RELUCTANT FATHER AND SCHOLAR

For photos of this period, click here.

March, 1966—July, 1970

My new persona as a husband and father went through various distinct phases which I’m calling:  New Parent, Minimal Husbandry, Philanderer, and Professor.

  • New Parent August, 1965—August, 1966
1966 with Barbara and Jake

1966 with Barbara and Jake

This first year of the marriage is also included in my memoir THERE WAS A SHIP.  If you’re interested in the tale of how a wild faerie climbed into the closet, read it.  Afterwards the marriage lasted another four years.  That story is too stereotypical of a gay husband to be worth a memoir.  Not to mention too sordid.  So the following autobiographical notes will have to suffice.

That first year was also my second year of graduate school which was intellectually quite stimulating.  I totally got off on Polish, Old Church Slavonic, and several esoteric linguistics courses.  Mid-year I decided to do my thesis on the poetics of a 20th century Russian Futurist poet named Velemir Khlebnikov, obviously an inspired subject for a Master’s in Slavic Linguistics, though one without much bearing on the price of cheese in China.

When it came time to choose where to go next year for my doctoral studies (on a National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship), I chose the University of Michigan, largely since Barbara’s family lived in Ann Arbor.

Minimal Husbandry  September, 1966—November, 1968

When we got to Ann Arbor in the fall of ’66, Barbara’s Papa already had us set up to live in a nice apartment, school started right away, and baby Jake needed changing.   Family life immediately got much bigger than just the three of us:  Nana, Papa, sister-in-law Martha, and soon-to-be brother-in-law Gene, a close family spending huge amounts of time together.  Unused to so much closeness, though I really liked all these new relatives, I found going to classes a welcome escape.  I certainly needed to escape if I was ever going to meet boys/men, but to my extreme distress, nothing of the sort happened all fall and winter.

Miserably dispirited, I kept telling myself that married life was a preferable alternative to being on my own—since finding a boyfriend had proven impossible in either case.  So in February when Barbara suggested we have another baby, I numbly agreed.  Besides, we just might have a boy.  It was worth a chance.

On November 8, 1967, when Barbara gave birth to another girl, I was standing right there.  When the doctor handed the baby to me, I almost fainted.  We named her Aimée.  That night, the first on my own in way over a year (Jake being with the sister-in-law), I went out to the reputed gay bar, The Flame.  I can’t say as how I regret leaving with a sweet hippie endearingly named Dennis.  It had been an awful long time, and I had no moral compunction whatsoever.

In the spring of ‘68, right around Jake’s second birthday, when Aimée was still a babe in arms, I started having terrible asthma attacks.  Probably psychosomatic from the stress of fatherhood and conflicted sexuality, it hit me whenever it rained—which led to frequent adrenalin shots and an over-prescribed medication.  All summer long my physical and mental energy felt like being on speed (though I had not then, and still have not, knowingly taken that drug).  Side effects were depression, impotence, insomnia, and nocturnal delirium.  I was a perfect mess, and Barbara wasn’t at all pleased to have a hyperactive zombie for a husband.

A large part of my stress that spring was surely starting work on the dissertation.  I proposed to work on statistics of stress position in Russian, but my committee made me write on Russian word order, a worthy subject, but not mine.  Working with my dissertation advisor, a mad East European savant refugee, turned out to be impossible, so during that drugged summer I managed to get a replacement.  By mid-fall with my prescription cut way down, I could forge onward in the research, sleeping at last, and otherwise functioning okay, if not enthusiastically.

Also during the drugged summer, to supplement the NDFL fellowship which was inadequate for a family of four, I worked a few months as a janitor in a water softener plant.  It was a disgusting place with the tanks of unspeakable sludge, perhaps symbolic of my emotional state.  In the fall things got much better when I became a security cop, mostly evenings or night shifts, in places like a lumber yard or the Hoover Ball Bearing plant.  (It was by that plant’s gate that I stumbled linguistically on the phenomenal verb ‘get.’   Some 40 years later, the tiny verb got defined thoroughly in my book GETTING GET, The Glossary of a Wild Verb.)

Working nights as a security cop was another great blessing in my life.  Besides the helpful salary, it got me out of the house and gave lots of time for dissertation study.  During those long nights between rounds, I also found time to revive my faerie self from suspended animation.

