Hey, don't let anyone tell you ours is a classless society. It's not and my mom's family have made sure I knew it, at least for the past four years--since I was twelve.
I am a southerner and am proud of that, but there's an awful lot of southern traditions I find repulsive. I'm too young to remember segregation, but the racism which is still a part of the thinking of many southerners makes me sick. Something even more subtle and equally disgusting to me is the southern class system. Even if you haven't experienced it, don't pretend it's not real. And, for sure, don't think it doesn't hurt those of us who run up against it. Believe me, I know; I have been there.
The summer I was twelve--my birthday is in June--I went to spend the usual week with my Charlotte grandmother, Grandmother Wilson. She lived in one of those big, old houses in what is still one of THE neighborhoods. Most of the houses have been--and still are--in the same family since they were built.
Grandmother Wilson lived alone--well except for her live-in servant, Mattie, and Mattie's daughter, Cassandra, who was Mom's age. Grandfather Wilson had died shortly after I turned two, so I had no memories of him. Grandmother Wilson was my mom's mother. She had two children, my mom and Uncle Wesley Dabney Wilson II. There were two Wilson cousins, Wesley Dabney Wilson III and Mary Capers Wilson. I don't know when I first noticed Grandmother Wilson treated the Wilson cousins one way and my sister and me another. It wasn't too obvious, but obvious enough that I did notice it at a pretty young age. Finally, the summer I was twelve, I asked Grandmother Wilson why Alice and I were not as good as Wesley III and Mary Capers. In looking back, I am surprised she didn't protest, but she didn't. Instead she answered, "We don't have time to go into that now. Your Aunt Christy is waiting to take the two of you to swimming lessons.
"When I came home from swimming--I don't know why I needed lessons, I could swim as well as the instructor and dive better--my grandmother was in the library. She called to me and said, "Douglas, when you are properly dressed, I will speak with you in the library." Well, I had been landed on enough to know that "properly dressed" for the library meant long pants and a button-up shirt. Shorts and T-shirts were for the working class, and proper shorts and golf shirts were permitted for very casual dress only.
When I was seated, my grandmother said, "Douglas, you asked why you and Alice are treated differently from your cousins Wesley and Mary Capers. It is sad to say, but there is a question of blood and breeding involved"--even at twelve I had a quick image of someone talking about horses, you know: blood lines, breeding and all that. "Your mother brought disgrace upon the family and as a result you and Alice, her children, cannot expect to be treated as the children of your Uncle Wesley who takes family and breeding very seriously."
"As surely you must know, the Wilsons are a prominent Charlotte family," she continued. I knew it all right, at least I should. I had been told often enough. "We have been an important part of Charlotte from its beginning and, in fact, an important part of North Carolina since it was an English colony. Your mother knew that and knew why she was sent to Converse College in Spartenburg." I knew about Converse because I had heard my dad say it was still just a South Carolina finishing school for young ladies. "Your mother knew her father and I and his parents had decided she would marry William Medford Henry, a decision made before she was in high school. He is from one of the old, good North Carolina families and was her escort for every social gathering from the time they were fourteen. After every social event, the 'Charlotte Observer' mentioned what a charming and attractive couple they were. And your father, well, you could hardly expect him to be in proper society and certainly not Linda Sue Wilson's escort."
Grandmother Wilson didn't have to tell me about my father. I had heard it often enough from the Wilson cousins--and even from Mom when she and Dad were squabbling, which had been growing more frequent or at least I heard it more often. See, my dad had grown up on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina--a hillbilly I had once heard my Aunt Christy tell one of her friends. You know the drill, his family was poor but honest. Actually, they were not poor, but the Wilsons would never believe it. The Wilsons had old money--what little there was left of it. Dad's family were not wealthy but comfortable, and didn't think money was something which made you better than someone else. I learned much later that my Charlotte grandparents didn't have as much money as they wanted people to think and my mountain grandparents had more than people thought, but I guess it's true: the perception is as good as the reality--you know that sort of thing.
Dad's parents were also more ambitious for him than Mom's were for her. All Mom's parents expected of her was to marry William Medford Henry, be bred a couple times--no more if one of the children was male--and spend her days playing bridge, being a junior leaguer and carting children from one proper activity to another. Dad's parents--Granddad and Grandmom McElrath--were determined to see that he got a good education so his life would be easier than theirs had been and so he would have options. Fortunately, Dad was a baseball player and got a baseball scholarship at Clemson--Mom's family referred to it as "that South Carolina trade school"--which paid all his school expenses. He worked in a summer camp from the time he was sixteen to earn his living expenses. He was a good student and was near the top of his engineering class at Clemson.
