[Author’s Note: My memoir, Lighting the Fire: A Cherokee Journey from Dropout to Professor, was published in June by Miniver Press. Thanks to Covid-19, I have been unable to promote it. Drawing a crowd might sell books, but it certainly kills people. I intend to adopt pieces of it to magazine format if there is an audience. I understand this is not the kind of thing I normally publish on Medium, and I assure one and all that it won’t happen again unless people like it. SR]
Puberty hit me in the fifties, right below the Bible Belt. My kids — both the boys and the girls — would find it all hilarious.
I do, too, if I’m thinking of Peter Sellers playing me in a movie rather than how it felt at the time to be ignorant of female anatomy and not even know a great deal about my own.
I was raised by my elderly grandparents, and they were not equipped to tell me much even if they could get past the emotional blocks. My earliest investigation was — I am not making this up — -looking for pertinent words in the unabridged dictionary at the public library. They often had drawings that were not completely useless.
I shall not forget how I saw my first adult female nipple (not counting when I mercilessly used my height to peer down the front of my schoolmates’ clothing.) That taught me less about anatomy than it taught me about psychology, either theirs or their mothers. There were a lot of “falsies.” A lot.
[Russell digression™ The girls who thought they needed falsies would blush bright red when they believed a boy knew. But the girls who were endowed in a manner that required them to wear a bra to keep order up there would also blush when they believed a boy knew. It seemed to me they could not win if both small teats and large ones were an embarrassment, and that put me in the odd position of trying to find out as much as possible without letting a girl know that I knew….whichever.]
The first adult female nipple I saw was, naturally, in a movie theatre. I could watch the guys who treated girls badly and so were objects of desire among the girls put their hands down there. One time, I was sitting behind one of those couples and he actually took her bra off and had her stash it in her purse. It was many years after that before I learned how to take a bra off. I was able to get consent before I knew where all the hooks were. While all that was going on, I never saw a thing.
The visible action was on the movie screen and the movies that offered the most female anatomy were Biblical epics. I guess Cecil B. DeMille figured out naked ladies could be photographed if the story came from the Bible. I believe it was Samson and Delilah where the latter was dancing for the former and at the end she ripped her top off. The camera was behind her, so Samson got the drama school assignment of reacting to having her bare chest in his face. She turned as she bared herself just enough for a very brief nipple flash.
[Russell digression™ If that film were on videotape and a teenage boy got ahold of it, there would be a worn spot in the tape unmatched until Sharon Stone believed the director who said she could take her drawers off and he would hide the money shot with lighting. I don’t claim to know the truth of that encounter, but my recollection is that “money shot” got a literal turn in Stone’s subsequent career.]
A closer and more realistic lesson in post-pubescent female anatomy came as I left the octopus ride brought by one of the traveling carnivals that did a stand in my hometown of Bristow, Oklahoma every year. As I was about to leave, I caught the bally. Or, I should say the bally caught me.
The sun had been down a while but it was hard to tell in the garish light of the midway. I was part of the tip before I knew what a tip was — the gaggle of marks who were attracted to the bally and found themselves hemmed in by the sudden crowd, not noticing that the people the back were carnies, not locals, whose job was to make leaving the tip seem rude.
The talker was skilled. He started on a loudspeaker but, once the tip was formed, he put the electronics aside and spoke in a clear, strong voice that needed no amplification.
He had the talent that makes a great stage actor or politician. He spoke to the crowd in a manner that convinced every man/boy in the tip that the spiel was for him, personally. The tip was all male because the bally was about a girl show. I don’t remember the specifics but I’m sure it was something like the subject of a popular song, “Little Egypt”, who “came a struttin’ wearing nothin’ but a button and a bow.” (© Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller)
Even at my age — -about 14, but I looked older — I knew how unlikely naked ladies were in rural Oklahoma. Hell’s Bells, there were more snake handlers than naked ladies. But it was only a couple of bucks and I thought close counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and naked ladies. So, I parted with a couple of greenbacks and shuffled into a tent with the rest of the tip.
