Not So Good a Gay Man is the compelling memoir of author, screenwriter, and activist Frank M. Robinson—available June 6th from Tor Books.
Frank M. Robinson (1926-2014) accomplished a great deal in his long life, working in magazine publishing, including a stint for Playboy, and writing science fiction such as The Power, The Dark Beyond the Stars, and thrillers such as The Glass Inferno (filmed as The Towering Inferno). Robinson also passionately engaged in politics, fighting for gay rights, and most famously writing speeches for his good friend Harvey Milk in San Francisco.
This deeply personal autobiography, addressed to a friend in the gay community, explains the life of one gay man over eight decades in America. By turns witty, charming, and poignant, this memoir grants insights into Robinson’s work not just as a journalist and writer, but as a gay man navigating the often perilous social landscape of 20th century life in the United States. The bedrock sincerity and painful honesty with which he describes this life makes Not So Good a Gay Man compelling reading.
This is going to be a very long letter. I wanted to write it so you would know what it was really like to be a gay man before and after Stonewall and today, when same-sex marriage had become the law in California and a number of other states.
My mother was a saint—most mothers are, but my mother really did deserve sainthood in the pantheon of mothers. She had to divorce her husband after 1929, the start of the Great Depression, which left her alone with three children. Another marriage was probably the way to go, but during the Depression a single woman with three boys was not a hot marriage prospect.
She finally married a man who had a job at a bank and made real (though not much) money, which in the Depression made him golden. He had two sons of his own so it was a marriage of convenience for both of them. She would keep house for her husband and five boys, cook the meals, do the dishes and the laundry, make the beds, and sleep with a man she didn’t love.
If she wanted to keep her family together, she didn’t have much choice.
Her background was hardly a bed of roses. She had been abandoned by her mother and “adopted”—not legally—by a retired opera singer, “Grandma” Edmonds, and her partner, Clara Mae Leighton. Miss Edmonds taught singing, Clara Mae the trumpet. My mother did the housework.
At seventeen, when she reached the age of “awareness” and began to suspect the nature of the relationship between Edmonds and Leighton, they married her off to a charming Canadian named Raymond Robinson. He was, probably, the first man she had ever fallen in love with. (Back then, at seventeen, a girl’s experience with the opposite sex was usually not all that great.)
Happy ending, right? Not quite. Robinson was an improvident bastard and couldn’t take care of his family. He fancied himself an artist and tried to make a living painting portraits of people based on their photographs. He wasn’t very successful at it and my mother had to cook our meals over the gas jet in the living room.
Robinson tried to augment his income by visiting the local golf course, where my oldest brother was a caddy, and confiscate his earnings. Eventually he started forging the names of family friends on checks. A deal was struck: my mother’s friends wouldn’t press charges provided he went back to Canada so my mother could get a divorce on grounds of desertion.
Fortunately two of my mother’s closest friends—Dorothy Hall, my “Aunt Dorothy,” and her partner, Claudia—worked for the Institute of Juvenile Research in Chicago. They got my mother a job as a matron in the Lawrence Hall Home for Boys. Part of the deal was that she would work for next to nothing and the Hall would take in her children. The important advantage was that she would be close to her kids.
Except me. I was only three years old, and Mr. Houck, who ran the Hall, told my mother that he wouldn’t take me in until I learned how to tie my shoelaces. I was farmed out to a family named the Bonifoys, and my mother would visit every Sunday and give me lessons in the mysteries of shoelace tieing.
I remember very little about my life with the Bonifoys except for one night when I stopped to admire myself in a full-length mirror, a skinny little boy in a nightgown that came down to his ankles.
I didn’t sleep in my own bed. I slept with the Bonifoys in theirs.
When the day came that I mastered the art of knotting shoelaces, my mother took me to the Hall. I was the youngest boy there but there were lots of other boys around and I could see my mother whenever I wanted. One time I hid in her room to surprise her when she came off duty. She started to change out of uniform and for the first (and only) time I saw my mother nude.
Four years old is much too young to see your mother naked.
