When my father died and the news of his death spread throughout the community, a family friend said to me, “the last time I saw your father, he knew he didn’t have long to live and I said to him, Ed, I hope you have provided for your son.”
I appreciated the comment, but I was still reeling from his death at the time and didn’t dwell on those words. A week or so later, a few days after the funeral, I sat down with my stepmother and my father’s brother to read the will.
After he died, we found two wills in his desk. The first one was dated December 27, 1975, and as I read it, I could hear my father’s voice so clearly.
“I, Ernest E. Carrier, knowing that it is appointed unto all men to die, hereby write this last will and testament, being in sound mind, and request that my family honor my wishes.” It went on to offer instructions for the coffin to be covered by “a simple cloth” and draped in the Christian flag. He also said he wanted “a plain gravestone that says Ernest Edward Carrier, 1934 – and on the stone should be written, a minister of the gospel.”
It concluded by leaving “all monies, property and material possessions to my beloved wife, Louise, to be used for her and Jeffrey’s comforts. And I trust that my son will be a Christian man, in the best definition of that term and will respect his mother’s judgment in all matters.”
“I don’t believe that the departed should tie the hands of the living,” were the final words. “I hope that all personal and family matters will be carried out with decency.”
I looked at the date again — December 27, 1975. He would have been 41 years old, and I could understand why he was thinking about his mortality. It was the year he was diagnosed with serious high blood pressure, put on a no-salt diet and prescribed several medications. The doctor warned him that he might develop a more serious heart condition if the blood pressure could not be regulated, especially considering that heart problems were common in his family. His father had died of a heart attack at the age of 55, and his mother suffered from angina.
Sixteen years later, his heart did fail him. The years of hypertension, which medication was only slightly able to control, had weakened the heart muscle and it could no longer keep beating. Over a period of a few months it gradually slowed, and then it stopped. He outlived his father by only two years.
He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in December of 1990, and the second will we found in the desk was dated January 1, 1991. He knew his life was almost over.
There were three pages, written in long-hand, and after an opening paragraph in which he instructed that his family pay “all debts, taxes and funeral expenses,” he carefully explained how he wanted his possessions to be distributed.
“The residence is to be held equally by my wife, Eleanor, and my son, Jeffrey,” the will stated. “Eleanor has life-time residency. However, if Eleanor wishes to sell the property, she is to hold in trust Jeffrey’s one-half of the equity, and at her death, Jeffrey is to receive his share of the equity, interest free. This is an agreement that Eleanor and I have worked out.”
He went on to leave me his office furniture and all household items that had belonged to my mother as well as family heirlooms. He specified that his library of religious books, tools and wood-working equipment should be sold, the proceeds used to pay any outstanding debts.
“Didn’t he leave anything to my son, Michael?” Eleanor asked under her breath and, as if in answer to her question, we turned to page three and saw the following:
“I have given all I can to Michael, through the failure of his business, and all debts owed to me by him are forgiven. I love Michael and Shirlene, and their daughters. I am sorry that I don’t have anything to give them.” I heard Eleanor sigh.
The will ended with a final paragraph.
“I have sought to live a Christian life since my salvation in 1943 and re-dedication in 1954. I have been honest in all debts. I have sought to treat people with kindness. I have never been unfaithful to my marriage vows. I carry no grudges to the grave. I want to be remembered as a preacher of the gospel. God bless you and by His mercy and grace, may we all meet again in Heaven.”
We were all silent for a moment. I loved my father and he had loved me, too. He had provided for me. I missed him so very much and I started to cry.
The next day I made copies of the will, returned the original to Eleanor, gave one to my uncle and kept one for myself. I was living in New York at the time, and a few months later I returned to Tennessee to pick up dad’s office furniture at the church, which consisted of a desk chair, a file cabinet filled with thirty years of sermon notes and a blue recliner he had used for napping on Sunday afternoons between services. There was a very large and heavy desk in his office, which I donated to the church, to be used by the next pastor. I had hoped to take items that had belonged to my mother back to New York, but almost everything from their marriage had vanished. The dining room table, a couple of lamps, a rocking chair and two framed photos of birds dad had given to my mother on their 10th wedding anniversary were all missing. I asked Eleanor if she knew what had happened to those things, but she shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe your dad sold them,” was her odd reply.
However, I was able to find an antique mantel clock that had belonged to one of my father’s great aunts, an old writing desk that had come from his mother’s cousin and a large framed portrait of my great-grandmother, who had died in 1898 at the age of 20. Those pieces are now on display in my living room.
I didn’t think about my father’s will again for many years, not until 2012. In the 21 years after his death, my step-mother had re-married and then suffered a health crisis. A brain aneurysm in 2006 rendered her non compos mentis and led to her confinement in a nursing home. I saw her briefly in 1996 but had not seen her since then, although we had kept in touch until her illness. She and her new husband made their home on King College Road in Bristol, Tennessee, in the house she had shared with my father.
In October of 2012, a letter arrived from a law firm in Kingsport, Tennessee. And reading it was a shock. The house in Bristol was being sold to pay for Eleanor’s nursing home care and my father’s will could not be honored, due to several problems.
The first was my father’s own fault. The hand-written will had not been witnessed. Dad had also not sought legal counsel and had assumed that his wishes would be honored by his wife. It is never a good idea to make assumptions with something as important as a will. Some of the blame was also my own, as I never followed up to make sure that my half-interest in the house had been legally registered.
Another problem was that the will was apparently never submitted for probate, at least the law firm could find no evidence of such. My father’s brother had been named executor of the estate, but he was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease not long after dad’s death. Obviously, certain things were left undone, through no fault of his own.
“But even if that problem could be corrected,” the lawyer wrote, “the will itself it not sufficient to give you an interest in the house. Unless you have something in writing from Eleanor confirming that she has agreed to give you one half interest in the house, it is hers alone as the surviving owner when your father died.”
It was Eleanor’s responsibility to create a legal document listing me as co-owner of the property, or to name me as an heir in her own will. She did neither of those things, and when she re-married, her husband’s name replaced my father’s on the deed. I don’t want to think that Eleanor deliberately prevented me from inheriting, but the thought has naturally occurred to me.
The lawyer also addressed other areas of the will, quoting the passage in which dad left me his office furniture, items that had belonged to my mother and family heirlooms. “That was over 20 years ago,” he wrote, “and if you wanted those things, you should have gotten them years ago. There are family heirlooms in the house, but Eleanor had those pieces re-upholstered, which she paid for herself. She considered those items hers. It is my opinion they should remain part of her estate.”
I knew the items to which he referred. When my father’s last surviving aunt and uncle died in the mid 1980s, he inherited some pieces of antique furniture, designed in the Victorian style, including a marble-topped table with a base fashioned in the shape of a harp. They were old and elegant and Eleanor did replace the faded upholstery.
Due to Eleanor’s poor health, one of her sisters had power of attorney and was facilitating the sale of the house. The lawyer explained that he was writing to me at her request and added that although Eleanor’s family was under no obligation to do so, they were giving me an opportunity to visit the house, under supervision, and to take any of the Carrier family antiques that I wanted. I had one month, after which time the house and its contents would be sold.
The tone of the letter was not friendly and seemed to imply that I was trying to dishonestly claim something that was not mine. The first thing I did was to contact my step-mother’s sister and let her know that I was indeed interested in some pieces of furniture, that I would be arriving in two weeks and, please, don’t let anything leave the house until I can get there. I also contacted another attorney to discuss the situation. After reviewing the paperwork, he gave me disappointing news. My father’s will was indeed invalid and could not be enforced. I had no claim on the property.
“Unless your name is on the deed or your step-mother put in writing that you own half of the house, you have no legal standing,” the attorney told me. “Your father’s wishes cannot be honored legally, however the family can give you money if they want to. It would be the honorable thing to do but, unfortunately, the law has very little to do with honor.”
Two weeks later, as promised, I arrived in Tennessee by plane, rented a U-Haul van and drove to the house on King College Road. When the house came into view, I noticed several cars parked in the driveway and along the street. A sign in the yard announced “Estate Sale” and people were entering and leaving the house through the open garage doors.
I don’t know what had been sold before I arrived, but I was able to go through the house (watched very carefully by the family) and pick out what I wanted, which included the antique living room furniture, a bed and matching dresser, a set of crystal glassware with “Carrier” etched into the side, a sterling silver tea service which had been gifted to my parents from Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in 1967 and a set of old rose-patterned china that my father had inherited through his mother. I was very polite and thanked Eleanor’s sister for allowing me to take the various pieces. “Well, it’s what your father wanted,” she said. I almost replied that my father wanted a lot more than that, but I kept my mouth shut.
The items were loaded onto the van and I drove away.
The house was sold a few weeks later for $113,000. My father had bought it in 1985 for $58,000 and the mortgage had been paid off for several years.
That experience left a bitter taste in my mouth that has never completely gone away. I’m told that writing about a grievance can be cathartic. I hope so.
How many times have we heard someone say “my grandfather came to this country with five dollars in his pocket and the shirt on his back.” Immigrants were entering a strange land and had to start their lives over from scratch. When I moved into Manhattan at the beginning of May in 1988, I felt like one of those immigrants. I had a few hundred dollars in cash and only enough clothes to fill two suitcases.
I had been attending New York University’s graduate program in cinema studies for a few months, but I commuted into the city from Stamford, Connecticut, an hour north. I had been house-sitting for silent movie star Patsy Ruth Miller and living alone in her three-story house on the shore of Stamford Harbor. She and I had spent the last four years working on her memoirs, but when the manuscript was completed and she left to spend the winter in the southern California desert, she agreed to let me stay in her house through the winter while I was attending classes at NYU. It was an ideal arrangement.
She was due back in May and when she told me that she expected me to stay on and be her companion, I said no. Our work was done and I was ready to move on with my life. When I made that clear to her, she angrily told me to be gone by the time she returned. “I don’t want to find even one trace of you in the house,” she announced.
The spring term at NYU still had a few weeks to go and I needed to find a place to stay in Manhattan as quickly as possible. I had recently come out of the closet and was taking my first steps into the gay lifestyle, and realizing that it would not be possible to live in the city by myself, I registered with the Gay Roommate Service. The first person I contacted was a young man who said his name was Jamie. We had a great conversation on the phone. He said he had a sofa bed for me to use, he would only charge me $500 a month and could I move in the following week? His apartment was in the lower east side, just one subway stop from Greenwich Village. It wasn’t far from NYU and was a part of town I knew well, so I agreed.
A few days before I was scheduled to arrive at his door, he called me in Connecticut with the distressing news that the deal was off. “I haven’t been feeling well and I’ve just found out that I have AIDS,” he said. “I have to focus on my health and can’t deal with a roommate.”
The late 1980s was a terrible time for the gay community, as the AIDS crisis was at its peak. People were dying every day. It was not a particularly good time to step out of the closet and I was terrified to engage in any relationship that involved physical intimacy. Jamie was one of millions who had become infected. He was going to die and nothing could be done to prevent it.
He told me that he was a flight attendant and had a very active sex life, sometimes having several sexual encounters a night while on trips to France and Amsterdam. “What I regret most of all is knowing that I infected a lot of other men,” he said, starting to sob. “I’ve been stupid and selfish. I knew that HIV was a thing, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t think it would affect me.”
My heart broke for him, but there was nothing I could do but tell him I was sorry and encourage him to see a counselor. A year or so later, he called the number in Connecticut and Miss Miller told him how to reach me. When we spoke, he said he just wanted to reach out to me and say good bye. He only had a few weeks to live and he remembered how kind and sympathetic I had been when he told me about his situation. It made me cry.
The sudden change of plans sent me into a panic. Miss Miller would be arriving in a few days and I still had to find a place in New York! I contacted the roommate service and was given another name and number. The next day I went to an apartment on West 57th Street to meet David. I didn’t have the luxury of time so after a brief conversation, I shook his hand and agreed to pay him $550 a month. He responded with a hug and a “welcome, roomie!”
I was 25 and David was three years older. He was tall and stocky, with short red hair and pale blue eyes. He was single but very much in love with a man named Michael who was in love with someone else. Loving someone who can’t love you back is an unhappy situation, and there was always a sadness hovering over David, like a dark rain cloud. He had a good job as a reservation clerk at an upscale Hotel on Broadway, but he drowned his sorrow in alcohol and would come back to the apartment late every night, weaving back and forth, often falling into his bed without undressing.
David’s apartment was small but very comfortable. It was just down the block from Columbus Circle, making subway travel very convenient. It was a studio, with one big room and a very high ceiling. There was also a small kitchen and a white-tiled bathroom. On one side of the room a spiral staircase led up to a loft, where I slept. A twin mattress lay on the floor, with a small lamp nearby. David slept down below, on a pull-out sofa.
He and I got along well, but he snored so loudly that I was unable to sleep. I would toss and turn on the narrow mattress most of the night, and after about a month, I decided to look for another roommate situation. But during the month that I was there, the spring term at NYU ended, I almost went broke, I found a job and I had my first openly gay crush.
The object of my affection was a young man named Vincent whom I met through the personals column in the Village Voice. He lived just north of the city in New Rochelle, but he took the train to Manhattan one evening and met me for dinner. We sat eating and talking for hours. Conversation was easy and we would sometimes stop in mid-sentence and just stare at each other. His hair was dark brown and his eyes were bright blue, surrounded by long dark lashes. I liked him, and as we walked down Park Avenue on that warm May night toward Grand Central Station, I thought that perhaps we would start dating. Actually, it was more than a thought. It was a hope. I thought about him all the next day, and the day after that, and I was delighted when he called on the third day and suggested we meet again on Friday evening for another dinner.
David helped me pick out a colorful shirt for the date and even put some mousse in my hair to give it a sporty style. As I left to meet Vincent at an Italian restaurant, David gave me hug. “Have fun, darling,” he winked. “I won’t wait up for you!”
I enjoyed the second dinner even more than the first and after the bill was paid, we walked over to Central Park and then strolled down Broadway and ended up at Times Square. It was about 11 by that time and people were just leaving the theaters after seeing such shows as Cats, Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Phantom of the Opera. Times Square was bustling with excitement.
Vincent and I were walking past a group of sidewalk artists when three young men blocked our way. We started to move to the side but they moved as well, standing directly in front of us. “Not so fast,” one of the guys said. I don’t remember what they were wearing or what they looked like. All I remember is that they stared at us with mean eyes. Actually, they were not staring at me. They were staring at Vincent.
One of the guys took a step toward him and grabbed the collar of his shirt. “You’re a pretty boy, aren’t you,” he said, but Vincent didn’t answer. “And that’s a nice chain you’ve got there.”
He grabbed the shiny gold chain and ripped it from around his neck with a sudden jerk, then laughed. The other guys laughed as well, and then they turned and walked away, disappearing in the crowd. There were people all around us, but no one had apparently noticed anything.
Vincent had turned as white as a sheet and I could see him trembling with fear and rage. And then he looked at me with a very strange expression. I suddenly realized what he was thinking. Why had I just stood there? Why hadn’t I tried to help him? Why hadn’t I called out for help? I had no answers, but I was overcome with a feeling of guilt and shame. There was no reason to call the police. What could they do? There were probably hundreds of similar crimes committed every night in that area.
“I have to go,” he finally said, and I walked with him to the train station. We didn’t speak as we walked, and he went inside without saying goodbye. I never heard from him again, although I did try calling him a week later. I left a message, but he did not return the call. I’ve thought about him occasionally over the years and still regret that I didn’t try to help him. Of course, if I had, we might have both been killed.
About the time I was getting to know Vincent, the term at NYU concluded and my one and only year of graduate school came to an end. I had used student loans to pay the tuition, and the amount of debt scared me. I made the decision not to sign up for a second year but my money had run out and if I was going to stay in New York for the summer, I’d have to find a job. My only work experience was writing feature stories for a small-town newspaper, which certainly did not qualify me for a job at the New York Times! While deciding on a career, I thought I would make ends meet by applying for work through a temp agency. I wasn’t sure I had the proper skill set, but hoped for the best.
I don’t know how I found the name of a temp agency, probably through the yellow pages, but I walked through the front door of one particular agency on a Monday morning, filled out the forms and took a typing test. Personal computers were not commonly in use in 1988, and I had to use an electric typewriter. I had never learned to type properly, but I could do very well with two fingers, and I ended up with a score of 64 words-per-minute with no mistakes. The woman who administered the test had reacted to my two-finger method of typing with a frown, but had to admit that my speed and accuracy was impressive. She said I’d be sent out for secretarial assignments.
Every morning I had to be dressed and ready by 8 am and wait for a phone call. For three mornings I got up early, showered, shaved, put on a suit and tie… and waited. And for three mornings there was no phone call. But on the fourth morning, the phone rang and I was told to report to the 8th floor of a building on 34th Street. It was Crown Publishing.
I worked there for a week, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I loved the publishing atmosphere, answering phone calls and typing the department memos for the artists who were designing book covers. That week they were submitting cover ideas for Dominick Dunne’s newest novel, People Like Us. My next assignment was at Colgate-Palmolive, where I worked for three days typing letters for one of the top executives. For the next couple of weeks, I worked briefly at WOR Radio and then spent some time at RKO. It had once been a major Hollywood movie studio but had been reduced to one small office on West 42nd Street. They were in the process of selling their film library to Ted Turner. And then I was assigned to the accounting department of Ogilvy & Mather Advertising on Madison Avenue. The job was a bore, but I apparently made a good impression on the boss who recommended me for another temporary position in the public relations office. I stayed at O&M all summer, eventually ending up in the creative department, where I was offered a full-time secretarial job.
I had just moved from accounting to public relations at Ogilvy when I left David’s apartment on West 57th and moved in with Mark on West 52nd. I had also found Mark through the Gay Roommate Service.
He also had a studio, smaller and not as grand as David’s, but cute and cozy. It was on the second floor of a modest building in the middle of the block between 7th and 8th Avenues. I had only one meeting with Mark before I moved in, and I found him to be polite and interesting. He taught elementary school, but had taken a summer job to help with expenses and the $525 he was asking from me would be enough to balance his checkbook. He was probably in his mid 40s, a good 20 years older than me, and he was very thin, with an angular face. He reminded me of the illustrations of Ichabod Crane in Washington Irving’s famous book, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
I moved in on the last Saturday in June, and it was turning out to be one of the hottest summers that New York City had experienced in decades. Mark and I slept in bunk beds, he in the lower bunk and me in the upper. The first night I was there it was so hot that I barely slept, and the next morning I asked Mark why he didn’t turn on the air conditioner. After all, it was right there in the window and it would be just a comfortable for him as it would be for me. It was then that he told me that he was a macrobiotic.
I had never heard the term before, but the more I learned about it, the less I liked it. Based on Zen Buddhism it’s all about keeping the yin and yang perfectly balanced. That means avoiding air conditioning, not using an electric stove for food preparation, reducing animal products from the diet and eating only locally grown foods, lots of seaweed, fruits, grains, oats, quinoa and brown rice. An herbal tea blend was the only thing he drank, that or an occasional glass of chilled water. Being an almost-vegetarian, I thought the diet sounded bland but OK. However, when he told me that he could only use utensils that were made of wood or glass and had to go through a chanting ritual every night, I decided he was nuts.
On the second night I took the mattress from the top bunk and put it on the floor in front of the window, which Mark graciously allowed me to open. But the noise from busy 52nd Street came through the window and annoyed me as much as the heat. It was a constant cacophony of car horns and sirens and squeaking brakes. Even using ear plugs didn’t help very much. When people say that New York is the city that never sleeps, they’re right!
I was determined to stay in New York through the summer and thought I could probably get used to the discomfort eventually, but one day when I used his oven to heat up a Stouffer’s chicken pot pie and then used one of his bowls and forks, he asked me to leave.
