Many, many years ago on a Sunday afternoon 11-year-old me was sitting in the back seat of my grandparent’s gold Ford Galaxie reading the latest copy of Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine. Sunday morning church service has recently ended, and while my grandparents and Mom were mingling in the after service coffee event, I had persuaded Grandma to let me have her car keys so I could go read my magazine in peace. My space adventure was interrupted by someone tapping on the window. I looked up to see Donny, who I knew because his father was the best friend of my grandfather. I rolled down the window, half-expecting him to tease me for not being down at the church social.
Instead, he pointed to my magazine and said, “I didn’t know you were into science fiction! Who are you reading right now?”
I had met another fan. Which was a very rare thing through most of my childhood.
Those years were weird in so many ways. I usually use the shorthand description of “ten elementary schools across four states.” That is an accurate description of what my father’s petroleum industry job did to our life. It elides over that fact that almost all of those elementary schools were in tiny, redneck towns where most people listened to country music, watched Gunsmoke and Hee Haw every week, and went to church every Sunday morning no matter what. In such communities, my mother and an occasional librarian were often the only other people I met who even knew what sf/f was.
It wasn’t just that science fiction and fantasy weren’t popular, there was also that fact that our time in many of those towns was very short. It was complicated! For instance, it was late in fourth grade that we moved to the tenth of those elementary schools, where we remained through the end of sixth grade. Similarly, all of kindergarten, all of first grade, and a couple months of second grade had been at the first elementary school I attended. So eight of those elementary schools were scattered over second, third, and fourth grades.
Anyway, there is another weirdness to that tenth elementary school: the last of fourth, all of fifth, and all of sixth grade were spent living in a small town in Utah that was very close to the Colorado border, and less than an hour drive away from the small Colorado town where I was born—the town where my parents met and married as teen-agers; the town where my paternal grandparents and one set of maternal great-grandparents lived. The same town that we would finally move back to in time for me to attend 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. But the flip side of that is that at many random intervals during my 4th, 5th, and 6th grades (and especially the summers between each) we were visiting said town—which included attending church services at the church my grandparents had been attending for longer than I had been alive.
That two plus years nearish to the town I’d been born contained a number of important turning points in my life. My paternal grandmother bought me a subscription to Galaxy Science Fiction — which she graciously renewed as part of my birthday presents for the next few years. My maternal grandmother a year later got me a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction which she also renewed for the next few years. The older brother of one of my classmates realized that I and said younger brother didn’t know what the word “boner” meant, and thus he decided to give us a very unauthorized (and not completely accurate) education in human sexuality. And then puberty hit and that last bit became more relevant (but also mostly useless) than I’d expected.
All of those things will become important to this story eventually, I promise.
My paternal grandmother had “accidentally” set up my subscription so my magazines arrived at her house, so I couldn’t actually read them until I came to visit. Mom had driven herself, my sister, and I over to my grandparents during midday on a particular Saturday, and I had only got a short period of time Saturday night to start reading my latest copy of Galaxy. Which is how I came to be sitting in my grandparents’ car in a church parking lot trying to read my science fiction magazine when Donny tapped on the car window.
Donny was the youngest son of Mr & Mr. G. Mr G had been my Grandpa’s best friend since WWII, and after the war they had both ended up moving their families to the same small town in Colorado. Mr & Mrs G were essentially my dad’s godparents. Southern Baptists absolutely do not believe in baptizing babies, so that don’t have christening ceremonies and they don’t have godparents. But many Southern Baptist churches do “Dedication Services” for newborn babies, and at those services non-family members who are also members of the church agree to be sponsors of the child—which is just godparents and christening with different names, but we won’t worry about that.
Mr & Mrs G were slightly older than my grandparents. Mrs G had been a school teacher in the local school district for many years, and in addition to being my father’s godmother, had also been his teacher for one grade. They had three children who were similar ages as my parents. Their eldest, a daughter, was the Secretary who ran the administrative office at the Middle School. Their middle child, also a daughter, taught at the elementary school. And their youngest, their only son, Donny, was a bus driver and maintenance person for the school district.
Donny was about ten years older than me, so he was 20 or 21 years old at the time of this meeting and therefore an adult. But he was also someone that I had more or less known my entire life. But he had been someone at the outskirts of church events and the few social occasions we’d both attended. I had a vague notion that he had completed some course of study at a nearby Junior College sort of recently, and when he’d come back, he had moved out of his parents’ home and gotten his own place.
I remember that the conversation was quite fun, with him being a fan of several writers I had never heard of, as well as some that I had barely heard of. I specifically remember that he wasn’t much of a Heinlein fan, but understanding why lots of people were. Our mutual nerding out went on until the after service coffee meet broke up and everyone drifted out of church and to their cars.
It was probably two months later that I saw Donny again, since most Sundays we stayed in the small town in Utah and attended church there. We had another conversation, that time on the steps of the church about sf/f books we were each currently reading.