Mom and Dad met the summer before their senior year in college. He was lifeguard at the camp where he had worked summers before. It was one of the "right camps" in the North Carolina mountains, a camp which had as its chief purpose throwing males and females from the right families together so they could make a proper match, if their parents hadn't handled that for them. If they had, as in the case of my mom, they could get to know the person they would marry.
It seemed, however, young William Medford Henry (so help me that was the only way I ever heard him referred to, his full friggin' name) had a full-blown alcohol problem even at that young age and spent most of his time drunk and hiding from the camp staff. Since Mom was more or less free and--as Dad reminded her from time to time--looking for a handsome young man, the two definitely became an item at camp.
One of the other "fine young ladies" at camp was, at least according to
Mom, jealous. To get back at Mom, she told her socialite mother who lived in Charleston, who called a college classmate who lived in Savannah, who told a garden club member from Charlotte, who told Mom's mother over the bridge table (so help me, that's the way it was) that Mom had taken up with a hillbilly, and it hit the fan big time. Grandmother and Grandfather Wilson drove to camp and, in spite of her pitching a hissy fit--Dad said she really was kicking and screaming--"disgracing the Wilson name," took Mom home. So far as Mom's parents were concerned, it was all over between the two.
But it wasn't. Converse is not that far from Clemson so, as soon as the fall semester started, the two got together every chance they got. According to my grandmother, and I quote, "Your father was a social-climbing fortune hunter who saw an opportunity to marry into a old and respected family. Your mother thought defying her family--seeing your father after it was forbidden--was some kind of great adventure." Of course, Dad had a very different version of his courtship and marriage to my mom. Dad said she was a good-looking woman and a lot of fun and he fell in love with her.
Anyway, unknown to her family, Dad was Mom's date for homecoming at Converse and spent the weekend hiding out in Mom's dorm room between events--game, dance, etc.--with natural, but unexpected, results. By the Christmas break, Mom was positive I was on the way. The two kept Mom's pregnancy a secret as long as they could and only weeks before I appeared on the scene, went to Rock Hill, South Carolina to get married because South Carolina didn't require all the red tape North Carolina did for a marriage license. After they were married, they drove back to Charlotte and told Mom's parents.
Apparently there was a very stormy fight which started when Grandfather Wilson called the family lawyer to start the procedure to have the marriage annulled. While he was doing that Grandmother Wilson was making arrangements for me to be adopted as soon as I was born. Mom and Dad told them they would not permit either and, when Mom's parents ignored them, they left and went to Dad's parents where Mom stayed until I was born.
Mom graduated from Converse "in absentia". Dad graduated with honors, but Mom didn't see him as it was too close to my arrival time. As soon as he graduated, Dad went to Durham where he had a good job working with an engineering firm in the Research Triangle. He found a place for us to live and Mom and I joined him as soon as she could travel after my birth.
Calling me back to the present, my grandmother said, "So you see, Douglas, you can never really be a part of your mother's family since your blood is tainted by your hillbilly father's--and I understand that is even more tainted by Indian blood." She said "Indian" as if it was a dirty word. "It's a pity because you are a good-looking and intelligent young man, but your mother married so beneath her station you simply cannot expect to be accepted in your mother's social class. She has disgraced her family and friends and, I am sorry to say, you are just not acceptable to them."
How's that for a pile of shit to unload on a twelve year old?
That was the last time I saw Grandmother Wilson. I might have been only twelve, but I certainly knew if that was the way she felt, I would make her life easy by not reminding her of a grandson whose blue blood was tainted with the red blood of Indians and mountaineers. The next time the family was going to Charlotte, I simply refused to go and told Mom why. Mom said I should just forget about the conversation with my grandmother, but Dad said he understood and I didn't have to go. Later Dad told me Grandmother Wilson never mentioned me. It was like I didn't exist. She died when I was fourteen and I wouldn't go to the funeral.
In a way, I was glad I didn't have to go to Charlotte again--especially in the summers--because I could spend more time on the farm with my Dad's parents. There I was free to roam the mountains--either by myself or with my granddad--and work beside him around the farm.
