This morning while scanning the tv channels looking for something to distract me, I stumbled upon a “marathon” presentation of the 1950’s TV show “Death Valley Days.” What caught my attention was the theme song being played at the end of an episode from 1953. I immediately stopped scanning and waited to watch the next episode.
Hearing that song brought me back to my childhood in the West End of Birmingham. In 1953, I was eight years old and a fan of that TV show, Death Valley Days. So much so that my mother saved up box tops of 20 Mule Team Borax, or Boraxo as I remember it. (more…)
When I was very young, our (my older brother Dean and I) favorite Christmas presents each year came from my uncle. They were model plane kits, at first stick-built balsa wood and later Revell plastic kits. By the time I left for the AF Academy, my room was chock full of planes of all types. One of my favorites was this Stileto from about 1957.
I think my love of planes, and models, rubbed off my brother Dean. One Christmas, while we were still living on 10th street in West End, my uncle Jimmy, mom’s younger brother, came down from Chattanooga bearing presents. I don’t remember what Uncle Jimmy brought me, but Dean got a model airplane. It was really just a small box of balsa wood and tissue paper, but from it Dean would build an airplane that could actually fly. Glide really, but to me it was just wonderful and I wanted it.
Dean was all boy. As soon as he was old enough, he prevailed on my parents to let him join the Cub Scouts – there was a pack at my neighbor’s church, which unfortunately was not a Catholic church. As kids do, Dean kept after my parents until they relented and, on his birthday, took him to the Army-Navy store to buy a uniform and camping equipment. Even my grandmother Bubba joined in and bought him an aluminum canteen. While he gloried in his take, I was off to the side, jealous as only a sibling can be when your brother gets all the attention.
One of the first projects Dean worked on with the Cub Scout was a model airplane. He brought it home and my mother helped him assemble it – she could do just about anything but my father had absolutely no interest in helping Dean with the model. It took him and Mom a few days, but at the end Dean had a real airplane. At least it was real to me. It was powered by a rubber band engine and could fly across the room. We could not afford paints, so Dean left the plane plain, if you get my drift. And I was so jealous of Dean’s plane.
Flash Gordon rocket ships
When you are small, your imagination is wonderfully adept. All I had that year was burnt out Christmas tree bulbs, but I quickly converted one into a Flash Gordon rocket ship. Dean had his airplane, but I had a rocket ship and I stubbornly stuck to my vision of being able to shoot down Dean’s plane.
Back in the early ’50s, my family did not have a lot of money. We were lower middle class with only my dad’s hair stylist’s – salary to live on. But I did not know I was missing out. One year, along with Uncle Jimmy’s model planes, Dean and I got real English bicycles!
But that is another story for another time; back to airplanes.
When we moved to East Lake in 1955, I was 10 years old. Next door to our house on 9th Avenue, there was a family renting – as far as I know, my parents were buying our house. The father, Mr. Jones, was a distant relative of the Mr. Jones who lived on the other side of us. That Mr. Jones was rich, after all he owed two house and was a lawyer. The renting Mr. Jones was into model airplanes. And not just rubber band powered ones. His were powered by small gasoline engines that made a tremendous noise. And they were fast and maneuverable. They were called ‘control-line’ planes because you controlled them via two strings that came out of one wing and led to a handle that you could tilt back and forth and cause the model plane to go up or down. (always from the left wing, which made the plane go counter clockwise; I wonder if they go clockwise in Australia – have to ask David) The only problem I could see with those planes was that you could really get seasick from turning round and round to keep up with the plane.
Behind the rental house was a fairly large yard with no trees – a perfect place to fly control line model planes. And Mr. Jones did that as often as he could. Dean and I were enraptured with those planes and with Mr. Jones. (I was also enraptured with Mr. Jones’ daughter, Carol, with whom I was very smitten.)
That year for Christmas, Dean got a special plane from Uncle Jimmy – a control-line Beechcraft Bonanza model plane which was powered by a .049 gasoline engine. It was made of plastic and turned out to be crash resistant, which it needed to be. With Mr. Jones’ mentoring, Dean was soon flying the Bonanza round and round, zooming up and down. Dean even let me help him start the engine, which was a painful thing to learn how to do properly. We did not have automatic starters back then. You had to hook up a large battery to the engine’s glow plug and turn over the propeller using your finger. You had to learn to flick the prop quickly and get your finger out of the way. If the engine caught and started, the propeller would slam into your finger, causing a great deal of pain. But getting the little engine to fire required you to flick the prop over and over, until just as you got tired and slowed down your hand movement, the engine would bite you. But Dean loved that little plane, and he eventually let me learn to fly it too.
Although the Bonanza was a great starter plane, Dean soon wanted to build his own, larger, plane that would be powered by a much larger engine. That was the kind of planes Mr. Jones’ had. And Dean had his heart set on building a radio-controlled plane so he could break free from the control lines. This was about the time that Dean got sick, really sick.
