Because That's How Friendship Works (by Grant Bentley)

Small Town Boy

By Grant Bentley

If any nice person, nasty person, place, event, happening, thing, or sport, seems familiar, it is purely coincidental.

Can a lonely gay boy, growing up in a tiny rural village, expect a Valentines Day worth remembering?

For those of you who bothered to look at the picture, you’ll notice it’s a picture of the small village of Wexford. Actually it’s not small, it’s SMALL. You can almost count the houses using your fingers and toes…well if you use your toes twice. This is one of dozens of ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ farm-centred villages in Alberta. On any given day, there are more kids in the school than people living in the village.

At least half the village consists of the school that serves the town and the surrounding area, the hockey arena with the curling rink beside it, and the ‘downtown’ core consisting of the confectionary, Seniors’ Centre, Co-op grocery, Co-op hardware, and hotel. In the southeast corner is Hansen’s chicken farm. There’s the block with the community hall, garage/service station, and Jason’s three quonsets full of antique cars. Then there’s the farmyard on the north edge of town. Oh yeah and the John Deere dealership on the south end of town. What’s left holds the village’s entire population of about 150.

Eliminate the houses occupied by retired farmers and you have fifteen houses with kids living in them. Now, eliminate the ones with kids under twelve, and you have six. Yep, that’s it, six houses with teenagers for a total of eight. You see a couple of those houses had two. If we want to talk about houses with teenage boys besides mine, there was one. It had two…the only other teenage boys in town, Abe and Donnie.

Now, considering the people who have nothing better to do than keep track of stuff like this, one in ten teenagers are gay….approximately. That likely means, since I am one of eight teens who live in town, and I’m gay, then I’m it. Just little old me…all by myself…alone in my room wondering why the other two guys in town like girls…not like I was going to ask them why. I may have been in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere but I wasn’t stupid or naïve.

Considering my situation, I guess you could say that, obviously, the chance of me finding a like-minded friend…or a boyfriend…was equal to the chance of me memorizing π to a million decimal places. That would be like…not any…none…zero. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re all thinking…find a friend or friends on the Internet…duh. You know, someone I could relate to and talk to about things…gay things.

Now why didn’t I think of that? Oh yeah, that’s right, I was born in 1958 so my first question as a teen would have been, “What’s the Internet?”

I also know that some of you are wondering, if I lived in the middle of nowhere, in the early 1970’s, with only two other guys in town…who liked girls, how the hell did I know I was gay.

Good question.

Well, we did have television…in colour yet. That gave me: The Brady Bunch with Barry Williams, The Walton’s with Eric Scott, and The Partridge Family with (Oh my God) David Cassidy. Now, spending any amount of time looking at these guys, and being gay, you’d know it…trust me. Of course, we can’t forget Michael Jackson, The Bee Gees, David Bowie, Leif Garrett, George Michael, and (Oh my God) Shaun Cassidy. Oh yeah, and Michael Shrieve, the drummer for Santana was pretty hot too. I saw him when we went to see Woodstock at a drive-in theatre in the city. Actually, since the whole hippy thing somehow never made it to Middle of Nowhere Alberta, I saw a lot of interesting stuff watching Woodstock.

But, besides watching my favourite guys on TV or looking at them in the teen magazines, my life was boring as hell. A walk around town took five minutes unless I ran into Grandma Bradshaw, then it took an hour. I knew more about growing up in the early 1900’s than any guy my age needed to know. And, you know how when they build a sidewalk they make it look like it’s made of square sections. You want to know how many sidewalk sections we have in town? Or how many rose bushes? Maybe how many dandelions on Mrs. Jones lawn? No? How about how many gay guys live in town? Oh yeah, you already know how many…one…me.

Of course wandering around town counting crap wasn’t my only pastime. I did my school work. In fact I never had a mark below 84%. I read every book in the school library…even Dr. Seuss and Winnie the Pooh. Oh yeah, and I watched a lot of TV. I even watched a soap opera one afternoon, ewww, that was a mistake.

