Halloween 1984

You may have seen a link making its way around Facebook titled, “My Son is Gay,” by a mother whose 5-year-old son wanted to dress as Daphne from “Scooby Doo” for his school Halloween party.  It’s a wonderful, inspirational story about a mother’s understanding of her son’s own gender identity and the repercussions of society on her allowing him to express himself freely.

I just read that post, and was suddenly reminded of my own experience with a similar situation.

I was in 8th grade.  It was around Halloween and my school– a very conservative Catholic school— was holding its Halloween Party for the school kids.  Keep in mind that at that time, 8th grade was considered part of the elementary school, so this party would be for grades 1-8.

The year was 1984– Michael Jackson and Madonna were hot costume ideas.  But I decided that I wanted to something a little different, albeit a bit less current.  I put on one of my mom’s old wigs, an old dress (or it might have been a caftan, I don’t remember exactly), and then put on makeup.  I was no artist, but I did the best I could.  I found a pair of nylons and a pair of her shoes.  Then I found some of her “costume” jewelry and completed the look.  I wanted to go as “Tootsie,” the 1981 Dustin Hoffman character.

I showed my mom what I had done.  And do you know what she did?

She said, “I think it’d be fun!”  I asked her, “Do you think the kids would make fun of me?”  She replied, “It’s Halloween.  You can go as whatever you want.  It doesn’t mean anything… it’s just for fun.”

So then we showed my dad.

That didn’t go so well.  Aside from his surprised reaction, and maybe a little bit of yelling, he didn’t have a massive tantrum (as I expected).  He was definitely shocked by my appearance, but he was more gravely concerned about what would happen if I went to the party dressed this way.  You see, only a few years prior, I had left my original grade school because of incessant teasing from the other kids.  I don’t think the teasing was ever about my being gay (or the possibility thereof, as I certainly hadn’t come out yet); but because I had such a rough time at the first school, I think he was worried that this would set off a lot of problems for me at this school.  Granted, I was in 8th grade and we were going to be graduating soon anyway– but I understood why he was so concerned.

He didn’t say that I COULDN’T dress as “Tootsie,” but he encouraged me to reconsider my choice– for my own sake.

So after some long talks about it, we decided that I would change courses and go as a greaser.  (“The Outsiders” was also a popular movie and book at the time– so instead of going as a woman, I pretended I was Rob Lowe.  Or Tom Cruise.  Or Tommy Howell.  Because I had a crush on each one of them.

In any case, I nearly became that kid in the recent blog post.  I just didn’t have the guts to follow through with it.  My choice had nothing to do with my sexuality, or even my gender identity.  I have never considered myself feminine, and to this day I think I make one hell of an ugly drag queen! (Which is why I’ve only done it once.)  I just was playing around with my mom’s stuff, came up with a funny costume, and thought it’d be fun to go as that character.

What touches me most, as I recall that day, is how bravely my parents dealt with it.  There were no knock-down, drag-out fights like I expected.  Just some serious discussions about whether or not it was best for me to do it.  And I especially love my mom for encouraging me to do whatever I wanted.  She never said no.  And she still doesn’t to this day.

 

 

Tony Curtis: The Original Heartthrob

Tony Curtis

Tony Curtis wasn’t just good-looking.  He was ridiculously good-looking.

The jet-black, spit-curled hair.  The piercing blue eyes.  The tight, athletic body.  The brilliant smile.  The Bronx bravado and machismo.  They were all there.  He wasn’t just a matinee idol.  He was a great actor in a beautiful shell.

I remember the first time I saw Tony Curtis in a film.  The film was “Houdini,” and it was one of the many films featured as “Family Classics,” presented by WGN TV in Chicago by the legendary Frazier Thomas.  I spent many Sundays  with my family, watching classic movies like “Old Yeller,” “When Worlds Collide,” and “My Friend Flicka.”  “Houdini” was one of my favorites though, mostly because of the story of Harry Houdini, but especially because of the impossible-to-resist Tony Curtis in the lead role.

Cover of
Cover of Houdini

I was a pretty clever kid back in the day.  I paid attention to details, like actors’ names and directions to my relative’s homes.  It’s a trait that has stuck with me to this very day.  I knew the name “Tony Curtis,” and as I grew older, I would seek out films featuring stars I had seen that I had liked.   Tony Curtis was one of those stars.  Sure, I knew he was much older than me, but I didn’t care– I knew that he was good-looking and a good actor.  That’s all that mattered to me.