At the Hall all us boys slept in a big dormitory where the rule was that we should sleep with our hands on the outside of the blankets. It was years before I figured out the reason for this requirement.
Nobody had much money during the Depression, least of all the Hall, and we ate day-old scraps. The Hall had a small truck that went around to the grocery stores to pick up any unsold produce. The findings would be spread out on a long table in the dining room, and the matrons would pick out anything that was edible. (Grocery stores back then didn’t have their produce spread out on racks with overhead sprinklers to keep things fresh.)
One of the best attractions about the Hall was that one Saturday afternoon a month during the summer they’d line us up and march us down to the local theater. We would see a double feature, maybe two serials and half a dozen cartoons, and were given a candy bar. My favorite films were Frankenstein and King Kong. They’re still among my favorite movies, though back then they gave me nightmares.
It was the theater’s contribution to charity—they made money on Bingo nights and those nights when they gave away free dishes.
I saw my father again only once. One day I was called into the Hall’s library and introduced to a rather stocky man. He didn’t seem any more curious about me than I was about him. I was the last of the litter, and considering the tight finances of the family at the time, I might have been a mistake. The firstborn is always the one parents ooh and aah about, and the second is insurance to make sure the first won’t become spoiled. The third is frequently an afterthought. Few parents pay much attention to him—the kid is usually left to raise himself.
A girl might have made a difference—but another boy?
Much later I realized as far as I was concerned my father had functioned as nothing more than a sperm donor—he might as well have been the milkman. The meeting in the Hall was the last time I would see him. But it wouldn’t be the last time I had contact with him.
I didn’t see much of my brothers at the Hall, and it wasn’t until my mother remarried and set up a private household for the family that I got to know my brothers better. “Red” (for his hair) was eight years older than I and five more than Mark. As the oldest, Red became something of a father figure, more so for Mark than for me, though I always felt indebted to him for teaching me how to ride a bicycle, trotting behind me as I pumped the pedals and making sure I wouldn’t fall. When he got married, he more or less abandoned the family. Mark never forgave him. On the other hand, Mark and I were fairly close and made the perfect pair—he was a bully and I was a snitch.
I lived in the Hall from ages three to eight and barely made it through alive. I must have been about five when I came down with double pneumonia. I was so sick they didn’t dare risk a journey to the local hospital—I wouldn’t have survived the brief trip. Most of the time I just slept in the Hall’s infirmary. When I was awake the night watchman, a middle-aged, badly hunchbacked man, would read me the Mother West Wind stories printed on Coca-Cola serving trays. He kept a careful watch over me and I have a hunch I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.
The best thing about the Hall was that it had a summer camp on Little Blue Lake, near Holland, Michigan. It’s difficult to remember everything when I was four and five, but little things stand out. At summer camp it was putting a tomato on my mother’s sewing machine as a surprise but she never saw it when she closed the cover of the machine. A week later she discovered a small pool of dried spaghetti sauce in the machine.
We hiked in the woods, slid down the banks of a creek we called “marrow beds” because of the slippery clay sides, and were very proud of the older boys who frequently had to hunt for Boy Scouts from a nearby camp who got lost in the forest. We were pretty familiar with the woods around Little Blue Lake—we spent the whole summer wandering through them. The Scouts spent only a week or two, not long enough to learn all the trails.
My mother married for the second time a few years later. Unfortunately it meant no more summer camp at Little Blue Lake, no more splashing around in the water, no more tramping through the woods, no more sliding down the banks of marrow beds and dirtying my shorts.
For the first year of my mother’s remarriage, Aunt Dorothy tried to fill the summer gap. I got permission to spend the summer with Dorothy, who had a little cabin—the “Dinghy”—on the shores of Lake Michigan near Macatawa, midway between Holland and the resort town of Saugatuck. My favorite recreation was curling up in a window nook and leafing through the pages of old issues of The Saturday Evening Post and Fortune magazine that were lying on shelves near the windows. I couldn’t read the articles, but the ads for Chevrolet and Studebaker (one red, almost modern two-seater), Packard, the Arrow Collar Man, Kuppenheimer suits, and Florsheim Shoes fascinated me. The house ad in early issues of Fortune featured an almost completely nude statue of a young woman with the slogan “The Perfect Gift for the ‘Friend Who Has Everything.’ ” A precursor of the “Petty Girl” to come a few years later.
