When we are kids we make friends quickly and easily. A new family moves into a house just up the block and within hours you’ve invited young Eddie over to check out your baseball card collection. Meanwhile his sister and your sister are sitting among the cardboard boxes at their new place talking about Barbies. This innocent confidence that kids you don’t even know will like you and want to have fun with you lasts until you’re twelve or thirteen.
Then puberty sets in.
Suddenly you’re awkward and geeky. You’re too fat or too skinny. You have the complexion of a ripe pineapple, hair starts sprouting out of your body in weird places, and other things start happening to you that you can’t even think about, let alone discuss with someone. The only friends you have, or even want to have, are people you’ve known for years and even they are probably making fun of you behind your back. This hormone-drenched and nightmarish world only lasts for five or six years. Then along with your high school diploma come your first steps into adulthood.
The friends you make when you’re very young are for practice. Someone to throw a ball to or to wrestle with, someone to tell secrets to and giggle. But the friends you make after you’ve grown into an adult become a major part of all that defines you.
About the time you hit your thirtieth birthday, you gradually stop making new friends. Your social group is nearly complete. You are probably married or have been. You may even have children. You are now part of, for better or worse, a small tribe.
But during those twelve or thirteen years between, you make the friends that you will hold dear for the rest of your life.
For the lion’s share of 1965, I was stationed on the University of Indiana campus with an Air Force detachment of about 300 guys. We were there to learn to speak and understand the Russian Language. When you toss a large group of 18 to 19 year-old men together, similarities attract, like falls in with like, and circles of friends emerge. The guys I hung out with were not the Jocks, or the obsessed-with-women crowd, we were more down toward the geeky end of the spectrum. Among this odd consort there was one fellow that I would call my “Best Friend.” His name was Bill Boscamp.
Boscamp was not a handsome man. He was thin, with bad posture and a gallumphing gait. There were picket fence-like gaps between his teeth. His nose was thin at the top and grew bulbous at the end and looked like a blob of hot wax running down the middle of his face. His already-high forehead was getting higher all the time – complete baldness was only a matter of time. But he and I made each other laugh.
He liked my little stories about my zany family and I liked his dry, satirical wit. He was a highly emotional man, but used that as comic fodder. There was, for example, the time I was clowning around and accidently set his hair on fire, then had to smack him on the head to put it out. He was wildly offended, but somehow turned the whole thing into a funeral oration for the last of his hair, burned at the stake in a cruel auto de fe.
We tried to keep up the friendship after I left the Air Force*. We even pulled a little phone scam where I sent him the phone number of a nearby telephone booth along with a time I’d be available. He called that number collect from another pay phone, I accepted the charges, and we talked for the next hour at Ma Bell’s expense. But shortly afterward he got orders to report to a base in Southeast Asia and we lost touch.
Ten years later, my then-roommate Jim and I were living in Jackson, Wyoming in a two-bedroom space with no running water that we had dubbed Fort Squalor**.
One day in the early summer, the phone rang.
“Is this Tim Pelton?”
“The Tim Pelton who did Russian Training in the Air Force in Indiana?”
My mind was racing. I couldn’t recall any criminal acts I had done back then. Why does this awful stuff always happen to me? In a tremulous voice I said, “uhh… yes.”
“This is Bill Boscamp!”
“Boscamp! I’ll be damned! Where are you? What are you doing?”
It seemed that Bill was living in New Orleans and owned a Mexican Restaurant there called “Tortilla Flats.” He had remembered I was from Laramie, through Directory Assistance had found my Mother there, and she had given him my Jackson phone number. As to what he was doing, he was going to fly to San Francisco the next week and was considering a stop in Jackson on the way.
Well, I was quite excited by the news. One might even say “stoked.” I told him that our casa was his casa, but the accommodations were pretty spartan. We did have a fairly comfortable couch and we could supply him with a sleeping bag.
“It’ll be,” I said encouragingly, “like camping out only without having to worry about being stepped on by a moose.”
Four days later, I drove my old Volkswagen bus to the Jackson Hole Airport and watched Bill’s plane taxi to its stopping place and shut down its engines. Airport workers wheeled a rolling stairway up to the exit door which, after a few minutes delay, opened.
Businesswomen, ranchers, tourists, and grandmothers followed one another down the stairway to the concrete apron. Then a vision of queenliness came floating down the steps. It had to be Boscamp, the wraparound shades and the natty little white straw hat couldn’t disguise that nose. But this person didn’t move like my old pal at all. gone was the stoop-shouldered trudge. In its place were long, hipswinging, graceful strides with one hand cocked out to the side as if he were touching an imaginary handrail.
