Not So Good a Gay ManFrank M. Robinson
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For Craig, Eric, Tom, David, Ron, Steven, and others of the 636,000 who died of AIDS because their government didn’t give a damn.
Richard C. Leo died in a car crash driving from Anchorage to Talkeetna the day before Christmas Eve 2013. He moved to Alaska thirty years ago, a land he came to love; married and raised his kids there. Recently he heard of a corporation planning on building the largest dam in North America in the middle of the Denali preserve, the last untrammeled wilderness in the United States. Rick rallied the opposition, wrote articles and gave speeches against it, and pressured the politicians who could do something about it. He won. The dam has been postponed for a year and there’s doubt it will ever be built. Rick was an editor, a writer, and, in the best sense of the word, a rabble-rouser—a latter-day muckraker.
For the editors and writers who may read this: Richard Leo was one of you and attention must be paid.
If you don’t know who you are, perhaps you’ve forgotten who you were.
This is going to be a very long letter. I wanted to write it so you would know what it was really like to be a gay man before and after Stonewall and today, when same-sex marriage had become the law in California and a number of other states.
My mother was a saint—most mothers are, but my mother really did deserve sainthood in the pantheon of mothers. She had to divorce her husband after 1929, the start of the Great Depression, which left her alone with three children. Another marriage was probably the way to go, but during the Depression a single woman with three boys was not a hot marriage prospect.
She finally married a man who had a job at a bank and made real (though not much) money, which in the Depression made him golden. He had two sons of his own so it was a marriage of convenience for both of them. She would keep house for her husband and five boys, cook the meals, do the dishes and the laundry, make the beds, and sleep with a man she didn’t love.
If she wanted to keep her family together, she didn’t have much choice.
Her background was hardly a bed of roses. She had been abandoned by her mother and “adopted”—not legally—by a retired opera singer, “Grandma” Edmonds, and her partner, Clara Mae Leighton. Miss Edmonds taught singing, Clara Mae the trumpet. My mother did the housework.
At seventeen, when she reached the age of “awareness” and began to suspect the nature of the relationship between Edmonds and Leighton, they married her off to a charming Canadian named Raymond Robinson. He was, probably, the first man she had ever fallen in love with. (Back then, at seventeen, a girl’s experience with the opposite sex was usually not all that great.)
Happy ending, right? Not quite. Robinson was an improvident bastard and couldn’t take care of his family. He fancied himself an artist and tried to make a living painting portraits of people based on their photographs. He wasn’t very successful at it and my mother had to cook our meals over the gas jet in the living room.
Robinson tried to augment his income by visiting the local golf course, where my oldest brother was a caddy, and confiscating his earnings. Eventually he started forging the names of family friends on checks. A deal was struck: my mother’s friends wouldn’t press charges provided he went back to Canada so my mother could get a divorce on grounds of desertion.
Fortunately two of my mother’s closest friends—Dorothy Hall, my “Aunt Dorothy,” and her partner, Claudia—worked for the Institute of Juvenile Research in Chicago. They got my mother a job as a matron in the Lawrence Hall Home for Boys. Part of the deal was that she would work for next to nothing and the Hall would take in her children. The important advantage was that she would be close to her kids.
Except me. I was only three years old, and Mr. Houck, who ran the Hall, told my mother that he wouldn’t take me in until I learned how to tie my shoelaces. I was farmed out to a family named the Bonifoys, and my mother would visit every Sunday and give me lessons in the mysteries of shoelace tieing.
I remember very little about my life with the Bonifoys except for one night when I stopped to admire myself in a full-length mirror, a skinny little boy in a nightgown that came down to his ankles.
I didn’t sleep in my own bed. I slept with the Bonifoys in theirs.
When the day came that I mastered the art of knotting shoelaces, my mother took me to the Hall. I was the youngest boy there but there were lots of other boys around and I could see my mother whenever I wanted. One time I hid in her room to surprise her when she came off duty. She started to change out of uniform and for the first (and only) time I saw my mother nude.
Four years old is much too young to see your mother naked.
At the Hall all us boys slept in a big dormitory where the rule was that we should sleep with our hands on the outside of the blankets. It was years before I figured out the reason for this requirement.
Nobody had much money during the Depression, least of all the Hall, and we ate day-old scraps. The Hall had a small truck that went around to the grocery stores to pick up any unsold produce. The findings would be spread out on a long table in the dining room, and the matrons would pick out anything that was edible. (Grocery stores back then didn’t have their produce spread out on racks with overhead sprinklers to keep things fresh.)
One of the best attractions about the Hall was that one Saturday afternoon a month during the summer they’d line us up and march us down to the local theater. We would see a double feature, maybe two serials and half a dozen cartoons, and were given a candy bar. My favorite films were Frankenstein and King Kong. They’re still among my favorite movies, though back then they gave me nightmares.
