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VOL 015: a smoky 'sweet 16' Belgian birthday

    The middle of the next month, June 1985, I was Brussels bound. Another divorce summer. 


    While the thought of spending my “Sweet 16 Summer” in Europe was thrilling, I did have one particular apprehension. For years Obie had teased me, insisting he would go all out for my 16th birthday by taking me to Amsterdam to lose my virginity. It was exactly the gift he would’ve wanted for his own 16th, surely. He probably couldn’t understand why my face flushed when he’d toss this promise into random bits of conversation.


    Well, the time had come. And I would be with him. And he was living a just quick drive from Amsterdam. Everything was in place for him to easily make good on his promise – or threat, as I saw it.





    Obie had always been good about birthdays. When I turned 8, just back from Paris and the new house still in boxes, he made certain I had a little party. Turning 13 in Tunis, he asked me to pick a cuisine to celebrate. I picked Mexican. With not a single taqueria or Latin bodega in the entirety of Tunisia, he nevertheless managed the most amazing chile relleños. Despite Obie’s birthday gusto, I couldn’t let the sex-worker scenario keep me from Brussels. Instead, I prepared my line of defense. I would argue that prostitution was exploitative. Surely Robin would back me up. Or, I could just tell Robin of Obie’s prosti-plan and have her muster outrage, I hoped. If it came down to it, some overdone Euro-gal and me in an Amsterdam bedroom, I could just tell her I was gay. She’d get paid no matter. I really did think about this all the days and nights leading up to this summertime sojourn. Though I am more anxious than most, granted.


    As with my last trip to Tunis, I was back on British Caledonian. At least, it was a BCal plane, but I think, technically, a charter flight. Oddly, this charter was a nonstop flight from Tampa to Gatwick, then a quick flight to Brussels, after a five-hour layover. Flights from Tampa to Europe were such a rarity that British Airways, also in 1985, brought a Concorde to Tampa to kick-off BA nonstop service to London in sensational PR fashion.




    Though the BCal DC-10 flight didn’t depart Tampa till nearly midnight, there was still protocol. First round of drinks, then dinner, then duty free, then sleep, then breakfast, then, “Get off our plane.” Having somewhat steeled myself for the possibility of a licentious Dutch birthday imbroglio, I certainly had enough nerve to ask for wine with dinner. It worked! Good thing, as the last time I’d had a night flight, possibly on this very plane, I was smaller. Now I was longer. The economy-seat space for getting comfortable was shrinking. The wine helped me settle into slumber. And no nasty stomachache like the ones I might get from a round of high school wine coolers.


    Landing in Gatwick, I was grateful my relationship with Unaccompanied Minor Services had ended. Instead, I was free to roam about with my free hours. To me, Gatwick was no average airport. I was in Great Britain. Finally! (The previous Gatwick transit doesn't count, obviously, as my musical tastes of the time were merely nascent. So there.) I was outside London. My adolescent brain was exploding in this age of New Wave, and the UK had my allegiance. I bought a copy of Melody Maker to read during my layover, helping to whet my appetite for the coming Live Aid concert. Not that I’d be attending, of course, but it would be on TV. A global event! My life’s soundtrack at the time was Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears. I was giddy to spend hours at Gatwick. Most of it I spent in the main departure hall, which also impressed me. This vast holding area pricked my notions of British railway culture. The main similarity was the big board, clickity-clicking as the information changed, as the dozens upon dozens of flights moved through the lineup in chronological order. I was in awe of that big board. The departure hall, this holding area, was a cathedral and that living, ever-changing departures board was its god. All corners of the globe were represented. Every traveler gave that board full attention. It would tell us what would happen, when it would happen, and how it would happen. Clickty-click-click-click. Ooh, the TAP flight to Lisbon is delayed! Clickity-clickity-clack-clack-clack the little tiles would smack as they flipped, giving us new information. The Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong is boarding! Oh, such a seductive, clean and crisp sound rang through the hall as the board shared its wisdom. 

Young girl in an undershirt looks back over her shoulder to smile at the photographer

Baby Sis Casey, circa 1985, in the kitchen in Brussels, doing her super-cute version of Jean Valjean stealing bread or cookies or something. Photo by Robin. Permission granted by no one! 

