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All of us are required to play roles in society, especially to earn a living. We project a persona that may or may not align with who we are or what we value. We wear masks.
Of course, in a pandemic some us wear them more than others in public situations. But in my post-corporate sixties–even if I’m donning a face covering for physical protection–I prefer to spend time with people who are genuine. I don’t have the patience for games or innuendoes.
My need for authenticity has roots that wind back to my formative years. In the 1970s, as a budding-but-denying gay adolescent who had unnamed feelings for other boys and wasn’t allowed to express them, my personal development was frozen in time.
Imagine closing off one portion of your identity entirely with no light, voice or path encouraging you to explore it. None of the relationship rites of passage for straight kids–flirting, dating, parties, dances–were available to gay and lesbian kids in the 70s.
In my middle school years, I became close with Daniel. There was a lot I liked about him: his intelligence, his quirkiness, his dimples, his love of language and the arts.
On occasion, Daniel came over to my house after school. We played board games or simply talked about school and the teachers we liked. We never acted physically on the bond and attraction we shared.
I remember that Mom and Dad liked Daniel … and Daniel admired some of my parents’ most endearing qualities: my father’s exuberance and sensitivity; my mother’s kindness and sensibility.
In seventh grade, I was the spelling bee champion for Mackenzie Junior High School. I represented our school at the St. Louis-area finals. Each student was allowed to bring one friend in addition to his or her family. My choice was Daniel. I remember him sitting in the audience that day in April 1970. It felt like he belonged there, like he was a part of my family.
Not long after I lost the spelling bee, a few boys at school must have recognized something about the care and closeness Daniel and I demonstrated for each other in the halls and in the classroom. They spewed venom. They bullied us physically and verbally. It hurt me deeply and pushed me further into the darkness.
Daniel and I remained friends in eighth grade and beyond, but we spent less time with each other as a result of that trauma and feelings of vulnerability that surfaced. Our paths crossed only rarely in high school even though we both performed in plays and musicals.
Looking back, it was a survival strategy for me to pull away from Daniel, but I always regretted that we never had a chance to be authentic with one another or to talk about the elephant in the room … the experience of being chastised for being different.
That would change on a September Sunday morning in St. Louis.
In August 2021, I contacted Daniel online to tell him that I wanted to reconnect with him while I was in St. Louis for the Six Flags reunion. (We hadn’t seen each other since 1995, and then it was just a brief hello at our twentieth high school reunion.)
Daniel loved the idea. So, on Sunday, September 5, 2021–before Tom and I left Missouri to drive to the Chicago area to see our sisters and my son Kirk–we met him for coffee at a place he recommended. The three of us spent an hour together talking on the patio of a lovely cafe in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis.
For the first time, I was able to tell Daniel how awful I felt about the way our friendship was derailed. That led to a deeper discussion about other boys who were tormented to worse outcomes. But that wasn’t the entirety of our conversation. It was just one moment in a warm exchange with each of us … Daniel, Tom and me … sharing stories of our careers, families, and adventures. The bonus for me was watching and listening as my husband and my first boyfriend discussed their favorite films.
Before Tom and I departed, we invited Daniel to come visit us in the Phoenix area. As we left the cafe, I hugged Daniel and said goodbye. I truly believe there will be another chapter to our friendship. Maybe it will happen in Phoenix. Maybe it will happen in St. Louis.
Either way, on my Midwest journey in 2021, I was able to tie together a few more of the disparate ends of my past rollercoaster life to my more fully actualized Arizona existence, and for that I am grateful.
Our lives are an intricate tapestry of disparate threads. They weave over, around and through us. It is up to us to tie the loose ends. For those who seek and remember, we are on a lifelong quest to integrate the texture, color, and reality of our experiences. We return to our past lives to celebrate and reexamine what we have left behind and to find the greater meaning.
In August of 1976, I operated the River King Mine Train controls for the last time. I said goodbye to my rollercoaster crew mates, walked down the asphalt hill, punched the time clock, changed out of my Six Flags Over Mid-America (SFOMA) uniform, and drove my parents’ blue 1970 Chevy Belair four-door sedan from Eureka, Missouri to my childhood home in Affton. I was nineteen years old. I was ready to depart the St. Louis area to begin my sophomore year at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
It would take me forty-five years, but on the evening of September 4, 2021, I returned to Eureka. I went back to revisit my formative-and-repressed teenage years (and the scene of my first job and colleagues) and anchor them to my sixty-four-year-old existence as an openly gay writer, husband, father, son, desert rat, and heart-attack survivor.
