I was thinking about Harry the other day. I was visiting my parents, and mom is quite the avid scrapbooker. Flipping through my old photos is always kind of disconcerting – I see the smile on my face or catch a glimmer in my eye and I’m constantly reminded that appearances are deceiving. I have this whole history in hard images in which I’m a happy well-adjusted teen, and all these undocumented memories that I was anything but. Mind you, I don’t do anything to extremes, so don’t get your hopes up too far. Anyway, I was flipping through the pages documenting the high points and highlights of my teens, and suddenly, there was Harry, grainy and half-toned in a yellowed clipping from the Newport News Times.
Now some of you are seeing Newport News and thinking Virginia, but you are a good 3200 miles too far east. Newport is a small tourist destination on the Oregon coast in the area where I grew up. It is a town in which the breathtaking beauty of the northwestern Pacific meets the plummeting foothills of the Coast Range; dotted with cottages, crappy concrete motels and condo developments, and galleries and shops specializing in misty watercolors, driftwood curios, and salt water taffy. Founded in the 1880's, it still has a strong fishing community that adds a grounded charm to the more obvious tourist-driven tackiness.
Mind you, that isn’t where I lived. Six miles east on Highway 20, you can reach Toledo, Oregon, which, if you follow the Newport News Times link above in the same week I publish this, you’ll find is celebrating Toledo Summer Festival, and is proud that Kari Mabe is on the Oregon Fast Pitch team. I went to school with her father and aunt. It's that kind of town – if you see a name in the paper, you probably know who it is. There were 70 kids in my graduating class. Though nestled in some serious forest, Toledo is well-distant from the shore and typically about 15 degrees warmer and less foggy than Newport, but otherwise was neither charming nor breathtaking. Unless you were gasping for breath next to the largest industry and employer in town: Georgia Pacific paper pulp and plywood mill. Anyone with any experience of settling ponds knows what I’m talking about, but that’s not breathtaking for a good reason, now is it? Though incorporated in 1905, most of Toledo’s growth, such as it was, occurred in the 30’s with an influx of Okies and Arkies fleeing the dustbowl and Depression for greener shores. Much of the Ozark clan structure seems to have arrived intact with them; thus the Mabes, above, are relatives of the Steenkolks, who are related to the Ebrecks, who know the Marthallers, who are related to the…you get the idea. Redneck, white, and blue collar. A slice of Americana that really never could afford the fireworks.
So, I digress. Harry. Enriching one’s experience within the environs of Toledo was a priority for my parents (who I think felt somewhat guilty at times for moving us to such a backward place) so, we often found ourselves on the way to Newport, which, being twice the size of Toledo and much more interested in appealing to city folk, had considerably more to offer culturally. Well, it had art galleries and a community theater, anyway. My dad actually got involved with the Porthole Players first; I just took it and ran with it. Between 1978 and 1981, I appeared in 5 productions. One of the last of these before I went to college, was Guys and Dolls. Harry played Nathan, good ol’ reliable Nathan, Nathan, Nathan Detroit.
God only knows what Harry was doing in the area; I never actually asked (teenagers are incredibly self-centered). He certainly must have found himself a fish out of water in Lincoln County – A New York Jew now living in Yachats (pronunciation guide: YAH Hots. Yeah, I know), he was 3000 miles away from home living in a state whose entire population is less than half of New York City. Yachats is a tiny coastal village of about 500, some 20 miles south of Newport.
I pegged him as gay within 5 minutes of meeting him – he was theatrical, and there’s that other thing that some people call gaydar. I just knew. On the other hand, he was urban, he was out, and he strangely (to me) didn’t seem to give a shit what anyone thought, so it wasn’t exactly a psychic revelation either. Unaccountably, we got paired up for some stupid theatrical exercise at the first rehearsal. I’m not sure what director Dick Poole’s intentions were, but it certainly turned out to be a pivotal exercise for me.
The exercise started by pairing each person with someone they didn’t already know. We then had 30 seconds to make polite chatter. Dick would then call out an emotion (“Happy!”), and we were supposed to change the conversation to reflect this. Guys and Dolls has minimal chorus and crowd scenes, so again, I have no idea what was the point. Anyway, so Harry and I are rolling along with this stupid thing when Dick shouts “Angry!” Harry, who could talk extremely fast, starts berating me for being a clueless teen, for being badly dressed (almost certainly true), and for being straight. I was barely keeping up with “Hey, you don’t even know me, city guy” when that last hit, and I immediately, thoughtlessly, said, “and what makes you think I’m straight! You’re even stupider than you look!” The exercise probably didn’t end abruptly at that moment, but it makes a better scene if I say that it did.
