The story of a gay son and his father.
About the Author
Walter Fricke is the author of Sudden Strangers.
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The Story of a Gay Son and his Father
By Aaron Fricke, Walter Fricke
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1991 Aaron Fricke
All rights reserved.
UNDERSTANDING THE PAST
When I was a little boy, my dad would take me to work with him every so often. Going to work with one's father might be boring for a lot of kids, but it wasn't for me. My father's job as a ship's pilot had him navigating large freighters into New England and New York City ports. So when I went to work with him, I was boarding huge supertankers twelve stories high and two and a half football fields long.
There were a few rules my father set for me on these trips: I could not touch any instruments on the bridge; I could walk but not run anywhere I wanted on the deck; and most importantly, when he raised his hand, it meant he was engaged in some precise maneuvering of the ship and there was to be no talking or distractions. Usually, I knew intuitively to stay in the background, but on those occasions when his quiet, professional intensity went unnoticed and I chimed up with some question or other, his hand shot up and abruptly stopped me in mid-inquiry. Later on, when he was finished, he would ask me what it was I had wanted to know or say. I could rarely remember. What I do remember is that effort he made to retract any discouragement with which he might have dampened my curiosity. He always took pains to let me know that asking questions was the right thing to do — just not while he was at the helm of a fifty-thousand-ton piece of machinery.
One time when I was fourteen, my dad decided to take me along on one of his piloting jobs to New York City. I looked forward to spending the time with him and some time in the city, too. As we sailed down the East River, I looked out at eye level to the tenth story of the buildings we passed. The city itself was enough to inspire awe, but knowing that my dad was in control of this mass of steel sailing by filled me with an overwhelming sense of wonder.
The sea was smooth during our journey — at least I thought it was. I soon learned that what constituted smooth sailing for a supertanker was something a lot choppier for the dinky pilot boat that came to pick us up at Stapleton-Anchorage Point, not too far from the Statue of Liberty. I looked down from the deck at the pilot boat's repeated attempts to get nudged close enough to the tanker so that my father and I could climb the Jacob's ladder down to it. With each attempt, the pilot boat was knocked about in the surf and I was petrified of having to jump from the moderately stationary tanker onto this moving platform. My father was nervous, too, but he told me it was either climb down or stay on board and sail to Brazil with the stinky sailors. I didn't have the guts to tell him just how tempting that prospect was.
He went down first. He said he was going to show me how easy it would be, but I knew he just wanted to be down closer to the water in case he had to rescue me. Then came my turn. I crept slowly down the side of the ship and followed my father's instructions to look directly ahead while descending. At one point, however, I had to get some bearing on how much more ladder was left before I reached the bottom, so I glanced down and found I had about three more rungs to go. Except for one slight problem: There was only surging ocean below the ladder. The pilot boat had gotten caught in a swell and was tossing in the surf at least one hundred feet away from the tanker. Meanwhile, I was left dangling three-quarters of the way down a fifty-foot-high wall of steel. Obviously, I lived to tell this story. Within five minutes, the pilot boat was positioned under me, and after some coaxing from my dad, I made the four-foot leap from the bottom of the ladder to the safety of his arms.
Adventures like this were part of my dad's daily work routine. Yet as exciting as this kind of work was, I knew I was not going to follow in his footsteps. I was going to seek out my own particular brand of excitement.
Once we got on solid ground, we headed for my paternal grandmother's house in Brooklyn. This house was near the one in which my father had been raised during the Depression. That night, I told my dad that I was thinking about going over to the movies in Manhattan the next day. He said that would be fine, since he had business to take care of at the stock exchange. He woke up and left early the next morning. I woke up later and got myself ready. I had no intention of going to the movies, however; during the entire trip, I had been secretly working up enough guts to go into the city and buy an issue of Hung Pig or some such magazine with naked men in it.
I knew the perils of deceiving my father — he had told me himself that one lie leads to another, even bigger lie — but two years earlier I had seen such magazines right out in the open at a news shop on Madison Avenue. Now I was perversely drawn back to the same spot like some kind of gay spawning salmon. For all I knew, this was the only place in the universe with these magazines. With an existential resoluteness, I figured out how to get from Brooklyn to Madison Avenue by subway.
It took me two hours of walking up and down Madison Avenue before I had the courage to enter the shop. My pulse pounded, my palms sweat, and my grace atrophied as I went in, but my method for pulling off this crime against nature had been too extensively premeditated to turn back at that point.
I first picked up a copy of weekly Variety, knowing that I would need something to conceal my primary purchase. I took a few steps, glanced skyward, and found that the objects of my desire were still there on the top shelf, just as they had been two years earlier. I indiscriminately grabbed one, placed it on top of the Variety, went over to the counter, and, to my relief, bought both of them from a completely disengaged New York cashier. Before even reaching the threshold of the doorway to the shop, I had the magazine tightly wedged between the pages of Variety — hidden from view.
