My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man's Odysseyby Charles Rowan Beye
My Husband and My Wives: A Gay's Man's Odyssey is the memoir of a man looking back over eight tumultuous decades at the complications of discovering at puberty that he is attracted to other men.
The ordeal of remaining true to what his libido tells him is right, in the midst of a disapproving and sometimes hostile society, is one side of his story./i>
My Husband and My Wives: A Gay's Man's Odyssey is the memoir of a man looking back over eight tumultuous decades at the complications of discovering at puberty that he is attracted to other men.
The ordeal of remaining true to what his libido tells him is right, in the midst of a disapproving and sometimes hostile society, is one side of his story. Another is the impulsive decision he made as a young adult to marry a woman who fascinated him. This led him into entirely unanticipated territory. He found himself suddenly a husband, a widower, a groom for a second time, and, finally, the father of four children and grandfather of six, though throughout it all, he never abandoned his erotic involvement with men. Perhaps most extraordinary is the story's happy conclusion: Charles Rowan Beye's wedding four years ago to the man who has been his companion for the last twenty years.
The remarkable journey from pariah to patriarch is told with an eloquence, an honesty, and a sense of humor that are uniquely Beye's own. A personal history that is also a history of evolving social mores, this wonderfully original, challenging, life- and love-affirming account could only have been written by the unconventional man who lived through it all.
“It's Beye's charming raconteur voice, however, and his refusal to bend anecdotes into the expected ‘lessons' that really make this memoir such a knockout. Beye won me over in his introduction when he admitted that, looking back at the long span of his life--he's now over 80--the big question he still asks himself is, ‘What was that all about?' . . . Beye's story is a complex, poignant addition to the sexual canon. While he seems to have been blessedly free of the standard sexual guilt growing up, he was also acutely aware of the cost of being different . . . Beye's memoir ends on a joyous note. He and his husband of the title have been married for some four years; together for 20. Bowing to his background in ancient Greek, Beye subtitled his memoir ‘A Gay Man's Odyssey,' but he might just as well have availed himself of the affirmative LGBTQ slogan ‘It Gets Better.'” Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Beye delivers surprising information . . . with a matter-of-factness that puts the complexity of human relationships, not scandal, at the center of the narrative . . . Early in his memoir, Beye tells us that he hopes the reader will finish the book ‘with a better understanding of the obstacles and shoals the gay male must navigate just to grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood.' In clean, elegant prose, Beye does just that. My Husband and My Wives is an engrossing, moving, and often witty take on one gay man's life.” Ken Harvey, Lambda Literary
“This memoir is moving, thoughtful, and witty--an enormous achievement.” Brenda Maddox, author of Married and Gay: An Intimate Look at a Different Relationship
“Philip Larkin wrote, ‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three.' Not so for the brilliant and charming Charles Rowan Beye. If only Larkin had been in Iowa City in the 1940s! Who knew there was so much action in high school and the heartland in that era? With a deep understanding of the institutions and mores that define us, and with profound self-understanding, Beye shines his light into the complicated, painful, and also beautiful world of a gay man twice married to women.” Jane Hamilton, author of The Book of Ruth
“In this heartfelt, often humorous memoir, retired classics professor Beye tells how a onetime gay teenager ended up marrying two women, fathering four children, and eventually marrying his longtime male partner . . . It's a deftly written personal story that will speak to a range of readers.” Publishers Weekly
“Beye's memoir captures eight decades of a fascinating life, and one that clearly was lived without a rulebook.” Modern Tonic
“With droll wit and the teensiest bit of self-depreciation, author Charles Rowan Beye writes about a time when homosexuality was a subject left on the highest shelf of the deepest closet. Still, despite any former furtiveness, Beye is unrestrained and unafraid to tell tales; in fact, he admits that his graphic remembrances could make readers uncomfortable. He's not far off in that warning, yet this book is such a perfect look into gay life gone by, that you almost can't help but enjoy it. For anyone who craves that step back in time, if just for a peek, My Husband and My Wives is a delightful change of pace.” Terri Schlichenmeyer, The Washington Blade
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
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- 5.86(w) x 8.32(h) x 0.96(d)
Read an Excerpt
I was born March 19, 1930, the fifth child, second boy, of six children carried to term. (There were six miscarriages.) An older sister often reminds me resentfully of hearing our father on the phone shouting in joy, “It’s a boy, thank God, it’s a boy, it’s a boy.” My father is more myth to me than flesh-and-blood reality. Since at the time of his death I was a small boy whose life was spent in the nursery, I had seen little of him. In fact, my memory of Daddy is little more than the sight of his body in the coffin that the servants took us to view. It reposed in the front hall of our home, since our father, being an atheist, was given a nonreligious funeral there. Although he died only a few days after his fiftieth birthday, he was already head of surgery at the State University of Iowa Hospital, and a distinguished thoracic surgeon. Whatever else I know of him comes largely from Mother, who loved nothing more than to reminisce over cocktails at the end of the day, even if, in the loneliness of her widowhood, her companion was just her teenage son.
