Prince and Princess
"Where should I start?" Josh asked.
"Maybe at the beginning?"
Laughing, Josh responded, "Sounds reasonable."
"Well I, Joshua Elijah Taylor, started life as a military brat having been born in 1980 in a military hospital in Georgia. At the time I was born, dad was on a mission somewhere in Europe. Even after the western powers' defeat in southeast Asia, the Cold War was still going on and dad was in the middle of it, although I never learned anything about it. He would never talk about it even when I was older.
"Dad, Micah Zachariah Taylor, was from a family of devout Mormons and, in fact, his great-great-grandfather was born on the trek to Utah. There was no question but that he would do his two years as a Mormon missionary as soon as he was out of high school. When he returned, he had changed. He had always been a questioning child and began to come to conclusions that were not those of his parents or his church by the time he was thirteen or fourteen, but he soon learned to keep his thoughts to himself.
"After he returned from his missionary assignment, he had seen a larger world and small-town Utah was as confining as a straitjacket. Further, his own questioning and doubts had been increased by the questions tossed at him as he went about being a Mormon missionary. Frequently in family conversations, he found himself biting his tongue to keep from offending his family. Small-town Utah and the religious rigidity finally became too much and after he had been home for a couple months, he joined the Army to escape -- in spite of the Vietnam War and his low draft lottery number.
"Before he completed his four-year enlistment, he was approached about attending Officers' Candidate School and jumped at the chance. After completing OCS and being commissioned, he was immediately shipped out to Vietnam. Physically, he completed the tour without harm, but emotionally he had seen things a young man should never have to witness and it changed him.
"He served a year in Germany, six months back in the States and then was sent back to Vietnam. This time he was not so lucky -- or maybe he was -- as he was wounded on his second patrol and evacuated to Hawaii, where he spent two months in the military hospital before being shipped back to the States. Two days after he arrived in Hawaii, he met an Army nurse, Captain Maria Williamson who was also from Utah and, it almost goes without saying, a Mormon. He immediately asked her for a date. She had laughed since he was unable to get out of bed, much less go on a date. By the end of his second week there, he was able to get out of bed and sit in a chair. He worked hard and after the third week was able to get around pretty well in a wheelchair.
"He saw Maria every day and asked her for a date every day. Finally, when he was allowed to spend time in the garden and he asked her for a date, 'We can have dinner in the garden,' he told her, 'when you get off your shift.' She laughed and said, 'Yes.' He called a florist and ordered flowers and candles, then called a caterer and arranged for dinner. When Maria arrived, there were candles and flowers on a small garden table and the two had dinner in the garden of the hospital. After that, they were pretty much an item and when he was shipped back to the States, they wrote each other daily and as soon as Maria completed her tour of duty and returned to the States, they were married.
"With dad's military career they were apart as much as they were together. Since mom was in her late twenties and dad was in his thirties when they married, they saw no reason to postpone having children and expected Maria to get pregnant quickly. It was not to happen. In fact, mom was thirty-six and dad was forty when I made my appearance.
"The two years after my birth, dad was seldom at home. Mom tolerated his absences well, as she said, she knew he was career Army when she married him. I did as well because I was a baby and knew no better. Finally, dad finished his last tour of duty and was home. He enrolled in an adult degree program and in less than a year's time had a degree in history and a freshly minted teaching certificate. After much discussion, they decided to settle in Colorado and dad applied for a teaching position in several districts and got a job teaching in a Pueblo high school. I was three when the family settled in Pueblo.
"Mom had witnessed first-hand some of the problems soldiers brought with them from Vietnam. When emotional problems started cropping up she was sure were a result of dad's Vietnam experiences, she urged him to seek help and, unlike many, he did. Things seemed pretty much under control when I entered school.
"In spite of dad's questions, dad and mom were active Mormons and we were a fairly typical Mormon family. I must say, a happy family. I loved my mom, but I worshiped my dad. He was never my best friend, he was my dad. He loved me and never let me forget it. We camped, fished, hiked, swam and biked during the warm months. In the winter we both did downhill and cross-country skiing as well as snowboarding and snowmobiling. Yet, when required, dad was very firm in his discipline of me. Only once had he struck me and that was in the midst of his emotional problems. As soon as he struck me, he apologized and promised he'd never do it again. It took dad several months of counseling to get over that crisis and what I remember is his distress, not the swat on the butt he gave me.
