OYSTERS AT THE FAMILY FARM by Jo Unruh

Woodside, California. An old redwood grove. An intimate outdoor dining hall, and adjoining amphitheater. An ivy-filled ravine. A series of cabins scattered about, in no particular pattern. The cabins hang above the ravine, wrapped in big wooden decks, looking like treehouses. Zigzagging footbridges span the abyss, connecting mossy, intertwining pathways between cabins. At twilight, kerosene lanterns hang from rust colored poles, and bright yellow haze fades to gentle blue mist. Men gather in circles behind curtains of cigar smoke, networking. The old say to the young: the world is your oyster. And when the old men speak these words, they are sincere, because the world has been delivered unto them, and the world is now theirs to bestow.  

Woodside, California. It’s mid-October, the time of year in Northern California when, in a single period of dusk, Mother Earth forgivingly sheds an increasingly late summer, and embraces autumn. The only downside is that it’s hard to decide whether or not to bring a jacket. 

Woodside, California. Not far from Stanford University, a destination of my childhood dreams. An institute I drive by, on the way to Woodside, and wonder, what-if? 

Woodside, California. Not far from the house belonging to my godfather and his dog Buck. My stubborn godfather, a man who grew up in a one-room cabin in the Yukon Territory. My strong-willed godfather, who believes it is not only his right, but his duty, to drive with a loaded pistol under the front seat of his V-12 Mercedes-Benz. My perfectly tailored-suit, corporate godfather, whose decades-long mentorship of my dad followed a script I too was meant to oblige. My loyal godfather, who brought his mistress Lilly on our family trips to Switzerland when I was little. Lilly, who my parents told me was my godfather’s very special friend, though this did not stop 7-year-old me from wondering where my godfather’s still-very-much-alive wife was. 

Woodside, California. An old redwood grove in mid-October, not far from Stanford University, and the house belonging to my godfather and his dog Buck. I decided to take a jacket. This would be my second time visiting The Family Farm, and my second time staying the weekend in one of The Farm’s many cabins. Specifically, the cabin belonging to the Lost Boys of Camp 919, my father’s troop, his camp. One of twenty or so peculiarly named, randomly numbered subgroups made up of children: members of the private, San Francisco based, booze-laden gentlemen’s social club, The Family. A club whose members do not merely work for multinational corporations, for the government, the military, or in tech.  A club whose members run multinational corporations, the government, the military, and tech. Should I be deemed worthy enough of official indoctrination into this fraternity, it would be my second of many other times visiting The Family Farm. Worthy enoughmanly enoughto become a real Lost Boy, not just a visiting, honorary one. The world was my oyster. It said so in my script. 

***

My first time visiting The Family Farm, I smoked all the cigars handed to me.  

It was October 2010. I was 23 and stationed in Monterey, my first duty station after graduating from Annapolis, just barely over a year into my time as a naval officer. It would be another two years before I commanded my first Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Platoon, and went on my first deployment overseas. It would be another five and a half years before my dad got sober. 

I felt bad about myself when the Lost Boys and members of other troops in The Family told me they were proud of me for my service, and for doing God’s work–whatever that horrible assumption is supposed to mean. It was around the same time that my two best friends were prepping for their first pumps to Afghanistan. Before we all knew what that even meant, and how it would change them. Meanwhile, the names of deceased young men, most of whom had perished in the line of duty, were frequently added to the EOD Memorial Wall in Eglin Air Force Base, all the way across the nation I was currently serving.

So, on this first visit to The Farm, I tried to forget the shame I felt for not having yet gone to war, for not having yet proven myself. I tried to hide. 

At notoriously-strong-martini hour, hosted by another one of The Family’s troopscall them the “Geezers of Camp 613”I had two martinis, against my dad’s advice. My dad never had two, even as experienced a drinker as he was. He told me I was lucky, because, even after more drinking, I did not stumble into the ravine while walking about The Farm’s cabins, along its bridges, and mossy, lantern lit pathways. Family members and their guests had historically fallen  victim to the ravine after martini hour. A congressional senator once spent the night in the ravine, I was told, though representing which state I do not know. 