The setting for my personal melding was the 50th reunion of SFOMA employees from the 1970s … shiny, bouncy teens and twenty-somethings who had evolved into grayer versions of themselves. In their sixties and seventies, many had gained weight and lost hair. Others had left us entirely. But those who remained had somehow managed to salvage their spark and spirit of adventure.
Tom and I flew together from Phoenix to St. Louis, but this portion of the journey was mine alone. (My husband stayed back at our hotel to read. Though he was 100 percent supportive of me going to the reunion, he had nothing to renew with a Missouri gang that would gather under a covered outdoor picnic area inside a St. Louis-area amusement park. Tom is a native Chicagoan.)
After I parked my rental car at what is now called Six Flags St. Louis in a relatively empty parking lot, I threw on my face mask, zipped up my windbreaker, and pulled up my hood. Yes, it was raining again, but the sky had begun to brighten as I fumbled for my ticket, walked through security, and entered the main gate.
If you had blindfolded and air-lifted me into the space and then removed my eye covering, I wouldn’t have known where I had landed. But I was happy to be there nonetheless. With a little help from a SFOMA map in the park, I found my way to the River King Mine Train, situated on the eastern side of the park. I headed up a steep hill that began to look familiar, past a restaurant, once called Naylor’s. In the 1970s, it served greasy fried chicken. That trail and olfactory memory led me to the entrance of the River King Mine Train.
Back in the 70s, there were two mine train tracks that were pressed into service on the busiest days. Now there is only one. I snapped a quick selfie in front of the ride sign and peeked in to see the 2021 version of the mine train crew at work and a train leaving the station. Then, I headed to the Palace Theatre to see displays of photos and memorabilia from the 1970s, when the park was sparkling new and crowded nearly every day … rain or shine.
When I paused for a quick pic of the Log Flume ride (along with the mine train, one of but a few original attractions that remain), I accidentally dropped my mask. Kevin, another reunion attendee, told me so. I swiped it off the ground and for the next ten minutes we traded stories of working in the park.
I soon discovered Kevin had also operated the mine train a year after I left … then he moved up another rung to the Screamin’ Eagle, which opened in the bi-centennial year. In 1976, it was that death-defying, stomach-dropping rollercoaster kids ran to ride as soon as the park gates opened each morning.
At six o’clock, I walked to the picnic entrance for the reunion. While I was in line, Cindy approached. Long ago, we were mine train pals for three summers; in 1974, we worked the swing shift — 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Supervisor Larry and foreman Gus (Cindy and Gus would marry a few years later) trained us at the same time to “drive” the rollercoaster and master the controls.
Cindy and I hadn’t seen each other in more than four decades–nor had we shared the up-and-down stories of our lives–but I felt the chemistry of our friendship return as we hugged. When I told her I had no clue of my sexual orientation back then, I realized why I had traveled from Phoenix to St. Louis. I needed to connect another piece of my past, less actualized, rollercoaster life in Missouri with the more even and authentic one I had created with Tom.
Cindy was on the reunion planning committee and needed to check on a few things, but we agreed to talk more once the event got started. After I filled out my name tag and an attendant handed me a 50th anniversary reunion pin, I walked through the crowd of 200 and chit-chatted.
I didn’t know or remember most of the attendees–singles and straight couples with their own stories and reasons for returning–though I could squint and recall younger versions of pretty and handsome cohorts lined up to greet guests nearly fifty years before.
A cooler breeze swept through. The rain stopped. Cindy returned. We stood in line together for a buffet dinner … beef brisket, baked beans, and potato chips. I suppose it qualified as a meal. What else should I have expected? It was amusement park food.
For the next thirty minutes, Cindy and I shared the highlights and lowlights of our past lives — the joys and tragedies that come with living and growing older. To keep the privacy of that moment, I’ll leave it at that.
