I've been writing some of my memories of growing up in a small town in the 1950s. I think I've posted others (Rocky Springs comes to mind), so here's another:
Gap had two men who served as cautionary tales. One was Stewart Fisher; the other was Jonas (no last name known). Stewart was slow, although, happily, the public had had their fill of picking on him and pretty much tolerated him. He was a large man who scared me a little. During WWII, people were asked to record numbers on all railroad cars. (I’m assuming I’m remembering this correctly.) Stewart couldn’t serve and instead wrote down every freight car number he could. He continued taking down numbers in tablets my father gave him. Father hired him to do odd jobs around the mill. Although he gave me the creeps, I was assured he was harmless and the Christian thing to do was to be nice to him.
Whereas Stewart was thought of as slow and harmless, Old Jonas was the example of everything dire that could happen to you if you masturbated. A moment of pleasure equaled a lifetime of whatever it was Jonas was. Jonas was our homeless person. I often wondered if Jonas was Gap’s forgotten man, as they were called in the 1920s and ’30s. Jonas wasn’t elderly, but I could easily see how he was barred from everything. He was the town drunk, the village idiot, the man nobody wanted. As far as I could tell, he was beyond Christian Love and Charity. Mother hastened me out of the way when she saw him on the street. Some people let him sleep in their old stables or carriage houses when the weather got really cold. I knew he also lived beside the spring mechanism inside the Town Clock tower.
Stewart was retarded. Jonas clearly had a history, a history for a young boy not to know. Jonas was the result of too much masturbation. Jonas was the result of too much alcohol. Jonas was the result of what happens when you catch a sexual disease. Jonas was what it was like to live under the churches’ highly-placed radars.
The first time I thought I had a handle on Jonas was when I read Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I recognized the choir director instantly. Having smugly figured out the choir director, a notion came to me that maybe being a gay man in Gap would be the same thing. By the time I’d read Our Town, I was in junior high, if not senior high, and hadn’t seen him in ages. No one wanted to talk about him. And, of course, the only books I could find in the Lancaster County Library were so clearly anti-gay that even I could tell I was being lied to. No Jonas, no discussion, no questions, no answers, no nothing. There were times I wondered if I stayed in Gap if I’d become the next Jonas.