypothesized that I would slowly build a positive (and comfortable) reality without careening into fantasy, imagination, or creativity.  In other words, we’ve tested him and he ain’t no Einstein, scored dead-center 50th percentile, and, thank God, kind, dull, unambitious, and docile: he’s simply avoiding change by daydreaming.  So the adults broke their huddle and walked to the line of scrimmage; a defense full of adulthood, authority, corporal punishment, and varying degrees of coercion designed to obliterate the supply bridge between me and my creativity and imagination.  But I was on the offensive and understood that in a matter of seconds my pulverization would commence; I mustered some resistance, usually a subtle mockery of mumbled affirmations.

Their boundless resources, their freshly recruited therapists (secretly screened in the convent) hammered my resistance and during a nighttime raid caused a debilitating breach, a nightmare, which cast doubt on imaginations allegiance.  Creativity wasn’t strong enough to deflect their incessant whittling away at my corners, sanding down my resolve in order to spit me out at eighth grade graduation: a shining example of what to do with a square peg when the world offers only round holes.  The nuns, lay-people, and counselors believed that by distracting my distractions, by motivating and redirecting and sympathetic yet tyrannical concern and instruction, they could successfully extinguish what, at the time, was thought to be simple imagination.  And I would take my place among my fellow eighth grade graduates poised for the adventure of public middle-school, then high school, and finally be added to the third-shift at some manufacturing or assembly plant as one more blue-collar-assembly-line-lifer with low expectations and very little hope.  

Tragically, these nuns and educators were in pursuit of an example, a trophy, proof that plucking me from a sea of personal trauma and forcing me to face the reality to which I was born.

How nearsighted they were to think they eliminated my problem.  It was much worse than that.  They confirmed, even back then, that it was real and I wasn’t just imagining things.

. . . later that night . . . (excerpt from “The Other: A Collection of Doubt”)

“So, what did you want to know?” Scott asks placing the bottle of wine on a coaster.

Tom stands, adjusts the flame and walks to the sofa where he sits.  Scott sits cross-legged at the corner.  “Well, how you came to be here.  Not here, in my house per ce, but, I guess, how you came to be period.  I mean, I know about your mom and your dad and how they came from China and about your sister, but I don’t really know anything about you besides you’re an excellent kisser and I love the softness of your skin and blackness of your hair and your smell.  I want to know about you.”

Tom reaches for the bottle and pours himself more wine and refills Scott’s glass all the while struggling with the desire to simply strip him naked and bring them both to a mind-blowing orgasm.  Scott remains steadfastly silent.  “You don’t have to tell me, if you prefer,” Tom adds finally.

“I don’t know how to answer.  I mean, no one has ever asked me that question before.  Has anyone ever asked you to tell them about yourself?  How do you answer that question?  I feel like anything I say will sound grossly trite and insignificant.”

“But those are the things I want to hear.  And I’d rather than hear them now. . .than after.  Maybe I’m afraid that. . .after. . .you won’t feel so compelled to share them with me,” Tom says feeling suddenly embarrassed and insecure.  “I’ve never had anyone over to my house like this,” he admits.

“Like this, like what?” Scott asks.

“Like you,” Tom continues.  “And it’s not like I’m trying to protect the house or even myself for that matter.  It’s just that this is all so unusual.  This morning, this day, tonight, even you.  It’s all very unusual.   I don’t normally behave this way, not that the way I’m behaving is bad, it’s just different.  Different is all.  And I guess I want to understand you.  In a way that’s bigger or deeper or larger than kisses and erections and orgasms,” Tom says sheepishly.

Tom feels that slight sickening feeling of overexposure, that sorrow you feel when you realize you’ve stayed out in the sun too long and you’ve got a fitful night of prickly sunburn ahead of you.  Perhaps he should’ve kept his mouth shut and quickly stripped Scott in the kitchen and wasted no more than ten minutes including the awkward “so long.”  Perhaps by now he’d be in his shower washing away the remnants of weakness.  Simple.  Easy.  Clean.

Tom takes a long swallow of wine and looks at Scott, at the front of Scott’s jeans which no longer suggest his passion, but which now sit folded politely much like his own.  All that remains of their bodies collision against the countertop is an unforgiving stickiness.

“I never knew what I wanted.  Growing up, I never knew what I wanted.  What I wanted to do, wanted to be, or who I wanted to be with.  I knew almost immediately what I didn’t want.  What I didn’t want to do or who I didn’t want to be or who I didn’t want to be with.  And it seemed easier, I guess, to eliminate things than to chase things.  So I’ve spent the better part of my life in a state of subtraction.

