IN WHICH I learn the Facts of Life. Twice.
Dad picked the wrong time and place to explain The Facts to me. The time, well that’s complicated. I’ll get to that. But the place . . .
The place he picked was not so cozy—his ‘59 Hillman with five dead partridges in the back seat. Ten miles into our four-hour trip back home, the birds were starting to stink and the stink was getting worse. Dad had let me shoot the first three because he figured I’d get bored during the long stalk. Smart. I knew nothing about tracking; I couldn’t even find the birds. Dad spotted them for me. He was farsighted and past two feet, his vision was sharper than his own deer-skinning knife. He pointed my gun, too.
The third kill got messy. The pellets didn’t do the job. Now the birds were getting their revenge.
“I open the window?”
If I couldn’t open the windows, Dad must have had a reason, although who knew what. I turned around to see if I could shove the birds closer to his side of the car. No chance. They were already jammed against the driver’s seat. I gave up and breathed through my mouth.
“Pete, looks like we’re heading home with a sack full of game,” he said, stroking his mouth, “and boy, are they going to taste good.”
He tipped his hat, a radish red hunting fedora from L.L.Bean, and scratched his head. He’d bought a fedora for me, too, but I only wore it on the hunt with him. Way too dorky otherwise, like at school.
“Are we going to have to clean them?” I curled my lip when I thought of guts, bones, and feathers.
“Maybe, maybe not. That depends how nice you are to your mother when we get home. Now if you offer to do the dishes for a few nights . . .”
“I don’t want to clean them.”
“I’m sure she’ll understand. Women are more understanding about these things than men. They put up with a lot more. I guess that’s part of what makes them different from us.” His voice dropped nearly an octave to signal something serious was forthcoming. “They are different, Pete, you know. Entirely different.”
He detached the magnetic church key from the dashboard and opened a beer can with one hand and two strong knees. He placed it between his thighs, his usual spot for booze consumed while driving.
“You don’t have a sister, so you may not know all this, but women are built different than men. Maybe you’ve noticed in your school some of the girls are starting . . . well. . . starting to look different.”
Uh oh. Suddenly I knew where this was headed. He’d said the first fact, now others would follow and there’d be no stopping them. He’d passed the point of no return.
So what next? I saw him fiddling around with his mouth. He probably would have preferred to have arm-wrestled black bears than to be having this man-to-man talk with me. I’d heard that fathers do this with their sons (maybe mothers do it with their daughters). They probably feared their offspring would acquire half-baked truths, old wives’ tales, and barefaced lies from some ducktailed hood in the schoolyard. In 1959, that was enough to make any parent cringe.
“No,” I said.
“No, I haven’t noticed them. . . them changing. What you said.”
A lie. I’d noticed little else. Three weeks ago I saw Paula Grodin’s cleavage as she bent over to pick up a pencil and still got hard whenever I thought about it. I couldn’t be sure, but maybe her boobs were on the verge of popping out.
No way could I let Dad know I saw this, otherwise he might suspect the truth—that he’d also picked the wrong time to tell me The Facts. I already knew them, and had known them for the past few months. Not only was I versed in the basics, I was doing independent research.
“Well, if you haven’t noticed them, you will. Say, your mother give you that book yet?”
“For Boys Only.”
I shook my head.
“No?” he said. “Musta not come yet.”
This probably complicated things. I figured Mom was supposed to have sent for the book a while ago and was putting it off for some reason. Maybe she was trying to prolong my childhood. Most likely the plan was for me to have read it and Dad to answer any questions I might have, filling in the gaps with fatherly wisdom. But it was not to be. He was back to square one and had to start with the birds & the bees.
I might not have read For Boys Only, but I had read For Girls Only. From cover to cover. (Almost.) Here is what happened.
Not long after we’d caught Shirley Mercer doing it with two guys in the woods, (see Best Friend) my buddy Channing Johnstone had said, “She better watch it. She keeps doing that, she’ll make a baby.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“How’s that possible?”
As we were walking down the street together, Channing took the opportunity to explain vital biomechanical points to me.
- There’s at least three holes down there. You gotta pick the right one. I think it’s the top one, but don’t quote me on that.