It was the theater’s contribution to charity—they made money on Bingo nights and those nights when they gave away free dishes.
I saw my father again only once. One day I was called into the Hall’s library and introduced to a rather stocky man. He didn’t seem any more curious about me than I was about him. I was the last of the litter, and considering the tight finances of the family at the time, I might have been a mistake. The firstborn is always the one parents ooh and aah about, and the second is insurance to make sure the first won’t become spoiled. The third is frequently an afterthought. Few parents pay much attention to him—the kid is usually left to raise himself.
A girl might have made a difference—but another boy?
Much later I realized as far as I was concerned my father had functioned as nothing more than a sperm donor—he might as well have been the milkman. The meeting in the Hall was the last time I would see him. But it wouldn’t be the last
time I had contact with him.
I didn’t see much of my brothers at the Hall, and it wasn’t until my mother remarried and set up a private household for the family that I got to know my brothers better. “Red” (for his hair) was eight years older than I and five more than Mark. As the oldest, Red became something of a father figure, more so for Mark than for me, though I always felt indebted to him for teaching me how to ride a bicycle, trotting behind me as I pumped the pedals and making sure I wouldn’t fall. When he got married, he more or less abandoned the family. Mark never forgave him. On the other hand, Mark and I were fairly close and made the perfect pair—he was a bully and I was a snitch.
I lived in the Hall from ages three to eight and barely made it through alive. I must have been about five when I came down with double pneumonia. I was so sick they didn’t dare risk a journey to the local hospital—I wouldn’t have survived the brief trip. Most of the time I just slept in the Hall’s infirmary. When I was awake the night watchman, a middle-aged, badly hunchbacked man, would read me the Mother West Wind stories printed on Coca-Cola serving trays. He kept a careful watch over me and I have a hunch I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.
The best thing about the Hall was that it had a summer camp on Little Blue Lake, near Holland, Michigan. It’s difficult to remember everything when I was four and five, but little things stand out. At summer camp it was putting a tomato on my mother’s sewing machine as a surprise but she never saw it when she closed the cover of the machine. A week later she discovered a small pool of dried spaghetti sauce in the machine.
We hiked in the woods, slid down the banks of a creek we called “marrow beds” because of the slippery clay sides, and were very proud of the older boys who frequently had to hunt for Boy Scouts from a nearby camp who got lost in the forest. We were pretty familiar with the woods around Little Blue Lake—we spent the whole summer wandering through them. The Scouts spent only a week or two, not long enough to learn all the trails.
My mother married for the second time a few years later. Unfortunately it meant no more summer camp at Little Blue Lake, no more splashing around in the water, no more tramping through the woods, no more sliding down the banks of marrow beds and dirtying my shorts.
For the first year of my mother’s remarriage, Aunt Dorothy tried to fill the summer gap. I got permission to spend the summer with Dorothy, who had a little cabin—the “Dinghy”—on the shores of Lake Michigan near Macatawa, midway between Holland and the resort town of Saugatuck. My favorite recreation was curling up in a window nook and leafing through the pages of old issues of The Saturday Evening Post and Fortune magazine that were lying on shelves near the windows. I couldn’t read the articles, but the ads for Chevrolet and Studebaker (one red, almost modern two-seater), Packard, the Arrow Collar Man, Kuppenheimer suits, and Florsheim Shoes fascinated me. The house ad in early issues of Fortune featured an almost completely nude statue of a young woman with the slogan “The Perfect Gift for the ‘Friend Who Has Everything.’” A precursor of the “Petty Girl” to come a few years later.
The next summer Dorothy got me two weeks at a camp for disadvantaged kids. The first week, we decided to “put on a show” (we were years ahead of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland). I found a beat-up top hat and an old cane and did a really bad imitation of Fred Astaire. The applause was terrific. Unfortunately, my ease behind the footlights didn’t last. In grammar school I had the lead in the eighth-grade play and forgot every single line.
Aunt Dorothy was a heroine to me. She picked up her Mercury at the factory and broke the speed limit driving back to Chicago. Family legend had it that Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz was modeled after my aunt. Not true—after her retirement Dorothy gave an interview to the local paper and said she’d been much too young at the time. But author L. Frank Baum, Macatawa’s leading citizen, was a friend of her grandfather and used to dandle young Dorothy on his knee when he came to visit. Dorothy may have been too young to be the model for the main character in the book, but I’m pretty sure she supplied the name.
(My mother broke with Dorothy years later—why, I never knew—but I kept in occasional touch. The last time I visited her I wanted to ask her about the things that really bothered me in life. She evaded the questions but assured me I came from “good stock.” My last view of Dorothy was her standing in the door of her retirement home in Chicago, watching as I disappeared in a cab. I waved at her and she waved back. I considered it a benediction and started to cry.)