The next summer Dorothy got me two weeks at a camp for disadvantaged kids. The first week, we decided to “put on a show” (we were years ahead of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland). I found a beat-up top hat and an old cane and did a really bad imitation of Fred Astaire. The applause was terrific. Unfortunately, my ease behind the footlights didn’t last. In grammar school I had the lead in the eighth-grade play and forgot every single line.
Aunt Dorothy was a heroine to me. She picked up her Mercury at the factory and broke the speed limit driving back to Chicago. Family legend had it that Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz was modeled after my aunt. Not true—after her retirement Dorothy gave an interview to the local paper and said she’d been much too young at the time. But author L. Frank Baum, Macatawa’s leading citizen, was a friend of her grandfather and used to dandle young Dorothy on his knee when he came to visit. Dorothy may have been too young to be the model for the main character in the book, but I’m pretty sure she supplied the name.
(My mother broke with Dorothy years later—why, I never knew—but I kept in occasional touch. The last time I visited her I wanted to ask her about the things that really bothered me in life. She evaded the questions but assured me I came from “good stock.” My last view of Dorothy was her standing in the door of her retirement home in Chicago, watching as I disappeared in a cab. I waved at her and she waved back. I considered it a benediction and started to cry.)
Robert Knox, my mother’s new husband, worked as an accountant in the largest bank in Chicago, was a single parent (his wife had died a few years previous), and had two boys in the Hall. Gene was five years older than I was, Bill was a year and a half. I was friendly with Bill, closer to my own age, and later got to know stepbrother Gene a little too well.
During the courtship Mr. Knox romanced me by teaching me how to play checkers, then letting me win a few games. He was a nice guy but to us Robinson boys he was always “Dad Knox,” never simply “Dad.” He was hunchbacked, not badly, and had gone through hell as a kid. He was a farm boy, injured in an accident that had broken his back, and his father had strung him up by his arms in the barn to try to straighten him out. It hadn’t worked.
The marriage was much more of a financial arrangement than it was a romance. Robert Knox wanted a mother for his two sons, and my mother wanted a father for her kids. Dad Knox would support the new family, and my mother would be the chief cook and bottle washer. He would discipline his kids, she would discipline hers. Family routine was that he would come home, eat supper and help with the dishes, then settle in the easy chair in the living room and read every stick of type in the Chicago Tribune—he believed every word of it—before falling asleep. My mother always called him “Bob,” never “dear” or “honey” or any other affectionate name. My mother’s maiden name was Leona White, and he always called her “Leona.”
“Dad Knox” was never the image of the typical father for us Robinsons. He was partly crippled, which meant he never took us fishing, was never interested in sports, and couldn’t horseplay with us.
My first outing with him was when he took me to the bank where he worked, showed me the huge ledgers in which all the accounts were entered by hand, and proudly took out a savings account for me. I wasn’t much impressed.
The second outing was a good deal more enjoyable. It was Christmas, and the owners of homes in River Forest, a nearby wealthy suburb, went all out in decorating their houses. The time to see them was at night, when all the lights in the decorations were on. We had an ancient roadster at the time complete with a rumble seat, which meant you would get soaked in a rainstorm.
This particular night it wasn’t too cold and it was snowing just enough to make the houses look like Christmas cards. Dad Knox and my mother bundled Bill and me up in blankets and gave us a tour of River Forest.
It was a beautiful night with the lights twinkling through the falling snow, Santa Clauses on almost every lawn, and even a few plaster reindeer. After an hour I fell asleep, Dad Knox carried me inside, and my mother put me to bed.
Many more outings like that and I probably would have referred to Dad Knox as “Dad,” but the mutual affection didn’t last, and within a week he was “Dad Knox” again.
