Tag: Chicago

Midwest Bound

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.

***

Coming Home

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.

I wore this badge for three summers (1974-1976) as a rollercoaster operator at Six Flags Over Mid-America in Eureka, Missouri.

Crossing Lakes of Consciousness

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.

Dad and me on the ferry crossing Lake Michigan from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan in July 1971.

Thankful

There is nothing idyllic about life in November 2020. The best we can do is wash our hands, wear our masks, keep our distances, hug (only metaphorically) and pray for our loved ones, apply regular coats of hand sanitizer, disavow false claims of voter fraud, limit our exposure to anxiety-producing news items, contribute to our favorite charities, and find a way to keep living.

Even in this dark period, I continue to sing with the Phoenix Gay Men’s Chorus. Most of our rehearsals have been conducted via Zoom technology. Recently, we have divided ourselves into small groups of seven or eight for in-person rehearsals on Mondays, Tuesdays or Thursday nights.

I show up on Thankful Thursdays to practice holiday music. It’s a scene from a sci-fi movie. Individually, we check our temperatures at the door, fan out ten or more feet apart across a large room, wear masks and an additional layer of protection behind a face shield. Our artistic director and accompanist (also behind masks and shields) proceed to lead us from afar. The experience is as remote as it sounds, but in 2020, it’s the best we can do.

When rehearsal is through two hours later, we spray our chairs with disinfectant, turn the lights off in the room, walk out the side door into the Phoenix moonlight, return to our cars separately, and drive home.

We are rehearsing one of my favorite songs, Thankful (words and music by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster, and Richard Page), for our December online performance. It’s a stirring piece I first performed in Chicago as a member of the Windy City Gay Chorus in 2012. It gave me goosebumps then, but the message is more universal and relevant eight years later.

I hope reading these lyrics will bring you a little peace. It’s a mental space I will travel to when I sing this song from behind my mask tonight. Even with all the pain and heartache in our lives, we have to believe we will get through this.

There’s so much to be thankful for.

***

Some days we forget to look around us. Some days we can’t see the joy that surrounds us. So caught up inside ourselves, we take when we should give.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Look beyond ourselves, there’s so much sorrow. It’s way too late to say, “I’ll cry tomorrow.” Each of us must find our truth; it’s so long overdue.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Even with our differences, there is a place we’re all connected. Each of us can find each other’s light.

So for tonight we pray for what we know can be. And on this day we hope for what we still can’t see. It’s up to us to be the change and even though we all can still do more, there’s so much to be thankful for.

Advanced Degrees

It’s July. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s the Sonoran Desert. No surprises there.

But one-hundred-eleven? One-hundred-eleven again? One-hundred-thirteen? One-hundred-fifteen? One-hundred-seventeen?

These are the forecast high temperatures for Scottsdale, Arizona for Wednesday through Sunday of this week.

I’m not sharing this information to inspire pity or compassion. After all, I chose to live here.

Plus I won’t ever have to worry again about snow removal. Or icy sidewalks. Or digging decaying leaves out of gutters.

Or shoveling two-to-three feet of drifting snow. Or the cilia in my nostrils freezing solid in winter. Or driving down the street to discover that the snowplows have come through and blocked our driveway.

These are Chicago memories. November. December. January. February. March. April can be cold too. So can May.

Anyway, back to July in Arizona. It will rain again in the Valley of the Sun … some day.

Probably a vengeful monsoon or two in late July and August. The washes will fill up. And when they do, the thermometer will dip below 100. Sweater weather?

The local weather forecasters will have another monsoon story to tell. How to prepare for the next storm.

They’ll send their TV news crews out on the roads. To show us that actual rain is falling.

That the pavement on streets is wet. That windshield wipers are swooshing back and forth across glass. Only in Arizona will these ever be considered newsworthy.

Tom and I have figured out ways to manage in the Arizona heat. Early morning walks or swims or masked trips to the store. Reading and writing and yoga in the middle of the day in the AC of our condo.

Lighter meals. Fruit smoothies for lunch. Complements of the new Ninja we bought.