    Eventually, it clicked and clacked for me, offering my gate number. The big board did not, however, advise me that this plane would have propellers and be even tinier than the Shorts 330 into Lebanon, N.H. While not certain, I believe the little plane was an Embraer 110. I didn’t appreciate these surprises. The new lesson was that I should pin down all the variables. Ask a travel agent. Get timetables. Do whatever it takes, but get the information. No more surprises!

    I did not know that the same June 14 I departed, a band of Islamic-identified terrorists hijacked TWA’s Flight 847 after it departed Athens en route to Rome. Just what is it about Rome? That ordeal went on for days, first with the plane bouncing around the Mediterranean, and the murder of a U.S. sailor, Robert Stethem.


    Dad picked me up at the airport in Brussels. The mood seemed surprisingly more relaxed than during any previous visit with him. Maybe he was simply more domesticated. With Dora, Obie was allowed all the trappings of authority. If she was displeased, she could keep it to herself or freeze him out. In Robin’s household, if she was pissed, Obie was going to know about it. It was the first I’d seen my father beginning to mellow. The tyrant was becoming a teddy bear. That’s unlikely how anyone else in his life would’ve seen it. From my own little observation blind, however, it was pleasantly glaring. Robin had succeeded in somewhat taming the giant.  




    While Robin, Casey, and I had made that treacherous Tunis to Brussels trek a few years prior, this visit was my first view of their home in suburban Brussels. I loved it, primarily because it sat under a flight path. I could lie in the small back yard and look up at planes gliding slowly, directly overhead, coming in for landings. Shortly after I arrived, our family of four walked to a nearby pizza spot in their neighborhood. Casey could talk now. She ordered her usual, pizza margherita. Robin got me up to speed on what I’d missed. “Hey! Billy!” she would always begin, with this sort of endearing enthusiasm. These stories just as often ended with, “Neat, huh?” 


    After my post-pizza, adolescent jet-lag death sleep of some dozen hours or so, the summer had begun. Early on, Joe – from Tunis trip No. 1 – came for few days. Apparently, this had happened before. I had no idea. With Joe’s dad repositioned from Tunis to Milan, it was somehow seen as optimal to have Joe first spend a couple days in Brussels with Obie, Robin, and Casey. At 16, the center of my own universe, I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. Joe was spending time here, but not me? What gives? 


    Still, it was good to see Joe again. I thought he, too, might be gay. I was not yet skillful enough to interrogate properly, and Joe was a bit brooding, not about to blab that he had ’mo tendencies. Regardless, I was certainly glad he was around for the late-June “Marche du Souvenir.” Fully, the “Marche Européenne du Souvenir et de l'Amitié” or “European March of Memory and Friendship.” Obie had signed us up, along with Robin and himself, schedule permitting. 




    Obie drove Joe and me to some kind of Belgian military compound the night before the march. Everyone else was well prepared, with camping utensils and sleeping bags. Joe and I attempted to fashion spoons out of the aluminum lids that came with our barracks-cafeteria pudding cups. We slept in our clothes and jackets on spare cots with no bedding. I cursed my father’s laissez-faire lack of attention to detail. 


    We woke with the sun, rolled off our cots, and off we walked into the muddy Ardennes. My Rebok tennis shoes were not the most appropriate footwear, but they were the only shoes I brought to last me the summer. U2, on the other hand, was the appropriate music for the Walkman. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” was the perfect accompaniment for tromping through European forests for the purpose of honoring fallen soldiers. But Bono was no ample consolation. We didn’t have other clothes. We didn’t have the tools necessary for living in a Belgian barracks. And we had three more days to go. These 20 or so miles of Day 1 were just a taste. In late afternoon, we crossed the day’s finish line, mud-caked up to our knees. Robin was already there, having finished well ahead of us. Obie had to work, excusing himself from Day 1. In his place, Robin had to accept our declaration of mutiny. She took us back to her nearby tiny hotel and offered us asylum and showers. Joe went to town trying to get the mud out of his jeans, so much so that when Robin suggested we go down to the dining room, his pants were too wet to wear. Diplomatic Robin managed to negotiate with the kitchen staff and secure some utilitarian, oversized, chef’s pants for Joe. That was enough marche-ing for one summer. We did not return to the Ardennes. 


