Life is full of the “before” and “after” of things: before and after you could walk, before and after you began school; and before and after you started to fraternize with the opposite sex.
Indeed, it is hard to remember what the “before” life was like. How was it before you had children, for example? Most parents can describe it, but life is so altered by kiddies that such a “before” seems impossibly distant, as if it happened to someone else.
Which brings me to those days prior to the time that I or any of my friends made real, palpable, serious physical contact with young women; other than, perhaps, walking into them by accident.
Life was simpler without thinking about girls.
It didn’t make a difference how you looked or who looked at you. You grudgingly talked to girls, but you really didn’t enjoy it, as you did when conversing with Ron or Steve or your Uncle Sam about baseball. You didn’t play ball with girls and when they seemed fond of you, it was creepy. Something in their saucer-eyed, admiring gaze. Just the way a girl might pronounce your name made you sprint in the opposite direction.
Yes, there were some boys who teased girls. It is even said that this is the way little guys show an interest. Some, though, were just testing what they could get away with; trying to see where their own boundaries were and what mischief was possible. Hardly a reckoning with romance or a lesson in lust.
Anatomical curiosity was present, but it didn’t require attention to body parts that were beneath undergarments. The kid who got the most playground notice from the Jamieson School first-graders enjoyed flipping back one of his upper eyelids (turning it inside out) while he crossed his eyes, thus provoking an occasional howl from a squeamish classmate. If you were his friend he would put on the show for free and even simultaneously flip the second eyelid. Others were charged a nickel. Today he is running for President as a Republican.
In my home there were only occasional allusions made to things that suggested throbbing physical attraction. My single memory in this regard, maybe because it happened every year, was viewing the Miss America Pagent on TV, an event not to be missed by my father or my Uncle Manny. When an especially curvaceous contestant sashayed across the stage in her bathing suit, my dad (at least once or twice during the show) would blurt out “Holy Criminy, hung to the gills!” in a half-humorous hoot that never occurred at any other time.
Somehow I gathered that he wasn’t talking about fishing.
You don’t hear that reference to a woman’s bosom used these days. It might even have been my dad’s invention, as he was an avid fisherman.
In fifth grade I found my eyes being drawn to a girl’s legs. One girl in particular. “What is this about?” I asked myself. My little mind found it illogical. Those female underpinnings no longer seemed a simple necessity designed to keep the girls moving forward and avoid a great reduction in height. This newly acquired attention to a distaff body part was involuntary, not to say alarming. It was the first sign that my body was taking possession of my brain. Adult women know all about this masculine flaw, but as a kid I had no idea.
It must have been about the same time, or perhaps a little later, that most of my classmates were being invited to boy-girl parties by some of the females. Spin-the-bottle was a highlight, I guess, although the darkened room to which the chosen couple repaired — the one who had done the spinning and the opposite-sexed person at whom the bottle pointed — was a pretty innocent place.
As an example, the girl with the good legs, who would soon be my girlfriend, asked me an interesting question in the dimly lit cell which we were required to inhabit for a few minutes:
“Gerry, did you know that the most beautiful girl in the world is deaf?”
I, ever the straight man, could only answer “No.”
“What did you say?” she replied.
In other words, good legs and clever.
At the grocery?
What aisle is that?
I knew that he would say no more, so I refrained from asking.
By the end of sixth grade I think I was hip deep in the “latency period.” Freud labeled this as the time before puberty when your sexual preoccupations basically go to sleep.
Although Sigmund Freud’s thoughts on the subject are no longer the gospel, I do recall losing interest for a little while. As evidence, I submit the case of a party to which I was supposed to accompany a charming lass named Heidi, about whom I forgot entirely while riding bikes with my friend Jerry, not awakening to my faux pas until an hour after the get-together was to have started.
I also remember apologizing to the poor girl, realizing that it would be better not to tell her what it was that caused me to lose track of the time, my desire to be with her, and the obligation I surely felt.
Whatever earthy urges were bubbling down-low were sublimated into alternative activities and interests. Perhaps they fueled our school work or athletic endeavors. But one of my friends seemed more interested in lunch than ladies. He pasted a magazine picture of a hamburger, fries, and a coke on the ceiling of his bedroom so that it was the first thing he saw every morning upon opening his eyes. It was a few years before Farrah Fawcett would take its place.
