A Reluctant Hero of the Counterculture

A Reluctant Hero of the Counterculture

By Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 

I had an unusual childhood. Not unique, exactly, but not your standard urban or suburban or even rural upbringing. I grew up in a commune.

My parents were attracted to each other because they shared a mutual regret: They were too young for the Summer of Love. They missed the whole hippy experience by a decade and a half, and they were full of nostalgia for that ethos. They longed to be anti-: anti-establishment, anti-consumerist, anti-patriarchal, anti-authority, and they wanted to be non- as well: nonconformist, nonviolent, noncapitalist, nontraditional. The first book I remember seeing as a child was The Whole Earth Catalog.

When I was four years old, a friend of a friend of my father's happen to mention a commune "way way North in California," and his description hit every single item on my parents' alternative lifestyle must-have list.

The commune was called the Granite Gap People's Democratic Initiative. Over the years the name softened and shortened until finally it was just "Granite Gap" — or "Granola Gap" to the people in the surrounding towns.

The lure of all that anti- and non- led my parents to quit their jobs and sell pretty much everything they had. They went and bought an honest-to-God Volkswagen van, and drove all the way from Akron to the commune.

As I said, I was only four years old at the time, but I can remember bits and pieces of the journey. I remember seeing lots of nothing outside the window. I remember stopping for gas in a funny little gas station with one ancient pump — the kind with the round top and some kind of crank on the side.

The next bit I don't actually remember, except for the moment when my father spread out the map. For the rest of it, I've heard my parents tell the story so many times, that it feels like a memory of my own. Anway, it went like this: We stopped in Reno, Nevada for dinner. The sun was getting close to the horizon, and my parents couldn't agree whether to stop for the night, or push on. We still had four hours of driving ahead of us. At first, both Mom and Dad wanted to stop for the night.

Dad spread the map across the table. (Remember: these were the days before GPS.) I can still see the stretches of gray and green, cut across with jagged yellow or white lines. The yellows were interstates; the whites were state or local roads. Remembering the phrase I heard, I asked, "Dad, which part is way way North?"

He placed a napkin along the Oregon border. Then he opened his hands and placed his thumbs about even with Sacramento. His left hand rested on the Pacific coastline, and his right hand covered Nevada. "This is the way way North of California," he told me with a smile.

"Are we going there?" I asked.

"Yes, we are!" he answered. "We're going right... uh...," he licked his lips and moved his face close to the map. "Um, right about..."

"You don't know, do you?" my mother asked, realizing it for the first time.

"I have directions," Dad protested.

"Will they work in the dark?" she demanded.

"Directions are directions," he scoffed.

"That's it," Mom declared. "We're staying the night, somewhere around here. We can drive the rest of the way tomorrow."

They argued for a bit in that low-volume undercurrent they used when they were angry with each other but didn't want me to know.

Finally, Dad gave in, and said, "Fine! You're right. But you know what? We could check out one of the casinos... maybe sweeten our pot."

"Sweeten our pot?" Mom repeated skeptically.

"Grow our nest egg?"

"I don't think so," she said in her there-will-be-no-more-discussion tone. "We're driving on tonight."

I slept through the rest of it. The next thing I knew I was waking up, still in the car, which was parked next to a little brick building that looked like an old country post office. The sign outside read GRANITE GAP TOWN HALL.

As alternative communities go, Granite Gap had everything: back-to-the-land farming, an artists colony, a writers group, and concerts and recitals of music and dance of varying quality. There was plenty of physical work: building homes, digging wells, planting orchards, running irrigation lines, and of course all the work of farming. Even as children, we had to participate — as far as we were able.

I remember dowsing for water until it was clear I had no talent for it.

As far as school went, people used the word Summerhill a lot, which (in our case) meant that the adults would try to teach whatever we kids happened to be interested in at the moment. It was pretty hit-and-miss, until two couples arrived together — all four of them teachers. They were appalled at the state of our education, and they took over the Town Hall while a schoolhouse was being built.

