How I Discovered Girls

They’d been invisible before. Girls, I mean. Then something out of this world happened.

I began to notice them.

Females.

Aliens from another planet, yes, but charming ones previously distinguished only by dress and laughable athletic ability.

Now — not until now — did we all see each other for the first time, them and us.

We’d been told this might happen and viewed TV programs in which the strange awareness descended, like fairy dust, upon fictional young men. The event itself, however, existed somewhere in an absurd and distant future beyond contemplation.

All the pedestrian maidens became beguiling at once. They possessed an unfamiliar, magnetic quality absent the day before. Their presence mattered.

I can pinpoint the moment the world changed for me. It occurred in fifth grade at Minnie Mars Jamieson School, a bizarre name even in the ’50s.

Many of our teachers, antique past imagining and unmarried, betrayed no hint of sexuality. Curious, I asked my father how I came to be.

I planted the seed.

That’s a quote.

My brain buzzed. Dad’s farming background must have been a family secret.

The beginning of a real answer arrived in class when I discovered my eyes drawn to legs. Not any pair of lower limbs, but the appendages of Sharon M.

A day earlier I held an attitude of indifference to their attachment to a female body. They helped those creatures move, nothing more. The skirt-covered supports propped them up and hung down under their chairs as a necessary accessory for their feet, I supposed, if I considered the question at all.

Legs now sent other signals. Moreover, to my astonishment, I managed to decode the message without a magical incantation or a foreign language translator.

Sharon presented me with other fresh features if you count a cheeky gleam to which I was now awake. Nature endowed her with wavy, thick brown hair, an all-season, creamy almond complexion, and symmetrical, softly pleasing facial turns and twinkles that distinguished her from her friends.

When I looked (and I spent more time looking), my eyes perceived colors not present in the muddy, gray, khaki world of boys.

Sherry, a nickname she preferred, brought me turquoise, baby blue, and bisque. The angular, rectangled, straight-lined male domain remained arid, sandpapered, and dusty in contrast.

How did I come to understand she also fancied me? Were notes passed in the classroom? Did one of her buddies whisper, “Sharon likes you?” In any case, we recognized we wanted to connect.

My girlfriend told jokes, too. She delivered the first at a party thrown by Mary Lynn D. Soon enough we began a kissing game called “Spin the Bottle.”

I’m told this entertainment has lost favor since the ’80s, so here are a few details. All the players sat around in a circle. When your turn came, a soft drink bottle placed in the middle of the ring was spun until it pointed to a lass.

The two of you went into something approximating an oversized closet or spare room to kiss. Sherry tried to create the mood once we got there:

Gerry, do you know the most beautiful girl in the world is deaf?

No.

What did you say?

I believe Sherry took the lead in much of our time “going steady.”

One afternoon we went to a movie together, chaperoned by my mother, who sat a small distance away. Friendly fingers soon encroached upon my head and ran themselves through my hair. Yes, I once own hair rated first-class, may each strand rest in peace.

After the date ended, mom made some comment to me about Sharon and her “aggressiveness.”

Another time I went to my girlfriend’s house to receive dancing instructions from her and, rather more, from her older sister.

I’d guess Sherry soaked up whatever she grasped about dating etiquette from watching this sibling entertain young men in the family living room.

Just a hunch.

My female-preoccupied interest hibernated for a few years, something Freud called the latency period, in which you are believed to forget any suggestion of being a sexual being. Some guys are so skilled at the misremembering process they begin to behave like they arose from chickens, hatched from an egg.

Fast forward to the last couple of years at Mather High School. Now, these mating matters become significant.

Friends brave enough asked each other how to talk to the fair sex. The blind leading the blind.

We also discussed sign language. How did a dating newbie detect a 16 or 17-year old’s interest? I realized later your pursuit of someone on the distaff team was often sufficient to direct her surveillance your way.

The girls, many of them, marked the time, eyeballing their land-line residential telephones, waiting, wishing, and hoping for them to ring. When they didn’t, the young women wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”

They disclosed their covert shame years later, long after graduation.

All genders carried invisible membership cards in a secret society of hidden insecurities. We suppressed the self-doubts so well, each of us had no idea we belonged to the same club or that such a clique bound us together.

Personal uncertainty was evident on the occasion of my first call for a date.

The sole family phone resided in our kitchen. In the sixties, at least in my working-class neighborhood, two phones would have been an uncommon luxury. No internet nor iPhone yet existed, and my across-the-alley neighbor Jerry and I had long since abandoned two-tin-cans and a long string to communicate.

I wanted to launch into the dating pool after school. My target, the tall, slender, blond CB, would be home. An exceptional student, I figured she’d be studying.

The phone stared at me. Trying to be the hard guy, I glared back. Some amount of time elapsed. Maybe five minutes or 15, perhaps much more. The clock time mattered not, eternity would have been shorter.

