The idea was—when each of us boys in our family came of age—i.e., ten—my father was to take us on the Northcoast Limited back to Chicago and tell us the Facts of Life on the way.
I already knew them, of course, but the idea of having a grand revelation in the train’s Vistadome with the scenery rushing past somewhere in North Dakota was exciting to think about, and to be “taken out of school,” as they said in those days, whether for travel or bad behavior, was an enormous status symbol. Besides, maybe I’d find out something I hadn’t heard.
My turn came at last, in the spring of 1954, the year 3-D was getting replaced by Cinerama. My great dream was to be told the Facts of Life well before we reached Chicago, and to be taken, once we got there, to Cinerama Holiday—for Lord knows it would never come to Seattle. I could well imagine myself telling my fourth grade friends at recess that I had both Cinerama and the Facts of Life under my belt.
I had a terrible time of it, travelling. Three days and three nights—and without him telling me the Facts. Plus I got train sick. It was always my understanding from my older brothers that The Facts happened on your way over rather than on your way back. Did it mean he thought I was deficient? All I could remember was arriving in Chicago feeling terribly let down and overlooked, while being greeted warmly by my Aunt Jane and Uncle Joshua at their tiny home in Forest Park.
Now about Aunt Jane. She was really quite important, when I actually got to thinking about it, for I had a memory of her when she had visited us three years ago. I recalled that she had read to us from a French edition of The One Thousand and One Nights (because it had the best illustrations), translating as she went, so that as the book told of the marvelous flowerings and vanishings, created by Scheherazade, you also had the impression, step by step, of skipping continents. Just the word alone “oiseau,” which she told us meant “bird,” seemed multi-striped and in flight, a word that seemed, like Sinbad’s Rook, to tap its way out of its shell and sweep into the azure of the lamp-lit evening, which hung down like parted curtains in Aladdin’s tent.
Aunt Jane’s home, then, was a peculiar mixture of surprise culture and the lost-and-found, along with hypochondria gone wild. One could well imagine a hot-water bottle leaning up against a Venus de Milo. Affected by all this, I had not been there many nights when I started praying please, God, keep me safe from polio, cancer, appendicitis, brain trouble, tuberculosis, rabies, and so on down the line, feeling quite assured, if I missed something, I’d definitely get it. To be closer to his sales convention, my father had taken lodging at the Palmer House downtown, so it wasn’t long before I was thinking and acting just like Aunt Jane and Uncle Joshua, both of them many years older than my father and acting more as stand-in grandparents than anything else. In this atmosphere, the Facts of Life seemed further and further off.
Mornings would find me “sitting down to our morning meal,” as Aunt Jane and Uncle Joshua called it, an activity which took hours compared to the 15 minutes back home, and then to exploring what I think of now as the “grand old White House.” I actually think of it as that, even though it was nothing more than a two-bedroom bungalow which a German had built back in the 20’s, because of Aunt Jane’s way of referring to parts of the place as though she were the First Lady. “Please carry these plants to the South Bedroom.” Or “You might wish to read your comic books in the Conservatory” (the sun room). There was even a Rose Garden which Uncle Joshua dug in in the evenings when, by the grace of God, he arrived home from the insurance office.
The supreme mystery of how Aunt Jane learned to be First Lady was solved for me, almost immediately—the moment we went for a visit to the Chicago Institute of Art. It was a place which had South and East rooms—and, in fact, a Rose Garden—and Aunt Jane behaved there just as she did at home. As Grand Curator. As we floated through, with my scarved relative waving me toward one side of the building and then the next, I finally asked, “Aunt Jane, where did you learn so much about this place?” And she replied, “I used to come here every lunch hour when I worked downtown. It was here I discovered what I wanted my own home to look like.”
We were standing at just that moment in a place which merits some description. We had just left the gallery of paintings and had entered into a huge, high-domed arena of statuary. There was my old friend, the Venus de Milo, but more tellingly for me, in my search for the Facts of Life, was a huge colossus of Hercules, done in apparent black marble, and it was between his legs that we were presently standing. The muscles seemed to stretch and flex, stretch and flex, like an extraordinarily beautiful shadow, engaging both the chest and the arms, and even the club which he carried on his powerful back.