“You have contaminated my kitchen,” he yelled. “You have brought evil spirits into this apartment. You’ve upset the balance and now there is too much yin. Please go!”
The Gay Roommate Service gave me another contact and I moved in with Steve the first weekend of August. It was my fourth move in three months!
A couple of years later I happened to be walking along West 52nd Street and I stopped in front of the building where Mark lived. As I was looking up at the second-floor windows, wondering if Mark still lived there, a woman emerged through the front door. I recognized her as being the neighbor who lived at the end of the hall and I said hello. She did not remember me, but when I asked about Mark, a troubled look came into her eyes.
“It’s a sad story,” she said. “He died in that apartment a couple of months ago, all alone. It was AIDS. He had tried so hard to fight the disease, trying all sorts of diets and religions, but nothing worked. At the very end he was tired and sick and very bitter.”
I may have been changing apartments as often as the tide goes out, but my career as a temp was very stable. I had been working at Ogilvy & Mather since the beginning of June and about the time I was moving in with Steve, I was leaving the public relations department and moving over to creative to fill in for a secretary who had taken a leave of absence. I was getting to know the agency quite well. I was also getting to know a couple of other temps. We were all there on long-term assignments. Stephan was working in accounts payable and when we’d pass each other in the hallway, our eyes would meet and linger in a meaningful stare. He was a young black man with a very handsome face and an upbeat personality. I suspected he was gay, and one day I sent him an anonymous note through interoffice mail. “If you know who I am, come and find me,” was all it said. A couple of hours later I looked up from my desk and there he was, his big chocolate eyes looking at me with a knowing expression. He laughed, and I laughed. “I knew it was you,” he smiled.
When two people come together under those circumstances, what can they do but arrange a date? We went out for dinner after work that evening, but it was obvious pretty early on that we were better suited as friends than lovers. We became quite close and we’re still connected through social media.
The other temp I got to know was Frank, who had specifically asked to be assigned to Ogilvy. He dreamed of having a career in advertising and wanted to learn as much about the company as possible. “I want to work in every department,” he told me. “How else am I going to decide if I want to be in accounting or creative or human resources?” He was very ambitious and he was the first of my temp friends to be offered a full-time job at the agency. He accepted a position in client relations and eventually became an account executive. The last I heard he had been named one of the vice presidents. I guess his dream did come true.
My dream, however, of finding the ideal roommate situation was not coming true. When I first met Steve, we got along very well. Like me, he had been brought up in the Southern Baptist Church. When we found out that we had that in common, he cracked his knuckles, sat down at a baby grand in his living room, and started playing an old Baptist hymn called When the Roll is Called up Yonder. And we both sang the chorus.
And I liked his apartment very much. It was on West 181st Street in Washington Heights, almost as far north in Manhattan as one could go, just a couple of blocks from Fort Tryon Park and that magnificent art museum known as The Cloisters. And the apartment was roomy. We shared a bathroom, but we had our own bedrooms. The only inconvenience was the 30-minute subway ride to my workplace in Midtown. Steve had an even longer subway commute, as he worked on Wall Street, in the financial district at the southern tip of Manhattan. On Sundays he played the organ at an Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village.
We didn’t see each other much on weeknights, as we spent time in our own rooms, but on Saturday mornings we’d meet in the kitchen, have breakfast together and listen to opera recordings on the stereo. He was crazy about opera and had named his pet cat Leontyne, after Leontyne Price. But as I got to know him better, I became aware that his personality had a very dark side. He would often be in a foul mood, slamming doors and yelling out in anger. I started staying in my room more and more, not sure what kind of a mood he would be in.
The space was nice and the rent was an affordable $500 a month, but I no longer felt comfortable there and I began to think about moving elsewhere. Ogilvy had hired me as a full-time employee in October, with a yearly salary of $19,000 (which seemed like a fortune to me at that time), so I thought I could afford living in an even nicer apartment. I noticed an announcement in the company newsletter that a small apartment on the upper east side was available to sub-let. I called the number and expressed an interest.
The apartment belonged to a young woman named Celine who was a receptionist on the executive floor. As luck would have it, she had agreed to let someone else move in, but they had backed out at the last moment and she was in a hurry to find a tenant. I came along at just the right time, and we finalized the deal. The rent was $700 a month. It was just barely within my budget, but I was thrilled to have a place of my own.
Celine explained that she had broken up with her boyfriend and was moving in with her mother in Queens. She wasn’t sure how long she’d be in Queens, but probably a year. So, in early February of 1989, just after my 26th birthday, I moved to the corner of East 81st Street and First Avenue. Steve and I did not part on good terms. He told me I had been the most annoying roommate he’d ever had and refused to refund my security deposit. I didn’t miss him after I left and had no interest in seeing him again, although I should have contacted him when I realized I left something behind. When my mother died in 1977, a family friend gave me a Bible, and inscribed on the flyleaf, “in loving memory of your precious mother, Louise.” That Bible had stayed with me for 12 years, and I hope that whoever found it on the top shelf of the closet has taken good care of it.
Celine’s place was on the second floor of a fairly small building and was what is known as a railroad apartment, meaning that it was long and narrow. The front door opened into the kitchen, which was the center of the apartment. There was a front room one on side of the kitchen and a bedroom on the other side. The one window was in the front room and it overlooked First Avenue. It was comfortably furnished, which suited me perfectly as I still had only my clothes to move from place to place, although I now had four suitcases instead of two. Celine had stored most of her things in the bedroom, making it necessary for me to sleep on the sofa in the main room.
It was a very comfortable space except for one thing – it had no bathroom! There was a “water closet” in the living room, which had only a toilet, and a claw-footed club sat in one corner of the kitchen. It sounds primitive, but it was actually quite charming and I quickly got used to brushing my teeth at the kitchen sink. There was not enough time to take a bath in the mornings before work, so I’d bathe at night. I’d turn off the lamps, turn on the radio and light a few candles, creating a very relaxing atmosphere for a good soak. When the bathtub wasn’t in use, it was covered with an oval-shaped piece of metal. I enjoyed the routine, but it was rather awkward when a friend from Tennessee visited me for a weekend.
I had only been there about three months when Celine gave me some disturbing news. Living with her mother was not working out, she had reconciled with her boyfriend (who happened to live in the apartment next door) and she would be moving back to her place the first of June. So once more I had to look for another home. It didn’t take me long to find one, and I have the film star Jennifer Jones to thank!
A few months earlier I had signed a contract with Greenwood Press to write an academic examination of Miss Jones’s film career. It took me a while to get started, but after I moved into Celine’s apartment on First Avenue, I began spending several hours every Saturday doing research at the Lincoln Center Library of Performing Arts. I’d spread the newspaper and magazine clippings out on a table and take copious notes as I read them. Often sitting opposite me was a young man who was intently studying complicated musical compositions by composers like Beethoven and Mozart and Liszt. He was a beauty, with dark wavy hair and bright brown eyes. I couldn’t help but glance at him occasionally, wondering what it must feel like to be so good looking.
After seeing him for three consecutive Saturdays, I broke the ice and said hello. He introduced himself as Luis and we started having pleasant conversations every weekend. He told me he was teaching himself to play piano and wanted to master the classics. When I told him I was researching the career of Jennifer Jones, he surprised me by saying that The Song of Bernadette was one of his favorite films. We became friends, slowly and steadily, and when I mentioned one day that I was looking for a place to live, he smiled and said he might have a solution.
He had moved in with an older man several months earlier, but that man had recently died, leaving an empty bedroom. Luis said there were several months left on the lease and he wanted to stay there as long as he could, but needed help paying the rent. He said he only needed an extra $500 a month. It sounded too good to be true, but I had very little time to find a new home and so I jumped at the chance. And it turned out to be one of life’s rarest events – the happy combination of affordable rent, a wonderful apartment and a special friendship between two people whose personalities blend perfectly.
Luis lived on the 14th floor of the Bradford, an old high-rise on West 72nd Street, just off of Broadway. The space was designed with two people in mind, as it had a shared kitchen and living room, with bedroom suites on either side, each with their own bathroom and walk-in closet. I arrived there on a rainy afternoon the first week of June, and it was the beginning of one of the happiest summers of my life.
And Luis was responsible for much of that happiness. He was an extraordinary person. Originally from the slums of Sao Paolo in Brazil, he had come to the U.S. as a teenager to attend high school and had never left, soaking up knowledge like a dry sponge. He is the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, as nothing seems beyond his grasp and understanding. Not only was he teaching himself to play piano, but he was learning the violin and the recorder and a few other instruments as well. And he had taught himself to speak several languages. In addition to his native Portuguese, he was familiar with German, French, Italian, Spanish and English. An aptitude for music and language were not his only virtues; he also had a delightful sense of humor. We would laugh ourselves silly with games of wordplay, sometimes having entire conversations with variations of whistling or using words out of context. “Look honey …bees!” was one of our favorites.
And never before or since have I known someone who attracted so much attention. He was noticed wherever he went, with both men and women flirting with him and offering their phone number. If there was ever someone who could have anyone he wanted, it was Luis. I envied that. He did go on occasional dates and had a couple of short-lived relationships, but he said he was never satisfied. What he really wanted, he told me, was to be in love with a man who could mentor him, a man who could teach him about literature and art and music and the beauty of life. I wasn’t that person, although I sometimes wished I could be. But our friendship was strong and uncomplicated and had we actually crossed over the line of romance, I think that friendship would have been ruined. And what a tragedy that would have been, as knowing him has enriched my life beyond measure. Neither Luis nor I live in New York City anymore. We both left that city more than thirty years ago. He went to Washington, D.C. and I moved to Portland, Oregon. He did eventually find the man he was looking for and has been happily partnered for many years.
During that summer, he was in the process of becoming a United States citizen and I’d occasionally help him with the material he had to memorize. By the time he was ready to take the test, he knew more about American history than I did. The day he announced he had passed the test and was a citizen, I took him out to dinner. We went to a lovely restaurant near Rockefeller Center called American Festival Café. It seemed appropriate. On that day, he changed his name from Luis Antonio to Louis Anthony.
Living on West 72nd Street had its perks, one of which was being close to Central Park. Sometimes on a warm mid-summer evening, Louis and I would walk over to that vast area of trees and meadows and paths and boulders and forests and fountains. The size of a small town, it took an entire day to explore it from one end to the other and from side to side. We would often wander into the brambles, a large area of thick forest with lush undergrowth. It was also a popular meeting place for gay men and as we’d walk along one of the meandering paths, we would hear rustling in the bushes and breathy moans of pleasure. We’d look at each other and giggle, but with AIDS being so widespread at that time, I have to wonder how many of those men who enjoyed a tryst in the park are still alive.
The constant fear of HIV and AIDS was always there. Like the smoke from a distant wildfire, it hung in the air and seeped into every building. It was impossible to escape from its grip. I was luckier than most as I did not have any close friends who got sick and died, but I heard about people dying every day. And I’d see young men in the subways and on street corners, ill young men who had been evicted from their apartments and abandoned by their families. They desperately needed help. They’d look at passers-by with sad eyes, hoping for a few coins. They would soon be dead, but they were holding onto hope with the last bit of strength they had.
It’s hard for people to understand now just how serious the AIDS epidemic was hitting New York City in the late 1980s. The gay population of the city seemed to fall within three groups: one group withdrew from all physical contact and lived by themselves, as hermits, both physically and emotionally; another group threw caution to the wind and decided to give in to all sexual desire, and if they were going to die, they’d die happy; and the third group was cautious and engaged in safe sex. I understood all three attitudes but felt more comfortable with with the third. Maybe that is why I made it through those years when so many didn’t.
Many, like my brief roommate, Mark, turned to religion and embraced various spiritual philosophies. I still considered myself a Baptist at that time and occasionally attended Sunday morning services at a large church on 57th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. But one morning when the pastor mentioned AIDS and called it the “gay plague,” I was disgusted and vowed never to return to the Baptist faith.
Sometimes as I walk through the living room and glance at my bookcase, I notice a title that always takes me back to that wonderful summer of 1989. It was on the 14th floor of the Bradford that I wrote Jennifer Jones, a Bio-Bibliography.
The summer of 1989 was a warm one in the city and I was very lucky to live in an apartment high above the hot and steamy streets. My room had one big window, and I always kept it open, the breeze fluttering the white diaphanous curtains. The sound of sirens and horns seemed far away and I had no trouble concentrating on my work. The window looked south, toward Fordham University, with the white gleaming walls of Lincoln Center just beyond. The skyscrapers of midtown stood tall in the distance.
A year earlier, before the spring term at NYU had ended, I had seen a press release tacked to a bulletin board on campus. Greenwood Press was launching a series of celebrity biographies and were looking for new writers who enjoyed research. Having just worked with Patsy Ruth Miller on her memoirs, I was eager to start a new writing project so I wrote to Greenwood and suggested Jennifer Jones, who was one of my favorite old-movie actresses. They responded by sending me a contract!
It had taken me several months to research her career, but by the time I moved in with Louis, I was ready to sit down at the typewriter and start putting words on the page. So on those pleasant summer evenings, I mostly stayed in my room, an electric fan humming in the corner and a radio tuned to a country music station, the songs keeping time to the tap tap tap of the typewriter keys.
The next morning, I would walk the 20 blocks to Ogilvy & Mather and spend my lunch hour re-typing the pages on a computer. It was a pattern that continued all summer, until the last period was put at the end of the last sentence on the last page. It was quite a thrill when a package arrived at my door a few months later and I held in my hands a copy of my very own book, with my very own name on the cover. I’d like to say it was the beginning of an illustrious writing career, but alas, after one more book (another volume for Greenwood detailing the career of Tallulah Bankhead) my typewriter was put away and I never wrote again.
The summer finally ended, as summers always do, and the lease expired at the end of November. It was not in Louis’s name and he was unable to renew it. We had to leave, and we both left Manhattan and ventured across the East River. I found a charming garden apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and he moved into a roomy apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. We didn’t see each other very often after that, but we’ve never lost touch in all the years since and have long phone conversations every couple of months.
In 18 months, I had lived at five different addresses in Manhattan. Surrounded by so much concrete and steel and asphalt and glass, my soul had started to atrophy. I discovered that I needed a few square feet of soil to be truly happy. I have to put my hands in the dirt and cultivate plants and flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees. The apartment in Brooklyn provided what my soul needed, a rectangular backyard that was tangled with weeds and needed a gardener’s touch. I continued to live in Brooklyn for another six years, and the years in that borough were marked by a romance, a difficult break-up, another romance, a career change and a move into a new place with an even bigger back garden.
I was twelve years old and my mother was gripping the steering wheel as she pushed hard on the brake, pressing it all the way to the floorboard. It had no effect and the car was gaining speed as she tried to navigate the sharp curves on the downside of a twisting mountain highway.
As I sat on my front porch a few days ago, enjoying the warm breath of spring and thinking about my mom, I wanted to remember her with a smile, but my mind took me back to that curvy mountain road so many years ago.
That is the way memory behaves. It can’t be controlled. One memory flows into another, and sometimes those memories have nothing in common. They seem to be random, as though we’re looking at an out-of-order slideshow of our lives. So, as I tried to think about a happy day with my mom, I was reminded of a frightening day instead.
The car was a green Datsun, a car that mom really loved. Every summer, she would drive that car to Kentucky to spend a few days with her mother, always taking me with her. I loved those visits with my Grandmother Huff and mom and I always had so much fun on those road trips, talking and giggling and singing along to the twangy songs on the radio. Many of the happiest memories of my mother are being in that car with her on our way to Kentucky.
On a Monday morning in June of 1975, we put our luggage in the back seat and hit the highway. It was a three-hour drive from our home in Tennessee to grandmother’s house in Kentucky and we were expected around lunchtime. We were having a great time, as usual, until we crossed the mountain between Pound, in Virginia, and a little coal-mining town in Kentucky called Jenkins. It is a high mountain and the narrow serpentine highway made its way up one side and down the other. The state line is at the top, marked with a sign that was always riddled with bullet holes.
We had just gone over the top and started down the other side when I noticed that mother had gotten very quiet. I could sense the tension. She was sitting up straight, her hands tightly holding the wheel and I could hear her foot pressing the brake over and over as the car slowly gained speed.
“Mom, why are you driving so fast?” I asked.
“The brakes aren’t working very well,” was her reply, and then she added, after noticing my expression of fear, “but we’ll be OK. Don’t worry.”
Her words didn’t do much to calm me, as I could tell she was trying hard to keep the car on the road as she steered through the twists and turns. We were only about half way down the mountain and some of the sharpest curves were still ahead.
We went into a long curve and the right front tire slipped off the pavement. I could feel the bumps as we hit gravels and dirt. Looking out the window, I could see a steep slope ending in a valley far down below and for the first time, I thought we were going to crash and die. But the tire hitting the uneven ground at the road’s edge actually slowed down the car a little and mother skillfully kept the tire in the gravels until we cleared the curve. She firmly held onto the steering wheel and then brought the car back onto the highway.
When the next curve came into view, she turned the wheel just a little, until the right front tire went off the pavement and hit the dirt. The car slowed just barely enough to go through the curve without losing control. We both sighed in relief and waited for the next bend. We went through three or four more sharp curves until the road finally began to level out and we could see the town of Jenkins ahead. It is amazing that we did not encounter any traffic on that mountain road. A couple of cars passed by us heading up the mountain, but we were alone on the way down.
When we got into the town, mother could not slow down the car and had to keep going, managing to maneuver the vehicle onto a side road. We finally came to a stop about a mile outside of town. Mother relaxed, sighed and reached over to give me a big hug. When we got out, it felt so good to feel the warm sunshine on my face. I could hear birds singing in trees nearby, and it sounded like a chorus of angels. It was a miracle that we had made it safely down that mountain.
We walked back into town and found a service station. As a tow-truck went out to get the car, we went to greasy-spoon diner to eat hamburgers while the brakes were repaired. It must have been a simple fix because we were back on the road after a couple of hours, and made it to grandmother’s house without any other problems.
Despite mother’s efforts to keep me calm, I was terrified as we were careening down that mountain. It brought back the memory of the most horrible car crash I had ever seen.
We were on our way to Dayton, Ohio to visit Aunt Ginny, my mother’s sister, and her family, Uncle Paul and my cousin, Danny. We were on the interstate making good time and planned to be in Dayton by dinner time. It was the summer of 1971.
Somewhere in northern Kentucky, a small red car came up from behind and passed us. My father was driving. He was not known for driving slowly, and I remember he was surprised when the car zoomed by. A young woman was behind the wheel and dad remarked that “she’s certainly in a big hurry!”
A few minutes later we went up and over a small hill and could see a smashed car ahead which had obviously gone off the road at high speed and crashed into a guard rail. My father gasped when he realized that it was the same small red car that had passed us a few miles back. The accident must have just occurred as no other cars had stopped to offer assistance.
Dad slowed our car and stopped not far behind the wrecked vehicle. It was a mangled mess. All the windows were shattered and steam was billowing from the front. “Stay here,” he said to mom and me as he opened his door. “I need to check on that woman.”
We watched as he walked to the driver’s side of the twisted car, knelt down and looked inside. Other cars began stopping and soon there were more people talking excitedly and trying to open the doors of the wrecked vehicle. An ambulance arrived at the scene just as dad returned to our car. He was visibly shaken.
“She’s dead,” he told us, and then explained what he had seen. There was a catch in his voice.
The end of the guard rail had pierced the car, missing the woman by less than an inch. But the impact had trapped her against the steering wheel and everything that was in the backseat was on top of her. She was still breathing and he reached in to grab her hand.
“I’m a preacher,” he said to her “and I’m going to pray with you.”
