I walk into the sun and my son walks behind me, made in my shade. We’re going to school in the early morning, 7 stops on the 1 train and a 3 minute walk. He’s old enough to go on his own, but I go along to listen and maybe tell him something useful. I have no useful words today, but being with him is hopefully enough.
Whenever Mary Anne would complain about her father, I would say, “be grateful you got one to complain about.” My dad ghosted me at 15 and would die 35 years later without so much as saying “boo” to me. I really wanted to know what was up with that fool the whole time, but in the end, knowing nothing was everything I needed to know. Meanwhile Mary Anne had a Russian Doll of a dad, every time she got to know him another version emerged and she had to start over, and over. He was an exasperating and fascinating father, and it starts back in Texas, and any misfit kid will tell you, Texas is the reason.
Alton Los Long was born in Liberty, Texas, and lived his long life as a Texan, down to his bolo ties and vests. He studied at Carnegie Tech and while there, discovered a new isotope, Aluminum 26. He was also military, a second lieutenant in the signal corps who was assigned to research the effects of the nuclear tests at Los Alamos. He would watch a nuclear blast, then after it was clear he would collect items that were left there and measure how radioactive they were. Once he placed a quarter well inside the blast radius, and pocketed it. For years it was stored in a trunk in the garage and he warned his children not to go near it.
He went on to have a long career as a computer engineer, at one point in the early 70’s helping to install the ILLIAC IV (cool name huh) computer at the NASA Ames Research facility in Mountain View California. He settled in bucolic Wayne Pennsylvania with his lovely wife Dorothy and raised 4 really smart kids. This is the father Mary Anne knew her entire childhood, until her 18th birthday until a new Al popped out.
Mary Anne was a punk rocker that got a mohawk at 16 and blew the minds of everyone around her, not least of all her father, who flipped out that she would do something so outrageous to her appearance. She endured a detente of disappointment from him, interspersed with angry arguments between them. It seemed like typical teen punk vs. parental unit strife until she was 18 and Mary Anne learned that Al is also Allison, a transgender leader in a growing and ultimately successful trans-rights movement. Al kept her secret to protect his place in the straight world, and it was a secret the rest of the family learned at different ages. Their collective wisdom was to give Mary Anne the benefit of not knowing until she was grown. So Alison shows up and asks Punk Rock Mary Anne for acceptance. Total plot twist, and bitter pill to swallow. Mary Anne spit it out, threw up the V’s and went about her life.
When I showed up a few years later,I was let in on the secret and the secret was always kept, most of all by Al, which had a weird effect on the family, like a radioactive quarter in the garage. My role at the family gatherings was to diffuse the tension that filled the room, and whenever things got dark, make a joke to get the party going again. Al was always maudlin and I was always making fun of it, not him, but of his useless sentimentality. I was pragmatically sarcastic in a way that the immediate family could or would never be. Al never got mad at me. He accepted my jokes like I was the straight man and we were winning over the crowd, which we did, always. I was really grateful for his good nature, and I was always glad to be around him. In 1999 I called him from a payphone at Yaffa Cafe and asked for his daughter’s hand. He acted like it was the first time his role as father was respected in a long time. I only asked him because I knew he would be happy, him choking up was an unexpected bonus.
April 29th 2015, on the front page of The New York Times sits Phyllis Randolph Frye, a transgender judge resplendent in robes and holding a gavel. I am captivated by her story and the similarities between her and Alison; similar ages, both Texan, both military, and both accomplished. Where the paths diverge is Phyllis came out decades ago, and endured endless earthquake weather in her professional and personal life. At press time she still was estranged from her son, and I’m suddenly appreciative of Al keeping his secret. To be clear, it was not a secret in Provincetown, where he and his wife are recognized for their active role in The Fantasia Fair and it’s clear for 30 years they have helped thousands of people understand themselves and the people they love. AND Al maintained a relationship with the people closest to him, a pretty good deal for keeping a secret. I only read page A1 of the story when I called Mary Anne who hung up to see for herself. She called me right back and said, “Look at the photo on A3, is that her?” Sure enough, across two pages of the New York Times is a photo of Phyllis Frye at a podium on Capitol Hill, giving a speech. She is surrounded by a couple dozen transgender activists, and Allison is right at her side. I showed the photo to Al and said, “It’s amazing that I can be open and tell your grandson who you are. You did that, you’ll be remembered for that” He winced and said, “I’d rather they remember me for discovering an isotope.”
Al died last week, and Betsy, his oldest daughter and longest holder of the secret, spoke at graveside and said “now Al and Allison is ‘all is one’”and let the secret out, free to be whatever it will be, from now on. In saying that, Betsy fulfilled the reciprocal deal between parents and children, a deal I entered into when my own son was born and I told him “Raise me and I’ll raise you”.