"I was one of those boys about whom people say, 'He's too pretty to be a boy.' I had -- have as you can see -- coal-black hair which was midway between wavy and curly. Black eyes with very, very long and thick lashes. I never had obvious baby fat, but wasn't scrawny either. Slender and, if I do say so, I moved with grace and confidence thanks to my dad's insistence that I stay in great physical shape and my mom who, much to my chagrin, insisted I take ballet starting when I was six. I managed to talk her out of it when I turned nine and took up martial arts instead. I have to confess, I was extremely popular with both boys and girls throughout grade school years. I was a happy child, a very happy child until disaster struck.
"Just before Thanksgiving, my first year in middle school, I got a note telling me to come to the office. When I arrived, my neighbor, Ms. Kramer, was there. She gathered me in her arms and said, 'Josh, your dad became ill at school today and was rushed to the hospital. Your mom asked me to pick you up from school and take you there.'
"When we reached the hospital, mom met me and said, 'Josh, your dad is stabilized. At this point no-one knows what happened or what's wrong, but you know he's getting the best of care.' I did know that since not only was mom a nurse part-time at the hospital, but also still had her Army command voice which she was not afraid to use when it became necessary.
"Turned out, there wasn't just one thing wrong, but several things. Mom was sure they were all the result of exposure to Agent Orange, but dad said it could have been exposure to other agents as well. Both mom and dad demanded straight talk and the doctors told dad to get his affairs in order and they would do all they could to make his remaining time comfortable. Dad and mom were very stoic about the situation and I tried to be so at home, I mean, I kept my emotions in check because mom and dad did. I guess it was their military training coming out as well as mistrusting emotions as many Mormons seem to do.
"At school it was another story. I often had to find a hiding place for a quick cry and I was short-tempered and lashed out for little or no reason. I was finally sent to see the principal and as soon as I was seated in his office and he asked, 'Son, what's wrong?' I couldn't help it; I burst into tears and couldn't stop crying. He got up, came from behind his desk, put his arm around my shoulders and held me tight. When I was finally able to stop crying, I told him my dad was dying and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it and I had to hang tough for him.
"He continued to sit on the arm of my chair and hold me around the shoulders. We talked for half an hour and before I left, he said, 'Josh, feel free to come see me anytime and also, make an appointment with Ms. Granger, your counselor. Let us help you all we can.' And I did. I don't know how I would have managed without their support. Dad's doctors kept changing and increasing his pain medication, but he was never without pain even when he was practically comatose. Two days into the New Year he finally went to sleep and didn't wake up.
"I guess the strain of holding everything in was just too much for her and mom became more and more depressed. It finally reached the point where she seldom got dressed and spent most of her time in the bed. I was trying to keep the house going as well as going to school. My own emotions were also a problem although Mr. Larson, the principal, and Ms. Granger were a big help. Since I didn't know anything about bills, in March the electricity was cut off and I had no way of preparing food, doing laundry or studying after dark. I was ashamed of our situation and would not have said anything, but Mr. Larson asked why I didn't have clean clothes and I told him.
"He asked about grandparents and I told him dad's parents were both dead. In fact, his father had died while he was in the hospital in Hawaii. Mom's parents, granddad and grandma Williamson were relatively unknown to me since we only visited them once a year and they never came to see us. Mr. Larson called them and they came down and were horrified by the situation and raised serious questions with our bishop and stake president, neither of whom seemed aware of our situation, but then that was something the adults discussed. The decision was made for mom to be hospitalized and grandma Williamson would stay and care for me and the house, as well as see to mom's care. When school was out, depending on how well mom was doing, we might move to Wellsburg, Utah, actually, several miles out of Wellsburg, where my grandparents lived on land that had been in the family since the area was settled.
