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Some of Our Best Friends...

I sat on the skinny cot they called a bed. My mind was erupting with questions, fears, and thoughts about what was going to happen next. Am I going to like this place? The people walking around seem strange. What’s this kid I gotta live with going to be like? From Mt. Vernon, New York. William Braidwood Lyon, III. Wow. With a name like that he’s going to be some snotty brat. 

I shouldn't have come here. I wanted to go to Delaware but “oh no,” my mother insisted that I had to come to Swarthmore because her old boyfriend, Pennock, teaches here. They told her at Conrad that I should apply to other colleges, but Louise said, “No! If Swarthmore finds out that Charles applied to some other place, Swarthmore will think that he doesn't want to go there and turn him down.” God, my mother is nuts.

“Hello.” A moon-shaped head with a twinkle in its eyes and sporting a little black pompadour on its top peered around the doorway. “Are you Charles? I’m Bill.”

“Hi. Yeah, I’m Charles. Guess we’re going to be sharing this room. Which bed do you want?”

“Oh, I don't care. Which do you want?”

“I like the one near the door, if that’s OK.”

“Sure.” Bill immediately hauled his suitcases onto his now designated bed and began unpacking. This guy wastes no time taking over!

“What courses are you going to take?” he asked as he started pulling out stuff and opening dresser drawers. “I want to major in French. I love France and everything French. One of the reasons I came here was because they have an exchange program with Aix-en-Provence, and I want to go there for a semester.”

I wonder what X is. “I dunno. I like reading history, maybe poli sci.”

“I don’t know anything about politics. My father is always raving about how they are all crooks. What do you do for fun?”

“I like horse racing. I even got a great job at Delaware Park selling programs, pencils and tip sheets for the month of June when the horses are running. And I really follow the Phillies since the Whiz Kids won the pennant in 1950.  I even go to Shibe Park sometimes and see them play.”

“I don’t know anything about horse races. What do the Phillies play? Baseball? I love to read. Have you read Genet? I just finished The Maids. What a fantastic play.”

Jeeez. I never heard of Jeanette. This guy and I have nothing in common. How am I going to live with him for a whole year?

And so that initial meeting went on… point-counterpoint. Bill unpacked a small statue of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and said he was an Anglo-Catholic. I told him that I though all Catholics were Roman. He said I should go to St. John the Divine in New York. “The incense during the service is fabulous!” he declared. I told him I was a Quaker and had never smelled incense.

It was Camus vs. Richie Ashburn. Greenwich Village vs. Rehoboth Beach. France vs. Germany (I had been an exchange student to Germany when I was 17). Yet I had to admit to myself that Bill, with a regular guy nickname I didn't think fit him, was never confrontational in our differences. If I was looking for a fight to justify getting a new roommate, it wasn't going to happen. We just didn't have anything in common.

Within the next 24 hours we became friends for life.


Mary Lyon One was part of a complex of four buildings that was once a private school for girls. The Mary Lyons were located in the town of Swarthmore, and Number One was as far away as you can get from Parrish, the main building on campus of the college that contained the cafeteria. No doubt because Number One was so far away from the only source of available food, the college had decided that the lowest form of student life, freshman boys, should suffer with the burden of near starvation and be housed there.

The 24 boys in the 12 rooms on the second floor of ML1 and a young professor and his wife and child in an apartment on the first floor were the only occupants of the building. The isolation from the rest of the campus quickly brought the boys together into “bull sessions” to discover who we were and why we were there.

One of the first such sessions came together in our room. About a dozen of the boys crammed themselves on the beds, floor and in the doorway to evaluate their dorm mates. I sat on the foot of Bill’s bed, and Bill sat next to me in his chair at his desk. My chair was occupied by a lanky kid I’ll call Ken who assumed the air of “I own this place.” With his legs propped up on my desk and leaning back on two legs of my chair, he asked: “What do our fathers do?”

I wondered why he didn’t ask what our mothers did—my mother worked—but later I learned that most of the mothers of boys at Swarthmore in the 1950s didn’t do anything. They cooked and cleaned and took care of male doers, or told the help to do it.