- They call it a blow job because she blows in your cock and the air inflates your bladder. Then when your body lets it out, you come.
- If she’s having her monthly, forget it! Everything clamps shut. She can’t even ride horseback.
- Touching their boobs drives them crazy. If they let you.
- You’ve got to get the deed done quick, because she could change her mind halfway through and call a time out.
- You can kiss her down there but not too much or she’ll pee on you.
- If she keeps you hard too long without making you come, you’ll get blue balls. And they stay blue for hours.
I duly noted these helpful hints and decided I’d conduct my own scientific investigations later. I got the idea that the whole endeavor was eerily like a huge game of “Capture the Flag.” Girls were our opponents. We had to get into their guarded territory, grab their flag, and depart quickly, without getting tagged out. Once we got the flag on our territory, we scored and the game was over.
But first, we had to find “the flag.”
I climbed to a higher branch on the tree and stared down at him. “So what else ya got?”
“How ‘bout I prove the baby part?”
“Yeah, all right. Show me.”
“Janey has it in a book. You wanna see it, we’ve got to be careful. Very careful.”
Now, my curiosity spurred on like a jumpy colt, I accompanied Channing into his sister Meredith/Janey’s bedroom, where we borrowed her copy of For Girls Only. For several hours each afternoon, we poured through the chapters of slim volume like Classics Illustrated comics, which were based on high-brow books like Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ we were supposed to read and summarize in book reports.
Sometimes we couldn’t finish a chapter because we’d hear Janey coming home. One day, halfway through the menstruation chapter, we were laughing so loud we didn’t hear her mounting the stairs. Hell erupted as she snatched the book right out of my hands.
“You stupid idiots! It says ‘For Girls Only’! Can’t you read?”
“I guess not that part,” said Channing.
“I . . . I don’t believe this.” She hugged the book close to her chest and ran out of the room
“Where’s she going?” I said.
“Hopefully not where I think she’s going.”
But she was. She told on us. We were hauled before her parents and lectured (mostly by Mr. J.) until our ears started rotting.
“You two,” said Mr. Johnstone, “have trespassed on a girl’s private bedroom, and furthermore you have violated the Seventh Commandment by stealing something very very precious to her.”
“But Mr. Johnstone,” I said, “it’s not our fault. And we didn’t steal her book. We just borrowed it because you can’t get it in say that the library, and besides, why aren’t we allowed to read it anyway?”
Channing rolled his eyes, probably to stop me from blabbing. But I didn’t catch it.
“It’s more educational than educational TV.” I was pleased at myself for instantly figuring this out.
“Don’t you sass me, Peter Bates. I am this close to calling your parents.”
And he squeezed his thumb and forefinger almost together, like he was squashing a carpenter ant.
“You’re in enough trouble already, you two.”
Mercifully, they didn’t call my parents, because I promised never ever to do it again. It was the first time I found out I could fake tears. But the damage was done. My curiosity had been ignited. Forever.
My father continued his instruction as he turned off the interstate. “Well, by now you probably know that women don’t have tinklers.”
“I mean, they don’t have the same kind we do. They have woman-things, which look different. Actually, they’re kind of hard to see.”
I peered down at my duck boots. I knew exactly what was coming and didn’t want to hear it. I was getting a headache. I looked out the window and counted the broken white lines in the road. I felt creepy, like I was watching him point out the parts on a live girl.
“Dad, we got anything to eat?”
“Nope, ‘fraid not. And Vallee’s Steak House is a good hour down the road. So be quiet and don’t interrupt me again. What I’m telling you is important. This is one thing you have to learn. Someday you’re going to get married and what will your wife think if you don’t know this stuff?”
Whenever Dad put his foot down, it made him feel better.
“Where was I? Hmmph. Women are built different, they have different equipment. They have woman-things, they can’t pee standing up, and they have breasts for feeding babies.”
He spoke slowly, in case I was having trouble getting this. Maybe he thought he’d been going too fast. Or maybe he was wondering what to say next. If I were him, I would have tried to remember what Grandpa Bates had told him. (If he ever did. He was twelve in 1926 after all, a mere hiccup after the Victorian era, a time that wasn’t big on such discussions.) Most likely, none of his friends or business associates had ever mentioned how they’d handled it with their sons. So my dad was on his own, stuck in the woods with a wobbly compass and an uncooperative son.