Another thing I had to deal with was that, since about grade eight, the other guys were beginning to notice the girls. Not that they hadn’t noticed them before, but now they were noticing and commenting. Some of them even began dating girls. If that wasn’t bad enough, they also began to notice that I wasn’t noticing girls. Well, I noticed they were there just like I noticed the lockers were there, but that was about it. I even got the odd comment thrown my way about my lack of enthusiasm for Brenda’s boobs or Carolyn’s ass. Luckily I was able to laugh it off saying I was a leg man and boobs and asses didn’t do it for me. Still, I think the guys were seriously wondering if there was something wrong with me. Thankfully though, in the middle of nowhere Alberta in the early seventies, no one had picked up on the term faggot yet. Or, if they had, they had the decency not to use it.

Just so you don’t think I was a total outcast and loser, I did play catch with the guys and a couple of the girls sometimes. Unfortunately there weren’t enough kids in town to form one baseball team, never mind two. The best we could do was a catcher, a pitcher, a first base man, an outfielder, and too batters. The good thing was, it wasn’t all that hard to hit a homerun. We got one at-bat and then we had to rotate positions. That was okay once in a while but I found it mindlessly boring most of the time.

Of course when winter came around all anyone could think of was hockey. Everyone but me that is. I will never understand the fun in chasing a little black piece of rubber around a skating rink, slamming into each other, or pounding each other into the boards, getting bruises and the occasional concussion. Even so, parents actually drove their kids in from the farms for that, to them, wonderful experience.

Unfortunately for every hour of free skating we had two hours of figure skating and ten hours of hockey. So winter for me tended to be an at home indoor event, books and TV being my only companions. Even Christmas break was dominated by hockey. In fact, they managed to fit in two hockey tournaments every year, one bantam and one pee wee. I did go to the bantam tournament though…so many cute guys to watch…hmmmm. I really wanted to take half of them home with me but, unfortunately, that wasn’t going to happen.

Hockey was all well and good, but to me, skating should be skating…you know. Gliding around the rink, feeling the air flow through your hair, feeling the exhilaration and freedom, almost like your floating. Now that, to me, was fun. However, when Mrs. Phillips suggested I try figure skating, I did think about it. But I decided, ‘I don’t think so’. The guys were already questioning my sexuality and I didn’t want to give them one more reason to wonder. I was quite happy to be known as a loner. A nice, friendly, bookwormy, loner.

Then, the day before Christmas break something totally unimaginable happened. A new family, the O’Brian’s, moved into town. A new family with, get this, four boys. And, as if that wasn’t enough, they moved into Grandpa Mason’s old house right next door to us…to me. I guess the John Deere dealership belonged to Mr. O’Brian’s uncle and he wanted to semi-retire, so assuming they wanted to relocate to Canada, he offered it to them. The dad had been involved in farming and farm machinery in Ireland so his uncle thought, with a little training, he would do well here, and it would keep the company in the family. I guess they liked the idea too, because here they were.

Since they moved in on the last day of school, I missed seeing them packing stuff into the house, but Mom, being the good neighbour, invited them over for dinner. When the boys walked into the living room with their folks that evening, I’d like to say they all looked cuter than David Cassidy. But no. They looked like regular guys…cute regular guys though. The older boys did have one thing unusual for small town Alberta. They may not have looked like David Cassidy, but they had long hair like he did. They were a definite contrast to the normal country boy barbershop haircuts we had. They looked totally cool and I loved it. But the thing that really did it for me was that they had what my dad referred to as thick Irish accents. Oh my God, it was so cool.

It didn’t take the boys and  me long before we headed to my room to listen to some of my favourite albums while we got to know each other. I quickly found that even their names were cool. The oldest was Ailin or Allen to us. He was 17. Then Séamus, said like Shamus, or James to us. He was 16. Then Pádraig or Patrick, and Liam or William. They were 13 and 14. They actually had to write down a couple of their names for me to figure them out. Only Pádraig had decided to use the non-Irish version of his name, Patrick, so there was Ailin, Séamus, Patrick, and Liam. I even found out my name, Sean, is really an Irish name, Seán which translates to John.

We barely got started chatting when Mom called us to come for dinner. Dinner was awesome. Mom let us fill our plates and go back to my room so we could get to know each other better. As we talked about everything from living in a little village in Ireland to living in a little village in Canada. One of the big things that came up, of course, was missing all their friends. Like me, they had grown up with and known their friends since childhood.