“I never gave it much actual thought, you know, the reason for the activity of eliminating things from my life.  I guess I just found it to be an easier way to get by. And somewhere, some time I thought that I’d eventually find something that I’d be interested in enough to actually add to my life.  Something that I’d be willing to pursue.”

Scott takes a long drink and studies the wine as though he were reading tea leaves.  Tom watches Scott’s intense stare into the wine glass.  Leave him alone, Tom thinks.  Maybe all Scott wants is a quickie and you’re trying to make it into something more.  Maybe all this talk will lead to nothing.  Maybe Scott will find you too needy.  Maybe you should simply lean over and kiss him so you can get this over with; but Tom feels that their attraction has waned.

“I can give you a ride home if you’d like,” Tom says quietly, uncertain of Scott’s desire to stay.

“Why?  Did I say something wrong?”

“No, no you didn’t say anything wrong.  I just thought that. . .” Tom adds quickly, trying to allay Scott’s uncomfortableness.

“See?  This is exactly the reason why I never tell people what I’m thinking!  It’s like they think they want to hear it, and then when I’m straight with them they realize that they’re not really interested.  It happens all the time.  So I think it’s just easier to do what we both want and get it over with.  Simple.  Clean.  Easy,” Scott says defensively.

Tom stands up and walks to the fireplace for no reason than to move away from Scott.  He studies the fire and wonders how this day could end this way.  “Well, what is it that you think is so simple, clean and easy?” he says without looking at Scott.

“The same thing you do,” Scott says still studying his wine.

Tom watches the fire immediately realizing that they have reached the fork in the road.  The same divergence he has reached scores of times before: the familiar scenarios play out in his head like a montage: Scott stands and lets himself out; Scott stands up and walks to him, kisses him lightly and leaves; Tom walks to Scott, kisses him and they do indeed play out the inevitable, in exchange for the fifteen awkward minutes when scraps of paper with false phone numbers are exchanged and Tom locks the door securely behind Scott.  They all seem obvious.  They do seem simple and clean and easy.

Tom rubs his face with his hand, “I don’t think so, Scott.  I don’t think I want simple, clean and easy.  Not this time,” he admits finally looking at Scott.  “I think this time I want it difficult, dirty and hard,” he says walking to the sofa.  “And I think it all has to do with you, with you Scott” sitting next to him, “and I think it’s all about me letting someone in and all about you knocking on a door you want to open.  I think it’s all about you and me, here and now.  I think both of us are done, at least right now anyway, with simple, clean and easy.”

Tom reaches a hand to Scott’s face which he tilts upward.  Scott’s eyes meet his.  They both sit in silence for a few moments.  Tom’s thumb gently caresses Scott’s cheek and chin feeling the soft stubble of his beard.  Scott smiles slightly at his tenderness and reaches a hand to Tom’s face which he touches softly.  Tom thinks that this is the tenderness discovered between friends, friends willing to be naked and exposed, friends that share intimacies deeper and darker than just sex.  These are the moments which relationships are built on he thinks as their tender caresses continue.

Scott leans forward and kisses Tom’s cheek, then pulls away slightly, “no one’s ever taken the time to articulate it like that,” he says, “usually they simply dismiss me.  Usually by this time I find myself on the stoop of their house wondering how in the hell I’m going to get home.”

Tom takes Scott’s hand off his cheek and kisses his exposed palm, “but are you up to it, Scott?  Up to the difficult, dirty and hard?  Because I am, I mean, at least I think I am, right now anyways.  If you’re not then I’m not sure I want to complicate this any more,” he admits, again kissing the hand, “and I think that that would be a shame because it seems that we’ve already achieved a certain distance.  Given all the opportunities we’ve had today to simply sprint to an orgasm it would seem odd that you’re not up to the long distance run,” he adds.

Scott lifts himself out of the corner of the sofa and kneels at Tom’s side.  He leans in close and turns Tom’s face to his and kisses him devotedly, closed mouth, without passion but with longing.  “I’ve trained for a run like this all my life,” he says quietly while kissing Tom’s cheek.

Tom stands and places his wine glass on the coffee table.  He moves in front of the fireplace and slowly begins to undress starting with his shirt and opening one button at a time.  His fingers move slowly over the fabric feeling its softness, the stitching of the buttonholes; as he pulls the tails out of his trousers Scott takes a drink from his glass, places it on the coffee table next to Tom’s and walks in front of him.  Scott reaches for the hem of his fleece and in one smooth motion pulls it over his head and drops it on the carpet at his feet.  Tom peels the shirt off his shoulders, pulls his arms out of the sleeves and allows the shirt to slip out of his hand and fall to the floor gathering in a cotton heap.