Of course, Ken raised the question because he desperately wanted to tell us what his father did. Ken’s dad had some kind of big muck-a-muck job in government in Washington. “He was talking with Eisenhower last week.” Hmmm, that’s impressive. Ken then called on the boy to his right, to see if he could top that. As his roll call swept around the room, I became even more impressed. The fathers were college professors, executives of big name companies, or leader with a title in some Protestant religion.

Finally, Ken nodded his head toward me. “What’s your father do, Charles?”

“He’s a janitor.”

All the available oxygen in the small room was sucked out of circulation by the audible deep breaths accompanied by muffled chortles and wide eyes of disbelief. Ken was not going to allow this unforeseen bump in his conduct of the interviews to delay his leadership. Quickly he looked at Bill and asked: “And what does your father do, Bill?”

“He’s a milkman.”

“YEEOOOWWW” came a cry from the doorway. The screech permitted an explosion of laughter around the room. I wondered what the joke was. But Ken got it. With a sermonizing tone he declared: “Of course, my father in his job has a lot of dealings with men who work for a living. Why we’ve had union men in our home for dinner.”

Turning his face directly toward Bill and me, and in a voice oozing with condescension he declared: “I can certainly say (a pause to allow for the full impact) some of our best friends are working class people.”

My eyes met Bill’s with our lips pursed shut to prevent a smile. We knew now who we were although we didn’t know what it was that we were. I had heard of the working class but had no idea that I was part of it. Neither had Bill. Whatever it meant to be a member of the working class, to these boys we were something different, a kind of individual that they did not expect to find at Swarthmore.

Within a minute after the boys left our room, Bill and I rolled on our beds shrieking with glee. We belonged together. The smirks of the boys had opened the door that allowed Bill and me to participate in each other’s experience of life no matter how different it was. We may not have known that we were working class boys, but we were glad that we were not the same as those arrogant jerks who were going to be our classmates. That made us special.

On that day and for the rest of our lives together Bill and I wore our working-class badge proudly and with humor. Our branding in public amid sneers eventually became a powerful motivator for us to succeed at Swarthmore. We wanted to beat those boys—and girls—at their own game.


We never stopped using our working class identity when we communicated with each other. Even in middle age, our phone conversations might begin: “Hey, you working class trash, what are you doing?” “Don’t talk to me like that you working class pimp.” On birthdays and Christmas, we sent cards to each other featuring some poor struggling slob, perhaps a toothless hobo or a hillbilly beside his still.

During that first year together as roommates, we created our own working class cult. We decided we needed a patron, someone looking out for our type of American. We chose Eleanor Roosevelt and plastered a big picture of her on the wall of our room. On her birthday, October 11, until she died, we sent her a birthday card to Hyde Park, New York, signed: “Love, Bill and Charles.” I wonder if that dear old lady ever saw one of those cards and may have wondered if we were grandsons or nephews she might have forgotten.

We discreetly searched for other Swarthmore freshmen who might be members of the working class. The closest one we found was a nice girl from Rhode Island. Her father was a plumber, which demanded a different use of his working hands than putting bottles of milk on doorsteps at 5 a.m. or sweeping floors and cleaning toilets.

Surprisingly, however, our search led us to discover about a half a dozen other freshman who didn’t fit into the elitist mold of our classmates in 1956. They came from various backgrounds but each wanted to escape the unrelenting pressures of the secular monastery in which we found ourselves. We ate together every evening and called ourselves “The Chit Chatters” to separate us from the heavy intellectual talk and academic competitiveness of most of the Swarthmore undergrads. Bill insisted that we call ourselves “Le Petit Noyau” … “The Little Nucleus.”

A friendship founded as a defense against the surrounding world needs a positive demonstration of its worthiness to survive a lifetime. The inner demons I had been wrestling with since I was about 14 who told me that I was either evil or crazy because I was sexually attracted to my own gender nearly won a final victory when I tried to kill myself two weeks before the end of the college year. My aborted action surprised everyone who knew me, including Bill and the Chit Chatters.

I was permitted to take my final Spring Semester exams, but the Dean of Men wanted me gone, never to return in the fall. He told me that I was “a dangerous menace to the community”. Other voices I’ll never know came up with a proposal to allow me to continue. I was suspended for a year. During that year, if I agreed to see a psychiatrist in Delaware, chosen by Swarthmore, and if that psychiatrist made a judgement that I was not a likely threat to anyone on the campus, then I might be allowed to return to the campus as a sophomore in September.