I got very brown working in shorts without a shirt. "Makes your Indian blood show up," Granddad said. The Indian blood my Grandmother Wilson mentioned was there all right--on both sides of Dad's family. "Guess you're not all Cherokee," Granddad once said, "you're too tall." I don't know where my height came from since Cherokees are short and stocky, and I was tall at five ten when I was fourteen--and am now six feet, well... just a smidgen under six feet. Granddad said he guessed I was a throw-back to some of my white-man ancestors--"maybe even some of the pure-bred Charlotte ones" he had said. He had to explain what a throw-back was and, when he did, I could see he was probably right.
Another thing I liked about working on the farm was farm work put a little muscle on my skinny frame. The muscle I really appreciated because, as my grandmom said, I was scrawny. After I took my first growth spurt at thirteen, I was still scrawny, actually even more so. By the end of my fifteenth summer, I was about five eleven, pushing six feet and, pound per inch, still the smallest guy in my class. But what there was of me was hard muscle and I was as "brown as a berry," my grandmom said. When I told her I had never seen a brown berry, she laughed and said she hadn't either, but if I saw one, it would be brown as I was.
I was a swimmer, so the muscle I got in the summer stayed hard and I actually looked pretty good, I thought, when I looked at myself in a full-length mirror. On more than one occasion someone discovered I was much stronger than I looked, plus I was fast.
My mountain grandparents never mentioned my Charlotte ones. I knew they were hurt by being considered white trash and that Mom, without thinking, sometimes let them know she thought they were beneath her. But, unlike my Charlotte grandparents, they loved and accepted me just as I was and they made sure I knew it. That was extremely important to me, especially when I began to think I was not like other boys, that I was different.
Actually, from the time I was twelve I thought I was different because that was the year I started having wet dreams and they always involved boys, not girls. Sometimes I worried about that. I didn't have any idea what was going on, and spent time on the computer reading about homosexuality and was even more confused. Some said a guy chose that lifestyle, others said you were born that way. Some said you could change, others said you couldn't. Since I had no control over my dreams, I decided that whether or not I could change didn't matter.
I also fantasized about boys when I jerked off--I laugh when I think about that because it was Wesley Dabney Wilson III who showed me how to do that, jerk off that is--not that it is a very complicated process!! Wesley Dabney Wilson III, who was almost two years older than I, said as good as jerking off felt, it was terribly wrong. Well, if jerking off was wrong, two wrongs didn't make a bigger wrong, so I just fantasized away. Anyway, my McElrath grandparents loved me and accepted me "as I was." I don't mean they spoiled me. They didn't and, in fact, they were very strict about the few rules they had for me. When I got out of line they were firm, but loving, in their discipline.
What has all this to do with now? A whole lot because the class system which had given me a kick in the ass before was about to give me another so hard it would make me wonder if I could stand it. I was about to grow up in a hurry and feel the full weight of Dad's attempt to prove he was worthy of Mom.
One of our family traditions was a trip to Hilton Head as soon as school was out. Uncle Wesley took pity on Mom and gave her the use of his beach house for two weeks each summer. When Grandmother Wilson was alive, my sister and I--she was four years younger--were constantly reminded we were NEVER to say anything about the beach house to Grandmother Wilson. When my sister was six and asked Mom why, Mom replied, "Your grandmother just wouldn't understand." What she wouldn't understand was how Uncle Wesley could allow white trash--well, almost white--in his Hilton Head beach house. Anyway, the week after I finished my sophomore year at St. Stephens' School for Boys--they could have added "from the right families"--we were off to Hilton Head.
I liked the beach ok, but Mom was always upset because I didn't feel properly obligated to Uncle Wesley for what he was doing for us--which was actually nothing since the beach house would be standing empty otherwise. Usually I made no bones about preferring to spend the summer in the mountains with my grandparents, but this summer was different. I was very glad we had gone because a group of football players from Western Carolina University were staying in the beach house next door, providing me with great fantasies. We had perfect weather at the beach and everyone seemed to relax and enjoy it. Even Mom and Dad seemed to have put their bickering aside, which I really appreciated. At first I did get a bit uneasy when I realized I was checking out the good-looking football players on the beach rather than the girls, but I wasn't too uneasy. And my cock didn't get TOO sore.
One evening about dusk, I heard Mom and Dad start a fight, the first one since we got to the beach. I was old enough to realize there was increasing tension between my parents, and disagreements were coming more often and getting louder. I also knew they were often about money. I could see Dad was working his ass off and Mom was spending it faster than he earned it. Of course I never thought of that when I was asking for all the things an upper middle class, private school brat thinks he has to have. But I was often reminded there were real money problems from overhearing some of Mom's and Dad's squabbles. When the disagreement got very loud, I left and went walking on the beach.
