The Gay '40s

A man named Flaming Youth cruised the tearooms, drag weddings hit Lake Minnetonka--and everyone remained cloistered in the closet: An excerpt from Ricardo J. Brown's memoir of gay life in old St. Paul

The telephone was a bosom friend, an idol, a confidante--the best kind of confidante, having no memory--a guardian angel, faithful servant, a thing of wonder to Lucky's mother. It was the most magical of all modern conveniences, more remarkable than a gas stove, as quick as electricity, more friendly than the radio. The radio entertained; the telephone worked magic. She could gossip anytime with her girlfriends, talk long distance--when rates were low--with her sister in Iowa and her son and grandchildren in Mankato, order her coal and groceries from the dealers, call downtown to complain about her taxes, make human contact whenever she was snowed in or feeling blue.

The telephone had brought the doctor when Lucky had a bad ear infection, when the boys had scarlet fever, and the night her husband died. The telephone was also her master. When it rang, she galloped from whatever room she was in or, if sitting down, she lurched awkwardly, almost leaping out of her chair to answer the summons, anxious, expectant, and curious to find out what voice would materialize, what message was forthcoming.

I got along well with her. She liked me, Lucky said, because I was "good-looking and lively." A little too lively for Lucky, I guess, when I tried a couple of times to talk him into letting me cornhole him. I didn't pursue it too much because he might expect the same thing from me and I wasn't keen to have anyone poking around in my butt.

Tim Lane

Only once did his mother give any indication that she thought something might be amiss in the relationship between Lucky and me. She had waited until Lucky took the trash out to the backyard incinerator one night after supper to ask me where Lucky and I had met. We didn't work together; we didn't go to the same church; we weren't neighbors; we weren't even close to the same age.

We had met at Matt Weber's, where a waitress we both knew had introduced us, I told her. It was a clumsy lie, but it was the story that Lucky and I had agreed on. I knew Lucky had already told her this, but she had waited until I was alone with her, drying the dishes, to ask me how we'd met. It bothered me, but I looked straight at her and lied. I could tell by her reaction that she didn't believe me, and I suppose she wondered why we would lie about anything so simple. She never brought up the subject again. I think she was content with things the way they were, and I presented no challenge to the system.

We spent several cozy evenings together with his mother, listening to the radio, drinking Cokes, playing Chinese checkers or hearts, her favorite card game. She loved slipping the queen of spades--old "Slippery Liz"--to Lucky or me and sometimes I'd make a bad play just to give her the pleasure.

His mother had met Pete and Ned and Red Larson, all of us bachelors. She liked to kid us about our girlfriends and we played right along with her. I talked about Meg as if she were my steady girl. Pete let on that he was engaged to a girl at work. Ned mentioned his ex-wife. At least that was true. Ned, of all people, the flighty guy, had been married. He had stayed on good terms with his ex-wife, called her twice a month, remembered her birthday, and took her each year to his store's Christmas parties.

We thought we were smart and discreet. We were even careful not to use affectionate names with one another in private because we could slip up in public. I never called Lucky anything but Lucky and he always called me Rick. It was obvious to Lucky's mother that he had no girlfriend. She would kid him about being so "fussy" that he'd never get a girl, but she didn't seem bothered by this fact.

We were quick to act the gentlemen, opening doors for the ladies, carrying their parcels, walking on the curbside when accompanying them on the street, giving up our seats on streetcars and buses. We made ribald and clumsy jokes about pinups like Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth whenever one of their new movies came out.

None of us followed sports except Pete, so we counted on him to bail us out of embarrassing spots if the subject ever came up with straight guys, or when Hazel, a friend of Lucky's mother, brought up the subject of baseball.

Hazel was a big fan of the Saints, which we thought was a strange hobby for an old lady. Most old ladies knit or crocheted, but she sat glued to the radio when baseball games were broadcast, and on Ladies Day, when women got in for 30 cents, she took the streetcar out to the ballpark.

She was like my Aunt Bert, another unlikely baseball fan. As elegant as she was, Aunt Bert sometimes went with Uncle Chuck to baseball games in Minneapolis. Appropriately attired in a nice summer print dress, she cheered the Millers, ate hot dogs, and even drank beer, just like a regular guy. Uncle Chuck adored her for being such a good sport.

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