Bobby  collapsed atop Matty in hysterics…

         “God, Bubba! You must have been flying by the time you hit the door!  You sure nobody saw you outside?”

          Matty groaned. “Sweetheart, if anyone did, I hope they never tell me! Just thinking about it makes my stomach hurt all over again! It was worse than running from the patrols at the pool when we were skinnydipping! I mean, I was there all alone, and naked as a freakin’ jaybird, and bowing like I won a flippin’ Academy Award or something… God! What an idiot…”

          Bobby laughed until he was gasping for breath, much to the tall boy’s consternation. He finally regained his composure and wiped the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand. He reached over and kissed Matty on the neck and then continued his massage, only this time, he was very thorough. It was the only compensation for such a tortuous ploy and the reason the tall boy had acquiesced. Bobby could be very demanding but also very gentle and compassionate.

          It was nearly 11 A.M. before the two boys left the comfort and intimacy of the quilt- covered bed. If there is any mercy  in this world, I shall awake some day and he will still be here….

November, 1975

               As the winter sun glinted off the long hood of the sleek car, Matty squinted and fumbled for his sunglasses. He had left them somewhere on the passenger seat with the rest of the accessories that constituted his array of travel necessities. Maps, wallet, a journal, tattered but intact. The last item was all that remained of his childhood in an odd and ironic way, for the pain he carried was inscribed in code on those pages but emblazoned on his heart in ways that people could not see unless they looked deep into his sky blue eyes. Those that did, were often startled and intrigued. Few made it further. A select few formed a close knit circle that was a sanctuary not unlike the pages of that tattered, brown ledger that chronicled the passing months in tear- stained pages. Soon, the young man would stop writing all together, at least on paper, for it would be found to be too dangerous. His life was moving into the shadows where survival was a question of the application of skills learned in his military training. Escape.  Evasion. Resistance. From the Others, and increasingly, to the feelings that now produced the searing pain of loss that he bore by himself, once again…

Vero Beach… November, 1975

                What was once a point on a map now emerged as a real place, strewn with palmetto palms and sandy shores. Cream colored, stucco houses with pastel- colored shutters and scapes filled with lush and exotic flowers the likes of which Matty had never seen in person. The fragrance of tree sweet wafted through the open windows of the cruising car as its tires gripped the  sand -washed roads along the AIA corridor that traversed the Treasure Coast. To his left were the turquoise- blue waters of the Indian River Intracoastal. It was mesmerizing and fantastical for the boy. The plan he had hatched  with Bobby, was now unfolding without him. His lover would never see the sparkling sands and gentle waves that beckoned him…

                 It was late afternoon when he pulled over onto the shoulder of the two lane road and silenced the rumbling engine. There was noone in sight as Matty climbed out of the low- riding car and his bare feet felt the warm sand of the strange new world. He stretched his legs and arched his back, flexing his arms at the same time to silence the nagging cramps in his tight muscles. He yawned and closed the door behind him. The 21 year old was already shirtless because of the Florida warmth. He tucked his wallet and keys into his corduroy pants pockets, and in a tired gait, made his way through the thistle and tropical vegetation to the nearby shore. There was a winding path of sorts, worn perhaps from the feet of weary travelers like him, but at this moment, there was noone in sight as the sun settled onto the palm trees behind him.

                 Soon, the warm and loose sand became firm and cool to the touch as the tall young man reached the high tide mark. He stood on the edge of the lapping water and looked out over the darkening ocean. It was beautiful and eerie. The soft breeze off the glistening water caressed him as he closed his eyes and let the memories wash over him. He was back at the New England shore, in the churning surf, laughing and struggling to keep his balance as the waves crashed in on he and Bobby. He tasted the salt water again and felt Bobby’s arms around him as he carried the muscular boy on his back, smiling… knowing that it was as it should be. Always… The tears formed in his closed eyes and cascaded down his face, until the breeze felt cold.

                   Matty opened his eyes and brushed the tears away with the back of his hand and reached down and released the button on his grey cords and then shed them, one leg at a time. The BVD’s were next . He stood naked on the mystical shore in plain sight, but he didn’t care. Slowly, he walked into the warm waters, deep in thought, privately baptizing himself  the way he had envisioned in his dreams, until he was chest deep and the ocean swells were lifting him from the fragile link that remained to land and safety. He let the waters take control and soon he was drifting … floating prone on the gentle tide that carried him along the desolate coast. He glanced towards shore once or twice as the black Firebird faded from sight.

