The first time I ever saw a naked woman — not live and in person, mind you, but just any old picture of a naked woman — I was eight years old. It changed my life forever.
The house I grew up in was part of a developing neighborhood in the southwest corner of Bakersfield, California. My parents bought the house in 1959 when my brother was born, and there was literally nothing else around it but vast dirt fields filled with tumbleweeds, lizards and other lots ready for nuclear family units to move in and start making babies. As a kid, this environment provided an amazing environment for play and imagination. We would build forts out of the dried tumbleweeds, piling them atop each other to 6-foot walls, then bombard the opposing fort with dirt clods that would shatter into clouds of dirt and dust that would go everywhere. We’d plow out ravines and pour water down them to see how water works, imagining that a 90º angle in a water slide would make the liquid suddenly twist sideways (just to save you some time, in case you’re an 8-year-old boy with an inordinate amount of curiosity about physics — it won’t). We’d hunt lizards, giving each species our own names like whiptails and blue bellies and “plain lizards” and bring our captures home to live out their short, miserable lives in our backyard lawns. Every day brought new surprises to the open plains of Bakersfield, but as civilization encroached, it brought with it the trappings of mankind to pollute and sully our pristine meadows of arid wasteland, dumping garbage wherever they wanted to.
Including, and particularly, porn.
Parents are, I guess, supposed to protect their children from the ravages of nudity, since in 1969 (and as far as I was concerned) that’s what pornography essentially was. Airbrushed images of long-haired, big-breasted women in colorful but ordinary surroundings who happened to be naked. I mean, didn’t everyone’s hot sister insist on lounging around the den with a pen in her mouth as she looked longingly at a point in space while completely unclothed? That was adulthood, as far as we were concerned, only we didn’t know it yet.
I was the runt of the litter, always had been. I annoyed my big brother no end by insisting on hanging out with him and his friends Tony and Steve. Tony lived across the street from us along with his (much) older brother Gary. Steve lived on the corner. His mother was insane, planning for the inevitable Communist invasion by storing bottled water in her garage while haranguing the neighborhood children about Henry Kissinger’s hidden identity as the Anti-Christ. “If you add up the numeric values in the letters of his name,” she would say with hardly any spittle on her lips, her heavy-lidded eyes alight with a zealot’s glee, “it equals 666! The number of the beast!” Curiously, in later years after Nixon’s fall from grace, Ronald Reagan’s name also added up to 666. I suppose Anti-Christs aren’t what they used to be.
My brother Scott, Tony and Steve would mount their Stingray bikes, replete with banana seats and sissy bars, and go hightailing around the fields like latter day Motorstorm riders, kicking up dust and jumping ramps they’d set up to launch them almost two feet in the air! We collected ants for makeshift Ant Farms created in coffee cans, and used our breath to blow out the little conical traps set by the antlions in the soft dust. It was a boy’s wonderland of dirt and mud and slime, barren for a block in every direction.
Every once in a while, the fields would yield surprises for us to discover or unearth. Fool’s gold at first, which we collected in Coke bottles and pretended was real. People were constantly discarding things that were too large to leave by the curb to be collected on garbage day (every Monday and Thursday), and we used the mattresses and couches and tires to our advantage, adding them to our tumbleweed forts.
Then one day, a new treasure was unearthed, and it would change us all in one way or another for the rest of our lives.
Pornography wasn’t a concept I had even encountered by this point, although my memory of the point of convergence between me and the fist dirty picture is burned so deeply into memory that perhaps it is pushing all other whiffs of the chance for naked observance from my head.
There was a definite lack of masculine influence in my childhood. My father died before I entered kindergarten so there were no hidden caches of Playboys or Penthouses to be exhumed from hidden troves in attics or under beds. My friends were of the same approximate age as I, so none of them were likely to have nudie pictures, either, and my older brother was only slightly older and, it would turn out, as gay as I was so he or his friends wouldn’t be providing any early educations, either.
I was untouched and chaste, unknowing and incurious about what was happening underneath the clothing of the people around me. I never wondered where babies came from or how they were made, and I had no desire or interest to play doctor with the girls because we were too busy playing Department Store or Gas Station.