As we were chatting about their adventures in Ireland and the reason they came to middle of nowhere Alberta, the sounds of Queen, David Bowie, and Elton John were quietly floating through my room. Not all at the same time. Kinda one after the other…obviously.

After a while, Ailin asked me if I had any music that wasn’t gay.

My first question was, “Gay?”

“Yeah, gay,” he replied, “Séamus plays this at home all the time.”

I had never heard anyone refer to music as gay before so I was kinda confused.

“You mean music by gay artists?” I asked.

“I mean gay music by gay artists for gay listeners right Séamus?” he replied.

I could see Séamus hang his head at Ailin’s remark, and he almost looked like he wanted to sink into the floor.

“Uh,” I responded, “I’m not sure insinuating Séamus and I are gay is a good idea. Maybe it’s accepted where you come from in Ireland, but not so much here.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to insinuate you were gay,” he said. Then to Séamus he added, “Sorry, Séamus I’m just slagging ya. You know that.”

Séamus just glared at him but didn’t say anything.

“Look, you’re safe here,” I told Séamus, “Well, at least with me. I won’t say a word to anyone. Promise.”

“Thanks,” he replied, “It’s not exactly accepted at home either. Just my family and good friends know, and now you.”

I looked at Séamus tapped his arm and gave him a reassuring smile. He looked at me for a second and smiled back.

A couple of days after we had them over for dinner, I ran into Séamus at the rink. It was a free-skating evening after the last pee wee hockey game and he was trying to learn how to skate…not very successfully I might add. It was kinda funny actually, but I’m sure he was getting bruises on his bruises. As soon as I got my skates on, I skated over to help him. Well, not before laughing at him probably more than I should have and getting a well known hand gesture in return. When I finally stopped laughing, I helped him up. Once he got going again and with me close by to catch him before he fell again, he did all right. In fact, after about a half hour, he was getting the hang of it. Within an hour, he was skating by himself with only the occasional balance issue.

Before we left for home, we decided to grab a burger, some fries, and a drink from the confectionary at the arena before it closed. As we were laughing and joking between bites, Séamus paused in his laughter and just looked at me for a few seconds. I got kind of a weird feeling when he did that, so I quickly mentioned he had better moves that most figure skaters I’d seen. Then he was back laughing again. When Mrs. Jensen reminded us that it was nearly 10:00 and she wanted to close up, we grabbed our drinks, thanked her, and started for home. I think the two of us had more fun that evening than either one of us had had for a long time. I know I hadn’t laughed so much in years.

After that evening, Séamus and I started to spend a lot of time together. It was a whole new experience for me…not being alone most of the time. I had someone to talk to, someone to laugh with, someone to hang out with. I felt like a different person. I felt happy…yes, happy. I mean I had never been particularly sad or any thing. Just sort of neutral…you know. But now I was happy. I wanted to get up in the morning. I wanted to get out of the house. I wanted to go skating or walking. But, mostly, I wanted to be with Séamus.
When school started up again after the break, the boys were tested to see where they fit into our grade system. You see school is set up quite differently over there. Ailin tried to explain it to me but I got lost after the first ten words. They have Junior Cycle, Transition year, and Senior Cycle. Transition year was compulsory in some schools but not others. They got Junior Certificate examinations in all subjects at the end of Junior Cycle. Many schools have mocks (also known as pres). The mocks are not state examinations and are therefore not given at all schools. Then, at the end of Senior Cycle, they get Leaving Certificate examinations. Many schools have mocks then too. It was way too confusing and got worse when he tried to explain what mocks were for. Our system of grades 1 to 12 makes much more sense.

As it worked out, Patrick was placed in grade 8, Liam in grade 9, Ailin in grade 12, and Séamus in grade 11. It couldn’t have worked out better. Why? Because I was in grade 11 and I could help Séamus if he was missing anything. Not to mention, we could work together on our homework and projects. We did have to spend a fair bit of time on Social Studies which they don’t have over there and one math chapter. Other than that he was good, even ahead of us in physics and chemistry.