Over the years I was to learn that my father was an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, that he too spent his summer holidays hunting and fishing. I well remember my mother showing me the box in which he kept the trout flies he had made; it was like viewing the crown jewels. He was an acolyte at the altar of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony in the United States, fearful and disgusted, if my mother is to be believed, at the invasion of these shores by the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, and determined to match their prodigious birth rate with his own efforts, however my mother might have felt about it. (That she did not like children all that much she managed to convey to us in her magisterial indirection.) Needless to say, he was equally affronted by Jews, not because they were superstitious and feckless, as he imagined the Catholics to be, but because he considered them so extremely sharp and grasping. When a parent dies young, there are so many questions a son has not had answered. What, I often wonder, had my father, who was a doctor in the U.S. Army in the First World War, thought about shooting at German soldiers, who must have included his blood relatives, or at least the descendants of fellow townsmen of his father, Wilhelm? How could it be, as Mother often told me, that he was planning a year’s sabbatical in Germany for the academic year 1937–38, so as to get to know the Germans better, when as a reader of newspapers he must have noticed the dire turn of events since Hitler’s accession to power in 1933? How was it that he admired so very much the Viennese Jew who headed the Orthopedic Surgery Department while always pleased that he and my mother found accommodations in hotels that stated “Gentiles Only”? Again, if I can go by Mother’s testimony, this orthopedic surgeon was to be valued because he was a repository of European tradition and learning, but, more than that, because he was a Jew, one of a people who, in my father’s opinion, had a more profound sense of high culture, were more refined, than the rest of mankind.
I have always thought that I would not have liked my father very much, but then I remember a favorite family anecdote about Daddy. It happened that when his first four children were very young, he entertained the Roman Catholic priest who had been the chaplain in his unit at the front. This very jolly young man and my father enjoyed sitting about, drinking wine and reminiscing. During his stay, the family dog, Jiggs, died, and, of course, the children were inconsolable. My father hired a carpenter to make the dog a wooden coffin; then my father and his friend contrived that the latter would don his robes of priestly office to lead a procession down to the back of the garden where a grave had been dug. In the presence of the children and the household staff something appropriate was said, and Daddy took the shovel to fling in the first load of earth, and signaled to the grieving little tykes waiting with their toy shovels to take their turn. Mother loved to tell this story, laughing all the while at the kitchen staff, all of them first-generation Irish or German Catholics, who marveled that someone so atheistic and impious as Dr. Beye could yet manage to hold a kind of Catholic burial, including even a priest, for his dog.
My small hometown was distinctive in being both the commercial center for the surrounding farms and the site of the State University of Iowa, which even in the thirties was renowned for its departments of art, theater, creative writing, and music. On Saturday nights there were pickup trucks parked in rows outside J. C. Penney on College Street, where farmers in clean overalls with their wives, dressed in homemade cotton dresses, were shopping. Over at the university another, different crowd was gathering for a performance of the symphony orchestra or on their way to the university theater to see a play. The streets, which were paved in brick, were shaded over in summertime by giant American elms that gave the effect of so many naves of Gothic cathedrals. Where the town ended began open fields as far as the eye could see. This was not the Iowa City of today; large-scale construction after the war turned a village into a city, brought housing developments to the surrounding farmlands, and the tragic invasion of Dutch Elm disease took out the shade. But I don’t really see those changes. Maybe I have just looked at too many Grant Wood paintings. He was, after all, a resident of the town.
