Five-Twenty-Two Harrison

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522 Harrison as it looks today and much as it looked in 1906. Domenico’s door is to the right of the storefront windows. Photo credits to Christopher Calcara.

 

As much as he loved me, Terry hated 522 Harrison. I think he psychically anticipated conflict – not with me but with my family, who owned the property – as if he, too, might come to be acquired, or turned out for being an in-law and not a member by blood.

Outsiders marrying into our tribe are called outlaws and when photographs are taken, they are poised at the outskirts, where they can handily be outcast with a pair of scissors.

Neither my first love nor the love of my life, Terry’s was the love that made me feel the most alive. Still, I have only one frayed snapshot of him, standing conspicuously alone.

Like the three-story brick shotgun of a building that stands on its own at the intersection of Harrison Street and East Missouri Avenue in Kansas City.

“If this is what you want, babe,” he said sweetly, “if this is where you want us to live.”

The history of 522 Harrison Street that passed to me from my father, who inherited it when his mother died shortly after Terry and I met, began coincidentally with my mother’s family. Her mother’s uncles, Angelo (who we knew as Old Uncle Angel) and Domenico (who I never met), erected 522 in 1906.

 

My maternal grandmother is five years old in 1906. Theodore Roosevelt is President and her enterprising immigrant uncles want their share of his promised “Square Deal.” In January, for the first time, Dow Jones closes above 100. This is the year Einstein introduces his Theory of Relativity. Buoyed by the Wright Brothers’ patent of a “flying machine,” Domenico and Angelo see a future without limits.

But 1906 brings with it tragedy and uncertainty as well. The great San Francisco earthquake levels 75% of the city and takes nearly 4,000 lives. Italy’s Mt. Vesuvius erupts and devastates Naples. In both catastrophes, relatives are lost, rendering kin ever more precious.

Closer to home, Kansas City, which officially became Kansas City only 17 years earlier, is booming. With its sophisticated livestock and rail transport industries, the town rivals Chicago. Thirty miles to the west, the first federal penitentiary is built in Leavenworth, Kansas. Thirty-six years hence, political boss and Harry Truman patron, Tom Pendergast, will check into a cell there. Angelo and Domenico shun the stockyards and organized crime.

 

522 took to its feet as Kansas City and the country took to theirs – painstakingly, progressively, hopefully. The Irish were the first colonists to settle in this part of the city. After establishing themselves, they moved to better neighborhoods, while additional waves of immigrants, including the Italians, my relatives, replaced them, followed in lesser degree by German Jews, Russians, Poles, Blacks, Cubans, Mexicans and more recently, various Asian persuasions. For all, family, business and church intertwined as major threads in the area’s fanciful cultural embroidery.

Though it was formally named Columbus Park in 1908, and has housed one huddled mass after another, insiders know the district as the North End for its northernmost nearness to the Missouri River. My people called it Little Italy.

 

Terry wanted to know if my father was in the Mafia. I was so used to hearing the question from bad-mannered “peckerwoods” that my pat answer became, “No, but my mother is.”

He was married when I met him (without her, in a bar). For a short while, Terry and I carried on furtively, then earnestly, and ultimately he introduced me to his wife Ellen. Passing me off as Terry’s new friend, the three of us got along well and even enjoyed doing things together. On Sunday drives to the country in her canary yellow convertible Volkswagen “bug,” we flitted from scene to scene, pausing along our way to study the zoetropic rows of a cornfield or the brooding presence of a dilapidated barn. Ellen and Terry were artists. It was mandatory to marvel, as the fickle midwestern seasons changed, along with the directions of our lives.

In the thick of it, Terry and I never thought of ourselves as adulterers, not even I, the Roman Catholic. We believed we belonged in a dissimilar country and had happened across a border without legitimate passports. This may have made us trespassers, but not sinners.

And so I became a friend to her, too, until the truth came out, and then she and I were unhappy peas in a crowded pod, two equally misguided souls in love with the same man. I promised I’d never ask him to divorce her, but that was a lie. In a situation like this, there has to be a victim and a separate peapod for the others.

 

I am just out of college in 1972 – eager, naïve and untested. Having escaped the concluding war in Vietnam by earning a degree in journalism, I have yet to untangle a real snag. My résumé is short, my hair is long and together with my olive skin, I look more European gigolo than American wage earner.

There are dress codes for Terry, a teacher who appears conservative but is in fact a true redheaded bohemian. Weekends find him in ragged pants and tee shirts, Indian water buffalo sandals, no underwear, paint-spattered from head to toe.

Terry is older, more experienced with men, accomplished and ambitious, and it does not feel unnatural for me to defer to him. I’m not exactly the woman in the relationship (whatever that means), but I am happy to serve in a subservient role just to be near him and his energy.

As we become lovers, he teaches me how to make picture frames to complement his works without overpowering them, and so I come to be his judicious framer as well. Unable to immediately find employment after graduation, back home with parents, the grown-up activity restores to me a sense of worth. I find I have the capacity to form something that requires patient deftness with my hands, a certain aptitude for math, an intuitive eye for decoration and color.

 

Designed in the Gothic Revival style, 522’s architecture distinguishes it as a gangly wallflower of a building with no distinctive ornamentation, save for the uppermost notched cornice that mimics Holy Rosary Catholic Church raised 10 years earlier across the street. In reverent genuflection within its nave, Angelo and Domenico whisper the same simple prayer at Sunday mass: May the Lord see fit to hold family and business together in our adopted United States. This is what Italian émigrés do – they flock – to preserve tradition and sustain lineage, they claim, but likely more to gather apart from pale and wary strangers, their peculiar slangy language, critical peccadilloes, and privileged American way of life.

 

Terry and I long to be among our own kind. I take a retail sales job and leave home. Terry divides his time (splits his personality) between life with Ellen and life with me. We quickly grow tired of trudging back and forth with our toothbrushes from my costly eastside apartment to the empty bedroom at the rear of their lake house, where Ellen surprised us on one occasion – in our nakedness. It’s probable she knew about Terry when they married, perhaps only intuitively, but was somehow devoted enough to look the other way, to shut her eyes to the one inevitable conclusion.

I know she never closed her heart to him; she was that kind of person. Both tenacious Scorpios – she was born on the twenty first of November, and I on the twelfth, a reversal of digits, a juxtaposition of genders – I fully grasp her inability to let him go.

By the time I become interested in it as subtext of my ancestors’ romantic narrative, with few tenants and no commerce, 522 is more a crenellated decaying fortress than an Italian castello. It faces east toward level Harrison Street, while Missouri Avenue slopes uphill. The first floor on the Harrison side contains the mercantile space that backs into the Missouri Avenue elevation. It attends many uses after my father’s father presided over a butcher shop there, but now it stands empty, inert and without purpose.

A short flight of stairs beyond the storeroom, with its 12-foot ceilings, provides direct access to the business from a small, five-room apartment, the front door to which lies on the first floor at the rear of the building, on the shoulder of the Missouri Avenue incline.

 

Angelo and Domenico plan five apartments for 522: the one closest to the store; two larger ones back-to-back on the second floor; and two more the same size above those, on the third floor. A tall ocean liner built to transport legacies point to point, as families and fortunes ebb and flow.

Wood piazzas and stairs are anchored to the hull’s aft to access the upper rear apartments. For the top unit on the Harrison side, a narrow hallway and staircase leading to the third floor are constructed within the second level interior. There are no emergency exits or fire escapes. A rigging of clotheslines on squealing pulleys socially connects the tenants living in one apartment house to those of another across the verdant harbors of driveways and alleys.

The double doors of the business entrance, like open arms of a bow’s figurehead, slash a corner of the east façade, just a few yards from the curb, and face the headwinds of the crossroads straightaway. To the north of the doors, on a broad plate glass window, the establishment is christened with the brothers’ surname, my maternal grandmother’s maiden name, followed by “Grocers.”

522 Harrison, 2006. Photo credits to Christopher J. Calcara.

Over the decades, the once majestic piazzas on the drunken boat had pitched and drooped, as their decking planks split and swelled amid seasonal shifts. Between college sessions one summer, I was hired to paint them. My father was color-blind, having become heir to his mother’s abnormal X-chromosome as well as her property, and together they chose sea foam green. This shade looked atrocious beside the grimy hemoglobin red brick. Clinging perilously to posts and rails three stories off the ground, a sailor tight to a mainmast, teetering on waves of aqueous slopes and seasick with nausea, I had to quit the job.

 

His premonitions regarding 522 and its scruffy neighborhood aside, Terry does want to live with me, and after a fair degree of acrimony all around, he and Ellen finally agree to divorce. I begin searching for an apartment for the two of us, yearning for the day he’d leave their pretense of a marriage and come free and clear to me. Ellen must despise me. I’ve stolen her husband, after all, and have no intention of returning him this time, as I had all the other times.

Terry consents to consider my father’s tenement. I inform him that many young people, some of them like us, are moving into the area. This intrigues his freethinking spirit. We would be plucky prospectors on a migratory march, I enthuse, in the forefront of a movement – urban pioneers.

Two units are vacant – one being my deceased paternal grandmother’s apartment behind the store, the other the third story front walkup. Though we acknowledge them, neither the tumult of traffic below us nor the footfalls of occupants above us figures in our decision.