Scrabble. Game shows. Reruns of old sitcoms. That Girl and The Brady Bunch are our latest fixations.

Quiet dinners at home. Late evening strolls to the canal after the sun is down and the temperature is closer to 100 again.

This is the life of a desert rat. Living under the radar. Thinner. Tanner. Dryer. More tolerant of our advanced degrees.

Unexpected Fireworks

Sharing a birthday with a friend is a cosmic coincidence. When that friend is your husband–and to this day you remain stumped by the irony of being born in the same year, too–it’s an annual exercise in splendid serendipity.

As Tom and I prepare to cross into an odd-numbered birthday year (sixty-three, but who’s counting?) in an even-odder, even-numbered calendar year, the timing is right to share this excerpt from An Unobstructed View. You can purchase the whole story through any major online retailer.

***

… Tom and I first met on a muggy Saturday night in August 1996.

I had attended a fortieth birthday party for a friend in Chicago. After it was over, I couldn’t bear the idea of going home directly–walking into a silent house. I decided to stop at Hunter’s instead.

When I entered the room around nine o’clock, I was anxious and lonely. The bar was dingy and silent. There were a dozen other men scattered throughout the place. I wasn’t at all comfortable being there. I had been to Hunter’s just once or twice before.

That night I remember feeling two vastly different emotions: hopeful I would meet someone and fearful of the darkness. But I decided to fight my fear and stay for a few minutes anyway to quiet my nerves. I bought a drink at the bar and planted myself on a stool for an hour or so.

At some point, I got squirmy and decided to stretch my legs and look for the restroom. As I crossed the room, I spotted a handsome man with brown hair. He was wearing a plum polo shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.

Our eyes locked. Sparks flew. I felt I knew him, though we had never met before. I was dazzled by his smile, but needed to make a quick pit stop first. I smiled and told him I would be right back.

When I returned, we introduced ourselves. His name was Tom. He told me he was born in Chicago, but he and his family–his mom, dad and sister–had moved to Mount Prospect in 1960, when he was a toddler and suburbia was just beginning its sprawl.

Tom and I decided to find a spot on the patio in the open air to get to know each other further. We talked about our favorite movies and held hands for three hours at a table in the relative darkness barely illuminated by the flickering flame of an ordinary votive candle. I felt another electric charge.

When Tom confided that his birthday was July 6, 1957, I wondered if he was feeding me a line. I needed proof and asked him to show me his driver’s license. Once he did, we reveled in the serendipity of our shared birthday experience.

We basked in the glow of irony … stumbling into another thirty-nine-year-old gay man who entered the world on exactly the same day, discovering another Midwesterner who realized there would always be a personal celebration two days after the country’s supply of Fourth of July sparklers and bottle rockets flamed out.

Shortly after 1 a.m., Tom and I walked to our cars in the parking lot and kissed goodnight. Though there were no pyrotechnics blazing across the sky above us at Hunter’s, there was a different kind of combustion in the air between us.

We vowed to meet later that morning for brunch at a restaurant near his Schaumburg condo. And we did. It was just the beginning of our fireworks story …

The Long Arc of Life

Saguaro2_062520

The world is full of complicated and thorny problems. Perhaps it’s fitting that on Father’s Day Tom and I bought and brought home our own private potful–a tiny saguaro cactus (carnegiea gigantea)–from the Desert Botanical Garden.

Despite their prickly nature and my aversion to being stabbed by sharp objects, in my first three years of Arizona residency, I’ve come to feel comfort from the surrounding saguaro cacti. If you follow my blog, you know that. I’ve posted photos and a few poems about this fatherly tree-like species that is native to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico.

Saguaros grow slowly. Our little guy … let’s call him Sammy Saguaro … stands no more than six inches tall, yet he’s probably at least ten or fifteen years old. They can grow to be forty to sixty feet in height and live one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred years.

Of course, I’ll never see Sammy grow into that stature, but I’m happy to watch him develop slowly. I like the idea of his anticipated longevity. Especially in this age of COVID-19, it’s good to remind ourselves of the long arc of life … where we were, how far we’ve come, how many setbacks we’ve endured, how far we hope to grow in the future.

