The Lord is a merciful God and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
— Exodus 34:6-7
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
— Luke 4:21-22
There wasn’t a sign of snow until Cabbage Hill. Early March seemed an unlikely time for an impromptu blizzard. Was God intentionally blocking my pilgrimage home or was sometimes snow just snow? I’ve traveled that pass many times over various winters but I have never seen as many semi-trucks pulled over to put on chains. A jack-knife had occurred on the westbound side of the freeway and cars and trucks were at a complete standstill going west. The snow fell steadily. I have always felt a comforting hypnosis when driving in a snowfall. The snow abated greatly as we descended to the river and by Devil’s Slide it had stopped completely.
The next morning there were only traces of snow in La Grande and the surrounding hills and mountainsides were mostly white. After breakfast I took Art on a tour of my hometown. Much of the familiar remained but had grown dowdy and worn. My father’s barbershop had been turned into a pet-grooming salon. The irony was not lost on me. I was a bit apprehensive about returning to the house that I grew up in. It had been sold nearly three years ago and I had not seen it since. North Fourth still was unpaved and was still on the wrong side of the tracks. I was not prepared for the desecration that had taken place. I had doubted that my childhood home had been turned into a museum or historical landmark, but I was not prepared for the hideous fence that had been put up and that my house had been connected to the ugly little house next to it.
My house was no longer the same color, the same shape, the same anything. Everything had been modified in some way. It was virtually unrecognizable from the home I grew up in. I thought briefly about stopping and going in to punch the homeowner in the nose or at least a sound kick to the shins. But if the exterior had been so hideously altered, I could not bear to think what the inside might look like. Had he replaced our charming braided rugs and installed beige shag carpeting? Had he removed the knotty pine walls? Had he moved the electrical switches to more logical places other than the ones near the ceiling which required a broom handle to turn on and off? I did not stop. I did not cry. I will mail that family a broomstick in case the light switches had not been moved.
After lunch we went to the library. I wanted to look at the local paper and see if they had done an article on the show. The La Grande Public Library was always a holy place to me. The children‚s library was in the basement and was permeated with the unique smell of books, a combination of glue and musty paper. On a screen in the corner was a painted scene from The Wind In the Willows. Every book contained a world – worlds within worlds within worlds. I remember what took me to the adult library was my fascination with ants. I had been given an ant farm as a gift. I was not a good farmer and my herd hit upon hard times rather quickly. My mother did not take kindly to my “Liberation Day” for the colony, but it was their only hope. My ant farm had stirred my interest in the insects and resulted in an excursion into the adult library. There were many, many books on ants – another world within a world. Upon learning the power of the Dewey Decimal System and that of the card catalog, I ventured into new uncharted worlds. I would eventually pull open a wooden drawer marked “subject” and secretly cradle its contents. In awe I discovered that the library contained one book on the subject of “homosexuality.” I would never follow Dewey’s trail of numerical crumbs to the actual book. I would only take comfort that the book did exist.
And now entering the adult library as an adult it seemed so small. The wooden drawers had been replaced by computers. The newspapers were no longer on long wooden poles hanging in a stand. They were now in stacks on beige metal shelves. I bent down to browse through the current stack. I found the issue featuring the article on the show. I was astounded. It was on the front page. There was a small picture of me and in sufficiently large type the headline: “COMING HOME QUEER.” I was finally on the front page of my hometown paper, my mother would have been so proud. HA! Actually, my mother was clawing the lid of her coffin shouting, “David, how could you do this to me? What will people think?”
The article was well written and had captured almost all of my quotes perfectly. It was continued onto the second page. At the end of the article was the ad which I had purchased for forty dollars: a picture of me at age five or six in a raggedy striped t-shirt, and underneath was the shows title again, “Coming Home Queer.” I had not been nervous until this moment. I realized now that there was no turning back. I would be required to show up at the college campus and tell my stories. Who would be there?