Ascending the stairs – the umbilicus between my family and our new home, which had conveyed generations of related travelers, their baggage more laden with obligation, convenience and sentiment than common sense – I know we are but two in a long line of wide-eyed turisti.

The only practical vision in the matter is divined by Terry, and that is for an art gallery (showcasing his work) in the shop space. But the demographic, rutted and unrefined, won’t support such a venture. Not yet. And then there is my landlord father, who’d invent deficiencies for condemnation before letting it to us to engage in his view of a silly scheme. A pool parlor, maybe, but never an art anything. He would rather the store remain deserted – a ghost town of cobwebs appropriated by a runaway herd of spiders grazing in the rent-free dust  – than be a mortification to the family names.

Overlooking the concrete junction of Harrison Street and Missouri Avenue, the apartment contains six rectangular rooms of varying sizes. If each were the cardboard box of a household’s shoes, they’d nestle neatly, one inside the other. We imagine enormous potential. What captivates Terry, more than the French-paned double doors prettily separating the dining room from the kitchen or the one-windowed alcove off the living room that would be his studio, is my palpable intensity as I explore the home of my mother and father throughout the first eight years of their marriage, before I was born.

Might I discover subconsciously in which shoebox I was conceived when Terry and I make love there? We would consecrate each one to find out.

It’s the rent that seals the deal – $45 a month – a pittance, even to a middle school art teacher contemplating alimony. And me now in my first real job.

“If this is what you want, babe,” Terry says sweetly, “if this is where you want us to live.”

There is no lease to be negotiated or signed by my father and Terry and me, only handshakes and a gentlemen’s agreement among us that we will take care of the place, not burn it down. Dad is relieved to have family living on the premises again, to keep him abreast of any mischief or bursting pipes. He thinks Terry and I are friends about to become roommates, a couple of confirmed bachelors, and if he suspects otherwise, he never says so to me.

 

During the building’s construction, there are irregular approaches and relaxed contracts between Uncles Domenic and Angel. There is little in writing, since neither has beyond a third grade education. Historical documents mention Angelo but not Domenico, who is four years younger and dies 11 years before his brother. After the death of his first wife, Angelo takes a second one and has several children. Battista, born in 1911, passes away only 19 days later and Raffaele, born in 1917, lives two months and eight days. Uncle Domenic, “cèlibe,” never marries.

 

Terry and I embrace the spaces with hands both heavy and tender. Sanding nearly 70 years of wear from the blackened honey oak floors, patching and painting every square inch of plaster wall and peeling papered ceiling, re-staining and varnishing blistered wood casements, doors and trim, a formerly flat pen and ink inspires a tactile impasto. We throw open the windows and the apartment takes a deep breath, resuscitated.

My father comes on Saturdays to collect the rents. I am high atop a stepladder when Dad sees Terry climb the treads to kiss me. He pretends not to notice.

Another time, my mother and I watch while dad and Terry install linoleum in the kitchen. She recalls that 30 years earlier, they didn’t have a refrigerator but a crate outside a window in the winter and the iceman in the summer.

Before my father’s sickly mother died, we frequently took her into our home. My mother, vexed, nursed her. Whenever she talked to my father about his mother, she invariably referred to her as “522,” as if the old woman and the moldering building were one and the same.

Dad visited his widowed mother on Saturdays, too, always without mom. My grandfather predeceased her by 23 years, and so she depended heavily on the son who had his own hands full with a needy wife and three children. Her mother-in-law absent from 522, mom seems easier, able to relive their honeymoon years, and to mingle them privately with Terry’s and mine.

With dad’s permission, we take a portion of the old counter from 522’s storefront and fashion a breakfast table under the window that frames Holy Rosary’s bell spire and the Kansas City skyline in its view. Terry builds a loft for our bed in the high-ceilinged bedroom and constructs a ladder that I learn to scale backwards and forwards while balancing a tray of food in my arms.

The unit comes with a miniature gas stove – a trio of burners and a too-narrow oven. It takes me a while to learn gas cooking, having grown up in the transistor 50s with electric. My parents give us a brand-new “ice box,” delivered up two soaring flights of stairs by burly icemen from Sears. In the dining room is a squat pilot burner furnace, which we try to hide with paint to match the walls. I get used to its intrusion and labored hiss but live in fear of an explosion. I appreciate that in winter, it keeps the entire apartment, a steeping teapot under a cozy, thoroughly warm.

 

Angelo, 31 at the time 522 is built, has been in this country longer than Domenico, and finds success as a liquor merchant. 522 is to be the family’s first real estate owned outright. The neighborhood is without an Italian grocery, and Domenico, 27, single and more a son to Angelo than a brother, is eager to be his partner in the project. That 522 can be home, generate income and be of value to the community are blessings. Good fortune – “Buona fortuna” – is predicted.

 

Bristling with creative vitality, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol splash painting their way out of a watercolor tin, Terry and I coat the second and third level corridors and lay cheerful golden ochre vinyl squares over their deeply scarred wood floors. I lather the steps to our landing in a glossy tangerine. Though not enamored of our decorative choices (or seeing them differently than we do), Dad is thrilled we assume such an interest and gladly pays for all materials.

The tiniest room, a four-pack box of crayons, is Terry’s studio with a separate entrance from the hallway. It contains an east window and at one time, had been a bedroom for either my brother or sister, or both. Not the best exposure for painting, but Terry is deeply into batik now, the African fabric art of waxing and dyeing and boiling, although we use the easier and safer steam iron. This method doesn’t remove all the wax, however, leaving the cloth stiff in cool temperatures and flaccid in warm ones, and makes stretching and framing a nightmare. I propose banners secured top and bottom to dowels, liberating the material to give and take as it would. Terry says we will have to try that.

For a painter, Northern light is the most consistent but completely inadequate on dark days. Notwithstanding right light, Terry craves any amount of unrestricted space that he can call his own and from which he may come and go. He is photosensitive and claustrophobic, side effects of his long cloistered existence in the dim monastery of his metaphorical closet.  New to the lifestyle, I, too, need freedom.

With Terry divorced, the renovation complete, we move in. Our first holiday alone together is Christmas. Every Christmas thereafter becomes our favorite, for all the frothy commotion we whip up awaiting the coming, and the going. Stealthily, we axe a cedar tree from a farm’s fencerow and sneak it home in the old Ford van we buy to haul Terry’s art works to shows and fairs for sale. We sprinkle jubilant faces on sugar cookie Santas and watch the snow bank and drift from our window ledges to the stone saints guarding Holy Rosary. We snuggle in the affections of our home, like two kittens in a basket with a ticktocking timepiece.

The thoughtful gifts we squirrel away for one another are never costly, for we can’t afford much. Should a stirring impulse travel from Terry’s head to his fingers, I can anticipate a painting or drawing or ceramic. Or a tattered, titanium white bed sheet debauched in broad brushstrokes to portray me nude in several revealing positions. Ode to a Grecian urn, our own Michelangelo, it would make a wonderful (though profane) mural for a wall in the apartment, but I am too modest to display it. With his left hand (he is right-handed), Terry sketches my portrait in lampblack. He so captures me. I keep this one forever.

In spring, we toil in the courtyard, tending precise processions of produce in our garden patch. Tomatoes, green onions, radishes, herbs. And summer catches us sleeping restlessly on the tiny balcony outside our third floor landing. To escape the oppressive July/August heat of our loft bed beneath the flat black tar roof, we carry our mattress and alarm clock to the balcony. 522’s outdated electrical system hasn’t the amperage to sustain window air conditioners, but we try several. Each one blows the fuses of the entire building. Fans merely regurgitate the stifling fever. We awaken ourselves early enough to avoid the French-speaking dowager and her temperamental dog on their own porch across the courtyard. They seem to get along fine without air conditioning.

Occasionally, we treat ourselves to dinner at an Italian restaurant a short block away. On the first floor of a similar three-story structure, it continues to look very much like a home, furnished with a sideboard borrowed from its proprietor. The same dedicated owner, still cooking and waiting tables and living above the business, had served my young mother and father on their nights out.

Saturdays, we walk to the city market and purchase what we do not cultivate, prepare meals that we consume in erotic candlelight, after (or during) which our passions prostrate us on every horizontal surface in every room and on the mattress under the mirrored bedroom ceiling that reflects us.  Forsaking contrition, we attend Holy Rosary, where my parents were married, my siblings baptized.

A year into the relationship, Terry admits to being of a different mind, that he is agnostic, and stops accompanying me to church. We lug our dirty clothes to the neighborhood Laundromat and pay fifty cents a load to wash, a quarter to dry. Terry continues to teach art at the junior high school and I, in my spare time, take up painting. I, too, am developing a mind of my own.

Angelo’s exterior staircase and the balcony of the third floor – Harrison Street-side apartment. Photo credits to Christopher J. Calcara.

 

When the moment arrives during construction to decide which units the brothers will take for their homes, Angelo sacrifices the larger quarters on the upper floor to Domenico so as to be closer to the business in the apartment atop the stairs beyond the storeroom. To this end, Domenico orders a graceful archway in the stonework on the north side of the store window to accommodate a door. From the street, he wants a private entrance and steps to rise conveniently to his second-floor apartment, as those behind the storeroom lead to Angelo’s.