Small dreams, I suppose, but important ones. After all, how could I ride my bike without gas? Practicality was always my downfall.
The stage was set, and the curtain finally rose one blisteringly hot summer afternoon when my brother’s friend Tony told us guys about some magazines he’d found in the field and had hidden under some discarded and rusty corrugated sheet metal. “What kind of magazines?”
This sounded of immense interest to me. I was, after all, a boy and I did, admittedly, like to play. It was apparent that the others were just as excited by the prospect of this collection of reading material presumably as great as Highlights but not located in the dentist’s waiting room with all the good parts already filled in. And Tony had always been a reliable source of fun. Wasn’t it him who had invented Angel Pole?
I’ll pause again in my tale to explain Angel Pole to you, though I’m certain that the gentlemen in the audience have an inkling of the object of the game. To play Angel Pole, all you need is a pole. It’s not really a game, per se, since everyone wins something. And you can’t really divide up in teams, either, but you can share your strategies and point out where others might be doing it wrong, because it turns out that practicing Angel Pole on your own is as much fun as playing with your friends.
To play Angel Pole, make sure the pole in question is securely fixed to the ground and tall enough to climb. We had a patio in our backyard and the roof was held up by poles approximately eight feet high, which turns out to be perfect. The pole also need to be somewhat thick, thicker than one can easily grasp in one hand. A two-handed grasp is about right.
After finding the pole, climb onto it, wrapping your legs around it very tightly – almost hugging it, in fact, and start to pull yourself up it. At first, it may feel like it’s not a very fun game at all and you aren’t making much progress toward attaining the top, but shortly it will become clear that the top of the pole is not the objective at all, it’s all about the climbing.
Because at some point, the Angels will appear and start to tickle your weenie. And you’ll climb and climb and rub and rub and more Angels will appear until your weenie is in heaven.
Voila! Angel Pole!
This was a revelation and for a short time, eclipsed any other game we had invented for ourselves. We found that it tended to work better for boys than for girls, probably the weenie thing had a lot to do with that, and it just never got boring. Unless the pole was too hot or one was wearing a swimsuit so that the friction never really go to the good part. Still, we played a lot of Angel Pole for a couple of summers until the swimming pool was installed and it became more important to stay cool and make the biggest splash than it did to have the Angels visit your crotch.
After Tony’s declaration, we all eagerly jumped onto our bikes and rode across the dusty dunes toward the secret place where he’d hidden the Playboys. Some of the older boys seemed much more excited than I was initially, but their excitement raised my excitement and soon we were all pedaling as fast as we could to attain a look at the wondrous Playboy magazines.
Someone lifted up the sheet metal (we all looked for lizards to scamper out, because they were always hiding under things like this – but so were black widows, so it paid to be cautious) and uncovered the colorful, glossy collection of heavy magazines, about a dozen in all, and we dug in to se what the big deal was all about.
Immediately, it was clear to me that something was wrong. The other young gentlemen were going apeshit (not a term familiar to me at the time, but one quite apropos nonetheless) as they gawked with adoration and unsubtle desire at the plump-breasted women staring back from the pages.
They were flipping through the magazines like starving men, hungry for the next delicious bite. They somehow knew that by flipping immediately to the center, there was an extra surprise awaiting them, a page that they could flip open and down and then, by turning the magazine sideways, they were gifted with an extra-large full-color photo of a woman with the same huge, round boobies and, often, nipples bigger than anything! No one I knew had nipples like that. They were kind of gross.
In fact, to me, everything about the magazines was kind of gross. The women inside were scary looking. This was the sixties, and the theme of the sixties was BIG. Big hair, big eyes, and big big boobs. Not that the last style has changed over the decades, but put all together like that, I was left with the same sort of vague, unnamable fear that I felt upon encountering the giant costumed creatures at Disneyland, or the clowns that appeared in the annual holiday parade down Chester Avenue, or indeed that deep and profound horror that made me actually pee my pants the first time I was forced to sit on Santa’s lap.
