Of course, gender reassignment wasn’t available then. Not that I was unhappy with having been born male. Rather, it was the latter half of the nature-versus-nurture dichotomy that vexed me.
My abnormality surfaced early.
I’d ridden my Schwinn to the home of a grammar school pal. In the street in front of it we were joined by a new kid whose family recently had moved into a house across from pal’s on Beelzebub Lane. Mikey Coogan, the new guy, had swarms of Irish freckles on a round face, laughed often and, although two years younger than me, seemed more carnal.
That wasn’t a word kids would have used then, if only because our school’s implant specialists wouldn’t dare mention sex in daily religion class. “Adultery” yes, but only as the the Seventh Commandment’s last word, and they never explained the word’s meaning.
I can’t recall how our chat got to a certain topic, and no physical action happened to make the day indelible. Just three grammar school boys standing mid-street, talking. What marked me for life was what Mikey said about females, something like, “Yeah, we know girls ain’t as good as boys!”
He said it with emphasis and a cheshire-cat grin, nudging us to agree by grinning with him—my earliest recollection of peer pressure. I did grin yet, owing to my having a no-account father, no brothers, two older sisters and a stalwart working mom, I’d assumed Mikey meant the exact opposite. That is, most adult males are (for reasons I hadn’t yet fathomed) dickheads, liars, boozers, fools and thoroughly unreliable, like Dad.
Theretofore I’d assumed such was the norm, and that Mikey was ratifying my assumption, albeit via irony by declaring the opposite, which was why he grinned. Until then I’d thought normal families were run by moms who got scant help from spouse, and no help from clergy, lawyers, police or in-laws. I hadn’t yet realized: although born to matriarchy, since first grade I’d entered patriarchy—aka, society.
But, of course, kids then didn’t use words like matriarchy or patriarchy either. The best I could do was wonder (to myself), “Who died and left guys in charge of everything?” School nuns were an exception—yet their gender was open to doubt. Many were robust, had male names (Sister Martin Joseph, Mother Saint Jasper) and their orca garb hid all but cropped face and violent hands.
For me, school seemed like Stalag 17, a weekly TV drama of that era set in a Nazi camp for Yank POWs. Age seven, I’d assumed that, because we’d finished lessons and been filed out of classroom at 3 p.m., I’d weathered day one of first grade’s barrage of yelled threats from camp guards.
“Eyes straight ahead!”
“No smiling, no laughing!”
“Do not cross legs when sitting!”
“Boys keep hands out of pockets!”
“It’s ‘Yes, sister’! Not ‘Yes’ and definitely not ‘Yeah’.
“Keep hands away from face and fingers out of nose!”
“No talking in classrooms, the lavatory or while being marched!”
My sin was grinning at a pal as we were being marched single file like penguins along a second-floor hallway toward exit stairs.
As Mother Captor surged from my right, waist-to-knees rosary beads jangling like cowboy spurs, her enflamed mug and killer-whale garb distracted me from noticing a left arm cocked behind its shoulder. She face-whacked me for that unauthorized smile, her leg-speed intensifying the whack’s force, swiveling my gourd hard-left. It’d knocked me out of file, so Mother yanked me back via my necktie.
Welcome to patriarchy, bro. Enforced by burly females, no less.
An obedient son, I’d never before been hit but didn’t cry and not from courage. I’d primal-sensed from Mother Captor’s taut body lingo (fists on hips, inches away, glaring down at me) that tears would earn me another whack. Eyes lowered, I stood silent as she admired her handiwork, which tattooed my cherubic mug from earlobe to chin.
Using virgin flesh as blackboard, Mother had highlighted the day’s message: Obey or get thumped.
Such is how it works in Plato’s Cave: captors stun captives via a few public object lessons so they need not waste time thumping all individually. A dozen years later I’d see the same efficiency on the Marines’ uber-macho Parris Island: fish + dynamite = belly-up submission. Systemic violence—to make minds malleable for dogma implantation.
It would take years (decades, actually) for me to realize that patriarchy rules all societies.
Not so in my nuclear family.
Our rented flat was a short walk catty-corner from St. Paul’s Grammar School, so when I got home after day one of first grade with right cheek still glowing, I asked, “Mom, are you sure nuns are girls?”
She’d taken off from her six-days-weekly waitress job to walk me to school, and to be there when I got home. As Dad well knew, Mom’s Irish temper was best avoided. Before returning from a weeks-long binge—after blowing stay-gone money at bars and horserace tracks—he’d call at the downtown Camden restaurant where she worked to gauge Mom’s ire.