That was it, I was suddenly out. I’d never told a single soul before then that I was attracted to men. Don’t take that the wrong way, however. I’d already had sex with far too many men for someone of my age; I just hadn’t talked about it. I knew what I might be (might?!); I just didn’t have any idea how I was going to be that. At that moment, it became time to start figuring it out. Near the end of rehearsal, Harry tried to ask me some questions; you can probably guess which. I had regained considerable composure, and was curt, but I didn’t backtrack. My sexuality at this point was still a confusing muddle that I hadn’t been able to name, but I had prepared for the idea that it might come under question at some point. I had prepared a response that was truthful – I didn’t want to lie. I was expecting the questions from family or friend, but so be it.
- “Are you gay?”
- “But you’re not straight.”
- “You’re really cute, do you know that?”
Okay, so I wasn’t prepared for the last one. Fortunately, fate stepped in. Remember, this was my fifth performance with Porthole. Also, I’d gone from being a gawky freshman in my time with them to being a slightly less gawky senior. Enter Shelly. I think Shelly’d actually had her eye on me since she was 11 and I was 14, and we were both in the chorus of Oklahoma!. God knows why. I understand there are girls who want to date aliens someday, so there you go. Probably something like that. Shelly’d been waiting all night, with the enthusiasm of someone newly 14 and allowed to go out with boys at last, to get close enough to me to remind me that she existed. Seeing me standing alone with Harry, she made a beeline. And I grabbed it. “Shelly! How have you been! Bye Nathan, I mean Harry, see you tomorrow!”
Well, you can’t unspill milk as some Iowan relative of mine no doubt once said, so on with the show. Rehearsals were frequent, Harry was a star, and we were going to be seeing a lot of each other. I knew that if I didn’t want to be the very loud talk of the very small town, I needed to set some ground rules with him post haste. I laid down the law with him at the next rehearsal. “Look, I don’t want to talk about this in front of anybody. I’m in school, my parents don’t know, and you could really fuck things up. If you do, I will kill you. Or I will kill myself.” To his credit, he didn’t laugh, and he didn’t condescend. He just said okay. And he asked me to go home with him.
Harry had no way of knowing what I’d been up to for the past couple of years, and at this point I’m not going to go into it. Maybe in October. Fall is a good time for horror stories. But at that point, senior year, 1980-1981, there was simply no way I was going to sleep with him. It was far too late to save myself for marriage, but it was not too late to decide to save myself for someone I actually liked. And while Harry was nice, he was 20 years too old, 50 pounds too heavy, and lived 100 miles too close to other people I knew. So, no.
He kept trying, surreptitiously, and not so much. He followed my rules, up to a point, but he didn’t quit. He suggested me to Dick when the original Benny Southstreet that Dick had cast went, uh, south. So I got a bigger part, and got to spend even more time rehearsing with him. He’d smirk at me when Shelly hung all over me, and as rehearsals went on, when another Hotbox dancer, Jennifer, began hanging all over me as well. (Y’all understand how rare teenage boys are in community theater right? I might have been slim pickings, but it’s not like they had several to choose from). He gave me greeting cards with naked men on them professing his love. I hid them in the bottom of my sock drawer under the 1968 newspaper it was lined with. He gave me a book on Leonard Matlovich which I also had to hide, and told me they’d been lovers, which I didn’t believe. He’d sing along backstage with Sky Masterson on "I’ve Never Been In Love Before", while making eyes at me, which was going a bit too far. He’d make up lewd lyrics to other Broadway standards and try to make me laugh, and while an obscene version of "Try To Remember" IS funny when the refrain is "swallow, swallow, swallow", I had only to note the expressions of some of the people around us to remember that I needed to look shocked also.
After 10 weeks of this nonsense, we went on, had a great show, wowed the locals. Done. Cast party was his last chance, and I spent the entire night cuddling Shelly and Jennifer and surreptitiously downing red wine. When I was about to leave, I realized that I really should say goodbye, and I found him and said goodbye in a mostly private hallway. I let him kiss my cheek. He’d brought a final card. He told me to call him. I said that I might. I kissed him back, once, when he asked. I never saw him again.
In the grand scheme of things, Harry isn’t that important, even to me. I never even think about him, and when I saw his picture in Mom’s album, I had to read the caption to remember what his name was. But he’s the first person I came out to. He’s the first gay person I ever said more than two words to. And he’s the first gay person I ever met who wasn’t sneaky about it. Everyone in the entire cast knew about Harry. At the time, I naively believed no one knew about me. He wasn’t the best of role models, but I don’t judge him too harshly – it’s a bitch to be gay and lonely in a small redneck town. What he showed me that has the most lasting value is that you can be gay in a small redneck town, and you can set your own rules for how they should treat you, and if you can do that in a small town, maybe you can do it anywhere.
He was in your face, obnoxious, and lewd. He was sweet, expansively romantic, and inappropriately flirty. And he didn’t give a damn what other people thought of him. Except maybe me for 10 weeks in 1980, and it’s taken me far too long to say I’m glad I knew him.