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.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Resigned

At the age of twelve, tired of being bullied, suffering from low self-esteem, and needing an all-powerful bodyguard, I felt a desperate need to know that God loved and believed in me as much as I loved and believed in him.

Growing up in a Mormon home, I had been taught by my parents and Sunday School teachers that God was a loving father who would not, even could not, deny me the righteous desires of my heart, so long as I asked for them in faith. Our religion had in fact been founded upon that very principle, as told in the story of Joseph Smith’s claim to having received an answer to earnest prayer in the form of a boyhood vision of God the Father and his son Jesus Christ. I was no boy prophet, but I was fairly certain that I had enough faith, and it seemed to me that a desire to know just how much God loved me had to rank somewhere on the top ten list of righteous requests I could have made, most likely sandwiched between world peace and becoming a close personal friend to John Denver.

I had to know, and if I asked him, God had to tell me; those were the rules.

And so, believing in those rules, I drafted a contract with God, in the name of his son, Jesus Christ. I wrote it in pencil, on a piece of paper pulled from a personalized notepad given to me that past Christmas by my aunt (who was actually my second cousin, because, Utah).

My simple request for heavenly affirmation read something like this:

I, Matthew Tod Deane, promise to try harder to be perfect.

Signed,

_____________________
(Matthew Tod Deane

I the Lord, know and love Matthew Tod Deane, and I hereby forgive him of his sins in the name of my Father.

Signed,

_____________________
(The Lord Jesus Christ)

I signed my half of the contract and placed it on my nightstand along with a pencil, because I didn't know if Jesus carried writing utensils with him. I was nervous, excited, and hopeful as I drifted off to sleep that night. Jesus was going to visit my room as I slept, and come the morning I would have the loving affirmation that I so desperately needed.

But Jesus didn’t visit my room that night.

He’s testing me... I thought to myself as I sat on the edge of my bed, the tears of rejection dripping down onto the empty space where I had expected Jesus to sign his name. I need to prove my faith before he’ll sign!

I wiped my cheeks, said a little prayer to my Heavenly Father, and hid the contract under a pile of underwear inside my closet before setting out to prove my faith.

I tried hard to overcome my imperfections that day. That evening I put the contract back on my night stand and said an earnest prayer, respectfully reminding God that I had done as much of my part as I could do, so it was time for him to do his.

I woke to disappointment for the better part of a month until one morning, my head at last too heavy to hold high and my heart too broken to hope, I tore the contract into tiny pieces. I dropped them into the irrigation ditch behind our house, crying quietly to myself as I watched them swirl away in the dirty current. They took with them my dream of ever being good enough, faithful enough, and lovable enough for God to believe in me. It wasn’t his fault he hadn’t signed it, it was mine.

I just wasn’t enough.

Seven years later, feeling inadequate and nervous, but at the same time excited and hopeful, I signed another contract with Jesus Christ. The conditions of the contract were these: I agreed to spend two years as a full-time missionary, telling the people of Paraguay that God loved them. In return, God would bless me beyond measure (if not in this life, then certainly in the next) for my righteous, tireless, rule-abiding efforts. I signed the contract in pen, sealed it into an envelope, and mailed it back to Salt Lake City without having ever placed it on my nightstand.

Not even for one night.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Do You Know Dave Gurney?

“Do you know Dave Gurney?”

I was barely 19 when I first met Dave at the LDS Missionary Training Center in Provo. Utah. I was to spend 8 weeks under Dave’s tutelage, preparing myself for the following 96 in Paraguay.

Dave was tall, handsome, and clean, an instantly likeable guy with bright eyes, a crisp wide smile, and a kind voice. After just a few minutes in his presence, I quietly assigned to him the role of mentor.

The Spanish portion of Dave’s lessons weren’t an issue for me; I had studied the language since Junior High, and not only could I conjugate verbs with my eyes closed, I also knew the difference between the familiar and formal. Spanish Rs rolled off my tongue like those spoken by Speedy Gonzales every Saturday morning of my childhood.

The language of a Mormon missionary, however, did not roll so easily off my tongue as the everyday words and phrases having to do with the purchase of ice cream, the location of the bathroom, and the color of apples. Although I had been born and raised in the church and had to that point never questioned its teachings, my faith had recently and for the first time been seriously tested by the news that my older brother was a homosexual. This shook my foundation, and I carried the weight and confusion of it and with me into the MTC, right into Dave’s classroom.

Dave was unique in that he commanded our respect by earning it, while at the same time lowering the barrier between student and teacher just enough for us to consider him a good friend where we to meet again someday. In time, Dave became more to me than a teacher and a mentor; he became someone in whom I could confide.

Every Saturday morning Dave would drag two of the classroom’s desks out into the hallway and spend a few minutes with each of us in one-on-one conversation. This may have been part of his assigned duties, but I have no doubt that Dave took the time seriously. We were young and untested, full of trembling confidence and far from home, headed to a foreign land that by all accounts was 50 years behind our own experiences when it came to just about everything. Dave did his best to settle our tremors, inform our fears, and answer our questions about an immediate future that held little in the way of certainties other than diarrhea, worn-out shoes, and lots of prayer.

During one of these Saturday conversations with Dave, after whining about missing my girlfriend, confessing to a palpable fear of tapeworms, and expressing my dislike for the communal showers in the MTC dorms, I felt impressed to share with Dave my concern that my family would not be together forever due to my brother’s lifestyle. Dave sat across from me, his knees pressed into the underside of a tiny desk, as I cried big tears and spilt my dark fears into his life. I had not spoken to anyone in such detail about my overwhelming confusion, my wavering faith, and the many broken emotions stemming from my brother’s rapid, and as I understood it at the time, voluntary fall from grace.

