By the mid-50s, the local affiliate of the National Broadcasting Corporation occupied the television in our living room. The NBC signal came from the roof of the Miners National Bank, which financed anthracite collieries. The Bank was miles away, in Wilkes-Barre, but we could see it from our house on Rose Hill, where most men, including Jimmy’s father and mine, had been disabled by Black Lung. Other network affiliates transmitted from Scranton or towers even more remote.
Although our television was an entry-level Admiral, too weak to pick up signals from Scranton, Jimmy’s, next door, was a powerful Zenith with a motorized antenna on the roof. Jimmy and I would switch channels with the hard plastic knob and take in whatever mischief was afoot in northeastern Pennsylvania. Ordinarily, there was not much in plain view although our Congressman, Dapper Dan Flood, later copped a plea for perjury and graft.
Like my parents, Jimmy’s had European relatives who had died in Nazi camps. So, whenever the networks showed war documentaries, we watched. Jimmy was sober during the reels that showed naked, skin-and-bone corpses and survivors. I resisted interest in their private parts. I guess I was holding out for Jimmy’s accepting my interest in his. Footage from the Pacific Theater had a harder time holding Jimmy’s attention. Because I was afraid of combat and water, I was glad he turned it off. Happy together, we had limited appetite for the lessons that serious programming tried to teach.
The lessons got swept aside entirely when the networks buried their documentaries about the war. Instead, Jimmy and I enjoyed projections of the contemporary urban East and the pioneer desert West, lives that were more remarkable and often more fragile than our own.
Deep into fall and winter, the calendar controlled the programs. Thanksgiving and Christmas were obligatory, especially on variety shows with celebrity hosts. On Rose Hill, there were two viewing religions, and both had their champions. There was Perry Como for us Catholics, and fungible Protestants for everyone else. Jimmy cautioned that, whatever the target denomination, the shows were produced by secular Jews. His warning and my silence indicated that we failed to appreciate the perils of genocide.
Television in November was usually less stressful than in December because Thanksgiving drew fewer distinctions in faith. Ordinarily, Perry Como and a monumental choir concluded the evening with the uncontroversial “Bless This House.” One Thanksgiving, however, he closed with “Our Father.” When the hymn veered into “For Thine is the Kingdom,” a bid for the ecumenical demographic, we turned off the show and, for a while longer, away from sin.
The beauty parlor down the street was the real obstacle to Jimmy’s welcoming my interest in his privates. The owner was the only observably gay person we knew. I think Jimmy was afraid that if he let me touch his nethers, we would turn immediately into flamboyant hairdressers and be obsessed forever with weight-loss, fashion and grooming. I had a hunch that, whatever curses came with love, there was room for varied interests.
“I’m not really okay with it,” Jimmy said.
“I am,” I said.
“Monsignor says we’ll outgrow it if we resist.” He meant Monsignor Lawrence P. Weinger, who fondled altar boys during confession before mass.
“That queen just wants us for himself,” I said. “And anyway, I’m not eager to outgrow it.”
“If we resist now, eventually we will,” Jimmy insisted.
“No,” I said, “if we resist now, we’ll end up like Monsignor, making little boys feel bad by secretly touching their pee-pees and whispering things about how tiny they are.”
“Mine’s not tiny,” Jimmy said.
Aside from television, other media would seize a theme until the public tired. I remember the seasons of circus life. There were several films about the Big Top – spectaculars with high wire acrobats and trapeze artists. These aerial feats often involved refusal to perform with a net, to stifle cowardice or to attract spectators from rival entertainments. To Jimmy’s delight, no-net performances often climaxed in splattered death.
At our age, in our stratus, movies were too expensive to enjoy more than once, so adult comic books became our favorite media for circus rivalry and other intrigue. I say our favorite because our mothers bought the graphic novels and, despite our asthmatic fathers’ disapproval, let us read the ones in which their interest waned. The comics gilded summer afternoons with Jimmy, his sofa yielding to our front porch swing. Although I have forgotten why performers hated each other, I remember certain frames. In one, a Burt Lancaster look-alike somersaults on the high wire. In the next, overcome by jealousy, the Tony Curtis surrogate lets Burt slip and fall. In still another, bombshells Gina and Sophia, hang dead from listless trapeze, swords protruding from their breasts. I credit those murders with my first ejaculations – those and, when Jimmy finally dropped his trousers, the ample peach-white knob and melons he let me kiss.
Television and film were important for a week or so at a time. But treachery and lust in low-tech comics made a real difference in our lives. Not that Jimmy or I joined the circus or committed murder. But they pushed us, in plain view, across the threshold into flesh.
Chuck Teixeira practiced law for many years in California. Now, he teaches English in Colombia.
His most recent collection of stories, Bad News from Bogota, is available at Amazon.com.
One of Chuck’s longer stories, Westminster Academy, is being serialized on Kindle Vella