Sunday, March 24, 2013

Walkers (alive, not zombie)

While it probably sounds at the very least quaint and understandably feudal, there was a time when a family's name meant a good the Walkers did in my hometown of Gap (which makes it sound downright silly..."Oh.  You're one of the Gap Walkers.")

In fact, the Gap Walkers were one of its first families and the one that really thrived.  Other families were of note, but the Walkers bought huge areas of land and then rented them out, started the bank, started the feed mill (an absolute necessity in a rural community), gave lots of money to the Presbyterian church (although some of them became Quakers) and wound up on the Board of Directors of the Pennsylvania Rail Road.

What remains of the Gap Walkers is my sister, who is married and, thus, changed her name. (she has some property, but not much) and a female cousin living in another county.  The remaining reproducing male Gap Walker lives in Ohio.  My uncle and father carried the respect and ran the feed mill, but my grandparents were the last of the real Walkers.

Gap housed two Walker mansions.  One was on the hill which I saw daily when I walked to and from school, and in the summer when my grandfather bribed me into removing weeds from the lawn.  To my mind, my grandparents had the better mansion, Five Corners.  As the name implies, it overlooked an intersection of five streets.  It was ('s still standing but in need of repair) a yellow brick building with large windows and stained glass windows in the bow at the turn of the stairs.  It was a magical place to visit.  My mother's parents lived in a bungalow, which was moved to make way for Route 41 and is still standing,.  When it moved, they moved to a large trailer that they added onto.  It had its own magic.

I sometimes wonder if being a Walker saved me from major bullying and harassment.  I didn't think about it at the time; I didn't think about the perks of being a Walker at the time.  Still, I think it's possible.  A couple of hoods got on my case on the school bus.  Things were harder in high school because the students were no longer just from Gap and the outlying area served by the feed mill.  By the same token, I was a somewhat oblivious teen who tended to ignore distractions.  I was "Davesy," "the Dairy Queen" and various other names, but they didn't particularly hurt because I had other things on my mind and my friends, though few, were indeed friends.

At one time my father and Sam Slaymaker, of the then-nationally famous Slaymaker Lock Company in Lancaster with the country home near Gap, toyed with the idea of a marriage with Sam's daughter Libby.  I never went along with it, although Libby and I were great friends.  I liked being with her and I loved the country manor, White Chimneys (still standing, but now an antiques store).  White Chimneys was incredibly grand; to think that it could be mine was the stuff fantasies are made of.  But not if it meant marrying.

I'm glad to have been the end of the line of the Gap Walkers.  The end of the line is gay and no longer has any desire to return to the town.  At one time, Gap was a good town, and maybe it is again.  I prefer it as a memory town and my family as a memory family.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Robins Return

No sooner had I finished reading Armistead Maupin's Significant Others and sat smiling out the bus window (reader afterglow) than I spotted a flock of birds in front of the Vartan building that's home to Cumulus Broadcasting.  They didn't look like the birds I see all winter, so I looked a little closer and saw the unmistakable red/orange breasts.  The robins have returned to central Pennsylvania.  We'll welcome their return with a snow/sleet/ice storm.

When I worked in broadcasting, one of my friends was Mitzi Trostle.  She always found it amusing that I got excited when I saw my first flock of robins for the year.  Then she noticed that her mother was as happy about their arrival as I was.  From then on, I received official word from York Springs on the arrival of the robins.  Usually, that was a week before I'd see them here.

Robins aren't the end of winter weather, no more than the vernal equinox...and that comes Wednesday.  Unlike the groundhog in early February, which few of us get to see, robins are a visible reminder that spring is on its way.  Robins are the pansies and asters of the summer birds.  I'm not a birder; however, one of the many things I enjoy about summer is the sound of bird calls.  In winter we have crows, wrens and sparrows. Not bad mouthing them, but their calls tend to match the weather.  As cute as a wren is, as proud as a sparrow is, as authoritative as a crow is, they sound like winter.

Then there are geese.  They now hang out all year, too.  They have for quite a few years.  The flocks around home tend to fly in the morning and evening, their daily constitutionals, I suspect.  I tend to stop in my tracks when I hear them.  I'm not sure why.  I admire them, even if they can be a pain in the tush.  They don't need to attain great altitude when they make their daily passes.  On the other hand, before last Sunday's Gay Men's Chorus Cabaret, I sat on a bench by the Susquehanna and a huge flock of geese flew overhead.  I panicked a bit when I saw them flying south (in March!?!), but then they hung a left and, I assume, circled north.  Compared to the few in our flocks, a migrating flock is huge and thrilling.