We boys always considered ourselves blessed because we were good middle-class Americans—not “niggers” or “kikes” or “shanty Irish.”
Some prejudices die hard. Mark always thought of himself as the athlete in the family, and when drafted into the army made the mistake of picking on a Jewish kid. (All Jews were money-lenders, they couldn’t fight, right?) This prejudice died after the Six-Day War, but for my brother it vanished when the Jewish kid—a Golden Glover from New York—beat the crap out of him. Mark spent three days in the camp hospital. After that I never heard a derogatory comment from him about a minority group—any minority group.
(I learned a lot about prejudice in the United States when I was in high school in Chicago and asked the black kid sitting next to me if he’d like to go swimming at the YMCA. He got angry—didn’t I know that blacks could swim only at the Englewood YMCA, the segregated Y for blacks on the South Side? And it was the Jewish kid down the block who showed me how to throw a baseball—my brothers used to humiliate me by shouting “You throw like a girl!”)
My mother had a piano and used to gather us kids around to sing. But we broke up into groups of Robinsons and Knoxes and she soon realized she had five kids to raise and a husband to feed and sleep with but she didn’t have what she had wanted most—a family. She finally sold the piano and it broke her heart.
Our first house was very old and very huge, in Forest Park, Illinois. We lived kitty-corner from an equally big, old house occupied by a Gypsy family, complete with an old man and his traveling bear plus a cherry tree in the backyard.
We picked cherries for my mother to make pies, watched in fascination as the old man went through his tricks with the bear, and built forts in the backyard and had snowball fights during the winter. (We outnumbered them by one and usually were victorious.)
During the height of the Depression in the middle ’30s my mother used to keep a small stack of sandwiches by the back door for hungry homeless men. She wasn’t the only housewife who did that. The photographs of veterans selling apples on street corners were real. Some towns and small municipalities (and large ones) issued their own currency, called “scrip,” with which to pay municipal employees. The scrip was accepted by shopkeepers, who in turn used it to buy the supplies they needed, and so on.
All the boys in the family worked. One of us had a Saturday Evening Post route—the magazine was distributed to subscribers door-to-door like a newspaper. During the summer months we loaded our wagon with a box full of dry ice and ice cream bars and sold them before the Good Humor truck showed up. When the war began in 1941 I peddled popcorn at the Parichy Bloomer Girls stadium in Forest Park—the home of a women’s softball team that had replaced male players who had been drafted.
About this time I asked my mother if she thought I was handsome (standard question from a teenage boy). She made two mistakes. The first was to take a minute to think about it. The second was to say “You’re very nice-looking.” It took me a few decades to appreciate the wisdom of this. A handsome movie star whose career depends on his looks had a lot more to lose as he grew older than I did.
A few years before, I learned that kids are sexual at an early age even though they don’t yet know what to do with the sensations. In sixth grade I usually sat in the back of the room with a young girl and we’d tell each other dirty jokes. When one of us didn’t get it, the other would explain it.
By the seventh grade all us boys sweated for fear we’d be called to the front of the class to diagram a sentence on the blackboard or do a simple problem in math. Our pants would rub against our legs and we would get an erection. We used to bite our lips as an antierection aid. And then there was the problem of taking a shower after gym class. Those boys who had matured early usually flaunted the evidence and the rest of us would stare at them with envy and admiration.
My favorite comic strip at the time was Tarzan of the Apes. Artist Burne Hogarth, for reasons I suspected later, had Tarzan swinging through the trees in leopard-skin Speedos, which gave him the most attractive butt in comics. I mentioned this to friends, who looked puzzled and said “So what?”
By thirteen I was introduced to more serious forms of sexuality by stepbrother Gene. We had a table tennis setup in the basement and we started playing games together. He was a much better player than I was and after a few volleys always managed to hit the ball directly into my crotch—with the expected results.
