Back in 1963 my family moved to Chula Vista near San Diego where my dad’s ship was home ported and where I attended tenth and eleventh grades. That was the year the Beatles popularity in America went wild. And it was not just the music, it was the whole package: mod clothes, their very funny flippancy, their lyrics and harmony, and importantly to many -their hair. Bobby McDowell and Steve McDonnell, best friends, were the first at our school to affect a Beatles hair style which they copied from the Meet the Beatles album cover. Mr. Crenshaw the tenth grade history teacher told them to not come back to class until they each had a proper young man’s haircut. That went nowhere as Steve’s dad, a lawyer who represented the school district, sent a terse note to Mr. Crenshaw. In my junior year I was in two classes with Bobby and Steve who always sat together as seating was alphabetical. The two mop tops we called them. Bobby was the short funny one, and Steve the taller super smart one. Sometimes they tried talking with funny British accents and colloquialisms. I remember that they won that year’s talent show singing Love Me Do sounding just like their idols from Liverpool. They were cool. I did not know them well; it was rumored that they smoked weed, so I kept my distance. Remember, this was the early sixties. We moved overseas in 1964 so I did not graduate with this class. I later heard that Steve had become a surgeon. Of Bobby, I never heard anything.
Last month boarding a flight to Halifax the man taking the seat next to me looked vaguely familiar. Steve McDonnell? Indeed, it was he.
His face lit up. “Yes, I remember you, you’re Rebecca Easterlin; we were in biology and chemistry classes. You lab partnered with Jeff Karl. Well, what a merry coincidence.”
The coincidence continued. He was headed to the same surgical laser optic conference as I, and we were even booked into the same hotel. I happily agreed to join him for dinner.
We met at the hotel’s dining room and began with a martini. We chatted a while about our seemingly parallel medical careers, and then I asked about his friend Bobby McDowell and he paused, a frown creased his face. “You hadn’t heard?”
“I guess not, so tell me.”
His composure took on a noticeable edge. He paused, took a sip of his drink, and said, “Bobby killed himself, that summer just after graduation.”
“No! He was such a jolly little guy, it’s hard to believe he’d do such a thing. Do you know why?”
“Yes Rebecca, I do, but it’ll require another martini to explain.” Steve ordered a second round with an avocado sushi appetizer. As the waiter left. He looked at me and said, “It was his hair. Oddly enough, hair led poor little Bobby McDowell into the worst kind of adolescent depression.”
“But I remember his hair, yours too; you guys had the first Beatles haircuts. The first ones. We thought you guys were so cool.”
“Well not everyone did. Let me go back a little. We sort of grew up together from fifth grade; I knew Bobby McDowell better than anyone. Bobby was naturally funny, really smart and funny and well, pretty sensitive too. He could make me laugh harder than anyone I’ve ever known. But down inside he was pretty insecure. His family situation was miserable. He didn’t have a dad and his mom was a chronic alcoholic. She worked the day shift at the fish cannery on Vista Point then usually hung out at Jokers Wild until closing time. When he was little he spent more time in Holy Redeemer’s free Day Care Center than at home. But by fifth grade Bobby was pretty much on his own in terms of feeding and clothing himself. My family was more fortunate and my mom and dad both took to Bobby. My mom saw to it that Bobby had new school clothes each year. She even cut his hair.” Steve paused for maybe a full minute staring out a window where two seagulls perched on a rail. He was my best friend, the best friend I’ve ever had. He spent a lot of time at our house, meals, sleepovers almost every weekend. My dad bought us both guitars and we spent mega hours learning every single lick the Beatles ever recorded. Ditto the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Are you ready to order?”
“Yes, I’ll have the grilled haddock, broccoli, Roquefort on the salad. But please go on.” He signaled the waiter, placed our orders, and called for a bottle of Pinot Gris. “The year in Mrs. Reinschmidt’s English class we read David Copperfield. Bobby identified with David. He even bought a little peaked cap like the one on the book’s cover. He loved reading aloud to me his favorite passages. You can see into that, can’t you? I mean a boy sort of adrift with no real parents?”
“Clearly,” I said.
“Bobby began calling me Steerforth, mind you, just in private. J. Steerforth young Copperfield’s wayward mentor and protector. Truthfully, I was a little flattered. Bobby looked up to me. I thought maybe this was a matter of my family having, well, uh more comfortable means and status. But I always saw him as an equal. I’d tell him, ‘Don’t sell yourself short, Bobby. You’ve got brains and you’re the funniest guy in this hemisphere.’ But he’d say, ‘No you’re Steerforth, you’re stronger, you’re smarter, you’re athletic. Everyone looks up to you.’ I’d just change the subject and let it go. Now let me get to the hair.