Angelo maintains that a set of stairs plopped in the middle of the business would gobble up important shop space and reduce the efficiency and value of the property. A more suitable place for the staircase, he argues, is on the exterior wall of the building, around the corner from Domenico’s gaping hole. And so he has a doorway built on the second level where he thinks the outside stairs should terminate.

 

In telling her chapter of the story, my mother’s mother said of her uncles’ obstinacy, “Teste dure.” Hard heads.

Terry maintained that middle schoolers are the most difficult to teach, at the age when their hormones rage, their stubborn independence flares. And yet, accepting of their worst and coaxing their best, he was adored. Often, projects he and his students produced in class came home and we decorated the apartment with them. For an academic art magazine, I wrote a piece that described how they fabricated abstract wall hangings from carpet samples and scraps. When the school year ended, we used these masterpieces to softly line the old van and protect Terry’s works in transit. I attributed authorship of that essay to him to embellish his curriculum vitae. I regret it to this day. It was the first of my literary writing to be published, and I have no record of it now. Even if I did, it would not bear my name. Rest assured, my left-handed portrait bears his.

 

In anger, Angelo and Domenico board up their hollow signatures on 522. Construction halts while the brothers bicker over placement of the Harrison Street-side staircase to the second floor.

 

If Terry had ever feared his identity being veiled by me, my family or 522, the opposite came to be true. As his art obsessed him, and I assumed the role of apprentice, I became the still life hiding among his vivid canvases. In awe of his artistic talent, of which I despaired of having any, I let this wonderment eclipse me and my own skills. My immature worship sketched me in his silhouette, but only so long. When I began to paint, I began to grow.

Unquestionably, Terry was gifted. In the words of author Edmund White, “To watch a genius at work is the highest civilized pleasure.” On the contrary, to endure his theatrics is the lowest form of entertainment.

He was insecure, aloof, forgetful and changeable as a mood ring. Conditioned to listening for mice in the walls, given to casting sidelong glances and bending reality to thwart the suspicious wife, he had long searched for domestic tranquility in the muted, somber tones of winter, which he preferred over fluorescent ones of other seasons. While this tempered his emotional paint pots, it left him personally with a rather meager palette. As a result, much of his work was dark and foreboding.

Hot-blooded and Latin, autumn had always been my favorite season, with its ripe burgundies, mustards and pumpkins. Living with Terry, like a pet that resembles its beloved master, I came to adopt his preferences, unknowingly hunting for harmony myself. As our days and weeks lengthened into months and years, we behaved more like dogs marking their territories than men in love.

 

If they couldn’t reach agreement on something as basic as a set of stairs, brothers Angelo and Domenico concluded they could never be partners. For years, their last words to each other were:

“Non si sa nulla di affari.” You don’t know anything about business.

“Non si sa nulla.” You don’t know anything.

Unwilling to resolve their differences, Angelo had a staircase built around the corner from the storefront window that beamed beside the frowning archway, which Domenico plugged with a frame and a door without a knob or keyhole. Then they put the building up for sale.

My father’s father bought 522 Harrison for his own growing family and butchering business. He mounted six mailboxes on the panels of the infamous door, one for each apartment and one for the store. And that’s how 522 remained for decades.

 

It was in our mailbox months after moving in that I found the newspaper with its notice of Terry’s divorce from Ellen. He had lied. After filing, she kicked him out and he came to me – still legally married. I was furious. Suddenly 522, and all the intense pigment we had restored to it, went stark black and white with the untruth. I now saw objects that were his and objects that were mine, nothing that was ours. When before everyday events were adventures, punctuated by commas or exclamations, each now ended dully with a period.

Terry was sincerely, tearfully sorry. I forgave. We had sex somewhere in the apartment. Life went on, but the cracks in the relationship grew as deep and wide and prescient as those yawning holes in my uncles’ building.

Our resentful, possessive tendencies resounded as reliably as clicks in a time bomb. I can’t tell you what made us that way, whether it was the notion, from my point of view. that if he cheated on his wife, he’d cheat on me. Or from his perspective, if I’d sleep with him while he was married, I’d sleep with anybody. Either way, detonation seemed constantly imminent. We blamed each other for our garish troubles: him for my indigo blue discontent, me for his remorseful maroon divorce.

In Victorian times, our unspoken feelings might have been expressed to each other in the language of flowers. A yellow carnation from me would say to him, “You have disappointed me.” An asphodel bouquet from him would say to me, “Carry my regrets to your grave.” Did he wish that he were back with Ellen, as early on with her he lamented not being with me?

I never fully trusted Terry again after that first big lie, and I know he felt completely unstable with me, especially at 522. We separated many times over one idiotic argument or another, and on several occasions, he packed up the van and moved in with a fellow teacher.

I, on the other hand, had nowhere to go, having lost or given up friends he did not like or want to be part of our lives, felt threatened by, as he was by my early juvenile amusements of smoking pot and getting high. It was Terry who got me started on cigarettes, and it took me years to quit them, but marijuana transported me away from him and, therefore, was forbidden.

When you lose faith in someone, his every uncontrolled move is a case study, dissected time and again on a slide under the microscope, and to what end? Without a control variable, there is no change. And without change, there can be no cure. If we fought, and there were fights, he would invade my personal journals to infect my thoughts and record his own snide, convoluted prescriptions in the margins: “Just because you heard it happened doesn’t mean it happened.”

Alone at the sporadic pauses during which we lived apart, I suspected him of being with other men. He phoned once to forewarn me that in the course of an earlier separation, he found himself cavorting in the swimming pool of a wealthy female patron of his art and had acquired a common sexual infection. I didn’t believe him – that he had intercourse with a woman.

The red-hot obsession that bound us to one another like match to flame was doused on its mad getaway down the stairs, out and into the atmosphere, into the world of others, trailing the bitter smell of burnt sulfur in its wake.

After three years together at 522, I decided to leave Terry. Boxing up my belongings, I prepared to move out of my family’s cherished edifice, anxious to shed the shadows, particularly his and mine.

Why was it, I grieved, that partnerships forged at 522 Harrison could not coalesce?

Curse or coincidence?

“It’s like a business,” my father said to us the Saturday he came for the rent, and to convince me that I must stay in the apartment, that Terry should be the one to vacate. “Sometimes partners just don’t get along.”

From experience, in a business transaction gone sour, he knew this to be true. After Terry walked out of our home, betrayed and wounded, Dad told me, “Do you really think I’d let him stay here without you?”

I remained another lonely Christmas. Then I decommissioned the teapot, completely emptied the rooms of our lives and went my separate way. 

My father eventually sold 522 for a song to a foreigner who barely spoke English. The new owner disguised the bricks under a dreary paint that extinguished its old-world charm and made it look even less significant than time has a way of doing by itself.  A string of ethnic endeavors engaged the storefront to serve the neighborhood, as its residents changed gradually and almost imperceptibly over the years. For all I know, Middle Eastern refugees or some aimless aboriginal tribe may be the present nomads.

I can pinpoint exactly the moment Terry and I split apart, the second in which fate malformed two distinct embryos from the one zygote. It happened when I stopped framing for him and began painting for myself, and when he said to me, “You’re not an artist. You haven’t been trained.” As if he were telling a wife where she belongs, her place not remotely synonymous or as relevant as his.

But it’s true, of course. I had not studied art as he had. I could never teach it. The most I could do was copy what I saw, and that made my expression sheer imitation, me a dabbler. Without being invited, I stormed a door that he had earned the right to pass through. For him the journey inspired a life’s labors. For me, the door led nowhere.

 

Christopher J. Calcara: Following an education and degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, he worked eight years in the field of advertising and public relations in Kansas and Missouri creating marketing campaigns for businesses and institutions featured in both print and broadcast media.

He has written in fiction and semi-fiction genres, which include short stories, memoirs, poetry, plays and novels. He has collaborated with composers to write plays with musical scores. Joan is one such musical play that vividly portrays the triumphs and tragedies in the life of Joan of Arc. A portion of its book, music and lyrics was performed in 2002 under his own direction at the “Living Room,” Kansas City’s original entertainment/talk show.

Christopher was one of eight authors, and the only Charleston writer, to win the 2011 South Carolina Arts Commission Fiction Project for his short story “Truckers,” published online in the fall of 2012 by Sandlapper Magazine.

He moved from the Midwest to Phoenix, Arizona in 2004, from Phoenix to Sarasota, Florida in 2007, from Florida to Charleston, South Carolina in 2010, where he was a member of the Lowcountry Creative Writing Forum. He returned to Kansas City in 2012. Each of these locations greatly inspired and informed his work, but there’s no place like home.

Rick 13 (2)

Picking up the Story in 2010: Coming Out LGBT in Springfield

My own story of engaging Springfield with LGBT concerns begins the same year that you, after years of navigating this town’s prohibitions and silences, started your new life in Florida.  I arrived in Springfield in 2002 when I took a job teaching British Romantic literature at your alma mater, Wittenberg University, but I didn’t get caught up in LGBT activism for some years.  The coincidence of timing—your packing up in 2010 and my stepping out more publicly that same year—makes me wonder if we both hit a similar breaking point from being lesbian and gay in a town that discouraged our visibility, that offered a warm reception and helpful services as long as parts of who we are remained a private matter.