    Joe departed to join his dad in Milan just a couple days later, so it was time for me to befriend some new summertime peers. An American girl lived across the street, Stacie. She became the conduit to more Americans. Stephanie, English, lived up the street. She’d taken Joe and me to the international school for a half-day so we could meet some of the global locals. I’d continue bumping into this Benetton-esque brat-pack during adolescent bar crawls. The most popular venue for this crowd was Rainbow, with its tiny dance floor and some notorious house cocktail full of a neon-bright imitation blue curaçao. My best summer pal was Alex, an American kid my age. He liked Depeche Mode as much as I did, so we were co-thrilled that it was the summer of “Shake the Disease.” 





    My adolescent-appropriate crush on Alex turned into nicotine addiction (he smoked heavily) and a pierced ear (since he was going to perform the operation, with an ice cube and his kid sister’s old piercing stud). “Shake the Disease” aside, a different song marks this summer of ’85 crush: “How Soon Is Now.” It was playing one early evening in a Brussels alley as the late north Atlantic sun finally set and the tiny mussels cafés made their nightly transformation from restaurants to clubs. One DJ was setting up, playing “How Soon Is Now.” Alex and I were instantly hooked. “Go find out who that is,” Alex urged me. I loved getting orders from Alex. I ducked into the place, entirely open onto the alley. “Hey, who is that?” I asked the DJ as he flipped through his vinyl, holding the headset to one year, exuding that air of cool DJ importance.


    “Dersmits.” “Uh, who?” “Der-smeets.” I reported back to Alex. “I think it might be somebody German? Derschmidts?” A few more nights out, getting too drunk, smoking packs of my new bad habit, having more freedom than any 16 year old should, we heard that song enough times, spoke to enough DJ’s to learn that the band was, in fact, The Smiths, from Manchester. 


    I should mention that while The Smiths and front man Morrissey would provide my preferred soundtrack for the rest of high school and well beyond, Morrissey’s eventual dive into overt xenophobia soured me on him to a degree reserved for romantic exes. I can still find him somewhere in my iTunes library, but these days it’s sad and uncomfortable when my ears accidentally bump into him.

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Crappy cut from another old circa 1985 photo. Not in Brussels! This was in the Springfield EconoLodge during a field trip – via Amtrak – to D.C. I looked kinda douchey, because I probably was kinda douchey. And the red badge on my waist must've been swag promoting The B-52's. Those little badges were SO popular! 

    Come midsummer, Robin and I went by train to Milan to visit Joe and his dad – a notable highlight of which included sharing a communal dinner table with Ann B. Davis during a Venice daytrip. ABD might’ve been an appropriate surprise celebrity supper, as the journey began with me losing my passport, in madcap Brady Bunch fashion. Imagine Alice, Carol, Mike, and the kids running all over King’s Island in search of the waylaid architectural plans. In my case, luckily, the embassy driver, who was to begin his weekend as soon as he’d dropped Robin and me at the train station, spotted my passport sitting on the backseat. He rushed back to the train station, where Robin was trying to find a phone to call the embassy dispatcher and I was biting my nails. The world before cell phones was such a scary, challenging place. At least it was a crucial lesson to learn, and this time it was taught without any serious consequence.

    Nearer the end of summer, Dad, Robin, Casey, and I even managed a family vacation, driving through France, camping in the Gorge du Tarn. The highlight of that trip was my first taste of chèvre at a Michelin-mentioned restaurant in the countryside. As a starter, it was presented as tiny round, fully encased in the most delicate rind. It sat atop a petite pumpernickel toast, slightly warmed, melted butter drizzled atop with a hint of brown sugar. Sublime. 


Same 1985 D.C. field trip! If you get a peek of me being prime mid-'80s, same goes for Chris. Here at the National Gallery of Art. Betting the little badge on her Limited sweater is Duran Duran. Photo by me! 

