“With my knitting, with my community, it’s like I’m finally living in Technicolor. Or 3-D,” John Crane said, laying his knitting needles on his lap. We were sitting on the porch of his West Hartford, Vermont home. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of his life’s newfound color. He’d told me such nearly each time we’ve met. I’d heard it first in a café the day we met. He’d told me the same a few days later, driving back from the Comstock House in Plainfield. “I spent through age forty trying to live as a heterosexual,” he’d said. “I had a great life, but after coming out, it really was like moving from black and white to living in color.”
The Comstock House is a bed and breakfast owned and operated by John’s friends Ross and Warren. We’d gone for a meeting they call “Men Who Knit with Warren.” Warren is insistently not a knitter, but he is a gracious and accommodating host, and when John once suggested a trip to Iceland to find some plötulopi—unspun Icelandic wool—Warren had been enthusiastic. “It would be a knitting trip,” Ross had teased.
“For Iceland, I can make a dishrag,” Warren had said.
That afternoon on his porch, John was barefoot, wearing faded jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt. He is quick to smile and nod, so full of assent that he can’t help the murmurs of “mmm” and “yes” that bubble out of him. His bright blue eyes shine. He has a white pelt of a beard, full and bristly, and a thin head of hair. His two yellow labs lay at our feet. Rosie, the smaller one, was snapping at flies. She looked surprised when she caught one. We were there with another of John’s knitter friends, Jeff. Jeff had just moved to the Upper Valley in March. Jeff was about a decade younger than John. Fifty-eight or fifty-nine. “He looks really good,” John had prefaced. “I think as a nurse anesthetist he’s friends with some plastic surgeons and he’s had a lot of nip and tucks. And he’s a serious swimmer. He’s in really good shape.” Jeff has cropped, thinning brown hair and a long face. His eyes are prone to rolling at nearly any comment; his default mode is skeptical. He’s fit, certainly, but not overly so. He wore a t-shirt with a picture of a cowboy’s face tucked into his cargo pants and socks that he had knitted from John’s yarn, verigated rings of browns and greens spiraling his feet. When John went inside to feed the dogs, Jeff leaned towards me. “They are really ugly,” he said. “Look at this shirt, it’s the only thing I can wear with them.” He rolled his eyes and blew air through his nose. Then he got serious. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Have at it,” I said.
“Why do you throw?” I looked around, searching for a clue. He couldn’t be talking about sports. Was it a euphemism? Was he really assuming something about my preferred sexual logistics or has my time on Grindr simply conditioned me to expect that? I spluttered. He smiled and rolled his eyes.
“You throw,” he said, referring to the knitting in my lap. I realized he was talking about how I hold my wool; opposite the needle making the stitch, not next to it as he was doing.
“I have no idea,” I said. “I’ve always done it this way.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “John throws, too.” I still felt like he might be talking about sex.
That porch is John’s favorite place in the world. If life is a week, John is living his Friday night. As a boy on his family’s farm outside of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, he used to await the delivery of his mother’s Home & Garden magazine. He would pore over articles on garment design, sewing, fiber arts, cooking, and decoration. Finally, he gets to live it. He started knitting a decade ago. Now he designs knitting patterns for yarn companies. He watched me look them over, waiting for me to get to one in particular. It’s called “The Willy Warmer,” his first design. I’d seen such a garments before; men at my knitting group in Denver were always tossing these patterns around. The Willy Warmer is a knitted penis cozy that, if constructed properly, requires no ties or straps to stay on. It features a ribbed knit on the shaft to allow for expansion. “I made them for all my friends,” said John.
John and his husband David split time between their homes in West Hartford, Vermont and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Last year, John sold the printmaking studio he owned in Provincetown. He knits exclusively now. He’s become one of the characters that populate P-town, the old guy who knits all day long. In addition to Men Who Knit with Warren, he organizes “P-Town Summer Knitting Camp,” and he and Jeff are also long-time attendees of the gay knitter’s version of Christmas: a weekend men’s knitting retreat in upstate New York. That is, it’s organized to be a weekend—Thursday evening through Sunday morning—but they head up a full three days early on Monday to begin knitting.