                It could have been 10 minutes or a half hour, it is no longer clear, but dusk was stealing the last of the sun’s trembling light as Matty opened his eyes and realized that he had drifted more than 50 yards off shore. It was startling to notice the distant lights of a car approaching on the quiet highway and to see it pass as if in a dream, without sound, as a wave filled the boy’s ears with cool water. The boy tensed, and treaded water for a moment as a wave lifted him and then he struck out for the distant shore. It was a struggle, filled with strange thoughts and promises, but in about 10 minutes, Matty finally broke the clawing forces that had questioned his will to live. Now, he was sure. For 35 years, he would not allow those thoughts in his life again…

August, 1966

               “Matty, why don’t you take care of #34 for starters, and then work your way up the line from there”…

                The lanky 12- year- old boy nodded his head nervously, and motioned towards the mottled colored guernsey cow to his right  as he struggled with the heavy milking contraption with the octopus- like suction cups dangling from his right hand. “Is that, number 34, sir?”

                 The swarthy Norwegian foreman smirked and nodded his agreement, while his son, a boy that Matty knew well, chuckled mysteriously a few stalls away… He sat on a milking stool with a holstein’s tail tucked under his denim- clad leg and peered around the back of the cow as the automated milking machine chugged and gasped and tugged at the udder of the cow he was working on.

                    Matty sensed that something was amiss, but his nervousness about the new job overrode his suspicions. After all, this was to be only the second cow he had ever milked… He went through the mental check list — First, let the cow know you’re there, by gently patting her haunch as you assert your space to her right side. Then, step into the steel- pipe stall and place the milking stool down, leaving enough room for the stainless steel collector container . Then, sit down after grabbing the urine-soaked tail and tucking it under your leg so that you don’t get whipped in the eye at some point! (it stings, as the boy found out!) Then, wipe down the cow’s teats with the disinfecting rag and ‘prime the pump’ by tugging down on a teat and nudging the udder in a smooth motion, up and down. Matty reddened, thinking about that, as any boy his age would… Then, attach the cups on the teats, making sure that the suction from the device holds them in place.

                    

                     It was a lot to remember, and to get nervous about! Altho the blond haired boy had been around the large creatures for many years, he hadn’t been so closely involved in their care until recently, and the close quarters that were involved in the milking  process, were a bit unnerving! The stalls that housed each animal were only about 5 feet wide, and the cows took up a lot of that space. Each stall was constructed of heavy galvanized pipe with a feeding trough at the front and a manure trough at the rear.

                    Entering a milking barn for the first time was eye- opening! The heavy stench of manure and the steaming cascades of urine as the cows raised their tails and let loose was startling… It seemed impossible that one could survive in such an environment without becoming drenched in the  by products of the digestive tracts of the bellowing beasts…

                    There was only one way to get used to it. — Throw yourself into the task at hand, and don’t think about anything but getting the job done! At least, that became the boy’s approach, so he nervously edged his way into number 34’s stall, dragging the equipment with him.

                      It was his nervousness that undid him, as he was to find out and laugh about years later.

                     Something seemed wrong from the very beginning. Number 34 reacted to his presence in a completely different way than number 12 had. (the first cow that the boy had milked) Instead of shuffling over to let the boy into the stall, the animal edged closer to the right side until there was virtually no room to get by! Matty patted the hindquarter and noticed that the cow had cocked her head, looking back at him with what seemed like anger! ‘How could this be?’ Matty thought. ‘Didn’t she want to be milked?’

                     But, this was a game he was just  learning the rules about, and as he tried to push his way past, the devilish creature waited until he was at her side and then suddenly shifted all of her 1000 pounds to the right, pinning Matty against the steel pipes that formed the cage she was held in. It drove the breath from the boy’s lungs as though he had been punched in the gut, and he dropped the equipment and felt his face flush red as he frantically pushed at the creature’s side. She mooed, but would not budge and he looked pleadingly across the barn at his friend and the foreman, and they were both laughing!

                     “Punch ‘er in the side!” Mr. Hanson offered as he clenched the corncob pipe in his teeth.

                      “What?” Matty gasped, struggling for air.

                      “In the side! Punch her HARD in the side!”

                      Matty could hardly believe what he was hearing, but he was getting desperate so he clenched his fist and pounded the recalcitrant bovine in the right flank. She mooed again, but only pressed harder!!

                      Now father and son were doubled over in laughter! “NO! In the side, not in the leg!” the red- faced foreman shouted.

                      Matty tried again, this time more to the right and lower. Number 34 didn’t like that much, and she bellowed her discontent, but did shift enough for the boy to catch a breath. But, she was far from finished, and just as Matty regained his composure a lethal and very wet tail whipped the tall boy in the face, making a direct hit on his left eye. It stung like iodine or salt water!