He said she squeezed his hand and tried to speak, but the only word he understood was “mama.” And as he was praying, a long sigh escaped her lips, her hand went limp and she died. As many times as my father had to sit by the bedside of someone who was dying, the violent death of that young woman affected him in a profound way. And every time I see a car accident along a highway, I think back to that late afternoon when a woman died on Interstate 75 in northern Kentucky.
My mother wanted me to have a haircut before we took that trip to Ohio but for some reason it didn’t happen, and when Aunt Ginny noticed that my hair was covering my ears, she laughed and said “I didn’t know that Ed and Louise had a little girl!”
Ginny was joking, but I really was mistaken for a girl a few years later during another summer when my hair was long and wavy. It was 1976 and I had gone with my parents to Ridgecrest, a Baptist retreat in the mountains of North Carolina. I was 13, but had not yet started shaving and with longish hair and a baby face, I probably did resemble a teen-aged girl. At least a woman also staying at the lodge thought so.
I had a long chat with her one afternoon and found her to be very friendly and interesting. I didn’t know that she had confused my sex, but I should have become suspicious when, after learning that I was 13, she told me about her daughter. “She is a year older than you, and she is also a late bloomer. She isn’t even wearing a training bra yet. But don’t worry, it will happen.”
When the conversation was over, I told her I had enjoyed our chat. “And don’t forget what I said,” she added, smiling.
The next morning I wanted to sleep instead of getting up early for breakfast. The woman sat opposite my parents in the dining room and said to my mother, “you have such a pretty daughter. I told her that she won’t always be flat chested.”
Mother said the woman turned beet red when she found out that I was a boy!
The hairstyle of an old woman is part of another memory. My mother and I were sitting in church on a Sunday morning, waiting for the service to begin and my dad to start preaching. An elderly woman sat down on the pew in front of us. As was common at the time, older women often had blue hair, and I’ve never understood why. That woman had teased hair that looked like blue cotton candy.
I leaned forward and tapped her on the shoulder. Before mother could stop me, I asked her why her hair was that color.
She turned around, looked at my mother and then looked at me. And then she smiled and laughed a little. “I’ll tell you, young man,” she said. “God turned my hair white, but I like blue better!”
Not only was I known for asking inappropriate questions but I would occasionally use words that were totally out of context, even after I was a teenager and should have known better.
When I was 14 and working on Saturdays at the florist shop owned by my stepmother, my dad would often stop by around noon with an invitation for lunch. On one particular Saturday an employee had suggested that she and my step-mother go to a new restaurant in town. They were just about to leave when my father walked in.
“You’re too late, dad,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Eleanor has already been propositioned!”
Everyone was quiet for a few seconds and then they all started laughing! What’s funny is that the word was perfectly suitable, but it has become so strongly associated with sex that it apparently has no other meaning.
It also took me a while to understand the meaning of “ejaculate.” I don’t know where I first heard the word, but I thought it was another way to describe passing gas. When I was visiting Bulah Vaught one day, a dear family friend who was well into her 60s, she prepared a very nice meal, including cornbread and soup beans, which was a favorite of mine. When we had finished eating, I told her that I was going out for a walk. “I’m sure you’d like to be alone in the house so you can ejaculate,” I added with a wink.
She looked at me with an expression of surprise and then howled with laughter.
“I don’t have the equipment for that,” she managed to say, barely able to speak because she was laughing so hard. “You’d better ask your daddy what that word means.”
One word I learned when I was very young was “protestor,” especially as it pertained to the Vietnam War. That terrible war was beginning to wind down in 1972, a war I had been aware of since I was very small. Three uncles were in that war, and two of them were caught up in some fierce gun battles. I was privy to many family discussions about the dangers and horrors of war.
On a warm afternoon during that summer, I was walking on North Shady Street just a block or two from our house when I spotted two young men leaning against a tree. They had long hair and headbands and were carrying a sign with the words “Stop the War!” painted in red. And the American flag had been sewn onto the back side of their jeans. They looked rough and mean and were certainly making a statement.
I watched them discreetly for a while. They did not move from the spot and kept consulting a map. Finally, I walked up to them a said hello. “Hiya kid,” one of them said.
When I asked what they were doing, they said they were hitchhiking to DC to join a big protest. “Oh, about the Vietnam War?” I asked, and they looked at me with surprise. How could a little boy know about such things?
“I know about the war,” I told them. “I have uncles who are fighting and we are always worried about getting bad news.”
As we were talking, it started to rain and I invited them to my house. It was a weekday and my parents were working, but it never occurred to me that it might be dangerous to invite strangers into the house. I only knew that they were friendly guys who needed shelter from the rain.
I took them into the den and gave them glasses of water and some chocolate chip cookies. My mother had baked them the day before and they were still soft and full of flavor. I wasn’t supposed to snack on cookies before dinner, but I could not resist having a few myself.
A few minutes later my father walked in and he must have been shocked to see me acting as host to two counter-culture hippies, all of us munching on cookies. But he was soon talking to them in a very congenial way, even looking at their map and helping them find a more direct route to their destination. The rain stopped and they wanted to be on their way, but when mother got home she insisted they stay for dinner. And then she packed some food for each young man.
Sometimes I wonder if those two guys ever think back to a rainy afternoon in Mountain City, Tennessee when a little boy and his family treated them with kindness.
I had a natural curiosity about people, but I should have been wary of strangers, particularly after my Grandmother Carrier terrified me with a story of a man brutally killing several student nurses.
She said the girls were alone in a house when a stranger knocked on the door. They let him in and he killed them, one by one, cutting their throats and brutally stabbing them. It was not the kind of story a grandmother should tell her young grandson, but I think she got some perverse pleasure out of frightening me. And she also knew other horrible stories about death and murder.
The most gruesome was about a group of young hikers who had gone deep into the forest somewhere in the Rocky Mountains for an overnight camping trip. There were two boys and two girls and a small dog.
After a meal by the camp fire they crawled into their sleeping bags for the night, but a noise awakened them a few hours later. It was a scary growling sound and they realized that a grizzly bear was coming toward them. They scrambled quickly out of their bags and climbed up into trees, but one girl could not get her sleeping bag unzipped. The zipper was jammed and no matter how hard she struggled, it would not move. As her friends screamed and yelled for her to run, the big bear reached her and picked up the bag in its teeth, swinging it back and forth. The girl screamed in terror, still trying to free herself.
The little dog had also been carried into a tree, but it was barking loudly and got free from the arms of its owner, jumped to the ground and chased after the monstrous bear as it carried the girl into the dark woods.
The others had to listen to the barking and the agonizing screams that slowly faded as the bear went deeper in the forest. Finally, they could hear nothing. The next morning, they followed the trail, finding pieces of the sleeping bag along with splatters of blood. They also found the dog, bleeding and torn and barely alive, but the girl’s body was never recovered.
I had nightmares for weeks and I can still remember the horrifying details of those stories.
My other grandmother had a sweet nature and never would have thought of frightening her grandchildren, although she did tell me about going into the barn one morning when she was a girl and almost stepping on a copperhead.
She always claimed that she had a second sight, that she knew when something bad was going to happen or when a friend was about to die. She told me that my mother had it, too. I wondered if I had inherited that ability, so one night I put it to the test.
I was staying with Grandmother Carrier and as I lay in bed, feeling a little homesick, I tried to reach out to my mother through my thoughts. “I love you mother, and I miss you,” I thought to myself over and over. “Please come and get me.” I focused on that thought for several minutes, until I finally drifted off to sleep. If my thoughts did escape my mind and float through the atmosphere, they got no further than the bedroom door. My mother did not come.
But a few years later when my mother was hospitalized with leukemia, I think we did have a connection. I had sat by her bedside for a few hours after school, holding her hand and talking softly to her. She was barely conscious and mumbled a few words only once. Later that night when I was home, sometime in the wee hours before dawn, I woke up. As I looked around my dark room with sleepy eyes, I had the strange feeling that I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t a scary sensation, but a feeling of comfort. And then, from far away, I heard the beautiful sound of a choir singing. The voices were light and delicate as though they were being carried on a gentle wind. Slowly they faded away and I went back to sleep.
An hour or so later, I was awakened by my father who was standing at my bedside. “Your mother died an hour ago,” he whispered.
In the 45 years since my mother’s death, I have listened for that sweet singing. Perhaps I won’t hear it again until the moment I close my eyes and join her in the next plane of existence.
As I sit on my front porch on a warm May afternoon, my memories have come full circle, starting and and ending with my mother, with some of this and that and the other thing in the middle.
It is 6:30 on Saturday morning. I awoke early with thoughts of you and was unable to fall asleep again. So here I am, on the front porch in the white rocking chair, listening to the world awaken around me. The sun is already rising and the tops of the trees are aglow in its rays. I enjoy the coolness of the morning. A slight breeze is rustling the leaves of the maple tree and occasionally it stirs the plants by the porch, sending the sweet smell of heliotrope circling ‘round me. The birds are singing to each other. The song of the dawn is a lovely tune, but this morning it rings of sadness.
This morning I opened my eyes but you were not there. I didn’t feel the warmth of your body next to mine. It made my heart ache to remember how we would cuddle under the covers after waking up, until you would smile and say ‘I’m going downstairs to put on the coffee.’
It has only been twelve hours since you left, and my mind is filled with memories of your visit. I want to remember everything, always. But remembering makes me unhappy, and I don’t want to feel sadness. I want to feel happiness. I want to rejoice, knowing that of all the people in the world, we have found each other.
The sun is a bit higher now. It is beginning to creep over the roof line of the house and the air is slowly warming. Do you remember the evening we sat on this porch at twilight? It was Sunday, just six days ago, after our hike in the Columbia River Gorge. Remember how we laughed when the neighbor started calling for her cat? The cat’s name is Breakfast and when its owner called for it in that shrill cartoon voice, I loved the way you yelled in reply ‘eggs over easy and a side of flaps!’
How I wish that I could be with you now, to embrace you with my love, to support you and cradle you in my arms. Please know that although I am far away, my love for you is strong. Hold onto that thought until we are together again.
Now a hush has fallen over this place. The birds have ceased their singing and the breeze is stilled. The sun has reached the porch, but its rays do not warm me. My sadness seems to have stopped time. Ah… the morning has returned to normal now. A sputtering car has shattered the stillness and time is moving forward again, but I wish I could turn the clock backward one week. I want to re-live every moment and every sensation of meeting you and falling in love with you.
~ ~ ~
Joseph and I had met on-line a month earlier. A four-year relationship had ended not long before and I was yearning for another romance. After being disappointed with the men I was meeting at the gay bars in town and through the personals column in a local tabloid, I decided to try an internet dating service. On-line dating was fairly new in 1998 and I found only one site devoted to gay romance. It was called gay-dot-net and to use the site I had to pay a subscription fee. New members were joining every day, from all over the world, and within a couple of weeks I was chatting with three people – Gary in Boise, Idaho, Michael in Marquette, Michigan, and Joseph, in Ogunquit, Maine. I was 35 and they were just a few years older.
I liked all three, but I was becoming especially fond of Michael because I had gone to college in Marquette, which tightened our bond. He lived near Saint Peter Cathedral, on Rock Street, a part of town I remembered well. We talked for hours on the phone and I learned so much about his life. He sang in a local band and we would often harmonize on the phone. We were even talking about me flying to Michigan… but then I started chatting more with Joseph.
Joseph had contacted me because he had noticed the city of Portland in my profile. Assuming I was in Maine, he reached out to me with a flirty remark and I responded with one of my own. By the time he figured out that I was far away in Oregon, we had gotten so chummy that we continued the conversation.
The membership of gay-dot-net was still fairly small and I soon found out that Joseph was also in touch with Gary and Michael. In fact, we were all talking to each other and discussing plans to meet each other. And Joseph was also getting to know a man in Arizona who was pressuring him to meet in person. Joseph was the first to get serious about meeting me. He worked long hours as a pediatric nurse in Boston and had accumulated a lot of vacation time. He said he had never seen the north Pacific coast and had made a plan to fly to San Francisco, rent a car, and drive up to Seattle for a return flight to Boston. He had two weeks for sight-seeing, which would include a stop in Portland. I was elated, but did not want to get my hopes up too high. I didn’t even know what he looked like, as his on-line profile was missing a photo. He explained that he was still closeted and didn’t want to put his face on the internet. All he told me was that he was 43 years old, five foot ten inches tall, weighed 185 pounds and that his hair was blonde and his eyes were gray. That was good enough for me. After all, my profile did not have a photo, either.
He said he would be getting into Portland about noon on Saturday, June 20, so I gave him directions to my house in the hills just west of downtown. I spent that morning getting the house prepared for his visit and then I waited. Noon came and went, and then another hour passed. I kept myself busy by watering the houseplants and pulling some weeds in the perennial beds but I kept looking at the clock and wondering what had happened to him. Had he just been playing a game with me?
After giving the front porch a good sweeping, I was just about to go inside for some water when I looked up and saw a man standing at the end of the walk looking at me. He was wearing jeans and a yellow t-shirt. His shoulder-length blonde hair was tousled and wavy. He brushed some of it away from his face and I could see how handsome he was, with a firm jawline, a sensuous mouth and big, expressive eyes. I could feel the magnetism even though he was twenty feet away. It was rising in waves from his body like heat from asphalt.
“You are just as I imagined you,” he finally said. “I’m Joseph.”
He walked to the porch and I extended my hand. Without moving his eyes from mine, he gave my hand a strong squeeze and then smiled broadly. He had a good smile, although his two front teeth were slightly crooked. It was his only imperfection.
He said he had crossed the Cascades from Bend and had gotten lost when he reached Portland. “I had to stop and ask how to find Dosch Road,” he said. “But here I am!”
It was just past two and we were both hungry so I offered to take him to a nearby restaurant for some food. The rest of the afternoon was spent getting to know each other. We sat outside in lawn chairs under the shade of a maple tree and chatted for a few hours. He told me all about driving north from San Francisco and visiting the Redwood Forest, stopping at the seashore and watching the waves and spending an entire day at Crater Lake in southern Oregon. From there he had driven to the high desert of central Oregon and then headed due west, toward Portland. The travelogue was certainly fascinating, but I was more interested in learning about him.
Slowly, he told me his heartbreaking story. He had been attracted to men all of his life, but due to the pressures of the Catholic Church and his family, he got married and tried to be content. He had two daughters who were now teenagers. He said he loved them very much but although he had tried to be a good husband, he had never loved his wife. After 20 years of marriage he had decided to leave and search for his own happiness and fulfillment.
“We are in the process of divorcing, but she is not making it easy,” he told me. “And I can’t really blame her. She doesn’t understand me. I moved out of the house and have my own condo on the beach near Kennebunk. It is my haven, but my heart is lonely. I want to be in love with a man. It has been my life-long dream and I am taking my first steps into a new life.”
I understood his situation. Had I stayed in my hometown, I would have followed the same pattern, spending years feeling unhappy and out of place. As I was listening to his story, I was glad that I had left home when I was young.
~ ~ ~
It is now 8:30 and the coffeemaker is perking merrily. The sun is fully up now and is shining full blast on the porch, even hitting the paper as I write. I’m still sitting in the white rocker, but my thoughts are in the past.
I ache for your touch, Joseph. I wish I could hear your voice and run up behind you and kiss your neck. I think it is rare for two strangers to meet and click the way that we do. I’ve been in love before and wasn’t sure that I’d ever find it again. But then you appeared at the end of my front walk and I opened my heart to you. You offer me what my parched soul has longed for, and I want our love to nourish each other. As I heard someone say once in a romantic movie, ‘until you have loved and been loved, there is no life. And then there is no death.’
~ ~ ~
Pure mush, but I’ve always written syrupy love letters. I had fallen for Joseph completely. I missed him and it helped a little to put pen to paper and let all those feelings flow onto the page. But it wasn’t love at first sight. That first day we did a lot of talking as our friendship was taking root, but there was no lust, no passion, no deep sighs of longing. And he camped out in the guest room that first night.
The deep connection of heart and soul did not happen until the next day. As I continued writing the letter, my thoughts took me back to that perfect Sunday.
~ ~ ~
I was beginning to like you a lot by Sunday morning, Joseph. Besides being handsome, you were so nice and sweet and fun and sharp and interesting that I could feel myself starting to fall for you. And it was an ideal day for a drive into the Columbia River Gorge. I loved looking over at you as we drove along, the sun catching your blonde hair and making it glow. And then we stopped to have a close look at Wahkeena Falls. Remember how we had to climb over some rocks next to the waterfall before we found the trail? But then the path opened and up we went, criss-crossing back and forth beside the splashing stream, through thickets of ferns and under the majestic firs, maples and redwoods.
And then we came to a bend in the path and stopped to watch the water splashing over rocks and fallen logs. I felt your hand on my shoulder, a simple touch that sent a tingle through my body. We continued upward until we reached the top and the entire gorge was spread out below us, a beautiful vista to enjoy. I looked over at you and you were looking at me… and then our lips touched. It was like being struck by lightning, an explosion of passion. I wanted that moment to last forever, but we heard the voices of other hikers approaching, and had to pull apart.
I cannot bear to remember any more. It is painful to be alone and think back to a special day when we were together. I wish you were still here with me, Joseph, and we were off on another adventure exploring hidden trails where we could kiss under the lush green fronds of a mountain fern.
~ ~ ~
After our kiss was interrupted and our hike completed, we drove south and ended up on Mount Hood, where we had a snack at Timberline Lodge. We found another secluded place to kiss behind the lodge in a thicket of fir trees, and then returned to Portland as quickly as possible. We had barely gotten through the front door when clothes started flying in all directions! A couple of hours later, exhausted and deliriously happy, we ate broiled halibut for dinner by the romantic glow of candlelight. The spell had been cast and we were goners.
I did not go to work on Monday morning, giving the excuse of illness, and we spent the day at the beach, near the little town of Neskowin, just a couple of hours away. We spread a big towel out on the sand and snuggled up to each other under the afternoon sun, talking softly about what was happening to us. He warned me that his life was complicated, that the divorce was going to be difficult and that he had his young daughters to think about. He had kept his gay interests private and was concerned how his daughters would react. He said he wasn’t sure that getting into a relationship was a good idea, that rough times might be ahead. “But still, I cannot resist you,” he added.
He was showing me the red flags, but hearts pay no attention to such warnings and we gave in to the growing passion between us. And it wasn’t just a strong physical attraction. The sexual magnetism was powerful, but even stronger was an emotional connection. He said he felt so free and happy being with me that it was the most intense feeling of inner joy he had ever known. I sometimes had to wipe the tears from his face as he looked at me with those gorgeous gray eyes. No one had ever expressed affection for me in such a powerful and sensual way. It touched me in a very deep and special place.
He had planned to continue his journey northward on Tuesday, driving up to Seattle and spending a couple of days on the Olympic Peninsula before flying back to Boston on Friday afternoon. But he delayed his departure by a day and he didn’t leave until Wednesday. It was raining when he drove me to work on that morning, before leaving the city. He parked in front of my office where we sat for a while, saying a long goodbye, rain splattering the windshield as tears ran down our cheeks. He promised to call me from Seattle before flying east and assured me that our love would not die. When I got out of the car and watched him pull away, I felt the sudden sting of heartbreak.
It was very difficult to concentrate on my job that day, and the next day was no easier. My thoughts were focused on Joseph. I left work Thursday evening and decided to walk home. I lived more than a mile away, and it was up hill all the way, but I knew the walk would be good for my body as well as my mind. And as I climbed higher into the west hills, enjoying the loveliness of the day and admiring the homes with their manicured lawns, I started to feel better. The painful emptiness faded slightly, and I was in a happier mood by the time I reached my house. I climbed up the steps to the front walk and then entered the secluded yard, a private garden surrounded by evergreens. But I was not alone. Standing on the front porch, grinning at me, was Joseph!