"Mom's mental state did not improve and, in fact, got worse. In June when school was out, against the advise of her doctors, her parents insisted she be moved to the VA hospital in Salt Lake City and I go live with them. I would get to see mom once a month for an hour or so after an hour and a half's drive.
"We had been an active Mormon family, but the church was not the totality of our lives. That changed drastically when I went to live in Wellsburg. Overwhelmingly Mormon, the community and my grandparents' house felt like the church was closing in on me. I kept quiet about it, but I understood why dad had been unable to stay in Glenville where he grew up, which was smaller than Wellsburg and ninety-nine point nine percent Mormon. Also, he had seen a much wider world than the people of Glenville and Wellsburg seemed to think existed.
"Mom seemed to get better and, while still on pretty heavy medication, was allowed to leave the hospital and come to Wellsburg in mid-August, just before I started school. Not only was I entering junior high school -- Wellsburg did not have middle school -- which would have been change enough, but in a strange town where I knew no-one. Since we lived outside town, I had to catch a school bus at 6:00 in the morning and wouldn't get back until 5:00. When I got back -- I never thought of my grandparents' place as home -- grandma had a snack ready after which I had chores to do. Dinner was at 6:30 and it was after 7:00 before I could do homework and lights had to be out promptly at 8:30. I was always behind until I realized the long bus ride was time I could spend doing homework and that made things a bit easier.
"Things rocked along for a year until suddenly my world was turned upside down again. Mom started sliding back into deep depression just before Thanksgiving and, intentionally or otherwise, overdosed and died. She was buried on my thirteenth birthday. I had been pretty depressed myself and her death pushed me further along that road. When I tried to talk with my grandparents about it, they pointed out that had mom not been given drugs, she would have been a lot better off. I knew better. Remembering how my principal and counselor had helped me when dad was ill and then died, I went to see them at my new school and both essentially told me to 'be a man.'
"I think I might have done something drastic had it not been for Prince. One of the things my grandfather did for me, for which I am grateful, was to teach me to ride. He started the day after we arrived from Colorado. Because of mom's illness and death, my birthday was forgotten and the week after Thanksgiving, granddad remembered. 'Josh, I know we all know why your birthday passed unnoticed, but I'm sorry we have neglected it since. Tomorrow is a teachers' workday, right?' I nodded. 'Then tomorrow we do something about a birthday present.'
"Since I had to get up early every morning, I planned to sleep in when I had the day off, but granddad called me at the regular time. After breakfast, we climbed into his truck which had an old horse trailer attached. 'Where are we going?' I asked.
"'We're going to Red Rock Ranch. It's a bit of a trip.' Anything more than the trip to Wellsburg was a 'bit of a trip' to granddad. 'Jack Kennedy of Red Rock has done wonders raising and training Mustangs. Started just capturing wild ones -- and still does that -- but also breeds them on his ranch. Thought it was time you had your own horse. We're going to Jack's place so you can pick out a horse.'
"Turns out, it didn't happen that way. We were looking at a group of horses in a corral when a black horse with a white diamond on his forehead came up to the fence where I was sitting and nuzzled me with his head until I started stroking him. 'Looks like the horse has chosen his boy,' Jack said.
"'I'm not sure about that,' granddad said. 'He's not a gelding and I'm not sure a stallion is what a thirteen-year-old boy needs.'
"'The stallion thinks so,' Jack replied. 'How about Josh saddles him up and see how that goes?' Horses have all kinds of tricks to make saddling them difficult, but the stallion stood perfectly still and pulled none of them. As soon as I had him saddled, I mounted him and started riding around the corral. As I approached a gate which opened into the pasture, Jack swung it open and the horse and I flew through it. Together we put on a real show and, truly, he did as much as I to impress granddad and Jack. No way was I going back without the horse.
"As I rode back to where the two were standing, I said, 'Thanks, granddad for the Prince of Diamonds.'
"'Prince of Diamonds?' Jack asked. 'Why not King of Diamonds?'
"'Because I am the king and he needs to be reminded of that,' I laughed.