My family was gearing up to move to that town. My folks had bought some property. We started coming over to spend almost every weekend with my grandparents, as Dad, Grandpa, and I would work on various aspects of the plot to get it ready. My tasks over those weeks ranged from things like digging the ditch that the natural gas pipe from the newly installed meter to the house would go, or pulling weeds, or painting pipe pieces with protective sealant. At some point a decision was made to bring my bicycle from home to my grandparents’ place, because Dad and Grandpa found it useful to be able to send me on errands while they continued to work to get the property ready for us to move in.
There came an afternoon during this time when I didn’t have any construction related tasks to do nor errands to run. I was free to goof-off if I wanted. So I got on my bicycle and rode to Donny’s house. Because we were in town almost every weekend at that point, I had been having enthusiastic conversations with Donny about whatever book or story had most recently caught my interest. At some point I had looked Donny up in the local phone book and found his address. I don’t know what I expected, it’s just that Donny was at that point the closest thing I had to a local friend, and we both loved the same kinds of books. He was clearly surprised to find me on his doorstep. He didn’t invite me in. We had a conversation on his front porch where I enthused about some story I had read recently, while he nodded and made the occasional comment.
It was awkward and I wasn’t sure why.
I think it was two Sundays later when Donny came up to me at church and told me that he thought I should try to make some friends my own age. “It’s fun to talk to you about books, but you I think you’d be better off spending more time doing normal things for a boy your age.” And he walked away.
He was certainly not the first adult I had known who had suggested that I should spend less time reading and more time playing with other kids. But I hadn’t thought of Donny as one of those kinds of adults. And it never feels good to have someone tell you that they do not want to be your friend.
As it happened, I had become friends with a couple of guys my age who attended the same church. And when school started that fall, I made a few more friends (but also acquired new bullies). One of the friends I met became a bit more than a friend, as we frequently found ways to fool around together.
When I saw Donny at church, he always seemed to be turning away to talk to someone else or simply walking out of the room. When I saw him at school it was different. Donny greeted and joked with all of the kids. If he saw me, he would call out my name, and make a comment like “Hope you’re reading good stuff!” It wasn’t any different than he acted with any other students, but it was infinitely more friendly than he acted at church.
One day, well more than a year after that “find friends your own age” conversation, as I was walking to school, I saw Mr G backing his truck out of his driveway, turning rapidly with a squeal of tire, and heading up the road. It so happened that Donny’s parents, Mr and Mrs G, lived in a house that was right next to the middle school. You could see their front yard and driveway from the windows in the Science classroom, for instance. Mr G didn’t normally drive that like that, so it stuck out as weird.
Minutes later, as I was talking to some of my classmates before going inside, I learned that there was a problem with one of the school bus routes. A driver hadn’t shown up for work, and the substitute hadn’t known the route. So one of the buses was somewhere out in sticks half loaded with kids while the other drivers on the CB radio attempted to talk him through the route.
Classes got underway, but there was more weirdness. While the guys in my grade were in gym class, the girls were all in social studies, and they had noticed from the social studies room’s windows a county sheriff’s deputy car driving into town much more rapidly than usual (the highway was visible from the school as well), and that he had flashed his lights before driving through a stop light and then turned uphill. Before that class was over, the girls also saw an ambulance, without its lights on, turn up the same road.
As us boys were coming out of gym class, we saw Miss G, Donny’s eldest sister who was the school secretary, hurrying out the main doors. She seemed upset. None of us had ever seen Miss G leave the school grounds while school was in session before that. And when we joined the girls in our next class we heard about the police car and ambulance.
Two class periods later the Principal announced over the PA system that Donny had died in his sleep the night before. Miss G would be taking a few days leave of absence, so some administrative things might not run as smoothly as usual for the next few days.
My memories of the funeral service (held at our church some days later): the family opted for a closed casket service; after the service Mrs G had draped herself over the casket sobbing uncontrollably, with Mr G, her daughters, and a number of others trying to offer condolences; at the reception in the church’s social hall a lot of the adults kept exchanging meaningful looks; there was whispering.
The whispering between the adults continued for some weeks. Any time adults were talking about Donny and noticed me, they would quickly change the subject. I remember several times hearing specific references to the fact that during the previous several summers, he had gone to a town known as a tourist hub elsewhere in state where he worked as a bartender. Lots of school district employees had a summer gig, usually in another town some distance away. At the time I figured that, given Southern Baptists’ feelings about alcohol, the bartending was considered something of a scandal.
The official cause of death eventually announced was a previously undiagnosed heart condition. I had concluded that the reason for all the whispering was some people in town thought Donny had committed suicide, and that the family was trying to cover it up. The whispering died down, eventually.
Then one day I walked into the public library and at the spot where they usually displayed new arrivals, there was a poster thanking Mr and Mrs G for donating Donny’s entire collection of books to the library. The library staff was still processing the books, but some were available for check out at that point. His collection leaned heavily into fantasy. There were some books that I had read before, and many that I hadn’t. But the thing that really jumped out at me was the collection of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, all in hardback, including all 24 Tarzan novels that Burroughs wrote.
