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.
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.
In the dog days, our community cat gets top billing. From the crook of our gnarled fig tree, Poly waits to swat an unsuspecting finch ready to extract seeds.
Staring me down through our den window, Poly assumes this enviable position at seven o’clock a few mornings each week. I tap on the glass to dissuade her. I can’t bear to see a finch fall or for Poly to end up behind bars.
On other days, Poly plays it safe. After the sprinklers stop hissing, she rests on the ground in the shade under the eaves or cavorts with her taffy-colored feline friend.
Poly is that hard-to-corral library book I don’t own, filling each page with texture and character. As summer winds down, she plots in the catbird seat. I don’t want our chapters to end, but someday soon I suspect they will.
“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
It’s a classic line of conviction and desperation delivered by Peter Finch (portraying Howard Beale, a longtime evening newscaster who is losing his patience and bearings on live TV) in Network, the prophetic 1976 satirical/dramatic film.
If you’ve never seen this iconic movie, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, it’s a must-see, spot-on harbinger of the reality-show madness and world of TV lies and sideshow illusions that flood our world and saturate our sensibilities today.
Even better, if you’re a cinephile, you must buy a copy of Tom Samp’s book, CoronaCinema: A Diary of the Pandemic Year in Movie Reviews. In it, he reviews Network and 50 other films through the lens of this never-ending global health crisis. The book is filled with interesting film observations and social insights. (Full disclosure. Tom Samp is my husband.) https://www.amazon.com/CoronaCinema-Diary-Pandemic-Movie-Reviews-ebook/dp/B09DLC8KY2
Now, back to the Howard Beale show. Though I’m not losing my bearings, I am “mad as hell” about the politicized state of American society in the storm of a god-forsaken health crisis. (I’m sure many of you are too.)
This occurred to me–once again–over the weekend as I stewed and reclined in the living room, watching news coverage of another few thousand COVID-19 cases in Arizona and the rising tide of the Delta variant due to the fact that only 48% percent of our residents are fully vaccinated. Apparently, the other 52% are too busy drinking the political Kool-Aid to have the gumption to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Need more context for my anger? On Saturday, a few days after returning from a lovely 25th anniversary Flagstaff getaway with Tom and visit to the south rim of the Grand Canyon (the view never gets old), I found myself fighting some sort of upper respiratory thing–sinus congestion, headache, mild fever.
As far as vaccinations go, I am an early adopter. I have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 since April Fools’ Day and that’s no joke. Yet my anxiety raced and my temper began to simmer. I wondered if I was one of those breakthrough cases the media keeps talking about.
In these instances, the virus infects people who took the proper precautions. People who got vaccinated as soon as they could to protect themselves and those around them. People who are true patriots because–day-in-day-out–they have empathy for those around them, know the difference between freedoms and responsibilities, obey traffic lights, buckle their seat belts, pay their taxes, and abide by the tenets of a civilized society.
Cruelly and tragically, in breakthrough cases the virus vaults over and through the protective coating of the vaccine. This is happening in a small percentage of occasions and is likely due to the fact that too many Americans are simply too ignorant, obstinate, or uninformed to follow the science, to get vaccinated, to wear masks indoors and in large/close gatherings, to stop the spread of the virus by reducing the number of hosts it can jump to and transform on, to put aside their political differences and save lives.
By Sunday, I had had it. After resting most of the morning, I drove to an urgent care facility in Scottsdale to get tested for COVID-19. I needed answers and peace of mind. Whatever the outcome, I needed to regain some sense of control.
The process at the Next Care center went smoothly. An efficient technician took my vital signs and swabbed my left nostril. A pleasant and professional physician’s assistant examined me. She told me I did the right thing by getting tested. She confirmed that, though it is rare, breakthrough cases are occurring.
She listened to my lungs and reported they were clear, but my sinuses were definitely enflamed. She told me to keep drinking lots of fluids and to get plenty of Vitamin C. She would call with the test results in a few days. Though I didn’t have all the answers at that point, I was beginning to feel better physically and emotionally.
I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. By Monday, my mild fever was gone. The fluids–lots of hot herbal tea and water–were helping. My contact at Next Care called Tuesday morning to say my COVID-19 test was negative. Instantly, relief raced from my smartphone into my ear drum. Through my thankful brain. Through my congested head. Through my sound heart that survived a mild attack four years ago. Through my clear lungs.
