Buster and Buddy, the inseparable pair. “Look,” people would say, “There goes Buster and Buddy.” At least that was how whoever gave them their nicknames imagined it at the outset, when they were still too young for the outlines of who they would be to come into focus.
He was Buster, his older brother Buddy. Which was another joke, because Buster was not about to bust up anything or anybody. Buddy, the older one, was a bully and a braggart, with a mean streak a foot deep and mile wide. Buster was quiet and introverted, more interested in the piano in the living room than in dominating the neighborhood. And the kid had an ear for it. On summer nights, when the west Texas desert sun seemed to have scorched the oxygen clean out of the air in those years before air conditioning, Buster would rehearse his classical repertoire with the front door open, serenading the dusty neighborhood.
It was, or had been, a middle-class neighborhood but you would hardly have hardly known it because the Depression was in full swing. Their father somehow held on to his optometry practice and thus some income, but less fortunate neighbors were reduced to coming to houses like his to beg for food.
The household was run with all the austere formality one would expect of a conservative petty bourgeois German immigrant optometrist. At meals the children kept their elbows off the table and did not speak unless spoken to. They addressed their father as “Mr. Ostertag.” Even the mother referred to her husband that way. “Just you wait until Mr. Ostertag gets home,” she would admonish the boys when they misbehaved.
As for the mother, what can we say? She was as vindictive and manipulative as her eldest son was mean and bullying. One hundred years later a psychiatrist would have given her a learned diagnosis and a prescription, but El Paso had neither psychiatrists nor psychiatric medicine at the time.
Her punishments were unusual. A favorite was to lock Buster into the cramped crawl space just above the ceiling, to sort out his misdeeds in the dark with the spiders. And then there was the whole matter about his older sister who had died in childhood on the same date Buster was born. So every year on Buster’s birthday, his mother cover all the furniture in black fabric and lock herself in her room where she cry all day. There was never a cake, or a present, or any acknowledgement that the day marked two occasions and not one.
Buster tried to take it all in stride. He tolerated Buddy’s bullying, his father’s remoteness, his mother’s sadism, the day of mourning that was his birthday. He sure did love that piano. He did his best to fit in with his peers. Even went drinking across the border in Juarez with the guys when he was old enough. But it took effort. Like acting. There was always this unspoken distance that went beyond the effect of the glasses he wore for his poor eyesight.
Hitler came to power, and life took a turn for the worse in the house with the austere German father and the crazy English mother. Buddy’s bullying now took the form of loudly celebrating each Nazi victory. He did this in part because he liked the Nazis, in part to aggravate his English mother, but mostly because he just loved to bully his younger brother Buster, who believed in FDR, the New Deal, and the essential goodness of American democracy. Then the US entered the war, Buddy joined the Navy and became a pilot, and Buster was drafted into the Army.
Buster became a medic, and was assigned to a field hospital that followed General Eisenhower across Europe, moving just behind the front lines. A battle would be engaged and a river of wounded men would flow into the tent. Quick decisions were made over who was salvageable and who would die. Living go over here, dying over there. Corpses over that way. Arms in this pile, legs in that one. He almost never spoke about any of this for the rest of his life. He didn’t stay in touch with war buddies. No clubs. No parades. No reminiscences over drinks. He developed a lifelong phobia of all things German and a passion for all things English and Russian, his country’s two principle war allies.
He returned home from the war to find his mother fawning over his swashbuckling fighter pilot brother, whose earlier support of the Nazis was now forgotten. Everyone loves a winner. He looked in the drawer where he kept his precious piano scores but the drawer was empty. “Oh, I didn’t realize you wanted all that,” his mother explained. “I burned it all.”
Buddy liked the Navy – the violence, machismo, the rigid hierarchy, and the money. He became a career pilot.
Buster had made it through the war under the mentorship of an Episcopal chaplain assigned to the field hospital, and had decided that if and when he made it home he would become an Episcopal priest too. And he did.
Each married and had children.
Their mother made some half-hearted attempts at suicide, then checked herself into a nursing home. She was actually in fine physical health, but confining herself to a nursing home provided daily confirmation of her psychotic belief that no one in her family cared about her.