The show was scheduled to start at 8:00 PM in the Ackerman Building. Art and I watched TV in the motel room until about 6:00 PM. At that point I began to prepare, which consisted of reading and rereading the story of Jacob and Esau. “Wrestling With God” was going to be the closing piece of the show, an improvisational telling of the story of Jacob and Esau. At 6:30 pm I wrote out the last line of the show. I was now ready to go see the room in which I would perform.
As I walked up the steps of the ancient Ackerman Building an eerie feeling passed over me. I stopped Art in his tracks, “THIS is the building that I went to kindergarten in!” Christy Huntsman and I were brought to this campus building to go to kindergarten. And of all the rooms in the building, the one that I remember most was – the library!
I would be performing in a lecture hall on the second floor. We climbed the marble steps to the lecture hall. It was filled with student desks scattered about the room. The curtain was askew and cluttered with miscellaneous video equipment. Like good gay men, we set about tidying and compulsively arranging the chairs in perfectly neat rows. Once the chairs were arranged and the curtain had been properly draped, I ventured to peer out the window. When would the local townspeople be gathering with torches and rope? But the campus was empty. It was 7:30 pm and there were no protesters and there were no audience members lining up for good seats. It was the first time that the thought crossed my mind, “What if no one came?”
At 7:40 pm the first person arrived, “Are you here for the show?” His response was enthusiastic. “When I read the article in the paper I had to come.” The man appeared to be about 55. We recruited him to help us port a few remaining props from my car to the stage. We quickly learned what we had already suspected; life was hell in a small town for a gay man. But we also learned that when he came out to his parents in high school that they did not take the news well. He was taken out of high school and eventually placed under psychiatric care at the State Mental Hospital in Pendleton. He had undergone shock therapy there and the “cure” became part of the problem. His life had not gone well. He had never finished high school. He returned to live out his life in La Grande. He was thrilled to see the word “queer” on the front page of the local newspaper.
The next person to arrive was a male college student, a cute male college student. I assumed he was gay. I was wrong. “I need you to sign this to prove that I came tonight.” I didn’t understand. “Our professor was supposed to call you. We are taking a class in Human Sexuality. You are our homework.” Hm. Eventually ten people from the class would arrive. They would occupy the last row of classroom chair, stern-faced and arms folded across their chests. They tried to look very not-gay.
My sister had driven down from the Spokane area. She arrived with her friend Eileen. Eileen’s buoyant enthusiasm was a comfort to me.
Next was a high school friend of my sister, the local judge’s daughter, my former piano teacher.
The next two people to enter were from my high school graduating class of 1971. I was not surprised to see Mike Mallory. He had heard of my coming out a year earlier and had phone Portland to let me know of his support. Mike and I had gone from first grade through high school together. He was not my best friend or even in my circle of friends past sixth grade. But the two things I remember about Mike were that in fifth grade he was writing a book about a high school basketball player and in high school he was a talented guitar player and singer. I recognized him immediately when he entered the classroom. He smiled and handed me a CD, Gypsy Road. “This is an album my band has put together.” (It was several months before I actually listened to the album. It was quite good and Mike was a talented lyricist. The first cut on the album was “The Hard Way.” A refrain in the song was, “I’ll take the hard, hard way -” Me too, Mike.)
Shortly after Mike arrived was another friend from high school. She looked familiar and her name was on the tip of my tongue. “Do you remember me?” Damn. I stammered two names that I thought might be right, which weren’t. “Here, maybe this will help.” She opened the high school yearbook and pointed to a picture. She looked remarkably like her picture. Very little had changed in thirty years, she had the same thin figure and long, long hair. “Linda Carlson.” Yes! “I thought you might like to see this.” She handed me a small piece of folded notebook paper. I opened the note and saw my familiar handwriting. The note read something to the effect: “Thank you for your friendship. You are one of the few people that doesn’t like me because they feel sorry for me.”
Linda Carlson had grown up to become a local English teacher in the high school. During my early high school years I wore a leg brace and walked with one crutch. (Think of it as a cross between “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and “Happy Days.”) I was not an unpopular student but I feared that most people pitied me rather than liked me.
