By Joe Howard Crews
Radar. Gaydar. Ten thousand probing charges reading the spirits, searching for synchronicity — for that soul sound that goes … PING! You turn it on again and again, and each time it goes PING!
Do you have gaydar? No? Then you are not gay.
I was born with gaydar. I discovered early the gift was there — by the age of 4. Kids are born with special gifts; they discover their gifts early because their minds are open and innocent — before the grown up world draws a dark and suffocating shroud to suppress them.
My gaydar turned on the first time I met Donnie. He was also four. Our mothers introduced us properly. Mama knelt down, as she often did when she wanted to look straight into my eyes and connect with my young mind.
“Donnie is gonna be your friend. You can play and have fun together. No fighting. You will like Donnie, and he will like you. Be good to him.”
I glanced over at Donnie. He was real pretty. That’s when the gaydar came on. Donnie spent hours and days together with me while his mother was away at work. Everybody had to work. The Big War was on. I had no toys. Neither did my two sisters. Not even a doll. I guess we were poor folks, although I had no concept of “poor.” So we played games making up our own rules and creating our own imaginary kingdoms.
Now suddenly, I had been presented a friend. I remembered my mother’s words: “You will like Donnie and he will like you.” We played. Cautiously at first. Then with more and more energy. We chased each other and tested each other. I just know we were terribly raucous, but we always played in the yard. Fortunately, there were empty lots on the two sides of the house where we played.
Summers were real hot in Mississippi. Mama made us come inside when the sun was hottest, to take a nap. We were always tired by that time from strenuous play, and soon fell asleep.
I remember one day when we were lying in bed, side-by-side, bodies touching. It was hot. We had no fan. I was sweating. I was uncomfortable and sat up to take off my shirt, waking Donnie as I wiggled around. I felt cooler. I looked at Donnie and told him to take his shirt off. I helped him. Then I helped him take his underpants off. That was the first time I saw him naked. …. PING! PING! We touched each other. We both liked the touching. Then we fell back asleep. His body was still warm; nevertheless I scooted over so we could sleep with our bodies touching. Mama was in the next room sewing on her machine. I liked the hum of the purring motor racing and stopping — then racing again. Three hums, and I was back asleep.
One day Uncle Charles came to visit. I liked Uncle Charles because he always picked me up, tossed me in the air, then gave me a big hug while he talked energetically with me. But he always raked his bristly beard stubble against my tender face. I didn’t like that. But I liked Uncle Charles. And I liked his scratchy beard better than that icky gooey kiss from Aunt Zelda Mae.
“I have something for you out in my truck!” Uncle Charles announced, leading me by my hand. It was a huge wooden crate — much bigger than me.
“What’s in it?” I asked.
“Ohh-h-h, it’s a magic box. It’s full of magic. You just have to make a wish and whatever you want will be in the box,” he explained as Donnie and I watched him drag the huge box across the grass into the shade of the big pecan tree. He turned the box upside down, and with his crowbar removed one of the end boards, creating a small secret door just big enough for Donnie and me to squeeze through.
Uncle Charles explained we could make a fort out of it and fight the Germans. Those were the mean people who had germs. I had never seen either one — a German or a germ — but seeing is not necessary for a child to believe. We could make a castle out of the crate, and become a king. Or it could be a clubhouse just for me and Donnie … and nobody else could come in.
As Uncle Charles drove off, we raced to the big box. I quickly scrambled inside, and motioned my skeptical friend to come in. He did so with a bit of trepidation. He was afraid of the magic. I liked that.
Because it was wartime, we had blackouts when everybody in Hattiesburg had to turn the lights out and stay indoors. I didn’t like the dark and I didn’t like being so still and quiet. My big sister explained we had to do this because President Roosevelt had said the Germans might be coming, and we had to turn the lights off so they couldn’t see us.
A few days later Donnie and I entered our fort and put up the board over the secret door. I told Donnie we had to be very still and very quiet so the Germans didn’t find us. Sitting very quiet and very still next to Donnie was a special moment, because I felt I had to protect my friend. He trusted me. I could feel the palpitations of his breath. He reached out to hold my hand. My mother, disturbed by the unusual quiet, came out the front door and called our names. I whispered in Donnie’s ear “I think they’re gone.” We jumped out and started screaming “The Germans are gone! The Germans are gone.” My mother went back to her sewing, satisfied that all was normal.
One day as I was playing the king, Donnie sat beside me and said, “You are a good king.” He rose on his knees before me, kissed me on the cheek, gave me a hug and said, “I like you.”
I was sad when he and his mother had to move away. After Donnie left, the magic disappeared from the big box.
But I will never forgot Donnie — or his kiss inside the castle. And I will never forget that first PING when I discovered gaydar in 1942, during wartime, before the British discovered radar.
©2009 Joe Howard Crews
MAMMA (Middle-Aged Mothers for Marriage Equality) recommends sharing this essay with folks who think homosexuality is a “lifestyle choice,” as a way to start a conversation about same-sex marriage.