We didn’t just do school work though. We spent a lot of time just enjoying each other’s company, skating, going for walks, watching TV, and just laying around talking. Skating took up a fair bit of our time as it seemed like he couldn’t get enough time on the ice. Another new experience for him was tobogganing. At least twice a week, Dad would let me take the truck, and we would go up into the hills and toboggan till we were too exhausted to climb back up again. We both had some pretty good wipe outs and, again, like with the skating, we would laugh till our sides hurt.

As we were driving back one day, he looked at me grinning and said, “That was a right gas that was. I’m right jaded though.”

I just looked back at him and laughed, “A right gas and jaded?”

“Oh sorry. I’m a right eejit,” he replied, “I meant that was a loads of fun and I’m totally tuckered now.”

“Yes it was and I’m pretty much tuckered too,” I said with a grin.

I didn’t ask him about eejit since it sounded like idiot, so I went with that.

Obviously we didn’t get away with slipping off and tobogganing alone very often. His brothers usually noticed we were loading them into the truck and were right there ready to go with us. One day, Abe and Donny, the only other teen guys in town noticed us. Within ten seconds we had two more toboggans and two more guys in the back of the truck. Abe was the class clown. He might have been considered the village idiot if we still had them in the 70’s, or if he wasn’t on the honour roll. But, if there was something daring or stupid to try, Abe was right there.

After about half an hour, Abe decided to lay on his back, his head facing the front of the toboggan, and go down backwards. About halfway down he hit a bump. He flew off ten feet to the left as his toboggan veered off to the right. After sliding about twenty feet, he jumped up, started bouncing around and flailing his arms. Within a minute, he had his coat off, his shirt off, his jeans undone and halfway down he was still bouncing up and down. As we stood there watching him, we were howling with laughter. In fact, Liam was laughing so hard he almost peed himself and had to run to the side and actually pee. Given another three minutes, Abe was satisfied that he had shaken the three or four pounds of snow that had gone down the back of his neck out of his clothes and started to get dressed again.

“Not the full shilling is he?” Séamus said to me as his laughter began to slow down.

Thankfully I didn’t have to ask what he meant by that one. The meaning seemed quite clear. I just laughed and replied that he was closer to a full shilling than he looked.

Séamus shook his head and still laughing said, “If you say so.”

Séamus and I had clicked from day one and spent as much time together as possible. I soon became aware that spending so much time with him led to some fairly deep feelings for him and I felt closer to him every day. Not only was he the sweetest guy I had ever met but he was gay like me. There was no question we had become best friends. I had been thinking of telling him about me for a while. But, being the overly cautious person I am, I was afraid of what it might do to our friendship.

My heart was saying, “Tell him,” but my brain was saying, “If I tell him I have feelings for him and he doesn’t have feelings for me, then what?”

I was beginning to think maybe I wasn’t the full shilling.

I would soon find out the answer to my dilemma though. One bitterly cold day when it was too cold to go out, we were laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling and talking about some of our adventures since they moved here.

There was a slight pause in our conversation before he looked at me and kind of timidly said, “You and I have been spending a lot of time together and I’ve come to feel very close to you. If I told you I like you a lot would that bother you?”

This was it. This was what I had been waiting for. He had just told me he liked me…a lot.

“You have no idea how long I’ve been wanting to tell you this,” I responded, “I like you a lot too.”

“You do get what I meant when I said I like you a lot?” he questioned.

“Only if you get what I meant when I said I like you a lot too,” I replied grinning.

The next thing I knew he was laying on top of me pinning me to my bed.

“You sod,” he exclaimed grinning, “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I’ve just been afraid, that if you didn’t feel the same way, it would make it awkward between us,” I replied.

“Beat the fuck, we’re a right pair we are,” he said.

“Yeah I guess we are,” I replied just before he leaned in and kissed me.

And that was the ‘Oh My God’ of ‘Oh My Gods’. I think I almost passed out. But I managed to come to my senses quickly enough to return his kiss and pull him in for another one. It was the most amazing moment of my life…so far. We didn’t stop there. We talked about our feelings and snogged, as he put it, for half the afternoon. Well until he had to go home for dinner.

When I made it to the table for dinner I think I was still glowing. Whatever I was doing, it attracted my parents’ attention.

“You seem awfully pleased with yourself,” Dad remarked as he gave me a puzzled look.

