Tag: St. Louis

Oh Very Young and Less Fortunate Men

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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Anyway, in the 1970s I was a withdrawn teen and she hadn’t yet sharpened her sensitivity.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?

For All the Soldiers on the Hill

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Every year at this time thoughts of my father resurface. Mostly because Veterans Day is drawing near. Dad served during World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. But also because he died in the eleventh month of the year. A second heart attack took him on November 26, 1993. It was the day after Thanksgiving nearly twenty-six years ago.

Now that I live in Arizona, it’s less convenient for me to visit Walter Johnson’s grave at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery south of St. Louis. But I have no difficulty summoning vivid recollections of him from afar.

I remember a tender moment between us sometime in the 1980s when he asked me if I liked the idea of him one day being buried in a national cemetery alongside other soldiers who’d served during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. (Unfortunately, the list goes on.) I told him I thought it would be the perfect, peaceful resting place for him. A proud patriot. A man who loved his country. A citizen who served it to the best of his ability.

Over the years, I’ve been inspired to tell Dad’s story. This unfulfilled poet of good intentions–this complicated, compassionate and troubled comrade, deeply affected by the horrors of war and bipolar disorder–appears in all three of my books in various forms.

Recently, I came across a poem in a file of prose I’ve written over the past thirty years. At the time I penned this one in 1996, my grief for Walter Johnson was fresh. I had just visited his grave. I was searching for answers. Still reeling from my failed first marriage. Doing my best to raise two young sons. Finally coming out of the closet. Beginning to connect the disparate strands of my emerging life.

As it turns out, the passage of time (along with greater understanding, acceptance and forgiveness) helped me heal my wounds, find my path, and build an integrated life. I’m thankful for that eventual transformation. Walter wouldn’t have understood all of it, but he would have kissed me on the forehead and loved me anyway. He would have cheered me on during these late-in-life writing years I’ve been fortunate to find.

I’m grateful for the poetic propensity that came from this one particular soldier. Yes, he is long gone. His physical remains rest under the shade of a large tree not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. But his imperfect imprint will always appear in my writing. This is for him.

***

The Soldier on the Hill

I talked with the soldier on the hill today,

We sat, we cried, we laughed, we prayed.

The bells rang true, the trees stood free,

A breeze swept past to welcome me.

 

Shadows filled the landscape then,

Tempers rose without his pen.

Snowflakes fell, the grass turned green,

All without a change of scene.

 

Now the soldier rests with them,

Hand in hand—all blessed again.

They greet another trailing soul,

Who makes the journey past the knoll.

 

August 27, 1996

***

More broadly, I’m thankful for all of the soldiers on the hill. Many of them lost their lives in battle and had little or no time to discover a path or realize their dreams. We must always honor their service and sacrifices, past and present.

After Grief Swallowed Me Whole

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In October 2015, I was a fixture in front of my laptop. I spent endless hours painstakingly polishing the final draft of my first book, From Fertile Ground. It’s the story of my journey after my mother’s death in 2013.

With help from a trail of letters and diary entries my mother and grandfather left behind, writing renewed my spirit. It led me out of the darkness and propelled me forward. After grief swallowed me whole, I finally reemerged and rediscovered sunlight at the end of a numb and winding road.

Intuitively, I realized I needed to share my story openly with the world. That of a gay man, loving husband, devoted father and grateful son searching for answers. I dreamed it would help others find a new path and navigate their way through grief.

Not long after I published From Fertile Ground in February 2016, friends and strangers began to post reviews online. They described how they were moved by the book and its lessons of love and loss. My dream was coming true.

By the end of 2017, things had gotten rather quiet. That’s what happens with books and creative accomplishments. They come and go no matter how much you want them to linger. They flash across the sky like shooting stars and then fall off the radar.

