Novelist James Jones enlisted in the Army and left his hometown of Robinson, Illinois in 1939. His experiences during the attack on Pearl Harbor inspired his first published book, From Here to Eternity.
For his second book, Some Came Running, he used Robinson as the backdrop. This semi-autobiographical novel centers around a failed writer named Dave Hirsh, orphaned as a child, who comes home after serving in World War II to a fictionalized version of Robinson (renamed Parkman, Indiana) to find family divisions, sexual repression, and other unsavory vices. The book was described as shrill and bitter by its critics. The 1958 Oscar-nominated film was a scandal when it played at the Lincoln Theater, a few blocks away from Jones’ childhood home.
My dad was a local hero similar to characters in any of James Jones’ war themed novels. He returned home to Robinson from the Korean War allegedly the most decorated soldier in Crawford County, having earned four purple hearts. He married my mom in 1951, two years before the end of the war, and struggled to settle into a job and married life. He later gained an enormous amount of weight. Seldom emotional or affectionate, my dad was undoubtedly the king of our house and was never very open-minded or worldly. I knew that he loved my mom, but I saw him kiss her fewer than three times in my entire life.
The roles of men and women have always been clearly defined in Robinson. As a boy I felt I had nothing in common with my dad, so instead, my mom was my hero. Mom had a kind heart and ran our household quite well. Like my dad, she held down a factory job most of her life. It was nothing for her to make dinner, read half of a romance novel and still manage to grab an ax and chop limbs off of a tree in the front yard. My dad rarely moved from his recliner in front of the television, which he occupied every evening. When he tipped the scales at over three hundred pounds, my mom tied his shoes for him every morning before work without complaint.
My parents had been married almost fifteen years by the time I came around. We lived in the country, seven miles outside the Robinson city limits. I had no brothers or sisters, and no neighbor children lived nearby. I was a lonely and shy child. Exposure to other kids was limited to school time and family get-togethers, where I played with the five or six cousins who were around my age.
When I got my very first report card, my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Wallace, stated that I “seemed to prefer the company of girls. Maybe the boys are too rough?”
The comment bothered my parents. There was good reason for their concern; I ran like a girl, talked like a girl and acted like a girl. However, I don’t remember ever really wishing I was a girl. I was a boy and never wanted to change that. I was simply effeminate and liked “girl” toys rather than “boy” toys.
I remember playing with dolls with my cousins at their house. I loved to play with dolls. I thought dolls were wonderful replicas of people and vastly more interesting than inanimate objects like trucks and cars. There was no one to play with at home, so I would have been content to surround myself with dolls. My dad, however, disapproved.
“I told you, Denny: boys don‘t play with dolls,” my dad would gruffly declare.
Out of desperation, I wondered if paper dolls were somehow more acceptable than three-dimensional dolls.
The fact that all of the details were drawn on seemed to make them less likely to breach gender taboos. I negotiated with my mom and talked her into buying a set of Archie Comic Book paper dolls for me. I lied and said I would play with Archie and Jughead more than Betty and Veronica, but the girls always seemed to have more interesting clothes and hair than the boys. I felt sneaky when I played with them. On the rare occasions when my parents had company, I was told to hide my paper dolls in the back bedroom to avoid embarrassment.
“You don’t want people to think you’re a sissy, do you Denny?” my dad warned.
I wasn’t sure if my parents were more worried about protecting me or themselves from embarrassment. My paper dolls were the only toy I was ever told to hide.
When the Archie paper dolls wore out, I asked my mom to buy me another set of paper dolls to replace them.
“You’re too old for that,” she said. I hoped my mom didn’t tell my dad I wanted another set.
My grandma was always less uptight about my girlish qualities and interests. I never felt judged when spending time with her. She was my maternal grandma and the only grandmother I had left. There was a toy box in her garage that contained a few dolls I played with. They were hand-me-down baby dolls that were broken and dirty from years of play and abuse administered by my older cousins. It was very hard to muster enough imagination to enjoy playing with those dolls.
A few days later, after my mom said no to getting me another set of paper dolls, I asked my grandma. She enthusiastically said yes. Grandma helped me pick out a set of teen fashion model paper dolls that had cool outfits and a different hairstyle to go with each look. The set was special to me because there were only girl dolls. I was relieved because I didn’t have to pretend to play with the boy dolls as much as the girl dolls. That afternoon, as I sat at my grandma’s house cutting out the dolls, I felt liberated. She even helped me do some of the cutting. It was strange and wonderful to be sitting out in the open with a doll in my hand. I wasn’t hurting anyone, and no one was going to hurt me.