Scott reaches slowly for the buckle of his belt, pulls on the length of leather which winds its way through loops, tugs at it, and unbuckles the latch.  At the same time Tom undoes his own belt.  They are now in-sync with each other as they both reach for the closures on their pants: Tom’s clasp and Scott’s button.  Both pop open as they grab the metal tab at the top of the zipper and slowly pull down, the metal teeth sliding into a wide-mouthed grin showing the soft fabric of their underwear to each other; Scott’s being steel-gray with Tommy Hilfiger emblazoned in purple on the waistband and Tom’s being simple, white Nautica boxers.  They stand motionless for a moment studying each other.  Tom grabs the edges of his wool trousers and lifting one knee withdraws one leg and then the other from his trousers; Scott simply allows the added weight of keys, cell phone and change to draw his jeans off his hips and down his legs like an anchor being dropped into the ocean and settle at his feet.  He stands watching Tom fold his trousers neatly laying them on top of his shirt.  Scott pulls one foot free from his jeans and then slowly, the other.  He kicks the denim to the side.  They stand three feet apart in only their underwear looking at each other.  Scott moves first, slowly hooking his fingers in the waistband of his shorts and drawing them down his hips, past the curve of his buttocks, out and over his erection and past his thighs releasing his hold on the cotton which folds like meringue at his feet: now naked in front of him.  Tom hooks his own fingers into the waistband of his boxers and pulls them in one swift motion off one leg, then the other finally naked to Scott.

Tom feels the heat of the fire brushing his back as he studies Scotts body: his long, lithe neck meeting the angle of his clavicle dissected by its horizontal bones; shoulders which spread out and bend with muscular caps bow slightly at the junction of his biceps and triceps; the mounds of his chest crest with lean muscles and are topped with two, quarter-sized auburn nipples which are separated by small, sparse hairs; the chest falls onto the ribs which look like pale piano keys and descend into the diamond form of his abdominals which drain into the slightly indented bellybutton centering his core; muscles like hands forming a “V” fan out on either side of his groin, a furrow of muscle rising from his crotch up to his hips and disappearing into the flesh of his buttocks; his hairless thighs give way to bony knees and lithe, muscular calves which have a splattering of stray, black hairs.

Scott studies Tom’s form: the wide chest painted by brown hair which continues down his stomach and empties into the hair surrounding his erection; muscular thighs support the heavy foundation; the most obvious characteristic is the abundance of body hair which Scott finds very sexy; Scott yearns to bury himself in Tom’s masculinity.

“You’re absolutely beautiful,” Tom hears himself whisper, afraid he’s sounding trite and wishing he could summon up words he thinks would be worthy of the apparition.  He wishes he could utter the oohs and aahs reserved for firework displays he enjoys.

“You’re better than I had imagined,” Scott admits while feeling himself pulled by an invisible string into Tom’s embrace.  Better than I imagined, Tom thinks to himself, better than he imagined.  No one has ever said that to him before, and, he wondered, if anyone had ever even thought it.

At the same moment they both take steps towards the other and meet in the middle of the carpet, Tom feeling a cooling of his backside and Scott feeling the warmth of the fire wash over his body.  They stand less than a foot apart, their hands at the same time begin to touch areas of acute attraction; Scott to Tom’s formidable chest hair, Tom to Scott’s slender hips.  At first their touch is tentative, as though they can’t quite believe they have acquired permission, but quickly their caresses gain momentum and purpose.  As they move closer together their hips, pressed tightly together as hands continue to roam, to explore, to touch and discover.  Tom’s hand leaves Scott’s hips and move hastily around to his back then hungrily to his bottom, groping, kneading the soft flesh which tightens as Scott pushes himself against Tom, feeling himself being blanketed by Tom’s abundance of soft yet protective hair, recalling a similar feeling when his mother would pull the blanket to his chin and tuck in the sides; bliss he thought, blissful then and simply bliss tonight.

Maybe We’re Just Like Ducks

It’s called imprinting, the rapid learning process by which a newborn or very young animal establishes a behavior pattern of recognition and attraction to another animal of its own kind or to a substitute or an object identified as the parent.  Ducks must be given full credit for bringing this natural attraction to the world’s attention.

