Sunday, March 26, 2017
My Big, Flashy, Screaming-Queen Cousin and the Gay High School Boy
When I was a kid, we visited my Mom's dad and brothers and sisters in Garrett twice a year. We also visited her brother in Kentucky, and we drove all the way down to Florida to visit her high school friend.
Why did we never visit her Cousin Crit and his kids in North Manchester?
It was only about an hour's drive from Grandpa's farmhouse, and about half an hour out of the way on our usual route home.
And -- Mom grew up with them.
In 1942, when she was five years old, she moved to northern Indiana with her family, so her dad could take advantage of factory jobs during World War II. Cousin Crit and his family moved into the Old House on the hill, about a quarter mile away.
Mom must have seen Cousin Crit's kids -- Carl, Wilkie, Alice, and some others -- every day. They must have gone to school together, played together, visited each other constantly, year after year, from 1942 to 1959, when she married my father. Why did she never want to visit them as an adult?
There was something fishy here, some scandal. And there was probably a gay connection.
In the fall of 2006, I made a few phone calls.
"There's no mystery. We only had a week to spend in Indiana, and just count up all the people we had to visit: my Dad, two brothers, three sisters, their families, your Dad's relatives. There was no time for any side-trips."
That answer didn't hold up. Most of Mom's family came by Grandpa Prater's house to visit us. There was plenty of time for a side trip.
"Besides, most of Cousin Crit's kids weren't living in North Manchester. Only Wilkie and Alice."
I checked the list I copied from the family Bible. Wilkie, born in 1939, probably named after the presidential candidate.
"Wilkie was only two years younger than you. Were you close growing up?"
There was a long pause. "Not really. He had his own friends and his own activities. All that long-hair stuff, theater and music. Nothing to do with me."
My gaydar went off. "I see that he never married. Was he gay?"
"Of course not," Mom said definitively. "There were lots of reasons not to get married in those days."
2. Aunt Mary, Mom's older sister.
"There's no big mystery. None of Cousin Crit's kids were your mother's age. They were separated by something like five years, which doesn't seem like a lot when you're a grownup, but it's a big deal when you're young. Who wants to hang out with a baby?"
"Wilkie was only two years younger than Mom, though."
There was a long pause. "Oh, right, I forgot about Wilkie. He and your Mom used to be friends when they were little -- they played dolls together, that sort of thing. But around high school, they drifted apart. Your Mom was all about dating and boys, and Wilkie didn't want anything to do with that. He never had any girlfriends."
My gaydar went off.
3. Uncle Edd, Mom's older brother.
"Your mother didn't like Cousin Crit's kids. None of us did. They got television almost as soon as it came out. They had cars to drive and money to spend on movies and the Blue Moon [Drive In]. They always acted like they were too good for us."
"What about Wilkie? Was he stuck-up, too?"
Uncle Edd laughed. "Oh, he was the snobbiest of the lot, always sashaying around like he was the Lord of the Manor. He wore an ascot -- do you know what that is?"
"He called us hillbillies -- but he was born in Kentucky, too! He was always talking about how he would leave this 'hick town' behind and move to California and become a movie star."
"Did he ever move to California?"
"I didn't really see him much after he grew up. But as far as I know, he lived in North Manchester his whole life."
"What did he do for a living?"
"I think he was a schoolteacher. English, maybe. Or drama."
My gaydar went off again.
4. Cousin Carl, Mom's second cousin.
Cousin Crit's youngest son, Carl, had lived all over the world, but was now retired, back in North Manchester to take care of his invalid sister. He sent me some photos of his brother Wilkie as a kid -- rather cute, a little chunky -- but none as an adult.
"I didn't see Wilkie much after we grew up. Just at Christmas dinner, mostly."
"Well, you lived far away...."
"Even Alice, who lived right in town, didn't see him much. He kept to himself. Spent a lot of time in Indianapolis."
"Was he gay?"
Cousin Carl laughed. "Well, aren't you young kids today forward! I never thought about it before, but...well, now that you mention it, he was a bit girly. And he never mentioned any lady friends. You know, that would make a lot of sense...but when he died, there weren't any gay fellas came to his funeral, so I'd have to say no."
"How did he die?"
"It was a robbery, we think. They found him on the street in Indianapolis. On the South Side [the 'bad' part of town]. He was shot. The thing is, no one knows what he was doing in that neighborhood. He didn't have any friends nearby. There weren't any good stores or restaurants. It's a mystery."
A hookup that went wrong? A homophobic hate crime? Either way, a tragic ending to a sad life in the closet.
Wilkie taught at Tippecanoe Valley High School, near North Manchester, from 1978 until his death in 2003. I looked up an alumnus named Jack, who starred in the senior play in 2003, presuming that he would have been one of Wilkie's students.
We met at an Au Bon Pain near the campus: tall and slim, with brown hair and striking blue eyes. It only took me a moment to find out that he was gay.
"Mr. Prater was the best teacher I ever had. He loved books, the way they looked, the way they felt. I think that put me on the road to museum studies. But not just texts --- he really knew how to make literature come to life -- Shakespeare, Dickens, Tony Kushner."
"He assigned you Angels in America, the gay Mormon drama?"
Jack nodded. "He got into a little trouble with the school board, but he didn't care. He always said that the purpose of art and being gay is to wake you up, get you out of your 'boring little life.' I never would have come out if it wasn't for Mr. Prater."
Finally, someone who could tell me for sure! "Was he gay?"
"No, he definitely liked the ladies. He was a big, flashy, flamboyant, screaming-queen heterosexual who wasn't afraid of anybody or anything."
This is Tales of West Hollywood, so of course Jack and I hooked up. He had a smooth, slim body and an uncut Bratwurst. Into kissing. He mostly wanted to go down on me, but I convinced him to try interfemoral. We stayed in contact, and got together whenever I visited Indianapolis, for a few years (the museum guard I met in 2015 didn't know him).
But that's less memorable than learning about my Cousin Wilkie, a big, flashy, flamboyant screaming-queen heterosexual who wasn't afraid of anybody or anything.
See also: A Sausage Sighting of the Mysterious Boy at the Old House; Picked Up by a Museum Guard.