Like in the 1990s, when my mother would measure the heights of Nick and Kirk against the side of her St. Louis pantry door when we visited from Chicago. She knew her grandsons would grow and go places. She wanted to mark their progress, see the smiles on their faces when they saw how far they’d advanced since the previous pencil marking. Since the previous visit. So did I.

I still feel that way about my sons. Even though they are now in their thirties and fully grown physically, I can see them slowly expanding their reach. Stretching toward the sky in an uncertain world a little at a time.

Each time I talk with one of them over the phone, I realize how far they have come. How far they have to go. That’s what it means to be a father. That’s also why it’s important that Sammy is standing outside our back door.

In this vein of remembering and marking growth, in spite of the pain of 2020, I’m reminded of an historic moment that occurred five years ago. This is what I wrote in From Fertile Ground on June 29, 2015 from Mount Prospect, Illinois.

In the scheme of things, it marked a remarkable, sharp, positive turn in our nation’s complicated history. One I’ll never forget. One I hope is never rescinded.

***

It’s a cool and wet June morning. In our front yard, the sparrows are fighting for position to pluck seeds from the perch of our bird feeder, dangling from a branch of our river birch. On our deck in the back, the first orange blossom of the summer has appeared and opened on our hibiscus tree. More color, more beauty, more promise.

I’ve been feeling more joyful since last Friday when the Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples can now be married in all fifty states. This is a civil rights triumph of monumental proportions. For gay people everywhere in the United States–and for future generations who will be born into a more open society–there is now the same equal opportunity to marry the person they love.

The day after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, our friends Greg and Dan were married in Chicago. They had planned their marriage ceremony months ago to coincide with their twenty-fifth anniversary of when they became a couple. It was a boat ride on Lake Michigan with family and close friends.

Tom and I held hands on the top deck of the boat as we listened to them exchange their vows on a windswept-slightly cool but sunny Chicago afternoon. There were happy tears and raucous cheers for Greg and Dan, of course. It was their day and a long time in coming. But it was also our day to mark the occasion of a sharp positive turn in our nation’s complicated history.

Perhaps President Barack Obama best captured the spirit of this giant step forward immediately after the June 26, 2015 Supreme Court ruling. Appearing in the White House Rose Garden, he said:

This ruling is a victory for America. This decision affirms what millions of Americans already believe in their hearts. When all Americans are treated equal, we are all more free.

The Wonder of Purple Summer

In popular American culture, there is boundless emphasis on achieving success, material wealth, and happiness before you turn thirty.

That’s not a recent phenomenon. Consider every car ad you’ve ever seen that plays on a loop during the holidays with a cooing couple in love and big bow tied outside on the latest red, silver or black luxury sedan or SUV.

Yet, for most people, the premise is fraudulent and anxiety producing. In reality, it takes much longer (sometimes your entire life) to find your path, push your head above water financially and (if you’re lucky) discover some level of creative contentment.

For me, the monetary success didn’t come until my forties. Creative contentment came later. In my fifties. But it didn’t appear in an office or a cubicle. With a client or a colleague.

It began to surface ten years ago today … on June 19, 2010 … at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at the Center on Halsted in Chicago.

That night, as we prepared for two performances of Summer Lovin’ (our Pride concert), I found myself surrounded on stage by fifty new friends (with Windy City Gay Chorus and Aria) in Chicago’s thriving gay community. Diverse and talented people I had known for a mere three months.

At that moment, I didn’t know these kind cohorts–instrumental in my personal renaissance–would carry me across the creative threshold that night and become some of my most enduring friends. But that’s what happened for this member of the Windy City Gay Chorus for the next seven years.

I was smitten and felt my spring awakening (we were still a few days short of summer) when a circle enveloped us newbies, a stirring song (Walk Hand in Hand) swirled over and around me, and a red rose landed magically in my hand minutes before our 5 p.m. performance.