We lived in a large house, large enough to be renovated into apartments in later years. The property stretched from the street back as much as the length of an average city block, with a steep terraced hill in the front, climbing beyond the house to a level where there was a formal lawn surrounded by flower beds. Then the property sloped gently down to the back boundary, beyond which were open hilly fields and one could see miles into the distance. As a small child my existence was confined to the nursery on the top floor, where I was given meals, and my bedroom on the second floor, and the back, or “servants’,” staircase down to the side door, which we children were meant to use. Apart from a swing that stood on the crest of the land, a sandbox underneath a shady tree on the gentle slope rising to it, and the flat lawn for croquet by the kitchen door, we children were sent to play way out in back of the house beyond the formal lawn, and beyond the formal garden, where there was a miniature house built for us. Beyond that, past a cherry orchard, there was a two-story small barn, the upstairs loft of which had been converted into a “clubhouse,” and to the side of it was a chicken coop. We were seriously discouraged from entering the kitchen or pantry except by invitation. There were four or five women who worked for my parents doing all the household chores and we were not to get in their way. The living room, front hall, and vestibule that led to the front door were also out of bounds. There was one man who did the gardening, the heavy lifting, and drove my father to work (since, if Mother is to be believed, my father did not think a surgeon should strain his hands before morning surgery by handling the wheel of a car). The gardener would sometimes help us with our little garden, but we were reminded that he was also busy, and not to be bothered. Only the upstairs maids, who had also functioned as our nursemaids when we were smaller, were part of our world.
Once when friends asked my second wife and me why we did not let our children come down the front stairs or enter the living room in our baronial house in Brookline, we discovered to our amusement that we both had instinctively and tacitly (one of those ça va sans dire things) thought that this was the way of the world between parents and children; even in our modern glass box of a house in California, where many of the dividing walls did not go to the ceiling, where there was what they used to call “flow,” we just did not encourage the little tots to go into the living room. I notice that to this day my instinct upon entering our living room is to make sure that the pillows are all plumped up and in their proper place, that the books and magazines are properly arranged, as well as the photographs in their framed stands on any coffee table or end table. In my childhood home, while the adults were eating in the dining room, someone was in the living room rearranging the pillows and emptying the ashtrays so that the room was more or less pristine when anyone entered it. Because I was crippled I was allowed to sit reading in the living room during the day; my reading chair was next to a large mahogany library table, upon the highly polished surface of which all the current magazines were neatly arranged. Always neatly arranged; I don’t remember seeing them scattered.
When my father died, Mother decided to eat meals with the children, and thus I left the easy comfort of the nursery and descended into the formal dining room. Breakfast especially was meant to be a family occasion. We had always to be punctual. (“Be considerate of the servants, Charles.”) About six-thirty in the morning a maid went through the corridors awakening us with chimes, so there was no excuse for tardiness. At breakfast time we stood behind our chairs until Mother entered, then my brother held her chair for her, and when she was seated the rest of us sat down, she unfolded her napkin, and she rang a small silver bell to indicate to the kitchen help that they could bring out the meal. We were required to make conversation, and if we brought up unsuitable subjects—the tedious retelling of something we had read or a joke we had heard, the whiny account of an argument with a sibling—Mother remonstrated with us and insisted upon stimulating or genuinely amusing talk. Wit and rapid delivery were key. It is a marvel that we children did not all end up stuttering, but, instead, all six of us were wonderful conversationalists in adulthood, witty, informative, and fun to talk with. My second wife, an unusually taciturn lady, whose family gatherings were a torture of stammering, silences, and meandering lines of thought, used to marvel at my siblings on display. Her family hid behind silence and impassivity. Mother taught us to hide behind brilliance. It was a godsend to me in the ordeal that was to begin in my sixteenth year.
What I have just described is life lived as theater: the living rooms continually returned to the state in which they must be when the curtain goes up, the gathering at the table required to “make conversation” rather than simply speak. There was a kind of audience, the help who glided silently in and out of the rooms, before whom we were enjoined never to say anything embarrassing or revealing. Mother also taught us that creating whatever reality we wanted meant ignoring what didn’t fit. The most dramatic demonstration of this came in a horrible and unforgettable incident at breakfast when our aged serving woman was suddenly struck with a seizure of some sort while passing toast on a silver salver. She shuddered slightly and staggered, emitting a kind of groaning noise, as the toast fell from the tipped platter. I was terrified, but such was my mother’s insistent pleasant conversation, holding us all in her gaze, that I did not turn around to face the woman. None of us rose to assist her and she finally made her exit. For the briefest moment Mother’s voice slowed, then she resumed what she had to say as though there had been nothing unusual to witness in the room.
Born in 1892, Mother was an Edwardian belle, who came out in Chicago in 1910. She had an exaggerated notion of what it meant to be a doctor, even so distinguished a surgeon as my father, as one could tell when she would remind us children that the husbands of our Oak Park aunts were “in business.” The tone of her voice made you know that this was a terrible taint, although in fact they were all heirs to family fortunes, and what was odder still, her own father had been, as I have been told, a businessman. One has to imagine that she was moving up, which might account for her extraordinary acuity when it came to categorizing people socially and culturally, as well as the wit with which she laced her anecdotes. I was surprised to be told at one of my high school reunions by at least three members of my class that they had the strongest memories from the time they were small children of my mother as the funniest person they had ever known.
