Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Brian asks "What is a Man?"

Rock Island, December 1971

December 3, 1971, Christmastime in 6th grade.  Bill is out of town for the holidays, and my brother and I have another boy over: Brian, who will write the graffiti about "free LBJs" on the school wall in a couple of years.  He has just moved to Rock Island from Chicago.  He is a year younger than me, with a belligerent smirk, but otherwise he is cute, with a tanned face, sandy blond hair, pale blue eyes with eyelashes so blond they are almost white, and thin, pinkish lips.

This is an older model, but it will give you an idea of his hair and face.

Brian's parents are entertainers -- Beauty and the Beast, Dad playing the piano in a gorilla mask while Mom sings risque songs.  When their Friday or Saturday night gigs run late, they have arranged with my parents to "babysit" him.

He brings his pajamas, and we read comic books and play army men and watch the new portable tv set I got for my birthday,  and at 10:00 he climbs into bed between me and Kenny (we don't get our own beds until junior high).  Then late in the night his Dad swoops into the room like a vampire and carries Brian off in his arms.

Tonight The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family have been pre-empted.  Next comes Room 222, a drama about a hip, caring teacher at Walt Whitman High (Pete Dixon, played by Lloyd Haynes, left).  I don't usually watch -- some of the boys are cute, but the plots are too melodramatic, about prejudice and cheating on tests and the generation gap.  But you can't spent a whole evening without watching something!

The episode is entitled "What is a Man?"  The English teacher points out that in Shakespeare's day, boys played the girls' parts, and has her class try it out.  The jocks can't play girls without giggling, but Howard (Frederick Herrick) is good at it.  Soon "fag" is scrawled on his locker, and he is getting beat up after school.

Pete consults the principal, who says "Maybe we have two problems.  What if Howard is a homosexual?"

"What's a homosexual?" Brian asks, his mouth full of chocolate chip cookie.

"Dunno."  It's not explained in the episode.  When I hear it again five years later, I don't remember ever hearing it before.

I figure that fag is a tv word for a "fairy": a boy who pretends to be a girl.  Everyone at Denkmann Elementary School, teachers and students alike, thinks that fairy are the worst kind of being in existence.  Being a girl is deplorable enough; why would anyone deliberately pretend to be one?  (Later, at Rocky High, I found out about swishes, who were arguably worse.)

Howard proves that he is not a fairy by asking a girl for a date.  See, if you think you are a girl, you won't be interested in dating girls, right?

I look at Brian.  Soon we will be grownups, in junior high, and we will discover girls, like the adults have been crowing about.  And if we don't, we will become fairies, the most deplorable of human beings, not really human beings at all.

But that's eight months away, an eternity. We have all of our lives yet to live.

Suddenly I throw Brian down in a judo pin and yell "Kata-gatame!"  He flips me over and lays atop me, a heavy weight of hands and thighs, his chest heaving and sweaty, his breath hot and smelling of chocolate. We're both giggling.

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