Thursday, March 7, 2019

In Honor of Patricia Nell Warren

When I was a young boy, back in 1978 or so, my father owned a business in town.  I often would go spend time at his office, walking the grounds, or hanging out in a showroom. Across the street was a K-Mart and sometimes he would give me a few dollars to go and buy a new book to read.  
I was a voracious reader and always enjoyed adding to my considerable library.  It wasn’t just Richie Rich, or Pogo Possum comic books. I enjoyed books like “No Flying in the House,” and all the Beverly Cleary books, Judy Blume’s “Then Again Maybe I Won’t” and even “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien. 

On one such day, after being given a few dollars, I found myself browsing through the books again.  Suddenly I noticed a novel with an intriguing image that seemed scandalous to my young eyes.  A dark, muscular man in a towel stands behind a young, blond athlete dressed in running clothes ubiquitous in the nineteen-seventies. The older man seems borderline angry, compared to the young man almost meek, his eyeglasses practically a shield from the overbearing presence.  It is not a sexual image, but something in me struck like a tuning fork.  I picked up the novel and read the introduction about the author, Patricia Nell Warren, meeting a young athlete and being inspired to write this story.  My heart beat fast. The main characters were gay. As a young boy raised Southern Baptist, I felt a heat run up the back of neck. Something seemed illicit, probably a sin, and yet familiar. I knew that I could not buy this book, some of the cashiers knew my fathers business, and maybe they’d share their thoughts on my choice of reading material with someone who knew my parents.  And yet I also knew I had to read this book. 

So I did something I never thought I would do. I committed the sin of stealing.  Well, kind of.  I chose another book of the same price, I don’t even recall which one. I paid for it. Then I went back and switched the books out without notice, and quickly left the store. This was obviously before the wide use of UPC and scanners, the small price tag sticker was simply affixed to the top of the front cover.

I remember sitting in an out of the way spot outside of my fathers office and beginning to read the book. I was getting lost in the story, reluctantly sticking it in my pants while my mother drove us home, hiding it so she wouldn’t ask me about it. Once I was safely in my bedroom with low pile, deep blue shag carpeting, did I lose myself in the story again, reading well into the night.

I think I finished reading the novel in less than 24 hours. I was dumbstruck by the effect it had on me. Not just that there were some tragic elements to the story, but just the realness in the motions I felt. This was different. This seemed less like a novel, and more like I was viewing a true story from a close perspective. I wanted to know more about these people. And the name of the author lodged in my brain. Patricia Nell Warren.

Knowing that I couldn’t actually keep this book on my bookshelves, I hid it under several piles of comic books in my closet. Buried beneath Spooky, the Tuff Little Ghost, and stacks of Disney comics. I read and re-read it several times over the next week, each time more and more nervous that my mother would happen upon me and began asking questions about the book with such a cover. I read it several times over before deciding that I actually needed to remove it from our house. I felt such a connection to the book, as books were sacred to me, that I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t put it in the trash, that would be a real sin. So I buried it in the back yard, less a funeral than the planting of the seeds of my future.

I could not get the story out of my head. And this author, this Patricia Nell Warren, had become a part of my consciousness. So, a few weeks later, on another visit to my fathers office and being given another few dollars, I repeated this exercise. I bought another book, secretly swapped it out, bought small, cola Icee, and hid myself where I could and began revisiting the characters. I hadn’t realized that several passages had been committed to memory, and discovered that at several points, my mind recited the words in the micro-seconds before I read them. After a few days more of rereading the book, again, I found a place to bury this copy in the woods near our home, on the edge of a lake by the “Old Mill” ( an old dilapidated grist mill that must have been from the late 1800’s.) 

I repeated this process probably twice more over the next few years, finally deciding to try and hide my most recent copy from my parents. My mother had volunteered with a group that received overstock books that were to be donated somewhere in town, and the book sellers tore off the paperback covers. I had found several such books that I had kept to read, and figured if I just tore the cover off the front of “The Front Runner” that I could hide it more easily among my other books. I felt a twinge of guilt as I tore the books cover, feeling like I was betraying Patricia Nell Warren in some way.  I tried hiding the cover separately for some time in my sock drawer, but became worried it would be discovered and eventually it found its way to its own make shift memorial. But at least I could keep the book itself, and I read it over and over. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say I read “The Front Runner” cover to cover, at least 50 times in the years leading up to my senior year in high school. 

