Every niece or nephew should have an uncle who was first straight then gay, who sang on so many cruise ships that he visited over 150 cities in over 70 countries, who became very mentally ill but who got a lot better, who lost his memory for two years then got it back, who lost the ability to play and got THAT back and who then couldn’t find work in his own home town but who became an international sensation. I know perspective.
But coming as I do from a family of twelve and having so many wonderful relatives, I was happiest with my part as Uncle Michael. Don’t get me wrong- my life has been an incredible roller coaster with so many ups and downs I’m surprised I don’t have permanent whiplash, but that gets the blood pumping like nothing else, and I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s..
A Suitcase Handle On My Back
Before the age of ten we had moved several times for various reasons. My father had debilitating arthritis at the time, and his doctor suggested moving to the south of Ontario as it might improve his condition. Within a week they had packed and found a new home, where we stayed until we built the family home five years later. By then we had all caught the travel bug- at one point we had thought of trying to calculate the amount of miles we had travelled collectively but it was a Herculean task- two brothers had driven tractor trailers for years, we had all moved to the coast at one time or another and I had travelled the world by sea. We are definitely into the millions of miles.
When I left home I moved to Toronto where I worked in a factory loading trucks. Moving from a town of three hundred to a city of almost four million was a lot to take in at first but I loved it- the possibilities were endless. During that time I had met a guy through mutual friends and he loved my guitar playing. One day in late November he asked if I would like to take a drive-away car to Florida with him- this was a service that let people fly to a certain destination, while others like us drove their car down for them. Since we only had to pay the gas this was a very cheap way of travelling, and twenty-four hours later we were pulling into Tampa to drop it off. Also, I had developed an enduring hate/hate relationship with the cold- at one point we had three wood stoves heating the house so every weekend (it seemed) we were out in the bush cutting wood, with me standing around freezing and hating every minute of it. Since we were already at the end of November this was all the enticement I needed.
Since we were in northern Florida we thought we would be remiss if we didn’t see Disney World. As we were both nineteen we thought it would be fun to do LSD to add to the excitement. Needless to say, this was an exhilarating experience, and to this day I still don’t know what was acid and what was Animatronics- at 10:30 that night when they started the fireworks, we had reached system overload and went to our hotel. The next day we made our way to Miami and booked rooms for the week in the local YMCA. This was my first (though not the last) encounter with cockroaches- twice that week they set off these cherry bomb-scented bug killers which chased us out into the open. By the end of the week we had not found a good reason to stay any longer so we decided to go to the zoo that day and make our way home on the next. We brought our guitars out of habit, and late afternoon we sat down to play a few songs. A young couple came by, heard our music and then our story, made a call and that day we landed a job in a private yacht and sailing club, serving drinks and singing occasionally. The owner had a house he wasn’t using so we spent our first Christmas in Miami, with lizards running up the walls and palm trees everywhere. To me, this was heaven!
Thus began a lifetime love affair with travel. So far, I’ve lived in six provinces and two states, and firmly believe that civilization begins where palm trees grow. I always found it a crying shame that Canada had not gone to war with a Caribbean country so that we could have our own warm climes.
Take The Plunge
Let’s start with relationships- two girlfriends and a wife, two boyfriends and a common-law husband. The main theme running through all but two of my relationships was my inability to say no: those two are dead.
I like to call them the Seven Deadly Relationships as they defined a lot of my character or lack thereof, and ultimately how I became the person I like.
The Seven Deadly Sins
- Ave Maria
When I was ten years old we moved from northern to southern Ontario. Work was scarce and my father’s arthritis was so pronounced that his doctor suggested moving to warmer climes- it was either kill or cure, so off he went looking for a place and within two weeks we were relocated. I had been in a French school until then but had to relearn all the terms in English as there was no French immersion back then. Needless to say, anyone different in those grade years was the object of derision, much the same as it is now. Although people were much less angry in my day there were always four or five young reprobates pushing me around. Finally one kid wouldn’t stop tormenting me so I started fighting back- not throwing punches, but stopping him by pinning his arms. I eventually wrestled him to the ground and held him until he promised to leave me alone for good. Since he was the biggest bully the rest left me alone, but I had no real peace until high school where there were no recesses. And so began my overlong, serpentine and tumultuous ascent toward homosexuality- the duality of submission and control. ..just kidding- I had a blast, I just learned to be smart and discreet about it.
Fast forward to grade eleven. Since I was a people pleaser I got along well with everyone in high school but I wasn’t committed to any one group. I liked different people for different reasons. Maria was a pretty young girl from another class who, for reasons not obvious to me, was the butt of endless jibes and jeers. Remembering what it had been like for me being the target of so much derision I made an instant decision and asked her to the Spring Fling dance and she accepted.
I had never had a girlfriend and a boyfriend was inconceivable back then. Growing up I loved gladiator movies without really understanding why I felt something, yet could not bring myself to talk to anyone about it. Like everything else in an alcoholic household mum was the word- under the weather and under the carpet were kindred phrases in that environment and tantamount to a religious edict. Now that I think about it, so was people pleasing, but by this time it was an innate talent and one of my best defenses.
But I digress. Maria came from a family of European descent who had a big farm in the country. Although she was almost two years my senior this didn’t pose any particular problem for me as my interest was purely platonic. They were a more traditional family than mine- imagine my surprise when her brother drove her to pick me up; seems we needed a chaperone in her parents’ eyes. Her brother was about five foot ten and on the wrestling team, easy on the eyes and a cheerful and teasing personality. It was a great party and we all had a wonderful time.
In my mind this is where the story should have ended- good deed done, everyone happy and life goes on. Unfortunately as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Maria and I were still friends but now she started upping the ante- wanting to go for drives, hanging out at school and calling me at home. Hanging out at school was no problem as I was a very sociable kid and the rides always had her brother as official spoilsport (if they only knew). No, the trouble started with the phone calls. She started slowly, calling every few days with just a few words of greeting and some catching up (by now it was summer and we both lived in the country), but the minimal encouragement I gave her opened the floodgates so that the calls lasted longer and longer. When they passed the one hour mark I realized she needed to talk, though not necessarily to me; after a month or so of this I started passing the phone to any other sibling (I had nine) and told him or her to just grunt once in a while as that was all the participation requested of me. This went on for a number of months with her being none the wiser.
Since work was scarce a lot of my family got work on the pickle farm they operated. This was not the easy job you might think- no gloves as cucumbers bruise very easily, so every day we picked by hand, filling our fingers with so many pickle prickles that my hands would swell up and be useless for anything else. Since I could no longer practice guitar which I had done for five hours every day for the last three years I left the farm and got work elsewhere. This didn’t mean the calls stopped; actually, they got worse and worse. She kept dropping hints that she was almost eighteen and fertile and would love to have sex and babies, especially babies; it also became apparent that my wishes weren’t that important to her. This not only scared me half to death being only sixteen but kept pushing my face into my own sexuality- it was becoming an intolerable situation. Finally one evening as I was watering the lawn after a particularly arid week she dropped by again with her brother. Suddenly all of my frustration panic and fear came to the front and I turned the garden hose on her, soaking her while yelling at her to leave me alone.
This had the desired double effect of releasing me from bondage and from a relationship I had never wanted and relieving the stresses I had felt for so long. After that I didn’t see her for over two decades. When I did run into her again on the street she told me she had been married and divorced three times but had no children. She had a job cleaning the local convent in town, but she still seemed adrift and unhappy to me. That was the last time I saw her.
They tore the convent down three months later. To paraphrase Forest Gump I don’t know what to say about that.