The Day He Jumped Off The Tar River Bridge

My high school friend, Henry Wooten, has been on my mind today.

Our parents were friends–everyone knows everyone in our small eastern NC town–but we didn’t actually meet until 10th grade when we both came to the same high school and joined the stage band.

I was the second piano player, and he was the first. He was much better than I was, and at first I felt a little intimidated by him.

Then one October day, after I had a poem published in the school’s literary magazine, he approached me. I didn’t think the poem was anything earth shattering.

It was an analogy between money and consumerism and an evil bird made of gold that swooped down to consume the people who were blinded by their greed. In other words, an adolescent attempt at a well-worn literary device.

But Henry complimented me. He said it struck him deeply, and from that moment on, we were equals.

As we began spending more time together, we bonded through our commonalities: love of music, poetry, spirituality, and pot. Combine all of those things, and you get some meaningful conversations.

Of course, it was the 70s, so I don’t remember all of them, but the connection was still there.

Two summers later, we worked as co-counselors at a summer camp, which was where we really bonded. It all came together one of the last nights of that summer. The entire camp had gathered in the lodge for movie night, but the projector wasn’t having it.

To kill time, Henry picked up his guitar and began strumming “Stairway To Heaven.” Without a word or invitation, I sat down at the rickety old upright piano began playing along.

And it was effortless.

We knew each other’s timing and temperament so well that by the end we were singing in perfect harmony. And when we both hit the Robert Plant wailing high notes at the rousing end, everyone jumped to their feet. We were a hit. We were Unplugged years before MTV came along.

And as tight as we became that summer, I always felt some distance between us. He was secretive, and he didn’t let too anyone get too close. That was OK, because, guess what: I was the same.

In retrospect, I intuitively knew he was gay. But we never dared talked about it. Hell, I couldn’t even admit it to myself back then. Those were scary times in the last 70s in red Baptist eastern North Carolina. They still are.

A couple years after that summer, I went off to college, and Henry and I fell out of touch. I’d see him at parties when I came home. We’d chat, and something was different. He was burdened and melancholy, and I guess I knew what was bothering him.

I never delved any deeper, and I’d go back to school, throw myself into my studies and the girlfriend I had at the time, all the time skating the thin ice of denial.

The ice in Henry’s case wasn’t able to withstand the burden. I heard that Henry began to fall apart. He dropped out of college, played keys in a local band at night, and spent most of his day in a drug-induced haze.

In February, 1985, my mother called me to tell me that Henry had committed suicide.

He tied a cinder block to his ankle and jumped off a bridge into the Tar River not too far from where we used to hang out at the end of a dirt road, get high, and crank Zeppelin on the 8 track. He had been arrested for taking indecent liberties with a minor just the week prior.

His death threw me under a bus that had been careening in my direction for a long time. I knew why he did it. His arrest was only the denouement.

Of course, all the what-ifs plagued me for months. I felt guilty as replayed our friendship and ran it through all the alternative, happier endings.

But I in the end, I knew I couldn’t have saved him. The only person I could save was myself.

From that moment on, the crack in my closet door began to widen ever more furiously.

Now, 30 years later, that damn door is history. Still, some days, like today, I think about Henry and silently thank him for his gentle unconditional friendship. He was the first real gay friend I ever had.

I wish he were here so I could tell him that. I wish we had been able to tell each other our secrets. I wish he had held on long enough to see what a progressive world this has become. With all its hatred and bigotry, we’re still light years ahead of the darkness of high school in Greenville in the 70s.

But I understand why he had to go. Because for a short while there, it was me who was standing on the edge of that same bridge on a late Winter night, looking down at the black water, wanting so badly to be loved.

The difference is that, ultimately, I never lost hope that I would.

An Early Attempt at Escape

The tanned woman was looking down at me, her feathered hair cascading around
a perfectly formed face punctuated by two beautiful blue eyes.

“Are you lost?” she asked.

I remember wondering why she would ask such a question. I didn’t think I was.
The Florida morning was warm but not steamy. Puffy cumulus clouds rode on a
fresh breeze that rattled the palms. It was a gorgeous day, and I had decided to go
for ride.