We’ve all heard of some unusual attractions that ducklings have developed: humans, dogs, even beach balls.  So, if a duckling can blame nature for his predisposition for beach balls, perhaps our sexual proclivities are the combination of imprinting and sexual awakening: Love Potion No. 1.

My Duck Day coincided with the appearance of the concrete caravan and my budding sexual identity.

It happened during the dog days of summer, near the end of a blistering July, 1966 that the concrete caravan first appeared at the top of the hill on National Avenue and slowly made its way past Lapham Street, past the Roebuck house, skipped the alley, patched Elmer’s front walk and finally stopped to repair the crumbling curb in front of my house.

Most of the cement-men were career contract-labor: exceptionally efficient at chain-gang-hard-labor; blood-orange skin from the unrelenting sun, hints of aging hair poked from beneath hats, enormous bellies born from beer, and exhausted cigar stubs deeply wedged at the side of their mouths.  And then there was this one guy, unlike the others, this one guy resembled the older brother of everyone’s best friend; this one guy was the guy that came to pick up your sister, bewitched your mother, and worried your father; this guy, handsome in a blue-blood kind-of-way but absent of the sophisticated grooming; his countenance was basic, organic, and naturally simple; his body was whittled by the repetitious pounding of pick-axes; his age was disguised and  purposefully vague evoking my curiosity; he was a pioneer, trailblazing through his indecisive twenties.

He wore identical clothing each day: A clean, sleeveless white T-shirt absent of any distracting graphics; tattered by abrasions, the frayed front pockets of his torn 501’s gave witness to his desperate deep-hand searching for loose change to feed the pop machine; a thick, brown belt wormed its way through the faded-to-white belt loops and cinched the denim preventing its avalanche; a navy blue bandana was tied tightly across his forehead to restrain a chalky cowlick; and concealing safety glasses which rationed the gleam of his lapis colored eyes.  Draped yet suggestive, his broad shoulders were easily double the width of his narrow hips which plunged into the deeply concave impressions of his hindquarters which were kept aloft by fleshy legs challenging the denim’s restraint.

Each morning he would arrive fresh like today’s baked bread.  As the toil took its toll his sweat marked then saturated his T-shirt prompting its removal which resembled pulling peel from fleshy fruit.  From my perch on Mrs. Bower’s front steps I mapped the pathway of his perspiration, its headwater found near his neck where it gathered then overflowed and trickled south swallowing isolated beads of sweat and tributaries which first appeared on his capped shoulders and added volume and speed which breached the sinewy levee of his spine and flooded the darkening waistband of his 501 ‘s as well as the white cotton banding which sat low on his hips.

I watched him for more than a week when my mother took notice and opportunity of my afternoon routine of sitting on the front porch.  It was her idea that I take the hose and water Mrs. Bower’s flowers and front lawn.  Perfect, I reasoned, an alibi should allay any suspicion caused by my daily observations.   On Tuesday of the second week of their construction I walked through the gangway with the spitting hose and began to shower Mrs. Bower’s flowers.  By the time I started to water the parkway (grass between the street and the sidewalk) the man in the blue bandana ambled cautiously over to me like a slow, curious cow to a farmer holding a bucket of feed. I stood on the sidewalk and thumb sprayed the grass when he asked, “Mind if I have a drink from there?”

I stood dumbfounded and handed him the hose, his wide, thickly calloused hands reaching across the freshly poured concrete for Mrs. Bower’s  Craftsman “Kinkless Guaranteed” one hundred foot garden hose, and moved the bubbling water to his mouth, drinking quietly, his lips pursed into a muscled “O”.  I watched with a great deal of curiosity as his Adam’s apple moved up and down with each quenching swallow, the dimples in his cheeks mirrored the rhythm of his bobbing Adam’s apple.  When sated he returned Mrs. Bower’s hose to my care and said, “Thanks; I’ve seen you watching us for a couple of days; thinking of a career in concrete?  What’s your name?”

“T.M.,” I said quietly.

“Thanks for the drink, T.M.” he said with a wink, then turned and rejoined his crew.

July, 1966 became known as The Summer of Eye-High Marigolds and Mrs. Bower’s Famous Flowers as reported in one local paper.  That July day in 1966 when Bandana Man put his lips to Mrs. Bower’s Craftsman “Kinkless Guaranteed” one hundred foot hose and quenched his thirst, I, instantly developed an unfamiliar thirst rising from deep within, a thirst temporarily doused by Bandana Man’s proximity, but which would reignite moments after I switched off my bedroom light later that night; by morning I longed to be near Bandana Man.  My disquieting need to putter around the front yard required a significant diversion, an understandable reason why I needed to be there.  Which is why my camouflage became an avid interest in gardening.  I think Mrs. Bower’s was exceptionally proud, and I’m happy that she took all the credit.  It was her front yard of course which received my best intentions while I continued to catch furtive glances through the gardens towering stems.