He continued, “You know, when I was your age, I once tried to look up a girl’s dress. I stood under the stairs and looked up, don’t ask me why. I guess because I wanted to know what she had up there.”
I felt like asking him to make a stop by the road, but I didn’t have to go. Maybe if I completely clammed up, he’d give up and I could ask him practical questions, like how to deal with the bullies that had been terrorizing me at school. So far, this information was useless. I knew it all already, possibly more than he did.
After the Janey incident, I discovered Theodor H. Van De Velde’s Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique in the Danvers public library. I quickly realized I’d latched onto something more tantalizing than hot fudge, more exciting than a Saturday afternoon Disney movie at Loew’s. I’d been determined to find out as much as I could, but didn’t know how. One day while doing a book report, I found Ideal Marriage and was shocked—and thrilled—by its rich descriptions. Theodor used food analogies when describing female anatomy: ovaries were the size of almonds, the uterus was pear-shaped, nipples were like berries, and the most intriguing parts—the pliant labia majora and labia minora—resembled sliced ham. I sensed something so dangerous, so sinful about this book, I couldn’t possibly borrow it. It was like a bomb that could explode in my face if I brought it downstairs. The librarian would either never let me borrow it or demand a note from my parents. Or worse, even call them. If I stole it and someone at home found it . . . I shivered. I couldn’t even take the book back to my desk; somebody I knew— some curious girl who vaguely liked me, like Elizabeth Atkinson—would look over my shoulder. I had to examine it right there in the stacks, standing up. This was difficult, because the pictures and the writing were so detailed—so dirty—they made my knees weak. I had to stop for breaks. Sometimes a kid appeared in the stacks and I had to shelve it quickly. One day it was gone. Somebody had taken it out and there were no substitutes. When it finally was returned two months later, I patted its back like an old friend.
“What happens next is . . . well, when they want to have a baby, the man and the woman sleep together.”
Dad drank the rest of the beer and threw the can out. Sleep together? How does that accomplish anything? Something happens while you sleep? He took a deep breath and sneezed three times, looking nervous like whenever my mother told him he hadn’t made his yearly trip to the confessional so he could perform his “Easter duty.”
“The man-thing and the woman-thing meet. It’s called ‘screwin.’ You heard the kids at school talk about that?” He waited, but I didn’t respond. “Well, have you?”
This was true. I hadn’t heard that word yet. Did it mean the same as fucking? So why were there two filthy words to describe the same thing? I looked straight ahead at the road and tried to count the broken lines again.
He sighed audibly, blowing his lips outward as if he’d lugged something four flights without stopping. My answer looked like it really bothered him. Maybe he thought I should be responding in some, well, more interested way. Or maybe I was dumber than he thought and this whole talk was a bad idea? He could have been wondering whether or not I might ever be interested in these matters. I heard him tell Mom there might be a sissy streak in me, ever since I started playing with the puppets my aunt had bought me two Christmases ago. Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig were undermining my natural development.
What on earth is going on in Dad’s head? Adults are harder to figure out than, say, pretty much everything. They make about as much sense as sports. Like how come dropping the ball in football gets you a penalty but not dropping it gets you one in basketball? I can’t find any library books that explain rules for either adults or sports. So how am I supposed to figure out either one of them?
But I was smart enough to realize that I couldn’t reveal what I already knew, because it would start a rockslide of inquiry that would bury me.
How do you know that? Where’d you find out? From who? Channing Johnstone? What’d he tell you? Well, he’s got some nerve. Maybe I should tell his father what the two of you been up to.
This—and worse—could happen.
He pushed in the lighter, lit a cigarette, and the car filled with smoke. The birds were getting stinkier, so I held my breath and counted to ten.
“Dad, can we please open the window?”
“Hey, what’s the matter?” he laughed. “That’s the smell of death, son. No, keep it shut. It’s too cold out.” He paused a few seconds and sighed. “Look, Pete, want some candy?” I nodded. “There’s some in the glove compartment.”