“No,” I replied, “I live right around the corner.”

“OK,” she shrugged, rolled up the car widow, and drove away.

I grabbed the handlebars, hit the pedals, and took off in the other direction.
I didn’t know that back on Minnesota Drive, my mother was freaking out. See, it
was 1966, I was four years old, and I had disappeared from our house about an
hour before. On my tricycle.

I also didn’t know that she had called the police, and at that very moment she was in
the back of a black and white, riding the streets of our neighborhood in search of
her missing son.

I didn’t care about any of those things. All I knew was that I was having a ball,
riding around in circles in the middle of the Volusia County Hospital emergency
entrance three miles from my parent’s house.

I had somewhat mastered the art of two-wheel tricycle doughnuts, which
involved accelerating to a breathtaking speed, pulling a hard left, then laughing
delightedly as I rose up on two wheels and careened in a circle.

The emergency room entrance seemed in many ways the perfect spot to practice
my stunt.

I don’t know how much time passed before I saw the police car approaching me.
My mother was hanging out the back window, screaming my name. She jumped
out before the car had barely stopped and ran to me.

“Eric, Jesus, you scared me to death Are you OK? Stand up and let me look at
you.”

As she examined me from head to toe looking for wounds and some sign of
regret, I looked up into the eyes of a tall dark man in a blue uniform. He had a
black bushy moustache. On his muscular left arm, he had a tattoo of an anchor.
He squatted down next to me. “Son are you ok,” he asked in a deep calm voice.

“I’m OK!” I said. My mother was almost whimpering with relief.

“Well, then, let’s get you home,” he said. I watched with awe as he stood and
picked up my tricycle with one hand.

My mother gripped my arm tightly, and we followed him to the cruiser. He
opened the back door with his free hand, and I scooted in next to my mother.

“Eric, I thought you kidnapped or worse. Don’t you EVER run off like that again.”

I wasn’t listening. Instead, I was peering over the seat at our officer who was
lifting my tricycle into the trunk. I couldn’t take my eyes of him as he slid into the
front seat.

He turned around, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You scared your
mother buddy. Next time, be sure to check with her before you take off, ok?”

I nodded sheepishly. He tousled my hair, then started the car.

As he drove us home, I drilled holes in the back of his head with my eyes. Now I
knew. He had saved me from certain death.

He was my hero, and I wanted him to be my daddy.

My Mother Saved My Life

My mother saved my life. And she had to almost die herself before she was able to save mine.

In 1987, she finally stopped drinking after nearly succumbing to 35 years of alcoholism. And it was shortly afterwards that she asked me during a quick weekend visit home if I was gay.

I was in the closet up to that point. I moved away from my small eastern NC hometown three years before and was in the middle of my first real love affair in the big city of Greensboro.

When I arrived at my parent’s home that Friday afternoon, I called my boyfriend to let him know I had made it. My mother was in the adjacent bathroom, putting on makeup before going to her evening Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and listening in on our conversation.

When I hung up and walked past the bathroom, she stopped me.

“I want to ask you a question,” she said, not looking away from the mirror as she continued her makeup application (she was quite the drama queen). “And if you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to.”

“OK,” I responded.

“Exactly what is the nature of your relationship with Danny?” she asked.

In that moment, my thoughts went down three drastically different paths:

  1. I can continue my miserable existence as a liar.
  2. I can say “None of your business” and walk away.
  3. I can tell the truth because if she’s asking, she already knows.

I picked door #3.

“I see,” she said, still not looking away from the mirror. “Well, let me finish putting on my makeup, and we’ll talk before I go to my meeting.”

By the time she finally blew into the living room where I had been sitting for 15 minutes chewing off my fingernails, I was a wreck.

She sat down with a big sigh and said, “First of all, I’ve known you are gay for sometime. Don’t ask me how because I don’t want to embarrass you.”

Of course I silently went though all the Sears catalog male underwear pictures I had stashed under my bed and my unhealthy obsession with all things Stevie Nicks, but I gave away nothing. It didn’t matter. Mothers always just know.

“More importantly, I’m glad this is out because I know what it means to keep a horrible secret and how it can kill you, and I don’t want that for you.”