“I could not stay away from you,” he smiled, holding out his arms and inviting me into an embrace. “I had to spend another night with you before I go back to Maine.”
I ran to his open arms so fast that I almost tripped on the porch step. It was the most exciting embrace I had ever known and we held each other, trembling and kissing, for a long time. And the night was erotic and exhilarating and romantic and passionate. It remains one of the most memorable nights of my life.
When Joseph left the next day, on his way to Seattle and then back to his life in the east, I missed him terribly, but I was hopeful that he and I might indeed have a future together. He called me from the airport and told me he would come back to Portland before the summer was over. And a few days later he announced that he had purchased a plane ticket for late July.
During the next 30 days we kept the post office busy sending letters back and forth. He wrote beautiful letters, rich with the descriptions of his love for me, how much he missed me, and hopes for our happy future. I read them over and over, savoring every word. We also e-mailed each other daily and spoke often on the phone. We were in constant touch, yearning for each other and counting the days until we could be together again.
Never had a month gone by so slowly, but the day finally arrived when his plane was landing at the Portland airport. It was Monday, July 27. I had used some of my own vacation time and took the week off. My love for Joseph was burning hot, and so was everything else. Portland was suffering through an oppressive heatwave and it was 99 degrees when we pulled into my driveway early in the afternoon.
Despite the uncomfortable heat, we managed to enjoy being close to each other. We pointed two fans at the bed and slept through the night wrapped in an embrace. The next morning we headed to the beach, where the air was cooler. After spending a few hours relaxing on the sand and wading in tidal pools, to the annoyance of a few sea anemone, we drove up the coast to Astoria, where we checked into the Rosebriar Hotel. A cool breeze from the ocean made the air fresh and comfortable and it was hard to believe it was 100 degrees only an hour inland. After showering together with suds and steam, we walked down to a restaurant on the pier and laughed at the antics of seals as they frolicked playfully in the harbor. A fog was coming in as we walked back to the hotel, hand in hand. Anyone watching us would have been aware of our amorous feelings for each other. Two people in love cannot conceal their feelings.
The wind pattern had shifted and when we returned to Portland the next day, the dome of heat had thankfully moved east. Joseph was scheduled to return to the east coast on Friday and the days passed much too quickly, although we made use of every hour. There was another drive to Mount Hood and some hiking on the mountain, but most of our time was spent in the privacy of my house where we were free to express our unbridled affection for each other. I also introduced him to my three closest friends, Michele Fenninore, Curtis Thorne and Jeffrey Dobbs. They liked him and gave me the thumbs-up gesture.
The night before he left for Maine, I took a short walk around the neighborhood while he was packing. When I returned, the house was dark except for candles burning softly in the living room. I called out to him, but he did not answer, and then I saw rose petals on the floor. They had been scattered to form a path that lead me to the stairway, and I could see more petals on each step, seeming to sparkle from the glow of a candle on the windowsill. I followed the petals up the stairs and into my bedroom, where more candles were burning…. and where Joseph was lying on the bed, more red petals sprinkled around him and a crumpled white sheet covering part of his naked body. The candle light was causing shadows to dance on the walls and a slight breeze was rustling the lace curtains by the window. I had entered a place of magic and I was swept away by the romance of the moment.
In those days before the 9-11 terrorist attack, airport security was lax and the next morning I was able to stay with Joseph until he boarded the plane. We enjoyed a long hug, but resisted the temptation to kiss in such a public place. I started writing him a letter as soon as I got home. I didn’t realize that I had seen him for the last time.
~ ~ ~
It has only been an hour since I turned and walked away after you boarded the plane, and yet it seems that you are still here with me. I have cried almost without stopping, and I am crying even now. As much as I love you, I wish I could harden my heart a little.
I do nothing but wander from room to room, tears flowing, remembering every touch, every kiss, every surge of sexual pleasure. I remember your voice, the gentleness of your eyes, your body next to mine. I can still feel your heart beating against my chest. I remember every second of your visit, from the moment I saw you coming through the airport gate wearing those silly yellow sunglasses to seeing you leave through the same gate. I remember it all, Joseph, and I will remember it all… forever.
~ ~ ~
We had decided that our love was strong enough to survive the distance. It didn’t matter how much difficulty was ahead, we could fight it, together. We wondered if I would eventually move to the east coast or if he would relocate to the west coast. It was our dream to be together somewhere, someday, permanently. But dreams are fragile things and can easily shatter into pieces.
For a while we continued to send letters and e-mails back and forth, all of them declarations of our love and devotion. He always began his letters with “hello, lover,” which I adored. We also made a plan for his next flight to Portland. He would arrive on Monday, September 21, and we began a count-down… 49 more days, 48 more days, 47 more days until we can embrace and kiss and make love on the living room carpet. He wanted us to go back to the beach and find a secluded spot where we could enjoy some erotic intimacy, the Pacific waves caressing our bodies.
In one of his letters, he fantasized about our love-making on the sand.
~ ~ ~
I am relaxed, laying and waiting as the cool fog and mist rises from the ocean sea… naked and alone… waiting in need.
A pair of eyes appear overhead, the brush of another warm body over mine… skin touching skin, organs touching organs… my heart skips a beat.
I raise my arms up to enfold that relief from the cold, feeling and exploring with gentle hands… a back, a chest, a soft neck, the hair on the thighs.
Eyes meeting eyes, lips pressed in passion, tongues running smoothly… all communicating the act of caring, fondness and the need for love.
My mind opens to the sensations being felt… a tingle along my body, heat from friction on open naked skin, waves of motion in unison as if in a dance of life.
I think of the ocean, look to the sky, and the eyes of my lover stare back at me… expressing tenderness, excitement, hope and love.
When the climax is reached, the sharing is complete, we sigh at one another, sweat glistening.
Together, laying as if in oneness…
Our bodies are satisfied, our minds expressed, hearts remain beating, and our souls mesh.
~ ~ ~
But soon I noticed an undercurrent of doubt in his letters. The divorce proceedings had begun and the meetings with his estranged wife and her attorneys were not going well. And his relationship with his two daughters was becoming strained, especially as they began to question him about his private life. He did not want to discuss his sexual nature with them, but they were hearing rumors. They asked over and over why he had moved out and left their mother. They felt abandoned.
August gave way to September and we were still excited to see the days of the calendar falling away, bringing the date of our reunion closer. I kept sending him messages of support and love, hoping that I could reduce the stress that was overpowering him. “My love is a beacon,” I wrote to him, “shining through the fog of confusion, reminding you that a safe harbor is nearby.”
But when one particular meeting with a lawyer went very badly and he realized that the divorce was going to destroy him financially, he withdrew into himself and even my proclamations of selfless devotion could not reach him. He finally called me several days later, in tears, and said his youngest daughter had tried to end her life. The girl had felt that she was no longer loved by her parents who, she thought, were too caught up in their own problems to even notice her any more. It had been a devastating wake-up call for Joseph who said he had been selfish in seeking his own happiness, not realizing how it was affecting his daughters.
“They are part of me,” he said, “and I cannot ignore their pain. I can’t allow myself to think about you or about us anymore. This the way it has to be. I am so sorry for all of this and if there was some other way to make it work, I would do it, but my life is not whole right now without my girls and their love for me and mine for them. Having children is so much more about giving to them, even if it means occasionally giving up on your own goals and needs and wants. You will always remain in my mind, heart and soul for eternity. What we were able to share is something very rare and very special, which we will always cherish in our memories. I will think of you as someone who showed me that a relationship can feel good, whole and can transcend all the dimensions of my emotions.”
Naturally I understood, but the pain was almost unendurable. We had counted down to the last five days until we would have been together. I did not hear from him again, and I don’t know if he ever found the happiness for which he was so desperately searching. I hope so.
When dreams die, the pain is acute and it can last a long time. Whenever I’d walk into my yard and see the front porch with its white rocker, I would remember the happy love-kissed moments I had spent there with Joseph and waves of sadness would overwhelm me. When the summer ended and the trees turned to gold, I moved out that house and found another one to rent close by. I didn’t think that my heart would ever heal as long as I stayed there.
Joseph would be close to 70 now. I have occasionally searched for his name on-line, but there is no trace of him, as though he never existed. I have been in love since then, but it was not particularly satisfying, a pale imitation of the love I felt for Joseph. As for the other two men I got to know during that long-ago summer, Gary probably still lives in Idaho but Michael is no longer on this earth. When I moved back to Marquette, Michigan in 2005, I called him and we started making plans to get together for a dinner. Two of our plans to meet were postponed, and the third was canceled by his sudden death. He was only 47.
I put away the letters from Joseph a long time ago, tucking them deep in a drawer, but once in a while I take them out and look at them, remembering a sun-filled June afternoon many years ago when a handsome blonde man appeared at the end of my walk and offered me a glimpse of paradise.
How many of us can go back into the far corners of our memory to the time when we crossed over the boundary from childhood into adulthood? Do you remember when innocence gave way to responsibility? The summer of 1981 was my period of transition. I was 18.
That summer in Mountain City, Tennessee began with the high school graduation ceremony in early June. I remember very little about the event itself, except that it was a warm evening and we were all feeling hot and sweaty under our purple gowns in the gym which had no air conditioning. And I remember tossing our caps into the air with jubilant cheers as friends and family rushed down from the bleachers to offer congratulations.
Several of my classmates were busy preparing for college and were looking for temporary jobs, hoping to make some extra money. I ran into friends bagging groceries at the supermarket and attending to hungry customers at Hardee’s. The fast food chain had just opened a restaurant in town and I think every employee was under 25! I was also looking forward to going off to school in the fall, having been accepted by Carson-Newman College, but I hesitated to get a summer job. And my reason was a silly and selfish one – I wanted to enjoy my last season of freedom. I knew I would never again have a carefree summer. I was occasionally asked to drive the delivery van for the florist shop my stepmother owned but mostly my time was my own.
When I was growing up, summers between school terms seemed to last forever. But the summer of 1981 passed very quickly, perhaps because I wanted to savor each day.
Soon after graduation, perhaps only a week or so, I joined a few good friends for a quick trip to Nashville where we spent a day at Opryland. There were six of us, and the trip was a gift from the high school. The theater production that spring had been the lively musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which I had played the role of Schroeder. It had been so successful that the drama department rewarded the cast with a vacation. I climbed into the car with Bill, Sonya, Dena, Donna and Jeff, and off we went. The driver was the pastor of a local church and he must have been a very patient and long-suffering man because we were a boisterous and noisy group of passengers.
The day we spent at the famous theme park was picture-perfect and we wore ourselves out trying to enjoy every ride, snacking on corn dogs and cotton candy between turns on roller coasters, merry-go-rounds and other contraptions designed to spin you around and turn you upside-down. The final ride of the day was a log flume, and although each log was designed to hold four people, all six of us climbed in and I was pressed into a cramped space at the very front. The extra weight caused the hollowed log to sit low in the water and when we slid swiftly down a steep incline and hit the pond of water at the bottom, it caused an enormous splash. Through some freak rule of physics, the water missed me entirely and hit everyone behind me! I was completely dry while my classmates were soaked to the skin, their clothes sticking to their bodies. I think they put me in the front on purpose, hoping I would absorb the splashing water. The joke was on them. It was a six-hour drive back to Mountain City and their clothes were still damp when we got home.
The summer wasn’t all fun and games, however. Tragedy is never welcome and always shows up when it is least expected. One afternoon before June ended, someone called me with the sad news that a very popular member of our class had drowned. I had known Lisa Beth Arnold since the fourth grade and she had become a good friend. Her death was a terrible shock. She and a few other friends were swimming in a pond near her home when she suddenly went under and did not come up again. The others dived to the bottom and tried to pull her to the surface, but they could not save her. Lisa was dead.
At her funeral, I heard someone whisper “it’s the curse of ‘81.” And it’s true, the Class of 1981 did seem to be cursed. We had lost a class member every summer, beginning with Mike Cress, who died after our freshman year in a freak gun accident. Howard Arnold was killed in a motorcycle mishap the following year, and Duane Stansberry died after our junior year when his car went off the road late one night. It was not spoken out loud, but we all wondered who the curse would claim that summer. We have lost several members of our class since then, but no deaths have affected us more than those first four.
I have no memory of July 4th and probably did what I did most years – gather with a lot of other people in the parking lot of First Baptist Church to watch the fireworks exploding in the sky above Ralph Stout Park. But I have a distinct memory of Monday, July 6 because I wasn’t sure that I’d live to see the sun rise on Tuesday.
Every summer from the late 70s through the early 80s, my uncle Roy would fly down to Tennessee in his little plane and take me back to Ohio to spend a week with him and aunt Mary. They lived in a suburb of Dayton and visiting them was always a summer highlight, and it was thrilling to fly above the clouds in that little plane.
That Monday my father drove me to the small county airport just outside of town, where we waited for Roy’s white and orange Cessna to land. After my suitcase was loaded and I hugged dad good-bye, the plane taxied and took off, heading north. I could see dad waving to us as we climbed higher into the clear blue sky. Roy reached the cruising altitude and it looked like we would have good flying weather all the way to Ohio. But somewhere above the mountains of eastern Kentucky thunderstorms started to form. A cloud plume billowed to the right of us and another thunderhead blossomed out of nowhere on the left. Roy skillfully maneuvered the plane between them but suddenly a black storm cloud appeared directly ahead and we flew right into it. We were surrounded by darkness, the plane was pelted with hail and rain and flashes of lightning illuminated the roiling clouds. The plane was jerked to one side and the other and then a strong updraft pushed us violently upward. Just as quickly we were in a downdraft and I could feel the plane plunging swiftly. Roy held onto the controls with all his might, trying to keep the plane level, but I could see beads of sweat on his forehead and I knew we were getting into a dangerous situation. He radioed to the nearest air traffic control center and asked for directions out of the storm. He then adjusted the controls and the plane veered slightly to the east. After a couple more sudden jerks, the clouds thinned and soon we were in calm blue sky once again. We both relaxed and Roy reached over and patted my shoulder. We made it to Dayton without any other problems. And the return trip a week later was also uneventful, although we were late leaving Dayton and by the time we were preparing to land in Johnson County, the evening light was fading fast. There was barely enough time for me to jump out of the plane and grab my suitcase before Roy revved the engine, raced down the runway and lifted into the darkening sky.
The days of summer were dwindling down. It was already the middle of July, and the biggest news event of the summer was the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles. A week or so before that fabled wedding, I attended orientation at Carson-Newman, where I would soon start my freshman year. I was assigned to a room on the second floor of the men’s dorm and the young man who roomed with me had a very cheerful personality. We got along so well that we decided to be roommates in the fall. That began a friendship with Kevin Burris that continues to this day.
While attending orientation, getting familiar with the campus and signing up for classes, I noticed a movie schedule posted in the library. Classic films were being shown each week at the Tennessee Theater in nearby Knoxville. I had become a devoted fan of old movies and as I examined the list, my eyes widened and my heart raced. There were so many movies I wanted to see. This was before VCR’s and VHS, and long before DVDs and streaming services make it easy to see movies with the touch of a finger. At that time, old films could only be seen on a few cable TV channels or if you were lucky enough to live near a revival theater. A musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy called Rose Marie was being shown during the first week of August and I was determined to see it.
I knew that no one my own age would have an interest in seeing an old movie, so I asked my dear friend Bulah Vaught to go with me. Approaching her late 60s, she was as eager to see the film as I was, and said that she had liked MacDonald & Eddy movies when she was very young. It took a little effort to convince my father that I was capable of driving to Knoxville. I was young and had no experience driving in a big city, but I assured him that I would be careful. Finally, he gave his blessing and I picked up my passenger at 10 am on a Saturday morning. It was a three-hour drive to Knoxville and I tried not to exceed the speed limit as I headed west on Interstate 81.
The film was scheduled to start at 2, and as we were driving past Jefferson City, the home of Carson-Newman, I noticed that it was half past noon and there was time to stop for lunch. After a quick drive around campus, pointing out the dorm and the building where I would be attending several classes, we pulled into the parking lot of Burger King. Bulah had very little experience with fast food, except for visiting a Long John Silver’s. She was disappointed when the young woman behind the counter said that a pimento cheese sandwich was not on the menu, but finally agreed to eat a cheeseburger with some fries.
Knoxville was only half an hour away and soon we were within the city limits. Fortunately, I was able to spot the exit for downtown, find State Street and locate the brightly lit marquee of the theater a couple of blocks ahead. I managed to find space for the car in a nearby parking lot, and we both gasped as we walked through the big front doors of that magnificent movie palace. We were dazzled by the elegance of the lobby, the marble-tiled floor, the enormous chandelier and the twin staircases gracefully leading upward to the balcony. We took our seats in the first row of the mezzanine just as a large Wurlitzer organ rose slowly from a trap door on the stage, an organist already running his fingers over the keys with an exaggerated flourish, producing a rich and wonderful sound. After a few minutes, the organ slowly descended back through the trap door, the lights dimmed, the red velvet drapes parted and the movie began.
When it was over, I thought I had awakened from a dream. I had been transported to a fairyland of glorious music, lovely scenery and happy endings with beautiful lovers embracing. The drive back to Mountain City was pleasant, but I felt sad because that wonderful and magical day was ending.
Many years later I bought a CD featuring music from classic movies and one of the recordings was Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy singing “Indian Love Call” from Rose Marie. I called Bulah and played it to her over the phone. When it was over, she said, “Oh Jeffrey, that takes me back to a very special day a long time ago.”
When I wasn’t hanging with friends or driving the delivery van for the florist shop, I was devoting time to a history project I had started a couple of years earlier. It was an odd job for a kid, but it was my goal to document all the graveyards and cemeteries in the county, making note of every name, date and epitaph. So when the weather was nice and I had a free afternoon, I went out in search of cemeteries. When I look over the records from that project, I see that I visited 19 cemeteries during that summer. Most of them are a blur in my memory, but I remember two of them vividly.
One cemetery I visited was just outside of Mountain City in Doe Valley. I could see the gravestones from the highway, grouped together on a small hill next to a stand of tall white pines. The cemetery was obviously on private land, so I stopped at a house near the bottom of the hill and knocked on the door. It was opened by an elderly man who squinted at me and spoke in a quivering voice. When I asked about the cemetery on the hill, he offered to take me there. “I haven’t seen those graves in a very long time,” he told me. “My mother and father are up there, and a brother and sister who died when they were small. I want visit them one last time before I die.”
He clutched my right arm with a shaky hand as we slowly made our way through a field and along a fence of rusted barbed wire until we reached a rickety gate, which he unlatched. We followed a narrow path that led upward along the side of the hill until it reached the grove of pine trees. In a small clearing that was open on one side, toward the highway down below, there were two rows of old tombstones, battered by decades of rain and snow and sun. Some were leaning, struggling to remain upright. I jotted down the names as he stood silently for a moment at each grave, honoring the memory of his loved ones. We did not speak, but I thought I saw a tear finding its way through a deep wrinkle in his face.
When we made it back to his house, he reached out with both hands and grabbed one of mine, shaking it firmly. “Thank you, young man,” he said. “I feel at peace now.”
A month or so later, I saw his obituary in the local paper.
