My Grandma’s Birthday (and the man who hung himself.)

Today would have been my grandmother’s 101st birthday, had she lived this long. But no, alas, she died in 1994. In a horrible car wreck, in a car driven by me, which was struck head on by a 17 year old girl. She took the family car without permission and went joy riding while yapping with two of her girlfriends and pow – right into me at the intersection of Haverhill Road and Forest Blvd in West Palm Beach Florida. It was about a mile or so from grandma’s house, and my mother’s too, who was in the car. They lived next to each other. I lived a few minutes away in a different direction. We were coming home from a wonderful few days at Thanksgiving at my Uncle Herel and Aunt Ivy’s house in Orlando.

Here’s a picture of me and my grandmother at the house I bought a few miles away from their twin condos:

Which is odd, for I had been living in Louisiana for years. In fact, I had been living in Tony Perkins’ home state. A place he has abandoned so that he might find the milk and honey trail in Washington DC telling Congress and presidential contenders that I’m anti-family; that is how he earns is living, after all. Yet, how I could be “against” my family, “Against” family values, (oh, he’s virtually screaming it every time he says it with disdain for me in his voice,) even a “domestic terrorist” – as he has called me – and still have picked up my life and moved it to Florida so I could drive my grandmother and mother where they needed to go and change a light bulb or two Mr. Perkins seems not to want to address. He says he researches family? Well, I dare say, I would be glad to provide him with knowledge of my family until he’s tired of hearing about it.

Here’s let’s start with my great-grandparents:

Oh my, I got pictures of them on both sides. And I know their names, and much about their lives.

Why, look, I even got a picture of me with my great-grandparents:

That’s me, behind my great-grandmother, in a thinking pose.

I remember them well. They had come all the way from Kutna Hora in the Czech Republic to get away from the big government of the Austrian Empire, and the royalist-theocracy that place was, until it came crashing down in 1918. They came in 1903, separately. They had known each other there, as acquaintances. One day, in 1906, they met on a street in Manhattan, in the Czech neighborhood, around East 75th Street and York Avenue. They saw they were both not yet married, and well, they knew each other back there, so that was a good enough reason to get married here, eh?

And my grandmother was born in that Czech neighborhood, at 441 E 75th Street. And grew up in that Czech neighborhood, being very Czech indeed; almost like she was an immigrant herself. As a young girl she started to go to Sokol Camp, in East Haddam Connecticut. There she met my grandfather. Look, here’s a picture of them cavorting before their marriage in 1930:

Racy picture, eh? For the times, it probably was. 2 years later they had my mom – look, here’s a picture of the happy couple with their first born child.

And here they are years later with all six of their kids. See that young kid there? Yes, he’s my Uncle Herel.

Only I never called him “Uncle” in my life – for he’s only 2 years older than me. Quite a late in life baby. My my, look at all his older siblings! That’s my mother towering over him, next to her father. Ah, there’s thousands of more photos to go through. As the family historian, as the guy who remembers these things, as the guy with all the documents and everything, well, yes, I’m “against” family values, eh, Tony? Hogwash of course. This man is a loon; he knows nothing of a gay man’s family values. Nothing. Well, I played cowboys and Indians with Herel, so I sure wasn’t going to call him “uncle” anything. But it was at his house that we met up for Thanksgiving – because I’m trying to “destroy” tradition says Tony the Tiger “for” family values. Screwy, right? Yep.

Anyway, I had taken the long scenic route, through Lake Wales and Sebring. Oh, we had stopped for a fine meal at a Shoney’s, and had walked around Bok Tower Gardens, a gorgeous place, and we paused at the many lakes to see the vistas. I took them to Spook Hill, too. This is a place that because of the lay of the land around the road, when one goes down the road slowly one gets the distinct impression of rolling uphill. Very weird, and quite a thrill for the ladies, for they had never heard of such a thing; ah, but I know places that are always a bit out of whack, so that I might entertain people with fun things to see and do. Tony Perkins should see such a place, where things are not as they seem, for he likes illusions indeed.

And then the sun went down, so we went back on hour way to West Palm – and way out in the middle of the state, on Hwy 98, we stopped, and all got out, and looked up at the stars. There were so many more to be seen, for there was no light pollution in the middle of the Everglades. We gazed upwards at the heavens and spoke of things. And then an hour later, pow, she was gone. Weird eh? Still gives me the willies. Still, today would have been her birthday. Perhaps Mr. Perkins should have been there to drive them to the Thanksgiving soiree – for surely I couldn’t have done it if I was in jail like he and his boyfriend Peter Sprigg insist I be – for the good of my own family no doubt, he’s sure.