Then, on cue in the first act, we performed The Song of Purple Summer (written by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater) from the musical Spring Awakening.

It still makes me cry. It holds me captive.

***

And all shall fade
The flowers of spring
The world and all the sorrow
At the heart of everything
But still it stays
The butterfly sings
And opens purple summer
With the flutter of its wings
The earth will wave with corn
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
And all shall know the wonder of purple summer
And yet I wait
The swallow brings
A song too hard to follow
That no one else can sing
The fences sway
The porches swing
The clouds begin to thunder
Crickets wander, murmuring
The earth will wave with corn
The gray-fly choir will mourn
And mares will neigh with
Stallions that they mate, foals they’ve borne
And all shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder
I will sing the song of purple summer
All shall know the wonder of purple summer
***

On this night ten years later … in this age of tumult and fear … I feel the sadness and longing in this song.

But there is also comfort in this memory and the soaring voices of my Windy City friends.

In the spring of 2010, they ushered me to the wonder of purple summer.

 

Three Junes Ago

MountProspectHome_June2017

What is it about June? In 2017, we packed up our Illinois belongings and prepared to head west. Tom captured this photo of me taking pictures from the window of the smallest bedroom in our then Mount Prospect home the day we drove away.

Three years later, also in the sixth month of the year, we’re shuttling personal possessions back and forth to paint our two Arizona bedrooms. It likely should have been something we’d done before now, but a mild heart  attack, cardiac rehab, our creative impulses, general social upheaval, and other home improvements took precedence until June 2020.

This shall now be known as Day One of the Cucuzza Verde and Sprout Sherwin-Williams-color-branded era of our bedroom lives. The former and deeper green covers the masonry bricks running north and south through our condo. The latter and lighter complements with a soothing shade on the other three walls of each room. We also plan to paint our living room and sun room later this year. Colors? Still to be determined.

Following is an excerpt of An Unobstructed View, our story from three Junes ago. (My book about our journey is available through major online retailers.) At times, it’s still difficult for me to imagine the amount of change we endured to make it to Arizona and create the warmer and quieter life we want. The life we deserve in the colors we prefer.

It’s still a work in progress and too messy now to share photos, but our cozy little condo–with a ripening fig tree on the north side and a few containers of blooming desert roses on the south–is definitely our home.

Despite the triple-digit heat right now, it’s where we belong (plus a few cooling getaways to northern Arizona) in June, as well as the other eleven months.

***

As June began, I realized we were living at the intersection of Practicality and Continuity before we headed west.

There were possessions, which required careful thought and consideration. Tom decided to gift his father’s four-foot-tall German stein to his sister for sentimental reasons. I made arrangements with Kirk to pick up our oak pedestal kitchen table–a Johnson family heirloom–for his new apartment in Chicago.

It was difficult for me to part with Mom’s concrete birdbath, because Tom and I loved to watch the sparrows, finches and robins splash there in the rose garden in the corner of our backyard.

Even so, I gave it to my sister. I wanted to leave her a loving reminder about the respect for nature that runs through our blood and the nurturing way we partnered to care for our mother in her final days …

Before we left Mount Prospect, we hoisted my father’s World War II army locker into the trunk of our car. A smaller box of gardening items housed a pared-down collection of treasured ceramic pottery pieces my mother created and a jagged, red-speckled, five-by-seven-inch chunk of granite from my grandfather’s Huntersville, North Carolina, farm.

I wanted to deposit this small reminder of fertile ground from my childhood in a large terracotta pot with a prickly pear cactus Tom and I had planted outside the backdoor of our Arizona condo.

In the back seat, we nestled our African violets and peace lily in a laundry basket next to a clear, square plastic bin of items too precious or fragile to entrust to the movers: box #27 in Tom’s journal identified as Wedding–9/6/2014.

With our marriage memorabilia positioned in its proper place, it was time to bid farewell to Mount Prospect and depart for Scottsdale in our stacked Sonata.

As we passed the house keys to the new owners, we decided to spend six nights in area hotels. We both felt the tug of gravity from our life there. We needed time and space to say so long to Chicago-area family and friends.

