As they say at the movies, “based (loosely) on actual events.” Thanks and apologies to Helena Antonaccio.
Playboy’s Miss June, 1969. She stared up at us from the floor of the tree fort, half sitting and half standing on the edge of a light brown velvety couch. She was alone and held an ice cream cone in her right hand, which must have been the reason why she was smiling. She was looking directly at us, the cone held slightly forward, almost as if she was considering sharing it. Through her barely open mouth, the tip of her tongue extended just enough to touch the right side of her upper lip, her way of letting us know just how good those two scoops were going to be.
For as long as we could remember, Parish’s mom’s had warned us how Satan lurked behind every impure thought, and Father Pierce never failed to emphasize the “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” verse of the Lord’s Prayer as he glared at our 6th grade class in chapel every morning. But the Siren songs of our 11-year old imaginations had overwhelmed and seduced us with the promises of the forbidden fruit to be found within those gloriously glossy pages. Jesus resisted temptation for 40 days and 40 nights. We had hadn’t lasted 40 seconds. We had stumbled upon the Holy Grail and drank from it without hesitation and with abandon. And for the first time in our lives, we had breasts – pages of them. Without a thought to what curiosity did to the cat, we stared unblinking as we breathlessly unfolded the foldout that was Miss June and her supporting kindling of bunnies.
Our fall from grace was set in motion when Parish’s dad came home from a business trip with a Playboy Magazine. Mrs. Parish, who my dad used to say, could put a chill in grilled Jalapeño, found it, and Parish’s dad had caught Hell. Parish said his mom had discovered it in his dad’s suitcase and screamed as if she had opened his bag and found a severed head. She cried out to Jesus, Mary and Joseph as she came storming downstairs and into their study. She stood in front of the black and white TV and in plain view of Parish and his 7 year old sister, slammed the “shameful pornography” on the coffee table and went completely nuts. She started with scripture, family values, and morals. A 6:18 is what we used to call it, because she would invariably reference Corinthians 6:18 and, to keep the message crisp, hiss only the first sentence. “Flee from sexual immorality!” She unleashed 6:18 on unsuspecting scantily clad shoppers at the market, slow dancers at the school proms she chaperoned, and later that summer, she recited it like a mantra as the nightly news pumped images of Woodstock into American living rooms.
“The Sodom and Gomorra of our day,” she warned.
That night, Parish said his mom quoted 6:18 every other sentence, building to an evangelical climax spouting male depravity, human weakness, temptation, evil, and eternal damnation. Almost speaking in tongues, she condemned the nudity, the bared breasts, the blatant sexuality.
Parish’s dad sat silent trying to look past his wife to the TV. His sister cried hysterically, certain from her mother’s incantations that at any moment God, Satan, or both would appear and banish them all to fire and damnation.
Parish, on the other hand, was quiet and focused on the coffee table.
“The road to Hell is paved with this kind of smut and the sinful behavior it churns,” his mom had shouted. And then she snatched the magazine, double bagged it in brown shopping bags, stormed outside and still quoting scripture, flung it into the trashcan.
She came back into the house dangerously quiet, gathered a few things from the linen closet and then repositioned herself between Parish’s dad and the T.V. She was out of breath. “Couch!” she spat, and then heaved the pillow and blanket she was holding into her husband’s lap. She leaned toward him and with fists balled at her sides said, “Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.” As if Parish, his sister or dad might be inclined to look it up, she shouted “Colossians 3:5-6” at the top of the stairs before they heard her slam the bedroom door.
Parish didn’t know from scripture, but he sure knew divine intervention when he heard it. “Bared breasts. Nudity. Sexuality.” His mother’s words reverberated in his head like a beacon. And that night, just ahead of the dawn garbage pick-up, he went tomb raiding.
Parish, O’Neal, Harper, and me. The four of us had grown up together on the same cul-de-sac since birth. We were virtual brothers, and cool enough to be on a last name basis only. Our parents were tight too, all of them moving to the same cul-de-sac in the summer of 1955, post WWII couples kick-starting their own version of the American dream. The fathers, all veterans, commuted together. The moms, each pregnant when they moved in, kept the home fires burning and co-parented what became the cluster of 10 kids on the block. Moving from post war to Cold War, our moms were a parental version of the KGB, and their eyes and ears were everywhere on that street.