The urban rhythms of New York did not exactly allow me to be alone with my guilt (or my porno), but those same rhythms did, at least, give me a chance to carry this guilt anonymously. Or so I thought.
By the freakiest of freak coincidences, my father boarded the same car of the same subway train that I was taking to get back to Brooklyn. Our eyes met instantly, the moment the subway doors opened. I sat there paralyzed with fear as he walked right up to me and tried to initiate a frolicking conversation about the astronomical odds against our running into each other during a one-day visit to the city. I tightened my grasp on Variety and looked down to make sure nothing was showing. I was afraid I was going to have a cerebral hemorrhage from stress before we arrived in Brooklyn. At one point, he actually touched my tightly clutched bundle of shame, saying, "Whatchya got?" I milked my adolescent detachment for all it was worth. He just interpreted this combination of fear, anxiety, and detachment as a sign that I was adapting appropriately to New York City. I interpreted the entire scene as an evil omen, so when we arrived at our stop in Brooklyn and he stood up to get off, I stood up behind him but left the porno on the subway seat without ever getting a chance to look at it.
Shortly after this trip to New York with my father, I became emotionally isolated. I retreated into my own world and my morale sank. I turned to food as an emotional escape and my weight shot up to 217½ pounds — all this because I felt remorse for being a homosexual. Remorse can be so debilitating, especially remorse about everything that you are or anything that you will become.
After about two years of that, I met a high school classmate who was openly gay and things started to change. My new friend had everything I needed to help me counter the stifling feelings I had developed. He had a listening ear, he had a shoulder to cry on, and he had gay porno. Through him I met other gay friends, and the feelings of isolation that had engulfed me gradually began to subside, as did my weight.
My dad was unaware of any of this until much later, when he read practically those same words in the book where I had written them, Reflections of a Rock Lobster. He had just been going through my teenage years with all the subconscious expectations that parents have for their kids: I'd graduate from high school, I'd go to college, I'd get married, and I'd have kids of my own. He didn't premeditate this as a restrictive parental edict, he just took it for granted. Within this structure, there would be plenty of room for me to make my own choices and then to succeed or fail at them. Barring any accidental death or dismemberment mishap, this "high school, college, marriage, kids" scheme represented the bare bones of my father's most subconscious middle-class, white-collar expectations of me. So it was more than just a shock when, at age eighteen, I told him that I was a homosexual; it was more like an unraveling of his expectations.
Then a few months after that, when I asked for his blessing to sue my high school for the right to take a male date to my senior prom, it was, as he so delicately puts it, "the icing on the cake." He gave me his blessing to do what I felt was right, without offering either his approval or disapproval. It took a lot of strength for him to allow me that freedom, because he knew I would not have gone through with it had he told me not to. If the media blitz that ensued immediately after this case's victory ever made him regret giving me that blessing, he never told me so.
He was not, however, a pillar of stoicism to the core. One cannot have all one's expectations suddenly removed without it creating some form of emotional turmoil. He couldn't help but wonder what was going to become of me. He worried that the sense of security he felt from having a family was something I would be denied. He knew that even though gay people can and do enter heterosexual marriages and raise families, the majority do not. He could not imagine what a man's life would be like without a family for whom to provide. So after the prom, as my father watched me leaving for California in a whirlwind of publicity, he could only hope and pray that whatever I was to become would not be completely unrecognizable from the person he had expected I would become.CHAPTER 2
UNDERSTANDING THE FUTURE
As a kid, I always had hoped I would someday get a chance to go to California. I can't say why, exactly, but looking back on it I cannot disregard the fact that California is about as far away on the map as you can get from Rhode Island and still be in the continental United States. In September of 1980, I got that chance when I made a deal with a Pittsburgh talk show's producers that instead of flying back to Providence, I would take advantage of an equally priced train fare to California.
The train took a few days to cross the country, and during that time I experienced the gradual transformation of both the topography of the country and the landscapes of my perceptions. I was filled with a confident anticipation for my future.
My friend Ed Miskevitch, who had recently moved to California from Rhode Island himself, offered to let me stay with him for three weeks. I had a guaranteed return after that because I had another talk show slated in New York three weeks later. If it seems as though I took these television shows for granted as my free passage back and forth across the United States, I didn't. I always considered them an excellent opportunity to reach young gay people across the country who might feel confused and isolated. I tried not to lose sight of the fact that it had not been so very long since I had been one of them.
I was receiving letters from young and old gay people in response to these talk shows and really felt as if I was tapping into a quiet community. A letter from James Barry of San Gabriel, California, had a special warmth. He was a self-described "gay senior citizen" who offered me the use of his spare room if I was ever in California. "Lots of love and affection," he wrote, "but no sex." This was a gesture on his part to alleviate any fears I might have of becoming entangled in a sexually exploitative situation, and I appreciated that.