That summer of 1957 I lived alone inside myself in a dark, foreboding place. It was Bill Lyon who opened the doors of light into my life. He sent me funny working class cards to raise my spirits and then invited me to Mt. Vernon, N.Y., to his home for the weekend before he returned to Swarthmore and I began my year in exile. On Saturday evening he took me via the subway to Greenwich Village. Around 11 pm he led me to an unmarked door on 10th Street and down a long flight of stairs. I entered a large room with scores of men of all sorts of shapes and ages whom I instantly sensed were like me in a very important way. They were all gay.

Bill said that I “lit up like a light bulb.” At 19, I realized that I was not alone in life. The most remarkable discovery of that enchanted night was that the friend with whom I had shared a room no bigger than oversized jail cell for an entire college year, the friend with whom I had shared meals and laughs and that special working class identity at Swarthmore, had been actively gay since he was 16. We had imagined that the consequences of even suggesting to each other our hidden identity to be so terrible that not even a hint had ever passed our lips. But Bill had seen my suicide note.

I did not want to return to Swarthmore. I felt humiliated and embarrassed. Bill had other ideas. He wrote to me at least once a week, since public phones and cars were not permitted at Swarthmore. Then, near my birthday in February, he showed up in Hockessin with six or seven of the Chit Chatters and a couple of classmates I didn’t think even liked me. Our family home was the upstairs apartment of the Lamborn Library on Valley Road where my father took care of the building to help pay the rent. The Library was a perfect site for a wonderful weekend party of laughs and songs and some serious talk about all our futures. Everyone there pleaded with me to come back if the doctor said OK.

The doctor said it was OK. I still wince when I think of how difficult it was for me to return to the site of my near fatal failure in life. But thanks to Bill with the new dimension in our friendship and the encouragement of the Chit Chatters, I swallowed my embarrassment and returned. He and I were roomies again, but with our now deepened friendship, our conversations were more serious with fewer jokes. Eleanor Roosevelt, however, still smiled from our wall.

The principal reason for the new tone of seriousness was the academic burden. At Swarthmore, the top 20 percent of the sophomore class were eligible for the Honors Program. During the last two years, the Honors student was excused from all classes, took no exams and studied directly with the professor and perhaps a few other students. At least one research paper was required each week. In May of the senior year, professors and experts, not connected to Swarthmore, submitted the student to written and oral exams. Two weeks of sheer hell. Bill graduated with High Honors in French and Classics studies. A year later I made it through with just Honors in History and Philosophy. We had bought into the academic rat race we once dismissed as elitist.


During one of our philosophical introspections, we decided to assume the identity of a non-living phenomenon. Bill chose The Dawn. He wanted to be the serene beginning, peacefully rising with the promise of a good life. “Gracious Living” became his motto. I wanted fire in my life, a passion to live life fully, experience everything I could to contradict my milk toast persona. Bill suggested fire was too generic a term, so I settled on becoming The Blaze.

For two summers The Dawn and The Blaze experienced life together in two forever memorable adventures. During the summer of 1958, in a 1948 Plymouth, we toured the American South. On our way to visit Bill’s relatives in Miami, we drove through Hurricane Donna and ran the car into a pool of water. Days wasted away while we waited for the motor to dry out. In New Orleans we sat in a flea bag hotel in the French Quarter while Hurricane Ethel blasted through the city. Except for the kind reception we got from the “colored” folks who welcomed two wandering Yankee boys, my exposure to the South did not help to improve my generally negative opinion toward that part of the country.

The summer of ’59 was the summer of a hundred stories. Bill was in Aix-en-Provence, fulfilling his dream, and another Chit Chatter, Gretchen, was visiting relatives in Sweden with her friend, Margaret. With only a large back pack I sailed to Europe on a “student ship,” and the four of us, in various combinations, hitchhiked from Scotland to Italy and from Sweden to Spain. Climbing a mountain to the snow line in Switzerland; sipping beer soup for breakfast with fishermen in England; stuffing hankies in doors to keep them from being locked at curfew by the Franco dictatorship in Spain; getting kicked out of a hotel in Venice for hosting street people to a wine party; standing on the back bumper of a semi and waving a white cloth to get the truck driver to stop so we could get off the Autobahn in Germany, and then running like hell as he chased us; surviving a night in cheap rooms in a brothel in Denmark.

