The Age of Innocence: A Memoir

by Charles Troob


Little children are bundles of energy. Not me. I sat, placid. I had no interest in running around and tired easily. My brain worked overtime, but the message never got out to my body.

Mother didn’t want me to become bookish and weird, and after school she pushed me outside to play. I enjoyed potsy and box ball and the occasional round of tag or blind-man’s-bluff, but the neighborhood boys were into stickball and touch football. I was hopeless at these; my eyes and hands didn’t work together. I was bored and lonely, eager to escape the prison of childhood.

The after-school problem was solved when I was welcomed in the homes of some classmates. Their mothers were glad to have us in the house, playing Monopoly or card games, or just gossiping. We might even go out and throw a ball around. But at school and summer camp there was no getting away from competitive sports, and when we divided up for basketball or softball I felt like a loser. My parents told me to work at it. What did they know? They had strong bodies and magical fingers, which they failed to pass on to me. The summer I was ten my camp promoted a mile swim across the lake. You had to do eighty consecutive laps in the swimming area to qualify. Week after week I pushed myself. I doggedly achieved both goals, but all I got out of it was the grim satisfaction of mission accomplished. I still couldn’t win a swimming race.

Oh, to be an adult, when I wouldn’t be judged by how fast I could run, how far I could throw, how well I could catch. Still, growing up had its own terrors. Would I be drafted? I could never survive Basic Training. Would I learn to drive a car? Would I develop the strength and skill to lift, carry and fix; to be assertive; to protect my wife and children? Would I, could I ever be a real man?


After my bar mitzvah I began a second Jewish rite of passage, a year-long series of visits to the orthodontist. One day, waiting for my braces to be adjusted, I picked up Sports Illustrated and skimmed a feature about Charles Atlas, the patron saint of 95-pound weaklings. I found it mildly interesting and looked for the followup article. This one was about the seamier side of physical culture. It opened with a description of Venice’s Muscle Beach, exotic and creepy, and shifted to the subject of “physique” magazines, pretending to high art but catering to an audience of homosexuals.

What was that? I had to read the paragraph twice. Wasn’t this physique stuff aimed at dumb jocks? Why would florists and hairdressers want to look at photos of scantily clad men? Live and learn, I thought, and filed it mentally with my huge store of trivia.

Live and learn indeed. Just a few weeks later a scantily clad man grabbed my attention– in Life magazine! This was a still from Pillow Talk, a split-screen: Doris Day and Rock Hudson were each in bathtubs, chatting on the phone. Where the images met, her raised left foot “touched” his raised right foot. It was the softest of porn, “racy” but acceptable in 1959. Doris was shrouded in bubbles, but enough of Rock was on display—his long glistening leg, his hairy shoulder and arms—to suggest that he had nothing on, with our view coyly shielded by the tub wall. I suddenly imagined myself indecently exposed as I often was in dreams, and I quivered with embarrassment.

That issue of Life disappeared, but I found other compelling images of nakedness and exposure. In a book of photojournalism, a man walked through rainy Amsterdam wearing only a hat to protest the Nazi takeover. The scene was tragic and gray, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off that bare ass. I was riveted by an LP album cover with muscular marble gods from Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel. (It never occurred to me to take out the record and listen to the Beethoven concerto.)

In a Manhattan subway arcade I spotted a small magazine with a revealing cover photo and the odd name of Grecian Guild Pictorial. This had to be one of those “aesthetic” physique journals I’d read about. I furtively thumbed it: pages of young men in elaborate poses, some in togas, some just wearing a black patch on a string. How self-conscious and silly they looked, and how intently I stared at them. The faces and bodies didn’t interest me much. My eye was held by the private areas, the butt and the barely covered crotch. Each time I went into the city I’d check out this newsstand on my way home. Then I came upon a string of second-hand magazine shops on Sixth Avenue where I could linger for an hour and sample more widely.

At Forest Hills High School I became aware of hall marshals and gym teachers with beefy builds and glowering faces. Their menacing aura aroused me as I slinked by them. And the next summer there was a new waterfront director at camp, more fullback in build than swimmer. He strutted in tight bulging trunks, a whistle dangling on his massive chest. I got up the nerve to check out the clothesline next to his bunk. His damp jockstrap was there, just as I had hoped. (Did I touch it? I don’t remember.) Then a few days later I was chatting with a counselor as he dried off from the shower. Unexpectedly he dropped the towel and lit up a cigarette. In one continuous motion—he was the fencing coach, and very graceful—he stretched out on his cot, long and lean, every inch on display. It was hard to keep up my end of the conversation.


I was fourteen, just dimly aware of the stirrings in my groin, with little conception of sexual desire. My older brother happened to ask one day, “When you like a girl, don’t you want to get close to her and touch her all over?” “No,” I said, a little puzzled. This seemed to be the wrong answer, and it got me thinking. Maybe this new fascination with the exposed male body was a sign of homosexuality, as the Sports Illustrated article implied. But the bare breasts in Playboy also got me worked up, if not quite as much. Besides, I wasn’t effeminate in dress or tastes or behavior, or particularly interested in the arts. I liked some girls a lot, even if I didn’t want to squeeze them, and I had never had anything like a crush on a boy or a man. I had rushed to see Pillow Talk, but it didn’t make me a Rock Hudson fan.