I sometimes think it cruel of God to place me in the culture of gay men for whom the only unacceptable flaw is physical imperfection. Linda Carlson had kept that small piece of notebook paper for over thirty years. Why? When she read my article on the front page of the local paper she took time to dig it out, to bring it back to me.
People began arriving in larger numbers and my ability to have one on one conversations with them as they entered was more difficult; more students from the “Human Sexuality” class, a pair of lesbians, a very sullen young women dressed all in black. I was taken a little aback when a mother entered with her high school son, “Will you be alright, sweetie? I’ll be back when this is over.” He mumbled some response and then struck up a conversation with the gay man that had arrived first.
Just before I abandoned my greeting post at the door, a man came in. “You won’t remember me. I’m (he gave his name) … I was in your father’s Sunday School Class.” My father had become a surrogate father for the sons of all the alcoholics of La Grande, Oregon in 1950. His camping trips were legendary, as well trips to the Cove Swimming Pool, basketball teams, and Story Hour on Sunday afternoons in the basement of Hendrix Methodist Church. This man had seen my father’s name in the newspaper article and had felt drawn to come to my performance. “Your father was the most spiritual man that I have ever met. He made such a difference in my life as a kid.” I thanked him for coming and felt a pain in my stomach begin to grow; it was 7:55 pm.
At 8:00 PM I took the stage. It took approximately 74 minutes to tell my stories.
When I was done, I was numb. The audience sat in stunned silence for a moment and then broke into polite applause. I managed an awkward bow and then stumbled off the stage. Before I could take a pastoral stance at the exit and talk with people as they exited, I was ambushed by the students from “Human Sexuality 101.” They seemed very concerned that I sign their slips of paper to verify their presence. None of them seemed eager to engage in a dialogue about the intimate details of my life or about homosexuality in general. In retrospect, it would have been interesting to do a Q & A with them after the show. Instead, I pretended that I was a best-selling author and autographed the miscellaneous pieces of notebook paper.
I exchanged “thank-you-for-comings” with Mike Mallory and Linda Carlson. Fortunately neither of them said, “Let’s keep in touch.”
Two lesbians spoke with me at the door and expressed how meaningful the show had been to them. They regretted that they had not brought their teenage son, who was being harassed at school because his parents were two women.
I had not seen Julie Robertson enter the lecture hall, but she was all smiles as she exited the theater. I had gone to high school with Julie. She had been one of the most unpopular girls in high school but she was unaware of that and so it caused her little or no pain. Julie’s mother was genuinely crazy.
When my father died of leukemia over a decade ago Julie and her mother came to the funeral, which did not surprise me. It did surprise me, however, when Julie and her mother dropped by the house after the graveside service. We had only extended an invitation to a few close friends to come to the house. It had been an incredibly exhausting day. (Side note: My father’s memorial service was the first memorial service that I had ever conducted.)
Julie and Mrs. Robertson dropped by with a plant. They stood in our knotty pine living room on our charming braided rugs and wanted to reminisce about how wonderful Homer had been. I just wanted the day to be over and so I did not offer them a place to sit, only a “thank-you-so-much-for-dropping-by-and-it-is-a-shame-that-you-can’t-stay-longer.” But they would not leave. They stood there trying to resurrect my father, as if he would come through the door and he would tell them stories that would make them laugh or make them cry … they wanted to feel special and loved once again.
So it was with a certain amount of dread that I greeted Julie Robertson. She gave a goofy horselaugh and said, “It‚s me!” I could tell by the look in her eyes that she had not really comprehended my coming out. And I do not remember the words that preceded them, but as she left she extended her hands and shook them like an elderly lady leaving church, “… at least you’re happy.” Oh Julie! If only it were that simple!
One of the last people to leave was the man who had been in my father’s Sunday School class. He stood at the edge of the crowd and waited. When the others had mostly left he came over to talk to me. He was hesitant and seemed like a shy kid trying to talk to his teacher. “You’re a lot like your father.” There was an awkward moment of silence, then he looked up at me and said, “Can I have a hug?”
It was clear and bright when I left La Grande on Sunday morning. There was a light dusting of snow on the surrounding hills. I was glad to leave that small town. I was glad to leave the ghost of my father.