Love's Gay Fool. Autobiography of John Alan Lee.


Chapter 5. Family of choice

The SCM Summer Work Camp at Bathurst Street United Church, 1955.

The three crones of Fate have woven many a surprise twist in the fabric of my life. Meeting Bob Miller was one of the most auspicious. When I organized the socialist youth group, I advertised the meetings. In response, several working people began to attend. These were no ordinary young socialists. They were university-educated. They lived in a communal house, where they shared belongings and wages in true communalist fashion. Strangest of all, most were also Christian believers.

Their fellowship was called Howland House, and it was organized by members of the Student Christian Movement. The SCM is a nation-wide organization of young adults, mostly at universities. Its Christian doctrine is modernistic, its secular ethic leftist. Some have called the SCM “socialists at prayer.” Traditional churchmen have attacked the SCM for “poisoning the student mind” – which merely led SCMers to compose their anthem:

The SCM has found its true vocation
In poisoning the student mind...

Fred and Charlotte, regulars at the Oakwood socialist youth meetings, both lived at Howland House. Soon they invited me to dinner, where I met their housemates (ten in all), including Bob Miller. I talked to Bob and quickly realized that his admirers (you might say “disciples”) treated him like an heroic figure. He was the classic “strong and silent man,” and, when he did speak, the wisdom and compassion of his remarks were legendary.

After Joe Shinaman’s signal of an impending move to the suburbs, I told Fred and Charlotte that I could no longer lead the socialist youth group unless I found lodgings in the centre of the city. Did they have any ideas? They suggested Bob Miller, and he in turn offered to take me to lunch.

Over lunch I chronicled my background as an orphan, student, and socialist. I emphasized that I was not a Christian. Nevertheless, he was impressed, perhaps by my earnest need. We walked to Bathurst Street United Church, where I might want to live, if the people already there would have me. It was an “SCM summer work camp.”

The SCM began to organize work camps in Canada following the Second World War. The first was located in Welland, Ontario, in the summer of 1945. The theory and the first camp director, Lex Miller, were imported from Europe. Work camp combined the need of many university students to earn enough in the summer to get them through a school year, with an opportunity to engage in a summer-long study programme, in a communal setting. From the Quakers was drawn the “sacrament of everyday life”: all work could be viewed as a form of worship.

Lex set the pattern for all subsequent SCM work camps: about two dozen campers, balanced as much as possible by sex and by region of Canada, lived in dormitory facilities and found work in the local area. There were three nights of study a week. Lex promoted the idea of a “levelling” of incomes according to real need. Underlying these arrangements was the theory that God intended a “social justice” which everyday Canadian life did not achieve.

It took time to adapt both Christian and Marxist influences from Europe to the Canadian situation. For example, in early years each camper discussed his “need” for income with the camp director, but at the 1949 Montreal camp more leftist campers opened this discussion to the whole camp community.

The work-campers voted that I could move in. I returned to the “Shinaman boarding house” trying to calm my tossing stomach and prepare my valediction. As I approached Joe and Orca in the kitchen, I lost control of my mouth and blurted out: “It's awfully hard telling you people this, but I've decided to move out of the house. I've arranged for a friend and a truck to come and get my things on Sunday."

YOU PEOPLE. After the surprise subsided, Joe sputtered with indignation: "YOU PEOPLE? After all we've done for you boys (YOU BOYS!) for so many years, that's the way you talk to us?"

It was a moment of baneful truth. For all those years, the Shinamans did the best they knew. My job that very summer was arranged through political patronage via Joe’s Masonic connections. But the only physical contact I ever had with Joe was in anger. Orca never hit me, but she never hugged me either. The Shinamans was a planet devoid of loving touch. I must break free and assume a gravity of my own.

I stumbled upstairs to pack. Orca and Joe conferred loudly in the kitchen for a few minutes, and Joe came boiling up the stairs. "You will not move out of my house on a Sunday. Move soon, but not on Sunday." This was hypocritical posturing, for Joe rarely accompanied Orca to church. It was the only way he could hit back. I moved on Saturday.

My first night in the work camp I slept terribly, and I woke with searing pain across my back. At work I visited the staff doctor. He said there was nothing physically wrong, but I had muscular spasms from sheer tension. He was right. I felt as if I were about to disintegrate into fragments on the floor.

Life in a work camp.

SCM work camps were usually housed in the Sunday School section of a church. Sunday schools ceased during summer months, and their facilities always included small classrooms (easily converted to bedrooms), an assembly area, a kitchen, and bathroom facilities: perfect to house two dozen people cheaply for a few months.

Each winter, the SCM national leadership decided on the number and location of work camps to be organized across Canada during the following summer. The national office made local arrangements with a church and selected an experienced director for each camp. Next, it invited applications from SCM groups on university campuses.

A committee of experienced campers sorted the applications. Their task was to recruit for each camp about ten males and ten females, including a few veterans of previous camps. Directors had camp experience, some formal qualifications in theology and bible history, a strong social conscience, and the people-skills to deal with inevitable personal problems of campers during a four-month intense communal experience. The Director was a part-time employee of the camp, supported out of the “rent” each camper paid. A suitably qualified camper was designated as cook, and she too was supported by the camp.

