The Awesome Power of a Secret
(Or the Story of a Teenage Stalker…Across the Nation)
A cautionary note to the reader: it is with some hesitation that I share this story. While we may all have a “stalking tale” to tell about ourself, mine certainly shows more than the usual amount of gusto. At the least, it is embarrassing, absurd, humbling, and an insight into the power of repression and secret keeping, for if one was a gay teenager in 1977, you kept that information to yourself. And well, in the end it is pretty funny! Rest assured I no longer feel compunctions about sharing the truth about myself, obviously, and I would no longer behave so out of touch with reality. I would like to think this story shows something of my determined character. So the flattering parts of this story are true and the unflattering ones were anomalies. Ha.
I am sometimes confronted with younger gay people who fear that society is becoming more intolerant and that all their rights are hanging by the thinnest of threads. Chill. You have no idea of the progress toward the acceptance of gay people that has been made in my lifetime. When I was in high school, the word “homosexual” was considered too provocative to print in a decent newspaper; homosexuals were not just immoral they were sick, and in the school halls the only mention made of it was when someone might have called you a faggot. You could not possibly experience dating in the excited manner of your heterosexual peers. You built castles of fantasy to replace real experience; secret crushes and imagination ruled the day.
So, this was the state of affairs when one late winter day in 1977 I switched on the TV and American Bandstand was on. Bored, I decided to watch for a while. I liked the music (“it has a good beat and is easy to dance to”) and I was curious about the intimidating idea of whether I could look cool dancing. Suddenly I saw a young man pass before the camera and Lo! Love at first sight. A mad volcano of a teenage crush, sweetened by the only outlet possible – the dreams of my vivid imagination. The next Saturday I found myself in front of the TV again wondering if this same guy would be there or whether it was a one time appearance. But to my great happiness he was there. What can I say but that I began to think about this guy all the time and count the days to the next Saturday? I was obsessed. Once I even took a picture of the TV, making sure no family members would catch me, though upon development the picture on the screen had been obliterated by the flash. One part of each show was the “spotlight” dance where three couples would dance alone, and at the end they would line up and introduce themselves to Dick Clark (RIP), the host. I waited patiently for my guy to get his chance in the spotlight and sure enough that day came. As the dancers introduced themselves, I pricked up my ears and attention for the moment he would say his name. “F* V*” he said. It was an unusual name but I clearly got it. What a piece of golden knowledge!
My short time as a young Grad Student
But what was I to do with this fact? I wasn’t going to just leave it at that, oh no. So, I schemed and schemed until a plan gradually laid itself out before me. It would take some thought and patience, but I would carry it out. He was a dancer after all, so I imagined he might be gay (yes, a stereotype, which was truer in those days than now thankfully) and only a couple of years older. I had a chance! The first thing I needed was more information. I decided I would pose as a graduate student in “American Studies” at the University of Michigan and I even made up a fake name. Then I wrote to the show explaining who I was and what I was doing, the lie I mean, and that I would like the names and addresses of some of the regular dancers on the show to send them a questionnaire I had composed. Would you believe, living now in the age of hyper-vigilance about our privacy, that back in this age of innocence they actually sent me what I asked for?! They even wished me good luck with my work. Most importantly, there in the middle of the last page was F*V* with a full mailing address. Wow. For my next step, I pondered what such a grad student would ask of young people on a dance show. I don’t remember many of the deeper questions I thought up, but the information I really wanted would be on the back of the page under “biographical” information, for statistical purposes of course. I typed up the questionnaire and went to the library to make copies on some ancient contraption that was certainly not what we know today as a copy machine. Once that was accomplished, I set about mailing them to all the dancers, so as not to look suspicious, and included a personal note in each with the hope of getting a response. I wondered if they would ask each other if they had received a questionnaire from some person in Michigan.
