Jul 17, 2016

Gambling, Drinking, and Shooting Guns: My Grandpa Prater's Gay Connection

It was easy to find the gay connection in my father's parents, Grace and Lloyd Davis and Frank Jackson.  There were anecdotes, photographs of men in swimsuits, newspaper articles, and the geneology research of my Cousin Eva.

My mother's parents, not so much.  Grandpa Prater left only a few photos of Kentucky relatives, no letters, no books. He's not mentioned in old newspapers.  

How can I tell if he experienced same-sex romance, or had gay friends, or even knew what "gay" meant?

All I have are the bare biographical facts and a few of my mother's memories:

1. Tony was born on May 9th, 1902 on rural eastern Kentucky.  He was the youngest of 12 children, all of whom eventually married.

2. His 7th-great grandfather was the famous Tudor poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), who wrote an unabashedly homoerotic elegy on the death of his friend, the Duke of Richmond (son of Henry VIII).  But Tony didn't know that. The Family Bible went back only three generations.

3. As a boy, Tony used to go fishing and hunting with his older brothers, Elias, Repse, Silas, and Graydon.  Not for sport -- for food.





4. Tony liked school. Unusual for a country boy of the era, he continued past 8th grade and graduated from high school in 1921.  He was on the boxing and wrestling teams, and his favorite subject was music.  He played the banjo and the guitar.

5. On October 6, 1922, he married 17-year old Grace, from the village of Pyramid.  It's possible that her father had some down-low experiences, but certainly Tony didn't know about them.

All of Gracie's brothers and sisters eventually got married, except her baby brother Henry (1912-1985), who became her favorite, and the only one to visit when they moved to Indiana later.

6. From 1922 to 1942, Tony and Grace lived in a cabin near his parents in Gunlock, Kentucky. They had eleven children.  Three died in infancy, one as a teenager


7. It was a gender-polarized world.  The women were in charge of cooking, raising the babies, going to church, and believing in ghosts.  Men worked when they could, but mostly they hung out, gambling, drinking, and shooting guns.  Tony was especially close to his cousin, Crit Handshoe.

7. In 1942, Cousin Crit, Tony, and their families moved north to a farm near Garrett Indiana, where there were factory jobs.  Tony went to work for Electric Motors, and stayed there until he retired in 1967.

8. When my mother was growing up, the house had no electricity or running water.  It never had a bathroom.




The living room was cluttered with pictures, including one that showed Jesus on the cross if you looked at it one way, and the Ascension if you looked at it another way.  Very Catholic, very unusual for fundamentalist Protestants.  And very muscular.

9. In 1965, Tony suffered two great losses.  Grace died, and Cousin Crit moved to North Manchester, Indiana to live with his daughter, leaving the Old House abandoned.

10. When I was a kid, Tony scared me.  He was always carrying a gun, he smelled of whiskey, and his Eastern Kentucky accent was very, very thick:

"Ah heer y'lakk sahns,"  (I hear you like science)
"D'y wans'm ahzkreem?" (Do you want some ice cream?)



11. When Uncle Paul got married and moved out in 1969, the house was empty, except for Tony and Uncle Ed.  The two men lived and ate and drank together, day after day, week after week, for the next nine years, until Tony died.

12. He died in December 1978, about six months after I figured it out.  I hadn't told anyone but my brother.  There was no way he could have known.  But would he have understood?  Would he think of Uncle Henry, or Cousin Crit, or the men who sat around all day, back in the hills, gambling and drinking and shooting their guns?

See also: My Kentucky Kinfolk; Erotic Story about My Grandpa #1