At Devil’s Lake


Devil’s Lake. Photo by Callen Harty.

A lone canoe bearing two passengers sliced its way through the water. It was early enough in the season that the park, Devil’s Lake, was not overrun by campers. It was inhabited instead by those who felt a need to be there at that time. It was early in a new season of my life also, and that was why I had gone.

We parked the car and immediately started to set up our weekend camp. Brian was an Eagle Scout, so he took command and directed the activities. I had been his guest at the Boy Scout ceremony when he was made an Eagle; he had wanted me to share his pride. All through our lives we had shared our most intimate secrets, our private hopes, our souls.

As he crouched over the fireplace and I sat at a picnic table with pen in hand and a blank notebook before me, I watched him. He was wearing a worn pair of jeans and black sneakers, a red flannel shirt, an old gray sport coat bought at a thrift store in some city I never knew, and a gray hat, with the brim pulled down on the left the way our fathers wore them in the ’40s. His style reminded me of gangsters in late-night movies, but his face belied that image.

There were his eyes, innocent, pure; the few freckles on his youthful face; and the few gray hairs painted onto long black ones that at 22 suggested not age, but the wisdom and understanding that had always been his. I studied that face because as well as I knew it–and the person behind it–I was afraid of losing it that weekend. Slowly, and almost of its own will, my pen touched paper and I finally began to write what I had needed to write for years. I began with a simple, powerful phrase: I am gay.

Brian sat on the ground by the fireplace watching the flames, occasionally interjecting a sudden thought. He sensed that whatever I was writing was important for me to finish. And it was very important. On those pages I unleashed the emotions I had hidden for years. On paper, it had a sense of permanence that I could no longer deny.

After we finished eating dinner, he asked, as I knew he would, what was on the paper. Slowly, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the carefully folded sheets and placed them in his hand. I wanted to ask him to understand, to accept me for the person inside as he had always done. But I could not speak. The words I had written would have to speak for themselves.

I waited patiently for him to finish reading, and when he did, I waited nervously for him to speak. He looked at me, confused, and said only, “I have to go for a walk and think about this.” I watched his familiar form moving away from me: first my recognizable friend, then a human silhouette, and finally a vague form being swallowed by the night.

How long I waited for Brian’s return I do not know. I sat staring into the embers of a dying fire, listening to the sounds of night. I felt alone in the world, with only the stars and the trees and the wind to hear my voice and to dry my tears.

I saw him coming up from the lake. He was walking slowly, but with sure steps. Before I knew it he was standing by the fireplace, leaning down and poking at the logs to rekindle the flame. “I want you to know,” he began, “that I don’t really understand your feelings, but I want to. And whether I do or not, I still love you and want to be your friend.”

After all the years of frustration and self-denial I had finally affirmed myself, and that affirmation had been accepted. We hugged, then sat down and silently watched the fire etch itself into the black night.

This was originally published in Out! newspaper, Wisconsin’s first LGBT newspaper, in May of 1983 (vol. 1, issue 7). It was also published in my book, My Queer Life.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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1 Response to At Devil’s Lake

  1. Sun says:

    Every tone of your coming out story tenderly touches my heart, as does does the spirit of this Holy Lake. Loving you, Sun

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