By age 16, I was vaguely jealous of the two guys I knew well who had started going out with girls, particularly because these friends had no obvious appeal that set them apart from the rest of us. Their relative success, however, did reinforce my esteem for the great “Sigmund,” who must have been as puzzled as I was when he asked, “What do women want?”
Surely not these guys, I thought. Yet the facts suggested otherwise.
To their credit, those pioneers on the route to serious sexual contact introduced me to the fact that success is often simply a matter of showing up and saying something. They’d asked some girls on dates and, at least occasionally, the female targets of these requests said “yes.” The idea being that even if you swing at a baseball with your eyes closed, you will sometimes get to first base.
Taking initiative and having relatively little self-consciousness, especially in that immature moment in all of our lives, was just about all you needed if you were male and most of the other Y-chromosome types were holding back. Of course, the alternatives for the terminally insecure were begging and pleading, but even these required enough courage to get within whimpering distance of the selected female.
But where could you be with a girl in private? Usually not at home, where curious parents and evil siblings might spy on you. My friend Alan didn’t want anybody to see the three-ring circus he lived in, certainly not someone he hoped to impress. One Saturday, nonetheless, found his date being dropped-off at his house. When he prepared to leave with her to go to a movie, Alan’s father asked “Where are you two going?”
“We’re going to a show.”
“Why you going to a show? You’ve got a show right here!”
One of my regular compatriots at the Mather High School cafeteria would bring the daily Chicago Sun Times to the lunch table. Soon enough, we were all drawn to the part of the paper that advertised movies, theater, and especially the burlesque shows of South State Street. The Rialto Theater’s ad was the most interesting, because it reported that there would be:
MIDNIGHT SHAMBLES EVERY SATURDAY NIGHT. BRING THE LADIES!
As a substitute for the actual possibility of some sort of fondling with an agreeable female, we spent many lunches pondering what exactly “midnight shambles” would involve. We discussed it so often, that for convenience we made it into the acronym MSBTL. Since none of us were old enough to attend, my buddies were left with no alternative but to think about it and talk about it. It suffices to say that had the Rialto Theater found a way to charge our group for all the time we spent fantasizing regarding the naked women who were “shambling,” it probably would have made more money than derived from its actual box office receipts.
For most of us, the premarital sex-thing remained very mysterious, impenetrable in every sense; as well as clearly immoral, since it was the part of the ’60s that hadn’t escaped the ’50s — not yet the sexual revolution. At the same time, the topic was mystical and quasi-religious, the kind of subject that hooded shamans spoke of in hushed voices while incense burned; not nearly the publicly exposed casual part of today’s daily life that is as unremarkable as chewing gum.
The actual idea of intercourse suggested lots of moving parts that you didn’t yet know how to move or where to move them — lots of tabs and slots that I already realized I wasn’t very good at when I tried to follow the directions for assembling model airplanes; for example, “insert tab A into slot B.”
It also demanded technical skill in dark places without the miner’s helmet that I was inclined to wear in order to improve my chances. Notes and diagrams might have been helpful, but without the light, well…
Why didn’t a girl’s body come with instructions written on the package, like a box of aspirin? Even better, with day-glo lettering and diagrams?
Many of us were in the dark both literally and figuratively; lacking the required touch, deft and sure, that was far more challenging to acquire than the ability to hit to right field or throw a curve ball, skills that had been tough enough to learn. Nor was it a talent that you could perfect on a public baseball diamond when it was your turn at bat.
All the while, a ten-foot-tall sasquatch-like entity named “Insecurity,” who had his own chair at our regular Mather High School lunch table, instilled whispered self-doubts in whomever sat beside him:
Aw, jeez, why did you say that?
Does your hair look OK?
Are you sure your fly is zipped?
How did we survive all this? The way most other very young men do, I suppose. The procreative urge and a little bit of courage find a way to carry the day.
We are, every one of us, after all, the descendants of people who had sex.
I have told you, friend, that last bit of information in confidence. That is, the bit about actually “doing it.”
Your forbearance would be most appreciated because, whatever you might think to say on the subject, I’m sure that my adult daughters still don’t want to know. At least about their parents.
The top image is Hawaiian Boy and Girl, a 1928 mural by Arman Manookian, sourced from Wikipedia. Next comes a photo of Hanna Rose Hall, by Christian Lovenzo. The author of the bottom poster of the Follies Bergere is “Pal.” The last two items were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.