By the time these surveys were sent out it was the summer of 1977. My Mother had gone up north to our cottage on a lake close to where I live now, taking my sister. My brother and I had jobs; for me it was my first, at Burger Chef. Dad worked nine to five. It was only after I had mailed the questionnaires that I began to wonder what would happen if the dancers actually responded. Although the return envelope I sent with each one had the pseudonym on it, such a thing could only be the handiwork of the oddest member of the family. (But why did you do this?). I would obviously have to intercept the mail each day, just in case these strange missives began arriving. I became vigilant over the timing of the mail delivery. But oh, my brother, Russell, was not born yesterday! He caught on quickly. “Oh Craaaaiiig! The mailman has just arrived on Gary Lane! He could be here within ten minutes!”.
Well, wouldn’t ya know, lo and behold, they started to come. Each time I saw one I held my breath hoping it was from him. But it seems other dancers took their job more seriously. I would be disappointed, but I still read their responses so as not to feel like a total schmuck. I remember Russ fighting me for the mail a couple of times – what was Craig waiting for? – but luckily nothing came on those days. Then, just as I was about to give up hope, “it” finally arrived. I stared at the letter in disbelief. I felt like I had made contact with an alien. He had touched this paper. The envelope was crumpled like it had been in his pocket. (!) I could see his handwriting and signature. I was so powerful! [As an aside, I love to throw things out, and usually that is a good thing, but what I wouldn’t give today to still have that letter from F*V*]
In case you are thinking that this story must be about to end, you’d be mistaken. Keep your seatbelts fastened. I don’t abandon plans midstream. That fall I went off for my freshman year at Kalamazoo College. During this first quarter I wrote to the Chamber of Commerce of Orange County, California, asking for a yellow pages for their local businesses. Oh, how much easier all of this would have been in the internet age. It came, and over the Christmas break I got out my old-fashioned key punch typewriter and began to pluck out letters to places I thought might have summer work for a college student. Much to my parents astonishment when they asked me what I could be doing, I informed them that I planned to go out to California the next summer to work and I was writing to get a job. My Mother was dumbstruck; my father just never knew what to make of me and long since stopped trying. All in all, I sent out 40 letters. Surely, one would get me a job. And that is exactly what happened. I didn’t even get any rejections, just one acceptance. It was for a job at U.S. Borax Research in Anaheim. It would consist of testing geologic samples from Alaska for various trace elements and it would pay the princely sum (honestly, this was 1978) of four dollars/hour. That would give me money to pay expenses in California, at poverty level, and also save money for what I would need at school the following year.
By the next spring I had saved enough to buy my round trip plane ticket out to Los Angeles, had written to Chapman College in Orange County where the housing director agreed to rent a dorm room to me for 80$/month, and I had even arranged for other summer “interns” (that word was not in wide use then) working at U.S. Borax Research and living in Orange, to pick me up to take me to work everyday. I wasn’t certain what I would do with regards to F*V* when I got out there, but I figured I would take one step at a time. I didn’t have nearly the self-confidence to try out for American Bandstand, though that would have put a good twist on this story.
The Summer of 1978
The summer of 1978 was the “coming of age story” of my life. I was faced with logistical problems, emotional problems, people problems and financial problems whose solutions got me headed in the right direction for the rest of my life. What I have now are phantasmagoric memories firmly stamped on both sides of my brain. Whenever I hear Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” I am transported back in time to a younger, more vulnerable Craig lying on his bare dormroom mattress looking up at the palm tree out my window. I know where to end my tale, but where do I begin to string together the disparate experiences I had that summer?