Equally surprising was the observation by several classmates that one of the truly outstanding events of the years they spent in the lower grades was “the annual picnic at Charlie’s house.” This was my mother’s doing. Once a year she had me invite the entire class of twenty-five children, and various teachers as chaperones, to walk through the streets of Iowa City from the school to our house up into the backyards to the formal lawn, where servants had laid out tables of all kinds of food, drink, and sweets. There were always a clown, jugglers, a magician, pony rides, balloons. In small-town Iowa in the economic depression of the thirties this was an extraordinary event, and I can see why it stayed in the memories of so many youngsters. It was my day; I was required to play host, it was my responsibility to see that everyone had a good time, that events and the dispersing of food went smoothly. Mother was “good with people,” even if her manner could sometimes be frosty, and I have to believe that she wanted her children early on to learn that form of social command.
The society of Iowa City in the thirties and forties had the businessmen, bankers, and lawyers as the pinnacle of the “town” and the professors and university administrators as the pinnacle of the “gown.” Doctors bridged whatever social gap existed because they were sometimes part of the faculty of the State University of Iowa Medical School but also served the townspeople. In the late thirties my mother had been approached by some of the town worthies, who asked her to run for the school board—from on high, one might say; that is to say, as the widow of the great surgeon, with an independent income, the big house on the hill, and no connection to the town’s business interests, she was free of the suspicions that had attached to recent candidates or members of the board. Although she was very short and always reminded me of Elsa Maxwell, she had an air of invincible rectitude not unlike that of Queen Mary. I imagine that she campaigned standing still, upright, a wax figure, a small smile and nothing more indicating that she was in communication. When her opponents were quick to point out that not all of her six children went to public school, one would think that her campaign was doomed. But never underestimate the Queen Mary factor. She did win, and her older daughters were soon to be joined in the public schools by my little sister and myself, while my brother stayed in the local private school to realize his dream of being a football star.
Mother was elected president of the board and remained in that position for many years until, again at the request of various factions, she stepped down to run for mayor of Iowa City, a doomed proposition for a Republican in so liberal a university town. In all those years she was a font of amusing anecdotes about the workings of the school system. She took the matter very seriously, worked closely with the superintendent, and was constantly well informed, but she could be funny about it all. Her descriptions of board meetings delivered at our dining table the next day were often cruel, but there was no question that she knew her subject. Her conversation displayed all the ugly tribal prejudices of her era, as everyone in her stories was identified as “Irish,” or “Italian,” or “a Jew,” or “Catholic” or “lower class,” with the frequent use of “you know” (as in, “He’s Irish, you know”), which presumed a commonplace understanding of this category of person. Only the upper-middle-class WASPs were left unidentified; they were the norm, the standard by which everyone else was implicitly judged, from which all others had fallen short. She was never angry, never sneering, she was only concerned that I understood that there was a vast chasm of behavior and understanding between the Americans who could claim English descent and Anglican religion and the other groups, who were dubious in one way or another. Their probity, their drinking habits, or their religious beliefs were often the object of her notice. Germans in the United States were, like the English, “the backbone of the nation,” my father’s favorite phrase as quoted by Mother, whereas those in Europe who were fighting us in the war were inherently evil for being German. In the same way, when our Jewish orthopedic surgeon friend secured the safe exit of his entire family from Vienna after the Anschluss, my mother immediately offered to house some of them until they got themselves established in this country. Mother was breathless in her admiration of their upper-class, elegant manners, although dismayed and annoyed by what she sensed was their condescension to her overly relaxed manner in dealing with the help.
I have gone on at some length here because I was deeply influenced by her. As I became sexually aware it became increasingly obvious that I was deviating from a standard, failing to fit into any category or type I had heard my mother enumerate, and thus fell prey to a growing concern with my own identity. In the dilemma of my life as a sixteen-year-old in danger of becoming a complete social pariah, I was saved by her idea of staged living, by her high standard for conversation and her great wit, by her insistent artificiality in social situations, by her constant dissecting of the social scene and her acute distinctions between people.
Mother’s breakfast-time practice of polite conversation was augmented by a daily review of the latest developments of the major campaigns of World War II. To this day I remember most of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8, 1942. After the invasion of Italy, the prosaic analysis that she took from nighttime radio broadcasts was often punctuated by emotional eruptions of anguish over the treasures of art and architecture that were being threatened in the fight up the Italian peninsula. In June 1944 she awakened us all from our beds to shout out exuberantly the news of the Normandy invasion.