On July 5, 2017, after a goodbye breakfast with Tom’s sister, we were set to soar from suburban Chicago. It was the last day of my fifties. The last day I would call Illinois my home. I didn’t know it also would be the last day of my pre-coronary life.

 

 

 

Thelma’s Rosy Response

Stories of war, like global pandemics, aren’t only about those fighting on the front lines. There are the lovers, the brothers, the sisters, who worry and wait. They wonder about the worst and hope for the best.

***

World War II was winding down, while Walter’s older sister Thelma waited five long weeks in eastern Missouri for his next words. She didn’t receive his May 16, 1945 letter and photo of him linking arms with a somber Czechoslovakian girl until Friday, June 22.

Evidently, the Army bundled it with two others he wrote on June 10 and 12. The U.S. military transported all three across the Atlantic Ocean with a sea of other correspondence from service men and women stationed in Europe.

In 1945, Thelma was a single-and-sentimental-thirty-six-year-old secretary. By day, she worked at a branch of the Kroger Grocery & Baking Company in St. Louis. After completing her shift, she boarded the streetcar to 4218 Labadie Avenue on the north side of town. That’s where she lived in a modest, two-story, rented home with Louise and Albert Johnson, her mother and father.

My aunt was a gardening guru. A real rose and ballroom lover. Later, in the 1960’s when she and her husband Ralph owned a suburban St. Louis home, it was her ritual to lead us on a parade through her backyard to admire her flowers.

Through that gardening lens, I can imagine her coming home from Kroger on Friday, June 22, 1945, kicking off her shoes, flipping through the mail, and eagerly opening Walter’s letters while waltzing through her parents’ postage-stamp-size Victory Garden. That summer it might have been brimming with vegetables and herbs (perhaps even a few ruby-red roses) designed to supplement food rations and boost morale.

No matter how close or far my fantasy is from reality, I have in my possession proof that Thelma penned a rosy response to her brother later that night in an attempt to bolster his sagging spirit.

Here’s an excerpt of that letter, dated June 22, 1945 and postmarked June 26, 1945. She sent it via air mail from Chicago, Illinois. Incidentally, the Drake Hotel Thelma refers to, just east of North Michigan Avenue on Chicago’s Gold Coast, still operates today. It’s a few blocks south of Oak Street Beach, where Thelma and Vi likely tanned themselves that weekend on the shore of Lake Michigan.

***

Dearest Walter, 

Your fine letters of June 10 and 12 arrived today and found us happy and anxious for word from you. Also, we received today those wonderful pictures taken by you in Czechoslovakia. They are really “super” Wal and that little girl is a doll. Vi was here for supper and she too was pleased and happy by seeing you again … if only in a photograph. You look thinner, Wal–but as Vi said–he’s regained his figure and looks wonderfully handsome, younger, and really on the beam. We surely are proud of our dearest Walter boy, and justly so. I have the negative you sent in a recent letter and shall have it developed too … it looks like another Czech girl, right? …

Well Wal, Vi and I leave in the a.m. for Chicago and since the weather has taken a change for the good … we hope to have nice sunshine and a chance to get a tan on the beach and am sure we’ll find the “Drake” the finest hotel in Chicago as it’s accessible to everything …

I am enclosing some snapshots taken on Mother’s Day, Wal, and with them comes all our love to you, our dearest and most missed member. I hope you get to be around Paris for a while … so you can take it all in … and I’m hoping too you’ll be assigned to occupation forces even though it would delay our meeting it would ensure its being permanent when it did come …

With all the love of your loving but lonesome family and many thanks for the fine pictures (and I hope there’ll be more later–I can send film so just ask Wal and its yours) until a little later then its ever and always.

Your loving sister,

Thelma xxxxx

***

I’m not sure if Walter, my father, ever made it to Paris that summer. But when Thelma wrote her letter six weeks after V-E Day, there was the frightening possibility he would be shipped east to help fight the war still raging in the Pacific Theatre.

