Thursday, November 2, 2017

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

“What’s up with all the sirens?”

Hannah sits up and looks out the open door of our motel room in Barstow, California.

We’ve heard sirens every few minutes since we checked into the neon-signed, park-right-outside-your-room, the-key-is-an-actual-key motel on old Route 66. The door is open because the air conditioner blew a cloud that smelled like parmesan cheese up my daughter’s nose. She made me turn it off and open the door to get some air flowing through the stuffy, simple room.

We are on Hannah’s Big Adventure. A long time ago, I promised my kids that when they each turned sixteen I would take them on the road trip of their choice, just the two of us. Hannah is eighteen and a little overdue, but I eventually make good on most of my promises, and making good on this one has been well worth the wait.

In the past few days, Hannah and I have made our way through the Mojave Desert, down into Joshua Tree, out to the Salton Sea, and over the Rim of the World Byway in San Bernardino Forest. We’ve waved at train engineers, browsed outdoor desert art galleries, hiked over rocks and trails, and held our breath as the sun set the ground on fire every evening. We’ve played bongos under a Joshua tree (okay, that was just me), communed with Chinese lions in the desert, and wondered who might have lived and died in the abandoned places we’ve explored. We've braved high winds dusted with egg farts to climb a painted mountain, driven slowly through a dead, drugged out, and desolate seaside town, slept in sketchy motels, and sung along to a road trip medley worthy of movie montage magic.

For me, the highlight of our adventure thus far has been visiting the dinosaurs at Cabazon. Hannah and I share a love for PeeWee Herman, and the dinos were featured in his own Big Adventure back when I was a teenager. I have wanted to see them ever since, and could not have wished for a better companion when I finally did. As we approached the massive T-Rex, my heart skipped rope inside my chest. A few moments later, I felt the onset of warm tears clearing the desert sand from my eyes when Hannah asked me to take a photo of her hugging its leg.

Hannah isn’t often willing to stand on that side of the lens, which is ironic because she carries with her more cameras than a Japanese tour bus. Most of them are film cameras she has acquired from flea markets, garage sales, and online classifieds. And then there’s the Polaroid. It weighs more than a newborn wrapped in a wet towel and it looks like a Soviet satellite that fell to Earth, but Hannah loves it. She only pulls it out to capture the most breathtaking vistas, the oddest of places, and people whose memory will matter to her. It means a lot to be framed within the thin white border of a Hannah Polaroid. This trip has boasted quite a few of those framings, and that brings more than a small amount of happiness to my heart.

More sirens sound out in Barstow. Hannah begins to Google.

“Dad, where the hell have you brought us? Do you know how high the murder rate is in this town?” She asks, knowing full well that I don’t.

“Is it high?” I ask, distracted by road trip television.

“Only four percent of American cities are more dangerous than Barstow, California!” Hannah reads aloud.

More sirens outside.

“We are going to die.” Hannah declares.

I chuckle in reply.

“Shut and lock the damn door, now!” My daughter orders.

I climb off my bed and walk over to the door, and then watch as a late model Audi pulls up to the room next to ours. Four of the whitest people I have ever seen (and I live in Utah) clamber out, laughing and chatting away, unaware that they will all surely be dead by morning.

I close the door and turn back to find Hannah pointing at the bathroom door.

“Did you lock the bathroom window?”

I cross to the bathroom and slide the tiny window shut. The “lock” is a piece of pvc pipe cut to fit the window trough and keep the window from sliding open. I show it to Hannah, who is not amused.

“Why are we even in this dump of a motel in downtown Murder City, California?” she wonders aloud.

“Relax, this is all part of the road trip experience. Caleb and I stayed in some pretty sketchy places on his trip. It’s part of the thrill, part of the adventure. You’ll have something to tell people,” I assure her.

“How can I tell anyone when I’m dead?” she counters, but there is the hint of a smile in her voice.

“Just go to sleep, then you won’t see it coming,” I joke.

We sit in bed eating snacks and watching terrible television. Hannah drifts off to sleep some time later, and only then do I settle into my pillow to follow suit. I leave the TV on; it fills the room with dancing blues and whites, and provides background noise to mask the occasional siren.

A tiny meowing wakes me the next morning. I lay in bed for a while, wondering if I imagined the sound. Soon I am checking email and thinking about the adventures in Vegas we have planned for the day.

Hannah stirs.