In fact, one of my favorite memories is of a flock of geese I saw on the Juniata River years ago.  The Juniata has a fair current most of the time, so I assume they were resting, watering, feeding.  I didn't even see them at first; they were south of where I stood.  Then I heard them.  I looked up, conditioned that the sound of geese means they're in flight.  Nothing was overhead.  I looked downstream and saw the most astounding sight:  a huge flock of geese rising from the Juniata and then circling once, twice, three times and finally attaining enough altitude to clear South Mountain and head south.  I'd never seen anything like that.  Because I tend not to believe in coincidences, I feel I was supposed to see it.  I don't know why; I'm grateful I did.

So, the robins are here.  I've noticed my daffodils have started their upward push.  They don't get enough sunlight to bloom, but they've been there for more than the 33 years we've been there, so I suppose bulb plants don't need to flower to return.  I, on the other hand, need my robins, and they've returned.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Chicken Queen or Old Lech?

I've read two books in the last week that have been amazing, wonderful reads.  They've also made me feel a tad uncomfortable.

Suicide Notes is by Michael Thomas Ford.  He'd written many gay humor columns which were then collected into a fun string of books.  I did a gay fiction search on my county library's catalogue and came upon his name.  I hadn't thought about him for quite some time, so I thought I'd see what he was up to.  I requested Suicide Notes be put on hold for me (it's at another library).  Two days later, it came in and I was surprised to see it was filed under Young Adult.

It's a well-informed, introspective, sometimes LOL journal kept by Jeff.  Jeff slit his wrists on New Year's Eve.  Suicide Notes is his daily view of the 45 days he spends in a young people's psychiatric ward.  Those of you who've read my blogs on suicide know why I checked this out.  I was not disappointed.  Ford presents Jeff's case very well and most convincingly.  Jeff is thrown into a way of life he had no idea existed.  He desperately wants out, then resigns himself to having to be there, and finally comes to grips with himself through the help of others in the ward.  Funny, harrowing, and as real as it should be.

My Most Excellent Year:  A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins and Fenway Park by Steve Kluger blew me away.  By far one of the most entertaining books I've ever read (honest), it involves three almost-seniors writing a diary about their 9th grade adventures.  The kids are TC, Alejandra and Augie.  It's difficult to sum up the book in a paragraph, but "love" is explored in its many facets, Mary Poppins plays an incredibly wonderful part, and TC lives in Boston and is a hopeless Red Sox addict.

The three kids form a tight bond through their high school freshman year.  TC and Augie formed a friendship when they were 6 and TC's mother died.  Augie, who never spoke to TC before that, instinctively knew how to help TC (Augie calls him Tick) through that horrible time; they became so close they informed their parents they had a new son.  Alejandra's father was a diplomat, now teaches, and expects her to go into the diplomatic corps.  Augie's Broadway gene is raging from his earliest days.  I wanted the story to be told exclusively by him.

Hence, my problem.  I love these kids.  I want to take Jeff under my wing and help him however I can.  I want Augie in my life...somehow.  I want to tell TC how much I admire his outlook.  Admittedly, there were times I wanted to smack Alejandra up the side of her head, but she ultimately came around and I understand this trio.  So, I can't help feeling like an old perv.

Is there a way for an old fart to befriend kids and not be perceived as a lech?  Can an admitted chicken queen still admire kids without everyone suspecting ulterior motives?  This becomes a serious thing for me to face.  First of all, in this day of viewing anyone who shows an interest in kids as a potential kidnapper, how do you even get a fair shake at expressing your interest in being a friend or a mentor?  On the bright side, all of the young adults involved take gayness in stride, as do most of their friends.  I like this and I hope it's true, but I have a perspective they should know.  There was a Stonewall.  There is AIDS.  We have a history and they need to know. 

But I don't know if I should read any more gay Young Adult books.  Jack hasn't minded so far; he knows I like young guys...not as a turn-on but to watch and observe.  (That will be a blog sometime when I can figure out a non-lecherous way to write it.)  I know that library check-out lists are supposed to be confidential, but I kind of wonder what the librarians think when they see The Old Guy check out books for teens.

Suicide Notes is a journal; there are 45 chapters, one for each day Jeff is part of the hospital's program.  Theoretically, the book is written by Jeff.  His wit is delicious, his language is refreshing, his admission of his gayness may take too long but it also makes sense.  My Most Excellent Year is epistolary and comes from a class assignment to write diaries, but it also includes instant messages, emails and other (to my old brain) inventive means of furthering the plot.

Two other items: 
1.  Thanks to Suicide Notes, I had to laugh at my therapist last session.  I noticed that when I said something he considered significant, he'd make a note on his pad.  When he noticed my smile, I told him about Cat Poop, Jeff's psychiatrist.
2.  Thanks to My Most Excellent Year, whether it was purely fictional or based on truth, I love and admire Julie Andrews even more.

Friday, March 1, 2013

One Saturday Afternoon in Philly

George M-as-in-Michael Cohan has spent the last hour proving himself, from the corny/catchy tunes he wrote for his family's act to actually starting to get both a favorable and unfavorable reputation.  Now it's time to prove himself...and for the Act One closer.