One of my favorite films was “Trapeze.”  It featured Curtis and Burt Lancaster, with the sultry Gina Lollobrigida in her first American movie role.  It was a tense, sexy movie that featured Curtis and Lancaster in all forms of skimpy attire.  My young gay self could hardly stand it.

Tony CurtisIt would be years before I finally caught all of the incredibly funny “Some Like It Hot,” with Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in the hilarious cross-dressing camp classic.  It quickly became one of my all-time favorite films– featuring someone I had admired for years, even though I never really had the chance to know how good he was at comedy as well as drama.

I could go on about his later years:  the crummy movie choices, the multiple wives, and the bouts with drugs and recovery– but I really prefer to remember Tony Curtis for the man he was at the top of his game.  I wanted to be him.  I wanted hair like his, lips like his, eyes like his.  He was the man every woman (and many men) wanted, and the man every man wanted to be.  He was, for me, my original heartthrob.

New York City, 1994

The year was 1994.

My sister and I, still enjoying our first computer and the friendships we made through Prodigy (a precursor to America Online and the Internet as a whole), decided to travel to New York to visit our new friend Tony.  He lived on Long Island at the time with his parents, and the plan was to visit New York City for a day, and then see the Elton John/Billy Joel concert on another day.  We also planned a trip to New Jersey to visit the Six Flags Great Adventure park, since my sister and I both worked at Six Flags Great America at the time.We did all the touristy things while in New York– the Empire State Building, Macy’s (back when Macy’s was a novelty), taking the Subway, and visiting some of the neighborhoods.

But the highlight was what we did at the end of the day– we went to the World Trade Center.

Our visit happened only a year after the bombing that occurred in the parking structure beneath the towers.  I remember being a little nervous about that– not terribly so, but since it was still so fresh, I couldn’t help but think about it.  By the time we arrived at the WTC, it was late in the day.  It had been muggy all day, and the evening haze was setting upon the city.  That didn’t hinder the views from the top, however– they were spectacular.I took photos from that trip and scanned them a while ago (this was, of course, before digital cameras were around).  Here is a slide show of photos I took that day, including those from the World Trade Center.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Looking at these, it still seems so hard to believe they are gone. Every year as September 11 rolls around, I find myself re-living the moments of that terrible day in 2001. And we should remember those moments– as horrible as they were.

But sometimes it’s good to recall what life was like before September 11, 2001.  We remember what we once had, and of course, we remember those who were lost that terrible day.  Hopefully, nothingd like it will never happen again.

Happy Father's Day, Dad

I’m about 20 minutes late with this… but I’ve been thinking of my Dad all day today, and couldn’t figure out the best way to honor him on Father’s Day.

Then I found this recording I made a few days ago and listened to it… and… well… it fit perfectly.

I love you, Dad, and I miss you. Happy Father’s Day.

Though I know I’ll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I’ll often stop and think about them
In my life
I love you more.

Re-Launch: The Horror of the Pinewood Derby

Originally posted August 30, 2005

“Hey Rick,” my co-worker asked me as we I was stirring my coffee this morning in the break room. “Were you in the Cub Scouts as a kid?”

“Yeah,” I replied, throwing away my stirrer and popping in a slice of toast. “I spent some time as a Cub Scout, years ago.”

“Did you ever do the Pinewood Derby?”

I shuddered. Memories flew back into my brain that I’d tried to shut out for years. I took a swig of the acid-based coffee in my hand and composed myself. This was no time for a display of cowardice. I could handle it.

“Oh yeah. I remember it well,” I replied. “And thank you so very much for bringing up a horrible chapter of my childhood.”

I tried to feign a sense of disdain for the subject in front of my co-worker, but I couldn’t escape the reality that the subject did evoke a moment of terror in my heart, just as it had over 25 years ago.

“Oh I’m sorry,” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee, only to find that I had drained the last few drops from the pot. I didn’t mean to do it, but that’s just how his luck was running. Serves him right for bringing up that wretched subject anyway.

“I didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject,” he continued, not seeming to care that I probably didn’t want to talk about it, “But I have a friend that somehow got his hands on a Pinewood Derby racetrack, and I was thinking it would be fun to have a Pinewood Derby race, you know, like we did when we were kids.”

“Really,” I replied. “Well don’t get that track anywhere near me, or I’ll be likely to burn it,” I said.