Robert Knox, my mother’s new husband, worked as an accountant in the largest bank in Chicago, was a single parent (his wife had died a few years previous), and had two boys in the Hall. Gene was five years older than I was, Bill was a year and a half. I was friendly with Bill, closer to my own age, and later got to know stepbrother Gene a little too well.
During the courtship Mr. Knox romanced me by teaching me how to play checkers, then letting me win a few games. He was a nice guy but to us Robinson boys he was always “Dad Knox,” never simply “Dad.” He was hunchbacked, not badly, and had gone through hell as a kid. He was a farm boy, injured in an accident that had broken his back, and his father had strung him up by his arms in the barn to try to straighten him out. It hadn’t worked.
The marriage was much more of a financial arrangement than it was a romance. Robert Knox wanted a mother for his two sons, and my mother wanted a father for her kids. Dad Knox would support the new family, and my mother would be the chief cook and bottle washer. He would discipline his kids, she would discipline hers. Family routine was that he would come home, eat supper and help with the dishes, then settle in the easy chair in the living room and read every stick of type in the Chicago Tribune—he believed every word of it—before falling asleep. My mother always called him “Bob,” never “dear” or “honey” or any other affectionate name. My mother’s maiden name was Leona White, and he always called her “Leona.”
“Dad Knox” was never the image of the typical father for us Robinsons. He was partly crippled, which meant he never took us fishing, was never interested in sports, and couldn’t horseplay with us.
My first outing with him was when he took me to the bank where he worked, showed me the huge ledgers in which all the accounts were entered by hand, and proudly took out a savings account for me. I wasn’t much impressed.
The second outing was a good deal more enjoyable. It was Christmas, and the owners of homes in River Forest, a nearby wealthy suburb, went all out in decorating their houses. The time to see them was at night, when all the lights in the decorations were on. We had an ancient roadster at the time complete with a rumble seat, which meant you would get soaked in a rainstorm.
This particular night it wasn’t too cold and it was snowing just enough to make the houses look like Christmas cards. Dad Knox and my mother bundled Bill and me up in blankets and gave us a tour of River Forest.
It was a beautiful night with the lights twinkling through the falling snow, Santa Clauses on almost every lawn, and even a few plaster reindeer. After an hour I fell asleep, Dad Knox carried me inside, and my mother put me to bed.
Many more outings like that and I probably would have referred to Dad Knox as “Dad,” but the mutual affection didn’t last, and within a week he was “Dad Knox” again.
We boys always considered ourselves blessed because we were good middle-class Americans—not “niggers” or “kikes” or “shanty Irish.”
Some prejudices die hard. Mark always thought of himself as the athlete in the family, and when drafted into the army made the mistake of picking on a Jewish kid. (All Jews were money-lenders, they couldn’t fight, right?) This prejudice died after the Six-Day War, but for my brother it vanished when the Jewish kid—a Golden Glover from New York—beat the crap out of him. Mark spent three days in the camp hospital. After that I never heard a derogatory comment from him about a minority group—any minority group.
(I learned a lot about prejudice in the United States when I was in high school in Ch
icago and asked the black kid sitting next to me if he’d like to go swimming at the YMCA. He got angry—didn’t I know that blacks could swim only at the Englewood YMCA, the segregated Y for blacks on the South Side? And it was the Jewish kid down the block who showed me how to throw a baseball—my brothers used to humiliate me by shouting “You throw like a girl!”)
My mother had a piano and used to gather us kids around to sing. But we broke up into groups of Robinsons and Knoxes and she soon realized she had five kids to raise and a husband to feed and sleep with but she didn’t have what she had wanted most—a family. She finally sold the piano and it broke her heart.
Our first house was very old and very huge, in Forest Park, Illinois. We lived kitty-corner from an equally big, old house occupied by a Gypsy family, complete with an old man and his traveling bear plus a cherry tree in the backyard.
We picked cherries for my mother to make pies, watched in fascination as the old man went through his tricks with the bear, and built forts in the backyard and had snowball fights during the winter. (We outnumbered them by one and usually were victorious.)
During the height of the Depression in the middle ’30s my mother used to keep a small stack of sandwiches by the back door for hungry homeless men. She wasn’t the only housewife who did that. The photographs of veterans selling apples on street corners were real. Some towns and small municipalities (and large ones) issued their own currency, called “scrip,” with which to pay municipal employees. The scrip was accepted by shopkeepers, who in turn used it to buy the supplies they needed, and so on.
All the boys in the family worked. One of us had a Saturday Evening Post route—the magazine was distributed to subscribers door-to-door like a newspaper. During the summer months we loaded our wagon with a box full of dry ice and ice cream bars and sold them before the Good Humor truck showed up. When the war began in 1941 I peddled popcorn at the Parichy Bloomer Girls stadium in Forest Park—the home of a women’s softball team that had replaced male players who had been drafted.