All other campers shared the chores. It was often those simple tasks – washing dishes, cleaning bedrooms, scrubbing toilets – which came as the first shock to campers from homes where Mom did the housework. And it was neglect of such chores that provided the director with the first problems of managing the camp. (More challenging problems like sex and alcohol soon followed).

Work camp had one night of bible study a week and a second night focussed on issues of practical social application of religion. These could include war and peace, economic justice, alienation in the workplace, union organizing, mental illness, or another suitable social issue.

Applicants from across Canada were directed to their camp by the national office. They arrived at camp around May 15 and set to work converting the Sunday School classrooms into dormitories by hanging canvas closures (if the rooms had no doors) and installing bunk beds and blankets – often borrowed from local winter-hostels for the homeless. The director would be on hand to welcome new arrivals, assign a bed, and help campers get oriented to the city.

Camp life began at the first communal meal. Decisions were made about study nights and social activities. Everyone paid enough rent in advance to provide the cook with food money. Next day, campers got up for breakfast, grabbed a brown-bag lunch (another camp chore), and headed out to look for work.

At day’s end some campers returned with jubilant news while others promised to try harder tomorrow. Eventually all campers found some work. Most camps set up their own “unemployment fund” to help with the rent of campers who had bad luck in landing a job.

Each camper was required to turn over his or her entire earnings for the week to the camper elected Treasurer, and received back a living allowance. This amount was determined by the camp meeting, and could vary according to need (such as transportation costs to the job), but it was always a minimal amount ($5 in 1955). At the end of the summer, the weekly expenses of each camper were deducted, and the campers refunded the surplus owed them, to finance their next college year.

Experienced campers joked that SCM really stood for "Society for Courtship and Marriage." Numerous courtships began in SCM work camps. What sounder way to choose a mate than falling in love with a fellow camper who was witnessed at the worst of times as well as the best? Grumpy and sleepy over breakfast; dozing off during a late night meeting; griping at chores; nagging fellow campers about neatness (or being nagged); arguing with lively conviction at camp meetings (or sitting back, shy and silent); sympathizing with fellow campers over little tragedies, and sharing times of celebration – these were all favourable opportunities for assessing romantic compatibility.

Campers passed most of their spare time socializing with other campers. Spending time outside camp (for example with one's private friends in the city) was frowned on. Instead, campers were encouraged to invite friends to camp meals.

Not everyone fitted in, but by summer's end most camps had become “one big family.” Campers had shared each other's daily joys and sorrows for four months. As Labour Day approached, there were feelings not only of anticipation at returning to home and college, but also of sorrow in leaving behind, perhaps forever, dear friends made during the summer.

SCM work camps profoundly shaped my life by confirming me as a person who preferred to live with others rather than alone in my own space. By the 1990s that made me something of a dinosaur among gay men, because the great majority of gay men in my city live alone.

My first real family

SCM work camp was my initiation into the emotional warmth most children take for granted by growing up in a family. I had no idea how to react to the campers’ all-embracing acceptance . I thought one must earn affection, thus I did favours whenever I got the chance. At the same time, orphan life had taught me to protect my feelings from the pain of betrayal. I wore a thick coat of “male armour.” Its major component was intellectualism. By clever exposition of ideas and cunning twists of logic I could shield my emotions, or so I thought.

I was one of the top earners in camp and on my home-city turf. I naturally gravitated to leadership positions anyway, and I soon became a major influence in camp life. No Christian, but very familiar with church life, religious history and the bible, I could wade into bible discussions with arguments swinging. On social-studies night I was well practised to expound socialist ideas.

One day a camper I’ll call Ruth found me alone. She sat beside me. As if she had rehearsed it– to be sure it was the right thing to say– she spoke: "You know, John, you are a lovely person but you have a wall around you five feet thick."

I was thunderstruck and could barely mumble: "But I've tried to be as nice as I can."

“Of course you’re nice – you’re always doing favours – but why do you keep your feelings so hidden?”

Astonished that anyone could talk like this, I excused myself. It would be months before the warmth of SCM communal life penetrated my emotional armour, but the thin edge of the wedge was in.

Communalism in practice: the wage pool

High point of a work camp was the wage-pool. This concept was explained by our director: we had all arrived at camp about the same time. We had all worked hard. Yet some of us found jobs sooner than others. Some of us made twice as much for an hour's work. Some jobs were clean and interesting, and the camper came home fresh and cheerful. Other jobs were depressing and tiresome. Over the summer we had become a family of choice, strangers who cared for each other. Soon we would be going home. Some of us would return to affluent parents. Others had no one but themselves to count on. Some had scholarships and others had only the money earned this summer. Some could return to college only if they borrowed money. Was that fair? Was it Christian?

