“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.