I knew enough kids who were swapped back and forth between divorced parents to worry that might be my fate. That upset me and, when I thought about the feelings I found growing in me, my stomach really got tied in knots. I could imagine my parents getting a divorce and neither wanting me because of what I thought about boys. Anyway, when the argument got hot and heavy, I walked on the beach until I was sure my parents were asleep or passed out. See, I had also noticed that the fighting really got started after both had too much to drink, and as they fought they drank, ending the fight by passing out or going to sleep. When I got back to the beach house, Dad was asleep on the living room sofa and I guess Mom was in their bedroom. I went on to bed but lay awake, wondering what the future held for me and pretty sure I wasn't going to like it.
The time at the beach came to an end and we were finally ready to leave much later in the day than Dad had planned. He wanted to get home before dark but, as late as we started, that wasn't going to happen. To add to his displeasure, it started raining just after we left the beach and didn't let up. Alice, my sister, made matters worse by complaining and whining almost from the time we got in the car. "My seatbelt is cutting my neck," she would whine and unbuckle it. She and Mom had a running argument about Alice's seatbelt which I avoided by falling asleep.
Mom woke me up when she finally unfastened her seatbelt, turned around and shouted at Alice, "Alice, fasten your seatbelt and leave it fastened!" Mom hadn't gotten the words out of her mouth when I saw headlights coming straight toward us and felt the van swerve. I remember it going over an embankment and rolling. The next thing I remember was waking up in an emergency room.
When a nurse saw I was awake, she came over, patted my cheek and said, "Lucky you. You'll have beautiful bruises from your seatbelt but, otherwise, you are in good shape."
"What about my dad? My mom? My sister?"
"You dad's in surgery right now. I don't know about your mom or your sister. Someone will let you know soon."
A doctor told me I would be kept overnight for observation and saw that I was put in a room, but he couldn't tell me anything about Mom and Alice. I was given a pill--I think a sleeping pill--because I went to sleep very quickly and slept the rest of the night.
When I woke up the next morning, Uncle Wesley was sitting by my bed. "How'd you get here Uncle Wesley?" I asked.
"A friend from the country club flew me down in his company's plane," he answered. "I left as soon as I could after I learned about the accident, a hit-and-run."
"Have you seen Mom and Alice? Do you know how Dad is doing? No-one will tell me anything."
"Your dad came through surgery ok. He won't be up and about for a long time, but he's doing as well as can be expected. Alice and Sister were not so lucky," he said quietly.
"What do you mean? What happened to them?"
"I guess there's no way to break really bad news gently, Douglas. Both were killed instantly."
I guess I went into shock because I don't remember anything after that until I got home. Granddad and Grandmom were waiting for me and, after a good cry, we sat down with Uncle Wesley and made funeral arrangements. Later, when I realized Uncle Wesley had insisted Mom and Alice be buried in the Wilson family plot in Charlotte, I was very angry. How dare he think Mom was fit to be with her "good family" only when she was dead!
Dad was pretty badly broken up and couldn't be at the funeral. In fact, he was in a coma and didn't know anything about it until a week later when he finally came around. After spending three weeks in the hospital, he was moved to Glenview Nursing Home, a long term care facility, Fourth of July weekend. Glenview was near Asheville and about twenty-five miles from the farm.
I had turned sixteen on my birthday the first week in June, but didn't have a lot of driving experience even though I had my license. I certainly didn't have enough experience to make the trip alone to Glenview, so either Granddad, Grandmom, or both, went with me. They did insist that I drive for the experience.
Dad was making good progress but it was still going to be a long time before he could go back to work. Since I had planned to spend the summer with my grandparents anyway, that was no problem--at least until school started. Then one afternoon--a couple weeks after he had been moved--we got a call telling us Dad was being rushed to Mission St. Joseph's Hospital in Asheville. When we reached the hospital, the chaplain met us and took us into the chapel where he told us Dad had thrown a blood clot and was dead on arrival. I felt like a horse had kicked me in the gut.
Another funeral. I was surprised when Uncle Wesley said Dad should be buried beside Mom. As I was leaving the graveside, Wesley III and Mary Capers were walking ahead of me and, I hope, didn't know I was within earshot--or maybe they did. Anyway, he said to his sister, "I suppose they would even let that bastard Douglas be buried in the family plot."
"Wes, you know he is not a bastard. Mama told you his parents were married when he was born."