She hit the roof on seeing my glowing right cheek. Immediately took me and my two sisters to the school’s admin office and warned Mother Captor that if she ever touched any of us again, Mom would return and “beat your virgin ass.”
Dad was a barfly, but Mom our lioness.
* * *
. . .No, come to think of it, I take that back.
I had thought that early-teens day with Mikey Coogan was my first taste of patriarchy. But describing it made me realize I’d been peer-pressured even earlier, if you allow Dad was my peer in that we’re both male. It happened when I was in second grade, while readying for school one morning. More dogma implant.
“SHIT!” Dad said with malice.
I was nine, standing bent at waist near our two-bedroom flat’s front window, sorting stuff in my schoolbag. My two sisters and I will soon cross Craven Avenue to begin our week at St. Paul’s.
Mom is in the kitchen making breakfast and our brownbag lunches simultaneously. Later she’ll vacuum while doing laundry, then bus to her waitress job in downtown Camden. Dad drives a lunch wagon to construction sites (when not jobless or gone on weeks-long binges). Six feet and lean, he stands before the black-and-white TV that had entered our lives the year before.
A news station airs film of a black minister being interviewed. He’d led a Sunday march against a southern city where blacks are denied service at at a downtown department store’s lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms and drinking fountains.
Dad didn’t like the sound of M.L. King.
“School a [n-word] and he starts spouting five-dollar words!” he says in what I recognize as his tavern voice. He for whom I’m named saw daily boozing with males as normal manly behavior, mocking the notion that such would cease with marriage or parenthood.
That’s when I look up from my schoolbag and left at Dad, silhouetted against the morning sun entering a side window. What made the day indelible was the hate in his voice. Hatred that wishes Bull Connor had used live ammo on nonviolent marchers (most in their church clothes) rather than just attack dogs and high-pressure water hoses.
Dad sees me look his way, so he adds to the day’s lesson.
“Martin Luther C***,” he says, his right fist balled and his eyes on me rather than King’s TV image, “a big [n-word].”
My patriarch, instilling requisite hatred.
Of course, M.L. King wasn’t being scorned for being female, as would Mikey Coogan a few years later. Yet King and his race were being defined as inferior to the white males who rule patriarchy, as were females of all races.
As yet I didn’t know different, nor would I during eight years of grammar school, where all classmates and teachers were white. That despite the reality that less than a mile from school was a neighborhood known as “Match Town” because, it was said, one match would destroy all its shanties (a statement usually ended with guffaw).
Neighborhood grammar schools funneled us to a regional high school where my large freshman class (312) had two token blacks, one of each gender. But I’d already begun to learn otherwise. Four years of Little League baseball with all white teammates and coaches led to three years of Babe Ruth League ball, where some teams had at least one black player.
All were fine athletes, good teammates and, frankly, I got along better with them than whites prone to supremacist posturing a la Dad; also Monsignor Fartney, our parish VIP who advised Mom to tolerate Dad’s daily boozing.
“Better drunk than gone,” His Nibs decreed when she sought counseling re Dad’s desertions. . .Males defending systemic male privilege (aka, patriarchy).
My unlearning of implanted dogma accelerated from freshman year of high school, when I got a weekend job (full time each summer) in the Housekeeping Department of a Catholic hospital. Many black coworkers plus recent immigrants from Italy, Poland and Ireland. Only two whites on the hospital’s softball team, which I enjoyed more than years of whites-only Little League. I thrived amid the mix of people who could laugh at themselves more noticeably than did males of my race and nationality.
* * *
In daily dogma class, nuns hardly mentioned marriage except to inform that they themselves were wed to Jesus. Some seemed dismissive of lay females wed to mere males—and the carnality required to procreate. They’d wince, as though sniffing limburger, when we rote-recited: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
Nor did I learn of carnal matters from TV, which was still divorced from reality, censored and offered but three channels.
So I learned from neighborhood peers.
My town’s Farmers Mart was a very long, prefab one-story building with two aisles on either side of a center section. Visitors strolled past dozens of stalls where vendors sold farm produce, hardware and housewares. In the middle, between those two aisles, vendors sold eats and cold drinks.