In the fall of 1942 when I was twelve I enrolled in the public junior high school, a giant brick Victorian pile that had formerly held the high school, now relocated in a dazzling new building, thanks to the WPA, on the very eastern edge of town. At first junior high seemed exotic. Instead of walking silently on beige cork floors, our feet drummed on the old wood darkened by fifty years of varnish that creaked as we walked. Instead of sitting at round tables with movable chairs, we sat at desks mounted on ornate wrought-iron stands bolted to the floor; the wooden writing surfaces, also darkened with varnish like the floorboards, were carved with the initials of generations of students. In my naïveté I assumed this represented the last word in educational chic.
My previous school was a research lab, so to speak, for the State University of Iowa School of Education where young people engaged in research and development were the teachers, but here I encountered older, more maternal or paternal figures, whose years at their calling had carved them into distinctive personalities. Their individuality made them unpredictable and more interesting. Needless to say, they were overwhelmingly welcoming to me, the son of the president of the school board.
Equally welcoming was a small band of boys with whom I proceeded to walk to school each day. Remarkably enough, there was none of the new-boy negotiation one reads about as an almost universal experience. I have to think that this was due to the fact that I was so unlikely a figure in their daily lives that they did not have to consider assimilating me as one of them. To begin with, I was physically handicapped and did not play sports, and in fact had only the dimmest idea of any of the games that engage the hearts and souls of boys. Then I had a kind of glamour. I was the son of the great doctor, we had lots more money than most people, I lived in a large house up on a hill, and because I had spent most of my life sitting in a chair reading, I spoke with a vocabulary and manner that was entirely unlike their own. If I believe what everybody used to tell me at school reunions, I was even at this age flamboyant and witty; luckily this amused rather than repelled the young fellows with whom I walked; luckily too the daily walking and bonding more or less neutered us all, at least as far as I was concerned.
One boy, Bob, became my particular friend. He was a lean, quiet boy, tall and muscular, too thin, really, who struggled hard to be a first-rate athlete—indeed, he became a high school baseball coach. We spent hours together talking, me doing most of it, while he listened. I remember him scratching behind his ear just before he would begin to speak, I remember his soft and low chuckling at some of my crazier pronouncements. I never watched him play; we never talked of sports. He accepted that. It never occurred to me that it should have been otherwise. He was the first real friend I made away from the set of youngsters who were my classmates from the private school.
My first experience of dinner at Bob’s house was so exotic that I was atingle for hours. We ate in the kitchen, out-of-bounds for me at home. Bob’s father sat at the table in his undershirt. I was relatively unfamiliar with the behavior of adult males, but I was quite sure that underclothing of any kind was not the garment of choice in most places, certainly not in my mother’s house. Bob’s mother stood at the stove cooking and serving the food, never really sitting down at the table with us, more or less taking bites and tastes from the plates she passed on. Everything set on the table, such as milk, remained in the bottle or carton in which it had entered the house instead of being transferred to pitchers or salvers for the presentation. There was an overhead light instead of candles. These were the Depression years and several of Bob’s relatives lived in the small house with them and sat at their table. I remember the silent men, somewhat beaten, their drab women, Bob eating quietly while his mother and I made the conversation, cracked the jokes, laughing loudly, inspiring a wan smile in some of the others from time to time. Occasionally Bob and his sister got into a fight. Their shouts and shrieks filled the room; no one stopped them and so they continued until they grew tired.
When I began junior high school I also entered puberty, which meant that I spent hours of my time masturbating, sometimes, if my memory is anywhere near correct, as often as ten times a day. I discovered this delightful occupation on my own, I was proud to acknowledge, especially when my friend Bob told me that he only learned when his uncle told him what to do. I had no close male relatives (my brother had gone east to college, not that I can imagine sufficient intimacy between the two of us to acknowledge the penis), but I had an insistent libido. Masturbation for young males is as much about mechanics as pleasure. In those early days of my new maturity I was confronted by another one of the crowd with whom I walked to school. He asked me if I could now ejaculate, admitting shyly at the same time that he could not, although in his jeans and T-shirt he seemed to me the quintessential boy. When I said yes, it was only minutes later that he had persuaded me to demonstrate my new skill, and as the jism squirted powerfully from my penis he gasped in awe. I was very proud indeed: maybe I could not play sports, but I had a handle, so to speak, on a very basic game that all men want to play well. When I tell women friends this anecdote they have a hard time understanding that for men orgasm is a function as much as an expression of desire. The commonplace practice of boys at camp or young soldiers standing in a row jerking off to compete in ejaculating is a response to the former; women only know the latter.
