I recently had occasion to read an old blog post of mine called The Second Most Important Event in My Life, which is about my suddenly becoming aware, during a high school physics demonstration, that there was a deep mathematical order to the world, of which I had had no inkling before. That blog post begins: “Excluding from consideration my birth, the two most important events in my life have been moments in which I have suddenly and for the first time become fully aware of something fundamental and wonderful about reality which has permanently changed my perception of the world.”
Perhaps it was the reading of that sentence that has brought to mind another experience of sudden revelation about the world, one less spiritual and intellectual, which occurred years before the others, but which was also stunning in the degree to which it transformed my world view.
When I started school at the age of six in a small Texas town, many years ago, my knowledge of procreation was limited to the fact that a baby somehow grew inside its mother (in the stomach, I believe I was told) until it was ready to be born, and that marriage was the necessary and sufficient condition for a man and woman to become potential parents. If this connection between marriage and pregnancy puzzled me, I don’t remember it. I was a child, after all, and one that trusted what adults said more than the average perhaps. I do recall, upon hearing about a child being born to unmarried parents, saying I didn’t believe that was possible. I imagine I got the runaround if I tried to get to the bottom of this anomaly.
One of the things I soon learned in first grade (I didn’t go to kindergarten) was that children had a secret society that grownups didn’t know about, or if they did, they at least must never be allowed to see any of the society’s activities; because, either way, grownups were sure to severely punish the society’s members. There were new words to be learned like “fuck” (Or was it “fulk”? I wasn’t sure.) and a secret hand sign, called giving the finger, that I had to learn through practice. We must never let grownups hear us say these words or see us make the sign. They were dirty or nasty, whatever that meant.
This sudden entrance into an underground dual existence of a sort was somewhat troubling, but I did not want to be excluded from it, or be punished for living in it. I should add that, as far as I knew at the beginning, this was a society of boys, because our recesses were segregated by sex, boys on one side of the playground, girls on the other. And it was at recess that the secret society became open to new members. I should also add that I’m speaking of a secret society just to convey its status, as I saw it, with respect to grownups. There was nothing formal about joining it. There was just an oral passing on of lore gained from older siblings, accompanied by the grins that came with the pleasure of demonstrating knowledge of the forbidden. My memory is of gaining this new incomplete knowledge from other first graders, as there was no mixing of grades on the playground, though the whole school had the same recess period. I seem to remember learning the middle finger sign in the center of the playground’s merry-go-round, the inner part where you push on the radial bars to propel it into motion. I imagine there must have been boys that could have defined what fuck meant, but I did not want to show my ignorance, so I would never have asked. It was only over a fairly long time (years?) that I came to have near certainty, but not quite complete certainty, about what was entailed in the act of fucking.
At some point, I also learned that there were men and women who actually engaged in this activity, which was so taboo that its very existence mustn’t be acknowledged. What perversity possessed them to do this, I couldn’t imagine. I had not picked up the idea that it was supposed to be very pleasurable, which would make it tempting. Nor had I connected it in any way to the interest I and my male friends had in seeing (even collecting) pictures of good-looking women without much clothing on. This was an instinct without an object, as yet. We had no access to any kind of “girlie” magazines, so I assume we just found underwear ads and such. This was also an underground activity, of course.
It turned out that there were also girls in our kids’ secret society of dirty words and knowledge. The telling of “dirty jokes,” half of which I didn’t really get, became a relished pastime for neighborhood boys and girls. We would sit on the ground or floor in a circle and retell such classics as “Johnny Fuckerfaster” or pass on new ones heard outside the current circle. I lived on one side of a one-story apartment building with a hallway down the middle. I remember participating in joke sessions in that hallway and holding hands with Dot, a neighbor from across the hall there. I think the main pleasure in these joke-telling sessions was the forbidden-fruit secrecy, which carried a certain status of mature-beyond-our-years exclusiveness in our eyes. I’m pretty sure that not everyone, especially not all the girls in my class, were engaged in dirty joke telling. I don’t remember feeling very guilty about it. It was just one of the secret pleasures of childhood. That was the limit of how dirty I would ever get. Jokes about it were one thing. Actually doing it? Unthinkable! I had a crush on Dot, but it had nothing to do with the subject of our jokes, or so I thought.
Sometime when I was probably in the third of fourth grade I heard something very disturbing about one of my classmate’s parents from a friend. He told me that the classmate had told him how he had been asleep in the same bed as his parents and had awakened to find them fucking! I was shocked to hear that someone I knew had parents that had committed this unspeakable act. I felt sorry for him. I never said anything to him about it, of course, and I have no memory of who it was. I’m sure it wasn’t a close friend though, or I would remember.
So that was the way I understood and viewed sexual matters. The topics were fun to discuss and joke about, a way to demonstrate how mature I was compared to children that knew nothing of this stuff and were excluded from what we’d call the cool kid circle today. I was not tempted to do anything beyond kissing with a girl, an activity that had no connection with that other thing, the dirty thing we called fucking. I’m not sure we were even aware of the word sex as having a meaning related to that thing.
Then one day, again in the third or fourth grade, out of the blue, I heard the truth. Our apartment had a driveway beside it that led to a garage. Another set of garages for other apartments in the cluster was farther back from the house, and we kids of the apartments would climb up on the roofs of the garages sometimes. We climbed a lot, so there was nothing unusual about my being on one of the garage roofs. What was less usual was that I was there with a girl a little older than I, who probably lived in one of the other apartments for a short time. I can’t remember her name or anything else about her except that she was on that roof with me on the day I’m thinking of and that I guess I knew her pretty well or we wouldn’t have been there together, just the two of us. She had news. I’m almost sure this was news she had just received herself and which she couldn’t wait to spread. She told me that babies were conceived by the parents fucking. This was a stupefying announcement, and I objected to it. It was unbelievable. She was certain. Her source was someone who would know. My world spinning, I had to accept that this startling assertion about what all parents—including my own!—had done in order to have children was true. Perhaps the story of the classmate seeing his parents in the act came to mind with a new interpretation.
One of the most important facts of human existence had been unknown to me until that day. The news couldn’t have been more unexpected. I had absolutely no idea. I wonder how many people have a memory of when they learned “the facts of life”? Maybe today most kids just sort of know from an early age through actual school sex education.
Of course, the new knowledge not only made me look at my parents in a new way, it changed how I had to look at my own future. What had been unspeakably vile must now be considered perfectly normal. That was quite a jump. It was not that grownups had directly given me my view of sexual activity as alien to decent people. It was the avoidance of the subject by grownups and my coming to hear of it as a very secret, extremely naughty topic that had formed that strong impression.
As usual with these old memories of mine, I don’t know what came next. How long did I and my revealer of the truth stay on the roof? Did we discuss the philosophical and practical implications of this knowledge? Did I ever see this girl again? I think I must have told others not yet in the know (my sister?), but I have no memory of their reactions or even of my telling them. Perhaps you are the first to hear this story.