As kids we rode our bikes everywhere, so five miles each way to the Mart was an adventure. On a summer day less than a year after Coogan’s remark about girls being inferior, I biked along the side of Route 130 to the Farmers Mart with him and two other boys. As we strolled the aisles we wanted a cold drink after the hot ride. In the center section at a corner shop, a vendor’s counter was mounted with two clear plastic vats circulating lemonade and grape juice.
Coogan was two years younger me and we’re both Catholic. I want to say he was more worldly than me but, in hindsight, I’d say the difference was he was from a ‘normal’ male-dominant family, where I was the only son and youngest child of a female-dominant family.
As we approached the counter to buy cold juice, Mikey scoots ahead to place a hand over the “G” lettered across the grape juice tank, looks back at us and grins as he had when he’d said girls are inferior. The two other buys burst out laughing.
I grinned knowingly but in fact I wasn’t. Judging by their leering grins, “rape” had something to do with sex. That night I looked it up in the paperback dictionary Mom kept on her nightstand for when she did crossword puzzles.
There was “rape seed” of the cabbage family, plus we’d been at a farmer’s market when he used the word. Still, I knew that wasn’t Mikey’s gist after I read the next definition.
Through a dozen years of daily catechism class, students couldn’t ask questions. Only nuns did. Decades later, I can make myself shudder to think how a nun would’ve detonated had a student raised hand to ask about rape, divorce, abortion or homosexuality.
Kids were there to obey, memorize and repeat after implant specialist: “. . .The Sixth Commandment is, THOU SHALT NOT KILL.”
- * *
After a dozen weeks on Parris Island then two more at Camp Geiger for infantry training, I was ordered to Camp Pendleton for overseas processing. Rather than go Greyhound, I opted to hitchhike from NJ to CA, keen to see more of the homeland I was being sent half way around the globe to defend.
Short hair parted left and combed flat with white sidewalls, button-down beige shirt tucked in, thin black necktie, belted dark chinos, shined boots. I hoped my message would prod drivers to ignore good sense and pick up a strapping male hitcher.
Boldface caps spaced wide on thick gray poster board that wouldn’t bend in wind, backed by a flat board long enough to hoist sign higher than head. Legible for eyes approaching fast.
Days awaiting rides along roads west afforded time aplenty to sift how I’d been schooled for what I was being sent abroad to do. I’d received straight A’s through a dozen years of daily catechism class, because I found the content interesting. So much so that (misreading interest as piety) classmates had voted me Most Likely to Become a Priest. No, I focused because, whereas algebra and geometry seemed cold and bloodless, religion and history were live theater—analyzing people rather than numbers.
Yet memorizing dogma didn’t necessarily convince me. Getting face-whacked on day one at Stalag 17 held more sway. From day two I deployed a survival MO: deadpan, eyes and ears open, avoid spotlights, use stealth, smile inwardly. Instinctively, I tried to read the language of behavior (from a safe distance), vice relying on what people said.
For example, questions were allowed in science class (taught by nuns), but forbidden in catechism (ditto). Eventually (it would take decades), I would decide which implanted ‘absolutes’ are verified, and which delusion. Once war had extracted me from the platonic cave in which I’d been born, all ‘truths’ could be questioned.
Starting with bedrock misogyny: God the Father and God the Son—yet no God the Mother and God the Daughter? Does not Genesis codify patriarchy (2:7), and gender inequality (2:18-22)? Why, after 2,000 years, are women deemed unfit for Holy Orders?
I knew better.
Mom never missed work, putting three kids through parochial schools despite a thieving husband and merciless clergy. Before welfare. Before Ms. magazine. Before Title IX. Before #MeToo. But for her, my sisters and I would’ve been orphaned and separated.
Meanwhile Dad was most at home in dingy bars. Bitter places brought from Ireland for the low end of working class, where barflies gather to boast of how they’ve scammed wives, employers and other oppressors. He excelled at mocking others, a tavern-learned skill he’d bring home with the stink of beer, ashtrays and urinals. A WWII draft dodger, he’d boast, “Only dummies get drafted. And the dumbest of all enlist.”
Age twenty and off to war, I’d yet to meet a man the equal of Mom.
* * *
Francis Duffy: A Yank, have lived abroad for decades; NONFICTION: 3 daily newspapers, 2 mags, tech manuals, web-content work for DoD; FICTION: Amarillo Bay, Typishly, Connotation, Eclectica, Storgy, Columbia Journal, Evocations, Pen Dust Radio (podcast)