Things became embarrassing one Thanksgiving when I excused myself from the table to go to the washroom to take a pee. I wriggled my penis once or twice, got an unwanted erection, and then very strange things happened. My family began to holler at me, asking if I’d died in there, and finally I emerged, sweaty and flushed.
Everybody stared at me for a long moment and I realized that now they all knew about my coming of age. The Ping-Pong games became more serious now, and after a dozen volleys stepbrother Gene and I would end up in the coal pile.
At the time, we boys slept two to a bed. One of my stepbrothers and I in one, Mark and Gene in another. One night I completely lost it and tried to climb into bed with Gene, even though Mark was already there—hopefully sound asleep. A week later Mark and stepbrother Gene got into a fight when my folks weren’t home and sprayed blood all over the upstairs hallway. That scared both of them and they spent all afternoon trying to wash it off.
Neither ever admitted the reason for the fight, but I suspected it had been about me. I was Mark’s little brother, which automatically made him my protector. A few months later Gene was drafted and a year or so after that so was Mark.
For a long time I hated my stepbrother for “turning me gay,” but a few decades later, in therapy, I discovered I hadn’t hated him at all. I’d loved him. Our Ping-Pong games had become sexual, but to me physical touch, a rarity in the family, had translated as affection, sexual or not.
Mark and I became much closer the year he got his driver’s license and almost killed him and me. We were driving along a country road paralleling a train track when we heard a train whistle in the distance. My daredevil brother decided to beat it to the next crossing. He floored the gas pedal and I started to sweat as the warning whistle of the train got louder. We just made it. On the other side of the crossing my pale-faced brother abruptly stopped the car. I flew forward and bumped the windshield with my head, raising a welt. Once home, my mother asked what had happened, how come the bump on my head.
For once in my life, I kept my mouth shut.
SOME YEARS LATER I had lunch with director Tom O’Horgan (Hair, Lenny, Jesus Christ Superstar) and during the conversation discovered that for my first two years of high school, at the start of World War II, we’d both gone to Proviso Township in Maywood, Illinois. We’d taken the same classes, had the same instructors, and knew the same students.
The big difference was he knew all the gay students. I knew some of them but had never known they were gay.
I had started reading science fiction when I was eleven. I usually stayed up in my bedroom reading science fiction magazines while my brothers played baseball in the empty street (few people had cars in those days) or shin hockey in the alley (roller skates, cheap hockey sticks, and a tin can for a puck). I graduated from high school when I was sixteen—I was a smart kid and had skipped a grade—and by this time I was a dyed-in-thewool science fiction fan. I carefully saved all the magazines and joined a magazine correspondence club (so had Hugh Hefner, who joined “The Weird Tales Club” in 1943) and was starting to make friends across the country.
Locally my friends were Ronald Clyne and Charles Beaumont (originally McNutt, but he took a lot of kidding from classmates and while living in Beaumont, Texas, and changed his last name to that of the city). Ron was an artist and Chuck wanted to be a writer (so did I), and in our senior year the three of us decided to put out an amateur magazine titled Parsec. That never happened, but Clyne went on to design most of the jackets for Folkway Records, and Chuck ended up selling stories to Esquire and Playboy while I was still mucking around in the penny-a-word digest magazines.
My mother had hired a private eye to find her own mother, and while none of the family had much in common with our bedridden Grandmother Proctor, we always liked her husband, Fred, who covered sports for the Chicago Herald-Examiner.
Fred got me a job as a copyboy at INS (International News Service—both it and the Examiner were owned by Hearst) and took me to hockey games and down to the locker room, where he introduced me to “Mush” March and Johnny Gottselig of the Chicago Blackhawks as the “great white hope.” That got a laugh out of the players—at 140 pounds sopping wet I wasn’t the great white anything.
Hockey wasn’t my favorite sport, but I went with Fred to the games, where he would dictate his story to me, I’d write it down and hand it to the telegrapher, who’d send it to the sports desk. (Fred had palsy and couldn’t hold a pencil.)
