When you are young, the days stretch endlessly one after the other. You don’t worry about issues of mortality, though in my day there were plenty of children who had dead siblings. Brothers or sisters enshrined in photos displayed prominently on the living room walls. Still, death was not something that occupied your time. You played, you fought with your friends, you read comic books and Nancy Drew or the Bobsey Twins. Your teachers lent you Dickens and Bronte and you imagined London but knew deep down you’d never travel there. There was seldom money for luxuries like two pairs of dress shoes, for instance, so how ever would you get enough money for travel “across the sea”? And why would you want to go anyway? Everything you could possibly want was only as far away as a 40-minute bus ride (with about 52 stops) to Scranton. Scranton—department stores, Woolworth’s, Movies, Nayaugh Park—Hoagies!
I grew up in a small coal-mining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Kids played outdoors all summer, picked huckleberries, swam in the mountain lakes, and played hide and go seek. Everyone knew who your father and mother were. We thought there were no secrets. My next-door neighbor, who was also my best friend, had a younger brother who liked to wear make-up and perfume and high heels. We accepted that as normal for him, when he was pre-school, but as he got older, there were whispers. His parents worried. His sister worried. His teachers worried.
My father said to be kind to the boy. He said to be his friend. He said to be “on his side.” I tried. His sister tried. But kids are cruel, and he came in for his share of bullying. He left high school in his junior year, when he turned 16, and joined the army. His family didn’t hear from him for eight years. I had already graduated college and was teaching when my friend wrote to tell me that they had received word that her brother was in prison in North Carolina, after having pleaded guilty to “male venery.” This devastating news colored my world for a very long time. When he died recently, after having moved to Oklahoma, my sister sent me his obituary printed in the local paper. The obituary didn’t mention his imprisonment, but it did mention that he was survived by his partner of 40 years. So, I wonder, was America great when he was imprisoned, or is America better now?