The early Christians of the Acts of the Apostles pooled their worldly goods. Could we do the same? “Absolutely not” replied a few. What they earned was theirs to keep. But most of us decided to pool our resources. The abstainers were assured that they were still loved in the camp, but a small division crept in. Campers entering the wage pool met separately to discuss the specifics of sharing.

A wage pool is a complex arrangement. First, each of us prepared a statement of all assets: money on deposit in the camp account, savings accumulated before coming to camp, forthcoming scholarships and bursaries, money our parents could be asked to provide for schooling, and any other resources.

Next, each prepared a statement of needs: room and board during the school year, fees, books, supplies, transportation, clothing, personal needs, medicine, and so on. When the 18 members of the pool totalled their needs, they amounted to $5,000. When all our assets were pooled, they totalled $3500.

We held meetings rather like the "struggle sessions" of the Chinese communist revolution. Did this member really need to continue in a record club, buying a new disc each month? Did that one really need two packs of cigarettes a day? Did another need new nylons every two weeks? Slowly we distinguished “needs” from “wants.” Two more campers, unwilling to suffer the indignity of reducing their lifestyle so as to provide for someone else's basic needs, dropped from the pool.

But the gap closed, and finally assets and needs were equal. I still feel a frisson of emotion as I read my journal record of that event. Wage pool was one of the most tangible exercises in human caring I’ve ever witnessed, and it was accomplished by fairly naive university students. SCM wage pools were both early Christianity at work, and one of the few Canadian instances of successful application of the Marxist doctrine: "From each according to his ability. To each according to his needs."

The treasurer did the necessary bookkeeping. Some campers received almost double what they deposited in the camp account that summer. As one of the best-salaried, I received only half my summer earnings, but I also carried away a lifelong awareness of the essential connection between possession and compassion.

Departure from Bathurst Street camp was not fretful, because I’d been accepted into the Howland House community, even though I would be attending college, not working for a living. I would share a large bedroom with my new camp friend, Bob Van Alstyne. Living in the room next to mine would be the guru and idol of my new life, Robert Miller.

Before I move on to Howland House, here are a few selections from my journal of that remarkable summer of 1955:

August 1. I am in an anxious mood. Man is the loneliest thing on earth. No matter how involved he becomes with friends or a cause, he must always face a consuming loneliness. I seek escape in books, sleep, work, and camp life, yet I must always return to face myself. Belief in God may help my fellow campers escape that lonely self, but it isn’t any use to me.

August 15. On Saturday, Bob, Clark Deller, and I went to a tavern. I had my first beer ever– and a second –and came back to camp rather drunk. Next thing you know I'll be smoking! We had a sparkling conversation about culture. I really depend on these new friends!

August 17. Allan Millard visited the camp last night. We played table tennis and it felt like real personal contact. He reminds me of how reluctant I was to share myself with campers only two months ago. I had to really persuade him to come and to relax and talk while he was here. I do hope our friendship will grow deeper. As I write, Beethoven's violin concerto is playing. Such tenderness – I owe that to Allan.

August 20. I must set out to build a religion of my own. A set of principles about how to live. There is much of Xianity I like – its emphasis on giving the self. Pacifism also attracts me a great deal. I need to know more clearly what I believe. Perhaps the Quakers could help.

August 24, 1955: I have lived 22 years to the day, and not happily, most of those years, yet my life now is good. IF I DIED TODAY and had a few minutes to ponder my life, what would I think? I do not want eternal life; I want a happy life here on Earth, as free from pain as possible. At the end of it I will try to be satisfied and die willingly. [I had not yet heard of Epicurus].

August 25. Yesterday for my birthday Orca took me to lunch, bought me a new shirt, and gave me ten dollars in cash. She is very unhappy that I no longer live with her. She actually said it: she loves me as a son.

It’s the first time she’s ever said it. There’s little I can do in response except to be kind. What sadness! I simply do not feel like a son to her, nor believe that she has been a good mother.

The campers threw a party for my birthday. Dinner was by candlelight, and I drank the first wine of my life, four glasses. Next came skits and dancing. I was thrown fully dressed into the showers. Such moving evidence of their affection is truly awesome. The love I’ve received this summer from a group of people who began as total strangers has surely saved my life.

August 30. (At work) I have neglected to write about my summer job. Office work used to be my favourite kind, but I enjoyed last summer in the liquor store more than this summer. I have so much spare time here that I am getting four or five books read per week, and even typing detailed notes. This office is deadly. The boss is a good guy, but not cultured.

At the store last year, there was at least one guy, Joe, who was good looking, politically informed, and aware of life. He often made our work hilarious, as we shunted about the cases of booze. That was also good exercise, compared to sitting at an office desk.

August 31. My brother David has often followed my lead; it’s no surprise he’s curious about my new family. He has visited the camp frequently and is especially attracted (and attractive) to several of the women.

[Eventually David married an SCM woman. It was perhaps the only success of his short sad life. As for me, it should have been obvious at the time that my intense attachment to men like Bob and Joe was a harbinger of homosexual interest, but that would not become plain for another decade].


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