I awoke today and found the frost perched on the town
It hovered in a frozen sky, then it gobbled summer down
When the sun turns traitor cold
And all trees are shivering in a naked row
I get the urge for going but I never seem to go
I get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
– “Urge for Going” Joni Mitchell
I grew up in the small town of Kennett, Missouri, a town of about 10,000 people. It is surrounded by smaller towns and friendships and is also the Dunklin County seat in the bootheel of the state. And yes, it is the hometown of Sheryl Crow. I wasn’t born there, but I lived most of my youth in that town. This was one of those town in which everyone knew everyone else and if they didn’t know you, they knew someone who did. It was a town of muscle cars and intolerance with anything less than absolute manliness. Being different in a very conservative or ‘salt of the earth’ town, meant being marked for shunning or anger or worse. My father was a product of that town. As a youth, he wrote poetry and would sketch people, the culture of that town didn’t nurture him, it smothered him. He likely planned just as I did, join the military and leave, but he fell in love with my Mom also from Kennett. She moved with him to Germany, as that is where he was stationed during the Vietnam War, and she became pregnant and I was born there. So, eventually after his service, we moved back to Kennett.
I’m not blaming the town, for despite my enduring fear that anyone would find out I was different, I loved my town when I was a child. I knew I didn’t want to live there as an adult, but it was a place where you could ride bikes across the full width and breadth of the town without fear of crime, or perhaps we were just naive. I loved knowing every inch of our town and it’s outlying areas, it was part of the southern heritage to know the land and not just live upon it.
As I grew up, the changes became greater and what I now know as dysphoria, became greater as well. I always knew I was wrong, that I was more like a girl than a boy, but it becomes all too real when your body suddenly starts growing all the wrong ways. Instead of breasts and rounding of curves, I was becoming man-ish. It was horrifying and there was no place to turn, no information to help me, so it became something that just had to be endured with no choice. School, I hated it. I liked it at first because I loved to read. I was reading about 5th grade level at 2 years old, I loved reading. But school had other children and adults in it, they wouldn’t understand who I was anymore than I did. I went through each grade, barely passing because I was so out of place and so alone. I aimlessly stayed in the other lonely kids section of the playground during recesses. I had trouble forging friendships, either my odd humor or my actions which were odd, because I didn’t have this foundation of knowing where I fit in.
School was torture for me, to see other girls being, well being themselves. It killed me that I was having to be this thing pretending to be a boy. I felt like a monster, like dracula or wolfman, my references for monsters then, they looked like one thing, but beneath was something so very different. I was expected to participate in gym and other activities as a boy as what I am not. Compounding the issue was my attraction to other boys as well as girls, I had no compass and no information other than “gay” or “fag” is bad. And since I was attracted to both, was I gay? A lot to pile on a child in middle school. I had plenty of time to be introspective, I didn’t do class work and I didn’t want to participate in much, I tested well so my grades pushed me through. I loved acting, the few times I was able do it, but then people payed attention to me and I had to stop, because attention would lead to discovery, and I had to hide.
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in
I had me a man in summertime
He had summer-colored skin
And not another girl in town
My darling’s heart could win
But when the leaves fell on the ground
And bully winds came around pushed them face down in the snow
He got the urge for going and I had to let him go
He got the urge for going
When the meadow grass was turning brown
Home life was bad during that time. My father hit my mother a lot, he hit me a lot. My mother finally left him, but there was a confrontation in which he went after her and I stepped in front of him. I was I think 9 or so. I yelled at him to stop and that he wouldn’t hit her. He miraculously didn’t hit me, and he left. A year later, my mom had started drinking heavily and since a lot of my family were law enforcement, they took us (two younger brothers and me) away from her and dad picked us up to come live with him. We were upset and scared, all of us. I was in the passenger seat, and he said to me as he was driving in a conversational way, “You are mine now.” My heart dropped because it sounded like the threat it was.I jumped out of the car at the first stop sign and ran. I ran into town and tried to lose him behind the library, but he cornered me. I cried and screamed, knowing that this man was going to either beat me or kill me or both. He didn’t do either, but he didn’t stop being the man I feared.
I spent much of the time away from my father’s home. I would ride my bike to parks or go to the library, which I loved. The town was open to explore and no one ever questioned why a child was alone in town, it was a different time then. I would spend the night at grandparents, my grandmother teaching me about art, oil painting and knitting, quilt making. I think she sensed something about me, that she didn’t expect me to be doing what the other boys were doing. With her help, I actually won many ribbons for my oil paintings that were submitted to the county fair. I was very proud of that, and I still have them on my wall, alongside hers in my own home. I never told her, but she I think knew. I was emotionally sensitive and I wasn’t inclined to most boyish things.
I had one constant friend, Eric, but even he I didn’t dare confide in. I could talk to him about my dreams and aspirations but I always tread carefully on specifics. I spent most of my time at his house, as it got me away from my father. I hated the summers because Eric usually went to camp and I was at my house, alone. I would stay outside as long as possible or find some place to be other than in that house. As we got older, getting drunk or high presented a problem for me. I was very afraid of losing the very very few friends I had, so if I got too drunk or too high I might say something the wrong thing. In retrospect, I should have told them. I should have trusted them, perhaps I would have been able to transition sooner in life and my long time before I came out wouldn’t be so heartbreaking. I may have lost a few or all of my friends, I was too afraid to do it. I almost said something once to Eric, but I stopped and changed the subject. The real problem is that even though he was my friend, I was also in love with him, my first love in fact. He didn’t feel that way about me, I knew that, so I kept it to myself. But those feelings, if I let him in on who I was, would have betrayed me. I would have told him everything and he would not have been able to handle it at all. It was a first love, a puppy love, I knew it was only ever going to be a friendship between us.