For the first time we had an actual program of study. We had homework, and quizzes and tests. We even had a regular schedule!

By the time I was 13 years old, Granite Gap was a pretty decent-sized community. A lot of the trappings of civilization, like town meetings, the parent/teacher association, and some sort of Sunday substitute-for-church thing that started out free-form but gained definition as time went on.

I later found out that the adults had an unwritten list of signs that a child had become a teenager. The first sign was "Not wanting to participate in Sunday service."

See, I was in Granite Gap's first crop of teenagers. Being a teenager is a weird experience in itself, no matter where you live, but life in Granite Gap was weird already. Being a teenager at Granite Gap was a double dose of weirdness.

It was weird for the adults, as well. While we were still children, they knew what to do with us. Mainly we needed food, clothes, shelter, and the occasional bath. Once we got some of the autonomy that comes with longer legs and teen hormones, we became unpredictable.

The problem was that there was nothing for us to do. There weren't any stores or malls or community centers. We roamed, like a pack of wild dogs from one house to another, hanging around, talking about the fact that there was nothing to do. When we began hanging around at night together, the adults grew seriously alarmed. A fair number of adults saw us as a new criminal class — which we weren't! We were just bored, and wondered what would happen when we hit 18.

Enter Hero and Leander.

The adults in Granite Gap used to put on a play once a year or so — usually Shakespeare, usually a comedy. It was always a big event. People would come from the surrounding towns to see it, and it would run for three nights to meet the demand.

One of the members of the community was an old English professor named Chris Chapman, and he'd written a number of plays himself. Each year, he'd propose one of his own compositions in place of Shakespeare, but he was never seriously considered. It was discouraging, but he never gave up hope.

When the question of What to do with the teenage menace came up at every town meeting for a month (although they didn't actually use the word "menace," it was understood by all). Chapman saw his opportunity.

He waited until the topic of teenagers came up. At first, like always, the discussion ran hot, but as it cooled, Chapman stood up. "The problem is finding things for the teenagers to do," he pointed out. "Now, as you all know, year after year I put up one of my original plays—" (a groan was heard) "—and no one wants to hear about it. But what I propose, is that we give the teens the opportunity to perform. If they agree, it will keep them plenty busy, what with making sets and costumes, memorizing lines and rehearsals, and all the rest. Can we try this? I mean, what have we got to lose?"

For a moment there was silence, and Chapman thought he'd failed again. Then, Mr. Priestley, who longed to direct (but was rejected by the drama group year after year), spoke up in favor and offered his services. Other adults who were consistently left out of the annual drama, volunteered, and soon there was a cadre of leaders. They christened themselves The Granite Gap Teen Drama Group.

The next day, each of them was furnished with a copy of Hero and Leander Deconstructed. The play was surprisingly good. It was a modern, approachable take on the Greek myth. Although it was essentially a love story, a sort of proto-Romeo-and-Juliet, Chapman's version had comic elements, additional characters, and scenes in various interesting locations.

The only change suggested was the title: the word Deconstructed was dropped.

We teenagers heard about the plot to keep us busy, and of course were highly suspicious. Priestley anticipated our reluctance, so he cleverly "leaked" a copy of the play to Babette McNally. She was under the impression that she was stealing a closely-kept secret, and this made us all highly curious.

She read the play and loved it. It quickly went from hand to hand, and before Priestley had a chance to propose the idea to us, we went and proposed it to him.

Maybe this will make me sound stupid, but I have to say it: I had never heard of Hero and Leander. In fact, none of us had. And even though we all read the play, none of us caught onto the fact that Hero was a girl.

Well, when I say "none of us," I mean "me."

At our first real meeting with Mr. Priestley, he asked, "Who would like to play Hero?"

I shot my hand into the air. I saw myself as a future Batman or Spiderman, or at the very least as a policeman or fireman. If anyone was going to be heroic, it had to be me.

"I want to be Hero," I declared. "I was born for that role. I don't think anyone could pull it off as well as me."

"As well as *I*," someone corrected. I shook my head.