Years later, as a college graduate, I found another copy at a used book store, and happily paid for it and it was allowed to remain whole and intact, happily on my shelf between copies of other books I was reading at the time. Every so often I would reread parts of the story, if not the whole novel once again.

Much later, in 1994, I was a volunteer co-producer for a radio talk show called “Family Values” on WPRK 91.5 FM, the “best in basement radio” on the campus of Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. The term “family” referring to the LGBTQ community of Orlando, Florida and surrounding area. I even co-hosted or hosted the show once or twice. The host, Chris, was a former Marine who came out later in life, and he hosted weekly and interviewed a variety of guests from the local community. One night he called me letting me know that he was not feeling well, and could I please host the show.  I asked who the scheduled guest was going to be, and if he had any notes he could fax to me.  He said “its an author, her name is Patricia Nell Warren.” My heart stopped, and I actually felt dizzy. “Who?” I asked, not believing what I had heard. “Patricia Nell Warren,” he said. “She wrote a book…” 

I interrupted him. I was breathless as I explained I knew exactly who she was and I did not need any notes at all. Although I had never heard or read any other interview with her before, I had read a little about her in an authors bio once, and I certainly KNEW the questions I wanted to ask her.  I was ecstatic. 

When I was in the station and she called in, I could barely breathe as I set up the phone link and begin to broadcast the show. What I can recall is how easily I felt talking to her. She was gracious, funny, comfortable, and insightful. There were to be some long awaited sequels to the story begun in “The Font Runner” and she was on a working vacation of sorts. I also recall that I had asked her about being one of he first women to finish the Boston Marathon, as she was a runner herself. I asked her about being recognized by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. As the interview ended, we were talking about her personal life, and how she enjoyed staying involved, a third novel was coming in the Front Runner series and it was about young people. She said something to the effect of “not having children” and I blurted out that she indeed, had thousands of LGBT children who felt she was every bit family. She seemed touched.

After the interview (which I wish desperately that I had recorded) she mentioned she was in town for a day or so. I mentioned that I also worked at Walt Disney World and if she was anywhere near the parks, I would love to be able to shake her hand. To my amazement, she agreed to come out to the park and say hello.  

The whole next morning I was on a cloud.  I had not seen real recent photos of her, and scanned every face of women in their sixties for some sign of recognition. When I finally saw her, my entire being melted. She was motherly, but could not hide the strength of a lifetime of being a person of clear intent. She and her partner decided to join me in the park during my lunch and to just stay and enjoy Epcot for the afternoon on their own. 

As we stood in line to ride “Spaceship Earth” we talked about so many things. I had typed a “thank you” letter to her and gave it to her. We talked about my background, and she had thoughtful questions and comments of her own.  We discussed my desire to recommit to my authentic self, and being raised “in the church” as I mentioned, I felt a desire to use the sacrament of baptism, but knew the church would not consent to my specific request. She urged me to gather with friends and perform the ritual for myself, to claim the power it represented without the narrow minded ideology imposed by those who would not accept me as I was anyway. I told her about my early practice of buying her book, and how happy I was now to be able to buy her work proudly.

When it came time to part, she offered me a beautiful, powerful embrace. I didn’t cry even as my skin could barely contain me. I felt as if I could burst into light. It was a truly incredible moment for me.

I never saw her again in person. Many years and a serious life event, I decided to pursue getting a book published, and when I was lucky enough to reach that goal, I included her in the acknowledgements. I researched a contact address and sent her a copy and she actually called me once, saying she most certainly remembered me and was touched by the mention in my book. We spoke just briefly but through the magic of Facebook, she would encourage me a few times over the past few years. She was a woman of true compassion and strength of spirit and she is still my idol.

We lost Patricia Nell Warren on February 9 this year.   W hen I read the news on her Facebook page, I had to stop and perform a moment of real gratitude. All I really can say is “Thank you” and “I love you” Patricia Nell Warren. You touched so many people through word and deed. You inspired more than writers and running clubs. You were the spiritual parent, aunt, sibling, and friend to so many of us.  You will be missed. 

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