  • The Philanderer  December, 1968—August, 1969

In December ’68 I started working weekends in an empty plastics plant in nearby rural Dexter.  Suddenly I had lots of alone time in a contemplative setting of snowy fields.  Missing New Orleans and my earlier gay life, the first thing I did was make notes on each of the multitudinous affairs I could remember.  I didn’t want to forget any of those loves.

Giving voice to the poor faerie enchained, I picked up again on my journal and recorded in intimate and lurid detail reminiscences, mundane occurrences, details of the marriage, and most important, a chronicle of my extra-marital fantasies about and full-scale infidelities with a stream of guys.

You may well ask how I finally managed to meet men.  Easy.  After work, still in my security cop uniform, I’d drop by the Flame for a few minutes and a coke and socialize with like-minded guys, looking for camaraderie at least.  Logically, to meet gay guys I had to go to a gay bar, and with plenty experience of those, I at times found more than camaraderie.

Also in December I went to the Modern Languages Association convention in New York to interview for teaching positions.  An offer came in the spring from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but I really, really wanted the one at Emory in Atlanta.  Since UWM wanted to know before I’d heard on Emory, I had to accept the bird in the hand and dread the Wisconsin winters.  Meanwhile, with the spring my asthma came back and the excessive medicine.

In May of ’69, as part of my ongoing dissertation work, I got a grant to make a research trip to the Library of Congress and Harvard, ten days in Washington DC and Boston, a bird out of its cage.  I wasn’t troubled by asthma at all.  The trip is worthy of a memoir of its own, so filled was it with loving male strangers.  The last night in DC was one of those you never forget—with a guy named Steve.  Then the gay slut went home to wife and kids and audaciously claimed total fidelity.  Oh, and I did a lot of bibliography as well.

After such a feast, I coasted into June, returning to domestic routines with the family and classes, sustained by the memory of Steve.  Later that month Barbara, kids and family left for a vacation at Traverse City, with me to follow in two days after classes.  Make that two free nights spent partying at the Flame.  I took a cute Brazilian named Rolando home with me.

When I joined the family at the Lake Michigan beach, Barbara and I had the worst altercation of our marriage, I’m not sure what about, and it came to her threatening divorce. For me that wasn’t a threat but a promised blessing.  But the next day we reconciled.  Again it just wasn’t the right time what with the impending move to Milwaukee.  Barbara said that the next year would be the test for us.  Of course, I knew I’d already failed miserably and wasn’t repentant.

Dissertation matters were also not peaceful.  In July, just as I was closing in, my new advisor resigned, and I was assigned a largely new committee which instructed me to “take a different direction.”  They suggested I write a third version while teaching next year in Milwaukee.  (Graduate students were often tortured thus by faculty demi-gods.)  My asthma got worse.

In early September I drove to Milwaukee to look for a place, and with a guide to gay bars from Rolando, I combined nocturnal hijinks with diurnal house-hunting.  My search found a great townhouse in an appealing section called Brown Deer.  Otherwise, I managed to spend a night in a Victorian apartment with another Richard and the second at the family home of a lovely young model named John.

Then, as might be expected, the clutch went out on the car.  I had to leave it in a garage and fly back to Michigan, which was okay since in a couple weeks I’d go back with the loaded U-Haul.  In those weeks, with my asthma kept getting worse, I was a wreck driving the truck to the ferry at Sandusky.  Arriving in Milwaukee half-dead, I unloaded with the help of my cousin from Fondulac, saw a doctor who proscribed me something for ‘walking pneumonia,’ retrieved the car, had dinner with beautiful John, and drove home to Michigan, still sick as a dog.

Obviously my illness was the traumatic transition into the next phase of this persona.

  • The Professor  September, 1969—July, 1970

On one day the family settled into the Brown Deer house.  The next I met the UWM Slavic department folks, including a dear grandmotherly Russian woman named Nina, who had the office next to mine.  We had an immediate rapport, from the get-go speaking Russian with each other and abjuring English.  Classes started the day after.

If memory serves, I was to teach intro Russian and Serbo-Croatian, as well as some literary things.  Doesn’t matter.  Though without my PhD and titled Instructor, I was effectively a ‘professor,’ the realization of my academic ambitions!  With the dissertation still hanging over my head, I quickly arranged with Nina to be my native informant in order to move it in the “different direction.”  The process was great fun.