"Granddad still wasn't convinced and especially when Jack named his price. American Mustangs come in all colors, but some have become pretty rare and black is one of those. Granddad was known for holding his money close and as the two negotiated, I could see Prince slipping out of my fingers. Finally Jack said, 'Mr. Williamson, that is absolutely as low as I'll go and that's lower than I should, but the boy and the horse are intended to go together.' Granddad complained, but wrote the check. It was only later that I discovered I paid for Prince out of the insurance money I had received from both mom and dad.
"We didn't get to do much riding during the winter, since I never had time during the week and weekends the weather was often too bad for riding, but we spent time together every day. Prince was also allowed to run free in the small pasture adjoining the barn and, regardless of the weather, he did run. I guess his heritage made him pretty indifferent to most anything.
"As soon as the weather became at all tolerable, I rode Prince until I had to return just before dark. By then I was really good at studying and doing homework on the bus. My grades were excellent as they had been when I was with mom and dad. Both had stressed the importance of education and I never forgot that.
"There was a lot of pressure to conform to my grandparents' idea of the ideal young Mormon. Had we lived closer to town, I would have been involved in church activities most of my free time -- little as it was -- but since neither of my grandparents could drive at night, I didn't have to participate in any night activities. I did get plenty of lectures at church and from my grandparents, especially my grandmother. All day Sunday was church in one form or another. I was constantly harangued by my grandmother about the assorted evils the world offered as temptation.
"It was during a Sunday lecture on sexual purity given by one of the church leaders to boys of twelve and thirteen that I became aware -- actually more aware -- of the fact that the attraction I was supposed to have for girls wasn't there. I noticed during part of the lecture, which was pretty explicit, most of the boys were sporting boners, but not me. Well, not me until I started noticing the tents in pants around me.
"The latter part of the lecture was an admonition to avoid choosing the homosexual lifestyle and to avoid any contact with homosexuals, as well as warning about how they molested young boys. Alex Bledsoe, a new kid like myself, asked, 'Sir, since current research has found homosexuality is not a choice any more than is eye color or right- or left-handedness, how can you choose?' You would have thought he had at least suggested the lecturer's mother was a dog from the reaction he got. We were informed that such research was the work of Satan and those who believe it and who publish it were doing Satan's work or worse. When the lecture was over, most of the boys piled on Alex and while they did no more physically than shove him around, they did give him a good talking to about challenging an adult and a church leader as well as defending fags, queers, and child molesters.
"I knew Alex lived on the same road I did, but he was always on the bus when it arrived at my place and was sitting in the back, so I really didn't know him. That was soon to change. Two days after he had challenged the statement that homosexuality was a choice, the weather was exceptionally warm and beautiful for March. I was surprised when granddad met me at the road -- the drive to the house from the road was over a mile and I always walked it except when the weather was impossible. 'Son,' he said as I climbed in the truck, 'it's such a beautiful day that I thought you deserved all the time you can to ride. Prince is waiting for you and I'll do your chores. Just be back before dark.'
"As soon as we got to the house, I quickly changed into riding clothes, ran to the barn, saddled Prince and rode toward the mountains. Prince felt as good as I did and was as full of energy and wanted to run. After he had a decent warm up, I let him go at a full gallop for a bit, then slowed to a trot. Even though I was relatively new at riding and had little practice during the winter, Prince and I became one when I rode. Finally, we both were ready to slow down to a walk as we approached a wooded area. The trees were scattered, so it was not hard riding among them and the smell of the pines made it pleasant.
"After we had been riding for almost an hour, Prince's ears pointed straight ahead and he became fully alert. He started making whinnying noises and I suspected there was another horse nearby. Sure enough, before we had ridden a hundred yards, a Mustang, almost Prince's twin, approached. On it was Alex Bledsoe. 'Alex!' I called out as I reined Prince to a stop.
"'Josh!' he called back and rode to where Prince and I were waiting. 'I didn't know you rode or had such a beautiful horse. One of Jack Kennedy's Mustangs?'
"I nodded and said, 'He's Prince.'
"Alex laughed, 'Then I guess we're both into royalty. She's Princess Leia,' he said, patting his horse's neck.