Buddy had a career in the Navy, becoming the commanding officer on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. He left the Navy for work as a military contractor specializing in “nuclear security” all the while becoming meaner and more erratic.
He carried laminated placards in his sports car that said things like USE YOUR BLINKER ASSHOLE, which he would flash at those whose driving he disapproved of. When the placards proved insufficient he would jump out of his car in the middle of traffic and beat the crap out other drivers.
When Buster’s son hit his teenage years, Buddy sat him down for a man-to-man talk about the facts of the world. “You know what the problem with this country is, young man? The problem is that people like you and me, white men, have nobody representing them in Washington. The women, the niggers, the spics, they all got their people. Who do we got? Nobody!”
Buddy’s wife divorced him. His children stopped talking to him. But Buster never stopped talking to him. Buster’s children, now grown and well-aware of the emotional toll paid by Buster for dealing with his brother, urged him to break off communication. Buster would not hear of it. Family first, he said. You always reach out your hand. That is the part you control. Whether they take it or not is up to them.
Buster grew old and moved into assisted living. One night the phone rang and Buddy was on the line. “Ed,” he began (they had long stopped using their childhood nicknames), “I’m dying. There is something I have always wanted to tell you, and I must say it now.”
“Say it then.”
“I hate you, and I have always hated you.”
Buster and His Family
Buster married a pretty girl from Albuquerque, of English heritage of course. On his wedding night, he woke up to a tower of coffins falling onto the bed. In the nick of time, he threw his bride out of one side of the bed while he leaped out of the other. The newlyweds stood on either side of the bed, staring at each other. He panting and sweating, grateful that the coffins had not hurt her. She in confusion. Only then did he realize he had been dreaming.
They landed in a small church in a small Rocky Mountain town. Being a parish priest suited him. “For those who never felt like they found their place in the world, being a minister give you that ready-made,” he once explained, “You show up as the new priest, everyone loves you, welcomes you, invites you to dinner and to weddings and baptisms, seeks your counsel, and tells you their secrets.” He was good at it, and his bride embraced the role of minister’s wife. She tried to fashion herself after the tough Western gals she had looked up to as a child: family first, best foot forward, keep a sunny disposition and a stiff upper lip, don’t ask for much, no whining, play the hand you are dealt, and never, ever talk about your own feelings.
His church grew. His family grew, three girls and a boy. He was a good dad, if sometimes a bit aloof and removed. Until he would suddenly fly into rage and beat his son in a manner that seemed incomprehensible for a man like him. One time he burst into the bathroom where the boy was peeing screaming, “I am going to paddle your bare bottom!”
As the boy grew into adolescence, paddling his bare bottom evolved into straight up beatings with fists. The boy never fought back, though he did run away after one such episode. After a week away he returned home. “You’re just in time for dinner,” his mother told him without looking up from her cooking. “Would you please set the table.” The boy’s absence of a week was never spoken of or acknowledged in any way.
Outside the home, the man’s New Deal idealism found an easy home in the relatively liberal Episcopal Church of the time and the cultural shifts of the 1960s. He became the public face of sixties liberalism in the town. He supported civil rights, women’s liberation, bitterly opposed the Vietnam war, worked to improve race relations between the lily white farm town and the migrant worker ghetto just on the other side of the railroad tracks. He made national news in 1980 marrying a gay male couple in his church.
But all was not well. He began to cry every now then. Then more often. Then he was crying a lot.
One day he told his wife what it had taken him more than fifty years to say aloud, that he thought he might be gay. She replied, “We will never speak of this again.”
A few months later his head exploded.
It happened on a Sunday morning. He just walked out of the church sanctuary in the middle of mass. His wife found him in his office, hiding under his desk, crying uncontrollably, unable to breathe. The drive down the highway to the mental hospital in Denver was terrible. Buster in hysterics, trying to open the door and jump out to his death. His wife trying to drive, keep the door locked, and calm him down all at the same time. He ended up in a padded cell under 24-hour suicide watch for three months, then another three months in a regular unit, then many months of intensive outpatient care and disability.
In the mental hospital, he told his psychiatrist that he might be gay. The psychiatrist assured both him and his wife that this man was not actually gay, he just had some issues with his crazy mother that needed to be worked out. It would take some work, but they could do it.