Grandma and I agreed it was a good idea to leave the paper dolls at her house and made sure to hide them before my parents picked me up. Grandma and I both knew the only ones I was hiding the dolls from at her house were my parents. I hoped someday to have an interesting doll of my choice that I would not have to hide at all.
Over the years, I had a few GI Joe dolls of my own. Because of the doll’s military theme, my dad never had a problem with them. I had absolutely no interest in anything military, but liked the clothes-changing possibilities of my GI Joe. I was lost for enjoyment beyond that. I loved fashion, so I designed a strapless gown for GI Joe by cutting the toe out of a tube sock. Yet, I wanted to make real clothes for GI Joe. I taught myself how to sew by hand and began making more dresses out of my mom’s fabric scraps.
I really wanted GI Joe to have long hair like a girl. I quickly became skilled at making little yarn wigs for the GI Joes and taping them to their heads. I spent hours styling the action figure’s yarn hair, braiding and combing the hair with a wide-tooth comb. It didn’t matter to me that GI Joe had a flocked beard and mustache. In my mind, he was a beautiful young woman.
With no brothers or sisters to distract me, I spent all my free time immersed in my feminine fantasies, alone in my bedroom with the door closed. My parents seldom disturbed my playtime. It wasn’t unusual to come home from school and spend the entire evening in my room with my GI Joe in drag, only emerging to eat a quick dinner or go to the bathroom.
I made sure to keep the drag GI Joe all to myself. My choices during playtime would surely be questioned by my parents, especially my dad.
Changing GI Joe’s gender gave me an exciting idea when Halloween came around:
Every Sunday night I watch the Cher show.
It is my favorite show because she is funny and has very long, pretty hair. I want my hair to look like hers so I could have lots to play with.
If I had hair like hers I would be happy, but I know people would think I was doing something wrong.
My Dad would be mad.
Boys are not supposed to have long hair.
I will tell Mom and Dad and everyone I am going Trick or Treating as a hippie, but secretly I know that my Halloween costume is Cher.
The most important part of the Cher costume to me would obviously be the wig. There were no wig shops in Robinson. It didn’t matter because I decided I could make my own Cher wig. I took my mom’s rubber swim cap, poked holes in it and meticulously tied long pieces of black yarn into each hole to make the wig. I spent hours and hours handcrafting the wig, trying it on many times during the construction period.
When I was finished, I was more excited about Halloween than I had ever been in the past. I was also excited because I knew I had a wig to play with after Halloween. Mom caught me wearing the wig, along with the fringed vest and bell bottom pants from my costume, and singing along with Cher to “Half Breed” on more than one occasion.
That homemade yarn wig was my favorite toy for over a month. I styled it over and over with pins and braids and anything else I could come up with. I also created many fantasy characters and situations while wearing it. I liked to pretend to be all of the things little girls pretended to be: princesses, gypsies, teachers, fashion models.
I didn’t have a Styrofoam wig head so I made a block for the wig by stuffing and molding a pair of Mom’s pantyhose around a large circular Crisco can. I tacked the wig to the can with thumb tacks and even drew a face it.
It eventually became less and less important to actually wear the wig on my head. It became much more interesting to manipulate the fantasy character than to actually wear the “skins” of the characters. I started altering the wig less with braiding and pinning and became drawn to more serious styling techniques that involved cutting the wig. I knew that the yarn would not grow back, and eventually, I would not be able to play with the wig in the same way. I cut the wig a little at a time, pacing myself to make the experience last as long as I could, examining all possibilities of each length. The wig went from Cher to Marlo Thomas length then ended up as a Liza Minnelli bob.
I discovered that I really enjoyed cutting the yarn hair into different styles. Cutting hair made me feel powerful. At this point, I didn’t really understand what the power was or the validation it could provide. It wasn’t long before my parents found out that I had a campy attachment to that homemade wig. By Christmas, the yarn hair was cut short and the cap was beyond repair. Mom wasted no time tossing it in the trash.
Once the Cher wig was gone, I became desperate for anything I could put on my head and pretend was long hair. I figured out that a bath towel could be thrown over my head to frame my face and fashion a beautiful, ultra-long head of pretend hair. The same could be done with a long silky scarf or a T-shirt. These household items let me cleverly continue experiencing my long-haired fantasies.
My dad teased me in his gruff manner, often demanding that I stop acting like a girl. His tone not only frightened me, but often made me feel like I was doing something shameful.
About the Author:
Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. The author’s short stories have been published by Bay Laurel, Everyday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Lifeand he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay Americanis his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.
You can find out more about Dennis Milam Bensie, his memoirs and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at http://tinyurl.com/lhtvxyt