Published on February 20th, 2013 | by Healthy Gay Lifestyles0
Dancing Queen (Chapter Three) THE PRICE OF PRIDE
by Skip Hodge
True to his word my personal tormenter “aka my father,” rounded up all of his school age sons before leading them to slaughter early again the next fall. Still reeling from the previous year’s losses I tried EVERYTHING to escape the genetic clutch of expectation that held me to this grisly sport of wrestling. Sprained ankles, feigned illnesses, pressing studies or even joining the dust bunnies beneath the bed (closets would come later), were all tried and failed. It seemed any attempt, howbeit well played, was met with the same amused detachment by my loving parents. Even Cecil B. DeMille would have recognized my talent for dramatics by casting me as an aspiring ingénue (gender notwithstanding), in his next production. To bad his death preceded my birth by five months preventing this from ever happening. Not to mention, Hollywood was still a long way away from the yet unnavigable maze of cornfields that separated me from it’s whisper of salvation. Why my parents failed to recognize the budding star in their midst baffled me. After all, I was so much more than a carbon copy of my male sibling counterparts. I was more than an extension of the failed endeavors of my father. I was more than a trophy on the mantle above the fireplace. Above all else, I was more than either of them had yet perceived or even fathomed. I was a diamond in the rough. Now, if only I knew how to prove it.
Knowing my parents would never willingly pay for dance classes, I negotiated a trade with the widowed owner of a studio just a few blocks from our home. In exchange for free lessons it was agreed, in theory, that I would take full responsibility for the exterior upkeep of her home where the studio sat attached. I would rake leaves in the fall, shovel snow in the winter and mow the lawn in the summer. My only respite would be the brief thaw before spring when the dormant grasses would seek the waxing sun at the surface. In hindsight, it was a lot of work for a boy my age. Nonetheless, I persevered for the deep connection I already felt to all forms of expression through grace and movement. It seemed I had found my calling. Before long I excelled in tap, acrobatics and ballet. To everyone’s surprise, including myself, I managed to skip over the beginner courses in record time to join the girls in intermediate and advanced. Yes, once again, I was the lone male in the company of females. By now, however, any telltale significance of the coupling left me verily unfazed and oblivious. Of the three courses, I delighted most in acrobatics. I was instantly drawn to the spectacle of contortion as I marveled at the pliable nature of my undeveloped frame. Back bends, cart wheels, somersaults and splits were all eagerly added to my growing set of skills. I was a machine. My desire and determination were limited only by rapidly approaching adolescence.
Since I could not afford tap shoes, and I knew better than to approach my parents for them, the studio proprietor made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Located within her home was an old box of discarded women’s. She waylaid her only child, a slightly plump daughter four years my junior to direct me to it’s location. Together, we shuffle-ball-changed our way to a back bedroom where they beckoned from an old wardrobe in the corner. Behind a crowded row of old fur coats and smelling faintly of cedar, moth balls and cat urine I spotted my prize. What should have been an assault to my senses turned out to be ambrosia. Still on all fours, I surreptitiously crawled into C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” with the stealth of Lucy and the blind trust of Edmund. Moments later I returned with a “Turkish Delight” all my own. Even the Cheshire Cat’s grin would have paled next to mine as I clutched the still shiny used pair to my chest. Woe is the path to becoming a true artist, for it is forever fraught with unexpected hardship and challenge. But alas, I finally had my patent Mary Jane’s. “Sigh!”
Juggling my time between wrestling and dance turned out to be easier than expected. Since I wasn’t necessarily “recital ready,” my Saturday meets rarely conflicted with performances or practice. Moreover, seeing that I had resigned myself to another year of take-downs, half nelsons, pins and the like the demeanor of my father had also shifted. As a church going, God fearing, guilt ridden catholic I had formed my own theory as to “why.” He mistook my new lack of resistance as a sign. An omen that he was winning some private battle with a demon unseen, at least by me. This less than subtle exorcism through athletics purported as much. The very real possibility of his living through the shame of having sired a gay son was visibly unfathomable. Unbeknownst to either of us then, I alone held the pin that could burst this malignant bubble of immorality and covetous hope. The position was precarious, at best. I knew my feigned interest in wrestling was nothing more than a ruse. I was purposefully deflecting attention away from my growing passion for all things involving dance. Whether real or imagined, my fear was that without donning a singlet and knee pads, I wouldn’t be allowed my leotard and tap shoes. In a surprising twist of vindication (like some athletes of the era who’d been reported to study ballet in the off season), my hours of training in the studio actually seemed to help with my coordination on the mat. The added flexibility to my now limber frame served me well when out-maneuvering the powerful grip of many a foe. Although it didn’t always keep me from getting beat, it kept me from getting pinned. To me, there was no greater shame than losing a match by a pin. Little did I know that later in life losing by a pin would actually mean winning. Who knew? (Wink Wink!)