But this classical embrace was immediately punctured almost the moment I had taken it in. A couple of little boys were laughing and tittering and pointing to the huge pouch which the Victorian museum had figleafed over. And in black rubber no less. His whole manhood seemed to test the power of latex. Aunt Jane must have been terrified by the size of my eyes, because immediately she comforted me before she did anything else.
“Can’t tell you how sorry I am,” she said, “to have you exposed like this. Come— we’re standing in the wrong spot.”
“I’m just fine,” I answered.
(You can just imagine what happened when, years later, she learned I was gay. Maybe this was the first moment I knew I was. What an epiphany!)
Yes, it was indeed quite all right.
Needless to say, it took me awhile to rest up from that experience, but the pièce de résistance had, in fact, not happened yet as far as the Facts of Life were concerned. For one morning, back at Jane’s and Joshua’s home, I was leafing through the family Bible, when I came to the central pages, where all the births and deaths and “unions” were listed. I was quite astounded, in this heavy Victorian volume with engraved clouds hovering above the Host of Pharoah, to see my name written in, with my year of birth, “1944-,” standing there as if the hyphen were trying to attract my year of decease. And in looking over all these births and deaths and marriages, I had the most overwhelming sense of bodies uniting with bodies, creating orgasms and offspring, many of whom were listed as having died in their infancy. And as I looked, I was aware of the breath from the hyacinths newly cropping up in the Rose Garden—for all the windows in the “Conservatory” were open—and a sense of mortality hit me as strongly as though I had just finished all the sonnets of Shakespeare—in order and in one sitting, too—or witnessing, once again, the magnificent manhood of Hercules.
Snapping the book closed, I took up my Classic comic books, having brought two favorites, the Arabian Nights (Number Eight), of course, and Alexander Dumas’ The Black Tulip (Number 73). To assure myself, I read both of them cover to cover each morning, and today I especially needed them. Then it happened. One of the most extraordinary moments of my life. In reading through The Black Tulip, I came to the back, which had its usual “Famous Scientists” page—a feature which all the Classics had at that time. And there, under “Great American Nobel Scientists,” I read: “Dr. Duncan Rhoades received the Nobel Prize for discovering Vitamin K in 1937.” “Duncan Rhoades” was a name I had just seen in the Family Registry! It was something greater than Scheherazade’s stories, something far bigger than Cinerama—and who the hell cared what “oiseau” meant, when Fame sat perched, like a glistening vulture, in your family tree! I even forgot about my muscular statue.
“Aunt Jane! Aunt Jane!” I yelled, running from the “Conservatory.” “Look what I found!”
Aunt Jane rushed in, with an urgent nurse’s expression, which instantly faded to disappointment when she saw that all I had was comic books. “You scared the life out of me,” she said, pressing her throat. “I thought there was a rattler in the Rose Garden!”
“Something better,” I said. “Look—we’re related to a man who’s famous.”
Aunt Jane looked at the page in The Black Tulip. “Oh, yes, Cousin Duncan. The famous Dr. Rhoades. You’re quite right. He’s Aunt Cara’s son.”
She looked bemused for a moment, and stared off.
“But aren’t you going to do something?”
“Do what?” she asked.
“Go and see him.”
“But I’ve already seen him. He knows us quite well.”
Suddenly the Facts of Life were no longer important. “That’s what I want,” I said, imagining “share-time” back in Mrs. Mendelhall’s class. “I want to meet Dr. Rhoades.”
“Well that certainly can be arranged,” she answered.
Dr. Rhoades lived on something of an estate out in Lake Forest, and it was a good two-hour drive, at least. Moreover, Uncle Joshua was to do the driving, and it must be stated here and now, that if any kind of state test had been conducted on my beloved Uncle, he would have been declared legally blind, hands down, no questions asked. Everyone—turn up the footlights. Even if violence is supposed to occur offstage, it is about to happen anyway. Uncle Joshua is at the wheel!