On cue, the welcoming speeches from past leaders followed, along with a video collage set to music from the 70s. I felt sad more than happy as the images faded in and out. Though it reminded me of the hard-working days and fun-filled nights decades before, it also felt like I was viewing a fantasy land far away from the world we now occupy.
As the evening began to unwind, I pulled a signed copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator out of my backpack and handed it to Cindy. She smiled and thanked me. I invited her to visit Tom and me in the Sonoran Desert one day. Though she’s lived in Germany and speaks several languages, Arizona is a place she has yet to visit.
Before I left, there were door prizes, more hugs, and a small stream of goodbyes. At 9 p.m. I was ready to go. I made my way in the dark back to my rental car. No more rain. The sky was clear. The air was nearly crisp for a September night in Missouri.
I retraced my steps on I-44 to the Hampton Inn in Valley Park. Tom was waiting to hear more about my rollercoaster days, the 50th reunion, and the night I returned to Eureka, Missouri to tie up a few loose ends.
As I write and reflect on this experience, I realize my return to the past playground and promise of my youth–in the middle of a pandemic–placed me outside my comfort zone.
But, with my vaccination and mask protecting me and the creative impulse guiding me, I’m glad I went back there. The bonus was reconnecting with a good friend.
In addition to my memories, I left St. Louis with this souvenir of the 50th reunion of Six Flags Over Mid-America employees of the 1970s. It was held at Six Flags St. Louis in Eureka, Missouri, on September 4, 2021.
It rained most of September 4, 2021, in eastern Missouri. Fortunately, scattered-but-heavy showers didn’t wash away our plans.
At nine a.m., Tom and I drove north thirty minutes from our room at Hampton Inn Valley Park to visit my cousin Phyllis and her family in their St. Charles, Missouri home.
After we exchanged hugs, Phyllis’ husband Tom prepared homemade blueberry-and-apple pancakes. We volleyed catch-up stories between the kitchen and family room, while their golden retriever Truman sidled up to Tom and me on the couch, placed each of his front paws in our laps, and stole our hearts.
For the next two hours eleven of us–spread across three generations–gathered around a rectangular kitchen table framed by angled windows and a lush backyard.
The two Toms, Phyllis and I represented the senior set. Amanda, Austin, Kelsey, and Bryant smiled and shared stories of their thirty-something, heavy-lifting, career-and-child-rearing years. They shepherded and cradled: three-year-old Ava, who danced around the table in her princess gown; adorable one-year-old Violet, who is learning to walk; and baby Brooks born in July with a head of hair.
It was a treat for me to spend time with them all, the entirety of my Johnson family connection that remains in the St. Louis area.
Thankfully, the reunion around Phyllis’ and Tom’s table superseded our previous encounter at an Italian restaurant in St. Louis on July 5, 2017. It was one day before I suffered a mild heart attack as Tom and I walked to Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ central west end to see my book of light-hearted Missouri stories on the shelf.
When we left St. Charles just before noon, I pointed our rental car southeast. Tom typed the address for Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery into his smartphone to find the most direct route to my parents’ graves.
Ironically, our most recent visit to the rolling hills of white marble grave markers on the banks of the Mississippi River was four years ago–the same day we last saw Phyllis and Tom. But on this occasion–September 4–we were in town on what would have been Dad’s and Mom’s seventy-third wedding anniversary.
I had hoped to stop somewhere for a small bunch of flowers to leave on their graves. That never happened. Instead, we arrived at the cemetery entrance empty handed, made two right turns and one left, drove past the chapel, traveled up a hill, and parked our rental car under a tree.
About the time we arrived, the rain paused. We walked a hundred steps or so to DD 355, where Dad and Mom are buried near a large oak tree. As Tom and I surveyed the grounds and knelt quietly, he spotted two acorns side-by-side on top of the wet grass on Mom’s side of the marker.
Before we left, I placed the acorns on top of the marker in honor of their wedding anniversary.
I suppose even in the solemn solitude of a cemetery the strength of our family ties endure and life goes on.
Tom and I are flying to St. Louis tomorrow. On Saturday, I will attend an outdoor reunion of Six Flags Over Mid-America’s circa-1970s employees. About 200 of us will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of the amusement park in the rolling hills of Eureka, Missouri thirty miles southwest of the Gateway Arch that towers over the Mississippi River.