"Please, Mr Priestley, I've got practically all the lines memorized already!" This wasn't true, but I knew that most of my peers were worried about having to remember any lines at all, let alone one of the principal roles.

Mr Chapman was there, along with some of the other adults. They all exchanged glances, but Mr Chapman and Mr Priestley positively lit up.

"That's very brave," Mr Priestley told me.

"It's quite heroic," Mr Chapman threw in.

"Can he?" Mrs Carson asked. Mr Chapman answered with a smiling shrug, but before he could speak, Babette cut in.

"Hey, if he gets to be Hero, then I'm going to be Leander! Does anybody have a problem with that?" She looked around in a challenging way, as if daring someone to contradict her. "I am the best swimmer here, after all. And everybody knows it!"

The adults were taken aback. They sat in stunned silence. While it was true that swimming played a large part in Leander's role, although it wasn't actual swimming. It was all acting.

"My goodness, this is ground-breaking!" Mr Chapman declared, full of enthusiasm.

"I think we — we adults — need to talk," Mrs Carson intoned. It sounded like she was laying down the law.

"About what?" I asked.

Babette gave me a conspiratorial look.

The adults moved into a small room to discuss things. In the end, the fact that we were all so very interested, excited, and — you could say — invested in the project decided the fact.

After a brief time, the adults emerged. I was given the role of Hero, Babette would be Leander, and the remaining roles were distributed to our more-or-less willing friends. There were also backstage roles for those who didn't want to act.

 


 

When I talk about Granite Gap, people usually ask me what the population was. I honestly have no idea. It never occurred to me ask, since it didn't have any relevance to my life or interests. The thing is, whatever the population was in terms of number, it was very disperse. It was unusual to see large groups of Granite Gap residents together. If you got as many as a dozen together in one place, it was noteworthy. For that reason, it took a long time for any kind of reaction and feedback to reach me.

Again, I realize it makes me sound like a moron, but it took me quite a while to realize that I'd taken on a female role. In retrospect, it gave a weirdly ironic tint to many conversations and interactions.

That night, I went home and told my parents that we were putting on a play.

"Which play?"

"Hero and Leander. Mr Chapman wrote it. Guess which part I'm playing?"

"Leander?" my Dad ventured.

"No," I replied, with a frown. "Hero! I'm the hero!"

"Are you sure?" he asked, glancing at my mother.

"Of course I'm sure! I asked for the part, and Mr Priestley gave it to me!"

"You asked—" my father began, his eyebrows high. My mother cut him off by placing her hand on his. "That's very brave of you," she assured me.

"Is it?" I replied. "It seems natural to me."

My dad, nonplussed, managed to ask, "If you're going to be Hero, who is Leander?"

"Babette McNally," I replied.

Dad considered my response for a moment, then said, "I guess that makes sense."

 


 

I don't know why or how, but it seemed that EVERYONE knew the story of Hero and Leander except for me. In case you don't know it, I can give a pretty quick summary.

Hero and Leander were young and in love, but they had a problem. Hero lived in Sestos and Leander lived in Abydos, which were two cities on opposite sides of the Dardenelles. (The Dardenelles is a long, wide strip of water.) They only way they could see each other was if Leander, who was a great swimmer, swam across the Dardenelles. Hero would light a lantern in a tower to show the way.

Winter came, and with it, bad weather, so they decided to stay apart until Spring, when they would run away together. Unfortunately, one night Leander saw the light in the tower. It made him miss Hero badly. Leander tried to swim across, but the waves were too strong. Hero saw Leander's body wash up on the shore, and in despair committed suicide by falling from the tower.

It sounds terrible, but the story is told in a very romantic way. And the end of Romeo and Juliet is pretty similar — at least, the way things work out.

 


 

One day, when we were rehearsing, Babette said to me, "I really appreciate the way you stood up for what you believe."

"What do you mean?"

"When you said you wanted to play Hero," she answered. "I really wanted to be Leander, but I didn't dare say it until you spoke up first. People think I'm really confident in who I am, but I'm not always. So, thanks! I will always be grateful for that."

