My brother dropped a bomb on me a month ago. We were texting back and about the old man, gone now over thirty years, and I realized he was gay. My brother might not go that far, but suddenly the walls came down:
We’d been replacing the sewer line in summer Houston (mom was in San Miguel I think). Dad was shook and dehydrated at the same time. Done for the day, Dad got real drunk, told me and my friend about a young man with an apartment in town who befriended him and his friends. They would ride bikes to his place where there was reefer and maybe too many “tickle fights,” wink, wink. A town scandal apparently never mentioned.
This was on the very rural Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1930s, mind you. My father attended a two-room school with just ten grades in Sudlersville. (The venue might have been there, Millington, or Golts.) Reefer? Woo-hoo. “Tickle fights”? Good Lord, the whole of everything explained. It doesn’t matter whether he had thoughts or acted out or witnessed, the results would be the same. How could I have never seen it? The tension was always there, especially with topics tied to sex or his relationships with other men. The lack of physical affection—was he scared to touch me?—his fierce defense of nudity and what he thought were liberal sexual mores, the constant womanizing, “proving,” pushing… But most of all, the fear.
My brother is nine years younger than I am. I never heard anything like the following, although I surely wish I’d known:
The last time I ever got the belt was when Bill and I were having a heated after bedtime dispute from our bunks. Something along the lines of “you’re a queer!” “No, you’re a queer!” I’m sure Mom insisted that Dad address the late nighttime disturbance, but I was confused and terrified to receive a few licks of the belt from my naked father as he remonstrated in Bill’s defense… “Call him a cocksucker if you want, but don’t call him a queer!”
What happened in the cornfields didn’t stay there, did it?
Something happened when he was a boy. It got out, he was mortified, and spent the rest of his life afraid that someone would find out. That might have been the only time, but I don’t think so. I’m still plugging in events that I remember, and they all light up like neon signs. The main thing is, it wasn’t me. My straight A’s, drawing, love of music, and voracious reading were danger signals for him. I hated playing baseball, too, and liked to go on hikes and bike rides all alone. It wasn’t me who had dark secrets. It wasn’t me who thought he didn’t measure up. It wasn’t me who was ashamed, yet I carried all of this for years.
Growing up, my impression of my father was that he never felt he was a member of the club, especially in the Air Force. He seemed to try so hard to keep up with the drinking and the smoking and the never-mentioned whoring on the TDY escapes. Barely eleven years old and I could feel the shame. No way he’d ever be an alpha. Why couldn’t he just be “Dad” and do the goddamn Boy Scout picnic? And why was he just never there? There was often something inappropriate about the man. The permanent he got to curl his hair when he retired, cursing out my mother in front of relatives, neurotic toenail maintenance (oh, yes). Once upon a time, I saw black-and-white photos he’d brought back from Iwo Jima showing naked airmen swimming at the beach. That was what you did, go skinny-dipping off a wreck, glad to be alive. But pictures, really, eight-by-tens?
The other night I had a dream about our wood stove. I hadn’t built a fire yet. There was a scratching noise inside the stovepipe, like an animal, I thought. Somehow, the way it works in dreams, an opening appeared, and I could see a bird trapped against the damper. The room was cold, we needed heat, but if I built a fire and opened up the flue, the bird would fall into the flames and die. I woke up without resolution once again, the way dreams often go.