My first experience of sexual relations falls somewhere in both of these two categories, I imagine. At this distance in time I only dimly recall the moment. A youngster named Buddy and I were alone at his house. We must have been at some function because I picture Buddy in his gabardine pants, wing-tip shoes, dress shirt, and tie. If you can, try to recall Andy Hardy and you will get the idea. We were standing in the garage, where Buddy’s father carried out his hobbies of woodworking and car repair. Buddy had gone into a drawer of tools and fished out some magazines, which he evidently knew were there. The one he opened for our inspection showed a series of naked women facing the camera with their legs spread or being mounted by naked men, the typical porno shots of the time. I don’t remember being amazed, horrified, repulsed, or attracted by the photos. What I do remember was the bulge in Buddy’s pants. Somehow I stepped back from viewing the magazine, which gave me the perspective to notice the distinct articulation of Buddy’s member. Without thinking, I moved to unzip the fly of his pants, and gently maneuvered his erection through the opening of his underwear. Dropping to my knees, I took Buddy in my mouth and stayed there, moving my head until I felt him come. And then I stood again, bent my head slightly to the side, and spat the contents of my mouth onto the concrete floor of the garage. We both stared at the small pool shimmering in the light from the work lamps nearby. Buddy put his penis away, zipped up his fly, put the magazine back into the drawer, and we both left the place. Neither of us said a word. I guess I went home. I have no further recollection of the incident, nor do I remember in the rest of the years of my schooling speaking with Buddy. He was never part of my crowd; I think he went to parochial school and I do not know how I came to be with him that day. Something about those gabardine pants and wing-tip shoes makes me remember him as what we would now call a nerd.
By eighth grade we were pairing off into couples, “going steady.” Few of us had any real understanding of the boy-girl phenomenon. A girl named Rosie had taken upon herself the role of social arbiter of the class, and she was unofficially establishing couples. I was assigned Betty Lou, a very well developed girl with a loud voice, a habit of cracking gum, and an aggressive friendliness, a very good female equivalent of me, come to think of it; Rosie clearly had talent for what she was doing. Betty Lou, who lived near the school, used to sit with me on the school steps in the gloaming and we necked. I kissed her, she let me put my hands on her breasts through her blouse. I even invited Betty Lou to my house, and she appropriately enough appalled my mother, especially when she told her that her own mother was a scrub aide in surgery at the hospital and had “worshipped” my father.
In my second and last year at junior high school I guess Mother took it into her head to be more aggressive in giving me an all-masculine environment. At any rate, she suddenly announced that instead of freshman year at high school I would go away to Andover, Massachusetts, to attend Phillips Academy, the renowned prep school there. When I consider the present-day orientation and preparation leading up to the decision to send a child away to school, and then the actual journey to arrive on opening day, I am astounded at my robust cheer at what I went through. First off, her decision to send me to Andover did not include any discussion of the matter with me, either over going far away from home or the particular institution where I was to be enrolled. The sight of me sitting reading in a silent room perfectly ordered, smelling of fresh-cut flowers, which in fact I had somewhat earlier helped my mother arrange, might have put her in mind of the story of Ferdinand the Bull. Or maybe it was the tableau that presented itself to her eyes as she sought me out one day when I was up in the nursery. I was seated at one of my sisters’ four dollhouses rearranging the furniture while dreaming up domestic drama. As usual I was ignoring the elaborate electric train set with its many switches, main lines, off lines, mountains, valleys, lakes, and bridges. It was not that I did not like electric trains, but their potential was easily exhausted, whereas interior decoration and drawing room comedy offered endless variations. One sight of that, I fear, and it was Andover for me.
The next thing I knew, a huge wardrobe trunk had been delivered to my bedroom, the kind that people in thirties films used to maneuver around in their stateroom on transatlantic voyages. Before the war I had more than once crossed half the continent on trains when my little sister and I traveled with the help from Iowa City to Montreal, where a car picked us up for the ride to join our family at the summer place in Vermont. This trip I would be alone, and somehow that grand trunk suggested a kind of ominous permanence. Suddenly it was the day of my departure; at four in the morning it was just turning light as I waved goodbye to Mother and boarded the Zephyr, an art deco masterpiece of stainless steel that took me to Chicago. From the LaSalle Street Station I found my way onto the Parmelee Transfer, a bus that brought me to Union Station and the New England States, a deluxe all-Pullman train on which I slept overnight. The following morning in Boston’s South Station I looked at my now quite tattered set of instructions and took a taxi to North Station, where I boarded a commuter train to the town of Andover. There I engaged another taxi to take me up to the school, where I found Rockwell House, my dorm, and someone to sign me in. Finally I was lying exhausted on the bed in my room listening to the voices of other boys and their parents coming through the window.