I did not know it, but the pain in his leg that Dean kept complaining about turned out to be cancer. So one day my father brought home a large box containing the parts and instructions for a balsa wood model of a 1930’s trainer aircraft – I cannot remember the designation but I think it was a T6 Texan – and gave it to Dean. He had asked Mr. Jones for advice on which kit to buy and asked Mr. Jones if he would help Dean make the plane.
Balsa Wood Wings
The first thing Dean built was the wing, and it turned out to be the only part of the plane Dean was able to get done before he fell too sick to work on it. The wings were about 36 inches long and were made up of balsa wood. This was about as far as Dean got. Later, after he died, I tried to complete the plane and did get the wings covered with doped fabric with the help of Mr. Jones. And I completed the fuselage, mounting the gas tank and engine, which I saved my allowance to buy. With Mr. Jones help, I actually got the engine running, almost breaking my finger in the process as the much larger engine really could whack you. But I never got to fly the plane; I just could not scrape together the money to buy the radio control parts before Mr. Jones and family moved away to Kentucky.
I left the unfinished plane hanging from the ceiling of the bedroom I once shared with Dean and headed off to the Academy. The plane, alone with all the other models Dean and I built, remained in that bedroom until my parent’s divorced and sold the house. I never asked my mother what she did with those planes. I hope she gave them to some one who would love them as much as Dean and I did.
It has been almost 20 years since I last spent Christmas with my daughter. And I own the responsibility for the reason we have not been able to be together. I made a decision which split my family of over 30 years back in 1996 when I shared with my wife that I was transgender and that I was not sure how much longer I could continue to hide my true gender identity.
We struggled on together for a few years, but our marriage destructed in 1999. And so it was that my ex and my daughter began to have Christmases without me because my being present was just to painful for my ex, C. She was rightly angry that I had chosen my need to express my true gender to my need to keep the family together. I remember one heated conversation we had in which she said I should just keep my gender identity submerged because “you are old and don’t have that many years left anyway.”
I think in my naiveté I thought that she would somehow be able to get over the fact that I no longer looked like the man she married, but that was unrealistic I now understand. I am reading the book She’s not there, by Jenifer Boylan, which was published in 2003. In that book, Boylan comes out to her wife and has many of the same conversations I had with my wife. But Boylan does not lose anything that I can see because of her transition. She does not lose her job nor her livelihood, which was fairly large compared to most people anyway. She does not lose her family nor her wife nor her friends. She transitions easily compared to me and most trans women.
I wonder if Boylan’s wife would have stayed if she had lost her job, financial security, and position due to her transition? I sometimes think that my ex would have had an easier time sticking with me if I had been as lucky as Boylan.
But I was not. Although I never told my boss exactly what was causing my depression, I think he was perceptive enough to read the tea leaves. As I was crumbling under the pressure of the dysphoria, I had pierced my ears, much like Harrison Ford had done, and bleached my hair. On a trip to Dallas in which he put pressure on me to relocate to take over that region, Brian told me in the car after he picked me up at the airport that he had just fired a “queer” from his Atlanta office because the “queer” had begun showing up at work wearing women’s clothes. He made a sarcastic remark about the person, whom I never knew, and looked at me for some favorable reaction. I was stunned at his bringing up that topic and began to wonder how much he was reading into my changes in appearance.
About a month later, we had a major meeting of the senior staff in Phoenix and I was unable to get myself out of bed to make the flight. I was fighting the flu, and that, combined with my worsening depression, left me completely exhausted. The week after I missed the meeting, I was called to fly to Atlanta where his office was. There he made a show of introducing me to the people in Atlanta that I did not know – we had only recently merged our companies – and took me to lunch at a restaurant about 20 minutes away where I think he thought we would have privacy.
There, he told me he knew something was seriously wrong with me, and that he felt I could not perform the duties of my senior position with the new company. He asked what was wrong and I told him a bit of the truth, that I was having marital difficulties. He seemed to accept this and told me, not asked me, that I should take a leave of absence from the company while I sorted out the problem and could reflect on if I wanted to move to Dallas. And I stupidly leaped at this suggestion as I knew I needed time. What I didn’t realize was that my agreeing to take the sabbatical, as he called it, gave him the time to reorganize me out of the company. And that he announced to me after I called him three weeks later to tell him I was ready to come back to work.
I know now that my telling my ex I had been cut adrift from my company of almost 25 years was the end point for her in our marriage. I no longer was the successful breadwinner she had wanted and needed. And I was no longer going to be the man she thought she married. So she filed for divorce and served me with the papers.