It took the concrete caravan an unprecedented three weeks to complete its concrete repair from the Roebuck house on the north end of the block to the Nichols’ house at the south end.  It was a Friday, I think, that the inevitable happened: I ran out of hose.  The crew had just turned the corner and was heading west on Mitchell Street. I stood there, water pouring from the stretched hose, acknowledging yet not understanding life’s cruelty: Why were we both at the same crossroad at the same time, if all it meant was fame for Mrs. Bower’s flowers?  As Bandana Man turned the corner he stopped, looked back at me, dropped his pick-ax and trotted in my direction, his tanned torso rippling like sheets on a clothesline.

He untied his bandana and held it beneath the cold water, wrung it out, then wiped his face and neck, returned it to the cold water and said, “You look kind of hot.  You hot, T.M.?”

“Yes,” I answered while nodding my head.

He took the hose from me letting it drop to the ground, turned me around, and wrapped the navy blue damp bandana around my head and tied it snuggly in back.  He spun me around, studied me for a moment, then said, “Cool man, you’re one of us now!”  And with a tousle of my hair he turned and ran to catch up with the crew which from afar resembled a motley gang of vagabonds.  I remained at that spot and allowed the water to drip down my face, catching a few droplets with my tongue, detecting a hint of salt which I knew was my first real taste of men.

Back Then, Ignorance Was De Rigueur

At the end of the 60’s and carrying into the 70’s there still seemed a deep-rooted sentiment: if it’s none of your business, then keep your nose out of it.  Which seemed to work fine for most people.  Of course every neighborhood had its busybody, just as it had its grouchy-keep-off-my-grass-senior-citizen, and bubble-gum-snapping-younger-than-her-bosom-suggests-daughter-of-a-longshoreman.  But by-and-large, if it didn’t directly involve you then you were commanded to stay-out-of-it.  And woe be the kids with clumsy feet: too inattentive or naive to jump when they spot trouble; or those nearest the melee when it explodes, or the small-fry-wanna-be whose taunts often ignite newly produced testosterone because they all will be hauled to the principal’s office for punishment followed by the famous litany of idiotic parental rhetoric: “. . .well, if he jumped off. . .;” “If I’ve told you once. . .;” and the classic “I  could see those <insert surname  here> boys were trouble. . .”   But the message was always the same: mind your own business.

Now, that’s not to say there was a lack of dinner-table rumor-mongering, my mother usually updating us on the goings-on of the neighborhood.  But, if the rumor was rated PG-13 and above, we were given the briefest synopsis, censored beyond recognition, devoid of any example of debauchery, infidelity, or any despicable acts whether or not the “I’m-not-naming-names-neighbor-three-doors-down” was perpetrator or victim.  My mother’s talent for omission was legendary, but her dinner-table-abridging offered very little by way of a storyline, but witnessing her agility at avoiding incriminating details while maintaining a conversational tone was so entertaining that my older brother wanted to call the Watergate crew and offer them her secret of how-to skirt the truth and avoid prison for perjury.  He said he tried but was told they don’t take messages for inmates.

But even spreading gossip was considered a breach of social convention and was practiced with the highest degree of discretion.  I overheard my mother talking on the phone about Mrs. Bowers and her recent loose-lipped huddle at Kroger’s with Mrs. Hanson about boys, booze, broads and a bathtub: to Mrs. Bowers chagrin the broad and bathtub belonged to Mrs. Hanson.  Right there in aisle 5-A Mrs. Hanson’s strong upper lip began to quiver and like a mudslide, her conviction simply gave-way taking her sand-bagged courage with it and Mrs. Hanson dropped to the floor as if someone had cut her marionette strings.

Back then the message was loud and clear: keep your mouth shut! 

And I suppose it was that exact 1960’s deflection of responsibility, respect for authority, and absolute ignorance of any activity which happened outside the euphemistic “four walls” of our family (and home) that created a vacuum of moral accountability.  This social ignorance was the fertile ground from which victims sprouted already marinated in the tenets of civic propriety: keep your mouth shut and mind your own business.  Now add a new genus of Catholic leadership: an indubitable, irrefutable and influential priest whose intentions, if questioned, are defended rigorously by the diocesan hierarchy.  These two social renunciations: bewilderment on the part of the parents and blindness on the part of the Catholic Church created the perfect playground for sexual predators that mocked piety and disgraced through indignity and malice, the Christian image of the protector of children.

