Little Boy Lost
Updated: May 31
The bottle on the windowsill in my den holds a small wooden boat called the Paragon. She floats on a blue watercolor sea toward a lighthouse. History says the small vessel and her crew escaped under the cover of night, evading a battle at Fort Sumter; during the Civil War. Not long after, the Paragon would sink on the Frying Pan Shoals off Ocracoke Island. The bottle sits near where I spend most of my day working and writing. I often find myself daydreaming, my eyes fixed on the little boat.
I’m drawn to her story for any number of reasons. I am an explorer by nature, a diver who is happier at sea than any place else, and a self proclaimed history buff. It’s no surprise then, that this bottle and its contents capture my imagination; especially when I am lost in my thoughts. The story of her race from danger in uncertain conditions has stayed with me. She set sail, under the cover of darkness, hoping to find safe waters; no matter what lay ahead. I understand that journey, from a very personal place, and I have since I was very young.
There is a heightened sense of awareness or vigilance that comes with impending disaster. I think it’s fueled even further by the hope that outside forces will breathe life into your sails, propelling you someplace else, some place where there is stillness, placid waters; where there is safety. This hyper-vigilance and yearning for respit from dangers you can’t yet see, is something that I think resonates particularily well for a gay man, who was once a boy, in tiny town, stuck somewhere between a cornfield and the Mississippi River in the 1980’s.
Your job as an gay boy in places like Lancaster Wisconsin in 1986, was to “pass” at all costs. Whatever you do, don’t get discovered. You might not actually even know who or what you are yet, but you know, for sure, you are different and that danger is nearby, so you stay awake and aware of the winds around you even before they shift.
The realization that I was different from other boys, first came to me when I was 8 years old. The thought wasn’t necessarily that I was gay, but more aptly put, I became aware that I was born feeling differently than perhaps how other boys felt; and (this was the really scary part) that the people around me were figuring it out. I was sitting in the back seat of my grandfather’s 1984 Pontiac Bonneville when that awareness set in. Grandpa Frank was a stern man, a devout Cathloic who had survived the second World War. He had also been the chief of police in his small Western Wisconsin town. Frank believed in hell, to be more precise, Frank believed that most everyone was headed there.
I don’t know what I might have said or done that signaled to my grandfather that it was time to put the fear of God in me, I’m only present to the moment it happened. On a bright summer afternoon in June, as the car left his driveway and began to roll down West Cherry Street, Frank looked squarely into the rear view mirror. Locking eyes with me, he said, somewhat mysteriously, “you know Billy (my childhood nickname), there is a free place in heaven for anyone who has a grandson who becomes a priest”. He kept my gaze when he finished the thought and there was silence. At 8 years old, I knew, it was a warning – but of what- I was not sure. Regardless, the fear was on me and it was real, I remember feeling tossed overboard, in that instant I held my breath; air would not come for a few moments.
As I became a teenager and understood my sexuality, I realized Grandpa Frank, who had obviously detected the effiminate qualities of his grandson, was suggesting that I join the Catholic Church to keep me celibate, in an attempt to quite literally, save my soul.
When Frank died, I found a small pewter pendant of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, tucked into a tiny white gift box in his top desk drawer; it was for me. At 40 years old, I still wear it. It was also not until I turned 40 that I understood more completely the anxiety, hyper-vigilance and fear that began with that conversation and stays with me even today.
A young gay boy in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, especially in small midwestern towns, only had the imagery that came through on the television and in print stories to identify what it was to be gay in the world. This was during the time when HIV/AIDS was gaining prevalence and coverage. There I was, a teenager, suddenly aware of my longing towards other boys, sitting with my eyes firmly affixed to news stories about the “Gay Cancer”, the AIDS quilt, the marches and the vigils. There was a connection to these stories I couldn’t yet grasp. My stomach turning, I became desperate to hide something I didn't yet understand about myself. I had no access to the words around what I was feeling at the time, but I became viscerally aware of the men on the television who were dying, and the sinking suspicion that I someday could be one of them. I couldn’t describe the feeling I was experiencing at the time, only now am I aware that I was afraid. Just under the surface there was panic and chaos, but to “pass”, to stay safe I had to maintain calm. There I was a teenage boy, watching late night news through the wooden banister on the stairs. Scared and uncertain, I remember holding the railing as though I was trying to maintain my balance in turbulent water, hoping the winds would change and I would find stillness.