As far as both he and his wife were concerned, they had promised God they would remain together until death did they part, and that was that. Gay or straight, sane or sick, they could not go back on God. She sold the house in their town, got a small apartment near the hospital in Denver for her and the two daughters still living at home, and a job at a travel agency.
Over the ensuing years, he carved out a sort of liberated zone in the family’s increasingly bizarre existence which both his wife and his only child left at home were determined not to notice. At first just a few very small things. There was a bodybuilder calendar in his closet. Not “in the closet” like gay people say, but literally in his closet. Actually, in the closet he and his wife shared. He had given it to his wife as a present. She said thank you very much and hung it in the closet. Best foot forward, stiff upper lip, no whining, and no emotions.
He took aerobics classes at a gay leather bar. (“Well, you know I really wanted to get in shape, and I looked around for an aerobics class, and there weren’t any at times and places that worked, and then finally I found this one at the gay bar, and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t mind if they don’t mind.'”)
His wife came down with an extraordinarily rare disease in which the body attacks and destroys itself. Her immune system went after her own organs as if they were foreign invaders. It was going to be a bumpy ride, but the disease progression would be rapid. He would care for her and love her, and then she would gone and he would begin the gay life he dreamed of. And then she outlived her diagnosis by years, as if she were holding him to their marriage by holding on to life. His patience grew thin.
Her kidneys went first, leaving her dependent on dialysis. As they had moved to a ghost town in the desert at his insistence to try to calm his nerves, dialysis was not simple. Or rather, it could have been simple. In-home dialysis was by far the easiest option, but he would have to be trained to administer it. He refused. The alternative was the hospital in town, far from their ghost town in the desert. So he drove her, hours of driving, week in week out, complaining about it all the way. The no whining part had been his wife’s commitment, not his.
Finally, a day came when they were preparing for the dialysis drive and he was whining away and she announced, “I’m not going.”
They both knew that refusing dialysis meant certain death within seventy-two hours.
She called her children, told them of her decision, and told them not to come.
They sat on the sofa. “If there is anything we have to say to each other, now is the time to say it,” he began. “I would like to say that if I have done anything to hurt you over the years, I apologize. Is there anything you would like to say?”
“I can’t imagine my life without you,” she replied. And then she was gone.
He waited a year from her passing, then told his children, who by then known for years, he “might be bisexual.” Gee Dad, no kidding? Wow. We never would have guessed. But by then he was seventy years old and living in a ghost town, so his options for exploring a gay lifestyle were limited. Even after coming out to his children, he could not approach the subject except through an elaborate maze of detours and u-turns. The following story must have meant a lot to him, because he told it to multiple people in exactly the same words.
I had to go into Albuquerque to sign some papers a few weeks ago, and I didn’t want to impose on the same old friends and relatives so I thought maybe I would stay in a bed and breakfast. And then I thought well, why not a gay bed and breakfast? So I asked around to see what might be available and found a nude gay bed and breakfast. So off I went, and I checked in. And when it was time to go to bed I found I couldn’t get to sleep so I went to the front desk and asked if they had any reading material.
And they said, “Why yes we do. What sort of reading material might you be interested in?”
And I said, “Well I think I might be interested in S&M.”
So they gave me a copy of Drummer magazine [a gay porn magazine from the seventies and eighties that fetishized the most conventionally macho of men]. And I took it back to my room and opened it up and there was a picture of my son!
Both people who recounted his telling of the story later at this point reported asking him, “Umm, are you sure it was your son?”
“Oh yes,” he replied. “It was the back of his left shoulder. I would recognize it anywhere.”
It had taken him more than seventy years to speak aloud of his sadism. He was handed a porn magazine and opened it up and–what do you know?–the first thing he saw was his own son.
More specifically, the back of my left shoulder, which he would recognize anywhere.
No image of me has ever appeared in porn of any sort.
Unless you were to ask my father.
Like he was the son of his parents, like all of us are the children of our parents, I am his son. As much in what I am not as in what I am. I detest religion. I am allergic to ritual. I don’t hang my attraction to men in my closet. I don’t dance around it, don’t pray about it, don’t ask forgiveness for it, don’t explain it away, don’t save it for later. Put it front and center. I want to see men clearly and completely: sadists, masochists, all of it. No flinching, and no quarter.