We had a predatory priest back in Catholic grade school.  As a pedophile he’d developed quite a reputation and a skillful set of traps which left little, if any scars, except those which appeared years later.  He developed a certain degree of notoriety: A staggering example of the decades-long failure of the Church’s treatment (reflection and counseling) resulting in reassignment or perhaps the estimated number of casualties he produced (across generations in one family).  His ecclesiastic devotion was a stark contrast to his budding reputation as “overly affectionate” or “physical with boys beyond acceptable behavior” so the Arch Diocese of Milwaukee continued to pry his paws away from parishioners at one church (akin to “running him out of town”).

He was hurried over to a safe house for an overhaul: counseling, hand-slapping, celibate reminders, penitence, forgiveness, and then off to some R & R (restoration & repair), placed back into the deck, reshuffled, and dealt to an ignorant congregation of affable and duteous parents who’d bred reverent and obedient children.  Some devote parishioners believed that the affection of a doting priest was reserved for the innocent of the innocents, were venerated by God and anointed (via the local messenger, i.e. priest) with an extra helping of divinity.  I remember hearing that some devoted parents would volunteer their children’s time to vocational pursuits i.e. ironing vestments, vacuuming sacristies, opening the weekly offering envelopes, in order to maintain proximity to the priest should a divine message be received.  But back then, back in 1969, that’s how Catholics behaved because they were taught that a priest was called by God to act as emissary here on earth; and the most important (mysterious, and grossly misunderstood) tenet of a priest’s appointment was his unconditional vow of celibacy (the state of being unmarried and, therefore, sexually abstinent).

And that presumption, that priest’s were not sexual, was the perfect degree of insulation these priest’s and their superiors needed to stave off accusations of impropriety brought to the diocese.  And here’s the revelation:  No matter how impassioned, no matter how unthinkable the alleged violations seemed, no matter that these abominations were reruns from previous parishes, the victim, a child, with nothing to gain (and so much to lose) were often suspect!  First by the parents, then the parish leaders, then when facing the priest in his rectory, and then, if pursued, again face-off with highly respected and very suspicious diocesan officials and the priest (whose interest and adorations became manipulative, threatening, painful episodes and were so outrageous and impossible to prove, that the only logical and least damaging conclusion anyone with any sense could draw:  the child is  exaggerating, misconstruing, or unintentionally and without malice positioned themselves near the priest and misunderstood their physical contact as egregious.

And frankly I don’t know which buckled first: The highly improbable assertion that a child repeatedly seduced a religious official vowed to celibacy or the unquestionable devotion of generations to the Catholic Church (the age-old collapse of a faith in God and a faith in the Godliness of men ordained by Him).  But what it took to shift the burden of proof from the victim (child) to the perpetrator (priest) was a departure from isolation and silence to community and conversation.  When adults decided that blind allegiance to any organization purely based on what that organization tells you to believe is, in and of itself, questionable, was when the fortified walls of some of the world’s oldest and most revered organizations began to weaken.

It’s not what we’re told by leaders (whether religious, political, corporate) that has the capacity to tear this world apart.  It’s what we believe that we’re told.  It’s not the children’s fault that the Catholic Church protected and permitted decades of sexual abuse.  It’s the adult’s fault (whether or not your the priest or the parent or the pope).  It’s an adult’s responsibility to question authority each and every time it violates freedom!

There isn’t one person on this planet that stands above repute.  Except, that is, perhaps the children.

Blame Edna St. Vincent Millay

We’ve all had one.  Just one.  The One.  Not the one that got away.  And not the one that married your best friend.  And please. . .certainly not your first one.  This One is The One.  

You know which one is The One.  The One’s the one that heard your protestations yet felt your searing stare, your eyes glued to the sight, intent as though you were watching the final inning of a no-hitter, your mind recording in high-definition inch by baring inch of torso; the molting of cotton and denim; your appetite overflows the banks of friendship as The One, the object and the consort silently affirms your theft of privacy.  That’s The One:  A compatriot in what would become your benchmark of shame and crowning expression of tortuous affection.  The One was the only one to encourage betrayal of character as bond to be free of moral constraints and fuel your burgeoning obsession. 

The One for me was Steve.

We opened  the door  to the room in  the Super 8 Motel in  Davenport,  Iowa where tomorrow Steve and I would compete for first place in the National Forensic’s Tournament.   Both of us were nervous of course, but unlike Steve who was nervous about the tournament  I was as nervous as a newlywed when I spotted the king size bed hovering in the middle of the room like the Hindenburg.