I was at the other end of the county not long afterward, near the North Carolina line, searching for an old cemetery that was supposed to be on a hill above an abandoned house. After a few wrong turns, I finally found it by turning off the paved road and onto a narrow, graveled lane barely wide enough for a car. A mile or so further on, I spotted the forlorn house with its broken windows, roof of rusted tin and vine-covered walls. I could see the cemetery on the hill above it, overgrown with weeds and saplings. I had to walk through a field to get there and the grass was waist-high, but onward I went until I reached the old graveyard. It was very quiet, the only sound being some crows in the distance squawking angrily at each other. I had to tamp down the high weeds and push back the branches of small trees to get a good look at the stones. They were very old but still fairly easy to read. When the task was complete, I headed down the hill toward the road where my car was parked, pushing my way through the tall grass and hoping I would not encounter a slithering snake. Heaving a great sigh, I finally stepped out of the weeds and onto the gravels… but wait… what are those dark spots on my jeans? Dozens of small brown ticks were slowly crawling up both legs, and several more were on the side of my shirt! With a loud shriek of terror, I ripped off the shirt and got out of my jeans as quickly as I could. I also removed my socks and shoes. Barefoot and wearing only a pair of Fruit-of-the-Looms, I jumped in the car and sped off, leaving a pile of crumpled, tick-infested clothes in the middle of the road! I drove home as fast as possible, hoping and praying that no one would see me. By sheer luck, I made it and slipped into the house without being noticed.
It was my father who had suggested that I take on the project of visiting the county cemeteries. He had a keen interest in history in general and genealogy in particular. At that time, he was researching his own family history and needed to get some information from his only surviving aunt. In her mid 80s, her health was not good but her mind was sharp, so on a warm day near the middle of August, he took me along with him to her home in Virginia, close to Nickelsville. His mother had grown up in that fertile Virginia valley, nestled between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and Clinch Mountain to the west, a mountain that is often mentioned in the songs of the famous Carter Family, who came from that same area.
We spent the entire afternoon with Aunt Lizzie and she helped my father fill in several gaps in his family tree, including an uncle he had never known. “Our mother was six months pregnant when she married our father,” she whispered. “He found out on his wedding night and was so angry that he abandoned his bride, went west and stayed away for three years. He was not the baby’s father!”
When the child was born, the baby boy was given his mother’s maiden name and was brought up by his grandparents. Who had fathered the child was a question that was never answered. When my great-grandfather eventually returned to Virginia, he reconciled with his wife and they ended up raising seven children, including my grandmother. But the little boy, whose name was Lindsey, was never accepted as part of the family and grew up as an outcast. When he died in 1950, his mother did not even attend the funeral.
“It has been a family secret for a very long time,” Aunt Lizzie admitted. “But if you want the record to be complete, you need to know the story.”
The dog days of August passed quickly, and the day arrived when I had to pack my clothes and leave for college. It was a turning point, and I never again enjoyed a summer of innocence. As it says in First Corinthians, “when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.”
On my way out of town, I stopped at the church where I found my father in his study preparing a sermon. We had a brief but heartfelt chat, saying all the things that fathers and sons say to each other at such times. He followed me out to the car and gave me a last-minute hug. I don’t think he had ever held me so tight, and as I drove out of the parking lot, he watched me until I pulled onto the highway and drove away, into the rest of my life.
“I love you, son,” my father said as he put his arms around me. “And I’m proud of you.”
We were in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church of Mountain City, Tennessee, and it was nearing the end of August in 1981. After a fun summer that was ending much too quickly, a new adventure was beginning. I was entering Carson-Newman College as a freshman. It was exciting, but a little scary, too.
“I’ll miss you,” dad added and I reminded him that the school was only three hours away. “I’ll come back on weekends once in a while,” I assured him, as our embrace ended.
As I pulled out of the parking lot, my car stuffed with clothes, bedding, a stereo, and a bag of snack foods, I could see dad in the rear-view mirror, a lone figure with a sad expression on his face, watching his only child drive away. It made me feel sad, too, and I wished that I had hugged him one last time.
Three hours later I reached the campus of Carson-Newman, the centerpiece of Jefferson City, a small town not far from Knoxville. It was a sunny day and young men and women were everywhere, chatting and laughing as they walked in small groups along the concrete paths that spread out in all directions from the Henderson Humanities Building, the heart of the campus.
I found the parking lot of the men’s dorm and checked into the front office to get the room assignment. I already knew who my roommate was, as we had met a few weeks earlier during orientation. Kevin and I had been assigned to a room on the second floor on the building’s north side. The hall was called second north. An hour or so later the car was emptied and I started settling into the small room. It had twin beds, separated by a closet and a chest of drawers and the big window, with its green curtains, overlooked the front entrance. A long built-in desk was along one wall with shelves and cabinets above. A few minutes later, my roommate arrived with his mother and younger brother, all carrying bundles of clothing. Kevin was from Virginia and was a cheerful fellow with twinkling blue eyes. He was engaged to a young woman named Patty who also attended the college.
For the next couple of days, the dorm was bustling with activity as students moved into their rooms. There was a lot of noise as we all became acquainted, making jokes and small-talk, passing around pictures of girlfriends and parents and complaining about our class schedules. All of the residents on second north were incoming freshmen, and more than half were athletes. There were a few members of the football team plus their equipment manager and a trainer, two baseball players and two wrestlers, Billy and Kenny from Clearwater, Florida. The rest of us were from various backgrounds — a rich kid, a nerd, a music major, a misfit, a snob and several who were just average guys from average families. I was among the latter. We were all white except for one, an African American from South Carolina. Lionel was an amusing man who could tell risqué jokes with such flair that everyone laughed hysterically.
Lionel’s jokes were a bit too off color for me. I was innocent in the ways of the world and had a reputation of being prim and proper. “He’s like a Catholic teacher holding a ruler, ready to rap our knuckles,” I overheard someone say. “Yeah, he’s a little uptight and needs to relax,” someone else added. Being an only child, I was not used to living in a crowded environment and kept to myself most of the time. I was a loner who was naïve and unwordly. And it was not easy living in the gay closet. I tried to be friendly, but didn’t get very close to anyone.
Carson-Newman was a Baptist school and a lot of the students were dedicated Christians. Morning services were held in the chapel every week and there were numerous Bible study groups always looking for new members. Religion classes were required. I signed up for one class examining the writings of Paul and another in which we studied the book of Genesis. I liked those classes well enough, but I liked others better.
My favorite class during that first semester was English Composition I, taught by the delightful Ellen Millsaps. We had to write a paper every week, and being a fan of old movies, I often chose film history subjects. Fortunately, Professor Millsaps was also an old movie buff and she probably gave me better grades than I deserved. I also enjoyed a class in which we watched film adaptations of novels. We read the novels too and wrote papers comparing the two. Some of the films were very different from the book, while others were very loyal to the source material, especially The Ox-Bow Incident, a 1943 movie with Henry Fonda based on the book by Walter Van Tilburg Clark.
Because my math score on the college entrance exam was so low, I was required to take a course in basic arithmetic. My roommate laughed when he saw me doing homework one evening, which involved adding and subtracting and multiplying! The class was filled with student athletes, young men who were attending the college on sports scholarships. And our teacher was a startlingly beautiful and well-proportioned young woman who, if the rumors were true, had been a beauty queen in her native Mississippi. There were lots of whistles and wolf calls when she’d saunter in, fluttering her false eyelashes. She turned out to be an excellent instructor, despite first impressions.
I also signed up for a public speaking class. One speech I recited was an argument for the death penalty. It was not a popular opinion, but I guess the presentation was effective because there was complete silence when I finished. The professor took me aside after class and suggested that I audition for the school’s acting troupe. “You have a dramatic flair that can move an audience,” he told me. I was flattered. I had acted a little in high school, but I was suffering from low self-esteem and the thought of performing on a college stage terrified me. He actually singled out two of us because of dramatic talent. The other was a young woman who did follow his advice and appeared in several of the college productions.
Life on second north became more comfortable for me as the days turned into weeks. I did discover early on, however, that the athletes who lived on the hall were not attracted to Carson-Newman because of its religious affiliation. They had been recruited from high school teams and rebelled against the strict rules. When they weren’t in training for a big game or a wrestling match, they were rowdy and wild. Several fights broke out, sometimes in the middle of the night, especially between the wrestlers, and I know that young women were often sneaked into the rooms after dark. There was also a lot of drug use, particularly marijuana. One night a loud party in a room down the hall attracted the attention of the dorm master who burst into that room and found some very drunk young men and a thick fog of smoke from the marijuana cigarettes. He announced in a loud voice that every room was going to be searched. A football player named Greg who lived across the hall from me grabbed a bottle of vodka and brought it into my room. “Quick!” he said. “Hide this for me!”
I knew if I didn’t cooperate, I’d be targeted for some kind of nasty prank, so I stashed the bottle deep in the closet. Because of my reputation of being polite and proper, Greg was sure my room would not be searched. And he was right. The man passed by my door without even knocking. The punishment for that kind of behavior was supposed to be immediate suspension, but those kids were popular players on various teams and they were given a warning instead.
The next day I noticed that I was treated differently, with a little more respect. “Thanks man, for what you did for Greg,” one of the wrestlers said. “You’re a cool dude.”
Greg was known as a bully. A valued member of the football team, he was a hulk of a man, tall with bulging muscles. He lived in a room by himself, which was very unusual, because he was so intimidating. He also liked to drink and would sometimes fall into such a deep alcohol-induced sleep that his loud alarm clock would not wake him and we’d have to bang on his door. One night he slept through a fire alarm.
But Greg had a soft spot in his soul which he tried to keep hidden. He had a difficult home life and had gotten himself into some legal trouble before coming to Carson-Newman. As the holiday break was approaching, he cried when someone wished him a Merry Christmas. He admitted that his mother told him he was not welcome at home and that he would be arrested if he showed up. He didn’t have anywhere else to go for the holidays. We were all moved and took up a collection to help him. He shed a few more tears when we gave him the money, which was more than a hundred dollars, and told him to go wherever he wanted and have a good time. He didn’t return for the spring semester and I don’t know if anyone ever found out what happened to him.
One resident of the hall who was at the school for religious reasons was Terry, a well-mannered young man who told me he wanted to be a preacher. I got to know him fairly well and one evening we drove to Knoxville in my car. He said he needed to visit a friend and would I mind if he dropped me at the mall and borrowed the car. He promised he wouldn’t be gone more than an hour, so I handed him the key. An hour passed and then two. I left the mall and walked around the parking lot, trying not to worry. Another hour passed, and then another. I had already been noticed by the security staff who probably thought I was a vagrant, and when I realized that it was past midnight, I decided to reach out for help, but before I could flag down one of the security vehicles, I saw my car approaching. As soon as Terry slid over and I got behind the wheel, I could tell that he was drunk.
We drove back to Jefferson City in silence, but as we approached the campus he turned to me and apologized. “If I’m going to be a good preacher, I can’t drink,” he said. “And so I wanted to have one last night of fun before I get serious about serving God.”
Being the unsophisticated son of a preacher, I was sometimes shocked by the behavior of my dorm mates. I overheard many conversations in which the guys discussed their female conquests. Billy stayed out all night once, and when he came back he showed us a note from a woman. “You are a good lover,” she wrote and went on to describe what she liked about his anatomy. “Are you gonna see her again?” someone asked. “Nah. I only had enough money to pay her for one night,” was his reply.
One night when I was studying for an exam the next day, I started hearing raucous laughter and whooshing sounds from the hallway. When something banged against my door and some soapy water splashed into the room, I opened it and was amazed by the sight. The hallway had been slickened with soap suds and several young men, totally nude, were sliding back and forth on their bellies and butts, competing to see who could slide further. I have to admit that those naked bodies inspired some erotic fantasies.
The week before final exams and the beginning of Christmas break, someone brought in a scrawny pine tree and set it up at the end of the hall. Not having any appropriate decorations, it was adorned with condoms, and some of them had been used. The guys would laugh as they walked by the tree, pointing to the condoms they had donated.
When the finals were over and students were leaving for the holiday break, I offered to let three girls ride with me as far as Bristol. I lived an hour beyond Bristol but it was on my way. Our plan was to leave just after lunch, but it started snowing mid-morning and by the time I picked up the girls at their dorm, snow covered the ground. I had very little experience driving in snow and I was so nervous that I called my father to ask for advice. He told me to drive slowly “and if you have to stop, try not to use the brake,” he advised. “Just let the car slow down on its own, but if you have to use the brake, press it very gently.” He also said he would meet me at the Bristol exit and follow me the rest of the way home. That calmed me and I was able to make the two-hour drive to Bristol without any problems, but I was firmly gripping the steering wheel every mile of the way. At first the interstate was just wet, but by the time we reached the Bristol exit, snow covered the passing lane and was creeping into the other lane. As promised, dad was waiting at the turn-off and he stayed right behind me as I dropped the girls off at their houses and drove slowly onto Mountain City. I was very thankful.
The days passed quickly, as they always do, and soon it was time to return to Carson-Newman for the spring semester.
All the residents of second north returned after the break, except for Greg. And there was some roommate swapping. The wrestlers, Kenny and Billy, stayed together but Kevin, my roommate, decided to live with Dale, who shared his love of hunting. Dale’s roommate moved in with Lionel, who had returned from South Carolina with a fresh supply of racy jokes, a baseball player named Jeff Lee moved in with Tom, the nerd, and his roommate, also named Jeff, moved in with me.
Jeff was the smartest resident of our hall and probably of the entire dorm. He had a 4.0 grade point average and was majoring in math. Just looking at the differential math equations he had to solve gave me a headache. Not only was he smart, but he was also a very nice person. Everyone liked him. He later graduated with the highest of honors, went on to get a Masters and PhD, and has been a well-respected professor of math at a Tennessee university for more than 30 years.
We got along very well, although his study habits did annoy me because he never started his homework before midnight. There was an empty room a few doors down and, when he was pulling an all-nighter of intense studying, I’d take a pillow and blanket to that room so I could sleep.
It was during the spring semester that I decided to major in English. It seemed to be the best choice as I enjoyed the literature classes more than any other. I signed up for another class taught by Ellen Millsaps and she asked me to be a TA for one of her other classes. I was delighted. I also took a class in which we studied the films of Alfred Hitchcock, which was a great thrill. We studied a few American novels in another class. One of the books we read was River of Earth, a depression-era novel about a coal-mining family. I was surprised to discover that it was set in Knott County, Kentucky, where my mother had grown up. Its author, James Still, lived in that area and had been the high school principal when she was a student. It remains one of my favorite novels.
I felt more relaxed than I had during the first semester, when I had spent so much time trying to find my way in the new environment of college life, and formed some good friendships. I enjoyed a tight bond with a pretty girl named Mandy who was studying vocal performance. I often went with her to the music building and listened as she rehearsed. She had a beautiful voice. Her name was the title of a Barry Manilow song and I would teasingly call her “Barry,” which always made her giggle.
Some friendships are just pleasant diversions as we move through life, some are more special and long-lasting and sometimes we become friends with someone who fundamentally changes our way of thinking. Mandy was that kind of a friend. Because of her, I had to make a difficult choice… follow the religious doctrine I had heard all of my life, or show compassion to a friend in distress. I made the right choice.
I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and rarely heard the word abortion, but when I did, it was always described as “sinful,” “an abomination” and “shameful.” I didn’t even know what the word meant until I was in the upper grades of high school, but it was something I didn’t think would ever touch me. And when I started college, my attitude and opinion remained the same. Abortion was a terrible, horrible and dreadful thing that no decent person would ever consider.
Mandy was also from a Southern Baptist family. We often sat together in chapel and attended the same campus Bible study group. But she had a wild side and got involved with a rough crowd. It happens to a lot of young people who leave home for college. The world is full of temptations.
One afternoon as I was leaving an academic building after an art appreciation class, I saw her sitting on a bench under an old maple tree. She motioned for me to sit with her, and I could tell that she had been crying.
“I need your help!” she said as tears filled her brown eyes. “I’m pregnant and I can’t have the baby. I’m going to have an abortion.”
The words hit me like a boulder falling from the sky. Nothing in my young life had prepared me for that kind of news. After taking a few seconds to let the words firmly sink in, I said, “What do you need me to do?”
She explained that there was an abortion clinic in Morristown, half an hour away, where she had made an appointment for the next afternoon. “I’ve only told one other person,” she admitted. “My roommate. She’ll drive me there and back, but we don’t have a car. Can we borrow yours?”
Without even thinking about it, I said yes, but I immediately wondered if I was doing the right thing.
I didn’t want to pry, but did ask if the father was taking any responsibility. “Oh no,” she said, as a sob shook her body. “I can’t even tell him. It wasn’t my fault and I never want to see him again.” She said an unwanted pregnancy would bring disgrace to her family and that her parents would disown her. Had she been raped? She didn’t say so and I didn’t ask, but I had my suspicions. We sat on the bench for several minutes, my arm around her as she wiped away a few more tears.
I thought about her plight all evening and into the night. And it was a cold night. It was March and the sharp chill of winter still hung in the air. Despite the cold, I went out for a walk as I needed to clear my head and thought a brisk stroll around the campus would do me some good. But I kept on walking, past the campus buildings and the ball field and all the way through the center of town. When I came to some railroad tracks, I turned and followed the tracks out into the countryside. I kept thinking that I was wrong to help her, that she was doing something morally reprehensible. I felt a combination of guilt and shame.
The railroad tracks made a slight curve around a small hill and on the other side the sky was glowing. I could see a building on fire not far away, the black smoke and ashes billowing into the dark sky. Then I heard the sound of sirens as fire trucks arrived and attacked the blaze with powerful blasts of water. As I watched the fire being put out, a wonderful calmness came over me. I knew that helping Mandy was the right thing to do. She was in distress and had reached out to me for help. She needed compassion and understanding and support, not condemnation. As I turned to walk back toward the college, I noticed that it had started to snow. Fluffy flakes of the purest white were drifting toward earth on a soft breeze, landing on my head and shoulders.
The next day, at the same time on the same bench under the same tree, I handed her the key to my white 1972 Chrysler Le Baron and gave her another long hug. A few hours later, her roommate met me in the lobby of the men’s dorm and returned the key. She told me that the procedure had gone well and that Mandy was a little tired and weak but otherwise fine. “She just needs to rest for a day or two.”
My way of thinking had been profoundly changed and I have been a supporter of the pro-choice movement since that cold night in March of 1982.
I had returned to Carson-Newman after Christmas break with a small black and white television and after adjusting the rabbit ears, we could watch a couple of channels from Knoxville. One of the stations would show re-runs of Dark Shadows every weekday at 4, and those of us who didn’t have a class at that time would gather around the set, close the curtains to darken the room and enjoy the eerie adventures of vampire Barnabus Collins. For a while my room was so popular that not everyone could fit inside for the program.
I was also one of the few residents of the dorm who had his own typewriter. It was an old manual that had been my father’s when he was in college, but it was reliable. I pounded at those keys with two fingers and was very proud of my neatly typed term papers. I also started a small cottage industry and typed term papers for other students. The fee was ten bucks, and there were always a few bills in my pocket, which helped to keep me well supplied with Twinkies! That career ended, however, when one of the papers I typed for an upper classman was filled with mistakes. The paper was given a low grade because of the sloppiness, and it was my fault.
Winter gave way to spring and the hundreds of cherry trees scattered around the campus covered themselves with soft pink blossoms. Romances also bloomed. All the guys on the hall seemed to forget about their girlfriends back home and cozied up to girls on campus. Everyone had a steady… except for me. I took one girl to an off-campus diner one evening and invited another one to study with me in the library on a Saturday, but my heart was not in it. I was happy to be their friend, but not their boyfriend. I was still trying to understand my gay thoughts and feelings and desires and forcing myself to join the dating scene was like asking rain to fall up instead of down.
Finals week came and went and the semester ended. My grades were not stellar, but I ended up with a solid B average. Most of the athletes who lived on my hall did not fare well academically and as we were saying goodbye to each other, I knew I would not see them again. Several of us did come back in the fall and we were glad to see each other, but my second year at Carson-Newman was fraught with the joy and misery of forbidden love.
A warning: this essay deals with depression, sexuality and suicidal thoughts.