The account of this journey sometimes horrifies people. Contemporary helicopter parents, certainly, cannot imagine it. But in wartime things were different. The only distress I remember was the embarrassment of arriving not dressed in a jacket and tie, attire no one in Iowa would consider for a boy on a two-day train trip. At the same moment, when I realized that all the other boys seemed to be accompanied by parents, I froze with the sense of being an outsider. I have to think that Mother did not come with me because wartime travel was so much controlled and limited; and I can now see that most of the boys came from New York and Boston, from rich eastern families whose parents no doubt were cheating on the gas rationing in order to drive their boys to New England prep schools. Still, I was alone and I was betrayed. Perhaps I should imagine that this was yet another maneuver in my mother’s never-ending struggle to make a man of me. (My husband, Richard, thinks that I am being charitable.) It did succeed in reinforcing the idea that you can count on no one. That, I guess, is what being a man is all about, or was in the mind of an Edwardian woman. Years before, I had tripped at school, and, although I was unaware of it, broken my ankle. When I hobbled home for lunch, sobbing in pain, Mother seemed indifferent and sent me back to school. When I struggled home again at three, the pain and swelling were enough to induce her to take me to the hospital. Cruel and inhuman treatment? Monstrous indifference? Incapacity to deal with another’s suffering? Determination to make a little lad into a stoic? Whatever her motive, the experience was good training for the ordeal of my sixteenth year.
The year at Andover actually went well enough. The teachers were excellent, and I regretted later that I had not attacked my assignments with more passion. My housemaster complained that I was a dilettante. Testament to the truth of this proposition was my indifference to consulting a dictionary for the meaning of that word. Most of the time, like any other fourteen-year-old, I was just hanging out with the guys. My schoolmates were a congenial lot, but I was not part of their athletic program, which is the true glue of teenage male relationships. I was placed in the dorm for the maturer beginning students where we each had our own room. This was a lucky stroke, as it gave me the privacy to experiment sexually that year without shame or fear. I cannot believe how innocent I was, how readily I took to sex, and for how long I let the Andover experience form the pattern for it.
Uninteresting as descriptions of sexual intercourse can be, I shall describe my relations with my two partners that year because they changed me forever. A month after my arrival found me in the bathroom near my room waiting for the one available shower. It was afternoon, I was excused from athletics, of course, and had decided to profit from the absence of my dorm mates, since two of the three showers were broken in our wing. Unaccountably, another boy had arrived there first. Warren was his name. He was a short, wiry, muscular blond, with a hard, determined face. “Out in a minute,” he said, peering around the shower curtain. Seconds later he spoke again, this time without showing himself, to invite me in. Absolutely innocent of any preconception, Your Honor, I took the towel off my waist and entered. The space was small, scarcely big enough for one boy. When I adjusted to the steam of the shower I saw that Warren sported a major erection. Almost instantly I grew hard myself.
“Always get a hard-on around now. Every afternoon,” Warren announced. “What about you? Why are you hard?”
Could I ever have been so simpleminded? “Because you are, Warren.”
I agreed when he asked if he could fuck me in the ass, but the pain of entry was far too much. “Let me suck you,” I suggested, sinking to my knees before getting his assent. I think that this startled him; I sensed uncertainty. But blow him I did, then and at least once a week thereafter throughout the course of the first year.
Two weeks later another boy, Butler, and I found ourselves at loose ends in the dorm when our English class had been canceled. We gravitated into my room, sex being perhaps already in our subconscious even if we did not recognize the desire. Thinking of Warren, I proposed fucking Butler, who cheerfully lowered his pants, bent over, and submitted to my greasing him up. But the pain of entry instantly made him straighten up and reject me. Butler asked to fuck me, and I agreed, forgetting in my excitement the pain Warren had caused. Somehow now the pain seemed easier to take; maybe it was the grease and my extreme arousal, or perhaps Butler was not so well endowed as Warren. As Butler had his way with me I discovered that extraordinarily pleasant sensation of the thrust, moreover the bliss of sensing the spent prick up one’s bum. English class was canceled again the following day. Butler and I fairly ran back to my dorm room for another session. This time, needless to say, it was far easier and far more agreeable.