“You’re alive!” I exclaim with glee.

Another tiny meow sounds outside our door. Hannah bolts from her bed. The murderous dangers of Barstow are forgotten as she rips the door open and blinks in the bright morning light.

Three hours, a little milk, and a can of cat food purchased at the local grocery store later, and we still haven’t managed to catch the scrawny little source of the meowing. Not for lack of trying, of course; Hannah has managed to coax it out from under car after car, and we’ve chased it through the rusting tools and car parts scattered about the motel property, almost getting a caring hand on the kitten more than once. She’s a slippery little baby and very shy, however, and she escapes us with a taunting meow every time. We are dirty, sweaty, and late, but we are determined.

Hannah’s love for the poor creature is infectious, and I am unwilling to admit defeat and demand that we get on our way and leave the kitten to work out its own survival. My daughter, a feisty little girl with an iron will and deep dimples, has grown up into a feisty woman with an iron will and a deep love for anything with life pulsing through its frame, no matter how small. Just a couple of days ago, as we drove through the Mojave Desert, she noticed a fly buzzing around inside the car. Rather than let me shoo it away through an open window, Hannah placed a tiny piece of mango on the keyboard of her Macbook and watched over that little fly like a proud mother as it fed for over an hour.

Loving animals isn’t just the flavor of the month for this girl.

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with wolves, and decided that I would save them. I bought a “Save the Wolf” tee shirt from the Sierra Club, and wore it more often than anyone should wear anything other than their own skin. I read everything written on the beautiful, mysterious, and misunderstood animals that were threatened with extinction, and wondered what I could do to help. I meant well, but I was a useless ally; all I managed to accomplish was to paste their images across my bedroom walls and buy a James Taylor album with a picture of a howling wolf on the cover. I did, however, consider the movie “Never Cry Wolf” to be a training video for my life as a northern explorer and wolf advocate, and I hoped that one day I too would run naked through the wilderness with a wolf pack of my own.

When the Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean off the coast of Prince William Sound, Alaska, I declared with righteous indignation that Exxon would never again get their hands on one red cent of my hard-earned money. (Not that I had ever spent a red cent on their gas anyway, because Exxon was always the most expensive gas around and I didn’t have that much hard-earned money.) Notwithstanding my financial situation, I took to waving a middle finger out the window of my ’72 Chevy Nova whenever I drove past an Exxon station, a very rebellious act for a dorky teenager that never swore.

One day I happened to be riding with my girlfriend’s family on our way to the beach. As her father pulled the van into the local Exxon to gas up, I threw the side door open and leaped from the moving van, desperate to demonstrate my burning white hatred for wolf-killing corporate greed. I stood on the curb, watching from afar with great gobs of disgust as my girlfriend’s father pumped profits into the coffers of my nemesis.

That was as far as I ever took my love for the wolves; “reason” eventually outpaced my desire to live up north and run naked with my beloved wolves. Someone else managed to save them, however, for which I am grateful.

Hannah has already proven herself faster than me when it comes to racing against reason.

Back in Murder City, USA, while Hannah devises another strategy to catch the kitten, I make my way to the motel office to turn in our room key.

“Allan is very upset with you and your daughter,” the tiny woman at the front desk tells me.


“Our handyman,” she says, turning and pointing out the window at an old man leaning against an old Ford.

Allan’s arms are folded across his chest, and a frown masks his face.

“Why is he upset?” I ask the woman.

“He has been leaving food out for that little kitten. He wants her to be his cat,” she explains.

I thank her, leave the office, and approach Allan.

“I hear you’ve been feeding that kitten,” I say without introduction.

Allan shrugs his reply.

“My daughter Hannah loves animals, and she can’t bear the thought of that poor thing being left to fend for itself. We can't leave this town until she know it will be loved and cared for. If we buy some food and leave it with you, will you see that the kitten is cared for?” I ask, a heavy dose of friendly in my tone.

Allan looks up at me and shrugs again. “Sure, I guess,” he says, perking up a bit.

Thirty minutes later, after an impromptu shopping spree, we return to hand Allan a month’s supply of food, two silver feeding bowls, a box of fish flavored treats, and a soft little cat bed. Allan beams as much as I imagine he probably ever has.

“I’ve got some worming medicine in my room that I bought at the pet store. I want to give it to her as soon as she is big enough and I can get her to trust me enough to hold her,” he offers, a mix of pride and concern in his voice.