It was a chilly March day in 1983. With a handful of pills in my pocket, I started the engine, put the car into gear and drove away. My plan was to pull off the road somewhere, swallow the pills, fall asleep and never wake up. I was overcome with depression, guilt and self-loathing and felt the only escape from those painful feelings was to end my life and hope for a benevolent God. I was 20 years old.
I was deeply in love with my college roommate, but that meant I was gay, something I was not ready not accept. Having been brought up in the Southern Baptist Church and hearing my father preach against homosexuality from the pulpit, I thought that being gay was an abomination, and that I was destined to spend eternity in hell. It sickened my soul.
Throughout my growing up years I had felt a strong attraction to other boys, but I assumed that attraction would go away when I met the “right girl.” I prayed that God would make me normal, but the feelings never went away. Instead, they grew stronger as I got older and it was becoming more and more difficult to suppress them. On that day in 1983, I thought the only way to stop the desires, the fantasies, the misery… was to kill myself.
When do homosexual feelings begin? I have many gay friends, and we’ve had wildly different experiences. Some say they have always known and others tell me they didn’t recognize those feelings until they were much older. No one’s story is the same.
My own journey of sexual awakening began when I was very young. I was never curious about a girl’s body, but I was keenly interested in seeing the boys I knew without their clothes. I was an only child and spent a lot of time alone, and I spent a lot of that time fantasizing.
We moved to the town of Bristol, in Tennessee, when I was four and my first friend was a boy named Alex. He would sleep over occasionally and my mother would put us in the bathtub together. He was the first boy I ever saw naked, and it fascinated me. But it was another boy in the neighborhood who took that fascination to a different level.
Rob introduced me to the art of masturbation! I was five or six. He was a year older. We went to a back room in our basement where we could be alone, and he showed me how it was done. In the simple vocabulary of a child, he explained that it was best to do it in the bathtub because the sudsy water acted as a lubricant. He said a little lotion might work just as well, so I got some for him. I’ve heard it said that small children cannot experience sexual arousal. I can dispute that theory!
I discovered that I could do it, too, and we’d have competitions to see who could reach a climax first and whose would be more intense. After a while – a month or maybe six months – he wanted to try something new. He was convinced that I could transfer the pleasure of an orgasm to him through anal penetration at the moment of climax. We tried it and he said it worked. I wanted to try it, too. I didn’t feel any pleasure, just an odd sensation, but I enjoyed being connected to him in a physical way. And so, every few days, we’d sneak into the basement and have fun. I began to crave it and look forward to his visits. It can only be described as a sexual affair. I bonded with him, but it was an affair of the body, not the heart.
I have to wonder how Rob knew about such things. He was a kid, perhaps six, perhaps seven. He was an only child like me, so he certainly hadn’t learned about sex from an older brother or sister. And I don’t think he was abused by a parent. But someone had told him and probably given him a demonstration.
Our affair, if it can be called that, ended after a few months when his family moved to another state. No one took his place, and I missed him very much. I wanted to pursue that kind of interaction with another boy but it did not happen again.
I thought about him often over the years and was surprised to hear from him almost 25 years later, when I was living in New York. I don’t remember how he tracked me down, but he called me, said he was going to be in the city and could we meet for dinner. I was very curious about his life and wondered if he was gay, like me. I even thought we might engage in some of the erotic activities we had enjoyed as children… for old time’s sake!
It was a very pleasant reunion and we talked about our lives and careers. Our mothers had both died and both of our fathers had re-married. But that was the only thing we had in common. He was married with five children. He proudly showed me a family portrait and talked about his wife and children with great affection. We spoke of our childhood in Bristol, but did not mention our unusual relationship, although I’m sure he remembered it just as clearly as I did. He asked if I was married, and seemed surprised when I said no. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” he winked. I haven’t been in touch with him in the many years since then, but I am sure he is a grandfather many times over.
We moved to the nearby town of Mountain City not long after Rob’s family left, and friendships formed with boys in the new neighborhood. I had crushes on a couple of them, but my feelings were emotional rather than sexual. In fact, I fell in love for the first time. Scott was my age and I thought about him constantly. I wanted to be near him, to look at him and find excuses to touch him. Just hearing his voice caused my heart to flutter. The feelings were very strong and very pleasant. I did not discuss with him how I felt and I do not think he was aware of my special interest in him. But we did have a close friendship, which was very meaningful to me. The feelings of affection seemed very natural to me, but I did begin to notice that none of my other friends felt the same way toward each other. I remember thinking to myself, “why do I love Scott?” I didn’t have an answer.
While I was falling in love with my playmate, I was developing a sexual attraction to an older boy who worked at the city pool as a lifeguard. I went to the pool on hot summer days and would stare at him as I dog-paddled back and forth in front of his perch. I was ten or so and he was probably sixteen. He had dark blonde hair and his skin was bronzed from the sun. He always wore a pair of white swim trunks that were tight and clung to his body. He would occasionally dive into the pool to show off his skills and I always made sure I had a good view as he would swim to the side and slowly pull himself out of the water. My mind would fill with lustful thoughts, which I remember even now, so many years later.
As I grew a little older and entered high school, I continued to feel stirrings in my body whenever I’d see a cute boy. And I had a series of crushes, some more serious than others, but I did not allow my feelings to show and I kept my thoughts to myself. But when I was sixteen, I became friends with an upper classman who inspired wild erotic fantasies. And, as it turned out, he had the same thoughts about me!
I invited him to stay over one Friday night, and we didn’t get much rest. It was difficult to stay quiet and not wake up my father and step-mother who were sleeping in a bedroom nearby.
It was about that time that I first heard the term “gay” and became aware of its implications, religious and otherwise. The town was abuzz with gossip about a local school administrator who had allegedly spied on young boys as they showered after gym class. Whether it was true or not did not matter. Any man who wanted to look at naked boys was labeled a pervert and a sinner. His reputation was ruined and he had to leave town. My father preached against the gay lifestyle from the pulpit, decrying the lack of morals in our society and predicting that God would punish the deviants.
It had a powerful impact on me and for the first time I felt a pang of guilt. Was I a sinner destined for hell? I prayed and cried and begged God to take the feelings away from me. When the older boy wanted to see me again and spend another night together, I told him it was wrong and against God and that we should pray for forgiveness. It made him angry and I was afraid he would “out” me, but realizing he would also be outed in the process, he kept quiet.
I wanted to change, and decided that dating would be the cure I was searching for. Some of my classmates were already going out with girls, so I started dating a high school senior who was sweet and pretty and also a member of my father’s church. We dated for a few months, and she must have been confused when I would walk her to the door and say goodnight without so much as a hug or a kiss. It was comfortable for me, but I sensed that she wanted more, so one night I did kiss her. I could feel how much she liked it, as she pressed her lips against mine while tightening her arms around my body. She was actually trembling, but all I could think of was getting away as fast as possible. It confused me too because I thought kissing a girl was supposed to be exciting. But it wasn’t and I wished that I was kissing a boy instead.
When she graduated and went off to college, I was relieved. I spent my senior year in high school trying to keep my thoughts pure and my behavior as godly as possible. But it wasn’t easy. I developed a serious crush on a freshman and took him under my wing. I spent a lot of time with him, but I made sure our friendship was brotherly. I did want to lavish him with gifts, however, and even sold my class ring, spending the money on some jeans for his birthday. I suppose I loved him.
I looked forward to college and was determined to leave my “sinful thoughts” behind. And in order to submerge myself in religious thinking, I enrolled at Carson-Newman, a Baptist college near Knoxville, which certainly pleased my father who hoped I would follow him into the ministry. But the first day I was on campus, I felt the temptation returning. There were beautiful young men everywhere.
Several of the college athletes had rooms near me in the dorm, and being surrounded by handsome young men with their great physiques was a constant distraction. I found it hard to focus on my class assignments, but somehow, using all the willpower I could muster, I was able to play the part of a young straight man. But I certainly looked forward to the nights when all of those athletes were in the dorm, talking and laughing and walking around in their underwear, bare-chested. And I could never shower with the other guys because my private thoughts would give me away, so I went into the shower room late at night when no one else was there.
My roommate that first semester was a delightful guy from Virginia who was engaged to a young woman who also attended the college. They loved each other so very much and I used to look at them with envy, wishing that I could feel that kind of love for a girl. After almost 40 years of marriage, they are now parents and grandparents, and they still love each other just as much as they did when I first met them.
I am sure there were a few other students who were gay, but I did not know them. I wish I had. A young man who was very quiet and shy lived at the end of the hall. I spoke to him a few times and wondered if he was also struggling with homosexual urges. One night a rather boisterous football player who lived in the room next to me came barreling up the hall yelling “there’s a god-damn fag in the bathroom!” He said he had been standing at a urinal and noticed that the guy was staring at him. “I zipped up and got the hell out of there!” he said with a tone of disgust.
The other students started laughing and making homophobic remarks, but I was curious, so I walked down to the bathroom and peered inside. Standing at the sink, brushing his teeth, was the shy young man who lived at the end of the hall. I wanted so badly to walk in and talk to him, letting him know that I understood him and was not condemning him, as the other guys were. But I walked back to my room instead and listened to more of the jokes.
I made it through that first year and returned as a sophomore, looking forward to seeing the handsome faces and attractive bodies I had thought about all summer. I was assigned a roommate who was a very studious young man, a math major. I liked him quite a lot, but I did not develop a crush on him, which surprised me a little. Was I beginning to transform into a heterosexual? I hoped so, but we cannot change our nature.
Late in the fall, I got to know two people who quickly became my best friends, a girl from Michigan named Vicky, and a young man who was on the tennis team. His name was Eric and everything about him made my nerve endings tingle. Tall and strapping, he was blonde, handsome, sophisticated, smart and witty, and he spoke with a slight accent that I could not place. His family was from Wisconsin but he had grown up in the country of Lebanon, where his parents were Lutheran missionaries in Beirut. It was odd that he had ended up at Carson-Newman, but the school offered a tennis scholarship which he had won. A war was raging in Lebanon at the time, and his stories about that war were dramatic and horrifying. The three of us became a fun-loving trio and spent a lot of time together, going on long drives in the countryside, making trips to nearby Knoxville to eat at fancy restaurants and attending college sporting events. I think Vicky had a crush on Eric. How could she not?
Eric lived in the same dorm that I did, but on an upper floor. When he told me that his roommate was leaving the school at the end of the fall term, I offered to be his roommate for the spring semester. He agreed, which thrilled me enormously. Just like Vicky, I had a crush on him, a crush that soon turned into something much more serious. I fell in love. I wanted to be near him all the time. The wall I had built around my homosexuality collapsed and my soul was flooded with the warm and cozy feeling of being in love. It filled my life and I was swimming in happiness.
But as much as I enjoyed the sensation of being in love with Eric, I was not able to overcome the guilt and agony I felt for going against my religious upbringing. And I was not able to talk about my feelings with anyone. The only time I felt happy was when I was near Eric. Just to touch the sleeve of his shirt as he passed by gave me a feeling of sublime pleasure. He was straight, however, and I knew he could never love me in return. I did not say anything to him, but I did look at him adoringly whenever he would regale me with stories of his female conquests, of which there seemed to be many, and wished I had been in their place. When we were not together, I was miserable. I cried, I worried, I berated myself and began to feel that I was sick and corrupted with sin.
He told me about his girlfriend, a young woman whose parents were also missionaries in Beirut. And, like him, she was attending a college in the states. He missed her, he said, and wished he could see her. She was a student at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, and although I wanted Eric all to myself, I also wanted to do something nice for him. I suppose I wanted him to feel that I was a very special friend, the best friend he could ever have.
One Sunday night, quite late, as he was pining for her, I spontaneously offered to drive him to Atlanta to surprise her. The look of adoring gratitude he gave me filled my heart with warmth. It was almost midnight when we left and as we traveled the interstate from Tennessee to Atlanta, singing along to the radio and talking about so many things, I was the happiest I had been in a long time. I found the campus and was able to locate the dorm where she lived. Agnes Scott is a women’s college and when two young men start knocking on the door of a dorm at 3 am, it attracts attention. We were finally able to convince the dorm mother that we had driven over three hours just so Eric could see his girlfriend for a few minutes. She must have been a romantic at heart because she smiled and told us to wait. The sleepy girl appeared and she and Eric had a joyous reunion, with hugs and tears and a few kisses. I watched them as they walked arm in arm around the campus for about fifteen minutes and then parted with a long, lovely embrace.
Eric was in a blissful mood all the way back to Carson-Newman and thanked me several times for driving him to Atlanta. I was happy, too, although I was certainly jealous of that young woman. He loved her the way I loved him.
One night not long after, as Eric and I were preparing for sleep, I put my arms around him and whispered “I love you.” He did not withdraw from the hug and said “I love you, too.” For a moment I felt as if I had fallen into a fantasy of pleasure that was beyond measure. My heart was beating wildly, but then I knew, as sure as the earth is round, that his words did not have the same meaning. He was only being a good friend and would never be able to love me in the way that I loved him. I forced myself to laugh a little, patted him on the shoulder and said he was a good man. But I could not sleep. I knew that the strange mixture of misery and joy was tearing me apart and I had to end it, one way or another.
I paced the floor of my room all though the next day and skipped my classes. And then I came to the conclusion that suicide was the only solution. My gay feelings were too powerful to fight, but it was a life I could not embrace. It went against everything I had been taught and I thought that if I ended my life before I completely gave into those feelings, I could still go to heaven. I grabbed a bottle of pain pills that had been prescribed a couple of months earlier after a hip injury, emptied the bottle into my pocket and walked to my car. My hands trembled as I unlocked the door but I did not lose my resolve.
I could barely see the road through tears as I drove along on that chilly March evening. I wasn’t sure where I was going, or when I would know the time was right to pull over and swallow the pills. It had been a very cloudy and gloomy day, but the clouds started breaking up and a shaft of sunlight illuminated the area ahead of me. I was very close to Knoxville and directly in front of me was a sign for a hospital. Without even thinking, I turned onto the exit ramp and followed the directions, pulled into the big parking lot and walked into the emergency room. I didn’t have a plan. I just knew, somehow, that it was where I was supposed to be.
I sat in the waiting room and watched people coming and going. They were old and young, men and women and of every race, and they were very sick. Some were on stretchers and some were being aided by friends. And some were very angry and alone, apparently unloved by anyone. I must have sat there for an hour. No one seemed to notice me, but I took notice of everyone, and I slowly realized that my life wasn’t so hopeless after all. I was young, I was healthy and I was getting an education. I thought of my father and how much my death would hurt him. And I thought about the love I had for Eric. Surely loving someone is a good thing, not a bad, sinful thing.
I drove back to Carson-Newman feeling better and more hopeful. But I needed to find my emotional footing. My first few steps into a new and different life had been traumatic and frightening, and I needed to rest before I could go any further. I reached out to Vicky and asked if she would have dinner with me, that I needed to talk to her about something very important. We went to the local Pizza Hut and I told her about the suicide attempt. I still had the pills in my pocket and she insisted that I give them to her. I did not tell her what had caused me to consider ending my life, only explaining that I had been profoundly depressed.
She was sweetly sympathetic just as a good friend should be, and she soon had me smiling. The subject was changed to something more cheerful and she mentioned northern Michigan, where she had grown up, telling me about the deep winter snows and the natural beauty of the area. I had already heard about a university in the Upper Peninsula of that state and suddenly I knew what I had to do. The very next day I began the process of transferring to Northern Michigan University on the shore of Lake Superior in the town of Marquette.
Transferring to that university was probably the best decision I have ever made. I did not live in the dorm but boarded in the home of Earl and Miriam Hilton, from whom I learned more about living and loving than I’ve ever learned from anyone. Miriam, especially, had a powerful and long-lasting effect on me. A deeply religious woman, she was a devoted member of the Presbyterian church and spent her time doing good deeds. To her, a very important part of life is loving and being loved, and if two people genuinely love each other, what does it matter if they are two men or two women.
Without even trying to, she helped me to understand that being gay was not something for which I should be ashamed. When I graduated from NMU and ended up in New York City to start my working life, I was finally ready to fully embrace my sexuality. That was more than 30 years ago, and I have felt no pangs of guilt since. I did leave the Baptist Church and now feel more comfortable with the Methodists, who have a more friendly and accepting philosophy. I am happy with who I am. And I have never looked back, except once in a while when I need to remember how close I came to never knowing how wonderful life can be.
There is a snapshot in one of my old albums that was taken on February 1, 1967, my fourth birthday. Birthdays are happy occasions, but I do not look happy in the photo. As I sit in front of a cake with the number 4 on top, I have a dazed expression. And no wonder. The little world that I had known and loved since I was born had come to a sudden end.
My father had been the pastor of the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church near Mountain City, Tennessee, since the fall of 1961, but in January of 1967 he accepted an invitation to be the pastor of Valley Hills Baptist Church in nearby Bristol. Moving day was February 1. I’m sure my parents had tried to prepare me for what was about to happen, but I was just too young to understand.
I spent the night before my birthday with my babysitter, Bulah Vaught, who lived across the street. I was always looking for an excuse to spend time with Bub, as I called her, so that night was a fun one for me. But the next morning, my happiness turned to dismay. I remember watching from her living room window as a moving truck pulled into our driveway. Everything we owned was carried out of the house and loaded into the back. I did not understand what was happening and it frightened me.
When the house was emptied and it was time to leave, my mother appeared to take me away. I held onto Bub as tightly as I could, and it took some effort to pull me loose. I remember her embracing me one last time and kissing my cheek. I could feel her body shake as she stifled a sob. “Don’t forget me,” she called out as mother carried me to the car.
I do not remember the hour-long drive to Bristol, but I am sure I was miserable. Everything I had ever known was disappearing in the distance and a strange and unfamiliar world was ahead of me.
I learned later that as we were following the truck on its way to Bristol, my grandmother in Elizabethton, a town about an hour away in the opposite direction, was baking a birthday cake for me. As soon as we arrived at the church parsonage at 103 Laurel Road, in the sub-division of Driftwood, my father left me and my mother there to oversee the unloading of the furniture while he drove to Elizabethton to pick up his mother and the cake.
The new house was empty and seemed cold and ugly to me. I wanted to run away and go back to Mountain City. I completely forgot that it was my birthday. I was sulking and probably crying which I’m sure was very stressful for my mother. I do remember the dining room table and some chairs being put into place as I tried to stay out of the way of men carrying boxes into the house.
When my father and grandmother arrived, they did their best to make the evening cheerful, but my mood remained sullen. Even posing with the cake for a photograph, my grandmother standing beside me, did not lift my spirits. But the disposition of a child can turn on a dime, and when I took a bite of that moist chocolate cake with its creamy white icing, my sadness turned to joy! The taste of chocolate has that effect on me, and probably always will.
I also remember my mother telling me that a house with walls and a roof is just a building. It is the love shared with people inside those walls that makes a home. I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but I do now.
The day had begun with tears, but ended with smiles. We lived four years in Bristol, years in which I started growing up, experiencing happiness as well as sadness, was exposed to death, formed close attachments to friends and got into more than my share of mischief. I learned a lot during those years.
Bristol is not a city, but it is not a small town, either. It is somewhere between the two. And it straddles the state line, with one side of downtown in Virginia and the other side in Tennessee. Valley Hills Baptist Church is on the south side of town, just off of Volunteer Parkway and not far from the famous Bristol International Speedway. On summer nights when our windows were open and the breeze was just right, we could hear the roar of the race cars as they zoomed around the track.
The parsonage was a small brick house with a living room, kitchen, dining room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. There was also a finished basement consisting of a laundry room, a den and a garage. It was a comfortable home, just right for a family of three. There was a fireplace in the living room and dad could finally display an antique mantel clock he had inherited from his father’s family. I still have the clock, although it no longer keeps time.
