Father’s Day, Gay Families, & Pride
The following story is a chapter from a book my youngest brother John is writing about our family. I’m sharing it in Letters for two reasons. First, in celebration of Father’s Day, it is primarily about my Dad (though I play a prominent role in it, as well, and one sure to amuse our Rehoboth community). On this Father’s Day, my dad is dying, and John’s story makes me grateful for the amazing family memories he and Mother helped us to create together.
The second reason it makes sense to me to run this story now, is because June is Gay Pride month, and my family has always been outspoken about matters of equality. It is my belief that it is never only one person who has to come out of the closet. Families with gay children have to come out as well, and my family has always been a supportive and loving and “out” family. This story has nothing to do with gay rights (other than the obvious revelation that I have always been gay!), but everything to do with what it means to be a loving family.
My brother John is a well-known columnist for the Birmingham News—and, by the way, a judge at this year’s annual Birmingham Gay Pride Parade.
Murray Archibald, CAMP Co-founder and President of the Board of Directors of CAMP Rehoboth, is an artist in Rehoboth Beach.
by John Archibald
Dad has always been a responsible man, so when it snowed two solid feet in Huntsville when I was two, he did not tie my sled to the back of his car like he did for my siblings and all the other neighborhood children.
He did not allow me to ride down Monte Sano Mountain, sliding, careening behind his green Rambler station wagon in a long whipping train of sleds, screaming, like all those other kids, and praying only for life.
Nope. Dad has always been a responsible man. He left me there on the side of the road. In the snow.
I was two.
Mother came to rescue me, plucking me out of a drift.
“Honey!” she said to my Dad later, after he towed the neighborhood children back up the side of Huntsville’s steepest mountain and prepared to make another run.
“Oh, Bless Patty, Sweet!” he said. “I was coming right back.”
Dad has always been a responsible man. During that cold winter in Decatur in the ‘70s, when the Tennessee River froze as solid as a big river in the South can freeze, he insisted on walking out on the ice with us, so that if we fell in, he would be there to drown by our sides. When I slipped and fell, knocking myself senseless on the ice, he packed snow on my head to stop the bleeding while the other children scooted around on the ice.
It was only a concussion.
“Honey!” mother said later. “Why didn’t you bring him home?”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” Dad said. “He wasn’t going to die!”
Dad was of the opinion, most of the time, that children needed a little adventure in their lives, that’s why they heal so well. So he tied ropes in trees—though he later got Mark to do it because Mark could climb anything—and took us on perilous hikes, on winding trails overlooking certain death.
“Do it. Just walk across.”
We leaped from rock to rock on slippery waterfalls, and once he encouraged me to leap into a swimming hole in North Alabama, even as we watched what must have been half a dozen snakes slithering across the water’s surface.
“Do it. They’ll get away from you once you jump in,” he said. “Don’t be a mugwump, now. In or out.”
A mugwump, as he told us, was an indecisive person, one who sits on a fence with his mug on one side and his wump on the other.
When we fell and scraped our knees, bumped our heads or stumped our toes, he had the answer.
“Looks like I’m gonna have to cut it off,” he’d say. And up we would fly.
I twisted my ankle on a hike up the Appalachian Trail when I was 10 or 11. He examined it.
“I think you’ll live,” he said. “Better walk it off. Go ahead, do it.”
“Gosh, Dad,” I said.
“Watch that mouth, son. Don’t take God’s name in vain.”
We were not permitted to say “gosh” or “gawd” or “golly.” “My god,” "for god’s sake,” and “Lord a’mercy” were strictly forbidden as well, as were any derivatives thereof.
“I swanny” was expletive enough, or “Sam Hill,” “Bless Patty” or “Pete’s Sake.” As in:
“What in the Sam Hill are you children waiting on?”
“I’m scared, Daddy.”
“Well for Pete’s sake, don’t be scared. I’ve got you. Just do it! Jump off that cotton pickin’ log, and don’t look down.”
“Well Bless Patty, you did it! Well I swanny.”
I guess we all got a little bit of Dad’s Do it! genes, the need for adventure and action, to push ourselves, and more importantly our companions, on to a little risk. I suppose we all got it, but Mark and Murray got the most.
Like when Mark found the snapping turtle.
“Stick your finger out, just to see if it will bite,” he said. “Go ahead, do it! How bad can it be?”
Or when he dared me to leap off the bluff above the river:
“Don’t worry. Just do it! If you get knocked unconscious, I’ll save you.”
And I’m sure he would.
Or when he told me I would have no problem, at the age of 10, carrying a 30-pound boulder down the side of a mountain.
“You’re strong, just do it! Just drop it if it gets too heavy.”
“Ouch. Not on your fingers!”
But Murray, well, no one could coax or dare or cajole more effectively than Murray. Mary Beth imitates him to this day, screwing her face up and spitting out the words, like the Wicked Witch of the West.
“Do it! Go ahead Do it, my pretty!”
He did it when he was 10, when he picked wild toadstools in the back yard, mixed them with dirt, spread it all on a saltine cracker and dared the girl next door to eat it.
“Do it! Come on, do it!”
He did it when he was 50, too, when he gathered fat slugs from Mom and Dad’s front sidewalk, and urged his nephews to eat them.
“Do it! It’s not so bad. Have you ever had escargot? It’s a delicacy! This is like escargot. Sort of. It’s a little slimy. Just do it!”
“God, Murray, what are you feeding them?”