I took out the bag of lime sour balls and slammed the door so hard the St. Christopher medal fell off the dashboard. I picked it up quickly, surprised he didn’t yell at me.
“Well, so now here’s how babies are made.”
So far, he’d left a few things out. Conception. Orgasm. Ejaculation. How could he convey these messy truths to me? An ally suddenly appeared—The Old Testament—and armed him with a metaphor.
“When the man-thing and the woman-thing meet, the man puts his seed in the woman and it grows into a baby nine months later.”
Seed? Ideal Marriage doesn’t talk about any seeds. It mentions sperm, even illustrates it, but I skipped over that part. Sperm’s not as eye-catching as woman-things. There are seeds inside me that pass through my penis into the woman? How big are they?
“That’s why people don’t do it until they’re married. ‘Cause it makes babies. Now that brings up something else. Some guys make the mistake of playing with themselves a lot. They call it ‘jerkin’ off.’”
He paused, maybe wondering if I’d ever done that. But he didn’t ask.
“Now don’t you ever do that, because it’s bad for you. Causes feeble-mindedness.”
I must have looked puzzled.
“C’mon, I’ll prove it to you. You know Cliffy over in Putnamville? You know why he’s not right? I bet he played with himself when he was young.”
I already knew that Cliffy, the man who shooed imaginary flies from his face, had a metal plate in his head from a war injury.
“Plus,” said Dad, “and I think you already know this. It’s a sin, a real bad one. Mortal. And you know where you get put for that.”
I did know. For the sin of playing with myself, I could end up in hell when I died, if I didn’t repent in time. And I knew exactly what hell looked like. A year previous, I’d been helping my grandfather clean out his cellar when he showed me an antique ancestral book. This heavy tome was called The Doré Gallery (1870). It contained the engravings of Dante’s Divine Comedy by the artist Gustave Doré. Grandpa gave it to me and I have treasured it ever since. Dante’s version of hell is very memorable. He drew it as a sort of cosmic warehouse for condemned souls, with distinct departments allocated for each sin. Doré shows the sinners of the Fourth Circle (“The Avaricious and the Prodigal”) rolling huge rocks uphill. Those in The Fifth Circle (“The Wrathful and Sullen”) are forever emerging from the River Styx, crashing against rocks on the shore. Everyone is naked. Most memorable of all is the Second Circle (“The Lustful”), a vast cavern where lovers swirl around in the air like startled bats. Still passionately clutching each other, Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini hover. This famous couple unwisely partook of sins of the flesh. Still, I thought Francesca the most sensuous 13th-century woman I’d ever seen. But even though she gets to fly, it’s obvious she’d had her vulva confiscated.
Hours spent pouring through this volume made me worry what fate awaited chronic masturbators. Doré never illustrated them. Were they condemned to trudge around wearing gigantic scratchy mitts they could never remove, like boxing gloves? And did girls suffer the same fate?
“So now you have two good reasons for hands off,” said Dad. “Got me?” I nodded. “Got any questions?”
Questions? Nothing but. Does Mom make noises like Shirley Mercer did in the woods? Did you ever do it with anyone besides her? If you do it when the woman’s pregnant, does another baby start growing? How do you stop erections in church? What’s a hand job? How’s it done? Why do breasts jiggle? Why are some big, others small? Does that mean some babies get more milk than others? Why do girls have them if they don’t need them till they’re married? Why is it hairy down there? What happens if you do it twice in the same day? How long does it take? Can you do it standing up? How about in the water? What does it feel like?
He sighed with relief and opened another can of beer, drinking half in one tilt.
“Now that should give you something to think about. If you have any more questions, you can always come to me. Also, in a few weeks, you should have that book, so maybe you won’t even have to.”
Not to be. My mother never did get me For Boys Only. Maybe she’d heard from one of her girlfriends that it was too “explicit.” It did mention masturbation, after all, even if through a cloak of stern disapproval. If I read about it, I might be inspired to indulge, just to be contrary.
Still, I hoped Dad wouldn’t quiz me on this in a few weeks, and I had a feeling he wouldn’t. And sure as heck he didn’t.