"Barely... besides, his father was just a dumb hillbilly."
So much for loving family support!
Here I was, barely sixteen, a rising high school junior (I had skipped the seventh grade because of high test scores) and an orphan, but there was more in store for me. A week after the funeral, my grandparents and I drove to Durham to settle Dad's affairs. I knew Mom could spend money faster than Dad could earn it but, as I said, I never thought about that when I wanted something. If it was what all the kids from the "right families" had, I got it. Granddad insisted I be in on all the discussions of Dad's affairs since I was all that was left of the family. I was in for real shock.
First of all, the accident was a hit and run. Since the car that ran us off the road didn't stop, the only insurance to take care of hospital bills and the wrecked car was the uninsured motorist policy Dad carried. It barely paid the hospital bill and what was left owing on the van--which was totaled--and didn't pay any of the funeral expenses.
As smart as Dad was, he sure was dumb about insurance. There was no mortgage insurance, and the twenty-year mortgage on the house had just over five more years to run. After talking to the bank and a real estate broker, we discovered the income from a lease would take care of the mortgage payments and a bit more. Granddad and I decided to put the house in the hands of the broker. He would take a percentage of the income from the lease for handling the leasing, any repairs etc. "The house will pay out in five years and then you can decide to sell or keep it. In the meantime, you will have a little income," Granddad had said. Dad's life insurance was just barely enough, but it did pay off all the funeral expenses with very little left over.
My grandparents and I looked over the things in the house and I decided there was little I wanted. I took my clothes, stereo and CDs, computer and furniture from my room--except my bed. It was a twin and I decided I'd take my parent's nearly new queen-sized. There was little else in the house I even considered. Well, there was one big item--a concert grand. Moving it would cost a bundle, but I didn't want to give it up yet. Granddad said I could put it in storage and decide what to do with it later. After I had decided what I wanted for my room at my grandparents, Grandmom said, "Douglas, I think you should pick out furniture for a study or den. You might not want it now, but it could come in handy later and there is plenty of room for one upstairs."
Mom had redecorated the den in the spring and made it a very warm, pleasant room. There was a large sleeper sofa which I had slept on once and found was actually very comfortable. There were four matching chairs--overstuffed so they were nice for curling up in and reading. There was a nice coffee table and a couple small tables. A large desk and chair and matching bookcases completed the furniture. The room had good lamps, swell for reading. "How about what's in this room?" I asked, and Grandmom nodded agreement. "But I don't think I'll bother with the pictures." Grandmom nodded again and smiled. The pictures were of horses, hounds and hunters--NOT what any red-blooded sixteen year old would want! Grandmom said she thought it would be a good idea to take the draperies since they could be altered to fit the upstairs where I would be living. Everything else was sold at an estate auction for several thousand, but I shuddered to think what it had cost compared to what it brought.
The van was Mom's. You know, a soccer-mom-mobile. Dad's car was a BMW convertible he had for a year. I was surprised to learn it, of all things, was almost paid off. Granddad said I could keep it if I wanted since, "There's enough money from the estate sale to pay it off." I thought about it and decided it was not what I wanted. It just wasn't a car for the mountains, especially for a sixteen-year-old. We went to a dealership and were able to trade the BMW for an almost-new four-wheel-drive Jeep, even steven. We made arrangements to pick it up the next morning since it had to be prepped.
When we got back to the house--for my last night in the only home I could really remember--the three of us sat down and talked about the future. "Douglas, you have just over two thousand dollars in a saving account out of all you and I thought your dad had owned. It was only a matter of time before the world would have come crashing down around his ears because he couldn't avoid bankruptcy much longer. It would be easy to blame your mom for overspending, but I guess your dad thought that if he gave the family everything all the right families had, then your family would be accepted by the Wilsons."
"It wouldn't have made any difference," I said.
"Of course not, but the result is that you are left with two old hillbilly grandparents and very little money. Of course you'll have a little coming in each month from the house. Most of it, less a reasonable allowance, probably should go directly into your savings account for college." That seemed a good idea, but I'd need to remember that if most of the income I had coming in was going toward college, my grandparents were supporting me and I should spend as little as possible.
"Granddad, I guess Dad should have realized we would never have been accepted by the Wilsons, but all of us were to blame for overspending. I thought I had a right to anything I wanted and I wanted whatever the other guys at St. Stephen's had. And I could have been much worse off. I could have been left with only Mom's family who would have treated me like a red-headed bastard stepchild."
