Swimming in the warm waters of Knowles family approbation was comforting indeed.  As loving and as good providers as my own mother, father, and older sister were and continued to be, we all took each other for granted within our own family, which I suppose is the norm.  When we know each others’ warts and all, it isn’t easy to see past the routine and into what makes each of us special–at least, that wasn’t in the dynamic of our family.  Welcomed into this new family as a virtual member, I developed separate relationships with all three:  Jim, Mrs. Knowles, and Dave.

When Jim got back to Atlanta from the visit during which we met, he began a correspondence with me that continued more or less unabated for the next thirty years.   Jim Knowles prodded my intellectual development, asking me probing questions and telling stories about his man-about-town life in Atlanta with great humor and style.  At the same time, I never felt as though I was being taken under his wing.  He assumed he had found an intellectual soul-mate in me and used me as a sounding board for ideas he’d never shared with anyone else.  I was immensely flattered and rose to the challenge, reacting to his musings with those of my own, discovering attractive alternative ways of thinking about some big life questions that I had never considered.  Jim’s influence on the development of my mind and of my own self-awareness is immeasurable.  He started in me a love of long and probing conversations that has never abated and remain special in my experience because they are so rare.  He also spoiled me forever as a correspondent.  The advent of email has made no difference to me:  to this day, I treat mail that  is sent in an envelope with a postage stamp and email as though they were exactly the same thing.  No matter the form, there is always the promise of rich communication.  If I make a new friend via email there is always the hope that the correspondence will reach the heights it did between Jim Knowles and me.  I’m always disappointed, because others see email as a mere tool of convenience, but my expectations never die.  I have this gold standard which I know must be attainable again.

Mrs. Knowles, for her part, established her own relationship with me, also via letters and the occasional phone call.  She was overjoyed that her younger son had fallen in with the paragon of…well, I don’t know what, exactly, but it was good….she took me for and subtly put me in charge of Dave’s social development.  She wanted to make sure I would look after him and keep him on the right path.  The big question in the Knowles family at the time was whether or not Dave would join a fraternity.  The University of Kentucky, with its southern traditions and the free-flowing liquor that permeated the local culture, had a reputation as a party school.  The family sense was that Dave was walking a fine line between a responsible young adulthood and a debauched one and could fall either way.  I was just the straight arrow to keep him out of harm’s way.

Of course, the irony of all this faith in me and the subsequent responsibility is that this paragon of virtue, this straight arrow, was falling obsessively in love with Dave Knowles.  What I knew about myself and did not share with any of the Knowlses was that I was a churning, needy mess inside.  They assumed my avoidance of the party culture was based on principle; the truth was that I was hopelessly inept in that kind of social atmosphere and had an absolutely atavistic fear of those super-straight, hormone-driven boys; the fear being  that I’d be unmasked as…”not masculine.”  That’s all I called it.  There was definitely a sexual element to my attraction to Dave, but to myself I never categorized my feelings for him, emotional or physical, as anything at all.  I just knew I needed to be with him.  All the time.  We ended up rooming together in an off-campus house for a semester, and for that time we were inseparable.  Dave didn’t date much–he never had much self-confidence along those lines, although he did come home with stories about girls he’ d see around campus who interested him.  I tried to match him because that was the thing to do, and once or twice we double-dated, or I’d go out with a girl, and he would, and we’d come back to our room and compare notes.  I hasten to stipulate that nothing ever “happened,” either with the girls or between Dave and me.  If he’d given me the slightest indication of physical interest I’d have jumped head-first into that stream, but he never did.  And even if  he had,  I know I’d never have given the resulting relationship a name.  I had no notion of “gay,” and the word “queer” and the ugly images it conjured had no resonance with me at all.  As far as I was concerned, Dave and I were just “special friends,” in the great suppressed homoerotic English schoolboy tradition.  To borrow from Talullah Bankhead, I was as pure as the driven slush in my intentions.  I happily took on the job of trying to convince Dave that fraternity life was not for him.  As long as he stayed out of the frat house, he was with me in the rooming house, and that was the extent of my concern.   I hypocritically waved that banner was Mrs. Knowles had put in my hand.  “Straight and narrow.”

But nature must out.  In spite of my high-minded efforts and the dearest hopes of his mother, Dave became a “Greek.”  His move the next semester into the fraternity house spelled the end of our sojourn, and I set off on my own.  I visited him frequently in the house but the closeness we’d had was gone.  I stayed in occasional and loving contact with Mrs. Knowles, and Jim’s and my intense correspondence continued unabated.  In 1966, he told me he was thinking about joining the Peace Corps.  I was 20.