“That’s nice, I’m glad she has someone to love her,” I say, meaning it.

Hannah and I are all smiles as we watch Allan place the bed outside the door of his room. He fills one of the bowls with fresh water and the other with a hefty portion of cat treats.

“Did you manage to get close enough to see if she was a girl?” Allan turns and asks Hannah.

“I got close, but I couldn’t tell,” Hannah answers.

“I’ll have to get her spayed if she is,” he replies.

I shake Allan’s hand and thank him for his kindness. He nods and turns away, bashful and embarrassed. I get the feeling that Allan is unaccustomed to praise and attention, and maybe even love. I watch as he turns and picks up a rake. He disappears behind a fence, and a moment later I can hear the rake scratching at the dirt.

Hannah and I climb into the car and pull away from the little motel. My road trip plans for the day are a wash, and I haven't eaten a thing all day, but I don’t care. As we leave Murder City and head north into the desert, my stomach rumbles and my heart skips rope.         

Run Hannah, run.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Scout's Honor

“I just need to see one of you get a boner, and I’ll buy you a Playboy.”

Frank leaned over and dropped a piece of kindling on the growing fire, as if his proposition had been expected, like a casual request for a sip of someone’s soda or a bite from their candy bar.

The awkward silence that followed seemed to cling to the campfire’s wafting smoke, weighing it down so it billowed around our little band of brothers like a thick and tangible fog.

At fifteen, I wasn’t quite the oldest, but neither was I the youngest of Frank’s junior assistant scoutmasters. Not that age or rank mattered; a furtive glance around the fire told me that our Scoutmaster’s request had had an immediate effect on all of us.

“Unless none of you is man enough,” Frank sneered.

Showing my boner to another guy doesn’t sound like a very manly thing to do…

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to touch anyone’s prick, I’m not a faggot,” Frank chuckled.

Frank wasn’t my Scoutmaster year-round, so I didn’t know him well enough to read his true intentions. We attended different Mormon congregations, which meant that I only saw him every few months or so, whenever he chaperoned youth dances or served as Scoutmaster for church-wide scouting activities such as the week-long summer encampment we were on at that very uneasy moment. Despite my limited acquaintance with him, I didn’t think Frank wasn’t gay, because every time I saw him, he’d tell me how much he hated queers.

But if he’s not gay, why does he want to see one of us get a boner? Is this a trick? Is he testing us?

“I just need to make sure I don’t have any sissies that can’t get it up serving in my ranks,” Frank explained.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to give us a Playboy and then see who can’t get it up?

A tough guy with a military background that included service in Vietnam, Frank was all about being a badass. He loved the flag, and every morning of camp he’d lead us in a military style flag raising. Under his direction we’d march everywhere we went, his barked orders echoing through the woods for other scout troops to hear and fear. He encouraged the hazing of younger scouts that didn’t fit in, sparked rivalries with other scout troops, and made fun of Scoutmasters that were too soft on their boys. At night around the fire, he’d tell us stories about killing gooks and shooting spooks, and how life in the trenches was only for the toughest of men. The Armed Forces didn’t allow homos within its ranks, so why should the Boy Scouts?

He’s just trying to weed out the weak, to make us stronger...

“You guys are all planning on serving missions, right?” Frank’s words were more of a command than they were a question.

Emphatic nods and grunts of acknowledgment made their way around the fire.

“Tell me, what are you going to do if one of your missionary companions tries to kiss you, peeks at you in the shower, or climbs into bed with you?”

“Has that ever happened?” someone managed to ask, the shock we all felt conveyed in his tone.

“You bet your ass it has! When I was a ward mission leader, I caught two faggot missionaries in bed together.”

“No way!” came the immediate reaction from more than one of us.

“Way,” Frank confirmed.

“What’d you do?” I asked.

“What do you think I did? I beat the shit out of them both!” Frank barked.

His eyes gleamed in the firelight as he told the story.

“They were crying and begging and cowering like pussies, but I kicked their asses anyway. Trashed their apartment and broke some furniture while doing it. I made them pack their bags, then shoved them into my car and drove them to the airport.” Frank said.

“You sent them home?” My question was almost a whisper, as if I didn’t dare speak the shameful words aloud. To be sent home early (and therefore dishonorably) was without question the worst thing that could happen to a missionary. It was far worse than dying; if you died during your mission you were remembered as a valiant servant who gave all he had to the Lord, but if you were sent home early you were forever labeled by gossip and rumors.

