I have written several posts about those populations (Blacks and Jews) that seldom comfortably walked the streets of West Terre Haute. But I am sure there was a nearly invisible population (hidden, fearful, lonely) that did. In my youth they were called “queers” and subject to such inhuman (as if they were less than human) contempt that it makes me pale. Queer was the word in 1960s West T. and queer was no way to be there and then.
My first inkling of this was when a neighbor would visit, call him Tommy. Tommy lived over the hill from Grandpa and grandma’s house on McIlroy. His father was one of the last of the river fisherman who eked out a living on their catch in West Terre Haute. He was a roug- hewn man as I remember. Quite different from Tommy.
Tommy would occasionally stop by our house as we sat in the yard. My grandparents were always nice to him. He had gone to school with several of my uncles and he would ask about them. He was a pleasant man. Other than that I did not take much notice of him as I was usually reading or listening to a baseball game on the radio.
It was not until I was a teenager that I began to notice in shift in atmosphere when Tommy dropped by. I sensed my grandparents stiffen a bit when he would sit down next to me. One of my uncles would get up and leave after the most perfunctory hellos to Tommy, claiming to remember a chore that called him. On those times I remembered my mother had once told me not to go anywhere with Tommy. That was a bit of a surprise to me, more for the fact Tommy was twenty years older than me and I had no desire to hang out with him.
It all became (mainly) clear to me after two incidents. When I was about 17 and mom was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Also there was Tommy, his illness unexplained. Hearing Mom was there (she had always been nice to him) he came to visit her. He was wearing a red silk smoking jacket over his pajamas. He had that towering slick pompadour favored by country singers of that period like Sonny James or Conway Twitty. An unlit cigarette in a tortoise shell holder (yes, you could smoke in hospitals then) dangled precariously between his fingers. Beneath that oiled jungle of black hair he had a pale, very pockmarked face. I always thought he had the look of a junkie from a tough black and white TV detective show, like Naked City.
As we chatted, he leaned down and put his hand on my thigh. I thought little of it, but did see the look on Mom’s face. She told Tommy she was tired and needed to talk to me before I went home. He said goodbye and went on his way. Oddly, a few minutes later Terre Haute experienced a rare earthquake that shook Union Hospital.
A few weeks after coming home Mom and I were talking. Very reluctantly she brought up Tommy. “Do you know about Tommy’s problem?’ I at first thought she was talking about a drinking problem, as that was the problem I was most familiar with in our family. Then it hit me. “You mean he is a queer?’ (I used queer even though I had read Everything You Need to Know About Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask). “Yes, when he touched your leg I wanted to scream at him.” We did not talk much more about it, but she said people like Tommy were sick, but they could not help it. “Just don’t let him touch you, Okay? He is a nice man, just sick so don’t blame him too much.”
A few months later I found out that one member of my family did not take such a “liberal” view (for that era) of queers.
That Spring my uncle Danny (only about 7 years my senior) came home on Army furlough from Germany. Another uncle, Jack, happened to be making a rare visit to West Terre Haute at that time. I must say, I have always loathed my uncle Jack. He was a striver, who always seemed to be a little bit of ashamed of the house om McIlroy and my grandparents poverty. There was just something about him.
He and Danny had gone out for a few drinks together, catching up on each other’s lives. I was still awake when they came home but pretended to be asleep. At first I enjoyed their brotherly camaraderie as they spoke of growing up. Now. My uncle Danny was a consummate jokester, renowned for his seemingly inexhaustible supply of jokes. And he had picked up many to add top his trove in Germany. He could do dialects (sadly, he was especially adept at “nigger” jokes featuring the mythical Rastus). He must have done a queer joke, as it got Jaack to talking about queers. The ones he had booted out of his division (he retired as a Brevet Major) and the ones he encountered in Terre Haute.
Evidently, one of the primary places gays sought companionship was the bus terminal on Wabash Avenue. One night, while Jack was waiting to get a cab for West Terre Haute, a gay man approached him in the restroom. Offended that such an untermensch would mistake him for the same type, he “beat the holy shit out of him.” After hearing that story, things became a little clearer to me.
As some of you may know, I was born without the reverence gene. I am a committed atheist. But there is one minister I came to respect. He pastored a church in West Terre Haute. In the mid-seventies a story about him began to circulate about him. Whispers said he had, one Saturday night, married a lesbian couple (another version was that they were gay men) in the church. I did not hear of this until after he surprisingly left the church.
One of the things I wish to do with this blog and the following book is look at ALL aspects of Life in West Terre Haute. Anyone have any thoughts or stories to share with me on this topic?