A letter to Paul

Paul Charles Doerr, 1931-1985

Dear Paul,

As far as letters go this won’t be much of one. After all, it’s a bit unusual to write letters to the dead; still, there seems much to say. I just wanted them to know who you were, Paul. I hope you can forgive me this along the way…   

Jeff

*

In the summer of 1968, my parents were well on their way to what would otherwise be an amicable divorce. They’d married as teenagers, but by their early thirties had drifted into a Game of Thrones sort of emotional bargaining and conflict. My father left, going off to do business and philander in the Bay Area, claiming a need to better provide for his family. My mother was left behind to raise three kids in the freeway-riddled wilds of Orange County, California. We, their children, were supposed to figure things out. All of this made my sisters and me a wee bit scattered in more ways than one. Yes, as we all know, divorce is an ugly animal.

In truth, my father hadn’t been around for a very long time, and I was a lonely kid. Growing up with a couple of sisters is, well, like growing up with a couple of sisters – need I say more. Mom was lonely, too; she was after all still a young woman and gravitated to what emotional support she could find. She found this largely in her friendship with Carole, a woman she’d raised us kids with and who had previously lived next door. By the late 1960s, Carole and her husband Jim had moved out into a new subdivision. With our father on the run, so to speak, it was more than natural that my lonely mother with her three stray and occasionally peculiar children would spend a lot of time at Carole and Jim’s. In addition to all this, Carole and Jim had the most amazing amenity at their new home and subdivision: they had a large community swimming pool to keep those darn kids busy on hot summer days.

Carole and Jim’s house was fun. They had three children roughly the same age as the three of us, and since we’d practically grown up together it was (at the time) a strong bond. Carole and Jim were social people, too. They enjoyed a wide circle of friends, and though they were devout Catholics, didn’t seem bound by the societal norms of what were in 1968 considered to be “acceptable friendships.” Carole and Jim were in some ways a bit ahead of the times. They could think outside the box, if you will. About this same time, an interesting couple moved in next door to Carole and Jim. Their names were Paul and Quentin. My mother rather hushedly said to us kids one day that they were homosexuals. Wait, what?

In 1968, my mother would never have used the term queer. At that time, the term “gay” wasn’t widely known or used in the ‘Disneyland suburbs’ where we lived; use of the word “queer” for my mother would have been (at the time) like using profanity. However, Paul and Quentin were very much queer insofar as I understand the present-day interpretation of the word. But frankly, they were also so very much more than any of that. They were fun.

What thirteen-year-old boy doesn’t think a pair of boa constrictors are pretty cool?

Paul and Quentin were like no one else I’d ever known. They were like no one else I’d ever been exposed to. I’m pretty sure that my mom felt the same way, and in a word, that was curious. Oh, it wasn’t that they were so outlandish. I mean, they both got up and went to work like anybody else did, like Carole and Jim and the rest of the neighbors did, and boy did they love to cook. Now, don’t get me wrong, Paul and Quentin were definitely different. While Paul was more staid, and in a 1960s business suit sort of way, Quentin wasn’t opposed to wearing make-up and often crazy costumes to break up the monotony of the average 1968 Orange County (California) day. Quite honestly, I’d never seen a man wear make-up before. I suppose there was a part of me that was scared by it all, and a big part of me that surely didn’t understand it. However, the truth was that Paul and Quentin were also pretty dang cool. You see, they also kept a couple of huge boa constrictors in a huge glass cage near their kitchen and under their stairs. What thirteen-year-old boy doesn’t think a pair of boa constrictors are pretty cool?

Now, I’m not writing this post as some sort of family history exposé on the meaning of sexuality or gender. In this regard, I can only say “to each their own.” However, if you think I’m a weird “grown-up” now, you really would have thought me a weird kid then, at that awkward adolescent stage. Please allow me to explain. With my Dad gone and my mother trying to find her own way, some may think it improper that my mom and her friends Carole and Jim would hang out – and let their kids hang out – with a couple of homosexuals in 1968. I mean, who leaves their “1968 children” in the company of such characters? What about role models? What about dangerous moral influences? Yeah, about that – Balderdash!

Do you remember that swimming pool I mentioned earlier? You know, the one at Carole and Jim’s new subdivision? Do you remember how I mentioned what a weird kid that thirteen-year-old “me” was? Well, I wouldn’t step foot in the swimming pool. My sisters would go for a swim. Carole and Jim’s kids would swim, heck even Carole and Jim and my mom would swim, but I would never go. I was too embarrassed to swim. You see I was gawky and skinny. I also had one of those “hairy ape” sorts of adolescent bodies that other kids make fun of. A day at the community pool meant me sitting off to the side, well-covered in the shade. I had to avoid the derision of the other kids. I was growing up, but I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.

Click on image to expand it.

I think one day my mother had had enough of trying to get me into a swimsuit to enjoy the water. I don’t remember how, but I’d gone off in a huff, back over to Carole and Jim’s to sit in the dark and generally feel sorry for myself. I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t let them see my hairy legs and my skinny bird chest. It was better to just sit in the dark alone while the others swam and had fun. The truth, though, is that I was so self-conscious. I was miserable.