"After that meeting, Alex and I became fast friends, best friends. We started sitting together on the bus, ate lunch together, and we rode together as often as we could. Once or twice granddad asked me if I didn't think I was spending too much time with Alex. 'You need to have more friends than just one,' he said. I reminded him that Alex was the only boy my age anywhere around and that I either rode alone all the time or I rode with Alex.
"As the end of my seventh grade school year approached, granddad and grandma both worried about my not having anything to do again during the summer. Last summer they had been upset because I spent a lot of time reading, maybe what I was reading wasn't what I should be since it wasn't the Book of Mormon or other LDS stuff. They were all for sending me off to church camp, but I had heard enough about that to determine it wasn't for me. Alex's dad had absolutely refused to let him go. It was then that I discovered his dad was what was known as a non-participating Mormon while his mom was super devout. It was, Alex told me, a constant source of tension in the house.
"After what Alex described as a major family fight, it was decided Alex would go to Boulder to spend the summer with his grandmother -- also a non-participating Mormon. Alex laughed and added, 'She calls herself a recovering Mormon.' In Boulder, he would attend a summer program for students thirteen years and older. 'I'll be away from home and out of the tension here. Grandma is a very liberal woman and, besides, I can get two subjects for next year done this summer. Why don't you come with me?'
"'I don't think that will be permitted,' I said, 'and besides I doubt your grandmother would welcome another mouth to feed.'
"Alex laughed, 'Obviously you don't know Gertrude Bledsoe. She seldom knows who or how many people are living at her place. She more or less runs a boarding house for college students, all of whom become her children. Friends move in to share a room and she feeds them. "We're on the honor system here," she says. "You eat here or sleep here, you're on your honor to pay your share. Guests of regular residents get one free meal a month. After that, you or your host pay up."'
"'I'm her only grandchild, so you'd be my guest and board would be free since you'd be like family. You'd have to share my room, but the only cost would be the tuition for the program. That would probably be little or nothing because there are generous scholarships and I suspect you could get a free ride on tuition since your parents are dead and were both military.'
"'I still doubt I would be permitted to go. Grandma has still not given up on my going to a program at BYU. To tell you the truth, Alex, I don't think I am a very good Mormon and, in fact, I want to stay as far away from any more youth activities as I can, so Boulder sure sounds good, but I don't think I can swing it.'
"'I'll bring you the material on the program tomorrow and see what you can do with it. I'd sure like to have you with me this summer. We'd be gone four weeks, back home for a week and a final four weeks in Boulder. Hey, what have you got to lose?' he concluded.
"I moved slowly, but when my grandparents found out I would be out of their hair for eight weeks and the cost would be less than camp, they were interested and signed my application for admission and for a scholarship. I anxiously awaited a response and got a letter two weeks after I applied accepting me and giving me a tuition scholarship. The letter explained I would be responsible for my room and board. If I was staying in a college dorm and eating in the cafeteria, the cost was way outside what my grandparents could afford, or said they could. I knew I wouldn't be staying in the dorm, but I also could not tell them I'd be staying with Alex's grandmother. Granddad was bugging me more and more about spending too much time with him and grandma even went so far as to say that when young boys spend too much time together, they are tempted to engage in unwholesome activities. Knowing full well what she was referring to, I nonetheless asked what she meant. 'Ask your grandfather,' she replied.
"A few days after I got my acceptance and the notice about the tuition scholarship, I got a very official looking letter from Victoria House. The logo was a drawing of a large Victorian house with the words 'Victoria House' across the top and the motto underneath 'Student living in a wholesome family atmosphere.' It stated that since both my parents were deceased and had served honorably in the US military, Victoria House was happy to advise me I had been granted full room and board for the University of Colorado-Boulder Summer program, May 30-June 26 and July 4-31. A note added at the bottom said 'We hope you can return early enough July 4 to enjoy Boulder's fireworks.' I suspected Alex had gotten his grandmother to fake the letter, but learned it was on her official stationary."
I suddenly realized I had been talking forever and said, "I guess I'm going into too much detail here and telling you more than you want to hear."
"Not at all," Mr. VanWinkle said. "I really am interested. So, did you get to go to Boulder?"