But there was still need for evenings of research in the library, which got me away from the bosom of the family and let me occasionally see John on the side.  He moved out of his parents’ home and got an apartment for privacy.  Though our couple bed-times a week were a sexual dream come true, I didn’t feel totally satisfied because of a futile crush on one of my students, a blond, curly, friendly Bulgarian kid appropriately named Bogdan (‘God-given’).

In a few weeks, John got unhappy about “sharing me” with my wife, unaware that he was also sharing me romantically with Bogdan.  Not long and he let me know he’d gotten a job in Chicago and had decided to get married.  Soon I found ways to spend time with Bogdan outside our Russian class and noted daily details of encounters in the ongoing journal.  Besides his girlfriend Peggy, another sword in my heart was that Bogdan wanted to be a priest (Orthodox).

Later on in that fall of 1969, I had an allergic reaction to some whitefish Barbara cooked for dinner, my lips, tongue, and throat rapidly starting to swell.  Fortunately, we lived just around the corner from a hospital, and Barbara got me there before I totally suffocated.  The shot felt like that good old adrenaline I knew so well, and suddenly I could breathe again.  It was the worst experience of my life, up to that point.

The holidays back in Ann Arbor gave me the time to wrap up several dissertation chapters and get them to my committee for comment.  Afterwards, Milwaukee introduced me to the charming concept of absolute winter, the mercury plummeting to and hovering for some weeks around 40 below with wind chill often 75 or 80 below.  In freezing February, 1970 a nebulous letter arrived from my chairman asking for puzzling revisions, which took much of the spring.  Meanwhile, Barbara was getting cabin fever and missing her sister.  So later that month she and the kids flew off to Gainesville, Florida where Martha and Gene had moved for his teaching position.

With two whole weeks of freedom, I haunted the gay bars like the Ten Hundred, a quiet sit-down place, and danced at the Castaways.  The hunting was good, bagging at least three boys, one of whom looked just like Romeo in the Zefirelli film and burned with the most ferocious lust I’ve ever been blessed to enjoy.  The next day driving to school I composed the first true poem in my life, addressed to Bogdan and entitled “Message from Alpha Centauri”.

When Barbara and the girls got back, we bought a new car (a purple and cream Dodge Dart!) and did a drive to Gainesville again for Easter.  Neither trip helped Barbara’s growing depression.  Soon after our return, for some reason she got speechlessly angry for a couple days.  Eventually, she apologized to me for something vague, but in my new detachment, I just figured she’d leave me when she was ready.

My detachment didn’t hold up well when I had a phone talk with my advisor and was, as noted in the journal, “regaled with non-committals, about-faces, and veiled insults about the content and expression of the dissertation that seemed to speak of some other imagined work.”  I went back to Ann Arbor the next week to see the advisor, another scholarly Slavic refugee, who rudely told me to take one of the chapters and turn it into my thesis.  In other words, go ye forth and do a fourth version.  I went straight to the department, got yet another chairman (who’d be gone for the summer), and accepted the fact that there would be no degree that year either.

On temporary reprieve from dissertation concerns, a few weeks later on the May anniversary of DC Steve, I wrote my next poem “Sixteenth Note”.  Right after that household finances drove me back to being a security cop.  This time I was guarding a construction site, and sitting in the vehicle on a deserted street with half-built buildings, I wrote some encyclopedic entries in my journal and began an outline of the novel I envisioned about my New Orleans years. (It materialized some 35 years later as DIVINE DEBAUCH.)

With the summer I still had a class or two to teach, and at work I was moved around a lot, to a brewery, an empty fairgrounds, and then the Art Museum where someone complained about my longish hair.  When I complained in turn to the office, for punishment I was to be sent to the Pfister-Vogel Tannery down by the river, a perfectly real version of Dante’s inferno!  One night there and I threatened to quit, so they put me in a deserted photo-processing plant.  What with the marriage in shambles, my love-life evaporated or imaginary, and the wretched tannery, my life seemed to be bottoming out again.

But things were actually looking up.  Papa proposed taking Barbara and the girls with the rest of the family for several weeks at a villa on Lake Lugano in Italy.  I’d regrettably have to stay in Milwaukee, considering my summer school teaching, and my emotions were conflicted, never having been abroad.  But to have the rest of the summer on my own…  Well, not quite:  I’d take care of the folks’ insane black and white Cocker Spaniel named Walter (for the Cronkite).

On July 9, 1970, with affectionate goodbyes, I put Barbara, Jake, and Aimée on a plane in Chicago and drove home to Milwaukee alone.

< PREVIOUS  |  NEXT >