“Okay, well. Say Pete, tonight I’ve planned a special treat for us for when we get home. Your godfather Earl is coming over to help us eat these swell birds. After that, we’re going to fire up the projector and watch those slides we took when him and I went deer hunting. That ought to be fun, huh? You can invite a friend over if you want. Anyone but that Channing Johnstone character.”
I’d already seen the pictures and enjoyed them. Dad was a decent photographer and handled a camera as well as a gun. He caught intriguing shots of bearded men in mackinaws lugging Winchesters, panoramas of the Maine woods, bloody deer carcasses, campfires, even a few rosy sunsets.
So, he definitely had a graphic sense, which might explain this: Fifteen minutes later, when we pulled into Vallee’s Steak House’s parking lot, he opened the glove compartment and handed me a drawing.
“Almost forgot. I did this for you before we left. You’ll find it comes in handy someday.”
This drawing almost didn’t make it through the portals of time, and even now it’s pretty crumpled. So what had happened to it? A few years before our little talk, my mother had gotten fairly good at yelling at my father in a low voice so my brother and I wouldn’t hear. It was like a strangled whisper crossed with a clenched-teeth mutter.
“Don’t you be talking about my sister like that around the kids. She’s got a tough enough time with that broken home of hers.”
But she was only fairly good at this. I soon broke her code by sneaking around corners and getting close enough to hear.
This time I heard her say, “I was putting things away in Peter’s underwear drawer and found that filthy thing you did. You know what I’m talking about. You drew it, I know it. What were you thinking?”
“I was just trying . . . .”
“Doesn’t matter, right in the trash it went!”
I figured her rage had been so swift that it was still in my trash, and it was. I smoothed it out the best I could and hid it in The Doré Gallery . . . where it stayed for sixty years.
We entered the restaurant and sat down at the counter. A thirtyish waitress with brown hair stuffed in a net took our orders.
“So what d’you two handsome men want? Steak or venison? The venison’s fresh.”
On the menu photo, the rare meat floated on a puddle of ruddy juice garnished with two sprigs of parsley. Didn’t work. I just wasn’t hungry.
- Also called Paschal Tide. According to an article in Catholic Essentials, Easter Duty is “the period during which every member of the faithful who has attained the year of discretion is bound by the positive law of the Church to receive Holy Communion. The faithful . . . must receive at least at Easter the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Otherwise during life they are to be prevented from entering the church and when dead are to be denied Christian burial.” When we learned this, my friend Steve and I wondered which burly layman our church had stationed at the entrance as bouncer to the Easter duty slackers. Steve thought any embarrassing expulsion scene could be easily avoided by sneaking through the back door. Regarding the denial of Christian burial, we both concluded the body got thrown into a pit with other corpses associated with vampirism and lycanthropy. ↑
- A popular yet ex-Catholic saint. He was martyred either under the Roman Emperor Decius (reigned 249–251) or under the Roman Emperor Maximinus II Dacian (reigned 308–313). Having allegedly carried Christ as a child across a river three centuries after 4 B.C.E. (or 6 C.E.), he became the patron saint of travelers. This explains why a medal with his visage was in my parent’s car. In Eastern icons, Saint Christopher is sometimes represented with the head of a dog. For some reason, there wasn’t enough historical evidence the man ever existed, so Pope Paul VI dropped him off the liturgical calendar in 1969. The word used by secular sources then was “demoted.” Today they might refer to him as “depreciated.” ↑
- Gustave Doré (1832-1883) was an acclaimed but second-tier artist who illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Chateaubriand’s Atala, and, of course, The Bible. When I had my tattered version of The Doré Gallery rebound in Lynn, MA in 1969, the bookbinder said it was a “very strange book.” I admitted that the subject matter was macabre and fantastical, but that’s not what he meant. “It’s organized haphazardly. Most engraving books have chapters grouping the drawings by works they illustrated. Instead, these are scattered all throughout. On one page you get Little Red Riding Hood, on the next, Satan’s decent into hell.” ↑
- “Any boy knows by instinct that this is something he ought not to do; but it is pleasant, and so he keeps on doing it, but tries to keep it a dead secret. Sooner or later someone finds out about it; and then the trouble starts!” For Boys Only, Frank H. Richardson, David McKay Company, Inc. 1952-1973 (Twentieth Printing). ↑