My friends and I (all gay, all with serious Broadway genes) went to Philadelphia frequently in the mid-'60s.  We were going to Lebanon Valley College, which was then a small Christian college for small Christians.  The distance between Annville and Philly was quite manageable.  Philadelphia was the important try-out town for musicals getting ready for Broadway.  For well under $5 each, we saw a works in progress; afterward, we dined at a bar that served the young (underage) theater sophisticates we truly were.  (My favorite was the Pub Tiki on Rittenhouse Square...the food was different and they propped little umbrellas in some of their drinks.  Plus, the waiters were cute.)

George was ready to start production on Little Johnny Jones.  He knew it would be a smash -- after all, he wrote the script, wrote the lyrics, wrote the music, starred in it and directed it.  What could go wrong?

We'd seen Joel Grey play the MC in Cabaret when it tried out a season or so before.  The show was amazing and he was wonderfully creepy.  There was no question that we'd see him in George M!  It was fun.  The show was nonstop balls to the walls energy from the first notes of the overture to the finale.  The pace was so frantic that when it came time for "Mary's a Grand Old Name," it seemed totally out of place because it was so slow.  It was also the first show I'd ever seen that continued after the bows.  Joel Grey looked at his watch and said it was still early.  "We've had our say, but Georgie still hasn't."  The cast proceeded to do Cohan songs they "found at the bottom of the trunk."

The sequence starts with auditions for Little Johnny Jones.  Except for the ghost light, the stage is bare.  Georgie's voice booms at the next auditioner.  She does a Cohan song interestingly tentatively.  (She was hired, of course, and becomes the second Mrs. Cohan in the second act.)  That's the only audition we hear.  Georgie's voice announces, "This is a rehearsal" and two women in rehearsal clothes run through a comedy number.  (Georgie's voice is recorded; one assumes Joel is catching his breath backstage -- this is about the only time he hasn't been onstage for the whole show so far.)  After the comedy song, there's a song-and-dance number featuring the men singing to (and dancing for) Rosie.  During all of this, stagehands have brought out crates and a few odd pieces.  By the end of the Rosie song, it's apparent they're putting things together for a set and chorus women and men lean against some of the boxes watching.  After Georgie barks some more orders ("We got a show to put on!"), they get in formation and "Popularity" begins.  They do a routine, but then the women exit left, returning almost immediately downstage, one by one, in skirts and carrying parasols.  Were these women waiting backstage?  They strut upstage right and re-emerge, again almost immediately and one by one, from downstage right in frilly tops and huge hats.  The men, too, have changed -- I couldn't tell you how or when because the women were such diversions.  And now everyone dances to the final strain of "Popularity" as the stagehands put the finishing touches on a pier, the aft of an ocean liner becomes clearly assembled, and smoking smoke stacks fly in for the crowning touch.

The chorus has taken its place on the ocean liner or on the pier, lights change, everyone freezes, and Georgie and his father appear in costume onstage.  Georgie confesses he's kind of scared.  Father answers with a roar, "Thank God!"  Lights change.  They go through their dialogue.  Bernadette Peters says, "Don't worry, Johnny.  We still believe you."  And Johnny/Georgie/Joel launches into "Give My Regards to Broadway."  The song itself has always been a favorite.  I always believed it and regarded it as an anthem.  I'd seen James Cagney do it in the movie, but here it  I sensed spinal shivers.  I felt sure this number would be a big one.

"Did you ever see two Yankees part upon a foreign shore?"  We had gone from auditions through rehearsals to opening night, and now the payoff.  The chorus sings "Give my regards to Broadway" and the whole fucking ship sails off stage left, including the smoking smoke stacks.  I have no idea what happened right after that; the ship's exit utterly blew me away.  It was probably the single most spectacular thing I'd ever seen live onstage.  Not only had this ship been assembled right before my eyes, it sailed off into the wings.  How did they do that?  How'd the people get off?  How did it fit in the wing?

Johnny/Georgie/Joel does the wonderful tap while waiting for the skyrocket.  The music modulates, a ship crosses left to right and midway a skyrocket goes off.  Nice effect, but I was still back backstage.  It was, I think, my introduction to the possibilities of stage spectacle and completely cemented my love for live theater.  A movie special effect can take days, months to create.  I watched the rear of an ocean liner be constructed, complete with smoking smoke stacks, as part of a couple of numbers, and then watched it float off to the port of New York, all in real time.

I've seen a couple of productions of George M! since.  The various Georgies and other characters have, for the most part, been good.  I've memorized the the original cast album and trot it out from time to time.  Perhaps I've mentally augmented what actually happened on the stage of the Shubert in Philly that Saturday afternoon more than 40 years ago.  It wouldn't surprise me.  But when I listen to the sequence on the CD, it plays back in my mind so perfectly, so magically.  It was a touchstone.  It became an example of what theater does best.