"It's fine," I told her. "It's nothing."

"It's not nothing," she said, tearing up. "Oh, damn it! I told myself I wasn't going to cry."

 


 

I had a lot of conversations that started off with some random adult telling me, "I never knew that about you."

"Knew what about me?"

"That you were... that way."

"What? Heroic?" I'd say with a smile.

"Ah, yeah, let's call it heroic."

Apparently, Babette and I managed to hit on a topic that was already current in the community: gender roles. Although some people had rather strong opinions about my portraying a female role, there was a lot of pressure among the adults that prevented them from expressing their doubts and negativity to me.

It was nearly a month before the scales fell from my eyes.

It happened when Peppa Johnson, who was in charge of costumes, asked me to come over for a fitting. The two of us used to hang out together, and in groups we'd always gravitate toward each other. Our mutual attraction was pretty obvious, and I was working up the nerve to ask her out — whatever "out" meant here in the boondocks — when suddenly the attraction cooled on her side. It was like a light turned off. One day she smiled at me; the next day she wouldn't look at me.

I couldn't help but notice that she turned cold after the parts in the play were assigned. I wondered whether she was jealous of Babette (who was my love interest in the play). It made no sense, though, since everyone knew that Babette was only interested only in girls — or at the very least, she was a thorough tomboy.

In fact, when I still thought Leander was a female role, I wondered why Babette wanted it so badly.

I arrived at Peppa's house mid-morning. I immediately noticed that her parents and younger brother were not at home. "They drove to town," she informed me. "They won't be back until five or six. It's just you and me until then." Her jaw was set when she said it. She didn't seem at all happy to see me.

Peppa led me upstairs to her room, which I'd never seen before. It was a nice size, very neat and clean. Very girly. The walls were a soft yellow. Her bedframe was pale blue. Her bedcover was white with red piping. The colors somehow harmonized. There were dolls in frilly dresses on the window sill, and her shoes, all brightly polished, sat on a low shelf by the door. There were five dresses hanging in various spots around the room. They were all old dresses that I'd seen Peppa wear in the past.

I looked around the room. "Where is my costume?" I asked.

"You can take your pick," she responded in a dry tone.

Was she talking about the dresses on the walls? That made no sense! Naively, I assumed she meant that later she'd show me alternatives that I could choose from.

"Okay," I said, a bit uncertainly. I couldn't understand the tone she was taking with me.

"Today is just a fitting," she said.

"Okay," I agreed, though I had no idea what a fitting was supposed to be. "What do I do?"

"I'm going to give you something to wear, and then I'm going to adjust it to fit. After that, when you... pick... your... costume, I'll be easy for me to adjust it."

"Okay."

"Let's start with this," she said, picking up one of the dresses. I gasped. It was unmistakably a dress, a girl's dress. It had a floral print on a pale blue background, so pale it was nearly white. The design was all roses in shades of red and pink, with dark green leaves. But it was mainly roses. The skirt belled out. I remembered how fetching Peppa looked in that dress.

"But... but... it's a dress!" I gasped.

"Of course it is," she replied. "What did you expect?"

"I guess... ah, I guess, Oh, God! I don't know," I told her. "I didn't think about it."

"You didn't even think, like, maybe a toga?" she suggested.

"Oh, because of Greece?"

"It's just a fitting," she repeated. "Go into the bathroom and put this on. Then I'll take some measurements."

"But this isn't the costume, right?"

She smiled a little mischievously. "Do you want it to be the costume?"

"Well, no," I stammered.

"Just go put it on," she repeated, handing me the dress and pushing me toward the door.

I took off my shoes and socks. Then I slipped out of my pants and t-shirt and hung them on the back of the door.