He paused and I could see the slightest mist in his eyes. He finished off the martini, looked back at the seagulls for a couple of seconds then continued
“You said you thought our haircuts were cool. Well so did we. We were goofy with hair that year, mirrors were impossible to pass by without a check-in. But not everyone thought us cool. Old man Crenshaw tried to get us sent home until my dad read him the riot act.”
“I remember that.”
“The jocks gave Bobby a hard time.” He paused for a moment. ” You know how those who are way into their thing can sometimes disdain or even dislike those who don’t share a love for their team or their political party or their whatever? ”
“Oh yeah. my granddad was that way about people who didn’t drink. When I was fourteen he told me, ‘Darlin’, don’t ever trust a man who doesn’t drink.’ Silly, isn’t it?”
“Exactly, and I think it was that sort of exclusivity that they pushed against Bobby. They wouldn’t mess with me, maybe because I was our school’s lead pitcher, but Bobby had no interest in sports, which is understandable. He grew up without a dad. His thing was music and art. Oh he could draw like you wouldn’t believe. Did you know that he won a full scholarship to UCLA? He called the jocks apes and cretins. Of course, this too pissed them off, anyway they started calling him Queer Bobby. I knew this, but said nothing about it since Bobby never mentioned it. Maybe I figured he just sloughed it off, I can’t remember my rationale at the time. To be sure we were not going to cut our hair, moreover, like the Beatles we let it grow longer.”
Our orders came and we dug into our meals. I could feel the buzz from the martinis and glanced skeptically at the Pinot Gris, but I didn’t have to drive, did I? Steve didn’t continue until after the waiter brought our coffees.
“I had mentioned hair. Bobby was in the Boy Scouts. In our senior year, he wanted to go for Eagle Scout because he thought it would look good on his scholarship applications. The Scouts met in the basement of Holy Redeemer, Father Brophy was Scoutmaster. Some of the jocks at our school were in Bobby’s troop and they carried the Queer Bobby appellation to the troop. That shit, Father Brophy, did nothing to stop what was clearly bullying and homophobia, and it makes me madder than hell because later it came out that that fat priest was as gay as a goose. At the scouts’ Christmas party, Bobby’s supposed friends pulled him down and stripped him of all his clothes even his socks, jeering him with “We wanna see if queers got a package like a real guy. Hey you got hair like a girl, maybe you girl parts between your legs too, Bobby?'” They smeared capsaicin ointment on his privates. Bobby never said a thing to me about this. I only learned about it years later from my dad. He had to take depositions from several boys who had been sexually abused by Father Brophy.”
“Boys can be horrible, can’t they?”
“Priests too,” he said.
“After Christmas I could see something was eating at him. He had become quiet and clingy, wanting to be with me all the time. Baseball practice was about to begin and I thought maybe he’d find something cool to do. By now our hair was hippy long and told him I was thinking about a haircut before any college interviews. He said he would never cut his hair, but then he asked me this, ‘Steerforth, do you think this hair makes me look queer?’ I remember it so very well, the intensity in his voice, and his penetrating stare.” ‘Queer, Steerforth, does my hair make me look queer?’
“No, Bobby, I am certain that you do not look queer.”
That spring we each got good news of Bobby’s full ride at UCLA and my acceptance letter from Stanford. I was ecstatic but Bobby just grew quieter, almost morose. Maybe I was too wrapped up in myself to realize then that it was separation anxiety working on him.
Then a couple of weekends later he was sleeping over, he came over to my bed and stretched out next to me. It was a Saturday night we had watched some scary movie on tv before turning in. I thought Bobby’s just frightened. But he put his face close to mine and said, ‘Would you kiss me Steerforth, please?’ I was stunned. I knew he was not joking. ‘Just kiss me, please,’ he repeated.”
“What did you do?”
“I kissed him. There was such an intense, earnest pleading in his voice I sensed a tremendous need within him, he was desperate for some physical approbation, so yes, I kissed him. Not a passionate kind of kiss, rather the way I sometimes kissed my dad when he was leaving on a trip, a simple affectionate kiss on his lips. He didn’t do or say anything until he’d returned to his bed, then ‘Thankyou Steerforth. God, how I will miss you. You know, I love you.’ ”
“They found him with a sketch book he’d labeled Steerforth and Davy with scores of sketches of me and him, all with our long hair. “Now how many years has it been? Forty? I still feel the gall of guilt for having been so goddamn blind to Bobby’s need. For not seeing his plight. For not calling down those shit-heel jocks and that pedophile priest. Was I so ego centered I couldn’t see into my friend whom I loved, and who loved me so deeply? Yeah, his love was something different than mine, but so what? So fucking what, Rebecca? If I had looked into his heart, listened to the signals he was blaring out; they were alarms. In his confusion, he may have believed that his hair had made him queer, and I was too damned dumb do a thing to calm him, to let him know that even if he were queer, so what? We are most of us at least a little queer, aren’t we? I would have done anything. Anything. It’s more than forty years and still I miss him so.”
© Gary Ives 2017