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OPEN TO THINKING Dickie V. and Me: Sexual Identity in 1950s America
A recurring column
by Nick Patricca
2016-10-05

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Dickie V. wanted to see me. I received this message from my mother who had received it from Dickie's mother. I hardly knew Dickie. His family lived on the rich side of the tracks; my family on the poor side.

I crossed the Larimer Avenue Bridge which separated us poor folk on Larimer Avenue in East Liberty, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from the rich folk on Stanton Avenue in Highland Park. I was in my second year at Central Catholic HS; Dickie in his first.

Dickie's mother welcomed me into her fancy home, decorated in Italianesque Baroque furniture and replica art works. The chairs and couches were covered in plastic—typical of 1950s aspiring Italians. I presented her with a box of exquisite pizzele waffle cookies which my mom had made—no Italian visited an Italian home without a present—and which I had been tempted to eat on my long walk to Dickie V.'s home.

Dickie's mom ushered me into a sunroom where Dickie sat in an over-stuffed chaise lounge, an expensive carpet-blanket draped over his legs. Next to him stood a wrought-iron glass-top stand on which were laid a pot of coffee and an array of Neapolitan cakes. The sun poured through the windows, intensifying the suffocation I started to feel as soon as I entered this home.

Dickie tried to make a polite remark then broke into violent sobs. I had no idea what was happening. I waited. Dickie said the doctors said he was having a nervous breakdown. I just listened. I thought nervous breakdowns were strange things that happened to women. He asked me if it was true that I was intending to go into the seminary in my junior year of HS. I said, Yes. He asked had I had the physical examination before being accepted. I said, Yes. Then, he told me that he had failed the physical exam.

Dickie had only one partially descended testicle. You had to have two fully descended testicles to be admitted to the seminary. He started crying again.

I was way out of my depth. I looked carefully at Dickie. He looked like an overweight young boy who had not yet entered into puberty. But, by no means did he seem unusual. There were many chubby Italian boys.

I was 15 years old. I tried to make sense of it all. I suggested he appeal to the bishop. He said he had. I suggested he try another diocese. He would not. I asked Dickie if his nervous breakdown was caused by this rejection. He only cried.

Then, he said, "They think I'm homosexual, they think I'm not a man."

One week later Dickie V. committed suicide. He was 14. He jumped from the low WPA Art-Deco railing of the Larimer Avenue Bridge onto the road far below in the 'holler'.

My mother told me Dickie had committed suicide. In the 1950s, newspapers did not publish such deaths, which were spoken of by adults in whispers over coffee and cigarettes. I didn't know what to say. She added, "I found pictures of naked men under your under wear." I told her they were physique magazines for people who wanted to make muscles and that the men weren't naked, they were in posing straps. She said, "I think Dickie was a homosexual." I said I had no idea whether he was or not. Then she said, "I know you're not a homosexual because homosexuals hate their mothers and commit suicide."

She sent me to Dr. DeNinno, our family physician.

DeNinno examined me, gave me a shot of vitamin B, some Royal Canadian Air Force isometic exercise manuals—you don't need to pump iron to make muscles, you can make muscles anywhere—and charged me $2. He said he would tell my mother there's nothing to worry about.

DeNinno's concluding postscript: "Hide your magazines in better places, especially if you're going to the seminary, and remember, the world isn't ready for you, yet."

Dickie V. wasn't even finished with puberty. Maybe the second testicle would have descended. Maybe not. I don't know whether Dickie V. was gay or straight or asexual or transgender or as I prefer to call myself Q to the 4th power. I don't think he had the slightest idea. I only know that a needlessly cruel system pushed Dickie into a corner from which he could not imagine any escape other than to kill himself.

Dickie V. died before he had a chance to figure things out. I suspect he might have made a good priest.

I learned how to hide my physique mags better. I still have the Royal Canadian Air Force manuals Dr. DeNinno gave me.

I regret that Dickie V. didn't have a Dr. DeNinno on his side.

Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.


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