It was dark inside but for a spotlight on the “stage,” which consisted of a roped off area level with the panting audience. She danced to recorded music at what seemed like arm’s length in a costume that revealed about as much as what the ladies in the cities near military installations wore at the beginning of a show — -a comparison I could not make from personal experience until I put on about five more years. She was certainly naked under the costume because each time the light hit her at a certain angle, we could see nipples and pubic hair. I guess I date myself when I say this was before the influence of porn stars and so ladies had pubic hair, something I had never seen before.
In the blowoff, she removed her top and strutted slowly around the edge of her performance area (making me feel briefly like Samson in the Biblical porn I had seen) before skipping out the way she had come. She was a white woman with long dark hair who appeared to be middle-aged, but she had no stretch marks (which I could not have identified anyway). I have no more detail to report because, honestly, I was not looking at her face.
Before the tip dispersed, the talker was back at the edge of the “stage,” adopting a low, confidential tone. Because it was the last show of the evening, there would be a special opportunity just for us and for just another buck. The rest of the show, he stated matter-of-factly, “would be fully nude, of course.”
A dollar lighter, I found myself within a few feet of an adult woman doing her best impression of Lady Godiva. I’m glad the only light was on her and not on me because I probably look pretty foolish when slack-jawed and cross-eyed at the same time.
After getting everybody’s attention (no great trick while naked) she spoke for the first time and rendered what I now know as a classic blowoff story. Her tips, she explained, were the only money she did not have to split with somebody else. It’s entirely possible that was true, but it was probably more significant to the response that she promised “something special” for those who dropped something in this last pass of the hat.
I was hoping it was the last pass of the hat, because I was done. Carnies used to say of their marks, “Leave him a dollar for gas.” Just because the world is divided into carnies and rubes does not mean they have to be enemies. On this night, they did not leave me a dollar for gas. I was not angry, but it was a good thing I was close to home.
What in the world could be more “special” that being within a couple of feet of a naked adult woman when you’ve never seen one? The first thing she did has a name now. It’s called “twerking,” if I understand the term correctly.
Lying on her stomach, she repeatedly clenched her glutes and let them go until her round, white buttocks were trembling in the carny spotlight.
When she rolled over, I became acquainted with female masturbation. Laugh if you wish, but that is valuable information for an inexperienced young man to have — a first clue how to rub a woman the right way, after living with my preternatural talent for rubbing women the wrong way.
The blowoff that finally ended the show introduced me to what was probably the first of many simulated female orgasms. Or maybe not. If you could reliably tell before being intimate with the same woman for a long time, I was not informed and would not become so for many years.
There’s a black pit of despair that causes a woman to masturbate in a carney tent in front of a bunch of strange men every night. Perhaps there is. We rubes are certainly invested in thinking so.
I am better equipped to be certain of the black pit of despair that put me in the audience. Despair began arraying itself around me as quickly as my erection disappeared. To write about it stirs those feelings, but now that I’ve seen the entire arc of my life, the spectator sex and later prostitutes do not seem such a tragedy from my side of the transaction.
I’m old enough now to recognize my debt to the archetypal Pamela Brown in Tom T. Hall’s song. (“I Guess I Owe it all to Pamela Brown” ©Sony//ATV Music Publishing LLC) There was no Pamela Brown to break my heart. I did not offer a woman everything only to see her run off with some other picker who had a cool truck.
Tom T’s song stands in for the story that might have been if I’d had a girlfriend in Bristow. I was primed to fall in love but I could not offer a girl everything when I had nothing and was very aware of it.
Also, I had no social skills. I remember in the latter part of elementary school, they were trying to teach us to dance. I was OK until I was expected to put my arm around a girl’s waist. I was attracted to the partner I drew, but I was embarrassed beyond belief. I kept dropping my arm to my side to avoid touching her, and my face felt bright red as I stumbled around the room putting my feet in all the wrong places and wishing the torture would end.
Bristow has much to answer for, but not this. It comes from being raised by elderly people who were not in touch with how modern young folks roll. I was in the fourth grade when we got a television, which was good for my attention span but not so much for my socialization.
From what we now call middle school, I began to see people in pairs but I despaired of ever being a part of that. Who would pair off with a fat and ugly Indian kid whose one skill — fluency in the written form of English— had little use in Bristow?
When I found situations where writing counted for something, I began to believe in myself and that made it easier to imagine a woman believing in me. Finding those situations took a long time. I’ll continue this true story if it interests an audience.