Remembering Age Thirteen

This week on Facebook, my friend Pete tagged me for some sort of album challenge whereby I am urged or obligated, chain-letter style, to post an album per day for ten days.  With little instruction to the challenge as it came to me, I have been selecting albums, good and bad, that made a lasting impression.  My album of choice for today is Shaun Cassidy’s self-titled 1977 debut LP.

It had nothing to do with the music.

As a current-day playground bully might say: “That’s so gay.”

Actually, it is.

I bought the Shaun Cassidy album while visiting my father and older brother Karl for two weeks with my older brother Chris in July 1977.  My father didn’t have a record player, so I never actually heard it until I got home to Flint.  Yet I spent hours while my father and brothers were at work, staring at the album cover, not quite understanding why I was enthralled with the smiling blond teen idol.

Thinking about the album and the visit to Houston has served as a trigger for conjuring the whole trip, its complicated importance to my personal sexual awakening, and its even more complicated place in my relationship with my father.

I was thirteen.

My parents had divorced five years earlier, when I was eight.  They had been separated when I was born, gotten back together when I was six months old, separated again less than a year later, and reunited for three more years when I was four.  My mom moved us to live in a tiny house in Kalamazoo from 1968 to 1972, the only time I remember the “whole family” together.

Following the divorce, I moved back to Flint with my mom and siblings, though Karl soon returned to live with our father.  Until 1976, Chris and I would visit our father and Karl in Portage and, for one summer, in Climax, where they had a farmhouse with a hand pump for water.  After a very short second marriage, our father took a job in Texas and Karl moved with him.

Meanwhile, I started 7th grade at Longfellow Junior High, where I started a comic book called Captain Vos.  Before that, though, I drew some cartoon characters from outer space, including one called Quamock, a sort of minimalist interstellar bug.  In one sketch that I happened upon years later, Quamock says, “No one ever told me a girlfriend had to be a girl.”

I should have had an inkling.

Quamock cartoon
My Quamock cartoon, ca. 1977.

Jump back to the Houston trip.

Much of it involved typical divorced dad fun activities, trying to make up for lost time.  We toured Johnson Space Center, visited Six Flags Over Texas with its new ride the Corkscrew, and went to see Rollercoaster, the disaster movie of the summer.

During one drive through of the city, my brother Karl pointed out the Montrose neighborhood.  “That’s where the gays are,” he said, perhaps using other language.  I don’t recall exactly.

I do remember encountering an older kid from our father’s apartment complex, age fifteen, at the swimming pool.  He had sprouted hair in his underarms.  I was captivated by his body.

My father got a day off to spend with just me.  In the morning we went to a gumbo cook-off in the parking lot of the Superdome.  We then took his station wagon to Galveston to see dolphins at Sea-Arama, a beer ever tucked between his legs on the drive.  (By my count, he consumed seventeen beers that day.)  We ended up at a Chinese restaurant, where he taught me to eat with chopsticks.

I was used to the La Choy chop suey that my mom served us at home.

And somewhere during the Houston trip, our father treated us to a night out at a topless club, what he gleefully referred to as a “titty bar.”  He even offered to arrange for me to lose my virginity.  It all kind of freaked me out.

I saw my father probably a dozen times after that, the last time at the Meijer Heart Center in Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids in March.  He was in good spirits and super chatty, despite his recent cardio episode.  At some point in the conversation, he said of the nutrition tech who’d brought him his lunch, “I think he’s like you.”  It was a weird acknowledgement in coded language: like you.

My father died at age eighty the next day, on my birthday.

Ricochets of personal queer remembering…

Tim Retzloff

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