Butler and I had a real relationship that year. We seemed to gravitate on Saturday afternoon into my room and go to bed together naked. This meant that there was much more contact between us than I had with Warren. Butler would hug me, sometimes kiss me, rub his body against mine, but he would not bring me to orgasm, although he tolerated me jerking off. We would lie about, talking, until we were aroused enough to go at it again. Sometimes I played games with him, refusing his advances until he was beside himself with sexual excitement. Butler was a tall, gangly boy, not too bright, but affectionate like a golden retriever. He was constantly horny. Some evenings just before lights-out he would get permission from the hall monitor to come down to my room, ostensibly for consultation about our English assignments. He arrived in his pajamas clutching the textbook to his crotch behind which he had hidden the tube of Vaseline and his erection. Because the doors would not lock and there were boys in the hall getting ready for bed, our drill was quick and efficient: down with my pajama bottoms, bend over the bed, off with the Vaseline cap, a swift swipe of grease with his finger, penetration, thrust, thrust, spasm, sigh of contentment, withdrawal. “Thanks. See ya,” and he was out the door, leaving me to lie in bed, glowing in my lower torso and ready to finger the instrument of my joy, as the porn romances would have it. Butler and I made plans to room together in our sophomore year. It would have been a disaster. He would have enjoyed the available sex and homework assistance, but anyone as sexy as Butler would soon have discovered girls. I would have fallen in love with him, but by then he would have considered our sex as somewhere between desperate measures and outright perversion.
Blowing Warren never got beyond minimal physical contact. Butler and I were friends, we wandered around the grounds together, we studied together, we went with other friends to the ice-cream parlor. Warren was friendly enough when we met for an encounter, but there was none of the extension of personality that marks friendship. But one evening he came to my room and threw himself on my bed. This was uncharacteristically demonstrative for Warren, almost a provocation. By now I was fully adept at anal intercourse and so I unzipped his fly, brought him out, got on top of him, and sat down. He went wild with excitement. “Why haven’t we done this before?” he asked hoarsely, thrusting up and down energetically. He was off a second later. The next day after my shower I walked into his room clutching my towel around my waist, threw it aside, and lay down on his bed. Without a word he stripped, lay down, and entered me. For the next four or five days he was either in my room or I in his. One day we got it on in the morning and again in the evening. This made him very angry, as he growled at me when we were doing calisthenics together in the exercise room. By now he was furious with himself and with me. At the time I could not understand why, but now I think that he sensed he was growing too excited by what we were doing. The next time he walked into my room, he moved toward me, then stopped, and an ugly look crossed his face. He yelled at me, saying I stank, that I was too dirty to get near, and with that he walked out of the door and out of my life.
Although I got along well enough with the boys at Andover, I certainly did not like an all-male environment. They were a boisterous lot, the boys of Rockwell House, sometimes erupting from their rooms in flights of enthusiasm and jollity, running up and down the corridors bellowing at full voice, playing tricks on each other that verged on physical mayhem. Having been raised among women, I was put off by teenage male high jinks. When I went home for Christmas I began a campaign to convince my mother to let me come back home to City High.
The Christmas visit itself convinced me that Iowa City was the best place of all. My mother had encouraged me to host a dance during the holidays. I called it The Caribou Stomp, don’t ask me why. Invitations were printed up and sent. It was to be formal, there would be the forties equivalent of a disc jockey putting on and taking off the 78 rpm shellac records every three or so minutes. I had dance cards printed as well. It was certainly flamboyant, maybe pretentious, with maybe even a hint of the ridiculous, veering toward camp. Who knows what goes on in the brain of a fourteen-year-old about to blossom? The dance was a great success. All the many friends I had made in junior high school were there, as well as the old friends from my earlier school days. It was a moment in my life that I would never visit again. Yes, there have been other gatherings, other outpourings of affection over the years, but never again would I know the pleasure of blending into the crowd, of being at one with my peers and colleagues. Within a short time I would come to know affection, when affection was there, blended with amusement, or condescension, or acceptance, or forgiveness—take all the vocabulary for the attitudes with which one views a freak, an anomaly. In every other gathering in later years I had to hold the crowd at bay; whether dancing, dining, toasting, laughing, telling stories, flirting, charming, I was always cornered.
Copyright © 2012 by Charles Rowan Beye
Meet the Author
Charles Rowan Beye is a retired professor of Ancient Greek. Competing sexual and emotional attractions have shaped the drama of his life. Openly gay in his teens, twice married to women, father of four, he is now married to his male partner of the last twenty years.
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This was nothing but a book about this man's sexual appetite and conquests. My book club decided to read this and we all agreed that it was nothing but a "man's bragging" book. It was just too sexually graphic for my taste.