Saturday, March 11, 2017

An American rebel

Back in the early 1980s, I had been teaching junior high English for a decade when I finally got started working on my master’s degree.  I must admit, I look back on that time as some of my most fertile years.  I was in my 30s with a couple of cute little girls at home and a wife who was finishing her undergrad work.  We were buying a house, drove a pretty decent car, and were living the American dream.  Life was good.  

By spring 1982, I had fallen in love with Emily Dickinson and was taking a second course with my Wright State guru, Jim Hughes, who this time around was teaching a graduate workshop focusing on rebellion as a hallmark of American character.  We talked about lots of folks from Walt Whitman to James Dean, all very different American rebels, but individuals worthy of study.  

One of our assignments was to interview a contemporary American rebel, as far as I could figure, then create a one page handout to share with the class.  A quandary, indeed.  Who did I know that qualified as a rebel?  

Thinking it over these days, I don’t recall knowing many professed gay individuals back then.  One gentleman I knew well at Rike’s, where I worked part time, told the story of losing his teaching job because a colleague of his found out about him being homosexual, reported him to the high school principal, and after a brief call to the office, was told to pack up his gear that day and remove himself from the premises.  No hearing.  No due process.  Just out because he was working with kids and had admitted to being gay.  

It became clear to me that ‘coming out of the closet’ was a dangerous life changer.  Which got me to thinking that, perhaps, men and women who admitted a homosexual identity in a culture that denigrated such practice were revolutionaries.  Which lead me to consider a neighbor of mine as my American rebel.  

I met Bill Coulter, oddly enough, at the junior high school where I taught.  As advisor to the photo club, I had agreed to assist helping with the yearbook since the kids could print black & white pics in the darkroom and get ‘em published in the yearbook.  Good opportunity for them to find their work in print.  Turned out Bill was not just the Josten’s yearbook representative, but a neighbor of mine who lived just two blocks away.  We ended up socializing some, and our wives enjoyed each other’s company, so all was good.  

But then the day came when Bill announced he was gay.  His wife was stunned, as you might imagine, and came over one day to help Chris and me with some painting.  What we got that day was a cathartic soul cleanse of disbelief and betrayal.  Shortly thereafter, she moved back home to Akron and we never heard from her again. 

Bill stayed in Dayton for a time.  I remember sitting with him in his living room talking about these new developments.  I remember best his challenge for me to come up with ten of the most beautiful people I could think of that I could generate a healthy sexual fantasy about.  He assumed some of my ten would be male.  I didn’t see it that way, because all of my ten were women.  Still, the exercise got me to thinking.  

Some time later Bill went to work for the Dayton Daily News as a writer.  Because of him, I was asked to join the newspaper photo team as a stringer to help record the newspaper’s annual River Run event.  Some time after that he pulled up stakes in Dayton for Miami, Florida, where he intended to really get his writing career into gear.  Not long after we lost touch.  

But it was while Bill was working for the DDN that the American rebel assignment came up.  The one pager I created for class resurfaced this week as I was clearing clutter — and boxes of old books — out of my office here at home.  Thinking about a gay friend as a ‘rebel’ strikes me as odd today, but it got me to thinking about the pre-AIDS 1980s and how much as changed since then.  

For what it’s worth, here is bit of time capsule from a more innocent time.  

Interview with an American rebel
March 1982

It occurs to me that rebellion is an intensely personal expression.  Though much rebellion we’ve talked about this quarter emanated from national issues and social phenomenon, the ultimate expression of the rebel is personal. 

Bill has been a friend of mine for the last couple of years.  He drifted into my life and has since drifted out again, though I think of him often.  His expressions of rebellion made me question myself more critically.  The whole relationship has been somewhat mysterious to me, but I thank him for his influence. 

Before I met him, Bill set out to do what was best for himself.  Like Robert Frost, he tried to unite his ‘avocation and vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight.’  He began by leaving his nest in Akron to take a position here that forced him out of his academic womb.  He sold yearbooks. 

He’s still flying.  Today, that flight has led him to Miami, Florida.  On his journey he has discovered that he must write.  And that he is gay.  My questions come from my wanting to understand his ‘coming out,’ both as a writer and as a homosexual.  

Q. How do you react now to the changes in lifestyle the you had to deal with a few years ago? 
A. With relief.  I’m utterly relieved that it’s over.  When I look back now, I see a kind of depthless overcast, clouding over the good times and the bad.  Little specific remains.  Emotionally, what I recall is an unrelenting loneliness, a loneliness I couldn't even understand at the time but which, nevertheless, pervaded everything I did and thought and felt. 

Q. Do you classify yourself as a ‘rebel’ regarding your sexuality? 
A. That’s a relative term.  I suppose within the world I knew several years ago, yes, I was kind of a rebel….  I was a rebel, I imagine — not because I was gay, but because I admitted it. 

Q. Do you classify yourself as a ‘rebel’ regarding your work and lifestyle?  
A. Again, it’s relative.  Because I write, some people believe I’m quite extraordinary, bucking convention, etc., etc.  Because I am gay and live with another man, some people might call me a rebel.  Still, I know other writers who seem more rebellious than I.  The only thing that I would say might be rebellious about my attitude toward things is that I believe one must be and do what one feels is right for oneself, not what one sees everybody else being and doing.  I do not do things because they are rebellious; rather, because I have to. 

Q. A lot of changes accompanied your ‘coming out.’  How related were they?  
A. Sexuality involves more than what you do in bed.  It involves a sensibility — a way of experiencing life and thinking about things.  This is true for heterosexuals as much as for homosexuals.  But my particular decision to leave a steady job, for example, and write for a living is not a characteristic homosexual act.  Rather, it was my act, part of me, part of the me I had never acknowledged yet yearned to be.  Once I faced up to being gay, acknowledged it to my wife and my family and went through the divorce, being me the rest of the way was easy.  

Q. How do you feel about your courage? 
A. Ironically, it occurred to me that I was a coward — because I had never confronted these issues before.  But there was courage, lots of it….  No one else has to die with my conscience.  And like many bitter old men and women I’ve met, had I failed to live my life as I saw fit, I would have gone through life regretting rather than living.  

Today’s elder idea:   ‘When I was 14, I came very close to becoming a gay teen “statistic,” but I then turned to music, my piano, my loved ones, and discovered that it does, in fact, get better.’

Blake McIver Ewing