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August 31st, 2010

I am the man my father built.

Never in my short life had I been camping. I hated the grit of dirt and leaves, bugs, peeing outdoors, and the looming prospect of sleeping amongst it all. The woods looked like the terrarium for my pet alligator, and from what I could tell, Wally didn’t sleep all that great either.

MarkatTenDad thought it was just terrific (“Want to make a fire with two sticks, Mark?” “Did you count the worms in the bait can?”) and he was getting along well with the other dads at this father/son campout with my Cub Scout troop. For that I was grateful.

At school they were calling me a queer and at church the jocks were chasing me down the halls for wearing platforms. But Cubs was populated with other misfits like me. I wondered if the Scouts was a club that parents paid to give their kid friends.

The dusk air was filled with the sounds of mallets thumping, as duos of fathers and sons pitched their tents. Dad was nearly giddy as he carried a long bag from the car. I’ll bet he bought us a brand new one, I thought, since we never went camping before.

Dad unrolled the bag at our feet. There, stretched across the ground, was clear plastic and some twine. Nothing more.

“Somebody stole our tent!” I said, shocked.

Dad laughed. He was one of those men who began most sentences with a laugh or a “heh heh” sound. It was endearing but not at the moment.

CubScoutLogo“Nope, sport, that’s our tent,” he said, “let’s get it going.” He started to unfold it. I stared and stared. It looked like the largest plastic leftover baggie I’d ever seen. My face felt flush with embarrassment.

Dad was strange. He always had projects going on in the shop or downstairs, like building a grand piano from cardboard (no special reason) or learning about geodesic domes and making one the size of a Starbucks in the back yard. Out of clear plastic.

His obsession for years was box kites, the bigger the better. He started with a six-foot prototype, flying it in a cotton field near home. Then we worked all summer on a box kite the size of a Winnebago that we transported to the field on a flatbed truck. It crashed after a few glorious minutes and Dad, predictably, laughed. “Wow!” he gleefully shouted. “Did you see that crash? Spectacular!”

On weekends you always heard his low, rumbling laugh in the basement when he “had an idea.” Mom hated it when he had an idea.

Dad was now pitching a plastic baggie, and the others were noticing. The mallet thumping slowed and heads turned. Why did we have to be so different? I liked fitting in with this group of Scouts. Dad was ruining everything.

“Dad,” I offered, speaking in the calm manner of a hostage negotiator, “why don’t we borrow a tent?” I looked around and didn’t see anyone who felt like interacting, much less lending. I wondered how long a K-Mart run might take.

MarkInRepose - Copy (2)He paused and twirled his wooden mallet. I was surprised it wasn’t made from clear plastic. “Heh heh,” he replied. “Nobody has one like this. I made it for us! Nobody makes one like this.” He draped the plastic sheet across a clothesline contraption he’d made and then it struck me.

The stares. The withering, judgmental stares of the others. Once inside our leftover baggie, they could still stare as much as they liked. There was no place to hide. I wanted to throw myself on the campfire.

“But Dad,” I tried, a bit more desperately, “everyone can see us. You can see through this…”

“That’s the beauty of it!” and he bellowed a laugh that produced more squinty glances from around camp. “Look up, Mark! We’ll be able to see the stars!”

Those days, and that moment, are lost to time now, and so is my father. Not long after camping out under the stars, our personas traded places. I embraced my sexuality and my misfit charms, while Dad’s struggle to understand my life made him just another parent who didn’t get it. Worst of all, he was made to contend with a teenager who saw him as something abhorrent: typical.

We had many years, later, when our outlooks merged again and we reveled in his various projects and my work as an outspoken gay man. Dad raised exactly what he valued, a man who steps up and asks stupid questions and knows that to soar you must risk the occasional, spectacular crash.

On my best days I live happily in a clear plastic tent of my own design, writing and living as an HIV positive queer for all to see. And on the worst of days, my mind’s eye conjures up a hearty laugh coming from nearby, maybe the basement, where something is being built that will solve absolutely everything.

Usually it’s a box kite, crafted from unlikely supplies and fatherly magic, that carries me far, far away.

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8 Responses to “I am the man my father built.”

  1. Anne Says:

    August 31st, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Hi,
    What a wonderful memory and an unique one. Who else can top the story of a plastic baggie tent!And a son who remembers that being different isn’t all that bad. Funny that the idea of the clear tent never caught on! Ziploc could have made a fortune on them! Keep on remembering and keep on blogging.

    (Thanks, Mom. — Mark)

  2. Subversive Librarian Says:

    August 31st, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    Mark, this may be my favorite post of yours. Ever. It’s very “you can’t take it with you.” How wonderful that you had such an eccentric dad and that you learned to appreciate each other in time.

  3. Jim Says:

    September 1st, 2010 at 3:07 am

    Mark, a great remembrance of your father and whether or not who got what when or at all doesn’t really matter so much now that a lovely memory lives through sometimes parallel journeys. You keep me smiling and thinking.

  4. George Medeiros Says:

    September 1st, 2010 at 10:47 am

    My folks were working class so we didn’t do cub scouts. We did erect a tent on the edge of our property on the wood line where we- me and the neighborhood boys, explored our sexuality, until one day when my meddling older cousin Gloria decided what we were doing was wrong and paraded us out in front of my parents, me with an erection and trying to ignore it. I remember her saying “fix your pants” and i said “Why? Whats wrong with them” trying to ignore the whole situation. In retrospect, I was saying this is perfectly normal for me- leave me alone.

  5. Carole Ann Kaplan Says:

    September 1st, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    Mark, this post along with the one about the woman dancing freely are your very best to date. There is something about memory that fascinates the reader probably because our memories are such an important part of who we are.

    How honored your mother must be to know you have this grand memory with your father. Your mother and father gave you all you needed to be who you are today, a man who makes a tremendous difference in the lives of others, in humanity.

    Keep the stories coming. Keep the memories alive your little boy self has and share them with us. I enjoyed so much going camping with you and your dad. It was my first camping experience!!!

  6. Birdie Says:

    September 1st, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Your sweet memoir brought back memories of my time camping under a clear tarp. Well, almost: when my college friend and I doused the fire and retired to the “tent,” our flashlight showed it was lined INSIDE with dozens of big rust-red spiders that apparently had taken refuge from the trees. My friend batted the plastic and sent them scurrying and then urged me to crawl into my sleeping bag. No way. I slept, more or less, bent awkwardly in the front seat of the car.

    Your camping adventure brought sweeter memories. When is it we truly realize the treasure of having a parent who lives an authentic life? One hopes it isn’t too late.

  7. Adam Says:

    September 3rd, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Beautiful!

  8. Marijane Nguyen Says:

    September 5th, 2010 at 11:27 pm

    I went camping as a Girl Scout one time. I was homesick and hated the entire outdoor experience! I like yours so much better, especially because you got to spend it with your dad! What a memorable experience sleeping in a clear plastic tent and being able to share the memory years later! Clearly a lesson was at work, even if it wasn’t meant to be a lesson, that being different isn’t such a bad thing.

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