The event is held at Easton Mountain Retreat Center in Greenwich, New York, the online calendar of which reads like the table of contents for a book on becoming a gay superhero at age fifty. “8th Annual Gay Shaman’s Retreat.” “Personal Training for the Body and Soul.” “Kink Odyssey.” “Gay Freedom Camp.” Easton is a converted ski lodge with no locks on any doors and mismatched, threadbare sheets that have obviously seen some use. The hexagonal sauna is a favorite place to relax and the hot rocks have a fence built around them because the man who donated money for it liked giving blowjobs to those seated on the benches and wanted to be sure not to burn his ass on the stove. That’s not why John goes. For him, the joy is in sharing work with other men. The community of knitters.
* * *
Being with John at times seems like looking into at my own potential future. We are both gay sons of Dartmouth. We both enjoy winter afternoons at the Dartmouth Skiway. And we both knit. The difference is that it has taken me twenty-one years to arrive where I am while it has taken him sixty-seven. If he’s at the Friday of his life, it has been a long week. He enrolled at Dartmouth with a scholarship in the fall of 1965. His family was poor; he estimates that they spent no more than a few hundred dollars on his four years at college. “It was the most important catalyst in my life to leading an interested and engaged, world-based life. That said it wasn’t easy.” He couldn’t afford a fraternity, so he chose instead Aquinas House, an insular campus Catholic community. He went to mass every afternoon. By senior year, he was president of the organization. He was also “a closeted gay kid,” he said. “Dartmouth was all male at the time. So it was in some ways incredibly homoerotic because there was all this free-floating sexual energy around.” He fought his impulses every day. The vice president of Aquinas house, who was also a quarterback, induced such shaking in John’s knees that John would be forced to sit down whenever he entered the room. John worked at the circulation desk in the library; when this crush of his would check out a book, John says he would lean on the desk to keep himself from collapsing.
After college, John married his best friend, Katie. A decade after graduation, he returned to Dartmouth to work in the Baker-Berry Library. I asked if he regretted this marriage. “In some ways I have regrets that it happened, but those were very good years and I had a very good relationship. And frankly for a lot of us it meant that we didn’t die of AIDS. It was at an era when people didn’t know. A lot of us lost a lot of friends and that would have included many of us. I was not sexually active outside the marriage and had I been, I would have been ripe for contracting HIV.” His husband, too, says the closet saved his life. My question about regrets suddenly seemed crude; it’s never as simple as that.
* * *
We were at a co-op grocery store in Putney, Vermont, on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in May. The trees on our drive down seemed infinite in their fecundity, the whole world alight with warm spring breath. At the co-op we ordered sandwiches from a deli clerk busy doing something steam-related with an espresso machine. “He’s cute,” John said, a little too loudly. The clerk asked for a name for our order. “Jared,” John said with a funny smile. At our table he said, “I always say Jared. No men my age are named Jared. But they”—the baristas and servers—“never say anything.” I didn’t think John particularly wanted the guy behind the counter to say anything. It was just another game John plays, claiming to be a person he couldn’t possibly be and half-hoping someone might challenge him so he could prove them right.
John wanted to tell me how he lost his religion. It wasn’t a story I’d asked about; I didn’t realize that leaving his faith was another kind of coming out. I hadn’t considered it primarily because I’d assumed that John was never really Catholic; I’d assumed it was simply a community that had isolated and bearded him well. But saying John hadn’t really been Catholic is like saying he hadn’t loved the woman he’d married: at one time, it was the only truth he knew. In the course of life, however, he found falsity in each and confronted it, in doing so becoming something less contrived. At the time, though, he believed absolutely. Doubts were dangerous; they could have shattered everything.
Following Dartmouth, many of his friends were drafted to Vietnam. John applied for Naval Officer Candidate School in Rhode Island. Upon graduation, he served as an ensign on a ship whose homeport was Norfolk, Virginia. It deployed in the winter of 1971 to the Mediterranean. That Christmas, he and a friend managed to get tickets to the Christmas Eve Mass at the Sistine Chapel. He doesn’t remember how they got them. He sat on the aisle, next to the Pope’s science advisor, who leaned toward John throughout, whispering gossip. The chapel was alive with activity, cardinals and priests finding their seats, the whole thing lit unnaturally by Italian TV crews. It was surely the religious pinnacle of many attendees’ lives; nuns from across Europe, breathless and awestruck visitors crowded into every available nook and cranny. The mass was in Latin. He let it wash over him, the great fanfare of faith at the center of the Catholic world. At the end of the mass John worked his way towards a side exit. He spent the next half hour wandering the quiet, cold hallways of the Papal Palace, opening some doors, finding others locked, and walking past still more without trying the handle. He was backstage. All the pomp and circumstance suddenly felt more like glitz and glamor; it wasn’t religion, not in the way he knew it. It was a show. When he walked out a side entrance into the dark of early Christmas morning, he was no longer a Catholic.