Well, one good place are the two roommates I had the honor of suffering through. The first one, Patrick, was a young African American man who introduced himself to me by saying that God had sent him to this College to integrate it into a mixed race and a Christian Institution. Emphasis his. Over the next few nights as I tried to fall I sleep, I listened while he and his friends discussed the recently released movie “Damien: Omen II”, how this movie was a sign that the Antichrist was about to make his appearance, and how they would combat him. By the end of the first week he had informed the housing director that he suspected I was a homosexual (!). The housing director boldly asked me if this was true and I boldly told her “Yes.” So, she switched me to a room by myself…excellent!…until another Patrick, a hapless nanny pampered rich one from Singapore, showed up. Although I should save this poor creature for the telling in a novel or screenplay, I’ll give a short synopsis here. He had done nothing, and I mean nothing, in his life by
himself before. He threw garbage down the toilet and stood by surprised and unmoving while it overflowed when he flushed it. He spent all the money in his wallet on a taxi to the beach, had nothing left, and so slept there until the buses began the next day. Then he bought an expensive stereo and called his Dad to say he needed more money which was promptly sent. The next day I awoke, dressed, opened the door to head off to work and found a $100 bill on the doorstep (a lot of money to me then!!!). I turned to Patrick and asked, “Are you missing $100?” He picked up his wallet, looked inside, paused, and said “I can’t tell.” Wrong answer. “O.K.” I replied and slipped it into my pocket. Once, he came back from the laundry room and threw his “clean” clothes in a wrinkled heap on the bed, frustrated. “Laundry! Ironing! Cleaning!” I looked at him and asked calmly, “When you thought about coming here, who did you expect would do such things?” He looked at me blankly and now in a nearly toneless voice with just a hint of wonder replied, “I never thought of it.” He started with a full load of classes and gradually dropped them all but “English Vocabulary” which he spoke fluently, but flunked anyway. I’ve often wondered what happen to him. Hey, for all I know he’s a successful neurosurgeon. But he had a rough start.
My work at U.S. Borax Research proved helpful in guiding me into what kind of work I would NOT like to do in my life. It’s important that we learn this! Oh, the director who hired me had great hopes for me on that first day when all the summer interns arrived. What initiative I had shown in procuring this job! I must really be interested in this kind of laboratory work. Ha! Little did he know! Later, I felt his disappointment in me, like a disapproving father, at my attempts to inject some levity into this very serious ambience. Sitting in front of an expensive mass spectrometer was definitely not the place to tell funny stories about your first year in College. The place cultivated ennui like corn on a moist and fertile summer Iowan farmfield. Laboratory work, and even cubicle work, would never be for me.
I did make some friends that summer, but by far the closest one, and the only one I occasionally keep in touch with was Eric. Using his family’s vehicle (what freedom!) we once went hiking in the San Gabriel mountains overnight. I clearly recall two things from that expedition: finding our way, crawling at times, along a path on an extremely steep slope in total darkness, and sleeping on the rocky bed of a dried up river. We also invited some friends from work and drove down to
San Diego to visit the world famous zoo. But by far the best thing we did was drive up to San Francisco to visit my cousins who lived in a nearby suburb. Both Eric and I talked about the adventurous lives we would lead. He spoke passionately about his love for “The Lord of the Rings,” and to this day I can’t think of that book without seeing Eric animatedly talking about it. The trip up to San Francisco felt a bit like two hobbits setting out to see what they would discover.
The two loneliest times I have felt in my life were both times when I was off by myself somewhere with very little money, and this was one period. I bought three eating utensils and a can opener at a garage sale, and cooked beans by taking the paper off the can and heating it directly on the stove in the student kitchen. I felt suspended in time. I read “Atlas Shrugged” four times, which is not a minor task since it has 1168 pages. I made weekly pilgrimages down to Wells Fargo where I had opened a savings account and watched with pride how the stamped total in my savings book grew.
The End You Been Waiting For
Alas, by the summer of 1978, my obsession with F*V* had started to wane. I no longer had a television to watch American Bandstand, and perhaps more importantly, I had begun to come out of the closet to my best friends and to my family (see Addendum at the end), so I had begun to take my sexuality into the realm of the real world. A non-secret world.
However, I had come a long way for this and had made an extraordinary effort. I was not going to just leave it all behind. I had bought a very cheap bicycle to get around, not nearly adequate for a city like the L.A. Metro area, but enough to get groceries and such. I don’t recal if F*V* lived in Santa Ana or Garden Grove, but in any case, I decided to get up early one Saturday morning and make the trek, about ten miles each direction, to his house, just so I could say to myself I had reached the goalpost. It would be like putting the period at the end of a sentence. The path was not bike friendly. I had to cross freeways and vast intersections, bike along a railroad and the Santa Ana river basin, and find my way down unmarked streets on my very basic map. But by early afternoon I was approaching his house. I counted the addresses, prepared to ride along what I could determine was the correct side of the street. And then, there it was. A nondescript house on a nondescript street in a nondescript part of Los Angeles. Except for one thing: he lived there. Still as I rode my bike by, I felt a bit of a letdown. Could I possibly think of an excuse to go knock on the door? I retraced my path and locked my bike to the rail of an overpass. I got off, and headed back to the house. On foot, at least, I could have a better look.