“Yes you do,” Mom added, “You and Séamus were uncharacteristically quiet this afternoon. Anything happen that we should know about?”

If I had been glowing before, I wasn’t anymore. I had gone from glowing to ghostly white in ten seconds flat.

“Oh dear,” Mom said before putting her hand on my arm, “Are you okay, sweetie?”

“You do know you can tell us anything,” Dad said, the concern showing in his voice.

I just sat there on the verge of tears. How could I tell them? This was small town, middle of nowhere Alberta. Guys weren’t gay here. Guys were tough and manly and hard-working, not gay.
Finally Mom reached over with her other hand, lifted my chin so I had to look her in the eye and said, “Sean, you’re our pride and joy. We love you more than life itself. Nothing will ever change that.”

Then Dad stepped in. I turned to look at him not knowing what to expect. Dad was not known for beating around the bush. If he had something to say, he said it. His comments nearly blew me away though.

“Sean,” he said, “Since the day you hit junior high school, we’ve watched you grow and mature into the young man you are today. There were times when we wondered if and when we would meet the girl of your dreams, When the O’Brian’s moved in next door and a few days after we met Séamus, we realized there would be no meeting the girl of your dreams…because we had already met the boy of your dreams.”

I just sat there staring at him with my mouth open until he reached over and ruffled my hair.

“Don’t look so shocked,” he said with a grin, “Your mom and I weren’t born yesterday. We do know a thing or two about life and love.”

Once I finally regained partial control of my mind, mouth, and body, I burst into tears, jumped up, gave them both a huge hug, and said, “Thank you. I love you,” probably twenty times.

Once I calmed down, we talked through dinner and for probably an hour or more after. I couldn’t believe how blessed I was to have such understanding parents. This was the 70’s and being gay was not in any way, shape, or form in the public eye in rural Alberta. Even though it was gaining some recognition in the States with Harvey Milk and a few others, it was still considered a mental illness here. Yet my mom and dad not only knew about it but saw nothing wrong with it and were willing to accept a gay son. How phenomenal was that?

Séamus almost did cartwheels when I told him. His parents had been a little tougher to get through to, and if it hadn’t been for Ailin, he may very well have ended up in a mental institute. Between the two of them, and numerous scientific articles Ailin had found, they had been able to convince them Séamus was gay and that it was not a mental disorder, and nor was it rare. That had been two years ago and now they were perfectly fine with having a gay son. In fact they had figured us out, with the help of Patrick and Liam, and were perfectly fine with their gay son having a boyfriend.

So, I was out to my parents, I was out to Séamus’ parents, and I was officially Séamus’ fella. All was good with the world. And what better time for it all to happen than right before Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day was always a special event in school. Just so no one was ever left out, every kid in the school got a list of twenty names and every kid wrote a little note and signed a valentine for each of those twenty kids. That meant that every kid got a minimum of twenty Valentine’s cards. It’s not like we all didn’t know what was going on, but no kid was left sitting looking at an empty desktop while all those around him or her were excitedly reading their Valentine’s cards. I’ll never forget the Valentine’s Day that a grade eight kid, Jamie Ross, came up to me in the hall, and with a tear in his eye, thanked me for the valentine I gave him. I told him he was welcome and gave him a little hug. Every time I saw him after that I always got a big smile and a wave. It didn’t occur to me then, but I probably wasn’t the only gay kid in school.

But all that aside, Valentine’s Day, Thursday, February 14, 1974 is indelibly engrained into my memory. Valentine’s Day would never be more special than that year. Because that year I had a for real valentine of my very own. That evening, Séamus and I drove to the nearest town that had a real restaurant for a romantic dinner. We made reservations, so we were seated as soon as we got there. They gave us a table way off in the corner near the back of the restaurant. It was surrounded by tall, albeit, fake plants. There was a big candle burning in the centre of the table and a bouquet of roses to one side. It couldn’t have been more private and romantic. Once we were seated, the waiter took our drinks order, which of course had to be non-alcoholic, so we ordered 7-Up. Next came the hors d’oeuvres. We ordered Bruschetta topped with a tomato salad which was awesome. For the entrée or main course, we ordered steak and lobster, which was ‘Oh my God’ beyond awesome, and finally we ordered Valrhona Chocolate Fondue, a desert to die for.

