Rock Island, September 1969
My parents used to have a barbecue every Labor Day, and invited all their friends and neighbors. This year Greg and his father came. After our hot dogs and hamburgers and Lays potato chips and apple cobbler, they wanted to play croquet.
Greg and I were in 4th grade, too old for baby games, so we escaped. We walked across the deserted schoolyard, peeking in the windows of Denkmann School, then crossed the street to Dewey's Candy Store.
Dick the Mean Boy was out of town, so we were free to explore south of Denkmann without being attacked. We found a scary bizarro-world where the normal rules of time and space didn't apply.
Streets had names instead of numbers.
They doubled back on each other like a space warp.
They dead-ended at nothingness.
We saw the end of the world: 46th Street then 1st Street, the beginning of a new universe.
It felt very dangerous, as if we might run into a mysterious threat around every curve.
Then, standing in a front yard all by himself, staring into space, we saw a boy!
A couple of years younger than us, very cute: black hair, black eyes, olive skin, wearing a red shirt and short pants.
But strikingly out of place: alone, silent, unmoving. And Asian!
In Rock Island, "minority" meant Belgian, Italian, or Greek. African-Americans were strictly segregated, below the hill, and I had never met or seen anyone Asian. Not even a face in the crowd at Longview Park or Mother Goose Land.
[Even in 2016, the Asian population of Rock Island is only 0.75%]
He couldn't be real! He must be a ghost. Maybe a Vietnamese boy who died in the War. Or a Martian! Maybe he came here in a spaceship!
"Can he see us?" I whispered.
"I dunno. Is he even here?"
We approached. He smiled invitingly and said something in a strange musical language. Martian or Vietnamese!
"Do you speak English?" I said loudly, enunciating every word.
He smiled, not comprehending, and said more.
"My name is Boomer. This is Greg. What's your name?"
He pointed to himself. "Chi Ehr Ma."
"Ma?" Greg joked. "Whose Ma are you?"
More words in his musical language, a bright smile, and then, in English, "Play." He turned and walked around the side of the house and into the back yard.
Was that an invitation? Did the Martian want us to play with him in the back yard?
Then suddenly he came out the front door!
There's no way he could have gone through the back yard, in the back door, and all the way through the house in just a second or two!
Screaming in fear, we ran back down the curving street and side streets with names instead of numbers, back to Denkmann School where things were safe, where things made sense.
A while later, when we calmed down, we decided that there were probably two boys, twins, trying to scare us.
On another day when Dick wasn't around, we ventured south again, and tried to find the Asian boys, Chi Ehr Ma and his brother, but all the houses on that weird curved street looked alike. We couldn't be sure which one they lived in.
If they lived anywhere. They were old enough to be in school. Why had we never seen them at Denkmann? Or at Dewey's, or anywhere else in the neighborhood? Maybe they were ghosts after all.
Days and weeks and months passed, and Chi Ehr Ma, the cute boy -- we concluded that he was probably Vietnamese -- became increasingly attractive in my mind -- and increasingly mysterious. What would have happened if Greg and I followed him into the back yard to "play"? Would we have been transported to a new, magical world? Or would we just have become friends, with long, lush afternoons playing, walking hand in hand, clinging together during sleepovers?
Chi Ehr Ma, with his dazzling, seductive smile became one of the icons of my childhood, combining with Jonny Quest and Hadji, with Kurt Russell in The Secret of Boyne Castle, with John Christopher's Tripod books as a clue to the unraveling the Big Lie. Telling me that, in spite of the adults' hysterical screaming of "You like girls! Every boy likes girls!", some boys like boys.
It is not raining upstairs.
In junior high and high school I met a few other Asian men and boys -- my judo instructor, Peter who invited me to a sleepover, the Vietnamese refugee who worked at the pretzel place in the mall -- always with a subtle, nearly unconscious desire, as if I expected them to flash a dazzling, seductive smile and invite me to secret places in the back yard.
During the spring of my freshman year at Augustana College, I enrolled in a course in East Asian Culture and Civilization, taught by Professor Ma of the Political Science Department.
I loved it. I wantd to change my major to Asian Studies, to immerse myself in the exploits of ancient Chinese emperors, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Taoism, Buddhism, and that mysterious, musical language.
"Chinese has four tones," Professor Ma said. "Ma is my family name, but depending on the tone, it could be horse, mother, to scold, or a question mark. Let me demonstrate: Ma ma ma ma -- 'did mother scold the horse?'"
Ma! The boy from my memory was speaking Chinese! Not Vietnamese, not Martian. He must have been asking us a question.
I stayed after class and asked Professor Ma what "Chi Ehr" means.
"Depending on the tone, it could mean 'The life force is strong' or 'He eats cabbage.' It's also my son's real name, but he likes to be called Chip."
My mouth dropped.
Professor Ma moved to the United States in August 1969 to teach political science at Augustana, bringing his wife and twin sons, Yung Yu and Chi Ehr. They bought a house in Davenport, across the river. In September 1969 his colleague, who lived in Rock Island, invited them over for a Labor Day picnic.
A few days later, Professor Ma invited me to dinner, and to reunite with my old friend Chi Ehr, or Chip, now a 16-year old high school junior. (The model is over 18.)
He escorted me to an upstairs bedroom: unmade single bed, stereo, books, clothes, and sports stuff scattered about, posters of Van Halen and Farrah Fawcett. The smell of marijuana.
"Farrah Fawcett -- gross!" I thought.
Chip was sitting on the bed, a calculus book open in front of him. Very tall and slim, with long hair and a long face, not at all cute.
This was the icon of my childhood, a clue that gay people exist?
"Sup?" he said. "Dad told me that we met before, when I was a kid." Suspicious scowl, American accent. Not at all what I was expecting!
"Yeah. Me and my friend Greg, in 4th grade. We said hello, and then you went to the back yard, and your brother came out the front door. We got spooked and ran away."
He laughed, and flashed that dazzling, seductive smile of my childhood. "Oh, yeah -- I remember that! When you vanished, I got spooked, too. The first guys I met in America were a couple of ghosts! I always wondered what would have happened if you stuck around."
By the way, I just looked up "Chi Ehr Ma" on the internet. He's a professor of mathematics at a university in California (not the famous mineralogist).
See also: 20 Asian Dates, Hookups, and Sausage Sightings; Kurt Russell's Secret.; The Son of Mr. Blowfish