Immediately the gigantic oppressive steel block that had been resident on my heart for years was lifted. I knew she knew, and she was cool with it.

For the next 20 minutes, she talked to me about being in college at the University of Michigan and hanging out with the gay guys: playing piano at their parties, having them serve her drinks and light her cigarettes. “ I was, as you might say, a fag hag.”

I loved her so much in that moment.

She then went on to tell me that my future father, a Southern Baptist from the mountains of North Carolina whom she was dating at the time, tried to forbid her to hang out with the queens.

“And I put a stop to that right there,” she said. “If he couldn’t accept my friends, I couldn’t accept him.”

(Aside: how in the world those two diametric opposites ever made it work is beyond me, but they were in love for 50 years. More on that later.)

“Speaking of you father, are you going to tell him?, she asked”

I was still flabbergasted by this little ambush, and I had not movd that far ahead in my thinking. “Um, probably not this trip,” I said. “But I will.”

I quickly added, “And don’t you tell him, either.” My mother was huge drama queen, and she excelled in the role of gossip bearer.

She nodded in silent agreement. But it wasn’t an enthusiastic nod, and I already knew she wouldn’t be able to stand it for very long.

She wrapped up our little chat by saying, “My only hope is that you’re careful with your health.”

I smiled. “I’m aware, mom, and I’m ok.”

With that, she gave me a kiss and a hug then walked out the door to go save some more lives at her AA meeting. She went to those meetings religiously three times a day for the next 35 years until she physically couldn’t any longer.

Two nights later, I had just arrived back in Greensboro, and she called.

“Well, I had to tell your father,” she bleakly intoned as if she’d been tortured. I wasn’t buying it.

“Really? You HAD to tell him.”

She went on to explain how, at the dinner table earlier that evening, my father inquired if I had made it home safely. According to her, one thing led to another, and, well, it just came out.

After a quick flash of anger (BECAUSE she was always doing this shit), I felt a second huge stone lift, and it was OK. I knew she planned it that way all along. Truth was, it wasn’t fair to ask her to keep that secret.

“What was his reaction?” I asked.

“Well, the first thing he said was, ‘He doesn’t have to be that way’,” she replied. “And I said, Robert, you just don’t get it, do you?”

I got it: he was a product of the stereotypical rural Southern Baptist upbringing, complete with Jesus and Confederate flags and suffering. But I knew that he was doing his best to be a different progressive person, and my insane liberal mother was his guide on that journey.

My father and I never overtly talked about my homosexuality. But from that moment on, our relationship changed for the better. He began hugging me when I arrived home and when I left. That was a first.

Over the subsequent years, he met many of my gay friends, accepted us all in his house and invited us to sail on his boat. He met most of my love interests, too, and treated them all with gentility and respect.

And, thank God, just as he was beginning to slide downhill into the abyss of Parkinson’s, he met Andrew, my future husband, and embraced him completely.

Don’t get me wrong. It was never easy with my mother or my father or my brothers—we are all passionate, volatile artists prone to drug and alcohol abuse, violent outbursts, and loud, outrageous behavior. In fact, we’re ALL drama queens.

But in the end, when both of my parents were ill and in dire need of rescue, I took care of them.

Shortly after my father died, my mother was next. When she succumbed to dementia, I brought her to Norfolk and placed her in a nursing home not far from my home. At that point, she was incoherent, and there wasn’t much left.

Two weeks before she died, I rode with her in an ambulance to the doctor’s office. We were in the waiting room. She was strapped into a stretcher, agitated and out of her mind. I pulled up some old family photos on my phone, hoping it would calm her down.

I scrolled through them with one hand while holding hers with my other and talking to her quietly.

“Here’s dad, remember this picture? And there’s Jon and Evan, and our grand daughters…”

She began to relax until finally we were laughing. In that moment, she looked me in the eye and clearly said, “ I don’t know what I would do without you.”

I couldn’t respond because the tears were so close. But I wanted to say the same thing to her. I probably would be dead if not for her unconditional love on that summer day in 1987.

Those were the last coherent words she said to me, and shortly afterwards, I held her hand again as she slipped away.