In the Lost Boy’s cabin, I slept on the bunk above my dad’s. My dad’s incessant snoring didn’t wake me up. Something about it not being so bad if he only drank white instead of red. 

At breakfast the next morning, I killed the previous night’s martinis with beers and brats, followed by Scotch whisky bottled from a barrel with Rhino’s name written on it, at a distillery in the Scottish Highlands. Rhino was my dad’s best friend, one of the Lost Boys. My dad brought him into The Family. Sponsored him. 

Long before becoming a member of The Family, Rhino flew F4s in ‘Nam. Rhino rode on Challenger and Discovery. Rhino orbited the earth over 200 times. Rhino spent hours of his life hovering outside of a space shuttle, in space. I know these things, because when I was little, Rhino would come over and show me slideshows, pictures of himself, with our planet in the background. 

My dad would watch the slideshows too. He would marvel at Rhino’s pictures, and without words, would charge me with my male duty to pass along the family name. Words that always found their way to me, verbalized or not, formally scripted or not. Words that became part of my oyster.  

Rhino was the reason I had given up dreams of Stanford, and instead set my gaze on the Naval Academy. On my first visit to The Farm, I hid from Rhino, behind dirty martinis and his own Scotch. 

***

My second visit to The Farm was in October 2016. Driving from my childhood home in the East Bay, my dad and I picked up my godfather en route to Woodside, passing by Stanford along the way. My godfather was now too old, and in too poor of health to stay overnight at The Farm, and so, he would only stay with us through lunch. This wasn’t a problem, though, because my dad was six months sober, and would drive my godfather back home–back to Buck–before returning to The Farm to resume the weekend’s festivities, non-alcoholic beer in hand. 

I knew my dad was exactly six months sober as of this weekend, because on our way to my godfather’s house, he called his only sibling, his brother Burt, on speakerphone, to tell him about the milestones he had recently hit in AA. Something about 12 steps. I don’t know why he felt the need to do this with me in the car. Probably because I never called my uncle. Or because I never asked my dad about AA. In the same phone call, Uncle Burt, who had earned ultra-sponsor status in the world of recovering alcoholics, declared he was 24 years sober. 

I had recently turned 29, so I did the math, and figured my uncle sobered up when I was five, give or take a few relapses. My dad sobered up when I was 28 and a half. Twenty-four years divided by 12 steps is two years per step, but I wasn’t sure it worked that way. Even if it did, the outcome of my irrational equations remained the same: my dad had drunk his way through my upbringing.   

Before saying goodbye, my uncle took the opportunity to remind me–and his little brother, I suppose–that it was a good thing I now had a son, since, because of my son, I was no longer the last male left in the line, who could pass along the family name. I never had a conversation with my uncle wherein our family’s lineage did not hinge on my male birth assignment. Uncle Burt had only daughters, my three cousins, all much older than me. They grew up near Grand Forks, North Dakota, not far from where my great grandfather opened North Dakota’s first Ford Motor Company dealership. Family lineage has been terribly important since that dealership opened. My one cousin, Maggie, who got out of North Dakota before age 20, became a rocket scientist, with degrees from Stanford University. When I was little, we’d go to Maggie’s track and field meets and, watching her, I wanted to go to Stanford someday, too. I wanted to be a Stanford athlete. Decades later, not long after meeting my son, Maggie died of alcoholic hepatitis. Uncle Burt’s other kids, my other two cousins: they‘ve danced with similar fates to Maggie’s, only somehow–fortunately–avoiding a similar ending. As if in defiance of their genealogy. And still, I’ve never had a conversation with my uncle where our family’s lineage did not hinge on my male birth assignment.

As of this drive to the Family Farm, my assigned-male-at-birth son was four months old.  I wondered how old he would be, when his grandfather or great uncle would charge him with his duty, to pass along the family name. 

I wondered how old my son would be, when I got sober.

***

At the time of this second visit, I was on terminal leave from active duty, my body and brain more intact than the rest of my brothers from the EOD community. I knew this, not just because I could seemingly stand to be around civilians without bursting into fits of anger or extreme sadness, or because I still had all my limbs and eyesight, but because we all compared our VA disability ratings like fantasy football stats. 

