Jun 16, 2016

The Boy with a Crush on My Dad

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by a photo of my father sitting on a burro in Tijuana.

Dad is tanned, muscular, smiling, wearing a sombrero that invites us to "Kiss My Ass!"

The photo is dated September 8th, 1959, a little over a year before I was born. There are two names written on the back, "Frank" and "Jared."

Frank is my father, but who is Jared?  The burro?

And how did this grinning, bawdy, irreverent 21-year old turn into the Dad I knew, conservative, somber, serious, who rarely laughed and never joked or fooled around?  What changed?

Here is all I learned through my life until about two weeks ago:

June 1956: Frank graduates from high school in Indiana, and joins the Navy.  He spends the next three years seeing the world, visiting Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, learning to repair things deep down in the hulls of the big ships, and buddy-bonding.  He calls it the best time of his life.

June 1959: Frank returns to Indiana for a two-week long shore leave and reunites with his high school sweetheart, who is working at the A&W.  They impulsively get married, and drive with her sister and brother-in-law cross country to Long Beach.  They move into a tiny apartment.

The next year is a blank space in their lives.  They don't talk about it.  There are only a few mementos and photographs.  I know that they went to Knotts Berry Farm and Tijuana, that a couple of relatives flew out for a visit, and that Mom bought a set of encyclopedias from a fast-talking salesman, and that's all.

June 1960: Frank's four-year tour of duty ends.  His Captain asks him to stay on, with a promotion to Chief Petty Officer, but he refuses.  Instead, he and Mom return to Indiana and move into a house on South Randolph Street.  He goes to work in the factory, which he calls a "godddam hell hole" for the next thirty years.

Why did Dad abandon a Navy career he loved for a factory job he hated?  

Why did they leave Long Beach?

Indianapolis,  May 2016

I'm visiting my parents on the way back from New York. My nephew is digitizing their old photos, and I see the "Kiss My Ass" burro photo again.  Emboldened, I decide to coax as much information out of them as possible.

Maybe the statute of limitations has passed, or maybe after nearly 60 years they don't care about their youthful transgressions anymore, but Mom and Dad both open up, describing their apartment, the corner grocery store, the movie theater where they saw Ben-Hur and Pillow Talk.

"You went to movies?" I ask, shocked.  Nazarenes are forbidden from setting foot inside movie theaters.


"That's not all!" Dad says with a laugh.  "We played cards.  We danced.  We even drank -- just beer, one time, but if the preacher or our parents found out, we'd be in big trouble!"

"We made friends with all sorts of people that would set my Mom and Dad off," Mom adds.  "Blacks.  Jews.  Catholics.  Mexicans.  And...well, you know..."

"Gays?" I suggest.

Suddenly Dad becomes somber.  "It was the Fifties.  We didn't know about things like that."

"Or if we did, we thought it was very rare," Mom adds, "You'd never meet anyone like that in a lifetime, which is good because it was the worst thing possible, like a sin and a crime and a sickness, all rolled up into one.  Then we met that boy..."

"Jared, from the burro photo?" I ask with sudden inspiration.

"Yes," Dad says.  "We were supposed to give him a copy of the photo -- that's why his name is on the back.  But we didn't get a chance."

Long Beach, June 1959

Frank was 21 years old, newly married, living in a small apartment on Broadway Street in Long Beach.

Jared lived down the hall.  He was 16 or so, short, slim, kind of frail looking, with bushy black hair that was out of place in the crewcut 1950s, and a preference for bright colors, bold reds and greens.

His dad was overseas, and his mom worked, so he got ignored a lot, and he quickly latched onto my mom and dad.  Frank, the youngest of four kids, never had the opportunity to be a big brother before, and he relished the attention.  They went out for hamburgers, to the movies, to the beach.

Jared liked hanging out with Mom, too.  He came over sometimes during the day, to watch her soap opera, As the World Turns. and then help her cook dinner.

Of course, they didn't think anything of it at the time.

When they showed Jared the photos from their trip to Tijuana, he asked for a copy of the one with Frank on the "Kiss My Ass" burro -- to show his friends at school.

 "That's a weird photo to show your friends," I point out.

Dad shrugs.  "That's what he told us."

I wonder if it ever occurred to them that Jared might have another reason to want a picture of the shirtless, muscular Frank.  

But before they had a chance to make a copy of the photo from the negatives, Jared vanished.  He just stopped coming around.

Dad wondered if he was upset with them, or sick.  He went over to check, and Jared's mom said that he went to a home "to get help."

What kind of home?  What was wrong?  She kept her eyes down and wouldn't say.  No, they couldn't visit.  No, they couldn't write.  He needed to be alone, to get better.

Talking it over, Mom and Dad began to suspect:  Jared was a soft, gentle boy, feminine, domestic.  Could he be suffering from that disease, the one that no one should talk about?  Could his parents have found out, and put him in an asylum?

Then just around Thanksgiving, Jared died.  A tragic accident, his parents said, but gave no more details.  The funeral was up in Fresno. Mom and Dad didn't go.

Indianapolis, May 2016

"That spring, when we found out I was pregnant," Mom says, "We thought it would be a good idea to move back to Indiana, to spare our baby the bad influences.  You know, the drinking, the movies, the Catholics."

"And the gays?" I ask.

She nods. "We were worried that if we stayed in Long Beach, whatever turned Jared that way, might turn you, too."  

"You can't turn gay," I tell them, annoyed  "Either you are or you aren't."

"Well, we know that now, but in the Fifties we thought it was like protecting you from the measles.  And remember, there was no Gay Pride then.  It was all shame and misery.  We wanted to spare you, and your brother and sister, when they came."

"Jared died almost exactly a year before you were born," Dad says.  "I don't believe in reincarnation, of course, but when you started acting like that, you know, with your Book of Cute Boys, or saying you and Bill were a Mama and a Papa, or asking for a statue of a naked man for Christmas, I knew that I was seeing Jared again."

The uncensored post, with nude photos, is on Tales of West Hollywood.