“You’re damn right I sent them home! I sent them home to their mommies, who were probably the ones that turned them into faggots to begin with by dressing them up in pink panties and giving them dollies to play with. Their queer little mouths were bleeding and their eyes wet with big sissy tears when they boarded the plane.” Frank said, the audible spittle of disgust in his voice.

An awed silence followed Frank’s graphic depiction of the moral justice he’d so rightly dispensed to deviants who hadn’t deserved to be missionaries in the first place. I muttered a silent prayer, asking God that my eventual mission be void of such loathsome creatures.

Frank tossed another log onto the fire and looked around with a grin. “So, what’s it gonna be? You guys want that Playboy or not?”

A few minutes later we sat inside our large platform tent, trying to work out which one of us would take on Frank’s challenge for the good of the team. Despite wanting that Playboy, none of us seemed willing to get a hard on for Frank, so we took to goading each other into it using insults that we normally threw at each other in jest on any other given day.

“Weren’t you going to get a boner tonight anyway?”

“He’s not going to touch it, and besides, he couldn’t touch it even if he wanted to; yours is too small…”

“You can do it, you’re always hard; you get a boner when the wind blows…”

(We’ll call him) Mark sat beside me on my canvas cot, an uneasy silence filling the space between us. Mark and I had been best friends for a few years, since the day he’d invited me over to his house after a troop meeting. During the summer, I often spent more time in Mark’s home than I did in my own. We spent our days riding three-wheelers, watching ninja movies, reenacting ninja movies, and swimming in his pool. We went camping as often as we could, and out in the woods we’d shoot our guns, throw our tomahawks, and blow stuff up with pipe bombs made from toilet-paper tubes and black powder. At night, we’d talk about girls we liked, dreams we had, and the secrets we kept from everyone else. Mark was everything anyone could ever wish for in a best friend, and despite my belief that I had little or nothing to give him in return, he remained my loyal and trusting companion.

“This is weird,” Mark said, breaking his silence.

“It is,” I nodded, not knowing what else to say.

The subject of sex was not open for discussion in our home, and so everything I knew about it I’d learned from church, friends, or my own fantasies and imagination. My Sunday School teachers had set my curiosity alight by teaching that sex was special and sacred, something to be shared at the right moment with a loving wife. If I weren’t careful to avoid it in any other form, I would earn myself a one-way ticket to eternal suffering. My friends fanned the flames by talking a good game, but they knew as little about sex as I did. All the while, my unfettered fantasies and deep-watered imagination were dumping copious amounts of hormones and gasoline on the fire, and it had long been burning out of control. I was eternally doomed and I knew it; the few minutes of each day that I wasn’t focused on sex were filled with the knowledge that God would one day turn me into a pile of ash for having such a perverted mind.

Still, I wanted that Playboy. I was a scrawny, ugly, and unpopular fifteen-year-old Mormon Eagle Scout, so the chances of an actual girl taking off her clothes and showing me her birds and bees in person were about the same as me being voted Prom King.

My head spinning with confusion, guilt, and desire, I asked aloud, in a voice just shy of shouting, “Is anyone willing to do this?”

After a long silence, (we’ll call him) Jonas spoke.

“I’ll do it,” he said with a sigh.

As if on cue, Frank poked his head between the canvas flaps of our tent.

“You guys ready?” he grinned.

In the thirty years since living through them, I haven’t been able to forget the several uncomfortable minutes that followed.

Jonas laid back on the cot, pulled down his shorts and boxers, and covered himself with a thin white sheet. Frank sat beside him, so close that their legs were almost touching.

“That’s right, lay back and get comfortable. Close your eyes, and imagine I’m a hot young teenage girl with nice perky tits.” Frank’s voice was soft and low, almost a whisper.

With that, every flashlight but Frank’s went dark. Mark stood and walked further back into the tent without saying a word. I turned and stared into the shadows lurking at the back of the tent, listening as Mark’s weight settled into another cot.

“I’m taking off my top…” Frank said, coaching Jonas further into the fantasy.

I looked back at Jonas, and was surprised to see him smiling, as if the fantasy had already pushed away the reality of what was taking place.

“I want you to touch them,” Frank teased, his tone now a high-pitched, poor imitation of a girl’s soft and tender voice.