But Uncle Joshua and Aunt Jane had a system all worked out. They drove together. In tandem, almost. Aunt Jane did not know how to manage a steering wheel, actually, but the moment they got into the car, she pulled down the visor for the suicide seat and gazed into her own private rearview mirror. She served as his eyes and directed him accordingly.
As I saw all this happen, I quickly included “car accidents” in my catalogue of catastrophic prayers, and as we pulled away on our journey, nearly colliding with a bus, I took Aunt Jane’s First Aid Manual from her sewing basket and began reading up on tourniquets.
In a moment or two, however, Aunt Jane was directing Uncle Joshua to pull off the road.
“Are we there already?” I asked, wanting, this time, to turn around.
“No,” they said together. “We’re stopping at the family graveyard first.”
Of course—the family graveyard. What else?
“Will there be ticks and snakes there?”
“You keep an eye on your pant legs,” Aunt Jane suggested. “And Daddy will watch for snakes.”
Of course the graveyard was as mown and manicured and snakefree as the parking strip in front of Buckingham Fountain; nevertheless we stalked our way through as though we were blazing a trail through the Amazon. After taking a look at a huge family plot, marked with a large stone urn with the family name “Tourneur” etched on it, Aunt Jane and I ran down a long slope which led to Dr. Rhoades’ home, while Uncle Joshua went back to get the car.
The home was an impressive thing, with a long veranda, and wistaria and clematis and mimosa trees, upon which the early spring heat rested. A replica of the Southern manse from which Dr. Rhoades had come. Dr. Rhoades, warned of our coming, rushed to the door, like an old lonely hick who hadn’t seen kin in years.
Aunt Jane took him in her stride and only suffered him to pump her hand while she smiled.
“I can’t tell you what it’s meant to have this visit,” he said. “With nothing but the tulips for company these days, you’re rain falling on parched soil—and this is the young man from Seattle,” he added, directing a highly goggled gaze in my direction. “Your aunt tells me you have a penchant for things cultural. A little bit of the long-hair.”
“And not only that,” Aunt Jane said, smiling again and putting down her sewing basket, which still rattled with medical supplies. “He has something to show you. Something that involves science and culture and tulips and you. All four.”
“My, my,” said the bald gentleman. “Well, this calls for some lemonade first. Where is that Joshua?”
“Right here,” my uncle answered, feeling his way in.
So we all sat down—hardly what you would call a distinguished company—to the large dining room table, which was as bald and shining as the famous man’s head, and drank our fresh-squeezed lemonade beneath a Tiffany chandlier. In my estimation, Cousin Duncan looked more like a hardware store salesman—plainer than even the men my father brought home to dinner—than a Nobel Laureate. So, still trying to get things to the level of elevation I had expected, I took out my precious Black Tulip. However, just as I was in the midst of turning to “Famous American Nobel Scientists,” Aunt Jane asked Dr. Rhoades (Duncan) if he had been well lately. Wrong question.
The family footlights went up, and to my horror, he launched off on a countdown of ills and phobias as encyclopedically long as my bedtime prayers. As I sat there, I acquired and suffered, in due order, each one of the ills as they were painstakingly enumerated. His account then glided quite naturally into a survey of the past and, eventually, our family history, which included a Tourneur patriarch who was, quite predicably now, dead and a pharmacist. As though in lieu of a slide show, Dr. Rhoades then hauled out a tray of artifacts, recently recovered from his attic, which told the pharmacist’s story. Fevers, prescriptions, and old nosedrop bottles. Oh no. So this was the ancestor who was responsible for all this.
I waved my comic book emphatically. “But look, Cousin Duncan, how famous you are!”
And, still mid-sentence, Dr. Rhoades received “Great American Nobel Scientists,” as though he were going to pass on a plate of sliced tomatoes. “Very nice”—with a glance.
I sat there, dumbfounded.
There was a pause. Aunt Jane, noticing, said, “Can’t you see the boy wants to show you how proud he is?”
“Well sure.” But he was still staring at the pharmaceutical bottles, now caught up in a congenital sinus condition which she had just mentioned.