Instead, he returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Monticello in July 1945, carrying his dog tags, nightmares, a foot locker filled with possessions, and a fistful of family love letters. Dad received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army on October 11, 1945.

This is one of the photos Thelma enclosed with her June 22, 1945 message. Thelma–the ever-exuberant, flower enthusiast–is on the right, smiling behind her corsage. Violet, my father’s twin sister, is on the left. On the back, Thelma wrote:

To our dearest brother Walter with all the deepest love of his adoring sisters

Violet & Thelma, May 13, 1945

VioletThelma_May13_1945

Splash

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It’s a long story, but true. For much of my professional life, I became a master of jumping ship. Making a quick splash in a promising job. Then, when it didn’t work out, finding and throwing myself a life-preserver that would rescue me until I could paddle to the next station in life.

Four months selling newspaper ad space in Jackson, Mississippi in 1980. That was a disaster. Four years writing mundane retail ad copy for Sears in Chicago. The friends I made there–Janet, in particular (our Sears years began on the same day)–kept me afloat.

Fifteen months with a small ad agency in Oak Brook, Illinois. Eighteen months crafting copy and PR strategies in starched shirts and suits for the high-powered Hill & Knowlton just off of Michigan Avenue. Six months with Weiser Group on the other side of town. Then, another deep breath before going back under water.

***

When I reemerged in 1988, I was holding onto another life preserver at Covia as a PR writer. This time I stayed for five years of creative moments peppered with senior executive hostility. The silver lining? Another lasting friendship–thank you, Mary Jane–and a few agonizing business trips to Tucson, Arizona. Dusty foreshadowing for a desert life … not a vanishing mirage … that would appear on the horizon three decades later without corporate shackles.

In 1993, I began a three-and-a-half year sprint underwater as a communication consultant for Towers Perrin in the Loop. That was followed by my first attempt as a freelance communication consultant. Sandwiched in between? Eighteen months as a communication manager for Ameritech and another authentic friendship–thank you, Bill–before diving into a misguided pool of piranhas at PricewaterhouseCoopers. That debacle of disarray lasted ten months.

On to February 2001. I tried my hand again as a freelance writer and training facilitator again. Things were going swimmingly until September 11. My business dried up over the next several months, but somehow I was able to tread water in the deep end.

***

In August of 2002, I resurfaced in Schaumburg, Illinois, as Director of HR Communication for Zurich North America, the Swiss-based insurance firm. The pay was good. While working there, I met another lifelong friend, Jillian (years later, Tom and I would ask her to be the officiant at our wedding). Still I felt like a fish out of water.

In spite of being “out” in various corners of my life, I was gaining weight and floundering personally at Zurich, another conservative company. Yes, I was going through the motions for all the right reasons. Making money to pay child support and contribute to Nick’s and Kirk’s college educations. But, at the end of each day, the feeling was the same. I was an outsider living in a straight world.

I realize now I wasn’t escaping jobs simply because I found them boring or overly taxing. I was casting myself into unchartered waters, because the stifling world of work and its many layers of homophobia–in addition to my own inability at that time to love my gay self–threatened my closeted existence. Think of it as a kind of toxic cocktail consumed for decades. A mix of liquid resiliency stirred by intense anxiety and a fear of entrapment.

***

In early 2006, I left Zurich. Something new happened for me, a gay man ordinarily adrift in choppy corporate waters.

In February or March, a search firm called with an enticing possibility. Hewitt Associates, a multi-national human resources firm, was angling for seasoned consultants to join their communication practice in Lincolnshire, Illinois.  I decided to turn the page and pursue a new gig.

Hewitt’s hiring process was rigorous. A few rounds of intense interviews. Thorough discussions with six or eight senior executives and consultants I would be working with. Strangely, I remember feeling entirely at ease. Perhaps it was because I had decided I would “out” myself at the start and ask a burning question: “Can a gay man like me be successful working here?”

I could tell Lori, the practice leader, was surprised by my forthrightness. But she didn’t hesitate. She and Robyn, my future boss, insisted I could make a lasting go of it. So, in early April, I left Zurich and found myself unpacking my belongings in my Hewitt office. On Day One, I placed pictures of all the men in my life … my partner Tom, my sons Nick and Kirk … on my desk next to that of Maggie, our sweet basset hound.

