The Memento Of My Father’s Bigotry — And What Could Have Been

By Diane K. Martin

Although he was a doctor who could assuredly afford to pay his way most places, my father dearly liked getting something for nothing. Maybe this was because his father had worked in a kosher butcher’s, plucking chickens. Maybe it was because Dad’s generation endured the Depression. Maybe it was just that he was cheap.

He and my mother, for their honeymoon, spent two weeks in a summer camp before he went off to war — free room and board in exchange for salving poison ivy and bandaging scraped knees. Then sometime in the ’50s or early ‘60s — before the building of the Robert Moses Causeway in 1964, when the only way to get to Fire Island (the barrier island off Long Island) was by ferry — Dad announced plans to take mom and the four of us, kit and caboodle, to Fire Island.

We would live over the firehouse, spend our days at the beach, and he would be the island’s doctor for the summer.

Preparations to go to the beach were always a big deal in our family, even for just an afternoon excursion. Up at dawn, Mom would bake blueberry nut bars or brownies or both and make sandwich after sandwich — presumably the fresh salt air would induce each of us to eat at least three.

We girls were drafted to help, of course, to chop celery for tuna salad, to slather the fishy goo on kaiser rolls, scoop egg salad on rye bread, schmear cream cheese on onion bagels, and pack it all in a metal cooler that must have weighed 50 pounds empty. There would also be big jugs of lemonade and thermoses of coffee in scotch plaid bags.

The actual drive to the beach from Yonkers — the Westchester suburb that bordered the Bronx — would take upwards of an hour, the car packed with all the food, the four of us, both grandmothers, beach chairs of plastic webbing and heavy duty aluminum for the grandmothers to sit on, and big beach umbrellas. (But no sunscreen. Dad, who suffered from melanoma in his later years, didn’t believe in sunscreen.)

Our state-of-the-art air conditioners were windows you cranked down, and the parking lots seemed like oceans themselves, miles away from the water, with all of Detroit’s steel and chrome “boats” parked bumper to bumper.

This is all to say, you can probably imagine how excited we were at the idea of actually staying at a beach — living there — all summer. Over a firehouse! We argued about who would get to slide down the fire pole first, and then who else, in what exact order. We envisioned collecting shells. We envisioned collecting lifeguards. Or anyway, I’m sure my sister Alice did. (She had made a recent habit of making her way out into the choppy waves and promptly waving for help so she would be rescued in the arms of the hunky, salt-water-taffy lifeguards — sometimes three times in an afternoon. I’m not kidding.)

***

We took the ferry to Fire Island. The ferry ride is burned into my memory as it were, because I was cigarette-hand height and a woman’s hot cigarette ash burned my cheek. When I yelped in pain she leaned down in her big hat and sunglasses to bark — watch where you’re going, kid!

But the fact of the ferry meant we were really on an island, separate from the mainland, separate from reality.

That first night, we set the table for an early dinner, excited by the promise of an evening on the beach. The silverware was heavyweight, substantial, the fork’s nether tip embellished with a three-chrysanthemum design. Dad wasn’t around, but then he never was for dinner preparation. He would come in late and sit down, and Mom would put his hot dinner before him, repeating the account of her father returning from the factory and sitting down to a dinner, piping hot, as he ascended the stairs.

But when our Dad came in — stormed in — he said, “we’re leaving now — we’re not staying another minute.Maybe he said it was too dirty here, and we girls looked around the bright firehouse kitchen, wondering what he saw that we didn’t, wondered what filth could possibly counter the diagonal slant of summer sun and the waves (so close!) crashing around us.

We never got to slide down the fireman’s pole. No reason whatsoever was ever given for our swift departure — for what turned us right back around, what made him revoke his decision. He said he would tell us later, but later never happened to Fire Island. He must have thought we forgot.

Here’s what I think: Even as early as the 1950s and 1960s, there was an openly gay colony of men on Fire Island; there were legendary bacchanals, supposedly including famous, man-about-town gay men like novelist Christopher Isherwood and WH Auden. Frank O’Hara was run over by a dune buggy there in 1966. I would venture that the daily beach scene was not quite so dramatic, but, I’m sure, quite obvious. I think Dad visited his office, met some prospective patients, and quickly discovered that the summer population was largely — and unabashedly — “homosexual.”

. . . and Dad was a raging, violent homophobe, a man so sure in his aversions, he would hold forth, in public to whomever, about what homosexuals did and where they put what — as if he was the first person to figure it out. Practically a card-carrying Freudian, he didn’t know or care about what the vehemence of his disgust said about his own possible secret desires.

And yeah, you’re right, I know nothing about his secret desires, but I do know he insisted that women “stay in their place,” that he thought, for instance, my sister driving her boyfriend in a car robbed him of his masculinity. It was also his learned medical opinion that my use of a tampon in my early teens meant I was no longer a virgin. You can see what kind of sand castles he might have built in his mind.

Back in Yonkers, the sprinklers orbited on green lawns amid the fireflies and crickets — not so terrible, sure, but it wasn’t Fire Island. After that afternoon, after taking the ferry right back home, we regularly drove to Jones Beach or Rockaway, but we never went back to Fire Island. Somehow, though, one of the Fire Island forks, from the firehouse kitchen, came home with us. Whenever we set the table, we would fight — as four kids born in five years will fight over everything — over who would get the Fire Island fork.

***

This benign anecdote about surviving suburbia is just a memory — it’s a half dream and half unfulfilled yearning, it’s fissures and gaps completed with sun and sand. It’s just a reminiscence that my siblings surely remember differently.

But what if?

What if we had spent the summer above the firehouse? Would my father have been changed? Would he, who refused to go out to eat in San Francisco, years later, for fear of catching AIDS, have become a better man? Would it have mattered if one of us kids had turned out to be gay? They worried aloud about me. I would not flirt like my sister Alice. I refused to give my father’s male colleagues free kisses. I threw a ball “like a boy.” I’m sure they wondered about my brother. His friends were . . . “funny.”

This story sprang to my mind in the wake of Orlando. While the world has decidedly evolved since the days of Fire Island being a lone bastion of safety for gay folks, surely the world hasn’t changed enough — and the Fire Island fork remains a painful reminder of that resistance.

***

Lead Image: Flick/simo

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