Down to the Crossroads

Every afternoon Grandmother would take a break to “pile down.” That was her term for a short nap, her favorite part of the day. When we were young we were expected to join her.

Sometimes she would sing “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” while my brother and I stifled our giggles. Her voice was a little warbly and a song about a dead goose seemed odd.

Naps were also a time for Prime Minister’s questions, we could ask anything. Once I wanted to know why, if “darn” was such a bad word to use, did so many people do it? Without hesitating she replied, “because they can’t think of the correct word to use.” For the record, I never heard her say darn.

She didn’t take many liberties with language. When a lighthearted mood struck writing a letter or diary entry, she sometimes succumbed to giddy contractions. Phrases like ’twill be good to see you, or ’tis another beautiful day. Other than those reckless moments of abandon, there were only two slang words she used with regularity.

One was dope. It must have been an elastic, catch-all expression like “stuff” that was popular when she was in her teens and twenties. Among other things it’s what she called her homemade chocolate sauce. I enjoyed my friends’  astonished looks when Grandmother served ice cream and asked if they’d “like some dope with it.”

Her other word was chum which was reserved for a select group: her college girlfriends. When she talked about them I sensed they were special people from a wonderful time in her life. The expectation set, I entered Indiana University in September 1968.

It was fun the first two and a half years on campus although I felt lonely and isolated. I was getting by in my friends’ straight world and resigned myself to accepting it as the way life was going to be. There were few context clues in rural Indiana then that a whole subculture existed.

In March 1971 I was stalked by a tall, lanky and creepy journalism student, Harry. Unbeknownst to me, he’d trailed me a couple of months and knew my name, address, hometown and class schedule. To quote Pete Rose on Ty Cobb, he knew everything except my cock size. He found that out too.

Attracted more to the situation than him, I closed my eyes and thought of Fire Island. Nothing much came of that relationship except that he started introducing me around the community. Friendships grew rapidly, many forming on the spot with like-minded gay-boys. I was awakened.

Jim Jordan knew Harry and witnessed the whole pursuit and aftermath. He said mine was not so much a coming out as an explosion. Probably from the relief I felt upon realizing I was the only context clue I needed.  I could just be myself.

The joy I felt was accompanied by underlying sadness. College was a temporary state. In my childhood I’d been through enough school changes, neighborhood moves, and summer camps to know tight bonds can dissipate quickly.

I was a senior after five semesters, on track to graduate early if I went to summer school. Then I came out and it took five more semesters to finish. Separation anxiety caused me to prolong the last year as long as I could.

The fear of losing friends was unfounded. Besides the fun most college kids experience, we were bound by something that changed American culture. While Harvey Milk remained in the closet protecting his job, our generation drew a line in the sand: this is who we are, take it or leave it.

*****

Along with his partner David, my college chum Dale visited San Francisco last week. He’s Grand Marshal of this year’s Boston Gay (plus 5–it’s dizzying how many initials it’s become) Pride Parade. They came to attend the memorial for Charley Brown, the husband of another chum, Mark.

They also were here to celebrate Dale’s 70th birthday, which we did Saturday night at Che Fico.  On Sunday, dinner was at our chum Eric’s house.

Our after-dinner entertainment that evening was to be Joan Crawford’s Humoresque which we’d all seen before. Over David’s spanakopita we shared hazy memories of the film: Issac Stern’s hand double role, the incredible cocktail shaker, the breaking glass. When Joan’s signature face-slapping came up, someone mentioned turning the other cheek.

Seizing a malapropism opportunity, I offered what was really said on the Mount: don’t retaliate just spread your cheeks. The table erupted in childish laughter. Coming up for air, Dale said moments like that were why he’s tolerated me for 50 years.

My whole life I’ve searched for the correct, or incorrect, word to use.

With Grandmother, 1954.

Dear (Fill in the Blank):

I won’t be home for Christmas, Mother.

Pursuant to my previous post, the last McLaughlin sister, Aunt Betty, died in early December. She was 97. Her four sisters preceded her in death at the ages of 96, 95, 92 and 77. There’s a runt in every litter.

Grandmother was born in 1900 and was the oldest sister. Betty was the youngest, born in 1920. The sticklers out there may question my statement that the girls were all “college graduates by 1925.” Rather than do a detailed accounting of their schooling, I chose a pithy way to emphasize how unusual post high school education was for rural Indiana women in the early 20th Century. It’s what we in the Bullshit Business call poetic license. And I find poetry everywhere. Especially the words “get off my fucking back.”

Despite her inability to graduate from college by the age of five, Aunt Betty was the brainiest of the girls. Grandmother, with her love for Calculus and Trigonometry, came in a close second. After college, Aunt Betty did medical research and planned to pursue med school. Then she succumbed to the country custom of the times and sacrificed it for marriage.

All that intellect was focused on her progeny who were rewiring their house’s electricity by the time they were 11. It would be 50 more years before I could rewire a lamp. When her eldest son studied the french horn, an instrument I’d never heard of, I picked up the gauntlet and played it for the next seven years. And, because my birthday was around Memorial Day, my card always included a list of books to read that summer. Like Ivanhoe or The Hounds of the Baskervilles.

Her children wrote their tickets to college via scholarships. Upon graduation, a couple were swept up by the government to do top-secret work in New Mexico.

97, 92, 95, 96. Not pictured: 77.

Like Grandmother, Aunt Betty would gently challenge us.  When we came up with answers we were expected to justify the how and why of what we’d concluded. We were not trained monkeys robotically spitting out correct responses. We were Socratic simians unraveling the epistemology of the universe.

Grandmother started her family 10 years before her sisters so my Mother’s first decade was spent as the sole beneficiary of all that female power. One weekend when I was home from college, my grandparents took me to visit Aunt Betty’s farm. I hadn’t seen her in some time and had developed an exotic hippie look that Grandmother seemed to be proud of. As we walked into the house she teased her sister, “do you know who this is?” Aunt Betty smiled, “he has all of her expressions.”

Before there was email spam, before there were Ed McMahon’s sweepstakes congratulations, and even before there was xeroxing there were mimeographed Christmas letters. Aunt Betty made the mistake of sending them out a few times. Grandmother was appalled. To her it was the depths of bad taste. Being a dutiful grandson, I concurred.

But the chimp in me fostered a curiosity for people, especially accomplished people, who failed. There’s reasoning for both the good and bad in life, what is it? Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name?

With Aunt Lucille. Don’t even think of calling her Lucy.

The McLaughlin girls created a monster with a life-long fascination for the obtuse. I was thinking this year would be perfect for an impersonal personal Christmas communique: the instantaneous, phantasmagorical swollen lip; the explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting of a campylobacter infection; traveling with 80 cents in my pocket through a major mid-western city; and being named the spiritual mentor to a dog–all seem ripe for a mass mailing.

But why duplicate effort. The blog is a perpetual mimeograph.

2018 will be the year I finally organize my papers, photos, wardrobe and salacious memories to donate to posterity. Fair warning, dear reader, there’s going to be a Dewey Decimal feel in the months to come.

In the meantime, as we celebrate the holidays let’s not forget one of the most important teachings of the Church: Bless-ud are the Blanks for they shall inherit the archives.