We sold the cherished house in Sans Souci in August of 1999 and moved separately into the same apartment complex in Fairhope. I guess we were not ready to really be apart. I remember many days and nights when one of us visited the other and cried over the loss of our marriage. For a while, I had hopes of our finding some way to remain together, but it was not to be. Sometime in early 2000, after our divorce was finalized, C told me she was seeing my old friend B. I was stunned and hurt, but I tried to make her believe I was happy for her. I was, in a way, but I was devastated at the same time. My depression worsened and I was fired again, this time from the real estate company I had started working for in the fall of 1999. I overdosed but somehow survived and called C asking her to help me. She told me to go to the hospital in Fairhope where she had once gone while she struggled with my truth, but I prevailed on her to take me to New Orleans VA hospital where my friend Jamie worked. I think I finally accepted our relationship was over when C and B showed up to drive me to NOLA.
At the end of a week, I was released from the hospital and C picked me up and drove me back to my little apartment in Fairhope. It was to be the last time I saw her for five years. In the interim, I finally had my bucket of sticks tip over and I made the painful and joyous decision to begin my transition. I soon exhausted my savings, had my car repossessed, and was evicted. At the same time, I had somehow held myself together with the help of new friends, filed for bankruptcy, applied and was accepted into the doctoral program at South Alabama, and began my new life as Dawn. My second Christmas alone was my first as myself. But the pain of not being with my family far overshadowed the joy of being myself. And that pain continues to this day.
Today I was lucky enough to be able to pay it forward. Years ago after I lost my job, financial security, and family, I was out on the streets. I had no income, was evicted from my little apartment in Fairhope and my car was repossessed. But I was lucky in that I had found new friends through PFLAG who reached out to me. One paid up my car loan and enabled me to get my car back. Another paid for a moving company to pick up my few possessions and take them to a house across the bay where she had negotiated a rent I could afford with the student loan that had yet to be approved. Another guided me toward the doctoral program at South and helped me get an interview with the faculty who could approve my acceptance.
Until recently I have been unable to pay them back for their kindness. But instead of paying them back directly, something I will eventually do, I decided to pay it forward today. And I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do just that.
Along with paying it forward, I made a pact with my friend: we would both invest 20 minutes a day writing in our blogs. And I intend to do just that. So the challenge goes out to J. I’ll help you get a blog up on line and we both will write at least 20 minutes a day and hit the “Publish” button.
To all my Facebook friends: this morning I listened to another news broadcast about the tragedy in San Bernardino. I know I should not tune into these types of shows because they usually offer nothing new, instead rehashing “facts” with a bias toward the faction they think they represent. But I did hear two things new.
A young Muslin American, a friend of the male attacker, said he appreciated the part of President Obama’s speech last night where the President called for Americans to not allow the demagogues to lead us to condemn and disenfranchise all Muslims. The young man recalled the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance he had learned in school: “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Later in that same news show, an expert on terrorism said he was a bit confused about the negative reaction of some politicians to President Obama’s mention of the need to prevent people on the terrorist no-fly list from buying guns legally. The expert said he could not understand why lives lost to a terrorist act where somehow more important than lives lost to inner-city gun violence.
I just doubled checked the numbers and the total number of American deaths due to acts of terrorism on US soil in the last decade is 85, including the 14 in San Bernardino. And of that 85, 48 were due to right-wing and white supremacists (here). Strikingly, the total number of gun-deaths in American the last decade is 302,000, though it is impossible to give an exact number because they are happening all the time. This graphic from the CDC includes all American deaths due to terrorism globally since 2001.
Gun deaths v deaths due to terrorism
I know 2nd amendment folks like to claim otherwise, but the extremely large number of guns in America does have consequences (here and here). Ignoring gun suicides (which of course are much greater in America than in any other country), there are some 11,000 to 13,000 gun homicides in the US each year. And, alarmingly, there are 700 to 800 deaths due to gun accidents each year. And these numbers are from a conservative, 2nd amendment group.(here) Yet the number of crimes and deaths thwarted by citizens carrying guns is almost non-existent (here). Ironically, if the Republicans/NRA allowed the CDC to actually study gun deaths, we might have such information.
Gun deaths per 100,000 population
My point in this post is that lives do matter, all lives. Not just those lost due to radical Muslim terrorism. And to use the fact that terrorism is increasingly a threat to everyone as a justification to preach divisiveness and hate for fellow Americans is unacceptable. If we are to defeat ISIS and radicalism, including white hate groups, we must be a country undivided.
Still thinking about the movie Woodlawn that I am yet to see. And merging those thoughts with the Facebook conversation about the proposed new football stadium for USA. I guess that is part of the reason I’m so uptight about that one stadium supporter’s words that he “is tired of going to football games in the slums.” I’m feeling guilty by association, by not having spoken up in the 60s and 70s when the white flight from Birmingham, and so many other southern cities, was beginning.
When I was growing up in Birmingham, downtown was the place
to go for essentially everything. It was where most people worked, save for the many that worked at the steel mills on the west end of the city where I was initially brought up. West End, as it was formally called, was not a bad place to live except for the extremely poor air quality there. There was yet to be any governmental controls on the environmental damage from the steel and coal plants in Birmingham, or anywhere else in America for that matter. (more…)