After six months of picking up the morning reports from the Chicago livestock yards for INS and feeding rolls of paper to their teletype machines in the afternoon, I got a dream job working in the mail room of Ziff-Davis, then publishers of Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Mammoth Mystery, and Mammoth Detective. The fiction magazines did well, but the real moneymakers were Flying, Popular Photography, and Radio News.
Between delivering mail to the various departments, I’d hang out with a diminutive hunchback, Ray Palmer, head of the fiction department, and Howard Browne, who handled the mystery magazines. Howard was a pretty good mystery writer himself and introduced me to novels by Raymond Chandler. Years later, in journalism school at Northwestern, I combined the mystery genre with the fantasy genre and wrote one of the first “thrillers” (The Power). I hit it big—magazine serialization, television, a George Pal movie, and more foreign editions than anything else I’ve ever written.
I owed Howard a lot.
(I also owed Palmer a lot, though I didn’t realize it until much later. If you write what you think is a great line, kill it—it will throw the rest of your piece off balance. The same advice was given by the writing teacher in the movie Kill Your Darlings.)
As an avid magazine collector, I was also something of a thief. The mail room held the original two years of Amazing Stories, bound in thick, black volumes, six magazines to a volume. “Sydney Gernsback” was printed in gold at the bottom of the spine (Sydney was the brother of Hugo, the original editor and publisher of Amazing.) Nobody ever looked at the volumes; nobody had in years. But to a collector they were pure gold. It was winter and my overcoat was very big and floppy. I smuggled the volumes out, one at a time, beneath the coat. The only time I was almost caught was when the treasurer of the company rode down with me in the elevator, staring at me, wondering how his office boy had gained so much weight.
The most horrifying thing that ever happened in my life was when I was walking to work one spring morning. A stockbroker in the building next to 540 North Michigan—the home of Ziff-Davis—had leaned too far back in his swivel chair by an open window and toppled out of the fifth floor. If I had gotten there ten steps sooner I would have been beaned by him. I was one of the first to arrive at the scene—no police, no ambulance, no shocked pedestrians, just myself.
My first thought was what science fiction writer Robert Heinlein had once said: a human being was just a bag of liquids. What would a grapefruit—which had a much thicker skin than a human being—look like if it had fallen from five stories up? It would have splattered on the cement, which is what our broker had done. Year, later I would wonder what a soldier would look like if he had been driving his Humvee in Iraq and hit an IED? I wouldn’t wonder long—I already knew.
I could hear the police sirens and an ambulance in the distance and hurried through the gathering crowd to the offices of Ziff-Davis. I got there just in time to lose my breakfast when I hit the john.
My sexual life was nonexistent. By now I was familiar with “faggot,” “queer,” and “dirty Commie faggot.” I didn’t want to be any of them, knew I had no choice, and started building a social closet so nobody would know. I was pretty sure I was unique—I knew of nobody else like me. Talk about it to a minister or a priest? You’ve got to be kidding. Living at home, my mother knew everything about me—after all, she did the laundry. I could have confided in her, but what young boy ever talks to his mother about his sex life (or lack of it)?
The Trevor Project, the hotline for young, troubled gays, had yet to be created. Like many other young gays I thought of suicide but didn’t have the courage—or, when it really came down to it, the desire. It seems silly to say it now but the serials in the science fiction magazines were a big help. What was going to happen in the next installment of Second Stage Lensman or the new novel by Robert Heinlein? I’d stick around long enough to find out.
I knew a few gays—along with some nongays—who lived in a small science fiction commune in Battle Creek, Michigan, called “Slan Shack.” (A “slan” was a superhuman mutant in a popular novel by A. E. Van Vogt.) One was an older man who had actually served time for being gay. Another one became one of my best friends: Walt Liebscher (the only one in science fiction “fandom” who knew I was gay at the time but never talked about it).