The staring contest continued until I admitted defeat.

Much later, I understood this as an early lesson in the importance of “getting things over and getting over things.” Though I didn’t then own the insight to explain myself to myself, there was no need to endure the suffering more hesitation would have inflicted.

Man up, do the hard thing and be done with it. Let go of the misery you create. I still believe this.

The conversation wasn’t long, and CB said yes.

My place on the manhood ladder moved one rung up.

Funny to remember the anguish. Those kinds of contacts and much else became a pleasure beyond pleasure.

I must have puzzled all this out because I managed to produce two children with one of the pretty females I met later.

No masterful advice on the subject shall I offer you. If you enter the game, you find your way. Persistence tends to work most of the time. No matter your doubts, you can partake of blissful beauty, fireworks, and melding with another’s generous heart.

How do I know this?

A stork didn’t deliver you to your parents. Your mother didn’t lay eggs, either.

You come from one female and one male who implanted the seed.

My goodness, dad was right!

_____

The above images, in order: 1. Portrait of Silvia Kohler by Egon Schiele. 2. Photo of Sharbat Gula, an Afghan teen, that appeared on the cover of National Geographic Magazine in June, 1985. 3. Peter Behrens’s The Kiss. 4. An undated photo called School Cafeteria, from the Adolph B. Rice Studios via the Library of Virginia. 5. Two Sisters (On the Terrace) by Renoir, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 6. The First Whisper of Love by John Douglas Miller, from the Art Institute of Chicago. 7. The Author at age 16 or 17, photographed by Steve Henikoff.

In the Days Before Girlfriends

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.

My folks never talked directly about sex, but occasionally a question would be answered in a way that was nonetheless informative. Watching The Untouchables TV series with my father, I heard the word “prostitution” for the first time, in reference to one of the illegal activities that the Capone gangsters operated in Chicago. When I asked dad what that was, he did indeed say “It’s when women sell their bodies.”

For what?

To whom?

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!

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/88/Loie_Fuller_Folies_Bergere_02.jpg

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.

How Duke Snider Burst My Bubble (and What I Learned about the Birds and the Bees)

http://raymondpronk.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/duke_snider_hitting.jpg?w=500&h=374

Will Rogers said “a difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries.”

But, as a child, I thought that there were certain things with which everyone would agree, where no difference of opinion was possible.

Like the idea that playing baseball was the best imaginable way to make a living and the dream of every red-blooded American male.

Duke Snider taught me otherwise. It was a hard lesson that I learned some time in the 1950s, simply by watching a TV interview of the gifted ball player.

It must have been about the time in 1956 when his infamous article in Collier’s magazine appeared: “I Play Baseball for Money — Not Fun,” co-written with Roger Kahn.

But I didn’t know anything about that. All I knew was that in the middle of the aforementioned interview, when the admiring TV personality questioned him, Edwin Donald “Duke” Snider said that he would rather be on his avocado farm in California than playing center field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

What! What did he say? And, by the way, what’s an avocado? Here was this handsome, power hitting, left-handed batsman, both graceful and swift, doing something I could only wish I might do; and what did he say?

How can a man I thought to be a hero, a member of the World Champion Dodgers, a teammate of Jackie Robinson, want to be a farmer? Heck, is a farmer and prefers it to playing ball. How is this possible?

As a little kid in Chicago in the ’50s, I had never actually seen a farm. I knew vegetables came out of cans and never thought very much about the people who actually grew them and put them into cans.

In fact, the only time that the question of farming ever came up in conversation around my house, was when I asked my dad where I came from.

Yes, the sex question.

My dad’s answer was simple. He said, “I planted the seed.”

I was badly thrown by the answer, led in the direction of corn and beans and all sorts of things that presumably were grown by farmers, along with small boys.

It took me years to recover from this misinformation and probably delayed my sexual development by a full decade.

Later in his life, Duke Snider admitted that his attitude wasn’t always the best. His New York Times obituary of February 28, 2011 quoted him as saying, “I had to learn that every day wasn’t a bed of roses, and that took some time. I would sulk. I’d have a pity party for myself.”

That summer afternoon of the televised interview I saw must have been one of those days.

I guess the Duke didn’t care for the “boos” he sometimes received, occasionally unfavorable newspaper commentary, the pressure, the travel, and the sheer grind of a long season.

But, I suppose there was a worthy lesson in Duke’s complaint to the local sportscaster.  In fact, there were a few lessons:

  • Make the most of every day.
  • Accept the up-and-down nature of life.
  • Remember that there might be a lot of people who only they wish they could be as well-situated as you are.
  • If you are a farmer, check carefully before turning on the threshing machine, lest you injure a baby boy.
  • And, maybe most important of all: be careful what you say. Kids are listening.