We were shooting hoops in O’Neal’s driveway after school listening to Parish spin his tall tale of hell, fire, brimstone and smut. The whole block had heard his mom hollering the night before, but we didn’t buy a word of his tomb raiding. During a sleep over, Parish’s mom would shout “what’s wrong?” from behind the closed door of her room if you just got up to use the toilet, as if she had motion detectors placed throughout the house. Even if Parish had made it out of bed without her knowing, there’s no way in Hell he could have made it outside, rifled through the garbage, and made it back undetected.
Of the four of us, Parish was never our man of steel. If Harper tended toward recklessness, rushing in where the rest of us feared to tread, a true disciple of “he who hesitates is lost,” Parish kept us tethered to reason, a strong advocate of “look before you leap.” But his mom’s sermon had stirred him, and Parish was suddenly inclined to leap and look. He opened up his jacket, and there tucked into his belt, was a brown bag.
Our hearts stopped. One beat, because for a bunch of 11- year olds, this was as close to foreplay as any of us would get for at least 6 years. And another beat to glance around and make sure O’Neal’s mom hadn’t already busted us. O’Neal’s eyes were darting around so fast you would have thought his mom was going to be the next thing to pop out of Parish’s coat.
O’Neal, the perpetual pessimist to my steady optimism, panicked.
“We are in SO much trouble. GOD, Parish.”
In the opposing corner, Harper didn’t waver for a moment. He was mid shot when Parish showed us the brown bag, and his shot missed the hoop, the backboard and the entire garage, sending the basketball sailing into the hedge that separated O’Neal’s and my house. He frantically whispered, “open it, open it, open it” as if at any second, the double brown bags were going to dissolve into a pile of salt. Parish stood there looking like Napoleon with his hand stuck in his jacket, favoring Harper’s argument but sneaking looks back at his own house to make sure his mom wasn’t on the lawn with a pair of binoculars. We oozed guilt. If any of our mothers had seen us at that moment, they would have grounded us for a week, on looks alone.
We stood out there whispering, debating the pros and cons of claiming this forbidden fruit. On one side of the equation, breasts and nudity. On the other, eternal damnation and at least two weeks of being grounded. We deliberated, then told Parish he was nuts if he didn’t pitch that bag back into the trash before we all caught Hell. Then, still under cover of his coat, he snuck us a look at the cover. Thirty seconds later, we huddled around Miss June, unfolded on the floor of our tree fort in Harper’s yard.
We all nearly passed out. I remember Harper immortalizing the moment and defining our level of sexual sophistication as he whispered with great reverence, “Wow, you can see everything. Even hair.”
Before Miss June and her sorority sisters, none of us had had actually seen a woman naked, never for a moment considering an accidental glimpse of our moms as a sighting of a naked woman. There was no Internet in 1969. No home video players. And Playboy wasn’t like today’s porn magazines, which are more akin to gynecological journals than erotica. These were airbrushed women, with bared breasts, a rare glimpse of pubic hair, all erotically lounging on couches, on the beach, by the pool, in the bedroom, sometimes with ice cream. No men. No bodily fluids. Lots left to our limited imaginations.
Well, if Parish’s mom had lost her mind making a public display of banishing the Playboy in the first place, we all slowly began to lose our minds under the intoxication of Hefner’s bunnies. There it was the cusp of summer, and every afternoon after school, we piled into Harper’s tree house. No tossing the baseball, shooting hoops, fishing the creek, riding bikes, or swimming at O’Neal’s. We may as well have hung a huge banner on the side of the fort that read, “DO NOT DISTURB – SINFUL BOYS ‘READING’ JUNE EDITION OF PLAYBOY MAGAZINE.” The parental KGB, who would have to have been blind not to notice, got suspicious. Before a week was out, and in four quick phone calls, they hatched a deviously sophisticated plan, and executed it in all of its complexity the following Sunday after church.
Before any of us could shed our Sunday best and break for the cover of each other and the fort, our mother’s ambushed us. One-on-one. One question. “What in the name of Jesus is going on in that tree fort? And don’t tell me “nothing,” because I will be checking your story.”
