Thursday, May 10, 2018

I Fall Asleep in a Sailor's Arms

On a train near Norfolk, Virginia, June 1971

When I was 10 years old, my Grandma Davis took me on a train trip from the station at Garrett to Washington, DC, and then to Walterboro, South Carolina, to visit my uncle and aunt and cousins.  We didn't get a sleeping car; we just reclined our seats with blankets and pillows.

I was too excited to sleep.  We went through so many interesting cities -- Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, all lit up at night.  And people kept walking through the car -- the conductor, porters, passengers bustling about with suitcases.

About midnight, a cute boy in a sailor suit stumbled into the car and plopped into the seat across the aisle from me.  He was still a teenager, with brown hair and thick hands.  I still remember that he wore a class ring.

He looked over and noticed me staring at him.  "You should be asleep, little man," he said, smiling, in a distinctive Southern accent.  "You know what?  I just saw Santy Claus in the next car, and he told me you should go to sleep or he won't bring you any Christmas presents."

Did he think I was a baby? "I'm ten years old," I said stiffly, offended.  "Too old for Santa Claus."

"Sorry.  Hey, you want to see a magic trick?"

Sure, if it involves you taking your shirt off.  "My Dad was a sailor," I said.  "He went to Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Hawaii."

"That's great!  I just enlisted, so I haven't been anywhere yet.  I never even been on a train before.  My name is Beau.  That's B-E-A-U.  It's spelled funny because it's French."  He reached out his big hand with the class ring.  It enveloped my small hand.  I didn't want to let go.

"My name is Boomer.  I'm visiting South Carolina with my Grandma Davis."

Grandma Davis had roused and was watching us with her weird knowing smile.

"Howdy, Boomer's Grandma.  I'm Beau Reynolds, from Morgantown, West Virginia, home of the Fighting Mountaineers."

"Pleased to meet you," she said politely.

I was briefly distracted by a skyline through the window.

"Hey, why don't you sit over here by me? It's a window seat, so you can look out."

"Can I, Grandma?"

"Sure, if you want to. But you should try to get some sleep.  It's late."

"Don't worry, ma'am.  Putting boys to bed is my specialty.  I'll get out my guitar if I have to."

I leapt across the aisle, squeezed past Beau's legs, and climbed into the seat next to him.   I pulled up the armrest so I could cuddle against him.  Our arms touched.

" a little brother about your age.  He plays football on his junior high team, and he likes hunting and fishing. I bet you'd like him."

"Is he cute?" I said without thinking -- I was too tired to guard myself.

Beau gave me a quizzical stare.  "Well, he's big and tough.  You like hunting?"




"Playing football?"


"Um..watching football?"

"No.  I like to watch The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family.  Do you like Peter or Greg best?  Everybody says they like Greg, but I think Peter is way cuter."

"Yeah, The Brady Bunch, real cool show," he said in a weird hesitant voice.  "Hey, want to hear a dirty joke?"

"Ok," I said with a grin, feeling very grown-up.

Beau said something like this:
Dick Butkiss walks into a bar.  He's like a big, muscular football player, so all the girls think he's cute.  And there's a sissy at the other end of the bar.  So Dick Butkiss sits down, and he's like, got his shirt off and everything, and the sissy can't take his eyes off him.  So Dick Butkiss says, he says, "I'm so lonely I could kiss a cow."  And the sissy, the sissy chirps right up.  "Moo!  I say, Moo!"

He laughed and slapped my knee.

I didn't know that Dick Butkus was a real person -- later I discovered that he was a football player, for the Chicago Bears.  

But I liked the part about the "sissy" wanting to kiss him.  I didn't know that there were grownup men who wanted to kiss men.

I was getting sleepy.  I nestled against Beau.  His chest was pleasantly firm.  He smelled of some kind of sweet cologne.

He reclined the seat, and put his arm around me, then wrapped his blanket around us both.  "You got to be careful of them sissies.  Don't make friends with them, or sooner or later they'll try to kiss you."

"Did a sissy ever try to kiss you, Beau?"

He pressed me close.  "Don't worry about me -- I'm all man.  If any sissy tried anything with me, I'd knock his block off!"

Soon after, I fell asleep in Beau's arms.  He got off the train at Norfolk, never knowing that he had spent the night with a "sissy."

I've been trying to understand this memory from my vantage point of 44 years.  A lonely sailor, away from home for the first time, tries to bond with a boy who reminds him of his little brother.  But the boy doesn't like any "manly" activities, just girly stuff like The Brady Bunch.  So he tells him a cautionary tale about sissies trying to kiss you.

But the cautionary tale is about a lonely guy -- like Beau -- meeting a "sissy" -- like me.  Was the Beau trying to remind himself to avoid letting guys get too close, because they might stir uncomfortable desires?

The tale doesn't have an unhappy ending.  We aren't told Dick Butkus's response to the "moo" request.   Maybe he was, indeed, perfectly willing to kiss a man.

I like to think that, when Beau got to his naval base in Norfolk, he was perfectly willing to kiss men, too.

See also: Cousin George: Only Fools Wear Pajamas

1 comment:

  1. I remember when I was a kid, we used "sissy" but didn't know it meant gay. We just thought of boys who played with dolls and had tea parties as sissies.

    Probably for the best, when puberty hit: I actually think the boys with more stereotypically masculine activities were having sex with each other more than the so-called "sissies". Double standards abounded, of course.



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