by J.C. Leyendecker
The Nineties went from joy to dire life-cursing disaster. The peak came when T. sent in a poem to a competition for lesbian poetry as a joke. The prize was a chance to crew on a tall ship whose crew was entirely lesbians. T. won! When he came to collect his prize, the women were startled, but then laughed and came through with their promise. Those days high in the rigging of one of the most fabulous world-knitting human technologies, tall ships, sailing in glory under a tropical sky and then sharing the evenings with song, story, and friendship, were among the best of T.’s life. Exalted is not too strong a word.
“In October 1998, one of the most savage storms in Atlantic history cornered a 282-foot passenger sailing ship against an exposed Caribbean coastline. With nowhere to hide and no time to run, Fantome turned to face Hurricane Mitch's assault of 180 mile-per-hour winds and 50-foot seas. As the eye of the storm approached, Fantome's satellite phone went dead. The ship and its 31 crew members simply disappeared, leaving only questions that won't go away.”
Now T. was stalked by hurricanes. His beloved friends had died. He was devastated, haunted, once-again feeling unreasonably that he ought to have been there to somehow save them or at least share their death.
Back in San Francisco AIDS had become, as one reporter put it, “a cauldron of death.” In the course of his UN work, T. had taken his camera to Africa where the pandemic was even worse because of lack of meds and modern hospitals. He helped to dig graves, row on row. One of his most moving accounts was simply at dusk washing up alongside a volunteer nurse from the States, chatting quietly as she scrubbed her strong graceful arms. In the end Africa overwhelmed him. He vowed never to return.
On June 19, 1993 he married his new partner, Tina, with his nearly-grown daughter as attendant. They left for Taos where they taught in public schools. Then Mariano Lake school, a small remote institution between the Navajo and the Zuni lands. Exploring one day, they found Navajo, the badly injured little puppy, whose name became a great source of hilarity to the local kids.
These years were the source of the many real stories in “Blood Runs Like a River Through my Dreams.” Sometimes T. took Old Big Wanda, an F150 Ford pickup, to a campground where he could sit at a picnic table and write without distractions. Navajo came along and at night, sleeping in the back of the pickup under the metal canopy, they listened to the coyotes howl nearby. In a few years they returned to Florida.
The next fateful hurricane was named Georges and struck Key West in Florida in 1998. At this time he and Tina were in a more conventional house than the tree-house where T. had lived earlier, the one with screens instead of windows and a giant iguana living at the base. This second house, more proper, was damaged by the storm. Working to clear up and repair the debris, T. inhaled mold and developed severe pneumonia. Fungal pneumonia is difficult to treat because fungi cells are so similar to body cells. He was saved only by heavy doses of prednisone. When he finally recovered consciousness enough to push away the breathing apparatus, a face leaned over him and said, “You have HIV. You are lucky to be alive.”
From then on he was always vulnerable to recurrent bouts of pneumonia, one of the most common side-effects of HIV infection. But arguably worse was developing avascular necrosis which prednisone triggers in some HIV patients. No one understands it very well, but it means death of the bones due to lack of blood supply. Bones are much more than the body’s scaffolding; the marrow is an active organ that produces the red and white cells, platelets, and other elements of the blood as well as mesenchymal and hematopoietic stem cells. The loss of bone density, which makes them so fragile that they break under the stress of walking, also means a loss of body renewal systems. The pain is extreme.
Still weak and a little confused as he lay in the hospital, T. was handed a letter from Esquire magazine. He had forgotten that he’d sent them a short story about a Navajo father whose son was dying of AIDS. He used a pseudonym, which he often did. The magazine accepted the pseudonym as the author’s real identity. Their acceptance of the story was contingent on their desire to believe this was real, not fact-checking.
Editors back East know a lot about blacks and even about Latinos, but almost nothing about American indigenous people except what they’d seen in the movies. Out West Native Americans have a split reputation between the stigmatized down-and-out people who drift into cities and the real people serving tourists on reservations while making standard rural livings on ranches and in small businesses.
The ideal Esquire man was the Arrow Collar Man, handsome, sophisticated — and covertly gay or “bi”, if their favorite artist (J.C. Leyendecker) was depicting his own world. This story was a way to talk about loving the physical reality of a little boy without involving any women and without hinting at the scandal of politicized man/boy relations. In a similar way the dreaded AIDS was displaced by fetal alcohol syndrome, which was the fault of women who drank — not men.
The echo from real life, including the disagreement over the fate of the boy, is plain once that story is known, but Esquire didn’t know that. For them the whole thing was a fantasy world anyway. Esquire had a history of publishing respected and acclaimed authors, which was why T. kept sending them queries. But over the decades their emphasis and understanding of writers had changed. There was no agent involved.
The story didn’t reveal any secret ceremonies or anthropological insights, though a bit of poetic language of the vast Navajo reservation crept in. It was mostly about fishing and taking the little boy along to learn that art. Certainly it struck a chord in many people. The backlash and political accusations didn’t surface until the book was published, and even then it was years before T’s real identity was disclosed. Esquire, afraid of being blamed, hurried to be aggrieved and claim to be innocently deceived. In the meantime T. used his promotional tours for the book to advocate Native American issues.