Fortunately, every once in a while, there is a glimmer or twinkle to remind you of their importance long after they first appear. That happened last week when I read a new review posted on Goodreads and Amazon … a review that reminded me why I decided to publish the book in the first place:

“This book is a life compass if you are experiencing loss or disruption in your family.

From Fertile Ground came to me at precisely the right time in my life. Mark’s perspective and reflection helped me to navigate loss and disruption in my own life. I pulled from his examples and experiences to temper my feelings and expectations. I ultimately gained a great deal of comfort and reassurance from his novel, and I continue to think back on it often as my life continues to evolve.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed getting to know Mark and his family. They are relatable people demonstrating courage, compassion, and love. The poem he wrote and included that was a tribute to his mom was one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed seeing his relationship with his children evolve from childhood to adulthood.”

This is the kind of glorious feedback that motivates me to keep sharing stories. To shine a light on truths … both personal and universal. To bring a little love, inspiration, comfort and reassurance to a world that really needs it. To devote time each day to my literary passion. To pen the next poem and dust off that fictionalized piece that I keep going back to. To live the life of a writer. It’s what I was meant to do. It is my fertile ground.

Bavarian Bliss

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Munich  (“Home of the Monks”) is much more than beer and pretzels.

The capital of Bavaria and the third largest city in Germany has deep roots. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they wind and trail back to the Benedictine monastery at Tegernsee, which was founded in 750.

Nearly twelve hundred years later, more than forty percent of Munich’s buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing raids during World War II. Today the city is a hub in the banking industry and home to the annual two-week Oktoberfest celebration, which ends on the first Sunday in October.

My husband and I toured Munich on September 15. It was a quiet Sunday about a week before all of the beer-laden and oompapa festivities of Oktoberfest. All of the shops were closed, but that didn’t faze us. We were content to ogle stylish Oktoberfest apparel through storefront glass and soak up summer temperatures. We couldn’t have ordered a more perfect day to navigate the normally bustling Marienplatz on foot.

We craned our necks skyward when the Glockenspiel in the New Town Hall played promptly at 11 a.m. Afterwards, we discovered a charming cafe and dined outside. We filled our bottles with fresh water streaming from a city fountain. Next, we were ready for a defining moment: climbing to the top of St. Peter’s Church for An Unobstructed View of the city’s historic skyline.

At this point, I realized how far Tom and I had come. I’m not talking about the actual distance from our home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to Munich, Germany, via a congested connection through Montreal with a sea of tired travelers. I’m referring to our personal journey.

After my cardiac event in St. Louis on July 6, 2017, the notion of climbing 299 steps skyward anywhere (much less in a tight space with few opportunities to pause) seemed implausible. Yet, without fanfare, on the last Sunday of summer in Munich two years later, Tom and I paid three euros a piece to an attendant for the experience of saying we had done it. We entered the church for the pleasure of mounting steep and circuitous steps. We joined a trail of able-bodied adventurers, who flowed up and down around us.

To the top of the church spire we climbed. Fifteen minutes later we arrived at the pinnacle. We took a deep breath or two and stepped out into an open-air observation area, where steel bars shielded us.

Together we wrapped our way around the circumference of the tower. We gazed across the horizon. We took a few more extended and grateful breaths. We captured a series of photos of a storied city.

Without the effects of beer or pretzels, we found our Bavarian bliss.

 

 

That’s Not My Bag, Baby

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In reality, it is my bag. I just wanted to say it wasn’t, so I could quote Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery from the 1997 movie that spoofs 1960s spy films. This commemorative swingin’ sixties Woodstock bag, while not remotely vintage, was a groovy gift from a friend about ten years ago. She knew how much my husband and I love pop culture from that era. Primarily because we were children of the sixties.

Truth be told, now that we are fully ensconced in our sixties, Tom and I schlep this colorful tote bag with us on fall, winter, and spring Saturday mornings when we shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at the Scottsdale Farmers Market here in Arizona.