Slan Shack used to throw its own small conventions, notable for their auctions, to which Ray Palmer contributed some of the artwork from Amazing Stories. (An original cover painting by J. Allen St. John, the doyen of cover painters at the time, might go for $25. Today it would go for more than twenty-five grand.) At one of these conventions I developed a crush on a fellow teenager from Buffalo, New York, who traveled all the way in for the convention. If I had made a pass, he probably would have agreed—much later I learned that many late teenagers are sexual experimenters. (Some members of Congress learned it before I did. It’s probably a toss-up whether the congressmen preyed on the page boys or some of the teenage page boys preyed on the congressmen.)
When Slan Shack broke up and Walt moved to Los Angeles; he and a local gay man, Jimmy Kepner, were promptly “outed” by another fan when outing could frequently have tragic consequences. Walt became a recluse. Jimmy Kepner, on the other hand, became a leader in the gay rights movement, one of the founders of ONE and largely responsible for its archives.
I had become a serious collector of old magazines, which by now led to my last contact with my father. I and two collecting friends discovered a large second-hand magazine store on Chicago’s South Side. We were flipping through handfuls of The Shadow and Adventure magazines when one of us spotted a locked glass cabinet at the rear of the store. Behind the glass doors we could see the spines of the old Amazing Stories, Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, and others—probably several hundred or more. We dropped the magazines we were holding and made a dash for the cabinet.
“How much for all of them?”
“I’m not going to sell anything to you guys,” the owner said with a snarl. “You dropped my magazines on the floor.”
We romanced the old man, we listened to his tales of World War I, we bought hamburgers for his dog. Finally he relented. We could have the cabinet. For $150. Split three ways, that was $50 for me, a lot of money for a kid. I asked my mother for a loan— she now had a job in a defense plant and was making serious money for the first time in her life. I’ll never know why, but she lent me the $50.
Once home, we spread the magazines out on the kitchen table and started divvying them up. My friends were in love with the garish Frank R. Paul covers on Amazing and Wonder. For reasons I didn’t understand, I picked out all the copies of Weird Tales— by comparison, a drab-looking magazine with stories by authors I’d never heard of.
My mother came out to see how I’d wasted her money and turned pale. While my father painted portraits from photographs, she had read to him from his favorite magazine: Weird Tales. She was now looking at some of the identical covers. (It turned out my father was also a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan. So was I.)
I have no explanation, but I would like to think it was genetic. Recently I was offered close to a quarter of a million for a complete file of Weird Tales—I had kept upgrading over the years and by now it was probably the only mint-condition set in the country. My old man had bequeathed me something after all.
I spent a year at Ziff-Davis in the early ’40s, then the draft caught up with me. I’d tried to enlist but was classified with “compound myopic astigmatism.” That settled that, I thought—I was safe. When I went for my draft physical my handicap was downgraded to simple myopia, and in 1943 I was cannon fodder.
I had my choice of services and chose the navy—my best friend in science fiction had enlisted in it. And besides, I liked the uniforms, thirteen-button flies and all. Not the equal of leopard-skin Speedos, but they had their own appeal.
Electronics school started at Great Lakes, but the last seven or eight months were spent at Navy Pier in Chicago. A great town for liberty—the best music town in the country. Pickups were easy, and those who wanted to get laid had no trouble finding companionship. One guy we felt sorry for—he was slender and had a walk that would’ve put any Hollywood starlet to shame. Most of us wondered when the navy would get around to discharging him. One liberty, a member of the division followed him and returned looking awestruck. It had been an act. The suspect sailor would make friends with a likely prospect, have a few drinks, tell her about his lonely gay life, shed a few tears, and the girl would promptly decide to save him from himself.
He scored every time, our spy said.
(When it came my turn to relate my own sexual adventures during the weekend, I lied.)
The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945 was the first indication that maybe we wouldn’t have to invade Japan after all. Another one followed on Nagasaki, and shortly afterward came the surrender. We had originally been scheduled for assignment to the “working navy”—troop ships, attack cargo ships, LSTs, etc. We’d be anchored off Japan, supply ships for the invasion. Considering the Japanese suicide planes, we probably wouldn’t be anchored there for long. One sadistic chief even told us that in the cold Pacific water, our life expectancy would be something like twenty-seven minutes or less.