After removing the dress from its hanger, I looked it over. "It's not the costume," I told myself, and then slipped it over my head. There seemed to be a lot more skirt from the inside than I saw from the outside. I got my right arm and shoulder through the waist, then easily ducked my head through. Now the waist was running from under my right armpit around my head, and rested on my left shoulder. I pushed my left hand through, so my fingers touched my chin. If I had any sense, I would have stopped there, because at that point I still had a chance of getting the dress off my head. Instead, I foolishly tried to work my left shoulder through. I know that the dress didn't get any tighter, but suddenly I was stuck, as if I'd been caught in a lasso. I felt a moment of panic. At first I was afraid that my struggles would tear the dress apart. Then, a worse fear came over me: that no matter how much I struggled, that dress would never let me go.

I don't know what kinds of noise I was making, but Peppa came knocking on the bathroom door. "What's going on in there? Are you alright?"

"I'm stuck!" I wailed. "I'm stuck and I can't get out!"

"Okay," she said. "Try to stay calm. I'm coming in, alright? I'm going to get you out of there."

I heard the door open, then Peppa stifled a giggle. "Hang on a second," she said. "I'll be right back." I heard the sound of cloth rustling, then she ran off, only to return a moment later.

"Here you go," she told me. "Let's sit you on the edge of the tub so I have a better angle, okay?"

The dress was all around my head, so I was effectively blindfolded. She guided me and sat me down. I felt the cold porcelain through my underwear and on my bare skin. All I was wearing was my underpants and the stupid dress.

"Look up," Peppa said. I did, and saw her looking down at me. "It's easier to step into a dress than to go over your head," she told me. I sighed heavily. She reached in and pushed my hand down. "Get that out of there." Then, with two hands, she worked the waist up and off my left shoulder. Once my shoulder was free, she was able to lift the whole dress free.

To say I felt sheepish is an understatement. Here I was, sitting on the edge of her tub, wearing nothing but my underwear. My face was bright red from exertion, frustration, and embarrassment. My hair had been pulled in every direction and was now standing on end.

"Now I'll show how it's done," she said. "You can get into this dress. Believe me."

I was about to protest that I didn't want to get into this or any other dress, when she dashed out and returned with a pair of panties. They were red and shiny. "These will help," she told me, lying shamelessly. "They're satin." She handed them to me, and turning her back said, "Quick, put them on."

I held them, speechless, and blinked several times.

"Do you have them on yet?" she asked.

"Wait," I told her. I slipped off my underpants, and slid the smooth panties up my legs. The feeling was electric.

"Okay," I said, choking a little on the word.

She turned back and glanced at my new red underwear. I blushed furiously.

Peppa bent down, opening the dress for me to step into. "One foot," she said, "and then the other foot." Once both my feet were in, she easily slid the dress up my legs. "Turn around." She guided my arms under the shoulder straps, fitted it up, and buttoned me up the back.

"How does that feel?" she asked me, with a smirk.

"Better," I told her.

"Okay, now for the measurements," she said. "Follow me."

She left the bathroom and walked down the stairs. "Downstairs?" I asked.

"It's where the sewing room is," she replied. Down the stairs, into the dining room, and through a small door, there was indeed a small sewing room. There were two sewing machines, one much older than the other, cabinets full of cloth, patterns, buttons, thread, and so on. There was also a small platform a few inches high, placed in front of a pair of tall mirrors that ran from the floor nearly to the ceiling.

Peppa had me stand on the platform, facing the mirror. She put some pins in her mouth and measured me around the waist, then under my arms. She took some other measurements as well, but I didn't see her write anything down. Then she bent down and measured from the dress' hem to the ground. She didn't use any of the pins.

Next she had me turn my back to the mirror. She removed the pins from her mouth and put them away. "It doesn't really need adjusting," she said. "I'm surprised. I guess we're mostly different in the hips and the bust." She tugged experimentally here and there. "Okay," she said at last. "Let's go try another one."

I followed her out the door, through the dining room, and back upstairs.

"Another dress?" I asked.

"Of course, another dress. What else would it be?"

"Anything else," I said.

"Are you kidding?" she asked me. "It has to be a dress. Hero is a very romantic part."