I was repelled by what the others were obviously attracted to. I looked and I looked at one picture they all agreed was one of the best in all the magazines. It showed a woman sitting kind of sideways on a shiny red sheet. She had an incredibly large blonde bouffant with bangs that hung into her Cleopatra-inspired Robin’s Egg Blue eye shadow. Her too-white orbs were ringed in black lines, and her lips were painted a bright, bright red. They looked all wet.
Her boobs were enormous, made more so by the fact that she had moved her arms toward each other to make them push forward, creating a fat cavalcade of cleavage. Her skin looked very pink next to the darkness of her nipples, and down between her legs was an eruption of hair and nothing else.
This hair down there they seemed to find very interesting. Very, very interesting. I found it creepy. Wasn’t that wrong? Who had hair down there, certainly not me, and I knew I wasn’t weird. All the dolls I had ever seen were smooth and featureless there, Barbie, Midge, even GI Joe. Although GI Joe was also missing something, so maybe the girl dolls were, too.
And it had been a fair number of years since I had sucked on a breast, but surely that’s not how they look! How could a girl contain that much… stuff in their shirt? You’d notice something like that! They’d be falling over or lurching into you with the weight of them.
She also had this look on her face, her oddly painted face, that wasn’t quite what I would call ‘happiness,’ but it wasn’t unhappy, surely. She was, like, looking at me from that page as if she knew something about me, like she found something bad out and was going to tell on me to Momma and I’d be in trouble, and how. Her eyes were kind of slitty and her smile was more lips than teeth and all that hair, again! What was all that hair about?
Some of the guys decided they were going to rip out their favorite pictures to take with them, and I was suddenly confronted with a decision I would become more familiar with as the years passed, namely “Which one of these naked women affronts my sensibilities the least?”
I had no idea what “gay” was, but I knew that I was having a far different reaction to these pictures than my friends were. I thought it had to do with being less grown-up than them, although some of us were the same age and even the oldest boy there was probably 12 years old. But I knew that the length of time one was aloud to stay up directly affected the sense of being an adult, and I was still going to bed not long after The Brady Bunch was over at 8:30. Sure, I could ride a bike without training wheels and I could play Angel Pole with the older guys, but obviously there was some other demarcation of adulthood I had yet to realize.
What was it? How come I was so different? I decided then and there to fake it, to convince them (and myself) that I was just like them and I really liked these pictures of fat-boobies and hairy crotches and eyes like demons. I looked through one magazine after another, trying to find a picture sufficiently scary and inversely grotesque to my sensibilities that I could use to pass for a believable desire. I finally found a rather small image of a dark-haired woman with her back to the camera, but you could still see one of her boobies and a funny pointed nipple from a side view. Her face was in profile so most of that clown make-up wasn’t as noticeable, and she had long hair that went down her back instead of being piled on top of her head like a nuclear explosion of blonde.
“A butt man,” one of the guys said. “You like her butt.”
It was kind of rhetorical, and probably a joke on me, but I looked closely at the wrinkled portrait of half-innocent debauchery in my chubby little hand and saw that, indeed, one could observe her butt as she sat there on that velvet couch thing, and she was almost sort of pushing it out, but thankfully I couldn’t see any hair.
The word “butt” at the time still had some kind of magical power like “hell” and “damn,” so I didn’t say it out loud. The F-word wasn’t even in our vocabulary, and Tony’s older brother Gary used to call our family’s pet French poodle Jacques, “Jockstrap,” and then tell me not to tell my mother that he did that, so I knew it must be one of those magical words, too. I looked at the woman’s butt and felt nothing at all, wondering what ‘a butt man,’ was, and thinking it must be a bad thing if he was going to make a joke out of it.
On the other hand, I was often made fun of regarding almost everything I ever did or attempted or thought, so maybe it meant nothing at all.