The Pinewood Derby, in case you are not familiar with the term, is this insipid contest that Boy Scouts hold where each boy is given a block of wood and is expected to build a car out of it. I assume the wood was pine, but whether it was elm, birch, maple or cherry, I didn’t care then, and I still don’t care today. Unless of course it was lining the floors in my home. And even then I might not care that much.

So we all set out to build our dream cars. I forget if we were given wheels for the cars or not, but apparently we had to design our cars so that it would go down this stupid track faster than anyone else’s. And apparently there were a bunch of tricks that one could employ to ensure that one’s car ran faster, but I had no idea what those tricks were, and surely nobody was ever going to tell me, so that I could then, in turn, tell my Dad, and have him build me that fastest, meanest Pinewood Derby car ever. Oh no. I wasn’t that fortunate at all.

The thing that makes me wonder about these races anyway is, do they really think these 7, 8, and 9-year old kids are going to build these cars themselves? Do they really think their parents are going to let them use the saws, planes, sanders, and other big, manly power tools necessary to accomplish such a feat as building a small car out of a chunk of a 2×4? Of course not. So who do these kids turn to in order to accomplish this feat?

Dad.

Now I love my dad. I did then, and I do now. My dad could do a lot of things. He built our garage, three fences, and various other boxes, storage units, and shelving units for our home. He could make repairs fairly well, and get things running again as well as the next dad. He was handy. And that was good. And we loved him no matter what he could or couldn’t do.

But this tortuous event not only proved to me how inept I was at designing the fastest, meanest Pinewood car in all of Cub Scout Troop 507, but it also proved how inept my dad was at doing it as well. He never had to do any sort of Pinewood Derby racing when he was a kid. They didn’t have such means of torture back then. Lucky bastard.

Of course, lucky as he was, my father also had a son that wanted to win if he could, even though he knew that the other kids would probably have a much better chance than he did, no matter how hard he tried.

So Dad and I set out to make my Pinewood Derby car. It was all my Dad’s design. And for what it was, it was sleek and sexy. He painted it black with a glossy paint and put numbers on the sides. By all normal standards, it was a damn nice little car.

But getting it to move was another story. It just didn’t have much “go” to it. We greased the wheels as best we could, but it just didn’t seem to move.

I think we just figured that maybe this is how these cars are supposed to run, so we just let it be. That’s the Aiello way– let it be.

I knew we were doomed right from the start on the night of the Pinewood Derby when we walked into the school gymnasium. Other kids were showing off their cars. They were hot. They were flashy. They were sexy. And they were fast.

When the kids saw my car, they laughed. It was primitive in comparison to the souped-up contraptions they had. Their cars looked like they had bought them at a department store. My car looked like something fashioned out of mud after a rainy day.

In my defense, I did the only thing I could think of to deal with the embarrassment. I cried. And when I would cry, the kids would only tease me more. And when the kids would tease me, I would lose my temper. And when I lost my temper, my dad would get angry with me. You see where this is going, don’t you?

So they set up the cars to race. My pithy little hunk of junk against the fast and the furious. The cap gun blew, and they were off.

It would be too easy, too cliche’, and too uplifting to say that I won the race. It would also be a lie. Because I didn’t win the race… I lost. I lost badly. My little car just moseyed down the ramp while the others actually raced. I don’t think my car even got to the finish line. It probably stopped mid-way down, they just pulled it off the track. I was humiliated.

So I did the one thing I could do to defend myself against my feelings of humiliation. I blamed my father.

In a fit of rage, I cried, yelled and screamed at him. In front of everyone.

And my father– himself humiliated– took me by the arm and led me out of the gymnasium where the event was being held. And he let me have it, but good.

At the time, I despised him for doing it, but in hindsight, I probably deserved it. What kind of example was I setting by throwing a fit in front of parents, friends and family? A horrible one. I was being a brat, and I deserved to be treated like a brat.

To this day, the Pinewood Derby debacle (also known as the “Blue & Gold Banquet” Fight, which is the name of the event where the Pinewood Derby took place) is a sore subject between my father and me. It represented a very low point in our relationship, and neither one of us is proud of how we handled it.

But it is a moment in time. One that try not to think about, except for when some smart-alecky co-worker decides to bring it up and dredge all these painful memories from out of my past.

I forgive him that, though. He doesn’t know the pain I went through. All at the expense of a little chunk of wood.

But through that pain came a few life-long lessons. And an interesting story to tell.