The surrender was a huge stroke of good fortune for us. And atomic power! The newspaper ads said that atomic power would be so cheap it wouldn’t be worth the cost of measuring it. I was the science fiction buff (“Frequency Modulation Robinson”) in the division, which meant I was an authority and knew about such things. I was swamped with questions. Most of my answers were courtesy of Dr. E. E. Smith, the author of the Lensman series. Apologies to the memory of Doc Smith, but I’m sure I was wrong every time.
None of us thought about the civilian casualties in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. All we knew was that the war was over and we had a new lease on life.
The war might be over, but the navy decided to ship us overseas anyway. The railroad trip from Navy Pier to San Francisco took two days and nights. In the sleeper cars we slept head to toe, two to a bunk. They bed-checked us every hour, and I prayed that my bed partner was fat and ugly.
The few days I spent in San Francisco settled all my doubts about the city being a mecca for gay sailors. My first night in, I drew shore patrol with a first-class officer and we checked out the waterfront bars—forbidden to navy personnel. In the first one we entered, all the drinkers at the bar swiveled their heads in unison to stare at us. Two bars later we gave up and concentrated on finding drunken sailors roaming the street.
Late that night, when I went off duty, I stripped down to my skivvies and crawled into my cot, dead tired—the navy had filled the gym floor of the Embarcadero YMCA with cots right next to each other—two rows of cots, then an aisle, then another two rows of cots. About two in the morning I felt somebody’s hand reach under my covers. I froze. I knew the penalties for gay behavior. A dishonorable discharge and maybe time in the Portsmouth Naval Prison (or so I had been told). Then I relaxed, figuring I had the perfect alibi. I hadn’t felt a thing—I’d been sound asleep.
The next morning I got up early to check out what I hoped was a friend in the next bunk. (He’d left early.)
Later on that afternoon I went up to the weight room to work out. It was deserted except for one guy who had completely stripped, then hung a towel on the end of his erection.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be in life, but one look and I knew for damned sure what I didn’t want to be.
We were assigned to a troop transport bound for Japan the next day. It was jammed to the gunnels. Along with several friends I stood at the railing and watched San Francisco recede into the distance. I reassured my friends that seasickness was all in the mind. Then we hit the rollers outside the Golden Gate and I promptly vomited over the side.
The trip to Japan took two weeks and I shed twenty pounds— from 140 to 120. By popular acclamation I was made compartment cleaner, since I did the most to dirty it up. I couldn’t help it—I’d go to the head (bathroom) in the morning, and the first thing I saw was a mix of seawater and vomit sloshing back and forth in the bathroom trough. I’d promptly lose my breakfast. On inspection day, I’d sit on the edge of a bottom bunk with a bucket between my knees, stand up and salute when the captain came through, then go back to holding my head over the bucket.
I probably could have gotten out of the navy because of chronic seasickness, but then I discovered if I went topside, on the bridge where the cold wind could catch my face, it would help a lot. I spent as little time belowdecks as possible.
Another week and we were anchored off Yokohama. It was now a few weeks after the surrender. Some days later I was transferred to a small ship going upriver to Nanking, China, to pick up half a dozen women, White Russian refugees, and take them to Shanghai. Once on board the captain gave them several cabins near the bow, then posted guards to make sure that no members of the crew wandered forward to try to make friends with the women.
I pulled one afternoon liberty, about which I remember very little except that I had never seen so many Chinese in all my life.
The trip back to the States was uneventful, except for the “thrill” of standing at attention on deck in the hot summer sun going through the Panama Canal. A week or so later we docked at Norfolk.
The day I got my discharge papers and was walking to the train station to go home I was picked up by the police for “being out of uniform.” It had been a hot day and I was wearing whites instead of travel blues. I spent the afternoon in jail.
“Sailors and dogs keep off the grass.”
The people in town meant it.
I was looking forward to civilian life. I never in my worst nightmares thought that in a few years I would be back in the navy.
Excerpted from Not So Good A Gay Man, copyright © 2017 by Frank M. Robinson.