I frowned. She didn't sound like she was fooling. I mean, yes, she was laughing at me in a dress — but I still didn't get the joke, or the not-a-joke, or whatever she was up to.

We walked into her room, and she selected another dress. If the one I was wearing was girly, this one she selected was even girlier. In fact, it was the girliest of every dress in the room.

By the way, Peppa was wearing a pair of cutoff jeans and an old t-shirt, which made the contrast with what I was wearing even stronger.

This next dress was a dark blue. The chest had a sort of square bib-like piece, and the shoulder straps were very wavy and high. There were two skirts, one dark blue, ending four inches above my knee, and a second, a white, nearly transparent underskirt that hung two inches below the blue. Peppa fingered the cloth of the underskirt. "This is tulle," she told me. "I always liked this one."

"Why are you doing this?" I suddenly asked her. "Are you mad at me?"

"Mad at you?" she repeated, a little angrily. "Why would I be mad at you?"

I gestured helplessly, unsure of how to explain. "I thought you liked me," I protested. "I mean, like, like like."

Her jaw tightened. She looked at me in silence for a moment before answering. "I *did* like you. I do like you. But I thought you were a regular guy."

"I *am* a regular guy," I told her.

"Oh, really? Look at you! You're wearing red satin panties and a cute floral dress! Regular guys don't do that."

"You said this was the costume!" I protested.

"No. I said it wasn't the costume."

"Well, you said it was the fitting."

She heaved a big breath, and told me, "I just wanted to see how hard it would be to put you in a dress." She looked at the floor. "It wasn't hard at all."

"It's not like I wanted to!"

"It's not like you didn't, either!"

"What does that mean?"

"You never said no and you haven't taken it off!"

It was true. I hadn't. To tell the truth, as strange as the whole experience had been, I didn't mind wearing the dress. It was pretty comfortable. And the panties as well. I wondered whether she'd let me keep them. Then I blushed like mad.

"I don't understand why you wanted to do this," I said.

"Because I don't understand you any more!"

"What is there to understand?"

"What is there to understand!? I'll tell you: I don't understand why you were so... so enthusiastic about being a girl in the play. And not just any girl, but the romantic lead!"

"Hero's not a girl!" I scoffed. "Are you crazy? 'Hero' isn't a girl's name. If she was a girl, she'd be Heroine. Common sense, come on."

"You are an idiot," she said, shaking her head. "Did you really make such a stupid mistake? Is that all this is?"

I tried to talk, to make her see sense, but she shushed me, and searched on her phone for Hero and Leander. She brought up images. "Look," she said. "Which one is Hero, and which one is Leander?"

There weren't many images, but obviously the one in the tower was a girl, and the swimmer was a boy.

The picture that really sewed it up was an old engraving where Leander, the boy, lay dead and half-naked on the beach, while the girl threw herself down from tower.

"Oh my God," I gasped, going white as a sheet. "Hero really is the girl!"

"You are such an idiot," Peppa gushed, with a laugh. Her voice was gentler now.

"And that's why Babette—" I began, the light breaking over me.

"Right," Peppa agreed.

Other conversation from recent weeks replayed in my memory, and my complexion went from white to red and back again, several times.

"Everybody thinks I want to be a girl," I whispered, suddenly getting it.

"Yes, they do," Peppa agreed. "And now *I* do too, and more than ever."

I said nothing. I just looked down at my naked knees, poking out from under the floral dress. Peppa touched the dark blue dress with its two skirts, and rubbed the material between her thumb and index finger.

"So...," she asked, "Do you want to try this one on now?"

I looked her in the eyes. "It doesn't mean I want to be a girl, okay?"

She looked surprised and puzzled. "Oh! Okay."

"It's just..." I took a deep breath. "I mean Hero ought to be a boy's name, right? But this..." I smoothed the dress over my lap.

"Dresses are fun," she offered, and gave a little conspiratorial smile. She tugged on the blue dress and asked me, "Do you want to have some more fun?"

I drew an electric breath. "Can I?" I whispered.

Peppa laughed and gave me a hug.



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