Tag: Parents

Oh Very Young and Less Fortunate Men

Camelback_Oct2019

At this stage of life, I have more time and space to reflect on the fragility and inequities of life. When I hit the trail for a hike or catch a glimpse of the jagged edges of Camelback Mountain, I sometimes ponder the plights of less fortunate men and less developed versions of the man I’ve become.

Recently, without notice, a Sonoran time machine swooped down and transported me from the desert. Back to south suburban St. Louis and my blue-denim-bell-bottom memories. Jerry and Joey (not their real names) lived near me on the same cul-de-sac street and the Oh Very Young prognostications of Cat Stevens looped through my brain.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

You’re only dancin’ on this earth for a short while …

It was a weekend morning in the spring of 1974. I sat at the kitchen table, finishing up my last few bites of scrambled eggs and toast. My over-worked and under-appreciated mother washed the breakfast dishes. Over one shoulder, she blurted a provocative and unexpected question in my direction: “Mark, did you know Jerry is a practicing homosexual?”

Like most teens, I was bound up with insecurity. If I’d been less repressed, more freewheeling—or at sixteen had an ounce of awareness or comfort with my budding gayness—the idea of “practice” sex with an older boy down the street would have intrigued me. But at that moment I had no clue how to respond to my mother’s audacious question. I just shrugged my shoulders and muttered something like “Yeah, I think I’ve heard he might be.”

It didn’t occur to me that she might be fishing to learn about my sexuality. I just knew Jerry’s mother had died when he was young and his father, brothers and sisters had been left to make sense of her early exit. Whenever I walked by the front of their home, I saw the heaviness of their hearts had caused the foundation and the trees around it to sag.

I’ve written a lot about my mother. She was smart, resilient and courageous. Many years later, she left me with her legacy of wise letters. But back in the 1970s, we weren’t approaching that. We were nearly three decades away from the profound sense of respect and understanding we would construct during her eighties and I would witness  the love and deep regard she felt for my future husband and me.

Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity. More specifically, like most parents then (and sadly many now), the implications of homosexuality and the image of two men engaged in mutually satisfying love frightened her. The word homosexual cast a shadow of shame, discomfort, darkness and isolation. Of course, without knowing it, I was absorbing the uninformed views about gay people coming through all sorts of channels–parents and neighbors, aunts and uncles, classmates and coaches, media and popular culture, etc. 

I will never forget that trauma. Pushed and bullied down middle school hallways. Labeled a faggot for wearing my favorite purple sweater vest, a gift from my mother. As you might surmise, I learned it was best not to wear purple or pink or challenge society’s narrow mold of masculinity in the 1970s. It would take decades for me to love myself and create an unapologetic life as a gay man comfortable in pastels.

This is a prelude to tell you that, in addition to my personal sexual identity struggles, I felt sad and angry hearing and seeing Jerry and other young gay men ostracized for their nature, mannerisms and social awkwardness.

I don’t know where Jerry lives or anything about his adult life in 2019. But I now realize Jerry was a trailblazer. I owe a lot to the Jerrys of that time. Despite neighborhood chatter and suspicions, they were courageous enough to risk ridicule. To be true to themselves in the 1970s.

***

The story of Joey has nothing to do with societal pressures, sexuality or suburban mores. It’s a cataclysmic tragedy.

Joey was the blonde boy who lived next door. We were the same age. As youngsters, from kindergarten through fifth grade we waited for the same bus at the end of our street. He loved to roughhouse with his golden retriever when he came home from school. In sixth grade—lunch boxes in hand—we walked together to a new elementary school, built to handle the overflow of Baby Boomers.

Throughout the 1960s, once school ended in June, Joey and I raced to the top of the street with our  neighborhood crew to play baseball in a vacant cemetery lot. We stayed there until our mothers or fathers stood on their front porches, cupped their hands to their mouths, and called our names for dinner.

In high school, Joey and I went our separate ways. I didn’t feel our connection any more. He was a mechanical guy. I wasn’t. I had a knack for stringing words together. He didn’t. He loved tinkering under cars. I loved singing on stage. While he developed a passion for playing the drums, my interest in the clarinet waned. In August of 1975, we continued down divergent paths. We left home for college at different Missouri schools.