Grandmom laughed and said, "You might have been treated that way but you have enough Cherokee blood to keep you from being red-headed, even with all the Irish blood from both branches of the family tree. And, God knows, there was enough hell raised over your parents' marriage that everyone knows you're not a bastard--even if they did get married just in the nick of time. And everyone knows you are not a stepson, so any treatment of you as such you can put down to ignorance." Grandmom was ticking off each point she made on her fingers, and Granddad and I were laughing our fool heads off.
When we had stopped laughing, Granddad said, "Seriously now, it's not much but you have a couple thousand in the bank and there will be monthly additions, small though they may be. What is there will stay there to help out with college expenses. So the long and short of it is, you can't afford a private school, period, and especially since you would have to go to a boarding school as there are no private schools near Coldsprings. Well, there are some so-called Christian schools, but they exist to make sure only the right kind of people associate with the right kind of people. Maybe a different flavor and it's not exactly the same kind of snobbery as the Wilson snobbery, but it's snobbery nonetheless." That was the extent of my grandparents commenting on my mom's family. "Frankly, I think you can get a good education in the public school but, to be honest, I suspect the education you get will be pretty much up to you. Unlike St. Stephen's, the student body at Coldsprings High is made up of 'all sorts and conditions' and the teaching has to reflect that. So the opportunity will be there, but no-one will force feed you. Anyway, we'll get you enrolled next week."
Granddad called and found out the guidance counselor was working during the summer and I went to school the following Wednesday to meet with her. Ms. Kennedy, the guidance counselor, was very warm and friendly. The first thing she said when we were seated in her office was, "Douglas, I want you to know I am here whenever you need me. I am much older than you, almost three times as old, and when I lost both my parents last year, I was devastated. I can't imagine how I would have been had I, as you have, lost them when I was barely sixteen."
I don't know how I knew she was sincere, but I did. I said, "Thank you," and we turned to the business at hand--working out a schedule for me.
"I see here that you completed, with high marks, three AP classes--biology, algebra, composition--and honors social studies for sophomores. You have two computer courses as well as two years of physical education, music and French. What were your music classes?"
"Piano. I had theory, composition and performance," I answered.
"Because of budget cuts, we only have a part-time music teacher and she just does band. So I don't know what can be done about music. Seems you spend a lot of your PE time in the water." She looked up from my transcript and smiled. "Also, you played baseball."
"He's like his dad was," Granddad said. "Both seemed to have been born with gills and with a baseball glove and bat in hand." I laughed as I had an image of a fish playing baseball flash through my head.
"We have a fair baseball team here at Coldsprings. I suspect you will find yourself more than welcome if you are any good at all. But you have completed four semesters of PE and that's all that is required for graduation. Personally, I think students would benefit from a class involving physical activity every semester, but I don't set the requirements," Ms. Kennedy said. "Douglas, you can do otherwise if you like but, looking at your transcript and your test scores, I advise you to take difficult courses, actually four AP courses and third year honors French. I'll have to get permission from Mr. Duncan, the principal, for that many advanced courses, but if you want to try it, I can see him right now,"
"If you think I can do it, I'll try it." I knew the courses would give me a better chance at a good scholarship and the better the scholarship, the less expense to my grandparents. Half an hour later I had my academics scheduled. I was taking four AP courses--chemistry, calculus, composition and literature, and American history--honors French and advanced computer applications. I still had a period left.
"You can take a study hall if you like," Ms. Kennedy said, "or you can take PE."
"Can he leave before that last period?" Granddad asked. "His father did, in order to be on the Y swimming team. Douglas says he'd like to tryout for the Y team and if he makes it, he'd swim three days a week. Also, he has expressed some interest in continuing with his piano, and the best teacher we know is Mrs. Roberts in town. He'd do two lessons a week with her." I wondered how I would get in any practicing since I didn't have my piano.
When I began to take piano seriously, Mom managed to get the concert grand from Uncle Wesley because neither of his kids would practice, and generally just made enough noise to have him tell them to stop banging on that piano. He stopped paying for music lessons and was happy to get rid of "that white elephant".
"I'll have to see about that," she replied. "Rules and regulations--most not benefiting students, I might add--have been added and changed since your dad was here, Douglas. I'll put you down for a study hall last period and with your permission, Mr. McElrath, he can leave school for piano lessons, the Y or home. I'll also check into his getting independent study credit for piano and swimming. Extra credits never hurt and especially when you can get them for something you'll be doing anyway. Any other questions?" We had none. When we stood, Ms. Kennedy extend her hand and when I took it she said, "Welcome to Coldsprings, Douglas."