As the remaining leaves of fall were blanketed by the first snows of winter I sensed a change approaching. What exactly this change was I couldn’t tell you, but I felt it nonetheless. Perhaps it was simply hormonal. After all, I was now twelve years old. Shouldn’t I be joining my peers in the rites of puberty? But as often as I checked, this was not the case. I even started wearing my dad’s deodorant, Right Guard, thinking it might encourage growth. Of course when that failed, I tried my mother’s antiperspirant, Secret. Since their motto was, “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman,” it seemed a tenable action to my “boy-girl” logic. Not to mention it smelled a whole lot better. If I couldn’t coax the buried testosterone from deep within my system, mayhaps I should be looking closer to the surface? Estrogen seemed a reasonable alternative. I even considered borrowing a maxi-pad from my oldest sister’s stash but quickly ruled it out due to the ensuing camel-toe that would have resulted in it’s placement. Whatever the change was it eluded me at every turn. It wasn’t until the first thaw of the new year I would get an inkling of my own foretelling.
As another season of wrestling came to a close, all eight local teams were joined by YMCA chapters throughout the state in a final showdown of strength, perseverance and endurance. The Junior High School I’d only recently started attending that fall loaned us their auditorium to house the meet. Whatever comfort I might have gained within the familiarity of it’s walls was lost in a swirl of emotion as I pondered the climatic close to another season. This was it. This was the denouement I’d sensed earlier in the year. In a flash of coherence I was blindsided with a realization. The only thing that truly held me to this dreaded display of machismo pomp was my ever pervasive sense of obligation brought on by guilt. Damn those years of Catholic school! Whether this epiphany of logic’s root was born out of frustration, intellect, hormones or a combination of the three was irrelevant. I now understood that I had a choice. A choice between misery and happiness. A choice between living as a voiceless clone in a house dominated by a collectivist mentality or making my own way in life at the expense of my parent’s disappointment. It was, without a doubt, one of the more portentous moments of my youth. Now that it had finally arrived, I was wont to see it through. Still, it could wait a few more minutes, right? (Instant diarrhea!)
It could never be said that I didn’t go down without swinging. After all, the competitor in me still thrived. If this was to be my last hurrah on the mat, I was determined to make it a memorable one. Sixteen boys in my weight class of 84 pounds shared eight brackets. That translated to fifteen of my peers that stood between me and one of the first place trophies that mocked me from a table in the corner of the auditorium. As I approached the display I visualized my face atop the neck of the tiny wrestler crouched on the shiny blue tower awaiting the referee’s whistle. The matches began and one by one I out-muscled, outmaneuvered and outwitted each grappler who stood in the path of my fervent conviction and impending glory. In the end I found myself face to face with an opponent who’d soundly beaten me earlier in the season. He was a neighbor, classmate and sometimes nemesis who wasn’t above joining the fray of hecklers at my expense. A better shot at public retribution was ne ver more palpable. Setting aside any feelings of self-doubt or resentment we shook hands and the match for the championship began. Six grueling minutes and three endless periods later we sat as equals on the scoreboard overlooking the mat. We were tied, 6-6. Although breathless and harried, my physical ache paled in comparison to the mental ache I bore for this victory. As the final whistle sounded, I said a silent prayer before closing the gap on my opponent in the tie-breaker of my life. From the periphery of my vision I stole a glance to the sideline where my father and “coach,” looked on. In a brief flash of comprehension I saw myself for quite possibly the first and last time mirrored in his expression of determination. What I didn’t expect was the love, pride and unmistakable sense of understanding that vaguely overshadowed his countenance. He knew. The match ended as it had begun and I shook the hand of my opponent. This time however, the referee raised my arm as the champion in a defining moment of consummation. I’d finally won.
Even if I’d tried to stem the floodgate of emotions that overwhelmed me the instant I leapt into my father’s open arms, my attempt would have been futile. Regardless, I wept with earnest joy instead of the bitter disappointment of times past. In a bear hug of respect and surrender he held me close and said, “So what do you think, are you a wrestler now?” Even through my blur of tears I recognized the resignation in his voice. It wasn’t so much a question as it was a statement and I paused to focus before responding. “No dad, I’m not. That trophy is yours.” He nodded his head in silent acceptance before replying, “I thought as much.” Deep down we both knew that he could have forced the issue if he had wanted to, but at what expense? He knew, as well as I, that the cost of my future resentment wasn’t worth his pride.
And so it was on a cold and slushy day in February 1972 I was released from any further obligation to uphold the family name in wrestling. Two weeks later my second prayer was answered. In my daily search of life below the navel I was ultimately rewarded. Eureka! I’d finally found my first pubic hair.
Steven Hodge (aka Skip) is a retired Flight Attendant who overcame his early struggles with addiction over twenty eight years ago. Although he emphasizes his journey is far from complete, he has experienced the world in a way that most of us only dream of. He has returned to his roots in the Midwest to pursue a career in writing and be close to family. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.