Bare Nekkid Boys
May 15th, 2011
A recent encounter with high school memories has me thinking about the sexual culture of hell. In Dante’s Inferno, souls are punished for sex out of wedlock and for sex with taboo partners. In To Join the Lost, seven hundred years later, the picture has evolved. In place of the “sexually incontinent,” we find sexual predators. Instead of damnation for being gay, people condemn themselves to suffering for denial.
These thoughts come to you courtesy of the Facebook group for alumni of Kenmore West Senior High School, my alma mater. A lot of comment there the past few days has been sparked by the recollection that, in the late sixties and seventies, gym teachers required boys to swim naked in the pool.
The immediate reaction of many, of course, is “eeuw!” Where were the parents? Where were the authorities? What were they thinking? Imagine anything like that happening today! At least one commenter has used the word “pedophile,” and there has been talk of lawsuits.
I can tell you what some of the authorities were doing. They were pursuing their own visions of sexual propriety. Assistant Principal Michael Stark was busy reasoning with me, on the day that I was hailed into his office for wearing a peace symbol necklace to school, that “You wouldn’t walk down the hall with your dick hanging out, would you?” Assistant Principal Vivian Green was making sure that girls did not wear skirts too short. The accused would kneel on the floor before her. If the skirt touched the floor, it was okay. If it didn’t, the culprit was sent home. Other times, other mores.
My reaction to these recollections, these many years later, is a little different. I had spent several childhood years in Vermont at the Farm and Wilderness summer camps, where nudity was encouraged and the human body celebrated as a thing of natural beauty, or at least as a natural thing. There was even an award for the best all-over tan. The winner’s cabin got to go for a ride with the camp’s owner in his 1930’s vintage Packard convertible. It was really cool, and much coveted. The owner, Kenneth Webb, was at that late date a very elderly gentleman, a Quaker visionary much given to walking around without much clothing on, exuding completely un-selfconscious benevolence. Just as Mr. Stark and Miss Green were the presiding deities of Kenmore West, Kenneth Webb was the tutelary spirit of Timberlake. One of his internal organs, perhaps his liver, was enlarged, distorting his abdomen. He was not a conventionally pretty sight. You might say, “creepy,” but that’s your problem. I’m here to tell you there was nothing creepy about it. It was a window on another and far healthier way of being.
Of course, Kenmore in the 1960’s was not quite ready to embrace the natural glory of its naked youth. The swimming pool nudity bore a well deserved patina of nastiness: the dubious motives of those who supervised it, the squirmy-sick attitudes towards adolescent sexuality that infected us all, our socially learned ambivalence about the bodies we lived in, and layers of other psycho-socio-sexual pathology, not least the cold institutional meatlocker feel of the place. So it may seem strange to say that my strongest memory relating to swimming class at Kenmore West has to do with transcendence and self acceptance.
There was a boy whose beauty struck me to the heart one day when he dived into the pool. Suspended above the water, his torso curved in sleek, tan perfection. Some time not long later, he invaded my masturbatory fantasies. This occasioned some internal struggle, but not as much as you might expect. Was I a “faggot” (as I termed it to myself) because I was aroused by the thought of his smooth muscles sliding across his shoulder blades? I answered this question fairly quickly. Whatever I was, it would be stupid and wrong to refuse to accept this private pleasure my mind and body were offering me. (Canto XV of To Join the Lost is based in part on this episode. Curious? Buy the book!)
I often have been grateful for that opportunity to make friends with that part of myself. I have seen so many men hardened and twisted and blinded and otherwise self-mutilated to avoid knowing it in themselves. Although I never have been drawn to make love to a man in the flesh, my private comfort with the idea that it could be otherwise has allowed me a sense of peace with myself. So many men, sadly lacking this, fight a ceaseless, internal war. I think that having been spared this, also has eased and enriched my love of women. When I enjoy sex with a woman, I’m not fending off an unwelcome part of myself, or proving anything to myself about “what I am.” It frees me to be more wholly there than I otherwise might be.
I am sure that this happy outcome – okay, happy ending – was not part of the pedagogical purpose of my gym instructors. Instead, it speaks to me of the importance and power of even brief exposure at an early age to relatively healthy attitudes. My cabin never won a Packard ride. But it felt fundamentally good, on a sunny Vermont summer day, to strip down while weeding the vegetable garden that was one of the camp activities, and feel the breeze on my skin and nothing between me and the dirt and the sky and the trees. I hated weeding, but I carried this seed away with me, and later, amid the weirdness of 1960s Kenmore, it bore sound fruit.