Most of Donny’s books had a book plate (one of those adhesive stickers that says something like, “From the Library of _______”) with Donny’s name written in his own handwriting. The Librarians chose to leave the plates visible, gluing the pocket that held the book’s checkout card to another page. They did stamp “Property of R—— Public Library” underneath each plate.
The Tarzan books stuck out for me because I had only ever managed to find one or two of the books from the middle of the series. I was far more familiar with the movie and television versions of the character. But because Donny had the complete set, I was able to start at the beginning and read them all the way through. Based on the handwriting on the bookplates and the publication dates of the set, Donny had been at most in his early teens when he’d first read those books.
And he occasionally made notes in the margins. The notes were always in pencil and always stayed clear of obscuring any text. It was usually comments and questions about the plot. It made me feel almost as if I was finally having a conversation with Donny about some books he loved with which I was only now becoming familiar.
The Tarzan books are not great literature, but they usually delivered a rousing adventure. They are a good example of early 20th Century pulp adventures. The plots get rather repetitive, especially when one is reading them one after another. For some of the latter books in the series, I think sometimes I was turning the pages more to see if there were more notes from Donny, rather than wondering what would happen in the plot, next.
There were two other things that happened in relationship to Donny’s death which at the time should have given me pause.
The first happened very shortly after Donny’s death. I had a secret boyfriend. A guy my age who I regularly fooled around with (all very furtive with the constant fear of being caught). There was an abandoned shed in the woods where we often met to do what we did (which was actually pretty tame, but you know, guys raised in Bible thumping churches in redneck towns doing any sort of sexual thing together was pretty out there). During one of the classes we had together, I quietly asked him if we were still on for later that day, after each of us finished our sports practice (he was on the basketball team, I was on the wrestling team). He shook his head emphatcally and said. “Nope. Not for a while. No.”
I didn’t get a chance to talk to him more privately for a couple of days. He told me that on the evening after Donny’s funeral, his father had taken him aside and asked him a lot of questions about Donny, and guys at school. Including something along the line of, “You know, boys can get up to a lot of trouble with each other. Sometimes their curiosity and hormones make them do things they oughtn’t with each other. Do you know if any boys at your school are doing that?”
Being asked that freaked him out. So for a couple months he avoided being seen with me at school and just didn’t want to meet up to fool around. Eventually we started doing things again. And his dad never said or asked either of us anything about such topics again.
The other incident happened several months after Mr and Mrs G donated all of Donny’s books to the library. I was at the church potluck, and one of the church ladies that I never got along with (I think she hated children in general, and teen-age boys in particular), so I was a little surprised she walked up to me and started a conversation.
She began with, “I understand you spend a lot of time at the library.” I agreed that I did, and started to explain how much I loved books. But she interrupted to observe what a tragedy Donny’s death had been. Which I could only agree with. Then she said, “I understand that they donated a lot of books he owned to the library. And I hear that you have been reading them. A lot.” I started to explain that his collecting included lots of books I’d heard about, but never been able to read before. But she interrupted to say, “You shouldn’t fill your head with unrealistic fables and superstitious nonsense. You’d be better off reading your Bible than reading all those questionable books!”
I don’t know what I would have said if we hadn’t been interrupted by the pastor’s wife (who also happened to be a librarian at the aforementioned public library). She sort of swooped in and talked about what a serious student I was and managed to mention that a year before when a bunch of church members pledged to read the Bible together in a year, I was one of the few people who came to all 52 weekly meetings and always had interesting things to say about the section we were reading that week.
I don’t know why it wasn’t until literally decades later, when I was telling a friend about how I had wound up reading all 24 Tarzan books over the period of about a month, that I finally put all the pieces together and realized that at least some people in our church thought that Donny was gay. I mean, I knew everyone was always calling me various slurs, but I had never heard anyone refer to him that way.
So it didn’t occur to me back then that maybe the reason Donny suddenly put an end to our conversations at church was because he realized people were speculating about whether he was planning to molest me (since they believed that all gays were also pedophiles). I didn’t realize that the reason my secret boyfriend’s father had talked to him (in veiled terms) about whether any boys at school were engaging in homosexual activity wasn’t because he had suspicions about his son, but because suddenly everyone was whispering about Donny after his death. And why I chalked up the weird church lady’s conversation about fantasy books as merely attack on my personal reading habits, rather than some suspicion that someone thought Donny’s Tarzan collection (or his Jules Verne books, or the Wells, or Bradburys) were recruitment tools for the Secret Homosexual Army™.
It’s probably an extremely good thing I never got a chance to tell the church lady about how I enjoyed finding Donny’s notes in the margins of the books. She probably would have stormed the library and tried to organize a book burning!
While I don’t know why 13-year-old me didn’t connect those dots, I’m glad I didn’t. Because if I had, I would have probably become so self-conscious about what I was reading and who I talked to about what I was reading that I would have missed out of a lot of the wonderful books I read over the next few years.
I’ll never know if Donny actually was gay, or if people just assumed he was. I just know that while he was alive, he loved books that took the reader on flights of fancy about daring adventures in impossible places. And I know that for a little while, he helped me feel a little less alone in the land of the mere, mundanely possible.