And what I am about to tell you is the honest to God truth.
At just about fifty feet from his house an extraordinary thing happened. The garage door opened, and a man appeared. His hands were gripped around the handlebars of a motorcycle which, after closing the garage door behind him, he began to guide down to the end of the driveway. As I approached, he looked up and my heart stopped. Indeed, it was HIM. He was dressed in black leather pants, black boots and a black tee shirt. I stopped, stunned, though to him it probably looked like I was politely going to just wait for him to pass. He smiled and said “How’s it goin?” “Um..good…thanks.” He nodded, slipped his helmet over his head, cocked the starter to get the engine revving, sat down and took off down the street, leaving me alone in his driveway. My entire Odyssey flashed before my eyes, from the moment I first saw him on TV to this final moment of serendipitous timing.
I should have asked for a ride.
During the previous summer as I was keeping vigil over the mailbox, I decided to come out to my parents in a letter. I would send it to my Mother up north where she would have time to ponder the situation before talking with me. Reading it over now, written so long ago, and light years from where we are socially, I still find it painful, anachronistic and a bit strange. It was awkwardly explained and at times I cringe. I no longer agree with my theory of why I am gay. Did I actually mean it when I said I could choose a woman in the end or was I trying to soften the blow? I feel like I want to edit it, but except for a small part which has private information about other family members, I can’t; it’s history. In any event, I am publishing it here, in part to show where I was at emotionally during the time of this story, and also as an illustration of my personal and our collective social evolution.
My Coming Out Letter
Postmarked August 8, 1977 (postage 13 cents):
I don’t really know why I am choosing to tell you this now, or why I told Bob for that matter. I guess that after keeping something inside for so long, there comes a time when it just comes out. I hope our relationship will grow, I hope that so much that you just can’t believe it. Remember last weekend when I kept hugging you and smiling at you? I guess that was just the outward signs of all the love I felt. First, I’d like to thank you, especially as I prepare to go to college, for many things. Thank you for letting me know that no matter what I do or say you will always love me. Thank you for giving me the confidence to tell you what I am about to tell you. Thank you for teaching me self love – that is probably the most valuable thing I ever learned, and believe me, I really do feel self love. Thank you for teaching me that life was meant to be beautiful – all I can say is that, lately, as I look at myself and at my future I feel joy, anticipation, strength, and hope. Thank you. Reading over this, some of it seems rather corny, but I am just writing as it comes out and I mean every word of it. I have this desire for you to be a kind of buoy for me to hold on to when I run into “stormy seas”. I want you to be my friend; to both share and accept. In a way, I want to sort of prepare you for what is obviously going to be a shock. But, above all, I don’t want you to feel guilt. You were the best parent that you knew how to be, and you really knew how to be a great parent. Anyway, I know of no other way to say this than straight outright. I am a homosexual. I expect you to be disappointed, and shocked naturally, but I hope you can rise above any other emotions so that our relationship will not be adversely affected.