Through it all, I felt no physical attraction for Joey, but I envied his apparently idyllic Please-Don’t-Eat-the-Daisies family life. Complete with the faux-wood-paneled Country Squire station wagon parked in their driveway, which I watched them load annually for summer vacations. Joey’s family seemed to embody the ideal of suburban happiness:  two friendly and well-liked parents, two popular daughters who went on to become cheerleaders, two masculine and mechanically-inclined sons.

On a horrific Saturday in May 1976, everything changed. I came home from my seasonal job as a roller coaster operator at Six Flags and found my mother sobbing on the living room couch. She told me Joey had been killed in an accident. He was riding shotgun without a seat belt on the way home from his first year at college when the car he was in collided with another vehicle.

Spring flowers were blooming outside that day, but inside I was numb and devastated like everyone on our block. One cruel moment had ended Joey’s life and transformed his family’s home from the center of happiness into the epicenter of grief.

A few days later my mother, father, sister and I attended Joey’s wake. I didn’t know what to say to his bereaved father and mother. But I summoned a few inadequate words and gripped their brittle arms as we passed a pair of drum mallets stretched across Joey’s closed casket. It was frightening evidence of teenage mortality.

In 1980, I moved to the Chicago area. Whenever I returned to St. Louis to visit my parents and boyhood home, I thought of Joey and his family. Scampering in their yard with their dog as they prepared to load up their station wagon for the next trip. When Joey died, that era ended. Soon after, the rest of the family moved away.

Forty years have come and gone. Joey is on my mind again.  Perhaps because he didn’t live long enough to pursue the next path at the base of rugged buttes. His Oh Very Young life ended back in the rolling Missouri hills without any chance to explore the west or have a spouse to share it.

Somehow, through good fortune, I’ve lapped his lifespan more than three times. After surviving a heart attack on my sixtieth birthday, I’m rounding the bend on the fourth lap here in Arizona.

For all the Jerrys and Joeys who have come and gone, I must keep telling my stories. I must make the most of the extra time I’ve been granted.

Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?

The Little Red Wagon (Part Two)

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m traveling during much of September. While I’m away, I hope you’ll enjoy this story (divided in two parts) about a different sort of journey. The Little Red Wagon first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book I wrote and published in 2017 about the ups and downs of my early years in St. Louis, Missouri.

***

… I wanted to believe Dad, but his recovery was slow in spite of his desire to regain his previous vitality. When he returned home in mid-October, he was depressed and agitated. He wasn’t able to return to work.

As the bills mounted, Mom felt the financial pressure grow. She could see that it would be months or years before he was able to resume working. So she began looking for a full-time job to begin replacing his lost income. Five months later, she found one as a stenographer at the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center, earning $4,000 a year.

During the next several years, I was filled with anxiety and uncertainty as I watched Dad struggle. I could see he had lost his bearings. He was drifting away physically and emotionally. But I also observed my mother’s resolve and resiliency under duress as she worked to balance her life at work and home.

In the summer of 1963, our ’59 Plymouth sedan died. Our family couldn’t afford to buy another car for several weeks. Fortunately, Mom was able to get a ride to and from her job with a coworker, but we were left without any conventional transportation to go to the store on weekends. That didn’t stop us. Mom realized we had another set of wheels parked beneath the house that could serve us in a pinch.

While Dad was convalescing at home on Saturday mornings, Mom, my sister Diane, and I pulled our slow-but-steady Radio Flyer — our little red wagon with four trusty wheels — behind us for a mile each way down and up the hills to Yorkshire Plaza. It was at the corner of Laclede Station Road and Watson Road. Our destination was Jansen’s IGA.

Jansen’s was the closest place to our home where we could buy meat, milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables. It was an ordinary supermarket in a strip mall just off Route 66. After we bought a few bags of essentials for the coming week, we loaded them into our wagon and walked next door to the Kresge’s five-and-dime department store. Mom bought shampoo, soap, paper supplies, and other inexpensive household items there.