In that era one heard about “adolescent homosexuality,” a transitional period of same-sex exploration, endemic in boarding schools. Maybe that was it. I might be entering a phase, one that I would outgrow with my baby fat. How could I learn more about this “phase”?

My parents had given me a talk a year or two earlier, after they heard me refer to someone as a “fairy.” They told me not to use that offensive word. All sorts of men and women were attracted to others of the same sex, including a number of famous people. Legendary friendships–David and Jonathan, Damon and Pythias–were probably homosexual pairs.

Still, open-mindedness is one thing, full acceptance quite another. If a homosexual person ever visited us I was not aware of it. Mother chatted fondly about her hairdresser Jackie, who trusted her enough to introduce her to his “boyfriend” Mike. Dad worked with classical musicians, some of whom were homosexual or bisexual. But in their circle of friends nearly everyone was Jewish and a parent and still married to their first spouse. And they took for granted that their three sons would end up just like them. So bringing my questions to Mother or Dad was unthinkable. There would be a melodramatic response and an all-consuming search for a “cure.” Life as I knew it would come to an end. As for my schoolmates, we never talked about sex, or anything close to it. Besides, I never confided in them. Any real secrets stayed within the family.

Needless to say, there wasn’t much information on the subject in the local public library. But Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis was conveniently on our bookshelf, studded with fascinating material. Unfortunately it didn’t speak to my particular question. I wasn’t much interested in what homosexuals did, just whether I’d become one, and Krafft-Ebbing was not a developmental psychologist. So his gory detail about perversions just whizzed by me. Only one item made a strong impression: an account of a man who put a handkerchief in his axilla (his armpit), and used it to wipe the face of women he wanted to seduce.

In retrospect, an interest in the aphrodisiac properties of the male armpit was not a good sign.


My last two years of high school were golden. I excelled in all my honors classes, and my classmates began to treat me like a star. My family had moved from a cramped apartment into a sturdy brick house, where every room was bright and comfortable. Now that we had plenty of space, my mother welcomed my friends. She shmoozed with them and kept plenty of food and drinks around. Only a few blocks from the high school, the house became a gathering place and I a gregarious host. The shy little boy was long gone.

Senior year was a victory lap. First in my class, admitted to Harvard, I was voted “Most Likely To Succeed,” which amused me, since I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I spent a lot of time with a girl I’d known for many years. She sang, played the guitar and cello, wrote poetry, planned to be a medical researcher. I was taken with her spirit and her brain, and at the end of the year we had one formal date–with a few polite kisses–before she went off for the summer to dissect mice and rabbits in Maine.

My body was changing. I was already a few inches taller: I was losing my baby fat. Perhaps my quirk would recede. I was still only sixteen—sex with a woman was years away. With any luck, when that time came I would be able to perform. And if worst came to worst, I could always go to a therapist… Why worry about it?


What was I trying not to worry about?

To me there was nothing “wrong” about two men having sex with each other. It seemed odd-the bodies weren’t built to fit-but how could a harmless physical act be immoral? Still, to perform the dirty deed—and get caught at it—was taboo, scandalous, dangerous. If this were my fate, I faced a life of secrecy and deception. My grandparents could never be told. My parents would feel it as a blow to the gut. And what would happen to the adoring children and wife and friends—the only future I wanted? Many homosexuals did get married, I knew. But how did you do that? Did you “cheat” or did your wife know what was going on? Who made the rules? Why would any sensible woman agree? In Europe, it was rumored, mistresses and lovers were common—but even if that were true, we were in the U. S. A.

I couldn’t envision a love affair with a man, much less a life with one. Men just didn’t evoke those kinds of feelings in me. I’d never had an intense and trusting friendship-the chemistry was never there. Besides, the boys and men I admired weren’t the ones that attracted and confused me, it was the he-men with their broad shoulders and meaty biceps. I didn’t want to get to know them better, I just wanted them to—what? Smile at me? Tell me I was man enough for them? I couldn’t connect the dots and give a shape to my obsession. It was troubling and arousing to be near someone who oozed virility; anything more, anything else was counterintuitive. I had no conscious desire to be embraced by a man, and certainly no interest in getting to second or third base. What did you put where, and why? (Later on, when I overcame my terror of being found out and had my first physical encounters, I had to be shown what to do, like being taught to smoke a joint.)

How could my happy world-my enviable future-be turned upside down by something so nebulous?  Was it really possible that I would become a confirmed bachelor who hadn’t met the right girl? How lonely and pathetic! I crossed my fingers and put it out of mind as much as I could.


I was stranded in a place where such awesome questions could hardly be asked, much less answered. So I kept my own counsel and embraced each day’s challenges. What I didn’t know was that the crisis, when it came, as it inevitably did, would make me into a man.


Charles Troob wrote an early version of this piece for the Art of Writing study group. Thanks, IRP, for your encouragement and advice.