During my second day in California, I met Jim Barry and soon realized that the warmth and concern that came through in his letter was consistent with his overall character. Jim turned out to be a sixty-five-year-old man who felt he could offer a gay youth the touch of wisdom and guidance. He guessed I might be an intelligent-enough young man to appreciate the value of this offer. All Jim asked for in return was my susceptibility to influence. He saw this as a great opportunity to share the most valuable thing he had to offer a young gay person, wisdom sparked by genuine empathy. I decided that after the New York talk show, I would return to California and stay with Jim.
Jim did not offer me financial support. Through gentle persuasion, he saw to it that I got myself a job at a local supermarket. At night, he reminded me of the work needed to be done on my book in progress. He called the quiet moments before my writing "our inspirational talks." And they were just that.
During that fall of 1980, I kept in contact with my father in Rhode Island. Upon learning that I was receiving the hospitality and good graces of a sixty-five-year-old man, and the circumstances of how I met him, my father became concerned. The fear that I might be getting by in the world by providing sexual favors for a lecherous sixty-five-year-old was enough to make my dad think he just might have lost me to that world. "That world" is so removed from the mainstream Rhode Islander's perceptions that it is sometimes referred to as the "homosexual world." To my father, whose frame of reference was close enough to that of the mainstream Rhode Islander, it was a world based on sex, where young men forsake critical years of development, only to become lonely old men preying on young men to attain the thing of most importance in this "homosexual world": sex.
He had to know! Was this older homosexual programming me with a negative influence, a "homosexual philosophy" as it were? He tossed around the idea of a trip to California to see what was becoming of me. Questions ran through his mind. Would I be willing to share the truth of my new life? Would he be sorry if I did? My father knew that if I was maintaining the standards with which he had raised me, our integral father-son bond would surely be strong enough to overcome any rift caused solely by our different sexual orientations. If, however, being a homosexual meant that I eschewed all semblance of the integrity he was familiar with, I would have to go through life without his acceptance.
It might seem that a father who could cope with his son's homosexuality enough to write a book could accept just about anything. What a great father that would be, right? If so, it's not the kind of father Walter Fricke is. Just because he accepts the fact that I am a homosexual does not mean he gives me carte blanche to do anything. He has said to me, "If you ever commit a murder, don't call me to bail you out of jail." As wrong as it may be to equate the acceptance of murder with the acceptance of homosexuality, the sad fact is that there are scores of fathers who would find it easier to accept a son as a murderer than as a homosexual. Walter Fricke is not one of them.
Partially out of curiosity and partially because he missed his son, he resolved in the spring of 1981 to take a trip to California to visit me. Up to this point, my coming out to my dad had been the most important test of our relationship. After that, I had the feeling that our relationship had survived the ultimate test. Unbeknownst to me, however, my father's trip to California signaled a second, equally volatile time for us. Plans were made: He would come to visit me for two weeks. Jim opened up his home to my father as he had to me, although not in the same words. My father was a little apprehensive, but he accepted Jim's invitation.
It was warm when he arrived in California, especially in contrast to the cold New England climate he had left behind — the environment in which I had grown up. As he drove his rented car from the Los Angeles airport to the house I shared with Jim, his mind tossed back and forth while surrounded by this new Southern California environment: the hot, dry air, the radically different foliage, the overall ambience and attitude. This ambience is perhaps best exemplified by the freeways, which are like constantly flowing rivers into which you cannot jump twice, with their stream of sports cars zooming past his rented car.
He was getting the feeling that maybe my choice to live in this place had, in itself, created distance between us. He realized it was irrational to draw this conclusion from the external stimuli he was receiving, but he also knew that even these superficial elements of the California scenario might represent subtle undertones of my conscious choice to live in a place that would present no reminder of the mores and restriction that living in Rhode Island would demand. My father's apprehensions became so great that his first bit of relief came upon his arrival at the house, when Jim and I answered the door fully clothed. Jim extended a firm handshake, and with direct eye contact said to my dad, "Well, hello, Walter. Come in. What a pleasure it is to meet this fine young man's father." Then once again, my father snapped back to his senses and knew it was illogical to conclude that I had abandoned his code of ethics just because I'd changed my daily scenery.
Excerpted from Sudden Strangers by Aaron Fricke, Walter Fricke. Copyright © 1991 Aaron Fricke. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Understanding the Past,
Understanding the Future,
Our Separate Ways,
Accepting Your Gay Children by Walter,
Accepting Your Heterosexual Parents by Aaron,
Telling Your Parents You're Gay by Aaron,
Suggestions on How to Respond by Walter,
Praying for Change by Aaron,
Praying for Change by Walter,
Epilogue by Aaron,
About the Authors,