Prof and Lily
Prof and Lily hit my small home town like a Fourth of July fireworks display. It was 1942 and everyone was counting ration stamps, pitching in for the war effort and praying for peace before any more gold stars appeared in the front windows of houses along my paper route. The Boy Scouts collected newspapers, tin cans, clothes for refugees, and played Capture the Flag as though we were John Wayne storming yet another Pacific atoll. (Yes I confess to Scout Membership and, before that, to three years as a Cub Scout! Is the Supreme Court keeping track?)
As for Prof, our new bandmaster, he proceeded to up our pace to become the fastest marching band in the state. On top of that, being an old vaudevillian, he decided that we could dance on the march as well. So Lily taught us the Charleston and we practiced on the football field, without our instruments, holding hands in a big circle so that we got the kicks together and just the right height. The next Spring, at the state band festival, we won the championship with the Charleston, dancing our way into the hearts of everyone along the parade route, and just for a few minutes helping folks forget North Africa and Rommel and those Pacific atolls.
Lily, with her ever-present cigarette, black dresses, and pearls, was the perfect match in Profʼs vaudeville skits performed now and again before a squealing and whistling mass of high school girls and boys. She was also the town librarian.
Being a voracious reader, striving for extra points toward a possible future scholarship, I was practically a daily visitor after school, before starting my newspaper route. I was full of questions, and reading was an avenue of escape, a delay in that shadowy, possible step over a very high cliff to a fall from which I might not recover. A step germinated by my reading about homosexuality in medical journals.
One day, Lily motioned me back into the stacks and, explaining to me that it was an English book by a woman, and just a bit taboo, she handed me The Well of Loneliness. She said, “Prof and I want you to read this, and it’s just between the three of us. We think you’re old enough to know that it takes all kinds of people to make up this world, and all kinds of relationships between them. Read it, and let us know what you think.”
A week or so later, when I had finished reading it, they invited me to supper and we talked a long time. I asked them first, “Why me?” and they were careful and quick to explain that they knew how much I wanted to go on to college, that I was kidded about my being the only boy who didn’t have to be drafted to act for the other-wise all-girl drama group, and that I was to them special and needed to understand worldly things that perhaps my classmates weren’t ready to accept just yet. They never used the word queer. Remember, this was 1943, before the word gay, before television, before there was any discussion of homosexuality anywhere by anyone and The Well of Loneliness remained the only generally known book of fiction on the subject for years.
Their answers calmed my fears that I was somehow guilty or had done anything out of the ordinary and encouraged me to pursue any and all interests toward my college goal, to hold on, and when I got to college, I’d find all kinds of folks just like me. Of course, I didn’t tell them that I had, somewhere way inside of me, figured out that if women could care for each other so deeply and that it was not acceptable, then my secret thoughts for my own sex were equally possible and just as taboo.
Years later, after winning that West Virginia University academic scholarship and surviving Korea and trumpeting my recent membership in Actors Equity, I went to see them as usual on a visit to my hometown. Lily was ill with cancer, still smoking and still as stunning as ever. Knowing I might never see the two of them together again, I tried to thank them for helping me so long ago, when I was young and truly lost and questioning my secret desires. They were as gentle and supportive and as proud of me as anyone could ever ask. Lily took my hand and said, “We hope you aren’t lonely, because you never have to be. Just think of us and our friendship and you will be okay.” She was right. Luckily, I’ve had a number of folks like Prof and Lily in my life. They’ve given me a whirl around this magical ballroom we call the world, and now, in my senior years, I’m still dancing. And, at times, I’m quite sure Prof and Lily are right beside me.
Garrison Phillips is a Korean War Veteran, a graduate of WVU, and a retired actor. He writes a blog, Everyday Strolls, for Senior Planet of OATS (Older Adults Technology Services) which teaches the Internet free to senior citizens. He has had articles and letters published in the quarterly journal of the Allegheny Regional Family History Society, The New York Native, The SAGE Newsletter, monologues in By Actors, For Actors, and a short story in Apalachee Review. His short story “Humpty Dumpty” appeared in Chelsea Station in April 2014. “Prof and Lily” was originally published in SAGEmatters.