I really have no idea how much you know about homosexuality, so let me tell you a little of what I know. Homosexuality is nothing more than a sexual preference. It affects no other areas of a person’s personality than his/her sexuality. There are nice homosexuals, mean homosexuals, perverted homosexuals, intelligent homosexuals, homosexuals with high morals, and homosexuals with low morals, homosexuals who are sick, and homosexuals who are healthy, talented homosexuals, dull homosexuals, homosexuals who like football, and homosexuals who like ballet. There might be the possibility – and this is only a very general possibility – that the gay population, on the whole, is slightly more on the feminine side. But take note of the “mights,” “possibles” and the many exceptions there are. From now on when you look at me, I hope to God that the first word that comes to your mind is not “gay.” I am MANY things before I am gay. Don’t look at me as your gay son, but rather, as your son who just happens to be gay. After all you are also attracted to men, so you know exactly how I feel…would you like to be known by your sexuality or by other things which are really much more important? My sexuality is really a very small part of my personality, why make a big deal of it? As I think you know from living with me for eighteen years, I am a person with very high morals. I would never have sex with anyone who I didn’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I loved. As for my future, who knows? It would be great if I found a man who I loved, would be my friend, and would want to share my life and who loved me in return. But if that doesn’t happen, I will simply look to other areas for happiness. Let’s face it Mom – even with homosexuality against me I still have a better chance in life than 99% of most people, if for no other reason than my attitude. I will conquer anything that stands in my way. And who knows? Maybe I will find a woman who will accept all of me, who will love all of me, and who will also want to spend her life with me. Before Dad asked me what I would ask for if I had one wish. That would be a companion who I could really relate to, and who I could “grow” with, and who I could share all the beautiful things in life with – something I never really had – and, well, if it happens to be a man who I am sexually attracted to and who I can also have a sexual relationship with, all the better! At this point in my life I don’t even really know if I will ever totally “come out of the closet.”
[Here I omit something that discusses personal family members, and I don’t want to breach their privacy.]
How did I get this way? I tried to explain this before in relation to other aspects of my personality. I don’t know if I want to explain all of it now, on paper, but I have done a tremendous amount of thinking on this matter and I really believe I have the answer. Basically, it has something to do with association. When Russell was born Papa and Dad took him in and taught him sports, etc… but, when I was born they, especially Papa, already had someone, so I became more attached to New Nana, Nana Henry and Aunt Verda. Basically, it has to do with identity – I began to associate myself with more feminine things, and liking boys just happened to be one of them. But the point is, that’s all right! If I had to choose again how I would like to be raised, I would pick the same way. Aunt Verda and New Nana taught me things which, today, I cherish: Aunt Verda taught me how to communicate better, she always answered my questions, taught me how to write letters, took me into her home and was a friend to me. Some of my best memories are with New Nana: walking through the woods with her, showing me flowers, birds, etc…telling me about God (although that never caught on). Nobody had more love than me! Mine was an ideal childhood, despite a few emotional upsets. I was taught sensitivity, I was taught to challenge my intellectual faculties, I was taught rational thinking, and I am a stronger person because of it. We can talk more about this later.
How did I hide this for so long? It was very easy: my whole brain has been geared toward hiding it. A lot of what has happened looks so ironic now that I look back. I remember once you said that: “Naturally, you don’t have any trouble with your sexual identity.” Well, that was when I was having trouble at Frost, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t having trouble then (most of the time), and I’m not now!..(although you didn’t quite know what you were saying). I was having a lot of trouble feeling badly that some people thought I acted feminine, but, somehow I never associated the fact that I acted feminine with the fact that I was a homosexual. [More personal family issues redacted] Today, as far as acting feminine goes, I’m quite secure about it. I know I’m not the most macho person, but now I don’t really care (or does anyone else anymore). To tell you the honest truth the thing that hurts the most is the fact that SOCIETY can’t accept homosexuality. Everyone else can enjoy their sexuality, but I must deny mine (or choose to be ostracized). Well, as I said before I will fight any obstacles that come in my way. Now do you see why I feel so strongly about Blacks? I know what it is like to be part of a minority group. No one can rationalize bigotry…I don’t care if they use the Church or such slogans as “Save Our Children.” Judging one person on the basis of the group he belongs to is just illogical no matter how you look at it. I don’t want to be segregated from anyone either. Why would I want to just hang around gays? What a boring thing to have in common: one’s sexuality. I want to live my life with heterosexuals, homosexuals, Blacks, Whites, Chinese, Arabs, etc… if their personality appeals to me. Well, this is getting kind of long. I hope I’ve explained enoug until we can talk in person.
Love, Craig P.S. Please read this over…then hide it well.
Have you ever kept a personal secret? Have you felt the need to “come out” about anything? What’s your tale?