My own breaking point was accelerated when a friend, who teaches in the public school system, shared with me why he chooses to keep his sexuality and his long-time partner concealed from his co-workers.  He said that he had a good working relationship with the principal at his school, but because principals change from time to time, he had no guarantees that his security would continue.  Under those circumstances, the risks of living openly as a gay man weighed more heavily on him than the benefits.  At one level, his life and mine were similar:  We were both educators in Springfield.  But at another level, our lives were very different.  I taught at a school that, besides including “sexual orientation” in its nondiscrimination policy, valued the perspective that my interest in gender and sexuality brought to a literature classroom.  Not only would I not be penalized for being gay, but I also stood a chance of being appreciated for it. What’s more, Wittenberg has been generous enough to provide my spouse with benefits once we could demonstrate—in the absence of a marriage license—that our lives were, in fact, intertwined.  Meanwhile, my friend in the public school lived much of his day managing a careful boundary between his work life and his home life. He also lived with the very reasonable fear that, regardless of how discrete he managed to be, he was always one homophobic parent away from losing a teaching career in this community.

 

A Springfield Coming Out, Part 1:  Putting It in Print

I’d known that conditions like these existed, but my friend’s account made the problem more intensely visible and personal for me in 2010.  Not knowing how to address the problem but nonetheless feeling some compulsion to try something, I wrote an editorial for the Springfield News-Sun with the aim of making the hidden struggles of some friends and neighbors more visible.  Their struggle, so far as I can tell, is very similar to your struggle.  For you, it was the Catholic school, the Catholic Church, and your Springfield community that held your sexuality hostage, sending you the message that acceptance and support was contingent: “You can be loved and nurtured,” Springfield seems to say, “as long as you don’t live your truth as a lesbian woman—or, at the very least, as long as you have the discretion to avoid living that truth so openly that children might see.” 

Of course, there’s no way to live in this arrangement without also validating the sense that we are corrupt in some way.  It’s a self-limiting message that can come from family, from the workplace, and from community groups.  Regrettably, the church or the mosque is almost always the most powerful and the most efficient messenger of such lessons.  Few people utter an anti-gay sentiment in these parts without quoting Paul or Leviticus shortly thereafter.

I wasn’t sure how to push back against these messages, so I started by asking readers of the editorial to reflect on our community by taking stock of the kinds of human diversity they could see in their city as well as the kinds of diversity they could not.  One conclusion was obvious.

Regardless of your chosen avenue, one dimension of Springfield’s diversity is conspicuously hidden, namely the gay, lesbian, and transgender Springfielders.

To get some sense of the peculiar silence of this group, just compare our city to those other urban centers along I-70, Dayton and Columbus, both of which offer annual pride festivals, community centers for sexual minorities, openly gay elected officials and active organizations for gay citizens (as well as their parents and friends).

Yes, we’re a smaller place than those cities, but something is surely amiss when we come up with blanks in all of the above categories.

(“Springfield Gays Shouldn’t Feel that They Need To Hide,” Springfield News Sun 7/10/10)

That editorial may not have changed a lot of minds about public policy, but it certainly brought an end to my own invisibility in Springfield.  Up to that point, I’d shared my sexual orientation with work colleagues but not with everyone in my church or in my community service activities.  That editorial also marked the start of a long and hard education about the potential and limitations of grass roots activism, as well as the possibilities and impediments within more institutional kinds of power in town, be it ecclesiastical, political, municipal, or social.  There have been good lessons, not the least of which being that Springfielders have an itch for community engagement to a degree that other towns do not enjoy.  Friends began sharing with me that the editorial had stirred up conversations at their workplaces and at dinner parties.  Then, a few weeks after that editorial appeared, a second letter found its way into the Springfield News-Sun, this one by the mother of a gay son.

For anyone who missed his article, Mr. Incorvati spoke of being gay, and, in particular, being gay in Springfield. It was so gratifying to read his courageous article, obviously written for every gay and lesbian person who has wanted to say those same words, but who is unable to come forth with the courage to do so.

(“Mother of Gay Son:  Tolerance the Least We Should Give,” Springfield News Sun, 8/7/10)

The mother who wrote this editorial, along with others interested in organizing, eventually created Equality Springfield, the city’s first LGBT advocacy organization.  In the weeks and months that followed, the group sprung a set of bylaws, elected a raft of officers, earned its non-profit bona fides from the IRS, and set about the work of helping lesbian, gay, and transgender people feel more at home in this part of the state.  Since then, Equality Springfield has become widely known and a regular presence in the city’s cultural life.Rick 1

We co-sponsor the Farmers Market, set up a booth at a City Hall’s Culture Fest, host (along with partner churches) the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus for an annual holiday concert, and keep an active presence on social media with 1,200 Facebook followers and counting.

 

A Springfield Coming Out, Part 2:  Feeling the Blowback

Not everyone has been thrilled by our presence. Over the past five years, we’ve seen the other side of Springfield.  The narrowness.  The bigotry.  The fear mongering.  LGBT people still leave our town for more affirming communities to call home, more welcoming places where they can devote their talents, time, and energy, and they do this for good reason.  As much as many of us activist types are pleased to see signs of progress, we still get tired of it all and talk about leaving the place behind.  My partner and I are better situated than most LGBT people by far, but we get weary of the bigotry, disgusted with the tactics of conservative clergy, and exasperated by the irrational fears that pass for prophecy in some circles.

We know full well why you left here.  You had good reason.

One of the early indications of inhospitable feelings toward LGBT visibility surfaced, of all days, on Mother’s Day in 2011, when the Springfield News-Sun printed a feature story about a lesbian couple, Becky Hall and Jodi Curnutte, both of whom were softball coaches at Wittenberg.  The article seemed innocent enough, recounting the steps in the couple’s adoption of their daughter, Donyale, who was seven at the time the story appeared.

 A few days later, in June 2009, Hall met Donyale at Chuck E. Cheese’s in Springfield.

“I fell in love with her at first sight,” Hall said. “She was just a lovable, bright-eyed, active, intelligent little girl who would match really well with our family.”

Hall sent Curnutte a photo of Donyale with the message, “By the way, she’s coming to our house tomorrow.” Hall kept telling Curnutte Donyale was a perfect match.

“And when I met her,” Curnutte said, “I couldn’t have agreed more.”

Donyale stayed with them that weekend, and then the next weekend, and the weekend after that, until they had to coach at a softball tournament in Hawaii. When they returned, they brought Donyale into their home for good.

(“Adoption Changes Life for Wittenberg Softball Coach” Springfield News Sun 5/8/11)

The story struck some readers as heart warming.  Others took the story much less favorably. Faithful and long-standing readers of the News-Sun threatened to discontinue subscriptions at a time when print journalism was facing an uncertain future and when the paper’s staff had already been downsized.  Becky, Jodi, and Donyale’s story moved into new territory for this community—and it struck some landmines.

This is not the West Coast or New York. This is Middle America. We do not want to see articles about homosexuals on Mother’s Day or any other day. Keep that trash out of the paper.

What kind of newspaper do we have when on Mother’s Day you have an article on a couple of lesbians. It was a slap to the face of real mothers. You hit a new low.

(Speak Up Editorials, Springfield News Sun 5/11/11)

People that I knew at the newspaper expected some negative response but were surprised by the outrage that flew at them.  For Equality Springfield, the blowback was an indication of developments to come, developments that would emerge when the group began asking questions that had not been asked before.

 

A Springfield Coming Out, Step 3:  Learning about City Hall and Its Ties with the Conservative Church

In 2011, members of the group coordinated a campaign for the inclusion of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance.  We expected some resistance, but most of us were naïve in assuming that only voices on the fringe of our community would actually defend the right to fire, evict, or deny services to someone on the basis of sexual orientation.  It turned out, in fact, we were the fringe. 

The liberty to discriminate against LGBT people was a right that a good many Springfielders had no inclination to part with.  Perhaps these anti-gay voices don’t accurately represent the community as a whole.  It’s tough to say with certainty.  What is certain is that these voices represented many of the people who were willing to make a trip to City Hall, to send furious emails and make multiple phone calls to their commissioners, and to write indignant letters to the paper.  In my better moods, I tell myself that more moderate, more thoughtful, and more progressive Springfielders were interested in the community conversation as well, but were just more apt to go out for Indian food than to participate.  In any case, we learned a tough lesson about the motivational power of outrage.  We also had one of our strong suspicions confirmed: We should not consider the option of a popular vote to secure rights for LGBT people in the city.Rick 2

There were also some hard lessons in that first year of work about the way local politicians would deal with upstart advocacy organizations like ours, organizations that had little history in the town and even less clout.  It wasn’t too long before we had a good fix on where our City Commissioners stood on LGBT matters.  We knew that if the votes were there to make any change in current policy, the issue would have made its way onto City Hall’s agenda.  It neverRick 3 did.  Two of the Commission’s five members stated their support for including “sexual orientation” in the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance:  They were Mayor Warren Copeland and Commissioner Karen Duncan. The remaining three commissioners did what many politicians do in an election year:  They refused to move the issue forward while relying publicly on expressions like “I’m still thinking about this very important issue.” 