We shook hands, hugged, beat each other on the back, and exchanged “howthehellareyous.” But there was an awkwardness there that made us both feel distant. This feeling lasted while we waited for his bags, loaded them into the bus, and started the drive back to Fort Squalor.
Trying to think of some way to get the obvious out in the open, I finally said, “New Orleans, eh? I hear they’ve got a really flashy gay scene there.”
“Boy! Do they!” Bill exclaimed. “And I’m gay and I love it!”
He was thrilled and relieved that I was cool with that and proceeded to tell me his “coming out” story, how a girl he knew he should be attracted to, but wasn’t, offered one night to take him out dancing. She took him to his very first Gay Bar and he said he wasn’t five minutes in the door and he knew he was home. All those years of not knowing who he was, and trying to be someone he wasn’t had just crumbled and fell away.
The next few days were eye-openers for me. I had known and been good friends with several gay men, but none of them were as exultantly “out” as Bill Boscamp. We were driving through the town of Jackson, probably looking for a place to have lunch, when I noticed two big, bearded guys with back packs and heavy hiking boots walking along the street.
Boscamp slid the window back, stuck his head out and yelled, “Hey Sweetheart! Aren’t you the fine-lookin’ one?”
“Hey, man,” I grabbed him and pulled him back inside. “I gotta live in this town!”
“I can’t help it,” he smirked. “I just adore the big, hairy ones.”
Another time I asked him about his teeth. Ten years before there were noticeable gaps between most of his teeth, giving him a kind of “snaggletooth” look. Now they were all lined up nicely. He told me how he had had to wear braces for two years to get that smile.
Thinking I was going to get a chance to embarrass him, I said, “I’ll bet your friends didn’t like that.”
He just laughed and agreed. Then he said, “The day after I finally got them off my teeth, I invited all my friends to a ‘Coming Out’ Party. I told them all to not wear any underwear. Then I…”
“Okay, Okay! That’s enough,” I interrupted. “That’s all I can stand.” It made him laugh to watch me squirm.
But my favorite story was the one he told about himself and his sometime-boyfriend, Michael. This was the guy in San Francisco he was going to spend time with after he left Jackson. He and Michael were both tied to businesses in their respective cities and could only see each other every few months when one would go to visit the other.
The previous Autumn it had been Michael’s turn to fly to New Orleans, and Bill’s turn to play Host. One of those days, the boys had jumped into Bill’s Cadillac and headed out into the woods for a picnic. They found, just across the State Line into Mississippi, an off-the-beaten-track beautiful woodland. After each swallowed a tablet of LSD, they grabbed a picnic basket and two bottles of wine and headed into the woods. After a short hike they found a lovely big patch of violets blooming in the dappled forest sunlight. They quickly removed their clothes, then began to (here, once again, I had to ask that Bill spare me the details). Afterward they drank one of the bottles of wine as they threaded the little violet blossoms into each other’s hair, beards, and anywhere else they could get them to stick.
Suddenly, with a happy shout, Michael took off running, stark naked, through the woods. Bill snatched up the second bottle of wine and ran after him. When Bill caught up he jumped on Michael’s back. The bigger man hooked his arms around Bill’s knees and plunged on. Twenty more strides and they ran out of the trees and into a small clearing.
Imagine, if you will, standing on the far side of a clearing in the woods when two naked men, one carrying the other in a bouncing piggy-back, come running full-tilt out of the trees on the other side. They are shouting and laughing, they are covered in little purple flowers, and the small one is waving a wine bottle over his head. Now imagine you are one of three Mississippi hunters, complete with shotguns and dogs.
“Michael kept running,” Bill said, “he just turned in a fast semi-circle and went right back into the woods. The only reason we are not now moldering in some backwoods, shallow grave is that we must have shocked those hunters to the soles of their boots. Their mouths were still sagging open as my skinny little butt disappeared into the trees.”
I was to see Bill only one more time. In 1991 I was writing the Book and the Lyrics for a stage musical called Fat Tuesday***. Since the show took place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the Composer and I felt we had to be in that city for the Celebration, so we flew down and managed to rent a couple of rooms. While we were there, I arranged a side-trip to Bill’s Tortilla Flats cantina. Bill was there, but the place was jammed and he barely had time to say hello.
In the late Nineties I finally bought a computer that could connect to the Internet. One of the first things I did was to look up Bill Boscamp. I found his Obituary. He had died six years before at his parents’ home in Phoenix of an AIDS-related illness.
*See The Prisoner Has a Phone Call in the list of stories.
**See Fort Squalor in the list of stories.
*** Look for Fat Tuesday – as yet unwritten, but will be soon.