Dave listened to the very end of my worrying without a word of interruption or a care to the fact that we had by far exceeded the normal amount of time allotted to each of us during those one-on-one Saturday morning conversations. Floundering in a spiritual quicksand of panic and grief, I looked up at him with tears in my eyes, and realized that I had grabbed hold of my mentor’s ankle in a desperate attempt to save myself, without a moment’s thought to his own stability. The sharp pain of regret for my selfish behavior pricked at my heart.

To his great credit, Dave didn’t flinch, but instead smiled warmly, a reaction that will always stay with me. He didn’t judge my brother, counseling me to love the sinner but hate the sin, or make hollow promises about what would happen in the way of a miracle were I to serve my two year mission faithfully.

No, Dave simply listened to my fears, then looked me in the eyes with unwavering confidence and told me that all would be well; I was doing great, and had a good head on my shoulders.

As I flip through my mission journals more than two decades later, I laugh at the pages and pages written with such earnest yet desperate conviction. I wanted so badly to be spiritual, to have meaningful, life-changing experiences, and I wrote in my journal as if every day were a fulfillment of those righteous desires. I don’t remember so many of these supposed moments of feeling surrounded by God and heaven and all his angels without reading them, but I can relive with great emotional detail the personal interactions and experiences that I didn’t write much about, at least not in the flowery language meant for a prideful Sunday pulpit.

So what did I write about that long conversation with Dave?

“He is so good and I want to be like him when I get back. I love him.”

No emotional dredging equipment is needed when it comes to my experience with Dave.

The crowning moment in my apprenticeship with Dave came in the form of a prophetic visit to our classroom by his wife Katie and their first-born Taylor. I held baby Taylor in my arms and marveled at the thought of one day being a good and happy father to such a beautiful, bouncing child. I looked up at Dave and Katie, smiling and loving and tender with each other as they were, and in that moment the hope that someday I would have a family just like theirs took root within me.

On our final day with Dave, my classmates and I lifted him high above our heads for a metaphoric photo. It is a moment I will never forget. That photo is a happy reminder of a debt I simply cannot repay.



Not three years later, my mission in Paraguay finished and the tapeworms flushed from my system, I was driving to the beach in North Hampton, New Hampshire, seated behind the wheel of my little white pickup truck. A fiancé far more gorgeous, blonde, and happy than I had ever dared dream of loving me rode shotgun beside me. We would be married at the end of the year.

“Do you know Dave Gurney?” Elizabeth asked.

Her casual and very unexpected dropping of Dave’s name pushed me into a free-fall through fond memories.

“Yes, I know David Gurney! He was my favorite teacher at the MTC!” I answered, eager to know the how and why and when behind her question.

“He’s married to my sister Katie.”



My mind flashed back to meeting Dave’s happy family, holding Taylor in my arms, and my silent hope that I would someday have a family just like his.

Wow.

In the years since the day Elizabeth asked if I knew Dave Gurney, I have come to learn that God doesn’t answer my prayers, no matter how humble, specific, earnest, and sincere I might be when uttering them. He does, however, from time to time, pay heed to my under-breath mutterings, coin-toss wishes, and silent hopes. While I retain scant faith in God’s fascination with the details of my daily life, I do know that he was paying close attention when Dave’s tiny family ignited a candle of hope within my heart 27 years ago.

Beyond marrying sisters and having three kids each, Dave and I are, in fact, almost nothing alike. Dave is successful, driven and goal-oriented, while I am at best ambivalent and wandering. I don’t work hard; I would rather sit on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder than climb it, and I haven’t earned much in the way of respect in this world. Over the years Dave has stacked achievements like cordwood, building up a large supply of success and security for his family, while I continue to stare up into the trees of life, mouth agape with awe and a wide, idle wonderment in my eyes.

But we remain friends and brothers, and Dave remains a mentor.



Several years ago, Dave and I met up during a reunion at the family cabin in the mountains of Utah. We picked right up where we left off, which meant that Dave asked a lot of selfless questions about how I was doing, what I was doing, and where I was headed. I have always loved that Dave still cares about me enough to show such interest, but in my heart I have always felt as though I have let my mentor down, because there’s never much to tell.

That year, Dave had managed to scrounge up a couple of bikes, and he asked if I’d be willing to take an early morning ride with him into the mountains behind the cabin. I wanted to sleep, but I got up and went with him, in spite of being certain that I would die along the trail from either exhaustion or a cougar’s bite.

After a few minutes of pedaling, I gave serious thought to turning back in order to retrieve my lungs from under the blankets where I must have left them. Not wanting to let Dave down, however, I dug deeper, sucked at the thin air, and prayed that the sidewalls of my heart wouldn’t blow out from exertion.

This past winter I spent some time alone up at the cabin. I wrote a lot, slept a lot, and thought a lot. News of Dave’s diagnosis and upcoming treatment weighed extra heavy upon my mind and heart one afternoon, so after packing a few snacks, a water bottle, and my pistol into a backpack, I headed up the same trail Dave and I had ridden together years before. This time, however, I took to the trail on a snowmobile. An overnight storm had dusted the trail with fresh white powder; it swirled about behind me as I sped recklessly up the mountain, dodging low hanging branches and sliding around curves at high speed.

The trail flattened out for a spell, and instead of pushing the snow machine even harder, I slowed to a crawl, standing as I rode to get a view of my surroundings. I stopped altogether when to my right I spied a grove of aspens, their leaves gone for the winter and their ankles buried in snow. The sun was low in the western sky, and her light partnered with those trees and a winter wind to cast long, quaking shadows on the white ground. I looked up at those towering trees and thought about Elizabeth, about our kids, and about silent, inspired hope.

Yes, I know Dave Gurney.


(Dave passed away on August 11, 2016 at the age of 49. I was honored to share the above at his celebration of life service.)