Ah, but the man who hung himself – that’s what I was getting to. When my grandmother figured out I was gay she didn’t go all Perkins’ on me. I was maybe, oh, 15, and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind around my house. And I had beaucoup relatives (that’s Cajun for “a whole lot of”) yes, just dozens of relatives. A never ending parade of people. Older people yammering in Czech – for both sides of my family are Czech heritage — and all the many cousins – 10 on one side, 20 on the other – my my, what a collection of people. And they all knew, for I couldn’t conceive of hiding it. They all were like, “Well, that’s just who he is,” and no one was ready to rush me off to a “curing” center I assure you. And that could be because grandma told a story – which, from the sound of things when she told it, she had never told it before:

She told us of a young man name Jiri – which is the Czech for George, and often comes out in English as “Jerry” but is pronounced “Yihr-zhi” (hey, Czech ain’t easy,) who had hung himself in his building’s basement. He did so because he was “Divni” – “strange” “queer” in the old sense of “just not normal” and well, by metaphorical extension, “queer” or “sissy” in the modern sense of those words (though, well, “sissy” has meant “sissy” since it was first written down in the early 1200s, and no doubt always meant exactly what it means, so much for modern influences make gay folks, eh?)

The poor guy was apparently harassed by people. They made fun of him. They bullied him, I’d suppose, in modern parlance. And well, perhaps someone, the Perkins’ of his time, told him he should kill himself. Isn’t that what these “gays are always sick” people are calling for? Yes, they are. They are sure that it’s OK for gay kids to kill themselves. They are all for bullying — though oddly, “hazing” is illegal in all 50 states — perhaps we gays should say “screw the bullying laws, we got ourselves some hazing laws — stop hazing gay kids!” That should put a twist in Perkins undies, eh?

Grandma said he was about 18 when he did it. And she said she was always upset that he did, for he was a nice enough “fellow” – which is the word my grandmother used to delineate my gay friends from my straight friends. “So, going out with your fellows tonight?” she might ask. “Yep.” And I think, that because of that story, because of what happened to the nice fellow she knew all those years ago, in the 1920s there in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, she wasn’t going to allow any such thing to happen to me. Or any of my fellows for that matter She delighted in meeting my friends, and always had the nicest things to say.

Weirdly, or, not surprisingly, depends on how one looks at it, Uncle Charley, the young man on the far left of the family photo above – he is a Marine, yes, one of those jarheads who is “once a Marine, always a Marine” – was the one who introduced me at the same age, 15, to William F. Buckley’s National Review. He got me a subscription for my birthday. And I took to it like a duck to water. I even have a few nice letters from “Bill” as he signed them to me, answering this or that question about some word he used which I couldn’t find anywhere. Though he never did answer me about the gay thing, to which I also wrote to him about. Oh, this ain’t new. I was way back then saying “How can you say I’m against family when I’m with my family all the time, and can speak Czech with them too?” Nope, he didn’t answer that – they never do, these people.

They keep bleating on how we are the end of the world – when we are simply part of it. They insist we are “attacking” families. Whose? When? Where? Is Perkins’ family life that tenuous that a gay couple down the block is an immediate threat requiring laws and police intervention, arrest and incarceration? Really? Is the man that crazy? And while it is his right to be nuts – sure believe that the grass is pink and the sky is green, see if I care! – but why then would any serious policy maker listen to him?

But I know this, my family isn’t going to listen to Perkins, or any other creep on the hustings who says bad things about me. My grandmother nor my grandfather would tolerate that. And not strange to me, my grandfather was all proud and happy that he had a divni grandson. And when he was a mucky muck in the Boy Scouts, and my father a troop leader, and me and my brothers members of the troop – well, I can tell you this – that was the gay friendliest Boy Scout troop on earth, perhaps. For no one could pick upon me, or my grandfather would have a thing or two to say to those people.

Including telling the story of young Jiri who hung himself – and making it clear – “not my grandson, leave him alone.” And perhaps grandma never even told him until I came along. But they wouldn’t tolerate this nonsense from these nonsensical people bleating that we should be berated until we disappear. And that’s a gift of family and love my grandmother and grandfather gave me that way trumps any crud from Perkins about how I lack family values. And if Perkins researched a family with a gay kid, they might well find this everywhere – instead of attacking this amorphous thing “homosexuality” with which they are obsessed.

So Stastny narozeneny babicku – happy birthday grandma.

And Perkins, as my grandmother would tell you – strc prst skrz prdl – oh, shove it, dude, just shove it. And get some of my family values, and stop your mush.

And here’s what grandpa & grandma always said Don’t Tread On Me!

Well, in Czech — nechodit na mne!

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