As we were driving home, I asked Granddad where I could practice piano. "Douglas, when you said you weren't ready to give up the piano and we stored it, I wasn't sure how interested you were in piano. I knew also the concert grand you had from the Wilsons would never fetch what it was worth. That's the reason I suggested we store it until you could make a decision. If you want it, I'll have it shipped here."
"Granddad, that'll be pretty expensive and, when it gets here, it will need someone who really knows what they are doing to tune it."
"True, but the question is... how serious are you about piano?"
"I guess as serious as I can be."
"I didn't know whether you took lessons and played because you were supposed to or because you wanted to," Granddad said.
"At first it was because I was told to," I answered, "but after grade school, I came to love it and it was a bright spot in my life."
"I'll call tomorrow and have it shipped," Granddad said.
School would be starting Tuesday after Labor Day, so I had almost a month of summer left after I got enrolled.
When we got home from church one August Sunday, Grandmom said, "There was a notice in the bulletin this morning about senior high camp. How'd you like to go to camp for a couple weeks? Camp Morning Star is inexpensive and I think you might enjoy it."
"A church camp?" I asked. Grandmom nodded. "I don't think I'm up to two weeks of being asked if I have accepted Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior," I replied, trying to be polite but remembering a couple of really uptight "Christians" at school.
Grandmom laughed and said, "Neither am I, but that should not go on at Camp Morning Star. I've talked to several kids from Grace about their experience and all have had nothing but good things to say about it. No religion forced down your throat, just attempts to live it."
"I guess I could try it, but I really think I'd rather spend the time here. I don't feel ready to face a lot of questions right now."
"It was just a thought, Douglas. I think I can understand your needing some solitude right now."
Over the next few days, Granddad and I worked hard. There was hay to be cut, baled and stored, the garden to be cared for. Grandmom said most gardens were "women's work", but she was not good at it, didn't like it and since Granddad did, the garden was his. I also helped Grandmom can and freeze food for winter. It was hot, messy work but it helped kept my mind off my family.
The middle of one especially hot afternoon when Granddad and I had put the last bale of the week's hay in the shed, he said, "Douglas, we have been working like Trojans and working in hay when it is as hot and humid as it is today takes it out of you. How about an ice cream?" I expected us to go to the kitchen and have Grandmom serve us bowls of ice cream but, as we walked into the kitchen, Granddad said, "Old Girl, we are going for ice cream. Want to tag along?" Grandmom answered by taking off her apron and running her hands through her hair.
"Are we going into town like this?" I asked, looking at my cutoffs, battered sneakers and sweaty T-shirt."
"Well, I think I'll wash my hands and face but, otherwise, sure. It's a farm town, no-one expects to see us looking like we were on a hot date."
"Well, now, I thought you were, Old Man," Grandmom said as I dashed upstairs. I pulled off the T-shirt and washed my face, hands and arms and put on a fresh T-shirt before I dashed downstairs.
As we walked out the back door and toward the shed where the farm truck, the car and my Jeep were parked, I said, "I'll drive." Granddad opened the Jeep door for Grandmom and then climbed in the back. When he was in, I got in the driver's seat and we were off.
The wind in the open Jeep was really welcome and all three of us were in a great mood as we pulled into the parking lot of the ice cream parlor. We all got double dips and, as we walked out, Granddad said, "Let's go across the street to the park."
Across the street a park ran along the stream which flowed through the town. We found a bench under a huge old oak and sat, eating our ice cream. Shortly after we sat down, I looked up and saw a young guy, I guess about my age, maybe a little older, walk across the park. He was watching his feet, his head hanging down like he was ashamed. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, both too small and torn. I could see he had a great body and while I doubt he would ever be called cute, I think most would think him handsome and he was very masculine--shorter than I was, I guessed, but well-built. He must have spent a lot of time out of doors because he was as dark as I was. He had straight, black, black hair which was pulled back into a single large braid.
As I watched him, he looked up, our eyes met and all the way across the park I felt an immediate connection to him. I felt as though my eyes zoomed in on his face as all else went out of focus.
I hoped Granddad or Grandmom would know who he was. To get them to look at him I said, "Somebody else with Indian blood over there," as I nodded in the young man's direction.