Meanwhile, we knew from scuttle in the community that Joyce Chilton wasn’t thinking it over (“Not in a million years,” was her private comment that made its way to us); we suspected from party affiliation that Dan Martin, the sole Republican on the Commission, would not have an easy time being a deciding vote; and we received word from many sources not to trust Kevin O’Neill, a commissioner with a reputation for being a power broker and a manipulator, a guy who takes his lead from the Greek heroic code, who likes to cultivate alliances and dispense with those who cannot be of use to him.  LGBT advocates fall to the latter category, and in the buildup to his re-election, his tack was to keep his enemies happy with encouraging but hollow commitments.

It is important that we add to the ordinance protection for the GLBT community, not only in the workplace & with housing, but also within other areas of our community. It must go further. I can’t emphasize enough my position on bullying of our kids, physically & online. That is paramount to me & certainly to Joyce. I know it’s easy to say,”Patience is a virtue,” & “Good things come to he who waits,” but I have seen those old cliches proven to be true time & again. Let’s continue the dialog. As long as we keep talking, good things will happen.

(Kevin O’Neill email correspondence, 5/3/11)

O’Neill eventually voted against the inclusion of LGBT people in the city’s nondiscrimination policy.  By the time the commissioners finally voted on inclusion of “sexual orientation” on Feburary 28th, 2012, his opposition was no surprise.  At an earlier City Commission meeting in September of 2011, when Commissioner Martin moved to send the issue to committee for six months, we recognized the intent to delay the vote until after the election, when O’Neill would be safe from any fallout we could create.

What we didn’t anticipate was the extent to which O’Neill was courting the conservative churches in town, leading up to his election, spreading word that he would send the gays packing if they voted for him.

What we also didn’t anticipate—it’s safe to say we were blindsided—was the extent to which some of the largest churches in Springfield, white and black churches, would coordinate their opposition to rights for LGBT people.

That capacity, the willingness of clergy to don their clerical collars and reverend titles while playing power politics has been the hardest development for me personally to accept.  Commissioner O’Neill manipulates and works situations to his personal advantage, but because he is a politician, I’m inclined to give him a pass.  No one likes being burned, but then we also come to expect, and maybe event accept, doublespeak from politicians. Call me naïve, but I’m less prepared to excuse clergy who go to work in the same fashion, smiling and speaking of God’s love while they stir their congregations with misbegotten fears about gay men coming after their children.  This is the sort of ugliness in Springfield that makes it difficult for some of us to use expressions like “hometown” with the unambiguous affection that we would like to feel.

Rick 4The church opposition to workplace and housing protections had four components leading up to the City Commission’s vote.  The first step was to bring in a strategist.  The expert of choice in Ohio is Phil Burress of Citizens for Community Values, the largest anti-LGBT organization in the state, and his arriving in town to meet with City Commissioners and with the conservative church community stirred up interest.  Excited by a scheduled visit from the preeminent tactician of anti-gay politics, the Clark County Tea Party got on board and shared word with people on its roster.

On October 31, 2011 at 6:30 p.m., I ask that you join us with Mr. Phil 
Burress, who is from Cincinnati. He is the president of CCV (Citizens for
 Community Values). He will be coming to our church (Springfield Church
 of Christ) to help us organize to help us defeat this immoral ordinance. At the last meeting we were out numbered three to one. So
 Christians, Men of Faith, and Women of Faith, it is time for us to be COURAGEOUS, and stand against evil, we can be silent no more. Please pray about your decision. Our city depends on it.

(Email correspondence for the Clark County Tea Party, 10/15/11).

Despite his celebrity status, Burress belongs to that ever-growing list of conservative Christian ironies.  At one level, his disgust with LGBT people is couched within the language of preserving the family.  Here’s how the Citizens for Community Values puts it on their website.

[W]e believe that the campaign, the militant agenda, of homosexual activist organizations threatens the emotional and physical health, indeed, the very life, of those trapped in such behavior. That agenda also represents one of the greatest threats to our traditional Judeo-Christian family values, and to societal stability as a whole, of our generation.

(“Where We Stand,” www.ccv.org)

But, lo and behold, this great defender of the family is also a recovering porn addict, who is now into his third marriage.  (My partner and I, together for 21 years, do enjoy the irony of Burress labeling us “the greatest threat to traditional Judeo-Christian family values.”)  None of the staunch “defenders of family” in Springfield or in any other community has, to my knowledge, raised questions about Burress’s credibility as a guardian of the family.  Questionable credentials notwithstanding, he remains the unquestioned leader of Ohio’s Christian conservatives interested in docking the value of LGBT people. 

His record is impressive.  In addition to serving on the board of Exodus International (the now defunct reparative therapy outfit), Burress was the strategist, who added a marriage inequality amendment to the state constitution, and he iss the mind behind the repeal of nondiscrimination policies in Cincinnati.  No wonder, then, that his dance card is filled with visits to conservative congregations ready to absorb what he has to offer, congregations like those he found in Springfield.

Around the same time as Burress came to Springfield, a number of churches got involved in our municipal election.  In 2011, Commissioner O’Neill was in a contest against another Democratic candidate, Richard Spangler, who openly supported an LGBT nondiscrimination policy.  In some communities, churches may be cautious about non-profit guidelines that prohibit involvement in politics, but in Springfield, the local election, the homosexual agenda, and “the greatest threat to our traditional Judeo-Christian family values” became the stuff of Sunday sermons.  At Springfield’s largest church, First Christian Church, Rev. Craig Grammer spoke in plain terms.

I’ve researched this issue with our five city commissioners.  There are two who want to adopt this special language.  There are three who do not want to adopt this special language.  Of the three who do not want to adopt this special language, there is one running for re-election, Kevin O’Neill. Kevin O’Neill is running against a guy by the name of Richard Spangler [. . . .] I called them both and said I’ve got hundreds, I’ve got thousands, a couple thousand people.  We’ve got pastors all over the community who are interested in this.  What say you? [. . .] 

I’ve had three conversations with Kevin O’Neill as we’ve navigated in this dialogue.  I’ve probably spent a good hour and a half on the phone with him.  There is nothing that he has told me that leads me to believe that he would vote for changing this ordinance.  Everything that he said to me, man, leads me to believe . . . Now could he change his mind?  He could, and I will hold him personally responsible if he does.  But the bottom line is that everything he told me leads me to believe that he would not adopt this special language.

                        (“Watchman at the Gate,” Sermon on 10/30/11)

This is the word of God in some congregations in Springfield.  Yes, there is good reason why a lot of LGBT people keep a safe distance between themselves and anything that looks like a pulpit.

Rev. Grammer’s reference to “pastors all over the community who are interested” may have been a reference to yet another show of opposition in the works:  Right about the same time as this pre-election day sermon, twenty-five area clergy signed a petition asking city leaders not to protect LGBT people from firing and eviction.

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The fact that many of these congregations were large and influential was noteworthy, but the most dispiriting aspect of this petition was seeing the clergy stoop to the point where the itch for power overwhelmed any misgivings they might have about bearing false witness.

City Commission of Springfield, Ohio

The pastors who have signed this letter would ask the City Commission to not adopt the discrimination policy that is now in committee that expands the city’s discrimination policy to protect those of any “sexual orientation.”

We believe the city’s current policy is more than adequate for protection of all citizens against discrimination.  We also want to affirm that this “pending change” is not state or national policy and that there have been no cases of discrimination because of “sexual orientation” known in Springfield, Ohio.

(Letter dated 11/11/11)

There have been a number of moments across five years of LGBT advocacy that have the power to twist up my stomach, but none match this one.  All the invisibility of my lesbian and gay friends, all their hiding, all their personal risks, their fears in the workplace, all their self-doubt and self-loathing, all the imbibed signs of illegitimacy that Springfield offered its LGBT citizens was being taken advantage of by religious leaders, leaders who could have no reasonable conviction that what they signed their names to was actually true.  No cases of LGBT discrimination in Springfield?  Really? 

How about the minister who put his name to this petition, but who is also on record at City Hall saying that he did not want to rent his property to gay people because of what they would do in the bedroom?  Did he believe the statement about no cases of discrimination?  So far, I only have one explanation for this kind of misrepresentation, and it’s not a pretty one:  The degree of truth in this statement was less relevant to these ministers than their realization that no one of any importance in Springfield was likely to call them on their shoddy reasoning.  True, some LGBT advocates might make a stink about baseless claims, but the probability of their objections leading to any consequence in Springfield was nil.

These are tough memories to process, but there’s one more point to make before setting this ugly petition aside.  It’s an obvious point.

Before being convinced that “there have been no cases of discrimination,” these ministers didn’t look anywhere for evidence.  If these clergy, these members of the body of Christ, these representatives of the Kingdom of God, did have a single living concern for anyone LGBT, if any of them had bothered to ask the Springfield Police Department to provide them with reports of anti-gay activity in the last ten years, then these stories would have surfaced.

On September 17, 2000, a 47-year-old man was assaulted near a Kroger store on Derr Road. Two suspects “pulled up in a dark car, got out yelling ‘faggot,’ and began beating him with their fists.” The two suspects drove away, and the complainant was taken to Mercy Hospital for treatment.