Houses were close together in our neighborhood and it didn’t take me long to meet the neighbors. On one side was another family of three, the Bonhams. I quickly became best friends with their son, Bob, who was a year older than me. On the other side was a family of mystery. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson seemed very old, but were probably in their 50s. I rarely saw them, but I remember that Mr. Johnson was tall, with a shock of white hair. His wife was an invalid, her body deformed by arthritis.
The first year in Bristol was uneventful, with nothing to vex me, but the following year I started kindergarten and my world expanded significantly. Our teacher was Mrs. Wiggins, and she was an excellent teacher, preparing us for first grade by stimulating our imaginations and fostering an attitude of curiosity within our little minds. She also taught us to socialize with our peers and to be respectful of each other, important skills for children to learn. She also kept us entertained by organizing a field trip to a local potato chip plant and arranging for the students to be taken up in an airplane. I have never forgotten her.
As I was starting school I was beginning to understand my father’s job. At first it confused me to see him standing at the pulpit and preaching. But then I became very proud of him and enjoyed listening to his voice as he preached, first talking softly and tenderly, and then shouting and brandishing his fists as he condemned sin. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I was fascinated.
It was also during that time that I became well acquainted with my grandparents. My mother would take me with her every summer to spend time in Kentucky with my Grandmother Huff, a large, jolly woman whom I grew to love dearly. My mother’s parents were divorced, but my grandfather would drop by every day and sit on the front porch for several hours. Spending a week in Kentucky was the highlight of every summer.
I also got to know my Grandmother Carrier, but I did not become as close to her. She and my father had a very tight bond, but she seemed to keep everyone else at arm’s length and I was aware early on that there was no love lost between her and my mother. At some point in 1968 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was hospitalized for a mastectomy. She came to our house to recover and I remember her taking me into the bathroom and lowering the neckline of her pale yellow nightgown. She showed me the ugly scar on her chest and said “look what they did to your grandmother!”
It frightened me and I ran to my parents’ bedroom, crying. My father didn’t seem concerned, but my mother was furious. It was the first time I saw them argue.
After she had gone back to her own home in Elizabethton, mother and I went over to see her one afternoon. It wasn’t an especially pleasant visit, and as mother was driving back to Bristol, she was distracted and wasn’t paying as much attention to the road as she should. As we were approaching the locally famous Ridgewood Barbecue restaurant, she didn’t notice that a station wagon up ahead had stopped to turn left into the parking lot. With wide-eyed terror, I saw our car getting closer and closer to the station wagon without slowing down. “Mother, watch out!” I shouted as we plowed into the back of the other car.
We hit it with so much force that it lunged forward, went off the road and smashed into the side of a tree. I remember hearing a loud crash and feeling my mother’s hand grabbing me as my body was hurled against the dashboard. Mother’s head slammed into the windshield with a thud.
Suddenly we were no longer moving. We were in the middle of the road, steam was spewing from under the crinkled hood and mother was frantically touching me and crying, holding me and kissing my face. People came running from the restaurant and opened the doors of the car. They were very kind and helped us get out, then gently took us into the restaurant, where we were ushered to a booth in the back, away from customers. The people in the other car, a middle-aged couple who were shaken but unhurt, were also brought into the restaurant. Someone had used the payphone by the front door and a police car arrived within minutes.
A nasty bruise was starting to show above mother’s left eye, where she had hit the windshield, and a tender-hearted waitress brought her a cold compress. Her eyes were red from crying. Someone gave me a chocolate milkshake.
The car was an Opel, and it was red. The crash had damaged it so badly that it could not be driven. I think a couple of men, perhaps policemen, pushed it to the side of the road and out of the way of traffic. I remember seeing someone with a big broom sweeping shards of headlight glass off the pavement.
The Opel was totaled and when dad bought another car for mom, a tan Volkswagen beetle, I was afraid for a long time to ride in it. Mom did not have good luck with cars. The VW was stolen about a year later and was found smashed at the bottom of a ravine. And her next car, a Datsun, had its own problems. The brakes failed during one of our summer trips to Kentucky as we started down a curvy mountain highway.
Some memories from those years in Bristol are not happy ones, but there are good ones, too. I loved attending cook-outs at Steele Creek Park with church groups and I remember being in the audience for an episode of Romper Room at the studio of WCYB, Bristol’s NBC television station. The host was a woman called “Miss Ann” and several lucky children were chosen each day to be on stage. I was not one of the lucky ones.
The very first movie I saw was at the Paramount Theater, downtown on State Street, but I am not sure if it was Doctor Doolittle or The Jungle Book, as they were both released during the summer of 1967. I saw them both, but I’m not sure which one I saw first. My mother took me and my friend, Bob Bonham, and tried, without success, to keep us quiet. The next summer she took us to see The Love Bug, but she sat between us.
In addition to Bob, my neighborhood friends included Young Alexander, Greg Rash, Anna Lynn Collier and Julia Travelstead, a tomboy who taught me how to climb a tree. She was a master and could quickly reach the the top of the silver maple in our front yard. We used to hold races, she in the silver maple and I in the sweet gum nearby. I was eventually able to match her speed, but I could never beat her.
Julia and I, as well as a few other neighborhood friends, rode the same bus to Avoca Elementary School and played together at recess. In the winters we enjoyed snowball fights and sledding adventures, and in the summers we caught fireflies and stomped in mud puddles.
One particularly large mud puddle was very close to a neighbor’s house. Their lovely white rail fence was just too tempting a target when I was playing with Young Alexander one day. We grabbed fistfuls of squishy mud and, with perfect aim, splattered that ugly brown mud all over that pretty white fence. Our timing could not have been worse, however, as my father saw us as he was driving home for lunch. His brakes squealed as he stopped suddenly and came after us, shouting in his preacher-voice! Young and I had to spend the rest of the afternoon with two sponges and a bucket of hot soapy water.
Young and I tried to blame each other for our bad behavior, but I had only myself to blame for an incident not long after. Perhaps I could say the devil made me do it, but for whatever reason, I decided it would be fun to throw rocks at passing cars. I missed most of them, but as one dark blue car approached, I took careful aim and hit the passenger door. The car stopped and I started running home as fast as my small legs would carry me. I burst through the front door, raced to my bedroom and hid under the bed. The car followed me. I soon heard the doorbell ring and then an angry woman started yelling at my mother. I was in big trouble, and I knew it.
Mother sent the woman away, assuring her that I would be punished, and when dad came home and was told what had happened, he told me to lower my pants and bend over the side of my bed. His belt lashed against my backside and I vowed not to do anything bad ever again. It was a time when parents disciplined their children with spankings, and it was good for us. We were spanked in school, too, and I never heard a parent complain. I was spanked twice, once by my father and once by my 4th grade teacher. I deserved it each time.
Another lesson of life that children have to learn, unfortunately, is death. The first time I realized that people die was in 1969, when I was six. My father’s Aunt Verna lived in Johnson City, not far away. I had been taken to her house several times and always enjoyed seeing her. I liked the way she laughed and she always gave me milk and cookies.
I don’t remember any discussion of her illness, but suddenly she was dead and dad was driving us to the funeral home for what is called in the south, “the viewing.” The body is on display in the funeral parlor, laid out in a casket, with the family seated to one side as people line up and file through, paying their respects to the deceased and to the grieving relatives.
It was confusing to see Aunt Verna in a casket, wearing a pretty blue outfit, her white hair neatly combed. She appeared to be sleeping, but her skin was cold and whenever I’d get close to the coffin, I’d be pulled away. “Your Aunt Verna is in heaven,” someone told me, but it was hard to understand how she could be in heaven when I could see her and touch her.
As we left the funeral home, I was still trying to understand the concept of people dying and going to heaven. My parents were in the front seat and I was in the backseat with my Grandmother Carrier. Verna was her sister-in-law. I kept asking questions which began to annoy my grandmother, who handed me a piece of gum to keep me quiet. But I was not ready to be quiet, and as I was taking a breath to ask another question, the gum was sucked into my throat, choking me. I started flailing about and beating my hands on the back of dad’s seat.
“Ed! Your boy is choking!” I heard grandmother say and dad immediately steered the car to the side of the road and stopped. He reached around, grabbed my shirt collar and yanked me into the front seat. I remember him slapping me on the back and then putting a finger into my mouth and down my throat searching for the gum. It made me gag but I still could not breathe. All I could do was thrash and claw at my mother and father as they tried to hold me down. I tried to scream but could not make a sound.
“We’ve got to get him to a hospital,” my mother yelled. Dad put the car into gear and gunned the motor. The car jerked forward, but there was an oncoming car that loudly sounded its horn. Dad braked quickly and my head banged against the dashboard. Suddenly I could breathe and started noisily pulling great amounts of air into my lungs. When my head hit the dash, the wad of gum had flown out of my mouth.
The car just sat there, half on the road and half in the gravels, as everyone cried and took turns hugging me.
That evening I certainly felt loved, but not too long afterward I felt that I’d be happier living elsewhere. I do not clearly remember the details, but I probably asked for something that I could not have, and did not understand why my wishes were not being fulfilled. I do remember accusing my parents of not wanting me anymore and announcing that I was going back to Mountain City to live with Bub. I put some clothes into a small suitcase and stomped out the door.
I had not yet reached the end of the street when my father came after me. When I saw him approaching and demanding that I stop and return home, I burst into tears. I had mixed emotions. I was angry that I was being prevented from leaving, but happy that he didn’t want me to go. And then mother appeared with a camera. She was laughing and then held out her arms, saying she loved me and how much she would miss me if I went away. I dropped the little suitcase and ran to her open arms. She has been gone for 45 years, and I wish I could still feel those arms around me. We all need a mother’s embrace sometimes.
When I got a little older, perhaps around 7, I became very interested in things that grow and bloom. I learned the names of all the trees and shrubs in our yard and wanted more to be planted. I had the idea that I could break off little branches of trees, stick them in the ground, and they would grow. Putting that theory to the test got me into trouble and taught me the value of an apology.
One street over a large tree in someone’s yard caught my eye. It was a black locust and when I saw all those beautiful and fragrant white blooms in the spring, I was determined to have a tree just like it in my own yard. I walked boldly onto the property, grabbed hold of a low-hanging branch, broke it off and carried it home. I had just managed to stick that branch into the dirt near our driveway when my father called me into the house.
The people who owned the black locust had seen everything and had phoned to complain. After a stern talking-to, my father took me to the neighbor’s house and made me apologize. The man who had called looked down at me and started to smile. “I don’t mind you taking a branch of our tree,” he said. “But you have to ask permission. You are a good boy to say you’re sorry.”
I wasn’t aware of the problems my father had at the church during the last summer we were in Bristol, but I did know that some of the church families that used to drop by no longer spoke to us. I could sense an atmosphere of increasing tension and the night that my father was asked to resign as pastor was actually a relief. The fight was over.
A month later, in August of 1971, we moved back to Mountain City and dad became the pastor of the First Baptist Church, a position he held for fourteen years. I was 8 years old and was very happy to be back in Johnson County. The first person I wanted to see was Bulah, and when dad picked her up and brought her to our new house, I ran out and wrapped my arms around her before she could get to the front door.
“I thought you might have forgotten me,” she said.
“How could I forget you,” I smiled. “I can’t forget someone I love.”
If our lives are divided into chapters, the third chapter of my life began during the middle of August in 1971, half way between my 8th and 9th birthdays. After four years in the small city of Bristol, my father was invited to become the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Mountain City, a very small town in the eastern-most county of Tennessee.
There were no major highways running through Johnson County and the only way to get to Mountain City was to travel on two-lane roads that went up and over mountains or followed meandering creeks through narrow valleys. The interstate was more than an hour away.
It was an isolated, but busy little town, with a population of less than two thousand. Main Street was always bustling with shoppers, it had its own movie theater and the locally owned restaurants were always filled with families. There were no fast-food franchises or chain stores. It was a typical small southern town, very similar to Mayberry, the fictional town in the old television series where Andy Griffith and Don Knotts maintained law and order as Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife.
The parsonage was a couple of blocks from the church. In fact, everything important to my life at that time was just a few blocks in any direction. The school was only one street beyond the church, two grocery stores were close by, I could walk to the city pool in about three minutes and my best friends were also nearby, one next door on one side and the other five houses down on the other side. My world was contained within an area bordered by Shady Street to the West, Church Street to the east, Butler Lane to the north and Donnelly Lane to the south. And it was a lovely world, with a population of friendly, hard-working people.
We lived in that house for three years and during that time, while school was in session, I usually walked from our house to the Mountain City Elementary School and back again, but during the summers I left the house after breakfast and rarely returned until supper time, covering the entire area within the boundaries of that little world. As an only child, I was used to being by myself, but did spend time with good friends Bill Greer and Eric Meade. We rode our bikes, played board games and splashed and swam in the municipal pool. We’re still friends, five decades later, and it has been fun to see them grow up, enjoy successful careers and become fathers and grandfathers.
My first friend in Mountain City was John Cunningham, who was living next door when we moved in. He was slightly younger than I, but we became best buddies. Early in the summer of 1972 my father bought some lumber and built a small clubhouse for us in the back yard. We painted “John and Jeff’s Boys Club” on the front. Or was it Jeff and John’s? There is some debate even now whose name came first. I was sorry when the Cunninghams moved to another part of town, but I quickly got to know the new neighbors – Gerald and Josephine Meade and their three sons, Michael, Mark and Eric.
Eric became one of my all-time best friends, but I do think of his brother, Mark, whenever I look in the mirror. On a sunny afternoon in June of 1973, I was in our back yard and Mark was next door cutting the grass. I had just raised my hand to wave to him when I heard his lawnmower strike something. A couple seconds later an object hit my face at high speed, cutting through the flesh of my right jawline and knocking me to the ground. I felt a sharp stinging sensation and then nothing. That entire area of my face went numb. I grabbed the area with my hand and immediately screamed. My hand was covered in blood and then I realized that the upper part of my shirt had turned bright red and that something warm was running down my neck.
My parents were not at home. They were in Atlanta attending the Southern Baptist Convention and Bulah Vaught, a dear and cherished family friend, was looking after me. I stumbled to the back door and walked into the kitchen. I was trying to get to a mirror when I noticed that drops of blood were falling to the floor, leaving a splattered trail behind me. Bulah suddenly appeared, took one look at me and turned deathly white. She grabbed a dishtowel, pressed it against my face and rushed me out the front door and to the Meade’s house, all the while yelling “Help! Help!”
Mark was still using the lawnmower, completely oblivious to my injury, but his parents acted very quickly. They soaked some cloths in hot water and tried to clean me up a little. And then, with Mr. Meade exceeding the speed limit as his wife sat in the backseat with me, holding a hot towel to my wound, they drove me to the office of Dr. Tullidge. My injury was too serious to be treated there so they traveled all the way to a hospital in Abingdon, Virginia, about 45 minutes away, and carried me into the emergency room.
I don’t remember everything that happened after that, but I do recall the nurses working to sterilize the open wound, cutting away some ripped flesh and then sewing the ragged edges back together. I was given a mild anesthetic so it was all a bit fuzzy, like dreaming while being half awake. I do know that the flesh had been completely torn away, exposing the jawbone and I heard the doctor say that if the projectile had struck an inch higher or lower, I could have been killed. It took 30 stitches to close the gaping hole and a white bandage covered the right side of my face, from neck to temple.
I learned later that when young Mark Meade learned what had happened, he burst into tears and said he would never forgive himself. The next day he came over to see me, and I assured him that it was not his fault and I was not angry with him. I’ll never forget the concern in his eyes. The bandages came off after a few weeks and the stitches were carefully removed. The wound slowly healed, but it did leave a large scar which I will take with me to the grave. The damaged nerves also healed, but there is still some numbness around the scar. That experience was probably the most traumatic event of my childhood, which was otherwise happy and tranquil.
On days when I was by myself, I often visited the denizens of our neighborhood. I’ve always felt very comfortable among older people and I spent a lot of time with the more mature residents, especially Tom and Evelyn Walsh, Grady and Queen Stout and Bill and Lucille Eller. I also liked to stop by the house where Otis and Pauline Gentry lived. Otis was a retired barber and Pauline loved shrubs and trees and flowers. I helped her plant a climbing forsythia at the back of their house which quickly grew up and over an arbor. It covered itself in bright yellow flowers the next spring, creating a place of enchantment. Visiting with them out there was like sitting under a yellow cloud.
One of my favorite people was a man I knew only as Mr. Brown, who sculpted gravestones out of hunks of marble and granite. His little shop was on Church Street, near the center of town, and I would spend hours watching him work. He was quite old, probably about 80, and it must have surprised him to have a young boy stop by to chat. He was always alone and I was amazed by his patience and precision as he would take a rough block of granite and carefully cut it and polish it and create a thing of beauty. The last time I saw him, he was working on a small piece of white marble which he explained was for his own grave.
“I know just how it should look,” he said. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else to make my headstone.”
At the northeast corner of my territory was the stately Butler mansion, an imposing brick house with porticos, wide verandas, tall chimneys and glistening white trim and window sashes. I would often ride my bike to the end of Butler Lane and gaze in awe at its magnificence. It had been built in the 1870s by congressman and Civil War veteran Roderick Random Butler, and his descendants still lived within its walls. The matriarch of the family was a silver-haired woman of regal bearing who would sit outside on warm days, surrounded by her three middle-aged children. Her name was Pearl and none of her children ever married, spending their lives in devotion to their mother, although they did have careers. I am sure the children of the neighborhood did not venture into the expansive lawns and gardens of the Butler home, but I was an intrepid boy and when I’d see Mrs. Butler holding court on the veranda and sipping tea, I would lean my bike against a tree and slowly approach. She would motion for me to come near to her and was always very friendly. I felt like a peasant in the presence of a queen, but perhaps she was amused by my curiosity. I was respectful and made a point of complimenting the roses which surrounded the house and always seemed to be in full bloom. She is long gone, as are her children. When they died there were no other Butlers to inherit the home and I’m told it is now a bed and breakfast. I’m sure that everyone who stays there is just as impressed by the home’s elegance as I was as a boy of ten.
Behind the Butler mansion was a tall hill overgrown with pines, oaks and beeches. Near the top was an old reservoir and an even older cemetery. It was a creepy place where I rarely ventured, and it was the site of a very strange event one muggy night in the summer of 1974, when I was eleven.
I was in the den with my parents and we were doing what we usually did on warm summer nights. With a fan humming in an open window, my father was reading the paper, mother was using the sewing kit, probably re-attaching a button to one of dad’s shirts, and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, looking at the television.
Suddenly there was a loud pounding on the back door. It was Josephine Meade from next door. “Come quick!” she said, excitedly. “There is something weird on the hill. I think it might be a UFO!”
Mother and I jumped up and rushed out into the yard, but dad hardly moved and kept his head buried in the paper. “Aren’t you curious?” Mrs. Meade asked him. “I don’t believe in that sort of thing,” he muttered.
The night sky was clear, full of stars. And the moon, not quite full, was hovering just above the horizon. Mrs. Meade pointed toward the hill just north of town. It was silhouetted against the sky, and way up on top there was indeed a very unusual sight. Something was glowing, and as we watched in wonderment, we could see that it was a series of colors – red, green, yellow — that were flashing, as though some object was slowly spinning. It wasn’t moving around. It was stationary, and we couldn’t tell if it was slightly above the trees or sitting on the crown of the hill. We didn’t speak. We just watched. And then it faded away. It didn’t suddenly zoom into the sky or go out all at once. It just grew dimmer and dimmer until there was no more trace of it.
We weren’t scared, but we were a little shaken. We kept staring at the dark hill, thinking it might re-appear, but after a few minutes it was obvious to us that it was gone. Mrs. Meade returned to her house and mother and I went inside to report to dad. He listened to our description, but didn’t seem impressed. He said there must be an explanation. “Just call me a doubting Thomas,” was his final remark.