I tried to date other girls, but I was bad at connecting. I was trying to act like a guy but I didn’t have a reference. I watched a lot of television, sitcoms and movies. I tried acting like those guys, trying to emulate what loveable guys did on the shows. It doesn’t work, btw, the emulating, at least not for me anyway. I also had a “smart-ass mouth” according to almost everyone. I was witty and far intellectually smarter than most children around me. I‘m not bragging, it sucked. I got into fights where, more times than not, I lost. I would say something “smart-assed” which generally meant I said something they didn’t understand but knew was an insult. Girls didn’t like it, I seemed condescending, boys didn’t like it and beat me up for it. My mouth got me into trouble a lot. For girls though, mostly it was because I couldn’t find the words to say anything. I was at a loss as to how to relate to them without giving away who I was or to give the impression I was “gay”. So I didn’t do much dating or “going with” anyone during school, only once in high school when I had gotten so deep into being a boy it was less awkward pretending.
And summertime was falling down and winter was closing in
Now the warriors of winter they gave a cold triumphant shout
And all that stays is dying and all that lives is getting out
See the geese in chevron flight flapping and racing on before the snow
They’ve got the urge for going and they’ve got the wings so they can go
They get the urge for going
When the meadow grass is turning brown
Kennett had only a couple of middle schools and one junior high and one high school. So while you may not know every child in middle school, by junior high every child knows every other child. And usually your friends multiply during that time, but mine stayed the same loveable misfits throughout most of my my childhood. Bear (Scott), Eric, Jerry, and Greg, Though Eric and Jerry were popular especially by our standards, they were confident enough in themselves that they didn’t mind slumming it, bless them. Junior and High school were worse for me than middle school. Everyone is expected to date or to have a crush. The one gay kid I knew about seemed accepted and even loved, though I am sure he was picked on because I didn’t know him well and we weren’t close. I had crushes, several, they were boys and girls, and I had no way to connect. I was by this time introverted in the extreme and through a series of goofs trying to connect learned not to engage at all. Still, there were a few girls I tried with, but it never got far, it couldn’t. I always thought that when I got serious with someone, I would tell them everything. But I never got serious enough to where I told them everything. I started not being serious with anyone at all for any reason. I still managed to get my heart broken, for while I kept it distant with them, I hurt every time doing it. A few girlfriends later I knew that this wasn’t going to work for me, not how they wanted it. I didn’t want to make love to them or anyone as this thing I was pretending to be. It was the opposite of many of the coming of age tropes, I was fending off girls from having sex. I wanted to have sex but they wanted the one damned piece of me that was the source of my anxiety. Anyway, I had a mostly lonely life in school.
I tried going to parties with Eric or others, they always ended badly. Someone would hit me or they would, as a group, look for a way to get rid of me. I don’t blame them really. I was awkward and they didn’t like me or want me around. Once, they pretended that the cops were busting up the party, some of them running about, so that I would leave. I left, though I saw it for what it was right after the initial thing. I knew I wasn’t wanted there. I was an easy target and it kept any of them from being a target. I kept going to parties at a minimum, usually only so I could be seen and then leaving quietly. It hurt that I wasn’t wanted, but I understood. I was by that time, arrogant and very apt to say something cutting, but I was also the “weak guy” because I didn’t participate in the “guy things”.
While I was a freshman in high school, my father mentioned me joining the military and he happened to have a friend who had served in the Air Force. He worked in a missle silo, not something I was interested in but the Air Force seemed like a good fit for me at the time. I joined the delayed enlistment program at 17 yrs old. I was looking for a way out of this small town in which I would never, ever be anything but an oddity and never gain employment. A small conservative town has little room for a man who is a woman, I didn’t see that playing out well.
I did better in high school, even making a few friends outside our group. I had vocational classes in electronics and found that I loved it. Dating didn’t change, still poor to nothing, but I was alright with that, I had little to offer anyone emotionally. I was focused on getting out of a very small town that I found chafed at my very soul. I’m not saying it’s a horrible town, I am saying that for me it was confining and I couldn’t think of a way to make it work. I just knew that my soul would die if I stayed there.
Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in
I’ll ply the fire with kindling and pull the blankets to my chin
I’ll lock the vagrant winter out and I’ll bolt my wandering in
I’d like to call back summertime and have her stay for just another month or so
But she’s got the urge for going so I guess she’ll have to go
She get the urge for going when the meadow grass is turning brown
And all her empires are falling down
And winter’s closing in
And I get the urge for going when the meadow grass is turning brown
And summertime is falling down
Even years later, decades, I find that going back to that town to visit was not fun for me. I rarely went back, except to visit my father while he was still alive. And of course, for his and my mothers funerals. I sometimes think about going back to visit, but I don’t know what I would do there. There is no one to visit, except graves and I don’t do that. I don’t see the reason to rehash the part of my life I never got to live as me. I do wish it had been different, I was just another girl growing up in a small town, then going to college or into the military. Meeting the guy or gal of my dreams and getting married, having children. Coming back to my hometown to show my kids where I grew up and had such fond memories, seeing old friends from school that still keep in touch…I don’t have that link to Kennett, though I am sure for some it is a fine town that they love. For me it is a small town, filled with ghosts both of persons and of emotion.