By now, I’m sure you’ve realized this Baby Boomer bag is nothing more than a lame prop for me to tell a story about the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival … billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music” … a pivotal moment in popular music history which actually stretched into four days (August 15-18, 1969) of peace, rock, sex, drugs, rain, mud and traffic on and around Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York.

The irony of me writing this story is that I have no personal connection to Woodstock. No substantive recollection of it either. It wasn’t so much that Woodstock wasn’t my bag. It simply wasn’t on my radar as a twelve-year-old boy living in the steamy suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, in 1969. Perhaps I was a little too young. Or maybe just a little too out of touch with what was happening outside my immediate world.

My focus was on other things closer to home. Mostly, following my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, collecting baseball cards and creating my own canvas to obsessively scribe the scores of all twenty-four major league baseball teams on it every day from April to September of 1969. As I described in my book Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, by the end of the regular season, I had recorded 3,888 handwritten ball scores and squeezed them onto one giant rolled up piece of paper!

You can see I had no time or inclination to join the wave of Woodstock worshipers from afar. Even if I had, my Lawrence-Welk-loving parents had different ideas of what constituted popular music … a-oney-and-a-twoy-and-a … and they controlled the TV dial in our household.

It would be another thirty years before I’d really see and hear Woodstock. The moment of enlightenment came in the form of a grainy VHS tape of the 1970 film that won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. I sat with my future husband on the love seat in his Schaumburg-Illinois condo. Together we immersed ourselves in the actual performances, interviews with some of the artists, and candid footage of the fans.

Thanks to the film and the resourcefulness of my movie-loving husband, I got to see and hear Richie Havens open the show and Jimi Hendrix close it on the same well-traveled stage before a sea of soaked teens. Though it had taken me thirty years longer than the rest of the country, I had finally closed the gap in my knowledge about the “Three Days of Peace and Music” in mid-August 1969 that would come to define the counterculture movement of our generation.

 

 

 

To See It All Clearly

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I was wearing broken blended bifocals when my husband Tom and I arrived at our new home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on July 12, 2017. The frames had cracked in St. Louis during our July 6 cardiac ordeal there. Then, on the evening of July 10, as we prepared to check into our hotel room in Weatherford, Oklahoma, they proceeded to fall apart. The lenses landed on the counter in a clatter. I sighed and shrugged as Tom, the front desk attendant and I took turns taping the pieces back together.

Like the death of my smart phone heading south from Chicago to St. Louis earlier in our journey, it was just the latest mishap on our way west from one home to another … the latest coincidental casualty in the Bermuda Triangle of my mild heart attack (an oxymoron far less laughable than jumbo shrimp) on my sixtieth birthday in the city where I was born.

Fortunately, we arrived safely in Arizona less than a week after a cardiac swat team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis removed the blockage in the left side of my heart and inserted two sparkling stents for good measure. By the middle of July, Tom and I found The Frame Doctor in Phoenix. For sixty bucks, he was able to salvage my lenses (they were undamaged) and insert them (a much less delicate procedure than the one with my back on a gurney back in St. Louis) into a new, somewhat stylish, set of frames that served me well in my first two years as an aspiring Sonoran Desert rat.

But I began to notice some changes in my vision recently. So, in July I visited my new ophthalmologist for an annual eye exam. He confirmed what I already knew. My vision had changed. He told me I needed a stronger prescription and a new pair of eyeglasses. I picked them up on Tuesday.

Perhaps it’s strangely poetic that the mangled glasses that got me here … the glasses that made it possible for me to write An Unobstructed View and tell my stories here about my first two years in Arizona … have now been retired. They have become my back ups. The more powerful ones you see above, straddling my latest book, have taken their place. I’m counting on them to do their job in my blended bifocal world. Propped on my nose, they will accompany me wherever I go.

I’ll need them to see it all clearly … every memorable and not-so-memorable moment, every stunning Scottsdale sunset and monsoon storm, every word I read and write on the road that is life’s journey.

 

 

 

 

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.