Intact as I was, I was choosing between multiple job offers I thought I deserved, because the decision-making men in my life kept telling me I did. I left my sleep-deprived wife at home in Encinitas with our baby, assigned-male-at-birth son for the weekend. Justified, because my dad said it might be a good opportunity to network, to get some solid career advice before choosing my career outside of the Navy. Advice from men like my godfather, and Rhino. My dad had failed to mention the chance to call Uncle Burt on the way there, though. 

By the time my dad, godfather, and I pulled into The Farm’s dirt parking lot on Friday afternoon, filled with exotic but subdued-colored Italian marques and luxury SUVs, the grove had a strong haze drifting over the cabins. I couldn’t tell if it was from the sun illuminating the dust amongst the redwoods, or from the cigar smoke rising like signals from the various troops’ decks. The Lost Boys were skipping lunch in the outdoor dining hall, and instead were cooking up abalone steaks, beat flat with a hammer, and extra spicy Italian sausage, hand stuffed by Franco, a large Italian man with a moustache who sells insurance, and who is quick to ensure consumers that his sausages will be as spicy on the way out as they are on the way in. 

Out on the Lost Boy’s deck, there was an unfamiliar face, a new indoctrination into the troop, part of The Family’s newest Baby Class. I had met the rest of the Lost Boys at one point or another, outside of The Farm, at stuffy Christmas gatherings and weddings. The new face belonged to Devi, younger than the rest. My dad whispered to me that, despite his age–mid-30s, at the most–Devi no longer worked, since he had been on the ground floor of a prominent social media company, and didn’t need to work, if he didn’t want to.  

My godfather was absorbed into the group while my dad and I briefly said hello and stashed our things inside the Lost Boys’ cabin. When we returned to the circle of Lost Boys sitting on the cabin’s back deck, Devi passed around a vape pen to the older guys, to accompany their red wine and Manhattans, and told tales of the trouble his son was getting into in school. Franco’s spicy sausages singed on the barbecue. 

“He’s a little fucker, I’m telling you!” Devi declared about his 7-year-old, as everyone laughed encouraging laughs and told Devi he must be doing something right. 

When we finally met, over a beer after lunch, inebriation did not stop Devi from sermonizing at me on which job offer to take. Or on how to parent. I had a hard time not focusing on the extra skin under his chin, like he had recently lost loads of weight. The other Lost Boys made sure I had ample time with Devi. Because Devi would deliver me to salvation.   

Networking.

“Listen to your father, soldier. He’s a smart man,” my godfather told me before my dad took him home, to Buck. The Lost Boys all stood to shake hands and bow when my godfather was leaving, as if he was their godfather, too. 

Networking. 

Later, at notoriously-strong-martini hour, I only had one martini this time, not exactly by choice, but mostly because a gold-cross wearing guy on the board of directors at Raytheon or Lockheed or who the fuck knows was unloading on me about the necessity that I enter defense contracting. “It’s a gold mine,” he said, and, “there’s lots of money to be made there for someone like you,” and, “here, take my business card and call me.”  I nodded in agreement when he said I should most definitely stay in the Navy Reserve, and while I don’t know whether my nodding was just because of the martini, I did stay in the reserves. After all, he was an admiral in the Navy Reserve, and was only on his third wife, he joked.  

Networking.

Similar conversations ensued, with other tech guys, lawyers, venture capitalists, war mongers. And one fighter-pilot-astronaut, Rhino, who had a hard time understanding why I was leaving active duty. Perhaps because the Navy hadn’t fully sucked me dry, yet, so he thought my departure was too soon. It’s not a career Rhino cut short, after all. 

Networking. 

My dad looked on, attempting to watch me nonchalantly, with his sober eyes, from a sober distance. I was not used to him watching me, to him paying me so much mind, sober or otherwise. Assessing me, perhaps, to see if I would make the right moves, if I would be deemed worthy of being in the next year’s Baby Class. Determining whether he would sponsor me through my indoctrination into The Family. 

Networking. Networking. Networking. 

Unlike my first visit to The Farm, instead of thanking me for my service and for doing God’s work, The Family members repeatedly told me: the world is your oyster. I had gone and done God’s work, in their eyes, and now, if I played my cards right–and with just the right amount of cigar smoke and liquor–these men would deliver me the world.  

