Friday, December 31, 2010

Fortunate son

The other half of the new year equation --- and an equation, remember, always presumes the equality of two expressions on either side of that “equals” sign --- is looking back. Men of my age and nature have survived at least two plagues, Vietnam and AIDS; because of that, we’re fortunate to be around to remember at all.

Sitting here in a brightly-lighted room looking at a computer screen before dawn, it’s a little surreal to remember that I was born into a world without electricity. The Rural Electrification Administration, which brought power to the country because commercial utilities wouldn’t, didn’t come along until I was 3 or 4. Was it Quincy Robb I vaguely remember wiring the house? Can’t say for sure.

Both of my grandfathers still farmed with horses, as did my dad to a lesser extent --- he had a tractor, too. We lived down a dirt road, not unusual then, and when that road turned to mud, those big horses sometimes were hitched to the front end of the car to pull it in, or out. Shale from the coal mines was used as often as crushed limestone from the quarries then to surface roads that had any surface at all. Who else remembers pink roads?

I attended three years of country school at Dry Flat. Amazing. More than 50 years later, during the summer now past, we were able to celebrate that school, the neighborhood and the wonderful people in it --- far too many now only memories --- at the Dry Flat reunion. Talk about grace.

There’s been a good deal of attention given to bullying during 2010, and I was --- but not mercilessly and I don’t think my bullies recognized the queer in the kid they were harassing. Still, it had an effect. Adults sometimes dismiss bullying as a harmless rite of passage. It isn’t. Bullies are never forgotten; it’s a type of torment that just goes on tormenting. I could name my four bullies now. One died a few years ago. I thought, “good.” That’s appalling in a way.

None of my grandparents were churchy people and my parents, uncomfortable in situations where there was conflict ( and there often was in the congregations of my childhood), did so only sporadically. But their faith never was in question. There are advantages to that for a kid. I regret the fact so many youngsters nowadays grow up religiously illiterate; I didn’t. On the other hand, I have known too many so scarred by institutional Christianity or made indifferent to faith by indifferent parents that they slam the door on grace. That’s sad.

I don’t believe I ever heard my mother speak unkindly about anyone. Isn’t that amazing? My dad could get aggravated at individuals and do a good deal of sputtering --- but never because of that person’s race, religion, ethnicity, economic situation or sexual orientation. What a gift to grow up in a home like that.

It’s always been a fantasy among heterosexuals that those of us who aren’t choose not to be. I knew who I was by the time I was maybe 3, 4 at the latest --- not that I knew what to call it, and I certainly knew enough not to tell anyone about it --- even in the most loving of family situations. I’ll spare you the circumstances, although they were benign and remain entirely clear in my mind. Even in the most positive of environments, I learned early not to trust too many people --- and still as a rule don’t.

Russell High School was a wonderful place in the 1960s --- before “small” became a perjorative; the 18-member Class of 1964 a family. And wonderful, too, was the University of Iowa in the 1960s, an amazing and hopeful time despite the deepening morass of war. You could begin to be yourself here on many levels.

I’ve written enough for now about Vietnam. But it’s interesting, I think, that I was still in basic training at Fort Polk (if asked, and I quite frankly don’t recall, I certainly didn’t tell) on the 28th of June, 1969, when gay people finally and for the first time stood up for themselves and against government-sanctioned persecution, during riots outside the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village --- the start of the gay rights movement, shots heard around the world.

It’s curious to consider that a bunch of drag queens in New York City led the beginning of a movement that in the long run has accomplished more than a war that claimed 50,000-plus U.S. lives, straight and gay, half a continent away during roughly the same time period. The recent repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell can be traced back, if you care to, to that defining moment. That’s why we love our drag queens, still.

Some of the best years of my life were spent in a tiny Winnebago County town called Thompson --- and I’m still in love with weekly newspapers, where I began, and with small-town life (although both are struggling and diminished). I moved on eventually to larger towns and somewhat larger newspapers --- and promptly lost my faith in print journalism. Weeklies now are the only newspapers I subscribe to or have any particular interest in or hope for. Sorry, but the electronic and digital media are the future.

While there, AIDS forged in fire the community those drag queens launched --- as diverse, sometimes disjointed and scattered as it still is. That happened when it became clear that many if not most heterosexuals would just as leave we’d die --- and I can lead you to a few graves around here and elsewhere where young men were buried quietly by families who certainly mourned but also felt shamed by their offspring and therefore a degree of relief --- then were rarely mentioned again.

I’m still here, however, and remember all of that, and them --- on the raggedy edge of a generation of gay men, the best and brightest of whom are dead.

And now I’m home again --- and loving it. Still hopeful (young people are amazing), faithful (in my way) --- a fortunate son. Everyone else should be so lucky. Remembering that is a good way to begin 2011.

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