I was sitting in the dark of Carole and Jim’s living room when Paul walked in. He looked tired; he’d just come home from work. At first, he didn’t say a word; really, he didn’t even move from his silhouette in the double doorway. After a bit, Paul came in and sat on the far side of the room. In truth, he just waited. He waited for me to spill my adolescent guts about why I could not go swimming and why I was so miserable with the body God had given me. Grudgingly, I told him my story.

Somehow, as Paul listened to me, some of that self-loathing seemed to fade away.

He didn’t say much. He only listened. Somehow, as Paul listened to me, some of that self-loathing seemed to fade away. At one point, Paul got up and opened the drapes allowing the sunshine to filter into Carole and Jim’s living room. Looking back, I honestly cannot remember what Paul said to me that day. I can see his face. I can see the utter kindness and understanding this man had for me. I can feel that he knows what it’s like to be self-conscious, to feel self-loathing, and to feel embarrassed about oneself. I can see that he understands. I see him light yet another cigarette and listen further. I can see the light from the opened drapes fall into the now smoke-filled room around him. (It was, after all, 1968.) Soon enough, we heard the other kids coming home from the swimming pool. We heard my mom, Quentin, Carole, and Jim as they neared the house and began to come through the door. Whatever had happened was over. Still, whatever had happened had told me that I was not alone. 

I won’t say that it was the next day, as after this many years I no longer recall. I won’t say that Paul had all the answers to my lingering self-loathing. I will say, though, that it wasn’t too long after that I realized I was okay with being the way I was, and the way I looked. It wasn’t too long after that that I joined the rest of those kids over at Carole and Jim’s in their community swimming pool. I’m not sure what happened that day with Paul. Certainly, there was nothing untoward. There was just a gawky kid full of self-loathing and body image doubt and, yes, a queer man who did nothing more than sit with me that day to let me know that he understood. Paul simply let me know that I was okay.

The years passed. I grew up and moved away. I heard through the grapevine that Paul and Quentin had split up and moved away, too. Beyond this, I never knew what had happened to either of them. I especially did not know what had happened to Paul. Lately, the old man in me decided that I wanted to know more about this kind man with whom I had crossed paths so many years ago. What had happened to him? What was his story?

A brief look at submitted family trees and what available census[1] and public records[2] there are helped me to follow Paul’s story.[3] It was a story I hadn’t wanted to hear. Paul died in December of 1985 at the age of 54.[4] Learning this saddened me because I realized that there was a good chance that a gay man in California dying in the mid-1980s likely died from AIDS. I hate the thought of this and only hope that perhaps he and Quentin had reconciled by then, or that at least Paul was surrounded by people who loved him.

So I decided that, in light of June being Pride Month, that I’d write a letter to Paul. I don’t know anything about Paul or Quentin’s struggles back in ‘68. For all of their openness, they were truly humble and private people. In truth, this post isn’t much about Pride Month, sexuality, or equity for LGBTQ people. It’s about a lonely kid, and a decent human being named Paul. It’s about a man who helped a boy to understand that it was okay to feel the way that he did and that he wasn’t alone. Paul, a man who could see me, started to free me, a little bit, from who I only thought I was. Thank you, my friend. I hope somewhere, somehow, you found peace.

Notes

[1] U.S., Census Records, 1950, Fulton, Rock County, Wisconsin, Ancestry.com.

[2] U.S., City Directories, Long Beach, California, 1965, Ancestry.com; California, U.S., Voter Registrations, for San Heron Circle, Buena Park, Orange County, California, 1962, Ancestry.com.

[3] U.S., School Year Books, Edgerton High School, 1950, Edgerton, Wisconsin, Ancestry.com.

[4] U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014, Ancestry.com.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

20 thoughts on “A letter to Paul

  1. Jeff, thank you for sharing this story. I was in a similar awkward stage of life about a decade earlier than you. Looking back, I wish I had a neighbor or older friend like Paul.

  2. So often gay and lesbian family members are expunged from family histories. Birth and death dates only remain, with nothing about their sometimes interesting and productive lives, accomplishments or partners in life. Correspondence and photos are still destroyed and obituaries sanitized, as if by prim Victorian spinster aunts. But, my fellow genealogists, it doesn’t have to be that way in the 21st century. Thanks for listening.

  3. That image of the City directory. When I saw the employer was Douglas (Aircraft), I knew exactly what City that was. It seemed most of Long Beach worked there. Lime, Atlantic, and the other streets confirmed it. Lovely story.

  4. What a really nice story, thank you for sharing it. It’s a reminder of how far reaching small acts of kindness can be.

  5. What a wonderful tale of kindness, the times, being an awkward teenager and a gay man when that wasn’t so easy. Thank you for a glimpse of joyful friendship. May Paul rest peacefully always.

  6. Jeff, there is still a lot of relevance in your story today. I have young relatives who have made choices in their lives that make them feel outside the glass house, who need more Paul’s in the world.

  7. Thank you for sharing this part of your life and your insightful memories. We need to hear more of “real life” these days.

  8. Hey all, who took a moment to read “A letter to Paul.” I appreciate it. I wanted to let you know that I “received” a note back from him just the other day. He wanted me to tell you thanks too; to say that he’s okay now and reminded me that each one of us has felt ‘small or less than’ what we should. He said that we all must always always lift each other up along the way.

    He said it’s what he tried to tell me on that long ago day back in ’68. Then, at the end of his “note” he left me with just one word that I will share with you below…

    Peace ~

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