Some days, without realizing it, lost in thought or daydreaming, I return to that awareness and I become aware that the vigilance is still with me and my heartbeat quickens.
As time passed, and I became more acutely aware of my homesexuality, an entire generation of gay men would be lost. We would lose future change makers and politicians, artists and activists. Men who would have no doubt shaped culture and society around us and perhaps, through just their way of being, might have helped shape acceptance of what it truly means to be gay. These men, by the hundreds of thousands, would die in the arms of their lovers, friends and, far too often, they died completely alone. Countless stories never to be told, countless would-be families never to start. A generation of role models gone, leaving a generation of little boys lost behind them - with nothing but the stigma and shame to somehow erase. Gay boys like me, still at the starting gate of their young lives became present to the possibility that the consequences might still find us. I would at times remember my grandfather's warning; celibacy or death.
We boys would grow up just after the arrival of the new millennium. Many, I imagine, would feel they had always carried along with them the faint but profound weight of being a generation without mentors and idols. The sense of showing up for life without examples of how to thrive, no where to look and blind faith felt impossibly ill advised. The very real, pervasive and inescapable sensation of a constant fear of the unknown creating a need to hide at all costs. Having to remain tirelessly aware and taxingly present to unknown dangers around you; changes you. Without a generation of men before us to help us understand how to live lives of meaning, how to build careers and families as happy, well adjusted, safe, healthy gay men- how to flourish as vibrant voices of substance; we stayed lost.
Today, I am more and more aware that in my work as a creative authenticity matters. Built on 40 years of fear, inhibited somewhat by a lack of a compass from which to pull direction, my first reaction to adversity, newness, overwhelm, or doubt - is fear and fault. In times of uncertainty, I want to run and hide. My stomach hurts when I am dishonest about who I am and what I want to create. In a very real way my body tells me when I am spiritually, emotionally and creatively lost in a rising tide- when I've sacrificed authenticity for the safe harbor of conformity.
The impulse to “pass” as something else, to be something else, to generate relationships out of thin air or perform for others are habits left over from decades of hiding. These are echoes of a conversation with my grandfather, his message: conform or perish.
I imagine that boys like me, from my childhood, have grown up much like I have, often feeling adrift, just barely having escaped the battle. Like the Paragon cutting through the dark water, they want for stillness and peace. Still, I can’t help but wonder what we never gained from the generation of men that perished and how much less fear I might feel today had they not been lost at sea.
I am maybe one of the lucky ones. My tiny little boat sits in a bottle, on a shelf, next to some accolades I have earned for my work; my career is really just beginning. I sit in my home, the top floor overlooking a city far away from that small town I grew up so fearful in. Out my window is a beautiful view of a monument, park and community. The wind is still, the sun is shining. My dog lay at my feet. Next May, I will marry the man I hear listening to the television in the other room. He loves me, I am safe. Grandpa Frank died ten years after his warning, but is still with me. Yes, anxiety often wins the day and, much as I feared as a boy, I did get sick - the result of another lost boy who was afraid to speak truth, for fear it would mean he wasn’t lovable. I’ve lost partners to mental health, to suicide, to addiction - but my heart is full from the memory of them and bursting with love for them all. I understand them in a way now, I couldn’t then, we are all Little Boys Lost raging against an uncertain sea.
But those are the winds and the waves, I am a captain - sail on.
Kevin at 8 years old
Frank Kuchar (Grandpa Frank)
Kevin Kuchar is an award-winning filmmaker and content creator. In 2020, Kevin Kuchar leveraged his varied experience in Education, Non-Profit Development, Leadership Coaching, and Creative Direction to spearhead CYM Media's Operations, Strategic Planning, and Business Development; as President & COO. In addition to his work in Theater, Film, Production and Content Writing - Kuchar has, over the past 15 years, developed new programming and products, created supply chains for scalable content, devised and implemented new processes for creative work at scale, and has developed rigorous sales pipelines for a variety of businesses across a diverse range of industries. Kuchar has also created and produced major campaign projects for Regional and National clients, leading his production team to earn more than two dozen awards. He is presently leading a team of developers in creating Virtual Brandworks, a Team Building Ecosystem due to launch in the fall of 2020. Kuchar is also an ACC Certified Executive Coach, Diver, Hiker and (most importantly) a loving dog dad and partner.
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