Sunday, July 26, 2009
"I don't want you bringing any homosexuals into the house."
My father turned eight-three years old today. As is his custom, he probably rose at dawn, climbed on his motorcycle, fired up the engine and cruised along the lonely Kentucky back roads, before arriving back home again in time to eat Mom’s bacon and eggs breakfast.
For over a half a century, he’s been as close to a bike as paint to pavement. While in the past, the road trips were just something that he did (he rode to California at least five time), today each ride is an act of defiance against the inexorable encroachment of old age--as if you could stop the hands of time by merely unplugging your electrically powered clock.
It wasn't easy growing up the son of a man who resembled Sean Connery and behaved like John Wayne in the movies. Dad had what could only be called “screen presence: fearless; cool under pressure; man of few words; athletic and handsome. He exemplified the qualities of the All-American man’s man.
My father grew up largely dependent upon himself, one of seven kids. By tenth grade he left school and entered a government sponsored youth work camp, at seventeen, during WWII, he served with the navy in the South Pacific, at twenty he married, by twenty-five he ran his own business, at thirty he built his own house, and by thirty-seven he’d fathered five sons. How do you top that?
It must have been difficult for him to of had a son who preferred books, art, drama and church to motorcycles, airplanes, judo wrestling, and scuba diving. He excelled at everything he chose to tackle. If some one drowned, the authorities called him to retrieve their bodies from the bottom of murky lakes and rivers. I remember at age eleven or twelve, seeing his bandaged after a mad tenant who owed back rent sliced him up with a knife. I recall him going back to a gas station to demand his money back from the unscrupulous owner who had sold me gasoline that never made its way into our car’s gas tank.
I’m sure my father didn’t know what to make of me. It was like having a child who spoke a different language. While my brothers ran around outdoors, I sat in front of the television, mesmerized by Susan Hayward’s portrayal of singer, Jane Froman, the great vocalist who lost her leg in a plane crash, watching her sing "With A Song in My Heart" as she danced down a staircase under enormous hanging chandeliers. Thank God, my saint of a mother provided him with four other sons to entertain him.
Were it not for my brothers, my awkward and tense relationship with my father—five minutes alone in a room with him and I felt like a caged bird looking for an escape—would never have mended.
Although, I came out as gay man at the late age of thirty (soon thereafter, informing my brothers), my parents remained in the dark until ten years later. I didn’t want to tell them, even though it made my life miserable their not knowing. Knowing my parents, I knew that my mother would love me still but agonize over my spending eternity in Hell, whereas my Father would take some stance like John Wayne to Montgomery Cliff in Howard Hawk’s film, ‘Red River,’ and tell me what to do. And so it played out, after my next younger brother decided it necessary to out me to my mother, who in turn, felt it necessary to immediately inform my father. Needless to say, it was not pretty.
One afternoon, I found myself alone with my father in the Den, where he sat in his arm chair watching the game show, ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ The tension in the air was as thick as the humidity before a hard rain on a hot summer day. I wanted to flee but I continued to sit there staring at Vanna White spinning the wheel.
Finally, like a kettle on the stove, the whistle blew. My father informed me that my mother had spoken to him about myz being gay. It must have required all his strength to even get the words out, he not being a man to express anything much more personal than a “hello.” He then proceeded to tell me that since I was smart (my having acquired a B.A. and a graduate degree) that I could change. He told me that I was never to bring any gay person into his home (although my mother later said that she liked all friends and didn’t know who was gay and who not). He ended the speech by giving me his prognosis: my relationship with my brothers would be destroyed if I did not become straight.
It never came to pass. For months, I barely spoke a word to my father, and not many more to my mother. But it was the support of my brothers that broke the silence. My father came to see that his straight sons continued their solidarity with their gay brother. And because his sons did not share his point of view, he was left isolated and alone.
I don’t know when I realized that our relationship had improved, but I recognized that the tension between us had dissipated. It felt like the relieved exhaustion I would feel after a physical fight with my next younger brother. We would end the ruckus all sweaty and tired, but whatever ill feeling we were carrying disappeared.
Then one Sunday morning, while my mother was off to Church, my father asked me if I wanted to go on a motorcycle ride with him. I pulled a helmet over my head, climbed on behind him with my hands gripping his sides and we were off with the wind whipping our faces. Then I knew that things had changed and life henceforth would not be the same.