It’s now Tuesday evening. Though I’m still “mad as hell” at the state of our country’s social discourse, the good news is I am healthy. I’m on the mend. I’m free of this round of traumatic COVID-19 possibilities. My energy is back. I will overcome this chapter of sinus congestion.
If there is a breakthrough to be derived from my story, it is this. If you aren’t yet vaccinated, get it done. Do the right thing. Protect yourself and those around you. Limit the chances that this horrible virus will end your life and upend the lives of those you love. Of those who love you.
By getting fully vaccinated, I stacked the cards in my favor. Sure, I am one of the lucky ones, but–good or bad–each of us has the ability to shape our fortunes.
Think of getting vaccinated as the best and most meaningful gift you can give those who love you. They’ll be “mad as hell” if you don’t.
Writing is my thing. Not arithmetic. It has never been my forte. Going way back to 8th grade, I was lost in algebra class. That precipitated a math do-over in 9th grade.
Nonetheless, I realize we live in a number-centric society. Keeping track of and understanding numbers allows us to measure progress or lack there of.
Of course, the most obvious and disheartening example these days is the accelerating number of COVID cases and deaths, thanks to the Delta variant and a disturbing number of Americans who are still unwilling to get vaccinated for their sake and those around them.
But that’s not what this post is about. I want to talk about the personal side of math–when you find yourself counting life’s numbers and celebrating the love, commitment, and longevity they represent.
Today marks 25 years since Tom and I met. In this ever-changing society, I’m proud of that significant number, though it pales when compared with the total our neighbors Mary and Earl have accumulated. They will celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary in October.
At any rate, Tom and I are thankful to be together for a quarter of a century. We’re escaping the summer heat of Scottsdale to spend a few cooler nights in a cozy B&B in Flagstaff, a mountain community we love.
We’re like a lot of gay couples in the sense that we remember and celebrate 2 anniversaries: the day (August 17, 1996) we met and the day (September 6, 2014) almost 7 years ago when we were married in an outdoor courtyard on a gorgeous late summer afternoon in Illinois, surrounded by 60 friends and family members.
In 1996, we didn’t imagine it would ever be legal in the United States for same-sex couples to marry and receive equal rights to those of straight ones. The idea of marriage equality was barely a whisper. Less than 2 decades later it became a reality thanks to a movement we fully endorsed … proof of an astonishing, positive shift supported by a majority of American people.
In the time since Tom and I met at a northwest suburban Chicago gay bar, we have emerged from a hidden life to an open one. Along the way, we have counted life’s numbers.
Collectively, in the past 25 years we have: raised and counseled my 2 boys into adulthood; loved and lost 1 adorable basset hound and 1 crafty cockatiel; cared for and buried 3 of our parents; endured 36 years in the workforce; vacationed in 4 European countries (Italy, Ireland, Germany, and Austria) and 10 or 12 American states; watched our favorite baseball teams win 3 World Series (2 for my St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and 2011; 1 for Tom’s Chicago Cubs in 2016); written and published 5 books; and survived 1 mild heart attack during 1 cross-country move. As I write this, we continue to navigate our way through 1 global pandemic that won’t end.
Of course, the glue that keeps our relationship going isn’t really about the numbers. It’s in the love and laughter we share, the relationships we’ve formed with friends and neighbors, the hundreds of movies we’ve watched together, the countless Scrabble games we’ve played over coffee, the unexpected hospital visits we’ve negotiated, the quieter moments reading and writing we protect; and the sense of day-in-day-out respect, comfort, and security we provide one another.
When it comes to the most important relationship in my life, it makes perfect sense why I’m not a math guy. I simply can’t put a number or value on the love Tom and I share, the hurdles we’ve cleared, and the successes we’ve realized.
Together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.
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.
Well, not really. But it feels that way for two independent writers living under one roof, who spent most of 2020 writing just to stay sane in the swirl of a global pandemic.
Yesterday Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix (an independent, artistic haven in the Valley of the Sun) contacted Tom (my film aficionado husband) and me individually with news that each of our books, published in 2021, has been accepted for consignment and placed on their shelves.
Today we drove there to capture the moment on camera. Tom’s book, CoronaCinema: A Diary of the Pandemic Year in Movie Reviews, is displayed in the film section. You can find mine, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, on the LGBTQ shelf.
Of course, I know that most of you who follow me here don’t live in Arizona. But this is a psychological victory and important creative validation when it happens in your home community. Now there is a local book-buying option in the Valley of the Sun, if the size and scope of a global online retailer isn’t your thing.