We were seasoned veterans of mischief and had anticipated possible parental scrutiny the moment we opened the magazine. We had a plan and made a pact. Deny anything and everything. With no magazine, they had no evidence. With no confessions, they had no case.
Each mother had asked the same exact question, probably synchronized to the minute. Our mothers asked, and Jesus was invoked. The intense grilling we received consisted of that one question. One question, and to a boy we had each instantly cracked.
“We have a Playboy,” was all I said, almost in a whisper. The sky darkened, and my voice cracked. A flesh eating locust landed on the window sill in the kitchen.
My mother stared quietly. And like all the other mothers, she didn’t ask where we got it, what we thought of it, where it was, or who had it first. Their hunches had born out, and now they knew. After another series of phone calls, our mothers had pieced it together and then adjourned for sentencing.
“You get on outside and stay away from the tree fort.” That was it. Though we each stretched the truth significantly about how hard we had been grilled and how long it had taken us to crack, each of our stories matched. Not a single mom had asked for the magazine. Not a voice had been raised. Not even Parish’s mom lost it, though Parish said later that his Dad spent almost a month sleeping on the couch in the den. O’Neal said his mom had actually smiled and patted him on the back after his confession with a “go have fun,” as he bolted from the house. She had added, “Stay away from the fort, ‘Son.’” It was too quiet. Four maternal fuses were smoldering silently, and we knew better than to think that all had been forgiven and forgotten.
“Wash up and wait for your father in the den.” That night, our reckoning was at hand. This was it. We were in so much trouble that sentencing had been escalated to our dads.
I sat down on the couch near the empty fireplace in dad’s study, barely glancing at the news on the TV. I stared at the door, waiting for my dad to emerge, probably with a priest or something. For a moment, I even remember thinking that our story would suddenly appear on the TV news. “Local boys caught with Playboy. Grounded for life.”
My dad walked in looking solemn. He walked over to the TV, lowered the volume and then sat down on the couch and gave me a long look. For a man who had seen combat in Normandy, “the third wave” as he always clarified, he looked uncharacteristically nervous. He lit a cigarette, took a deep breath and then started.
“Son, I want to talk to you about the magazine you and your friends have been looking at.” He paused, finding it somehow important to clarify what publication he was talking about, as if perhaps we had contraband copies of Sports Illustrated or The Farmer’s Almanac.
There was a long silence. Dad flicked an ash into the ashtray on the end table and then out of nowhere, in a single breath, a moderately paced monotone, and in fewer than 2 minutes, he laid out the facts of life. Birds, bees, boners, babies. I remember his exact words when he got to the payoff. It was as if he had memorized a passage from a medical journal. “…and when all is in readiness, the erect male penis enters the female vagina and inseminates the female.” Without stopping for questions or comments, he raced right to the epilogue, with the baby growing for 9 months in something called the womb, and then entering the world through the aforementioned vagina.
Which is where he stopped and took a long drag on his cigarette.
We stared at each other in complete silence for what to me felt like the better part of a month.
“My penis enters what?” I whispered.
Dad repeated the passage he had memorized, slower than the first time, and took another drag on his cigarette.
“No. Way.” I said, as two very distinct, carefully articulated words. My dad had gone nuts. He was bluffing, concocting some insane story to drive Miss June and her two strawberry scoops from our hearts and minds.
He smiled at me, raised his eyebrows, and asked if I had any questions.
“No way, dad.” I insisted. “There is no way that I could ever do that. Ever. No one really does that, right?”
“That’s where you and your brother came from. That’s how your mom, me, Harper, O’Neal, Parish and the lot of you got here.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. Dad got up and walked to the TV, turned up the volume, and then he sat back down with a sigh. Mission accomplished. Information imparted. As he began to take in the evening news, he ended his dissertation with one last pearl.
“Don’t worry son, by the time you’re about 16, it’s the only thing that you’ll want to do.”
Our parents had told us to think about it and that the door was open any time if we had questions. They reinstated our tree fort privileges, and just before lights out, told us to consider what we had done and reach a decision to make them proud.
We huddled the next day to compare notes and reach a consensus on what we should do. We were still fuzzy on many of the details, and O’Neal was still having trouble recovering from the trauma of hearing his mom and dad use the words penis, boner, erection and vagina so many times.