On September 21, 2000, a 28-year-old man was walking down W. Main St. when a suspect drove by, called the man’s name, and offered to give him a ride. After the complainant got into the car, the suspect drove to Memorial Dr. where he stopped. “The suspect got out, pulled the complainant out of the car, tearing his clothes. The suspect then grabbed the complainant by the throat and threw him to the ground. The suspect said, ‘I’m not through with you, faggot,’ and drove away.”

On June 24, 2008, a 39-year-old woman was assaulted while walking to her home from the Night Gallery Lounge on Mitchell Blvd. The complainant reports hearing a “female voice say  ‘Lesbian,’ and then she was struck from behind.” She fell down an embankment and was partially submerged in water. She was unable to free herself but was able to contact two friends with her cell phone. When these friends arrived, they “found her on the east side of [Buck Creek] just south of Mitchell on her side and face partially submerged.” They were unable to free her. A medic unit arrived, removed her from the bank, and took her to Mercy Hospital. The woman reported that “she could not feel her legs and that her head was hurting.”

On the morning of October 11, 2008, a homecoming parade float prepared by the Wittenberg University Gay/Straight Alliance was set on fire. The fire was set around 1:30 a.m. and was eventually extinguished by the Fire Rescue Department. The GSA president reported that the group’s banner was saved from the fire but that the rest of the vehicle was lost resulting in a reported $1,200 in damage.

On March 1, 2009, a 14-year-old was assaulted at a party that took place on Lincoln Park Circle. A witness confirmed that 5 teenage males attending the party hit and kicked the victim. The witness reported that “they were accusing him of being homosexual throughout the night, and she thought that might be why they were assaulting him.”

On October 19, 2010, a 16-year-old woman was assaulted by 19-year-old male who knew that the woman was a lesbian and who found her sexual orientation offensive. She reported that, while at a Sunset Ave. location, he “forcibly grabbled her around her throat and began choking her as he ‘slammed her onto the stairs.’” A witness to these events also attributed the violence to the suspect’s disgust with the victim’s sexual orientation.

While I would like to think that reading these accounts would have had some impact on the clergy, I have my doubts.  After all, Commissioners Chilton, Martin, and O’Neill had this information, and they found it easy enough to vote against protecting LGBT people in their city.  Members of the Springfield NAACP are also familiar with this history of cases, but the organization refuses to advocate for LGBT rights.  Ministers who were key in kick starting our local NAACP chapter, by the way, also signed the letter.

Lastly, many of us looked on as pastors motivated their followers with fear tactics and misrepresentation.  The notable among these ministers is Rev. Bill Warax at Springfield Church of Christ, a man who can use the slippery slope logic to bring down the apocalypse from the slightest act of tolerance.

I believe that LBGT behaviors . . . are destructive to the dual base of our community: the family and the individual. . . . Wise discrimination in personal association based on legitimate beliefs is a virtue, not a hate crime. A hate crime is exposing my children to sexual behaviors that are unrestrained and openly approved. . . . Special status for choice and behavior actually opens a Pandora’s box for legalization of all manner of aberrant personal behaviors: pedophilia, incest, public transgender activity, etc. . . . I, as a parent of one elementary school and one high school child, do NOT want homosexual behaviors or the choice of same sex liaisons held out as acceptable and healthy options. . . . We wouldn’t tolerate any other approach that puts our children at high risk of disease, death, or psychological trauma—why would we do so in this matter? . . . Approval of the choice to be LBGT would also grant special rights to those practicing apotemnophilia, cropophilia, exhibitionism, frotteurism, gerontosexuality, incest, kleptophilia, klismaphilia, necrophilia, pedophilia, prostitution, sexual masochism, toucherism, voyeurism, and bestiality.”

(Written correspondence to the City Commission, 11/14/)

But Rev. Warrax is, for all of his ungrounded claims, one of the most likeable warriors in the conservative ranks, in part because (I think) he is sincere about all that he says.  I cannot say the same thing for his colleague Rev. Grammer.  When he told an audience that the addition of “sexual orientation” to the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance could lead to men in dresses teaching third graders and taking them to the bathroom, he knew what he was up to.  He knew he could play on trans-phobia, homophobia, and fear of pedophilia to create a strong reaction—and he did it, pleased with his effectiveness and apparently unconcerned about the consequences of validating disgust in fellow human beings.  If rhetorical techniques gave a few more people license to express their own disgust more passionately and directly, well perhaps that’s just a consequence of doing the Lord’s work in this fallen world.

And there were times during public debate at City Hall when those in attendance took their cues from their pastors and let the venom flow freely.  If the good pastor said it, they seemed to believe, then it must be true, and if the pastor shows that it’s valid to show disgust, then it must be a righteous moment when others give vent to the same impulse.  Here’s the experience of sitting in City Hall captured by an audience member, who sent her account to the Commissioners.

While taking notes on the proceedings of Monday night’s meeting, my attention was consistently drawn (diverted really) to the family sitting in the row behind me. Their casual comments to each other were so venomous, and so loudly shared, that I found myself transcribing more of their words than those issued from the podium . . . [They laughed] as a young teacher (also a lesbian), tears dripping down her face, stated that she has been made to feel like a ‘second-class citizen.’ ‘Good,’ one in the row behind me answered. On more than one occasion, when a speaker would claim that they have had to leave or are trying to leave Springfield because of the intolerance and discrimination they faced or are facing, the crowd behind me would answer ‘good riddance.’ Any speaker that would identify him or herself as a homosexual would immediately elicit groans of ‘disgusting,’ and ‘it’s a sin, it’s a sin.”

(Written correspondence to the Springfield City Commission from 11/17/11)

 

A Springfield Coming Out, Step 4:  Remedying Stagnant Policies with Social Change

Since you’ve left Springfield, we’ve seen very little by way of encouraging policy developments. On February 28th, 2012, the City Commission voted predictably in a 2-3 split to deny workplace and housing protection to LGBT people.  More positively, the Springfield Fire Rescue, of its own accord just this past year, made “sexual orientation” a protected category in its nondiscrimination policy.  The Police and the teachers still do not have such protection, though there are gay and lesbian people serving our community in those departments.

In the least welcome development, Kyle Koehler, a local business owner who strongly opposes protections for “sexual orientation,” has moved into a new role.  Koehler first came to many of our attentions when, as the first to speak at a public forum, he explained his desire to keep gay people and their sexual practices, as he puts it, away from his family-owned business, K and K Tool.  Since that day in 2011, he earned the Republican nomination for State Representative, received an endorsement from Phil Burress’s Citizens for Community Values, and went on to win the general election.  He now works in the Ohio Statehouse where he has made headlines for expressing his support for the sort of religious liberty legislation that got Indiana’s statehouse in hot water not long ago.

But all is not dire and dreadful.  If you’ll let us just bracket for a moment the mixed bag of policy inaction and anti-gay political office holders, we can show you changes outside of City Hall worthy of celebration.  A youth group called SAY IT now meets once a week in town to give community and encouragement to gender nonconforming teens and their friends, the list of welcoming churches grows a little more each year (I’d put the current tally somewhere between eight and ten congregations), and Equality Springfield continues to go about its work of establishing a positive visible presence for LGBT people in this area.  Some efforts have had a modest impact—the LGBT Documentary Film Series had great screenings with mediocre audiences—but we’ve also dreamed up some winning events. 

In 2014, Equality Springfield recognized Pride Month with five billboards around in the downtown area, each one drawing attention to the LGBT presence in Springfield as well as to the city’s policy shortcomings, and all Rick 7of them were made possible by the support of Diesel, a local nightclub, and their drag performers, who donated time to some successful fundraisers.  One billboard, with Commissioner Karen Duncan calling for an expanded nondiscrimination policy, received loads of feedback (positive and negative) as well as welcomed newspaper coverage.

 

Rick 8This year, the billboard campaign returned with five new designs, and, in what is probably Equality Springfield’s proudest moment, we’ve gone and pulled off Springfield’s first Pride Celebration at City Hall Plaza with the help of Diesel and JR’s Why Not III, another watering hole in town.  Maybe the day felt so good because it all came together despite four years of disappointment leading up to the day.  Whatever the cause, a warm sun shined its light on Springfield when June 13th, 2015, came—and it did the heart great good to see drag performers pulling in an audience a few yards from where, a few years earlier, an ugly and unconscionable vote degraded a lot of people.

Rick 10More than a few of us are still feeling the excitement of a Springfield Pride Festival, which went so well in a community that has shown its ambivalence—and occasionally, its hostility—to LGBT residents.  Protests?  We didn’t have any.  Someone put bubbles in a fountain at City Hall the night before the festival, but no one suspects a bad element behind that gesture. 

I’m taking the lack of protest as a sign of Springfield’s better nature.  Yes, the people who oppose expanded rights for LGBT people—or who even disapprove of those who identify as LGBT in the first place—are capable of manipulation and fear                                                            mongering.  But the city has shown that there’s space, even in the heart of downtown, for all kinds of celebrations.  Rick 11That’s a gain of decent sorts.

And, yes, we’ve reserved City Hall Plaza for 2016, 2017 and 2018.  We invite you to visit at some point when Pride is in full bloom.  For the time being, we’re still working toward a day when we can also say to our relocated LGBT friends, “We hope you’ll move back,” but we’re not that community yet.  We’re a good place to visit, but, if you’re gay, lesbian, or transgender, there are still some better places to put down your roots.