Now called Six Flags St. Louis, the theme park is where I landed my first job in 1974. It’s where I learned to “drive” the River King Mine Train, the park’s first rollercoaster. It’s also where I began to navigate life’s ups and downs. Who knew the experience for three summers would become a metaphor and catalyst for a book I would write more than forty years later?
This will be my first trip to St. Louis since July 2017. I’m overdue to write a new and rejuvenating chapter in my original hometown … one that doesn’t include heart trauma and a personal detour that spawned uncertainty on my sixtieth birthday.
I’m excited and a little anxious about this journey, given the relentlessness of our global pandemic. But Tom and I have been fully vaccinated and will mask up for this adventure.
No doubt, the trip will reignite a flame of familiar faces and memories. I expect there will also be a few surprises and a mix of bittersweet feelings and observations seen through blended bifocals and sixty-four-year-old eyes. We’ll see.
After the Missouri reunion–plus a visit to my parents’ graves at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, a few hours reconnecting with my cousin Phyllis in St. Charles, and coffee with a St. Louis friend I haven’t seen for more than twenty-five years–Tom and I will drive to Chicago to see my son Kirk and our sisters Sharon and Diane.
We haven’t visited the Windy City … a place I called home from 1980 to 2017 … or spent time with our siblings in the suburbs there since June of 2019. Of course, the pandemic is the culprit that accounts for that gap.
I wrote the poem that follows five years ago. In 2017, it first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, my book of reflective, light-hearted, growing-up-in-Missouri stories.
Perhaps these words will resonate with you–wherever you were born, wherever you call home. The poem certainly has special meaning for me as I return to visit my homes in Missouri and Illinois that account for most of the first sixty years of my life, before Tom and I created this warmer, lighter, and simpler life in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
I saw you there day after day. We were together leaving the station. We made our way around the track. But now I don’t see you anymore. Where have you gone familiar ones? Could it be you left the track and vanished? Am I alone looking down from my perch? Are the markers and signs all that remain? What became of the rises and falls? Have you left me in charge to man the controls? Am I enough to carry this forward? Why have you brought me back here? Oh, that’s right. I remember now. I was on a journey. I was coming home.
Every time Tom and I cross the wash at Vista del Camino Park, we inhale the distinctive, earthy bite of three sycamores planted in a sea of palms and eucalyptus.
It’s a pleasant surprise to learn sycamores survive in the desert. Hybrids growing by lakes and streams are like midwestern transplants: leaner, smoother, tanner. Don’t be fooled. Their roots are one-hundred-percent sycamore.
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1971, I traveled for the first time to a much wetter region of the country with my father, mother and sister. We left St. Louis for a week to explore the Great Lakes.
Our vacation was by no means a full immersion. It was more like motel-and-diner hopping on a shoestring budget as we headed north and then east.
Dad insisted we stop on the north side of Chicago just long enough to dip our toes in frigid Lake Michigan. From there, we continued on in our Chevy Biscayne to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to board a car ferry and cross the same lake together.
In the eyes of this fourteen-year-old passenger, the ferry was faster and far more intriguing than the prospect of driving a few hundred miles on congested highways past Illinois’ and Indiana’s stained ports, steel mills, and smoke stacks.
Under a bright sky, we squinted at the lake’s choppy waters and stood on the top deck of the boat with other passengers, while below attendants squeezed vehicles into the hull for ballast. Gulls danced and dipped in the air above.
Our destination? Ludington, Michigan … a town I knew nothing about on the eastern shore. I remember Ludington as a quiet, clean community with deep beaches. We didn’t stay long. Dad wanted to drive us north to Sleepy Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where I would climb more steep midwestern piles of sand than I could imagine.
Eventually, we made our way farther north to Sioux Ste. Marie and zipped up our jackets. A cool summer breeze buffeted our hair as we watched international vessels line up and pass through the Soo Locks that connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
Toward the end of our weeklong Michigan adventure, we found our way south to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. I felt the sense of history there, but none of it compared with the exhilaration of the ferry ride near the start of our trip.
Fifty years later, it is the lake Dad and I crossed together–and the real and metaphorical channels we navigated as father and son–that I remember most.