“Well, here we are,” Steve said as he put his duffel bag on the floor and flopped on the bed.  I stood there aghast and slowly placed my coveted Tod’s Weekender on the stainless steel motel valet and stiffly sat on the edge of the bed.

” … at last …” I added, slowly turning to see him stretched out like a newly caught salmon, his bright colored belly slightly exposed under his polo.

“At last?”, he asked.

Realizing my blunder I quickly stood up and attempted to turn the conversation.  “You nervous?”

“Nervous?    What’s  there  to  be  nervous  about?    We’re  the  best  in  the  state  and tomorrow we’re going to be best in the nation.”

“You’re right,” I added weakly, fighting my desire to look at him on the bed.

“Are you?” he asked.

“Am I what?” I asked retreating into the small, secure confines of the bathroom.

“Nervous,” he called from the bed.

“Why would I be nervous when I’ve got a partner like you?”  I asked.

Steve appeared in the doorway looking at me in the mirror,  “Because you’re acting nervous,” he said walking up behind me, looking at me in the mirror, both my hands white knuckled on the faux marble vanity, the inches of warm air between us igniting and scalding my flanks. He looked directly into my eyes and I prayed that he couldn’t  see either my knees that had begun to buckle or the erection that had risen in my jeans.

“So I’m a little nervous,” I snapped “and you standing this close to me doesn’t  help.” I wanted to be able to easily assault his closeness as some latent homosexual thing, some calling his hand when it came to his masculinity, some assertion that he was coming on to me.  But I had already played that trump card on some ranger look-out station on a wooded rise called Belmont Mound.  I blubbered my homosexuality between shared swallows of apple schnapps, my conviction growing with the depletin liqueur.    He too, was drinking,  but  he kept his composure, acknowledging my confessions with tart, little babbles; all the while I wished he too, would expose his wrist and in some tribal custom, bind our lives. But instead I slept in the cool comfort of the toilet.

Then I made the mistake of looking back at the bed.  “The bed bothers you, doesn’t it?” he asked, almost sounding interested.

“No, you idiot, it isn’t the bed that bothers me” I said moving quickly away from him back into the room, “It’s not the bed …” I paused, wondering if I should be the bleeding heart (and what good would it do me) again, would he tire of the whining, “but it’s me,” not that it really was me. It was more him.  I had no trouble with me. It was him.  Him and his damned morals, not even morals but tastes, not even tastes but attractions,  not even attractions but fickleness! “It’s me, Steve. Me! Me and you. Here. Tonight. The bed … the tub.”

“The tub?” he asked.

“I’ll sleep in the tub.”

“You’re fucking crazy! What do you think you’ll do?  Rape me in my sleep?  Christ, you’re a guy that’s  able to control himself, aren’t  you?   If you think you’ll have a problem, take care of it before you get into bed!”

Was I an idiot or what?   What did he know?  What did he care?  Christ, it wasn’t my lust that I was worried about.  It was my heart! What did he think?  It was then, at that moment when a little divine intervention would’ve helped; an angel to come down and tell me that my reality was not reality. That what I really thought was going on wasn’t really going on, except as a private screening for my own enjoyment.  That what WAS true was that there were two best friends vying for national recognition that needed to share a bed in a motel room. So what was the big deal?

 

After dinner we wandered through  the halls of the motel to our room.  Upon opening the door  Steve threw  his jacket on the bed and  went into the  bathroom.    I walked to my bag, opened it and pulled out my sweatshirt and gym shorts.  As I was beginning to undress I heard the toilet flush, the faucet run and finally the door open.   Steve stood in the doorway, backlit by the ceiling light, his silver buckle dangling  like a fishing lure, his shirt open, untucked, hanging off his shoulders like draperies.  I of course, should’ve already been in bed, chiffon negligee spread  out before me like a tablecloth, a dozen  pillows plumped  and puffed surrounding me in satined down.  But instead I stood before him in my white Hanes underwear and Dago T.

“Going to bed so soon?”, he asked.

“I like to read a little before I fall asleep,” I replied, as I pulled off the Dago T and pulled on my sweatshirt.

“You go there?” he asked. “Go where?”

“To Colorado,” he finished, standing across from me, tugging his heavy socked feet out of his still tied, dirty Nike sneakers.   He stood there, determined to shed his sneakers, tongue sticking out of the comer  of his mouth, body slightly contorted, peeling the tightened shoe off his foot.