Our parents had been waiting for this moment. None of us had asked where babies came from when two years earlier, Mrs. Parish was pregnant with Parish’s youngest sister. She had strutted around all summer patting her ever billowing belly, making reference after reference to the little baby growing inside. But not one of us thought to ask how the baby got in there, or later, how it got out. But Miss June, the apple of our eyes, had inadvertently become our parents’ Trojan blonde, an excuse to lay bare the inconceivable “acts of life” as Harper had misheard it.
Harper tried to shrug it off as no big deal, something you only had to do if you wanted kids. And to Parish’s pained, “I don’t really get it,” and O’Neal and my solemn nods of agreement, Harper leapt in. “Look,” he said, as if he had been teaching sex education all his life, “you get a boner. You push it into the girl. It’s like flicking a switch, and the baby starts growing.”
For educational purposes, we unfolded Miss June and stared at her with fresh eyes. We saw no possible entry point. O’Neal found his voice again and offered up that his mom had said that women “modulated” or something once a month, so we figured something opened up every month, somewhere.
We couldn’t understand how our relationship with Miss June had gotten so complicated. Yeah, we got boners when we leafed through those pages, but we never connected the dots. We were just interested in seeing girls naked. And none of us knew why. It was as if only a piece of our brain was waking up. Nude women was all the sex we could comprehend. You looked. You got excited. That was the total and completely gratifying sexual experience for an 11-year old. Anything else was unthinkable and unimaginable.
But there it was. We had eaten from the tree of good and evil, and the curse of knowledge had consumed us. The facts of life swarmed, and the innocence of Miss June was lost.
After a long afternoon of debate, we reached a decision. Before our parents could even ask us to wash up before dinner, we read the verdict.
“We have made a decision,” each of us announced, speaking with great resolve and intention, looking directly at the floor. We would do it, but only once. And only for a few seconds. Twice if we wanted two kids, though each of us thought that two kids would be more than enough.
Parish said his mom hugged him and said, “from your mouth to God’s ears,” and then repeated the phrase two more times looking directly at his dad.
The rest of us got nothing but an awkward smile and an even more awkward pause. It was as if we had announced our decision in a foreign language.
“Sweetheart,” my mom finally said to me, “What we really wanted to know is what you boys have decided to do with the magazine.”
We were way off our game. Hefner’s playmates had gone to our head and chased out any remnants of common sense. Parish’s mom had said something about that once, that all the blood leaves a man’s brain when’s he faces temptation.
“What were we thinking?!” The next afternoon, we sat in the fort staring at the floor, mortified by our miscalculation. The Playboy lay at Parish’s feet in the same brown bags he had found it in.
O’Neal thought we should burn it. Harper thought we should take off the cover, glue it around another magazine and just pretend to throw it out. But we had been through enough and weren’t willing to tempt fate or Parish’s mom.
We told our parents we had agreed to throw it away, and promised never to tread that slippery pictorial slope again. We gathered at the fort for a last farewell to Miss June. We flipped through the pages, sighed heavily, and then Parish put her back into the double brown paper bag. We marched to his house, and under the watchful eyes of his mother, we opened the steel lid of the garbage can. Just before we dropped her in, Parish’s mom asked for the bag. She reached in, grabbed the magazine, leafed through a few pages, and then handed the bag back to her son. We all looked at Harper for a moment knowing we had just dodged what would have been a fatal bullet. Parish pitched the package into the can, and slammed the steel lid shut. His mom held up her hand and in a creepy whisper, hit us with a full 6:18.
“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.” Harper said AMEN so loudly and unexpectedly that we all jumped. Before Mrs. Parish could decide whether or not Harper was messing with her, we all said good night and bolted for home.
The clouds cleared. The locusts dissipated in the summer breeze as the garbage truck hauled away our summer fantasy the next morning. Parish’s dad eventually moved back into the bedroom. And we went back to baseball, swimming, kicking the can, hoops, and fishing. But we had leafed through pages of the forbidden fruits. Our innocence had been poked, prodded, slapped and grounded, and we were changed boys. We pined for Miss June who had scattered the seeds of sexuality in our budding imaginations. And as the months passed, we fretted less and less in the late night summer heat about those disturbing facts of life.
And by the time we were 16, it was the only thing we wanted to do.