 

 

 

 

 

Rick 12Rick Incorvati is Associate Professor of English at Wittenberg University where he teaches courses in British Romanticism, sexuality, and writing for social justice.  His academic publications have addressed women’s romantic friendships in 18th century-poetry, Thomas Holcroft, and and Walter Scott, and his LGBT advocacy writing has appeared in the Springfield News Sun and the Dayton Daily News.  He is currently serving as president of Equality Springfield and has served on the Board of Directors of Equality Ohio.  He lives in Springfield with his partner of 21 years, Kent Brooks.

*All photo contributions by Rick Incorvati

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The Inspiring Purpose of the Art of War

In the last decade, the whole idea of war has become a very unpopular subject among certain groups. It is possible to attribute that outcome to the publication and captured images of war throughout magazines and television of the last century. Those once unknown facts of violence of war have left the general public in shock, fear and horror. However, in their disgust, the people of the world have forgotten why war is of vital importance to human development.

Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, understood this importance, and my own knowledge of the Art of War itself has impacted my desire to participate in war as a future soldier and officer.  I believe I speak for all warriors, of any historical age, when I say that peace and friendship should always be sought first in any relationship, but knowledge and preparedness for battle is vital if and when one party betrays peace for violence.

I will illustrate, through analysis of the Art of War, that certain ideals, skills and mindsets developed by warriors, and shared with people of the planet, are qualities worth fighting for and why I will spend a career as an officer gladly defending those principles from truly evil people.

One idea that I find important enough to defend, as a principle of war, is the idea of mental will power. Sun Tzu said, “Hence to fight and conquer in all of your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

This means two things: 1, the mark of a truly disciplined and duty bound warrior utilizes peaceful diplomacy if fighting and killing can be avoided, and 2, that a soldier of true strength of will can dominate a weaker adversary in any conflict; including a debate or a war.

Another example of will power, explained by the Art of War, is the teaching of putting yourself, and others, in difficult situations and willing excellence of output to succeed.

In war that is typically a life or death situation. Sun Tzu said, “Soldiers when in desperate straits lose the sense of fear. If there is no place for refuge, they will stand firm.”  That loss of fear and mental realization that you do or die in any situation is how we defeated the British in America’s first war. This iron will, as well as a conscious value of life, is a characteristic that will be with me throughout my military and professional career.  This is a quality of war that most people in the general public do not usually recognize: the value of life and of people in general.

It is obvious that while in the heat of battle an individual soldier is intent on killing his enemies before they kill him. However, the taught responsibility that same soldier has to his comrades, the innocent people he fights to protect, and the enemy soldiers that surrender and ask for mercy is an equally important mentality.  I have seen many of these cases regarding the protection of lives from unnecessary violence more in the Middle East in recent years, such as the U.S. Army helping to rebuild and defend the nation of Afghanistan since 2011.

There is also the virtuous quality of family love and care for people within a military unit. I attribute that to Sun Tzu stating, “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you unto death.”  That ultimate sense of loyalty and care a commander is expected to have for his or her troops is a quality that I would like to see more vibrant in the civilian world instead of criticized by it. A militarily intelligent desire to value life and to protect it from destruction, like protecting the value of liberty, should not be forgotten.

From recent research, as well as a continuous reading into the brilliance of the Art of War, I have discovered that victory in war is accomplished more with the brain before it’s accomplished with physical force. The ability to learn and to grow with our intelligence is why the United States has been victorious in most of the wars it has fought over the ages. To my delight, I have seen the Army practice this Art of War tactic very often, “The quality of decision is like a well-timed swoop of a falcon which enables it to strike and destroy its victim. ”  It is always intelligent to be ahead of the enemy/ahead of the challenge.

What’s also important is that the mindset of soldiers is what achieves victory in the field. I can profess with my constant training in PT, that my mind perceives success before my body gets physically strong. Thus proving the statement by Sun Tzu, “It is in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”

Not only do I find intelligence a privilege and a responsibility to soldier and civilian alike, I also find it to be an honor to have attained intelligence enough to grow in peace and war.

The main reason why I see, and appreciate, war as the great equalizer, is because its natural danger shows which side have the soldiers with honor in the face of fear; that then tells the person studying about the war who are the “Good Guys”.

Much like how the U.S. Army has combated dishonorable terrorists over the last decade, Sun Tzu and the Chinese Army fought the dishonorable barbarian Huns. We know these adversaries to be dishonorable due to the fact that their soldiers targeted innocents and non-combative civilians, without remorse, due to the greed and fanaticism of their commanders.

It is not a secret both America and China have had issues with greedy and fanatical commanders as well, but the educated standard of an officer and commander was never in question.

Sun Tzu said, “His victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage,” to explain that an honorable soldier and commander selflessly serves against a self-serving enemy. The historical capabilities of honor have won victory for these two historical armies and I also shall bring my honor to the table by knowing myself and knowing my enemy.

To conclude, and also to reiterate, my love for The Art of War has made me a passionate warrior that is ready for battle, and not a warlord who seeks power through violence. Those are the people I would like to see decimated from this world. These values worth defending I have taken the time to illustrate are things I have learned from great military commanders that have spanned the centuries. I find that having a military understanding, mixed with whatever profession that creates positive things in this world, is a practice I would like to see in people today, as it has built great men and achieved results. To that end, the Art of War, as a principle, is something I gladly teach to people, and one of the profound reasons why I am honored to be even considered as a U.S. Army officer, so I may have the opportunity to apply the art form in defense of my people, my country and my planet.

 

Alexander Amoroso has been writing since he was 12 and every experience since then has only built his technique. His essay writing in high school put him on Honor Roll through the public school system and then on the Dean’s List at West Valley Community College. In 2010, Alexander completed his first historical non-fiction titled The Art of Human Government, which is being published through Tate Publishing, and is currently published through Amazon Kindle Publishing. As of 2014, Alexander is a published contributing author through Thought Collection Publishing, where he has written titles such as The Death of the American Teenager and From Fate to Destiny. He currently holds two Associate Degree’s in Liberal Arts and History and is pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in History at San Jose State University. With a father and grandfather who have served in the U.S. Air Force, and an older brother and sister who have served in the U.S. Navy, Alexander proudly upholds his family’s heritage and pushes to further the honorable duty to his country as he trains in his local U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program. While in training, his writing and his work has earned recognition by his superiors and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. With a humbled understanding of the gravity of his future career, and having the knowledge of how powerful the pen could be in the right hands, Alexander strives to use his skill as an author, and a future leader, to educate, and inspire, thought, intelligence and confidence in the hearts and minds of his readers.

Killing time with Ipod(1)

Waiting

“I was sitting, waiting, wishing…”

They say war is ninety percent boredom and ten percent sheer terror.

If you ask me, war is also pure misery: humping up and down mountains, covered with sweat in summer or with cold numb hands in winter.  But even though the percentages, 90/10, may be off, that saying expresses the deep truth that war is more about waiting than action.

The question is what do you do with the waiting?  What can you do?  What does the waiting do to you?  The waiting can also be a war in itself.  The anxiety, and the tension, a personal foe as intractable and stubborn as any I faced on the battlefield; one that endured long after the last shot was fired.

When I first deployed to Afghanistan as a platoon leader, I was constantly on edge.  At twenty-three years old, I was in charge of a combat outpost with thirty-five American and twenty Afghan soldiers.  The waiting was agonizing.  When not on patrol I was nervous, anxious about when the next attack would come.  My platoon rarely made contact on patrols, but our base got hit constantly; we were in over 100 engagements in the first three months.

My outpost, called Firebase Vegas, was on the Eastern side of the Korengal Valley.  The Korengal, dubbed the ‘Valley of Death,’ was narrow and remote, flanked by steep, razor-backed mountains, sparsely populated but heavily wooded.  The population was xenophobic, religious, and violent; it was Afghanistan’s Afghanistan.  They fought with neighboring tribes that infringed on their valley; you can imagine how thrilled they were to see us.  Firebase Vegas was located mid-way up the Eastern slope, tucked up against the side of the mountain.  It was built around an old Afghan farmhouse that had been fortified by successive deployments of American Soldiers.

The farmhouse, with stonewalls a foot thick and heavy wooden beams, was a fortress in its own right.  It looked like it could last through anything.  That was in sharp contrast to the half a dozen plywood buildings erected by us Americans.  The wood was still bright, looking both alien and flimsy.  I lived in the farmhouse, in a back room with mud walls near our command post with our radios.  At six foot three, I am a bit taller than the average Afghan, and there were multiple times that I would forget to crouch running out of the door from my room, often due to an attack, and I kept cracking my head on the wooden beam of the door frame.  Was this the farmhouse, in true Pashtun fashion, seeking badal or revenge for the dishonor it felt from being violated by infidels?

The faint outlines of the terraces that had once held crops were visible, but were now enveloped by the accouterments and scenery of war.  The outpost was surrounded by hesco baskets, metal-framed baskets lined with cloth that when filled with dirt can make a ready-made wall.  They were arranged as one might have assembled Legos as a kid making a castle.  A patchwork built to ambitious heights that sagged under the weight of the earth and always seemed to be threatening to collapse.  Large eight foot tall hesco baskets formed the base, but smaller four foot or two foot ones were used to make intricate bunkers and fighting positions on the ramparts. Outside the walls lay rings of concertina wire in razor sharp coils that we almost dared, hoped, the enemy would try to breach, so we could massacre their human waves as if we were fighting in some earlier other war.