Nevertheless, he went back the next day for the Christmas morning service in St. Peter’s Basilica. He and his friend already had tickets. Just because he’d lost his religion didn’t mean he would lose his seat. The morning’s service was even more animated than the Christmas Eve Mass. He sat behind a group of nuns. “These nuns were literally jumping up and down in orgasm,” he said. I wondered at his use of the word “literally.” He insisted. Behind them stood Bernini’s statue The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. The saint, sculpted from white marble, is stuck with arrows, collapsing, her face fixed eternally in a strange exultation, pleasure and pain. Before him, the nuns leapt and moaned, giving voice to stone. Morning light shone through alabaster.
At the end of the service, John stayed with the crowd but soon found himself pressed to the front. He had no idea where he was going. The doors looked heavy and immovable. The crowd pressed up behind him. Steps away from the door, he was deciding whether to escape, push, or pursue some other half-formed plan when the enormous doors swung silently open. He looked out at St. Peter’s Square, filled with worshipers. They erupted with applause. I imagine John, wide-eyed, attempting a kind of confused half-wave before realizing the crowd was greeting the Pope who had at the same moment stepped onto his balcony a story above him. It was exactly what a coming out ought to be.
After lunch at the co-op, John took me to a church of his new religion, knitting. The Green Mountain Spinnery is a kind of legend among the yarn-obsessed. It’s the only mill in the United States that can make certified organic wool. It does so on vintage, rumbling equipment, almost none of which is younger than half a century. The oldest piece was manufactured in 1896. It’s a washing machine, a giant tub with a cylindrical barrel inside that uses centrifugal force to rinse the fiber. The washer came from Andrews Inn, a since-shuttered gay bar and hotel in Bellows Falls, Vermont, that was operated by Tom Herman, a member of the Dartmouth class of 1969. John and Tom lived in New Hampshire dorm together at school but John avoided Tom. Tom was brash and proto-gay, not out but exactly denying anything. John was intimidated. “The architecture of the closet is pretty fucked,” John said. When Andrews Inn closed, the Spinnery inherited its washer. To John and me, that seems rather perfect.
John had explained the process of making wool to me earlier that day in the sunny study of his West Hartford home. In the corner of the room sat three spinning wheels of varying size. Bags of fleece were stuffed under the table. He had just purchased a new picker and drum carder and was beaming at the beautiful wooden pieces that sat atop the table. With these new toys he could turn a sheep’s fleece into a knit garment almost all from within his home. “Almost” because he would still have to outsource the cleaning and sorting, to a small mill in Ohio. He had purchased the fleece from a friend who owns a sheep farm in Hartford. When he originally received it, it was as raw and fresh off the sheep as it could be: matted and dirty with bits of hay and sheep feces stuck throughout. When he got it back from the Ohio mill, the individual locks looked clean, full of potential. The clipped fleece has tight tendrils of curls about three inches long, the outermost third bleached in the sun. While it’s clean, it’s not immaculate: John says he likes when he finds little pieces of grass in his wool. At larger mills and in commercial processing, wool is often incinerated to remove unwanted organic matter. This is effective, but makes the fiber brittle and difficult to work with. A few sticks in your yarn are much preferable.
Once the wool is clean, you put it in the picker. John put on leather work-gloves with fluorescent webbing in the back. If you pick wool professionally, he said, you’d usually have to prove your tetanus vaccination is up to date. Picking wool involves laying the fleece on a bed of nails and passing another board, also studded with nails, over it. Imagine two hairbrushes being rubbed against each other. It can be dangerous. A misplaced finger would mean real pain, not to mention the bloody mess it would make of your wool. The picker aligns the fibers in the same direction so that they may be spun. It opens the locks, releasing the little curls into an airier, wiry mass. The picker then drops the fiber into a little tray. John’s gloved hands picked up the small bit he was demonstrating with and showed it to me. To my eyes, it looked great: a tangle of brown and blonde hairs. To him, it needed a little more picking. He placed it carefully back between the nails.