Granddad looked over at him and said, "That's for sure. Don't think I have seen him around before, but he's definitely kin to one branch of the family." Grandmom said she hadn't seen him before so I didn't find out who he was. I watched as he walked along the stream, jumped across it where it narrowed, and just disappeared like he was some kind of spirit. I felt strange watching him, like I should know him.
"You daydreaming Douglas?" Granddad asked, startling me.
I looked up and saw Grandmom and Granddad standing. I grinned sheepishly and said, "I guess I was." I blushed when I realized they had stood up, ready to go and had probably called me several times before I answered.
When I was not working, I spent a lot of time in the woods, roaming the mountains. Sometimes I would be just walking along and suddenly I couldn't hold back the tears. Mostly I cried because my family was gone but, increasingly, I cried because I hadn't done anything to stop the fighting which would have destroyed my family as surely as the accident. I felt terribly guilty about that and also because I had not died. I felt like I had betrayed my family by living through the wreck. I know that sounds stupid, but it's how I felt.
Sometimes I blamed my fantasizing about boys and jerking off for what had happened. My family were punished for what I did--and continued to do. Then there were times when I was just depressed, I guess, times when I just put everything in neutral and drifted.
Early on I remembered a place I found and had grown to love when I had been in the mountains other summers. About a mile or so from the house, there was a huge rock shelf jutting out of the mountain. The rock seemed to hang in the air, some thirty or so feet above a meadow covering the valley floor. The forest came to the edge of the meadow opposite the rock shelf. The shelf itself was maybe twenty feet wide where it joined the mountain, tapering to ten feet or so where it hung out over the valley. It was about fifteen feet from the suspended edge to where it buried itself in the mountain. At the juncture of rock and mountain, a few scrubby bushes grew, the tops of some hanging over the edge. I could grab one of them and swing myself up and onto the rock, but the safest way was to climb beside the rock shelf to a point beyond where it joined the mountain and then walk around and down. The top was essentially bare with only a little sandy soil and moss covering it.
When I was really down on myself or depressed, or just lonely, I'd walk out on the rock and sit or lie down on the edge overlooking the valley and get myself back together.
One afternoon, I was sitting on the edge of my rock when I saw something move in the trees across the meadow. I guess it was a deer or maybe a bear, as there were both in the woods, but I wasn't sure. As I looked, I saw whatever it was dash back into the woods and disappear. After that, when I was on my rock, I often had a feeling I was being watched and a few times saw something moving below, but I never saw enough to know what it was.
A couple weeks before school started, it had been rainy and dark for three days and the gray skies really got me down. When the sun finally came out one mid-afternoon, I asked if there was anything I needed to do and when I was told not, said, "Then I think I'll go for a hike in the woods." I left the house, headed for my rock.
I was really in a fog. I was feeling guilty, again, about my family. The gray days had given me the blues and I had begun to worry big time about something else. I hadn't thought about sex or jerked off very often since the accident. Hadn't had many wet dreams either. I wondered if something had been broken in the accident. I mean, I was one horny guy before, generally getting off at least once a day, but since the accident, well, I guess I thought that thinking about sex or doing something about being horny was... I don't know what. I was pretty confused.
Anyway, when I reached the rock I climbed to the top of the ledge and lay on my back in the warm sun. The warmth went right through my cutoffs and straight to my cock. I was hard and ready. Since I was in the middle of the woods alone, I stripped off my clothes and started stroking myself. As I approached my climax, I realized I was thinking of the young man in the park, imagining it was his hand on my hard rod. My climax was awesome!
I finally grabbed a bunch of leaves and cleaned up. I then lay on my stomach, thinking about what had just happened. Today wasn't the first time I had thought about the guy in the park. I thought about him often. I even dreamed about him, each time seeing him standing proud, his head held high and not looking defeated as he did when I first saw him. I thought of ways I would make him happy and proud and, when I did, I got hard and began to worry about being a queer--again. Yeah, that was another worry I had, a worry that was not new. I was one mixed-up kid.
I didn't really know what being queer was. I mean, I had read tons of stuff on the internet, which only confused me more. I had heard the guys at school calling each other queer and faggot, but it didn't mean anything, I thought. Then someone caught Roger Lacey behind the gym after school sucking Jimmy Cross' dick. Jimmy was big enough and strong enough to beat the shit out of anyone who said anything to him, but Roger wasn't. Things finally got so bad, his parents took him out of school and sent him away to boarding school. Being called queer and faggot might not hurt you--I mean, of course it did--not like being beaten up three or four times a week. But I worried about being queer. I didn't want to be, but I daydreamed about the boy in the park and when I did....