                         The besieged boy reached up to his burning eye and tried to catch the still whipping tail with his left hand, while the two guys across the barn lost complete control and the laughter became hysterical. Had life been merciful that day, that would have ended it, as Matty finally corralled the swinging tail, but no sooner had he accomplished that, than a crushing weight pressed down on his left foot! The final act was unfolding! Number 34 was playing her trump card and had put her full weight onto the novice farmhand’s left foot and it felt like nothing else the boy had ever felt! It was as if a car was parked on his foot!

                         He yelled. More of a shriek than a yell, really… That put other things in motion as the milking contraption came apart, spilling its contents into the manure pit, changing the laughter across the barn into breathless gasps more than anything else. Out of sheer desperation, Matty pounded his right and left fists into the cow’s side as the creature’s eyes rolled in her head, and she took on the look of a completely berzerk entity.

                          What seemed like an eternity was probably little more than ten seconds, but finally, she stepped to the side, freeing the boy, who hobbled out of the cage and tripped across the manure trench to the wooden corral where a baby calf was teetering on her newborn legs. Matty leaned against the wooden crossmembers and massaged his crushed toes through his stained, canvas sneaker.

                         He had survived the initiation, but would never forget. It had been funny on one level, but cruel and dangerous on another. To this day, his left foot reminds him of that day as he falls to sleep every night.

November, 1975

                      It took Matty only one day to secure a rent in a blue color town to the south of the affluent Vero Beach. There, the rents were less than half of what most were asking in the highbrow areas of the ‘Treasure Coast’. The 21 year old young man was already aware that living in the more affluent towns was beyond his financial capabilities, unless he got a roommate, or a steady job that paid him for skills he didn’t want to apply here, in the place where he would try to make his mark in a very different way. It was here that he was to begin his athletic career that would stretch through his life for the next 25 years.

                      He had spent a good portion of his childhood competing in various sports that were mostly of passing interest, except for one. The ‘sport of kings’- tennis. For some reason, he had immediately found the sport intriguing. It demanded individual excellence, both physically and mentally, and it challenged him in ways that sparked his imagination. As he toiled on the red clay courts of his hometown, he found himself transported back in time to the earlier days of the sport, where men like Bill Tilden, Fred Perry and Don Budge fought for supremacy on grass courts at places like Forest Hills and Wimbledon and the clay courts of Roland Garros Stadium. He had become a historian of the sport and had read every book he could get his hands on at the little library that had been his passport to the world.

                      Because of the constraints of poverty and the backbreaking farmwork during his youth, Matty simply hadn’t the time to train as much as he would have liked, and were it not for the kindness of a complete stranger, the sport that he eventually learned to play at a high level would have been like the rest- unachievable. Out of reach in a world where sports were looked upon as ‘child’s games’.

                  But, Mr. Peterson had seen something in the ten year old boy… Maybe it was the sparkle in his deep blue eyes as he chased the time- worn tennis balls that he had found in the weeds near the public courts, swatting at them with a look of determination on his tanned face. Using a wooden racket borrowed from his mother.

                  Maybe it was the polite way he excused himself as one of his errant shots interrupted the man’s game on the nearby court, to the increasing consternation of Mr. Peterson’s playing partner, but to the patient amusement of the 35 year old man.

                    After all, both men  had been a young boys once, the laughing man reminded his miffed opponent! The boy was just doing what young boys do… Trying to learn something new and exciting! He argued with a gentle smile the way gentle men did. Matty had noticed that, right away.

                     And when Mr. Peterson’s match ended abruptly and his opponent stalked off the court, mumbling about ‘pain in the ass kids’, the man had winked at the boy and asked him to come over for a moment. That was where it all started. A complete stranger who cared. Another man in the boy’s life who was heaven sent and who gave him hope that he could achieve if he put his heart on the line. Nothing was impossible.

                      But that is a story for another day….

                      Fort Pierce would become Matty’s world for the next two years as he made his way into the viciously competitive world that tennis had become. He was underfunded, but he was hungry… to experience the feeling of cheering crowds, and push the limits of his physical endurance.  But in the process, he would have to face some brutal truths that awaited him in this new land that he now called home. It was to be a time of great joy and unimaginable danger. And he would live it as a young  gay man, vulnerable to a system that considered him evil. What had brought him here would soon become the thing that almost destroyed him, and the reason he lived a lie for the next 35 years.  The Path that had started in that little library 11 years before, and had pushed him foward, believing in the Grace that he held so dear, would come full circle, and fill his dreams again with the choking waters of the emerald lake where he had been reborn.

                        It had all been a trap.

Continued in Part 17…

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