    None of these little trips included Amsterdam or brothels. Instead, I celebrated my 16th birthday a day late in Paris. Dad and Casey drove me to a rendez-vous with high school bestie Chris; Chris’s neighbor, Kim; and a Florida girl from another school, Bandi. This was the closest their scholastic guided tour of Europe was going to get them to Brussels, which was wonderful. I had not only an excuse to avoid Amsterdam’s Red Light District, but to see Paris and Chris. In perfect mid-’80s American teen fashion, while Obie and Casey enjoyed a kiddie day in Paris – which is not too shabby, in that Parisians love the kiddies – we four ate at a McDonald’s in Les Halles, followed by $15 bottle of sweet pink sparkling wine at The Front Page café. There’s and excellent chance each of us sported a Swatch. Weren’t we the shit?




    The summer came to its unwelcome end. Robin and Alex took me to the airport. That Alex, who was not above sending me out to buy cigarettes so that he could do illicit things with any girl who might be hanging out with us, wanted to join us for the airport run was touching. My crush on him was all the more tragic in that he’d mentioned once beating up “some gay guy.” Whether it was a true story or bravado, I would never know. Though months (years?) later I came out to him in a dramatic letter. “Fag basher! J’accuse!” Or something to that effect. I might’ve written it only after Dora told me I’d not be allowed to return to Brussels for spring break. The smoking was too much, it seemed. That was the end my correspondence with Alex. But Alex remained in my head, as he made me a parting tape of Nik Kershaw on one side, Scritti Politti on the other. I’d listen to it whenever I mowed our tropical lawn. 

    Not surprisingly, the mood of the day was dread; dread of being put back into my Floridian box. For several glorious summertime weeks, I had an allowance and no job. I could go to Brussels bars, drink and smoke. It was about the best Sweet 16 Summer a boy could hope for. Please don’t make me go back to Port Richey! 


    I’ve suspected that my father put little restraint on me as a way of showing me how much fun I could have on Team Dad. Once upon a time, divorce summer meant threatening to keep me. Now, divorce summer was kicking me back to Mom, whether I wanted to go or not. Alex and Robin put me on my tiny plane and I felt so empty. My bleak Floridian world had been replaced by two months of exploding experiences on the frontline of life. You can kiss late-night drunken dancing in Belgian clubs good-bye, and say hello to your new job at Wendy’s, on Highway 19 in the Gulf View Square Mall parking lot.




    On the Gatwick to Tampa flight home, two remarkable things happened. 


    The first, which helped distract me from my end-of-superlative-summer blues, was being seated next to a couple. A male couple! The slighter one did not speak much. Probably he knew that Fred, about 40 or 45, enjoyed chatting up barely legal (depending on the jurisdiction) boys. We talked, we got tipsy. And we smoked. I’d left Florida the kind of kid who would throw out other people’s cigarettes. I came back as the kid who would smoke two packs – Rothman’s Blue, my new European touchstone – while crossing the Atlantic. Surly, rebellious, coughing. We never broached the matter of sexual orientation, but there was an obvious undercurrent. I may have been a somewhat ambiguous adolescent, but Fred was what the fellows of his generation probably called “fey.” Fred lived on the other coast of Florida, near Daytona. “You should come over sometime. I throw great parties!” Fred reminded me that whatever Europe had to offer, Florida possibly had some thrills of its own. I just hadn’t found them yet. Before Tampa, we exchanged addresses. (Mailing addresses, of course. No email yet, though written correspondence rushed, unknowingly, at digital speed, ever closer to practical obsolescence.)


    The second remarkable thing happened in Bangor, Maine, where we landed to refuel. Another goddamned surprise! At the airport later made famous by the TV version of Steven King’s The Langoliers, we – the only passengers there – refueled and submitted to immigration procedures. I called Dora to let her know I was back in the country. After I was back in the air, Dora got another call. This was from Patrick, then living in Alabama, advising that his interview with Bar Harbor Airlines went well. The interview was in Bangor International Airport. As I chain-smoked and wondered if BCal would still serve me booze on the intra-American leg of the journey, as well as what parties at Fred’s might look like, Patrick was just on the other side of some door, snagging a management job that would take his young family from Army Alabama to civilian Bangor.

    Ed picked me up in Tampa. “Have you been smoking?” 


    “It was a full flight, so I was stuck in the smoking section.” I’d be sitting in that section for another 16 years. 

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