Networking. The keys to the world. To the oyster. My oyster. 

In the Lost Boy’s cabin, I again slept on the bunk above my dad’s, as I had done six years before. Only this time, my dad’s incessant snoring kept me awake. 

At breakfast the next morning, I drank strong, Scotch-free coffee and told my dad I would like to leave, making up that I would rather spend the rest of the weekend watching Navy football with him on his couch, and that I needed to get some real sleep before returning to my wife and baby. 

My dad delivered the news of our truncated weekend to the Lost Boys, with heavy emphasis on the Navy football part. Something about it being a big conference game for Navy against Memphis today, especially after their loss to Air Force, you know how it is. “Oh yeah! Better get home to watch your boys turn loose,” and, “It sure won’t be easy, those boys from Memphis are big. BIG, and mean,” the Lost Boys said in return. Standing at the edge of the deck, I nodded, perfunctorily acknowledging the generic, mindless things men explain to one another about college football. As if their words actually mattered beyond noise, simply because they were men, and were saying them. 

When we got back to my childhood home, my mom questioned our early return, but seemed satisfied with my dad’s report on the weekend’s festivities, which included the number of business cards I had collected, networking. I made myself a grilled cheese and answered my mom’s questions with a dull, defeated, raspy voice she probably assumed was caused by a hangover. She beamed when I told her about Devi, and the wealthy defense contractor who was also an admiral in the reserves. About all the men who were going to help me find my way in the world. She beamed in a way I hadn’t seen her beam since the day of my graduation from Annapolis; even more than she had when I met other milestones in the script born unto me and continually presented before me, without much searching on my part. 

I slept through most of the Navy football game, wedged into the crook of the couch, my family’s withering, 16-year-old beagle Lucy nestled warmly in my arms. A slumber my parents probably assumed was caused by a hangover.

***

I have not made a third visit to the old redwood grove, not far from Stanford University, and the house belonging to my godfather and his dog Buck. Not in mid-October, or any other time. 

Nor will I ever. 

Nor will my dad ever sponsor me. 

I am not allowed at The Family Farm any longer. 

I can no longer access The Family’s network. 

Sponsor-less, I started transitioning genders when I was 31, the same year I transitioned out of the Navy Reserve, out of the military for good. My existence had been deemed a burden to the military by the Twitterer-in-Chief. Roadblocks were erected. One of the things my dad kept repeating when I came out to him, and explained what my transition meant–one, two, three, at least four times–was, “you’ll be giving up a lot.” The implication being that the world would no longer be my oyster. 

And the last time I had a conversation with Uncle Burt, coincidently the same month I officially started hormone replacement therapy, he again reminded me how fortunate I was to have a son, since I was now no longer the last male left in the line, who could pass along the family name.

I have not spoken to my godfather, or to Rhino, since starting my transition. I am no longer afraid of what they might say. I just haven’t found the right words yet. 

Sponsor-less, I stopped drinking when I was 32. When my calm, sweet, assigned-male-at-birth son was nearing four, and my wild, does whatever-the-fuck-she-wants, assigned-female-at-birth daughter was one. 

Sponsor-less, now at 33, my assigned-male-at-birth son self-identifies as a “boy,” as much as a near 5-year-old can, and recognizes daddy as a “girl.” My assigned-female-at-birth daughter still doesn’t see gender: she’s not old enough to ponder this adult-constructed problem yet, I don’t think. But if I had to make a guess, I’d say she will someday self-identify as a “nasty woman,” like her mama. It would be OK if she didn’t, but one can dream. Oh, one can dream. 

Networking. 

I squeeze both my children tight. Same with their mama, my Bear. Before my kids, Bear was the only person I hugged without balled fists. Her observation, not mine. 

We pile onto the couch with our black lab for big family hugs. 

My real family is my sponsor. 

Love is my sponsor. 

The world is my oyster.


jo unruh is a queer writer from the SF Bay Area. She is pursuing her MFA at Saint Mary's College, and is also a Tillman Scholar. Her work has appeared in Lambda Literary Review, and she has publications forthcoming in The Rumpus and elsewhere.

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