Of course, as unbelievable as the meal was, it wasn’t the best part of the evening. The best part of the evening was that I was sharing it with Séamus. We talked, we laughed, we held hands, and even kissed once. Nothing would ever touch that evening. It was perfect in every way. Neither of us could have felt happier or more in love than we did that evening or on the way home. In fact, as we were saying good night, it was the first time we both said the words, “I love you,” and neither of us could have meant them more. Unfortunately it was after midnight and we did have school tomorrow so our perfect evening did have to end.

We didn’t accomplish a lot at school that Friday though. The junior and senior high kids had a Valentine’s dance on the Friday closest to Valentine’s Day which, in this case was the next day. Everyone was too excited to concentrate on the lessons being taught. Thankfully the teachers were aware of our excitement and took it easy on us. The dance started at 9:00 and went to midnight. There were all sorts of goodies to eat and a huge bowl of punch. One of the teachers DJ’d the dance and actually did a pretty good job. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, Séamus and I couldn’t dance with each other as we obviously would have liked to. Instead, we danced with a couple of girls from our grade. We did dance in the same area of the dance floor so it was almost like dancing with each other.

Then halfway through the dance the music stopped and the DJ announced it was time for the big announcement, the names of the couple that had been voted Valentine’s Couple of the Year for 1974. Abe, who, besides being the class clown, was also the student council president, walked up onto the stage. With great fanfare that only Abe could get away with, he held up the list of votes, pretended to be studying them for much too long. Then with a huge grin on his face he called out the names. Sean Forester and Séamus O’Brian.

The entire gym burst out in deafening cheers, whistles, and clapping. Séamus and I just stared at each other. We both had tears in our eyes and could have fallen through the floor. This was small town middle of nowhere conservative Alberta. This couldn’t be happening here. But it was.

Finally, Séamus made the first move and stepped over and put his arm around me as we turned to face the cheering mass of kids. Then Sherry, one of the girls we had been dancing with took my hand and led us onto the stage. We were still both feeling totally stunned. Then Abe grabbed my hand a clipped an id bracelet on my wrist before doing the same for Séamus. By then I think it was finally beginning to sink in for both of us as our stunned looks began to turn into smiles.

Then the chant began, “Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss.”

We looked at each other, then at the teachers, then at the crowd of kids. The chant wasn’t stopping, slowing down, or getting any quieter, so Séamus grinned at me, pulled me into his arms and gave me the longest most passionate kiss yet. When we broke the kiss, the teachers were clapping, Abe was pretending he was timing us, and the kids were going wild. This was definitely the most surreal experience of my life. In fact surreal didn’t come close to describing the way I felt. However, needless to say, Séamus and I danced together for the rest of the evening and it was amazing.

As we talked to the other kids later and the following Monday, it turned out that their knowing me, in some cases since we were in diapers, made trying to hide who I was futile. Everyone knew me far too well. I found out I was assumed to be gay much of my life. Then when Séamus came along and I seldom left his side, not to mention I became happy citizen of the year, it was too easy. There was no more assuming. Not to mention the few words between Abe, Patrick, and Liam which pretty much removed all doubt.

As graduation approached the following year and I looked back at growing up in the middle of nowhere, in rural Alberta, in the 70’s, I realized how lucky I had been and how much I was going to miss it. I never believed I would be accepted as a gay person, never mind my boyfriend and I getting elected as Valentine’s Couple of the Year. Maybe I should have though. In a village that small, everyone knew everyone, apparently better than I thought, and, in those days, the phrase, it takes a village to raise a child, very much held true. I was not gay Sean, faggot Sean, or girly boy Sean. I was just Sean and everyone looked out for me just as they did for all the other kids in the village. If I was hurt, someone was there to help me, if I was being bad, someone was there to give me crap, if I needed something, someone was there to find it for me. I wasn’t just Bill and Rita’s kid, I was everyone’s kid and obviously they didn’t care if I was gay or not.

As Séamus and I stood together at the graduation ceremonies and I took his hand and led him onto the dance floor, I thought of how lucky I was to be a small town boy…a small town boy from Wexford.

Thanks to Colin for editing, prepping, and posting this story for me.