Jonas nodded and his hands twitched. “I am, they’re so soft…” he whispered.

“I want you to suck on them…” Frank encouraged, licking his lips.

Jonas squirmed and grimaced away his smile, the fantasy retreating at the sound of Frank’s lip-smacking.

Frank sat back for a moment, as if to give Jonas the chance to reclaim the fantasy for himself. I glanced around the dimly-lit tent at my friends. They sat staring at their feet, up at the canvas ceiling, or at the darkness at the back of the tent into which Mark had retreated. I found a measure of guilt-ridden comfort in the fact that they looked as uncomfortable as I felt.

“I’m rubbing my hands on your thighs now, moving closer and closer to your cock,” Frank continued.

Jonas smiled again and moved his hands down to his thighs, mimicking the motions that Frank fed to him. I stood and walked to the back of the tent when Jonas slipped his hands beneath the sheet and touched himself.

“There it is! I knew you could do it!” Frank exclaimed a few minutes later, a marked measure of pride and joy in his voice.

A wave of relief and shame rolled over me as Jonas sat up and pulled on his shorts.

An hour later, after a quiet drive through the woods, we sat at inside a strip-mall pizza parlor, staring at half-eaten slices of pizza, watching cheese congeal and grease soak into paper plates. A fluorescent bulb flickered and popped overhead as we waited for Frank to return from the convenience store next door with our reward.

The Playboy was passed around the tent that night, but no one seemed all that interested in looking at it for very long. Unsure what to do with it, and not wanting any of the other adult leaders or the younger scouts to find it, I stuffed it into my backpack, hiding it down at the bottom, beneath my dirty jeans. At the end of the week the magazine made its way home with me, where I buried it under a rock in the woods behind our house. I promised myself that I would never return to look at Miss September 1986.

A few days later I broke that promise and returned to look at her. I did so several times over the course of the next few weeks, until a night of heavy rain made peeling the pages apart all but impossible. Miss September had disintegrated into indiscernible mush, leaving me with nothing more than my memories of her naked body, which were admittedly quite detailed. To this day I can still recall more than I should about her form.

I never spoke to Frank again. Guilt, embarrassment, and fear of punishment kept me from telling anyone about what had happened that night. I told myself that it was just a random event, that Frank wasn’t dangerous because he hadn’t even touched Jonas. I decided that I was to blame for it all, because I hadn’t stood up to Frank in the moment he made his proposition. I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents knowing that I had not only allowed that to happen to Jonas, but that I had watched it happen to him. How could they ever love me again, especially once they learned the reason why? And what about Pete, who served as my Scoutmaster year-round? He was my hero; the thought of losing his love and mentorship frightened me to tears. As guilty and sick and ashamed as I felt, it was better to keep quiet, move on, and try to forget about it.

But I didn’t forget about. Consequences and self-loathing wouldn’t let me.

My relationship with Mark was never the same again, and before long we stopped hanging out altogether. This came as a painful relief for me, because the time we’d spent together since the night in that tent had been strained by guilt and embarrassment. I could barely muster the strength to look Mark in the eyes anymore, let alone be his best friend. I missed him terribly for a long time after our friendship ended, and I hated myself for being weak and breaking us apart.

Not long after my friendship with Mark died, I began to hang out with Jonas a lot. I liked him well enough, and we had some fun times together, but our friendship was nothing like what Mark and I had shared. A part of me wanted to run away from Jonas and never look back, because I knew that I had stood by and let Frank tear away a piece of him that he could never put back. Although we never spoke of what had happened that night, for me it was always present. Our friendship lasted until we left for our missions, when much to my relief, we lost touch.

It would take decades of experience, love, loss, and a lot of deprogramming for me to understand the striking distinctions and absolute lack of similarities between gays and child predators. Frank wasn’t gay, he was a child predator, a monster in a good man’s clothing. He carefully stalked his unsuspecting prey and conditioned them for his gentle strike.

He conditioned me.

I recently learned that Frank has been dead and buried for more than ten years. While I take no pleasure in that fact, I do find a measure of comfort. In the years that have passed since that dreadful night, my thoughts and memories about the experience have often cut me to the quick, imagining the terrible ordeals other young boys are likely to have endured because I wasn’t man enough to speak up.

Okay, maybe I do take a little pleasure in knowing he’s dead.