“It might help if you untied them,” I said as I folded my clothes and placed them on the valet next to my Weekender.

“I’m too lazy,” he shot back over his now naked shoulder.

I looked up from my bag and saw him standing across the blue polyester comforter,  his  tanned  back  separated  by  a  deep  crevice  which opened  like  a  well-read hardcover, rising to parallel muscles which flowed into his ribs; his shoulders ascended by cords of muscle to his throat; his upper arms taut like a bow; and rising from the waistband of his jeans was a banded collar of cream followed by a blood red cotton stripe.  I stood transfixed.

“Mind if I watch a little TV?” he asked over his shoulder. “Not at all, as long as you keep the volume low,” I answered quietly.

I turned my back on him and with one swift, practiced motion pulled my Hanes off and sat down on the bed, pinning  my erection firmly between my thighs.   I reached for my gym shorts and in a moment threw my legs in the air, levitated myself, pulled the gym shorts on, yanked back the covers, thrust my legs in, and pulled the crisp cotton sheets to my waist.  After arranging myself, the pillows, and the book I was reading I heard the television snap on.

What I noticed first were his feet pointed towards my head.   They were solid, heavy feet; thick, cracked, blemished soles; wide, weathered toes.  These feet obviously walked many miles free. They were clearly the feet of the naturalist, someone that enjoyed the pain I often associated with running around barefoot. These were the feet which may have traversed hot coals. These feet had taken him somewhere.

 

The television rumbled in the background like some kind of geographical  expose as I continued the panorama of his lower body. Just above his feet were ankles which supported dense calves. If his feet were tundra when it came to hair, his calves and thighs were tropical rain forests.   Calves, now in repose, lay like sandbags.   The backs of his knees, the spring­ loaded cantilevers, the source of his power sit quietly.  His hamstring, a long, drawn, weighty mound of muscle sleeps like an eel amidst the concave back of the quadriceps.  I turned my attention to the television.

“Anything on?” I asked. “Nothing. How’s the book?”

“Can’t seem to keep my mind on it.”

“Well, I think I’m going to turn in.  It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.  Better get as much sleep as I can,” he said as he swung himself around on the bed and I stole a lingering look at him.

“Mind if I yank the blankets out from the end of the bed?  I can’t  sleep when there’s something holding my feet down.”  He tore the sheets from the end of the bed.  “Oh yeah,” he said struggling, “I toss and turn a lot.  If I end up on you, just push me back to my side.”

“Won’t you wake up,” I asked.

“Naw, nothing wakes me up.  Once I’m out, I’m out.  Once when I was a kid and one of the old silos blew up right outside my window.  Woke up the whole town.  Mom had to come in and get me when the fire department got there.  I can sleep through anything!”

When he was finished he sank back into his pillows. I attempted to concentrate on my  Anne Sexton anthology.  I was about to dive headfirst into the story when I quickly turned my head to see him laying on his side looking at me. “May I help you?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just watching you,” he quietly replied.

“Is there something wrong?”

“No,” he said defensively, “can’t someone just watch you?” he finished as he turned his back to me.

I attempted to read, then closed the book and placed it on my lap. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m a little tense, that’s all.  Don’t pay any attention to me.”  I put the book on the nightstand, reached over and turned out the light casting the room in complete darkness and sank back into the bed.  As slowly as dawn, slivers of light grew in the room where we couldn’t shut out the world.

Nothing happened  that night of any monumental  occasion.   All the ingredients were present; one bed, a hotel room, he and I, his body, my body, his sexuality, my sexuality but something was missing. I don’t know now if it was his lack of participation, or if I was waiting for him to make the first move, or if I was so certain that my attraction for him was wrong and his  distraction  of  me  was  correct.   But something,  some  idea,  some  moral  uprightness prohibited me from breaching the boundaries of our relationship.

Steve certainly gave me all the clues and  hints  that  he wanted something  to happen,  that  he wanted  me to press him farther,  beyond his words of denial, pushing  him to make a decision when  his body was screaming  for attention.  Had it been any different, had my subconscious been alerted to the remote possibility that he encouraged my affections, it would have triggered an internal alarm clock and roused me from my sleep at a most opportune  moment when  Steve was between hither and nigh; when he wasn’t certain what, if any of the stimulus and response was dream or reality, that in that deep and calm pool of slumber, his body could react one way while his mind  kept itself tucked  warmly away.   l guess all this conversation  occurred  in  my sleep between my desire and my morality, and on this particular occasion, morality (ahem) rose victorious.