“Well, the least you could do,” she said, “is show him your Laureate medal. You do”—speaking now like an indulgent mother about a disputed lunchbox—”know where it is, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. It’s in the South Bedroom.”
“Then let’s all have a look”—she said, getting up. “It will do us all a world of good to stretch our legs and see it again.”
And so we went up the banistered stairs, past a gallery of daguerreotypes, hung unevenly on the wall, up to the part of the house that Dr. Rhoades never used. He took out a key, opened the door, and went right up to a curtain which looked like it belonged to a wall safe, and drew it. But instead of there being a Nobel medal, there was a nude barroom painting of Mae West. For many, many reasons, it reminded me of my Hercules incident.
“I just know it’s here somewhere,” Dr. Rhoades said, scratching his head.
“Well, while you’re standing there, please close the curtain,” Jane insisted.
“No, no”—Uncle Joshua groped for Duncan’s arm—”not until I’ve had a chance to look. I can’t even see from back here.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent trying to find the celebrated item. We turned the place upside down—even going so far as to investigate my second cousin’s little personal laboratory, which, while having some apparent similarities to my “Chemcraft” chemistry set back home, was, nevertheless, the seat, I learned later, not only of the discovery of Vitamin K but of numerous medical breakthroughs to follow. In our search, we were joined by Dr. Rhoades’ wienerdog, Sticks (Styx?), who, covered with mud from the irrigation ditch, marked our search with tracks all over the rose carpet. We seemed almost to be exploring a cave. “Duncan, honestly,” my aunt kept saying, “I think you could do better with the world’s greatest honor.”
“Well, don’t give up on me yet,” he answered. “I know it’s here.”
Still, as I wandered through, I kept thinking about that Family Registry—especially when, in a chest of drawers, I turned up a 19th-century photograph of a toddler in a casket. On the other side, there was only one word—”Alpha.”
Suddenly there was a hand on my arm. It was Aunt Jane. Cousin Duncan had just remembered his junk drawer. And so, we flocked, all of us, to see old conductor’s watches, clothespins, loose cards, not one of them matching—to see a few old socks, two of them rolled into a ball which Sticks wanted, to be pulled from a top bureau drawer, all giving way to the Nobel Medallion, stripped disrespectfully of its backing. And as I think of that medallion finally coming out, held up as a prize by the man with the billard head, I think of it and the whole surrounding contents as the real Facts of Life, then and now—far greater than anything the Family Registry or the Northcoast Limited, even with its Vistadome, could supply. Because those things surrounding the World’s Greatest Honor were what predominated, ultimately, along with, of course, the picture of Alpha, which I couldn’t get out of my mind. For I would like to have thought that Cousin Duncan with all his strength and genius could have saved us all from the ills of this vulnerable green earth, could have made the world as safe forever as it was back then. Just a little theater full of stock-situation maladies which never amounted to anything. But unfortunately even a man with Nobel laurels can’t keep people from getting really sick—like Aunt Jane and Uncle Joshua, who, much as I loved them, did die.
“Cousin Duncan,” Aunt Jane said, leading us back to the dining room at last, “let this be a lesson to you.” And she sat down at the table and put on some lipstick, surveying everything over her shoulder in her compact. “And I can see even from here how you’ve gotten a splinter from that junk drawer. Let this be another lesson. Now where is my sewing basket, and we’ll have that splinter out in a jiffy.”
“But we mustn’t forget to sterilize the needle first” was his answer.
“Don’t you worry one bit. I’ve got some of the best methylate in the country right here in my basket.”
And she withdrew a beautiful fuchsia-colored bottle, glowing first pink, then orange in the declining sun, and brightly labelled with a skull-and-crossbones which, as I remember now, had one of the cheeriest smiles I have ever seen.
Later, on the way back to Seattle, my father did sit me down in the Vistadome, and drawing diagrams on a cocktail napkin, explained the rather strange procedures between men and women. They are strange to me, still. And so, perhaps, instead of remembering those awkward diagrams which we at last flushed down the train toilet (impossible to get anything down one of those), I recall instead Aunt Jane in the sunlight, studying Cousin Duncan’s finger with her minute and beautiful eyes.