Jungles of the Amazon
Ignoring the fact that her eldest daughter was swinging through the trees hollering like Tarzan and flying from rooftop to rooftop at the school pretending to be Peter Pan, my mother focused her homophobic anxieties on my brother. Girls could be tomboys—the world would crush that uppityness out of them soon enough—but the slightest sign of softness in a boy child spooked mothers in the 1950’s worse than the sudden appearance of a cougar would panic cattle.
“When do I have to stop kissing him?” Mother sadly asked a friend of hers who had four sons.
“When he starts hitting you,” Shari replied.
The bizarre yet overwhelming belief of the time was that a boy who was too close to his mother would turn out to be homosexual. Yes, a man who loved women would certainly never marry one. Even as a kid, hearing my mother and her friends obsessing about how hard it was not to sit boys in their laps and hug them and kiss them and comfort them the way they would with their girls, something seemed completely off-kilter about the concern. Wouldn’t someone whose mom kept pushing him away be more mad at women, more likely to defect to the other side, than a guy whose mom had an open arms policy?
The fathers were even more obsessed with raising boys who were tough, stalwart, team leaders and warriors. I remember my father sitting with a dreamy, besotted look on his face, lobbing a soft rubber miniature football into my brother’s playpen, which would bonk off my brother’s bald head. Occasionally my brother would start to sniffle if the football would land too close to his eyes, upon which Dad would grunt, “Shake it off, shake it off,” and toss the football once again. I don’t think he was actually trying to hit Eric in the head; it was just that Eric could not yet lift his arms in a coordinated fashion to deflect the ball, much less catch it. He learned fast though.
Concerned that our bedtime ritual of Mom sitting with each of us and rubbing our backs while she sang us a soothing bedtime song might prove emasculating to Eric, she began singing him military songs.
“Well it’s hi hi hee in the field artillery
Shout out your numbers loud and strong” (here my mother would drop her voice to a manly baritone and shout, “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” then continuing—
“For where’ere you go,
You will always know
That those cassions keep rolling along.”
This wouldn’t have soothed me to sleep, but my brother dropped off to sleep like a heavy stone falling into a pool, secure in the knowledge that an entire military detachment with heavy artillery was now ranged around our small suburban home.
My sister and I had a collection of international dolls in ethnic dress, purchased during grandparent’s travels. Our favorite dolls were our Barbies, with their tip-toe stance and torpedo breasts. But we could not play dolls with our brother, who might be ruined by exposure to so much plastic pulchritude. Playing animals, and acting out scenes from Bambi and Peter Pan (ever try coaxing a coherent performance from a couple of toddlers?) was getting tedious. But we had to play with my brother, and we couldn’t play with dolls when he was there.
Just in time, Mattel came out with a doll for boys; G.I. Joe.
My father examined the toy, frowning. His son, playing with dolls?
But G.I. Joe, was a badass.
Helmet; check. Bazooka: check. Big plastic muscles; check. Gnarly feet that had never known nail polish; check. Short, plastic, Marine style hair; check. Even a scar on his cheek, a nice touch. Grudgingly, my father allowed the Marine to invade our home. But he laid down the law. We could only play dolls provided there was a war going on in Barbie-land. So G.I. Joe could do manly things. Like kill some dolls and rescue others.
Our international doll collection lent itself nicely to scenes of devastation in WWII. Frequently G.I. Joe was assigned to protect an orphanage, in which refugees from Hungary, France, Spain and Greece huddled in terror under a bombed-out bedspread. The male Greek doll, with his fez and dancing skirts sometimes went on patrol with Joe, but, being unable to move his arms and legs, he was not much good in hand-to-hand combat. My brother specialized in bringing in bombers and making loud whistling and exploding sounds as the bombs fell, tossing the dolls up in the air in gleeful destruction. My sister reveled in the carnage, applying gauze daubed with mercurochrome onto the various injuries and whipping out her plastic shots, gruffly admonishing, “Hold still! This won’t hurt a bit,” and carefully fitting arms back in their sockets.
Soon our international doll collection was looking a bit too realistically battered and Mom decreed that those dolls must stay on the high shelf, as only Barbie and Ken and Joe were suited to the rigors of war.
This inspired me to switch scenarios. Now Joe and Ken were part of a landing force attacking the Amazons in their island stronghold in the Pacific. My favorite doll, a black-haired blue-eyed she-devil named Tanya, was the Amazon Queen. Joe and Ken were consistently outnumbered and outgunned by the Amazons, whose tip-toe stance implied that they were constantly running around in a stealthy manner. The Amazons specialized in wily traps like pits into which the hapless men tumbled, only to end up in hospital beds with blood-stained rags tied to their heads, victims of amnesia. “I need to change the dressing,” my sister said briskly, “do you remember anything today?”
‘I—I think I’m part of the U.S. army—“ Joe ventured.
My sister smacked him flat. “Hush now, you need to rest.” Then the Amazons went to plan strategy with our two Native American allies (Indian at that point in time) clad in buckskin. These girls had papooses on their backs, but given their small breasts we concluded they were too young to have babies, so they happily tossed their infant brothers to the side and joined the Amazon cause.
Predictably, I, the mistress of plot and dialogue, ended up being a writer. My sister ended up being a nurse. But Eric did not end up as a soldier, nor yet as a homosexual. Don’t think he escaped unscathed though. Today he is married to a black-haired, blue-eyed she-devil um, woman with a very strong set of ideas who rules the roost. I’ve never seen him argue with her.
Apparently waging a years-long losing war with the Amazons taught him something.