Hewitt had the reputation as an industry leader with high standards for excellence and integrity. Along the way, I learned from my new colleagues that earlier in its history, when the company was privately held, the organization famously insisted upon sending its consultants to “charm school” to ensure uniformity in technique and approach. So, clearly this wasn’t the free-wheeling atmosphere you might expect I needed to find my stride.

Even so, from the start, I never veered from my true story. Quickly, my mates treated me with respect. I earned their confidence as a friendly, no-nonsense, collaborative colleague … forever at home brainstorming themes, concepts and brands in the comfy confines and chairs of the Creative Zone.

In those days, to encourage longevity with the organization, Hewitt offered a retention incentive called Splash. Essentially, for every five years you worked for the company, you would receive one week of paid Splash … a mini-sabbatical away from the bumps and grinds of a busy professional life … in addition to any regular accrued vacation time.

This program–along with the company’s ingrained culture of personal closeness and trust–produced dozens of long-service employees. Folks who worked hard and played hard together … many of them for twenty years or more.

The first few years passed quickly for me at Hewitt. I worked long hours for clients, who demanded excellence and timely turnaround. I mentored a few younger associates along the way. In 2008, I moved with three colleagues into the Chicago office to help build the communication practice in the Loop. Over the next several years, Robyn, Dina, Kim–three more lifelong friends–and I celebrated project successes. We endured a few failures, too. But they were good years. Obama was president and I was a happier man at Hewitt.

One morning, in July 2010, we all received a startling email. Aon Corporation, the global insurance and consulting firm, was buying Hewitt. In short order, vestiges of the old Hewitt culture … the constant collegiality, the “I’ve-got-your-back” spirit of oneness, the splendid Splash program … all vanished. Fortunately though, most of the relationships with friends there didn’t.

I logged billable hours for another three-and-a-half years as an employee of Aon Hewitt, before leaving in late January 2014 … worn from all the heavy lifting and my mother’s long, slow decline and death the year before. Little did I know I’d soon be resuming my professional life on my terms. I’d be writing my own, unvarnished personal stories. Soon From Fertile Ground fell out of my brain and landed on the page.

Since moving on, I’ve stayed in touch with many of my Hewitt friends on line. I still feel their love and encouragement. We root for each other from afar. Here in the desert, I’ve kept a box of cards they gave me when I retired. Each one reminds me of my eight Hewitt years–perhaps my best corporate chapter of all–before I dived headfirst into this literary life with enough money for Tom and me to live simply. But without having to ever again define myself by the salary I once earned.

As you’ve probably guessed, I never realized the benefits of Hewitt’s Splash. By the time I celebrated my five-year anniversary, Aon had dismantled the program. But, as karma would dictate, I’ve created my own version of Splash with Tom in Arizona. An open schedule. The unearthing of three books and an ever-evolving blog. A sandy sabbatical seasoned with swims.

For the last month or so, there haven’t been any opportunities to jump in the water and plunge ahead into the blue unknown. Like most of the world, our pools have been closed due to the global pandemic.

But on May 1, our community watering hole reopened under tight regulations. Only lap swimming is allowed. Most of the snow birds have flown home, so that’s a reasonable solution for Scottsdale, Arizona. There are fewer people to steer clear of here in the spring and summer months, because triple digits at 3 p.m. have become the norm.

For each of the past three mornings, I’ve submerged myself feet first, back in the water before 8 a.m. The air temperature is perfect at that hour … seventy or seventy-five degrees … and the water is refreshing. Just right for getting my stroke and fueling my energy for this story, which appears exactly two years since I began my blogging journey.

Fifteen or twenty minutes each morning is all it takes for me to feel free again, gliding through the water. Thirty laps of swimming from one side of the pool to the other. Then I dry off and come back inside to write my stories and share the companionship of my loving husband in the quiet of the Sonoran Desert.

That’s really all I need to make a splash.