“Watch your mouth, son. Don’t take God’s name in vain.”
But Murray was always hard to resist, and just as hard to stop, whether he was heaving rotten eggs into the neighbor’s yard, feeding slimy slugs to children or putting on one of the many elaborate plays and spectacles he created even as a child. He was quite the producer, Murray, and one did not easily say “No” to his casting.
My debut in his plays came in 1963. Of course, my debut in life came that year, too, so I had no opportunity to turn down the part. I was eight months old.
Still, I had the title role, a starring role, in a play produced, written and directed by Murray, and also starring him in multiple parts, including the heroic father and the sinister old villain. I would appear as the Baby New Year, in a play called—and this should have been a warning—The Year without a New Year.
All of my siblings played roles in this drama, for no one could resist Murray’s charms, or his urging.
“Do it. Come on do it! We need you!”
Everything Murray has ever done has been a production, like the way he feng shuis any hotel room he checks into, rearranging furniture, re-draping drapes, substituting the art on the walls, even if he plans to stay only overnight. He carries extra lighting in case the room, or part of it, needs brightening, and fabric to hang over lamps if it needs muting. At Christmas, he arranges the mountain of gifts under the tree so only those with the most appealing wrapping—those wrapped by himself or Mary Beth—are visible from the front. One year he even repainted all the figures in Mom’s Nativity scene because the Wise Men’s robes looked “dull and lifeless, anything but wise,” and a shepherd’s expression was “too dour.”
“There,” he said when he was finished. “Now that’s how you want to look when you go to greet the son of God!”
It was the same then. All in, all the way, all the time. He built a set in the basement with plywood and cardboard, painting it carefully for just the right effect. He stitched together costumes from old Halloween-wear and cloaks left over from the Christmas pageant at church, the cotton gowns worn by the shepherds and the velveteen robes of the wise men. He painted my name—Baby New Year—on a red satin sash that once belonged to the wise man Melchior. He gathered props. A broom and a mop, a cauldron, and an old china barrel we used to pack the dishes when we moved from parsonage to parsonage.
We practiced, or they did. I was only eight months old, like I said, so it was not really a speaking part. Then Murray did what any good producer would do. He set a date and a time, and he sold tickets.
And people came. It was hard, even then, to tell him “No.”
The curtain opened and there we were, a happy family celebrating the coming of a New Year. Murray was the father and my sister, Mary Beth, the demure mother. She had already grown a little wary of Murrays’ productions, having been forced in a recent production to deliver a baby onstage—a big round-headed baby doll. Mom and Dad and the grandparents burst out laughing in that scene, and my shy sister was mortified. She was sure they were laughing at her and not the role, and she cried.
My brother Mark was three, and he stood scowling on the edge of the stage from the moment the curtain rose. Dressed in a long blonde wig and a red skirt, his lips were bright with red lipstick, his cheeks caked with rouge. Mark was the daughter. He had fallen for Murray’s charm, the power of “Do it! Do it!” But he was not happy about it. He never moved. He simply scowled.
As the play progressed it was revealed that an evil old man—Murray—hoped to stop his advancing years by kidnapping the baby new year. Even then, Murray recognized the importance of keeping one’s youth. He swept across the stage, laughing cruelly, “Ha, ha, ha ha.” He scooped me from my crib and ran offstage to end Act I, crying “There will never be another New Year!”
Act II began in the villain’s lair, with Murray pacing back and forth in front of the china barrel, a metal-rimmed cylinder the color of cardboard that stood about four feet tall. We used such barrels to pack china for our many moves, and it included a lid that fit in a lip around the top, and snapped airtight.
Murray spoke in a soliloquy, telling the audience his plan to hold the baby captive so he could live forever, locked in eternal youth, although it looked more like middle age, with that mustache.
The muttering in the audience had already begun.
“Where is John?”
“I don’t see John.”
But the play went on, Mark still standing on the side of the stage, scowling, even though he was not in this scene, Murray earnestly, precisely reciting his lines.
“As long as I have the Baby New Year locked safely away in this barrel, I will remain young and beautiful…forever! Ha, ha, ha ha!”
The audience again:
“You don’t think!”
“Oh, my stars!”
“What in the Sam Hill?”
It’s quite possible, I suppose, that I slept through the entire second act, and possibly the entire play, deep in the womb of that china barrel. But family legend has it that all hell broke loose.
The whispers turned to murmurs and the murmurs to shouts. Dad leapt from his chair, bounding to the stage and ripping the lid off the barrel. He pulled me out, blinking and slobbering, and held me high for the crowd— specifically my Mom—to see.
And the crowd cheered.
But Murray was crushed. His play was ruined. To make matters worse, the production was cancelled, even the next day’s matinee. And if that injury needed more insult, Dad even made him give refunds.
“Do it, son. Go ahead. Do it!”
Murray is indignant about that even today, 50 years after his play was unceremoniously closed. It would have been something truly special, he knows. It was far less dangerous than whipping down the mountain behind a Rambler station wagon, or leaping from rock to rock above some mountain waterfall. That was the real injustice of it all.
“There was plenty of air in that barrel,” he says, as he did just last year. “Why did you have to do that, Dad?”
And Dad just stares, still dumbfounded after all those years.
“Well for Pete’s sake, son…”
Like I said, Dad always has been a responsible man.
John Archibald is a metro columnist for The Birmingham News/al.com. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the paper, and all the time at al.com.