Our last stop at the strip mall — and my favorite on our weekly little red wagon tour — was Lubeley’s Bakery. It was a pastry-lover’s paradise. When we stepped through the doors of Lubeley’s, it felt as if we left our money worries and Dad’s illness behind. I was immediately swept away by a warm wave of freshly baked bread, gooey butter cake, sugar cookies, and yummy glazed donuts. Lubeley’s made such a positive impression on me that I recall saying to Mom late one morning, “I think I want to be a baker when I grow up.”

Mom pondered my revelation. With all the love and restraint she could muster, she confided, “Honey, you’ll have to get up awfully early if you want to be a baker. She knew I loved glazed donuts. She also knew how much I loved to sleep.

Eventually, we completed our Saturday shopping. We left Lubeley’s, Kresge’s, and Jansen’s behind. We climbed the hills of Laclede Station Road. We returned home with our little red wagon filled with groceries and a few waxed white paper bags. One contained two fresh loaves of bread. Inside the other was something you might consider non-essential for a family struggling to make ends meet: a half-dozen delectable glazed Lubeley’s donuts.

I firmly believe those heavenly baked goods kept our family afloat. We were hungry for security beyond the scope of our wagon. The donuts gave us hope that Dad would feel better, that he really did have a lot of living to do, and that one day we would see order restored in our lives.

We all craved the peace we deserved and the goodness of a glazed escape with a hole in the middle.

The Little Red Wagon (Part One)

boy in brown hoodie carrying red backpack while walking on dirt road near tall trees
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m traveling during much of September. While I’m away, I hope you’ll enjoy this story (divided in two parts) about a different sort of journey. The Little Red Wagon first appeared in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book I wrote and published in 2017 about the ups and downs of my early years in St. Louis, Missouri.

***

It was my second week of kindergarten and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962 — September 13 to be exact — I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.

Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened up the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board. The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.

I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the backyard fence.

“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.

I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.

Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month.

During the next thirty days, my mother, sister and I visited Dad several times each week. I remember boosting myself up to sit on the edge of his bed. I swiveled my head to watch portions of unidentifiable westerns and night-time dramas on a grainy black-and-white TV mounted high above on the facing wall across the room.

Every few minutes, the nurses trooped into Dad’s room to adjust his bed, prop him up higher on his pillow, bring pills and water in paper cups, and deliver trays of bland food and a bonus cup of ice cream Dad wasn’t allowed to eat. Instead of throwing away the ice cream, he gave it to me as a treat.

Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long — unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames.

But, Dad insisted he would rebound. Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”

The World Was Our Oyster

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My mother, Helen F. Johnson (the F was for Ferrell), sent me more than a thousand letters during her lifetime from her home in St. Louis. After she died in January 2013, reading them gave me comfort and strength.

Each letter contained a treasure trove of information: personal anecdotes, parenting and investment advice, and countless words of love and encouragement. (They and my grandpa Ferrell’s farm-life diaries from North Carolina inspired me to write and publish my first memoir, From Fertile Ground. It’s a story about love, loss and leaving your mark on the world.)

Inside Helen’s letter dated April 1, 2002, was this photo of her with my dad, Walter Johnson. Someone captured this image in Texas seventy years ago today (July 26th, 1949) on my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday. How do I know for sure? Because Helen wrote about it in her letter. Here’s a snippet of what she told me that day.

“… Walt and me when we were young and happy and the world was our oyster. It was taken on my 26th birthday at Club Seven Oaks–off the highway about halfway between San Antonio, TX and Austin, TX. We had been married 10 months. We had 14 happy years before he had his heart attack that took all our lives through some difficult times … It helps me to look at us then and remember there were some good years. Few people live a life without difficulties–something we learn as we live and age.”

Today, on what would have been my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday, the best way I know of celebrating her life, wisdom, and passion for letter writing, is to share her story … really our story … with the world. To that end, on July 26, 27 and 28, you can download a free Kindle copy of From Fertile Ground on Amazon.  I feature many more of Helen’s letters in my book.