I folded her up and stuck her in the back pocket of my Sears Husky jeans. We replaced the collection of Playboys under the corrugated sheet metal and carefully arranged it so no one could tell what was there, or that it had ever been moved, even rearranging some of the scrub brush and tumbleweeds around it as if it had been laying there so long it had been overgrown with weeds – surely, nothing untoward lay beneath its hot, rusted surface.
I came back to revisit the stash several times, both alone and with other friends, each time experiencing that same sense of curiosity about the power those pictures had on others, but not over me. As the weeks passed and the number of pictures dwindled, claimed by a constant audience of the neighborhood boys as word spread of their existence, my curiosity dwindled as well. We all knew they were something sacred and secret, but I would not fully understand their significance and power until years later when, during a search for DD batteries to power some toy or other, I chanced upon my mother’s treasury of mid-70’s Playgirl magazines stacked in a neat pile inside her night stand.
By that time, I was in junior high and had been undergoing a singular form of torture every time I stumbled upon a bodybuilding competition on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, or occasionally when my friend’s older brothers would attend a summer swim session at my house, sans shirt, drenched in water, lean and hard and completely devoid of boobies with abnormally large nipples. I understood those feelings in the sense that it was wrong to be having them, and that no one else’s body was doing the annoying things mine was when confronted with nearly-naked men strutting their masculine bodies around. I suppressed the questions that were popping up in my head about what I was feeling, and I hid my interest and desires with frequent and lengthy trips to the bathroom or extra-long showers even after swimming.
The Playgirls in my mother’s night stand, though, were both problematic and revelatory. Suddenly, I had access to that same pile of naked flesh that everyone else had so enjoyed out in the field. They even had the fold-out part in the middle, where the image would grow to enormity, almost too much for the eye to take in. There was so much to look at! And suddenly, it was all interesting, not just the hairy part between the legs or the gigantic balloons of flesh mounted on the chest.
And I also understood why there were so many different pictures of different naked people. Before, I kept looking at the women and wondering what the big deal was, and how anyone could pick out a “favorite” when, by and large, they all looked the same anyway. Here, though, in the trove of naked Bicentennial men, I understood how one arm could cause a very different reaction than another arm, how one chest could be better than another, and how you wanted to see certain of those men in lots of different poses, while others could be best enjoyed from only specific angles and arrangements.
And it was all here! Inside my house! Where I could almost constantly look at them, assuming my mother and my brother were somewhere else and I could be assured that they’d never discover me looking at them and that I would place them back inside the nightstand in the exact same order so that no one, no one, no one would ever find out about this.
I think now about the nearly constant and direct access anyone has to naked pictures via the web, and how that must change things. Plus, we’re no longer left to wonder what these naked people are doing while they’re naked, other than lounging on velvet couches or finding themselves on the beach without any clothes or looking rather smug and self-satisfied as they stare back at us, daring us to join them. I realize how innocent and charming those pictures were. For someone coming into their sexuality, they were a perfect introduction to the awful and wonderful feelings and sensations starting to awaken, a way to easily explore what was happening in the comfort of one’s privacy (or not, as the case may be) without the overt instruction manual of the hardcore porn so readily available a few mouse clicks away.
I do think it’s easier to be young and gay now than it has ever been in America. When I was dealing (or not dealing) with it as a kid, there was no one and nowhere to turn for questions, and certainly no one to assure me that it was okay to have those feelings, and that others had them, too. I was taught to understand what happened to the others and how those who could not as easily hide their singular passions and characteristics were shunned and assaulted and I easily succumbed to the groupthink as well, making fun of the boys who sounded like girls, even though I was under constant suspicion for my inability to play team sports and a curious talent for art and the stage.
I’m sure it’s still difficult and awkward and embarrassing to be young and gay in America. I’m sure there’s still a need to go along with the other dudes and gawk at the naked women and act all weird and stupid when confronted with giant boobies and salivate and howl and pretend you get it. But the good thing is that now you can also go online and connect with the other dudes who feel the same way you do in their own cliques and communities, and gawk at teh naked men and act all weird and stupid when confronted with the giant schlongs and salivate and howl and… get it.
And if not, there’s always the International Male catalog. Some things, in fact, never change.
May 5, 2007