The enemy, who were often local Korengalis but were supplemented by fighters from Pakistan, could move into the heights above our outpost, and look down inside the perimeter.  Any patrol leaving the base could be observed, but once we had left the base and moved up the wooded slope the observers would lose track of us.  Unable to pinpoint our movements and afraid of stumbling into us, starting a close-range shootout they couldn’t win, the enemy would fall back as they saw us set out.  Our patrols, loaded down with the things we carried: body armor, ammo, radios, water, batteries, candy to hand to children, and all the other essentials of modern war, were slow and sluggish.  As we struggled up the mountain, the enemy would dance away, just out of reach. Once they saw us come back in the wire though they’d move in to attack our little combat outpost.

We played a cat and mouse game with the enemy from the late summer into the fall.  We planned ambushes and different tricks to kill them as best we could.  Both sides adapted their tactics with a frightening speed borne out of the deadly consequences of failure.  But no matter what we tried, no matter how many of them we killed, the sense that they were always watching, always waiting to strike, never left me.  My soldiers and squad leaders would take naps, watch movies, surf the web in their downtime (yes, even in the most remote corners of Afghanistan you can get on Facebook), but I could never relax; I spent the time between patrols pacing in my command post even if it wasn’t my shift to man the radios.  The most I could force myself to do was listen halfheartedly to my iPod, but I was still alert to the crackling of the radio, the reports trickling in of patrols and intelligence that just might warn of an attack before it hit.  I wouldn’t lower my guard or mentally leave the valley until the sun had set, until the chance of attack had diminished.

I left my platoon after three months.  I moved across the valley to the larger Korengal Outpost (KOP) become the company executive officer (XO).  I didn’t have to go out on patrol as often, and the KOP didn’t get hit as much, but easing up took time.  I started to unwind by watching movies at night, in 30-minute chunks.  It would take me three days or more to finish a single one, but I couldn’t stay awake any longer than that by the time I pressed play. I never let myself have the treat of a movie while there was still work to be done, so I didn’t start until late at night and was waking up before dawn to oversee patrols going out.

Over time, months, I was able to relax a bit during the day, rather than staying glued to the radio awaiting a call for “troops in contact.”  It helped that fighting eased off as we headed into winter.  The base had a small gym that I began to use daily.  My old platoon’s base also had a ‘gym,’ if you could call it that, a plywood platform with a pull-up bar, bench press, and some free weights.  It was uncovered and partially exposed to the mountain, and the enemy.  We didn’t go out there in daylight, only dusk or dawn when the chance of an attack was lowest or at night with a red-lens headlamp.  I never used that gym; my workout was patrol, humping those mountains day in and day out.

However, as the XO I could workout.  I didn’t go out on patrol as much, so there wasn’t the fear that smoking myself in the gym would leave me sore and slow on the mountain.  The gym at the company headquarters was more elaborate.  It was in a building, had squat racks, a rowing machine, and even mirrors the soldiers used to admire themselves with their shirts off, fantasizing of how they’d impress the girls when they went home for leave.

I could also run.  At my platoon’s base we were pressed up against mountain, we couldn’t even get to the latrine during the day without risking getting shot at by enemy gunman hiding in the rocks above the base to the East.  The buildings of the outpost themselves looked like they were trying to hide from the mountain, built up against the earthen walls, only their roofs peaking out. We had to wear body armor inside three-quarters of the base; we couldn’t build the hesco walls high enough to shield us from the mountain.  The company base still got hit, but it was from across the valley, mainly heavy stuff.  DShK heavy machine guns whose gigantic bullets (half an inch wide and nearly as long as your finger) would rip the air just as they’d threaten to rip anyone to pieces who was unlucky enough to get hit. The AGS-17 was a particular menace of mine, shooting bursts of golf-ball sized grenades to thud and pop. Recoilless rifles, an old type of anti-tank weapon, and sometimes a few PKMs, a medium Soviet machine gun, were thrown in for good measure.  Lucky for us it was all coming from 800 meters away or more, too far to really aim at an individual just shoot up our base in general and inshallah hope for the best.

A gravel road ran through the middle of the base.  It went down the hill from the headquarters to the landing zone. It was only a hundred meter straightaway, and half of it was a hill, but it was enough.  My workouts were mainly CrossFit.  Short and intense, to try to fit between missions and meetings, but I gradually expanded to longer sessions. ‘Murph’ became one of my favorites.  Running up and down that hill, seemingly forever, trying to keep track of my laps until I hit one mile. Standing on top of the hill I could look across the valley to the Sawtalo Sar ridgeline and Abas Ghar mountain, gaze at the heights where Lieutenant Murphy and his men had died almost three years before. It would give me a surge of adrenaline, and keep me moving.

Of course there were plenty of times my workout was interrupted, and I got another sort of adrenaline rush.  It always seemed as if I was at the bottom of the hill and almost done with my workout, dragging ass just wanting it to end, when I’d hear the popping in the distance, the automatic weapons fire that always reminded me of woodpeckers back home.  I’d turn and sprint back up the hill to the command post, legs straining, gasping for breath.  Often it would turn out to be a test fire, one of the distant outposts zeroing a rifle or training a new guy how to work an old .50 caliber machine gun, since if I’d thought an attack was likely I wouldn’t have been working out in the first place.

Other times it wasn’t a test fire.  It was one of the platoons, usually at Restrepo that spring, getting hit.  The attacks that came as a complete surprise usually weren’t too bad.  A dozen or so guys lighting up one or two of our outposts.  Shooting would stop almost as soon as it started.  Of course, if you’re the one getting shot at, if rounds are whizzing close, any amount of incoming fire is bad.

The complex attacks, when they hit all our positions simultaneously, usually came with some forewarning.  Sometimes it was intelligence, but often it was just a feeling in the air.  Beautiful days were the worst.  The only rebirth Spring brought was renewed fighting.  The sun would be shining, warming my skin, but a gentle breeze would roll down the valley to make sure I didn’t break a sweat.  It would be a perfect day for a hike, perfect day to shoot at some infidels.  I would just know that the peace of the day couldn’t last.  That they were going to have to hit us, like they didn’t even have a choice in the matter.

The beautiful days I reverted to my platoon leader self, waiting for the attack, but instead of stalking the command post I went to my roof.  I lived in a small plywood shack next to the steel reinforced concrete command post.  My shack was pressed up against a ten to twelve foot tall stonewall.  From the roof I could look out on the whole valley, and observe the hilltops and spurs the enemy used as attack by fire positions.

Sitting there on a folding camp chair I only had about a foot of wall as protection, but there was a platform used to reach the roof that was only five feet off the ground, so if things started popping I could drop down to the platform with only my shoulders and head exposed and could duck down all the way if need be.  I set up a spotting scope, map, compass, and three radios on the roof.  It was a complete alternate command post, but one with a view.  I eventually started leaving my body armor and helmet there because I realized that is where I would need it the most.  I almost died there three or four times.

When I thought they were going to hit us, I went to my roof to wait.  Listening to the radios, looking at the valley, trying to spot the oncoming storm.  It would finally break, and the tension would disappear into the chaos of situation reports, calls for fire, terse orders screamed over gunshots.  In those moments any thoughts or concerns about anything disappeared.  My world narrowed to the rounds cracking overhead. My body pressed against the stonewall.  I winced and ducked with incoming salvos although it was futile since the supersonic rounds hit before you heard them.  But after the shooting was over, after the attack, it always tried to come back: the tension, the anxiety, and the dread.

For me watching a movie, reading a book, or working out was a battle.  Every time I was able to do it, it represented a skirmish won against fear.

After a long year, I returned home.  The war should be over: the terror, the boredom, and the waiting, but it rages on in my memory.  When I think back on the war, I remember the moments of terror, but I can’t feel the intense crazed mixture of adrenaline and fear I felt in those moments.  Instead I feel the deeper anxiety, dread, and hopelessness I felt during my hours of waiting as if I can’t shake the feeling that those days are really behind me.

So for me the war is not over.  The battle I fought against fear goes on, and every time I go out into the world, live my life without letting the war define me, is a victory.

John Rodriguez was an infantry officer in the U.S. Army from 2006 to 2012. He served in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province from 2008 to 2009.

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How To Tell Your Wife About The War

When she asks, you will not want to say anything, even though you should. Tell her it was like the Wild West out there, like nothing you ever thought it would be, like living in a nightmare. Don’t tell her you miss it, the plain simple routine to survive. Don’t tell her you want to go back on patrol. Don’t tell her life is simpler there than here: Wake, get ready for patrol, have enough food and water for the day, watch your step, watch the windows overhead, eyes and ears open wide.

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Lily

There wasn’t much blood at first. A smear, creamy and pink; then another. Then a vial of it drawn black from the pale blue place on my arm. Then it was the color of Valentine candy, smudged on the plastic condom covering a terrifyingly long transvaginal wand. Another dark vial, another smear but redder, and then the phone rang.

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