The next morning I walked to the home of my good friend, Bill Greer, who lived on the other side of that hill. I told him what I had seen and together we hiked up to the top to search for clues. But we found none. We expected to discover a deflated weather balloon stuck in the trees, or some small experimental military aircraft that had flown off course and crash-landed, but there was nothing. Everything was just as it should be. No branches were broken and not one weed had been bent.
I don’t think there was any report of the incident in the local paper and I never heard anyone else say they had seen it. My mother and I talked about the strange light for a few days, but then we forgot about it and never mentioned it again. But now, almost 50 years later, I do have to wonder if we really did see some traveler from a distant galaxy who had stopped for a few minutes to observe a quaint little town in the mountains of East Tennessee.
I enjoyed every season while I lived in that quaint little town — the blooming trees of spring, the warm days of summer, the occasional winter snows – but I think I liked autumn best. I loved seeing the mountains surrounding the town come alive with reds and golds and yellows, and I always looked forward to Halloween and the excitement of dressing up in a scary costume and walking from house to house collecting candy. Sometimes I joined a small group of friends, but usually I went out by myself.
One particular October 31 was a cloudy day and a light drizzle was falling from a moonless sky by the time the trick-or-treaters were out. It was an eerie night. My bucket was almost filled with candy by the time I turned onto Murphy Street, a couple blocks from the parsonage. I had just visited the house at the corner when I noticed a dim glow on the front porch of a house nearby. I had never noticed the house before, but that night my eyes were drawn to it. It was completely dark except for that small light on the porch.
As I got closer, I could see that the glow was from a candle. And in the soft flickering light, I could see an old woman wearing black, sitting in a simple, straight-backed chair. Her white hair was pulled back, revealing a pale face with deep wrinkles. I walked slowly up to the house and when I reached the porch, I started to introduce myself.
“We know who you are,” she interrupted in a quivering voice, and I could see a dark cat sitting on her lap, its golden eyes catching the light from the candle. “Come closer, boy.”
I took a few steps toward her and she held out a hand with long white fingers. The black sleeve of her garment hung down from a thin, bony arm. I moved my bucket a little closer and a piece of candy dropped from her fingers.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I managed to say, but a creepy feeling was beginning to overpower me and I walked away as quickly as I could.
The next day I wanted to get a closer look at that house. As I was walking home from school, I turned onto Murphy and tried to remember which one it was. I finally found it, but there were no signs of life. The blinds were pulled and it had a strange, forgotten look. I saw a man in the yard next door and I asked him who lived in that house.
“No one lives there now,” he said. “An elderly woman did live there, but she died a few months ago.”
Near the eastern edge of my domain, at the corner of Church and College streets, was an old, three-story brick building. It had once been the county high school, but was now home to country music radio station WMCT, a few city offices and the Mountain City Library. I can still hear the loud creaks the stairs would make as I would walk up to the second floor, where the library was managed by an old woman named Bess Smith. She was in her 80s and was often in a crotchety mood, but I had a way of charming her and she never charged me the fee when I would return books well past their due date. I became quite fond of her and although she tried to encourage me to read Treasure Island and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the only book that interested me was a landscaping book called How to Plan and Plant Your Own Property. I must have checked it out a dozen times and I would linger over the pictures and garden plans, dreaming of the day when I could landscape my own yard.
More than a decade later, in 1984, when I was working in the nearby town of Elizabethton as a newspaper reporter, I learned that Mrs. Smith was retiring from the library at age 91. I called her and asked for an interview. She remembered me and we arranged for a time and place to meet. We had lunch at a small diner on Main Street, and after a long chat and before I could pay the bill, she pulled a book out of her purse.
“I remember how much you loved this book,” she smiled. “It is finally being retired, just like me, and I thought you would like to have it.”
On days when I was in the mood to be alone, I would usually find a place of peace among the trees. I’ve always been happiest when I’m surrounded by nature. Some folks get their energy from other people. I get mine from the earth. Across the street from our house was a grove of old oaks. There were three of them, and they were massive. The youngest had a circumference of 12 feet, the next largest measured almost 14 feet, according to my measuring tape. But they were both dwarfed by a white oak nearby. The 15-foot tape measure I was using would not go around the trunk and Edgar Garland, an old man who lived next door, told me that several years earlier it had taken sixteen grown men to reach around the tree, finger-tip to finger-tip. By any estimate, it was a very old tree, and had probably sprouted from an acorn more than five hundred years ago. I daresay it was the oldest white oak in the state. Its enormous branches spread out over a wide area, casting such a dark shadow that very little was able to flourish beneath its thick green canopy.
I felt that I had bonded with that ancient tree. I would lean against its trunk and touch the bark, running my fingers over the craggy surface. I wondered how many other people had stood under its branches in awe and admiration… early residents of the town, the first settlers to make their home in the region and the Native Americans who were there before all of them. It amazed me to realize how much history the tree had witnessed. How many storms and droughts, wildfires and floods had it survived? If that giant tree was aware of me, it knew that I was a friend.
But I was its only friend. Several years later, after I left Mountain City to pursue my destiny, the street was considerably widened and that trio of titans was destroyed, victims of progress. If the trees were aware of their doom, they must have trembled in fear and horror as the bulldozers arrived and the sharp blades of the big saws cut into their bodies. Man had become their enemy. The birds that nested in the branches could find new homes, but those magnificent trees were unable to move. So much was lost for so little gain. I grieve over their demise as my memory takes me back to those peaceful days half a century ago when I used to sit and daydream under their sheltering limbs.
There is an old oak in my backyard now, a towering tree that is probably two centuries old. The man from whom I purchased this house in 2017 said he had intended to cut the tree down, but was put off by the expense. I’d like to think that the tree knows I am an ally. It does seem happy, as its leaves are a lovely shade of green in summer and the branches bend with acorns in the fall.
We left the parsonage on North Shady Street in the fall of 1974 when my father had a house built on the outskirts of town, near the high school. I missed the neighborhood and the people who lived there, but a new chapter of my life was beginning, one that lasted for 11 years.
As the late afternoon sun streamed through the window, with dust and cat hairs swirling in the shafts of light, I leaned forward in my chair and begged to hear another story. “Tell me more about Red Joe Dunn.”
I was visiting Mrs. Lois Donnelly Goodman, an elderly woman who lived next door to the First Baptist Church of Mountain City, Tennessee, in a small house with a red roof and dark grey siding. She was odd by any definition and was rumored to be a witch because she had so many cats, most of them black. They were everywhere… in the yard, throughout the house, on the furniture and under the beds. Her house always smelled of cat food and litter boxes. A thin layer of cat hair covered the floor.
She didn’t seem to have many friends, and even fewer visitors, but I adored her. When I was attending elementary school, I would often stop by her house as I walked home. She always seemed happy to see me and offered me cookies and coffee. “I know just how little boys like their coffee,” she said with a smile. “With milk and sugar.”
She’d take me into the living room, push a few cats out of the way and sit down on a very old-fashioned divan. I’d sit opposite her in a lovely old chair with faded upholstery. It had once been red but was now a dusty pink.
She was in her late 70s, with white hair and very pale skin that was almost transparent. And she mostly talked about the past, as if time had stopped for her a long time ago. There was drama in her voice and she had a great flair for story-telling. She told me about her father, Hugh Donnelly, who had been a successful attorney, about working as a telephone operator in the 1920s, when telephone service was first introduced to our small town, and about taking the train to Chicago in 1933 to see the World’s Fair. But what I liked best were the stories about the larger-than-life people who had lived in the county when she was young. She talked about George Dowell, who carried the heavy steeple bell on his shoulders from the foundry all the way to Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, a distance of several miles, and her stories of Clarence Potter inspired nightmares. He was supposed to be the meanest man ever to live in the county, his entire body covered with bullet scars. “He slept in a room with crumpled paper on the floor,” she told me, “so he would be awakened if anyone sneaked into his room with the intention of murder.”
The stories that amused and fascinated me the most were about Red Joe Dunn, who seemed to be a combination of folklore legends Paul Bunyan and John Henry.
“He was called Red Joe because of his reddish hair and ruddy complexion,” she said. “He was a giant of a man and he could carry one of those long steel train-track rails on his shoulders for miles. Those rails are about 20 feet long and it used to take 8 or 10 men to put one into place. He used to carry them for the railroad. When he got older, he did odd jobs around town, and whenever a strong man was needed, Red Joe Dunn was sent for.”
He was well known for his strength, but also for his eccentric behavior. He moved into a little house one morning, started a fire in the wood stove and began settling in. But he decided he didn’t like the house and moved out before sunset. “But he did like the stove,” Mrs. Goodman chuckled. “So he detached the pipe from the wall and carried the stove out of the house on his back, with the fire still burning. For weeks people talked about seeing Red Joe walking down the street with that stove on his back and smoke coming out of the pipe!”
She also told a story about Dunn working for the TVA when a river was being dammed to create Watauga Lake.
“A lot of men from this area were hired for the project,” Mrs. Goodman explained. “A cousin of mine was one of the workers and he told me that Red Joe was part of the same crew.”
She said that every morning, the men climbed into the back of an old truck and were driven to the work site. Red Joe would be sitting on one side, minding his own business, holding a newspaper.
“He couldn’t read a word,” she chuckled, “but he held that paper in front of his face, pretending to read, just so people would leave him alone. But sitting on the opposite side was a trouble-maker who liked to pick on Joe. He’d reach over and jerk that paper out of his hands, then laugh and ask him what he had been reading. He did it twice… but when he reached for that paper a third time, Joe suddenly stood up and pointed a knife at the man! My cousin warned the trouble maker not to mess with Red Joe. You don’t want to make him mad, he said. He once cut off a man’s head, just because he had insulted his brother.”
She said that everyone around town knew the rumors that Red Joe Dunn had murdered a man. “Every time I saw him, I would just nod and smile,” she said. “I didn’t want to give him any reason to be angry with me!”
“I always heard that he never left home without that knife,” she continued. “They said it was a big knife, and so sharp it could cut through anything. I never did see it, but I did see him carrying a heavy axe.”
And that axe was also associated with his death. According to Mrs. Goodman, Red Joe Dunn would spend some time every afternoon at a local hardware shore sharpening that axe. Joe always put a bucket of water next to where he was working, so he could dip the axe into the bucket and cool it off. But on one particular day someone replaced the water with gasoline. Red Joe would spend a couple of minutes sharpening the blade of his axe, then dip it into what he thought was water, pull it out and repeat the process. Every time he pulled the axe out of the bucket, a few drops of gasoline would fall onto his overalls. After a few minutes, a spark flew onto his clothing and ignited the gasoline. Joe Dunn went up in flames.
“He had enemies,” Mrs. Goodman said, a dramatic tone in her voice. “And one of them must have finally killed him!”
I had not thought of Red Joe Dunn for a long time, not until I was a junior in college, sitting in a folklore class at Northern Michigan University in the spring of 1984. It had been more than a decade since I had sat in Mrs. Goodman’s living room, listening to her stories with rapt attention. Our instructor, Tom Hyslop, was giving us an assignment to complete during spring break which involved writing about a folklore legend. I heard the names of many folk heroes mentioned by my classmates, but only one name came to my mind – Red Joe Dunn. I had planned on spending spring break at the university, but decided to drive the 900 miles to my hometown in Tennessee. I was eager to hear those stories again.
The first thing I did was look for Mrs. Goodman, and I was disappointed to learn that she had died the previous year. But then I thought that if she knew those exciting stories about Red Joe Dunn, other people in town must know them, too. I only had a few days to do the research so I started making phone calls.
Mrs. Oscar Eastridge was a retired school teacher affectionately known as “Miss Lizzie.” She knew stories about everyone in town, dead or alive, and she was the first person I contacted. “Red Joe Dunn,” she mused, when I made contact with her on the phone. “Oh yes. I remember him. He was a very mysterious man. Come by tomorrow and I’ll tell you what I can.”
It was warm for mid-March and when I arrived at Miss Lizzie’s house, she suggested we sit on her front porch and enjoy the spring sunshine.
“I remember seeing Red Joe Dunn around town,” she said. “He was a short, burly man and everyone was afraid of him. They said he had once shot a man to death and then cut up the dead body with a knife. No one wanted to upset him. But I don’t think he was dangerous. He did a good deed once that was almost miraculous.”
I asked Miss Lizzie to tell me the story, and she said several years earlier a swarm of bees had covered a parked car on Main Street. Everyone was screaming and running in all directions, but Red Joe Dunn suddenly appeared with a cardboard box. He walked slowly up to the car and gently pushed all of those bees into that box.
“He wasn’t even wearing gloves,” she added. “And he didn’t get stung, not even once. He carried that box of bees to the end of Main Street and gave it a shake. The bees flew out and went into the trees. Everyone was amazed and for a long time, people would say that nothing could hurt Red Joe Dunn, not even a bee!”
“I don’t think that there is anything else that I can tell you,” Miss Lizzie said, “but you should talk to Kermit Reece. He used to be county sheriff and I’m sure he would have some information.”
Mr. Reece was long retired from law enforcement and a bad heart prevented him from being very active, but when I mentioned the name of Red Joe Dunn on the phone, he seemed eager to talk to me. “Come on over,” he said. “I’d be glad to talk to you about ol’ Red Joe.”
“He was the strongest man I ever knew,” he told me, when we were seated in his living room. “He could carry six hundred pounds all by himself. He wasn’t a tall man, but he had big arms and broad shoulders, and even when he was an old man, his legs were as thick as an average man’s body. He was all muscle.”
I asked if he remembered Red Joe carrying a knife or an axe.
“Everybody knew about Red Joe’s knife,” he said. “It was a hawkbill knife, at least 8 inches long. He had it with him all the time. When he got older and was doing odd jobs around town, he also started carrying a double-bladed axe. And it was sharp. You could have shaved with that axe!”
“Do you know anything about Mr. Dunn murdering a man?” I asked the retired sheriff.
“The story goes that a man intended to kill Red Joe Dunn and confronted him with a gun,” Mr. Reece told me. “But Dunn attacked him first, the gun fell to the ground, and then Joe used that gun to shoot the man. Killed him with one shot. He then he pulled out his knife and stabbed him over and over. He was sent to prison for a while, not because he had killed the man, which was clearly a case of self defense, but because he had mutilated a dead body.”
When I asked if he knew how Dunn had died, he nodded.
“It was during a cold winter,” he said. “Joe was over 80 and was living by himself in a little house at the edge of the woods, next to a creek. He had to cross a foot log to get to and from his house and one day he slipped as he was going across that log and fell into the ice cold water. He had been burned a couple of years earlier and had never fully recovered. He caught pneumonia and died. I didn’t think anything could kill ol’ Joe, but I guess no one can live forever.”
“I can’t remember anything else to tell you,” Mr. Reece said after lighting a pipe. “But go see Howard Wilson. He used to hire Joe to do yard work. I bet he knows a lot of stories.”
I met with Mr. Wilson the following day. A man of about 80, he was wearing a suit and tie and looked younger than his age. He took me into his den, where I noticed floor-to-ceiling shelves weighted with large books. “Those are my law books,” he said, following my gaze. “I was a trial lawyer in this county for more than fifty years.”
“So you are interested in Red Joe Dunn,” he continued, getting comfortable in a chair upholstered in shiny black leather. “I knew him for many years. He couldn’t read or write, but he was hard-working, and I used to give him odd jobs like choppin’ wood or cuttin’ brush or pullin’ weeds in the garden. He was a good-natured fellow, but he did have a temper. That temper got him into trouble a couple of times, and people regarded him with caution, but if he liked you, he would do anything for you that he could.”
I was curious to know if Mr. Wilson had ever seen the knife that had been mentioned by so many people. “I saw it only once, and I’ll never forget it” was his response.
“Red Joe had been working in my yard all mornin’ and I invited him to join us for lunch,” he added. “Elizabeth, my wife, had prepared a nice ham and put a big piece on Joe’s plate. I thought the meat was tender enough but after Joe had used the table knife a couple of times, he threw it down, pulled a very large blade out of his pocket and proceeded to slice through the ham. That knife was big… and very sharp!”
Later in his life, to make a little money, he would sell Christmas trees in an empty lot near downtown. According to Mr. Wilson, Dunn would cut the pine trees himself and then carry them into town. “I remember seeing him walkin’ down the road with such a load of trees that you couldn’t see him at all,” he chuckled. “All you could see was a load of trees goin’ down the road.”
These details were interesting, but what I really wanted to know about was the murder. Perhaps anticipating my next question, Howard Wilson leaned forward in his chair.
“I first got to know Joe Dunn when I was just a boy,” He said. “I grew up in the community of Trade, near the North Carolina line, and Joe Dunn lived in the same area. Everybody liked him back then, but then somethin’ happened that changed everything, somethin’ bad.”
He then began telling the story in a stentorian tone of voice that must have impressed many judges and juries over the years.
The year was 1919. Joe Dunn and his brother, Sherman, walked into a small country store. A young man named Garrett Johnson followed them inside. Garrett was just a kid, about 16, but he was a smart aleck, a hot head. The young man said something to Sherman Dunn that was insulting. He called him a name, a bad name, and Sherman responded by slapping the teenager across the face. The kid turned red with anger and embarrassment and ran out of the store.
“Joe and Sherman thought that was end of it, but it was just the beginning,” Mr. Wilson said, rubbing his hands together. “The young man ran home and told his father what had happened. The father, whose name was George, was very angry. He grabbed a pistol and went to the store lookin’ for Sherman Dunn. He wanted to kill the man that had hit his son.”
After a short pause, as if to get the facts clear in his mind, he continued with the story.
The Dunn brothers had left the store by the time Johnson arrived, but he caught up with the two men a short distance down the road. “I could show you the exact spot,” Mr. Wilson said. “It was where the road starts to turn, next to an old pine tree.”
He confronted them, aimed his pistol at Sherman… and fired!
“But the gun didn’t go off,” Mr. Wilson explained. “So Joe, defending his brother, lunged at Johnson with that big long knife of his. He jumped completely off the ground and plunged the knife into the man’s neck, givin’ it a hard twist. He fell to the ground, dead. Joe grabbed the pistol, the same one that had not fired, pointed it at the lifeless body and shot several times, until there were no more bullets!”
Joe Dunn was arrested and put on trial for murder. It was a case of self defense, but when the judge asked him if he was sorry, he looked at the judge and said ‘No sir. If I had it to do over, I would do the same thing again.’
“He was sent to the penitentiary for two years,” Mr. Wilson added, concluding the tale. “If he had only said that he regretted his actions, he would have walked out of that courtroom a free man. So there you have it, the story of Red Joe Dunn. He could never live down his reputation as a killer and the story was told over and over down through the years, with the details changing slightly each time one person told someone else. He knew that people were afraid of him, but I don’t think it bothered him. He wasn’t sorry for what he had done, and he enjoyed livin’ alone, on his own terms.”
When I got back to the university, I used the notes to write the term paper which I presented to Professor Hyslop. A week later it was returned to me with a grade of “A,” along with a note encouraging me to submit the story to a folklore publication.
I did not follow through on that suggestion, but a couple of months later, when I was working for The Elizabethton Star as a summer news intern, I did re-work the paper and turned it into a news article. The day after it was published, a man called me at newspaper office.
“We are not happy about that story you wrote about Red Joe Dunn,” he said in a gravelly voice. “We want to meet with you.”
He had identified himself as “a member of the Dunn family,” but there was something about him that made me nervous. I told him there was another phone call I needed to take, and that I would get back to him. I never did, and he did not call again. I wondered who he was, but considering the stories of stabbings and shootings and bad tempers, I was too afraid to find out.