Those experiences were part of the grand finale for two gay working class boys in sharing our lives together. After that summer, we saw each other only about six times. The letters and working class cards kept coming, until one day they stopped for about a decade. Bill, who had become a teacher and eventually a headmaster at two exclusive private schools for girls, fell into anonymity. I couldn’t find him.

We were in our early forties when Bill reconnected and came to visit me in Boston. His self-imposed seclusion and deep depression resulted from a series of nearly overwhelming personal disasters. His family home in Mt. Vernon burned to the ground one night killing his mother, father and grandmother. His sister died from cancer in Los Angeles where he went to be with her in her illness. His brother, for reasons he did not reveal, disappeared from his life. In his dark period, I wasn’t there to support him as he was there for me at Swarthmore.

During that visit, we decided to share another new experience. One of my racetrack buddies, a Boston cabbie, provided me with LSD. We dropped the acid and together went on a mind bending adventure in which brilliant colors appeared to be solid, and solids such as lamps and tables wilted and floated in the air. The Dawn and The Blaze returned to normal consciousness sitting on my roof deck with the chickens I was raising clucking their morning song. A fiercely red sun, magnified a hundred times in size, slowly rose over the Boston Harbor. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.    


The red sky was indeed a dark omen. A decade later, with one of our Chit Chatter friends I visited Bill in Connecticut when he announced his death sentence. He was HIV-positive. In the early 1990s, the march to death from AIDS-related diseases usually ran anywhere from two to five years. Bill left his headmaster teaching job and moved to Columbia, MD, outside Baltimore.

Twice during visits to my family in Delaware I went to see him. On the first visit Bill was angry and raged against the Washington administrations and the drug companies for failing to act more rapidly and with commitment as they had done with other potential epidemics. I took him to lunch in Columbia where his T-shirt with a big letter message on the back SILENCE=DEATH! caused fellow diners to turn their heads and avert their eyes. His fighting spirit encouraged me.

During my 1994 summer visit Bill asked me to take him to Baltimore for a doctor appointment. When we got to the city, he didn’t remember where he was going. Luckily I found the office, and when he emerged I said it was time for lunch. “I can’t go with you,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “I’m having lunch with a friend from Boston,” he replied. I realized he didn’t recognize me. I whacked him on the back and shouted: “Dawn, it’s me, The Blaze!” He looked at me brightly. “Oh, hi Blaze,” and I managed to get him home.

During the course of our lives, while I was probably liked by many and loved by none, Bill was loved by nearly everyone. He had girlfriends—Gleam was favorite of mine because I teased her about being named after a toothpaste—and boyfriends. His last partner was a touch of good fortune for him. Michael was a nurse at Johns Hopkins who lived with Bill and took care of him during illness.

I thought of Bill and his suffering every day after that last visit with him. Yet I dreaded contacting him for fear of what I would find. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, I telephoned. Michael answered and said that they had just finished supper, but Bill was in such a lost state that he would not know what he had just eaten.

“His mind has gone almost completely. He has no short term memory at all but once in a great while he can remember something from his distant past. I know he would want to hear your voice, so I’ll get him on the phone,” said Michael.

I shook with anxiety and my throat was swelling shut as I waited to hear something on the other end of the line. It was Michael’s voice. “Here he is. Billy, this is Charles. Say hello.” I heard a grunt.

“Hey, Dawn, it’s me the old Blaze. I just wanted to call and to say hello.”


“Michael tells me that you just had supper so I won’t keep you long.”


“I’ve been thinking about you, remembering all the great times we had together especially at Swarthmore.”


“We showed ’em didn’t we? Those rich kids and their fancy schools. We did as good as they did, even better, especially you…magna cum laude. How did you ever get through all those exams, all in French, even the orals? Wow.”


“Well, I won’t keep you. You must be tired. I just wanted to thank you for being my friend. You stood by me in my darkest time. I would never had made it without you.”


“I just wanted to thank you… and to tell you… I love you.”


And then, in a deep raspy voice I heard: “Same back to you (a pause and a deep breath) working-class boy.”


I hung up. Bill died that spring.


Written in Memory of The Dawn

William Braidwood Lyon, III

the son of

Milkman Willian Braidwood Lyon, Jr.


Some of our best friends are working-class people

And some of them are gay.