After the picker comes the carder. John had sold his hand carder to a fellow male knitter the weekend before. The sale was a kind of concession to John’s husband, David, who raised an exasperated eyebrow when John said he was introducing me to spinning. It’s a point of mild contention between the two; John, like knitters everywhere, stocks more yarn than he will ever use. He has three spinning wheels—each with a slightly different purpose, he insists—and it seems that two carders would have been over the top.
The drum carder he purchased was the only electric-powered piece of the process. When a switch is flipped, a rattling chain pulls a spinning, flat roller. John lifts the fiber from the picker and places it on the little conveyor belt that moves the fiber to the carder’s roller. His previous carder was a hand crank; he seemed pleased to just set it down and let the machine do the work. This step produces what is called a carded bat, essentially an airy blanket of aligned, fluffy fibers. John put it through once more for good measure and held it up to inspect. The blonde fibers that were at the end of the fleece locks were distributed throughout the grey-brown bat. It was ready to be spun into yarn.
I didn’t spin wool until later that day, after our tour of the Green Mountain Spinnery. John had wanted to show me his small-scale operation first, to demonstrate the basic process. It was helpful to see it there first: without that foreknowledge John provided me, the Spinnery might have been an overwhelming and incomprehensible operation. A woman named Katie led us around. She had short hair the color of the fleece John had carded earlier in the day. She wore a striped sweater that, of course, she knit herself. It’s one of my favorite parts about walking into a yarn store or knitter’s group. I look around to see what people are wearing that they might have made themselves: socks, a sweater, a hat. One time, at my knitting group in Denver, a man proudly pulled up his shirt to show the peeking edge of some knit underwear.
Through a door on the right, Katie led us past enormous machines and a tired-looking woman who had one eye on the knitting in her lap and the other on a whirring mass of steel before her, pulling and twisting white yarn. Kate led us through two high-ceilinged rooms against the direction of manufacture, taking us to the start. We stepped into a barn-like storeroom in the back of the facility filled with bales of raw fleece. “Sorry about the obstacles,” she said, pushing aside boxes. Various brown and grey fibers peeked from under the tops and out from the corners. My eyes were drawn to cubes of dyed wool in the back end of the room. It was a mass of bright colors, a huge bag of yellow fiber, bright green, turquoise, and deep blue. The Spinnery doesn’t dye. They send raw wool to a third party dyer. It is returned in vibrant, pure colors. The Spinnery then can produce a spectrum of colored wool by using a combination of dyed and undyed fibers. In a completed garment it blends beautifully.
* * *
Back at John and David’s I spun my first skein of yarn. John demonstrated first, pulling a small, workable measure of fiber from the carded bat and splicing it onto the yarn already hanging from the wheel. A spinning wheel works by constant treadling of the foot pedals that cause a cord strung through smaller gears to spin, simultaneously twisting the fiber you feed in and spooling it on a reel in the middle of the device. John’s fingers worked deftly, his feet in constant oppositional motion while the wheel pulled a thin, taut line of yarn from his fingers to the spool. He showed me how to position my hands: one acts as a kind of guide, tending the yarn as it moves to the spool. The other pinches the end of the bat. This is crucial; if it’s not pinched, the whole bat can twist prematurely and make the fibers bunched and difficult to ply apart. He showed me how you must keep your hands two or three inches apart, about the length of one fiber. He reminded me of the raw locks we started with: that is the length. If your fingers are closer together, you’re only working to pull one fiber apart instead of separating and elongating the structure as a whole.
Spinning wool is not easy. The wool stretched thin and broke so I had to find the end on the spool and pull it back through the threader. My back hand would momentarily lapse in pinching and the bat would spin up in a clumped mess. I would feed too much fiber in and have a great lump in the middle of the wool. (“Don’t worry about it!” John said. “It’s art yarn!”) I would forget to keep treadling and the wheel would stop spinning with a sigh. “Keep treadling, keep treadling!” said John. I got better. I kept treadling. My fingers became more comfortable and confident. My feet worked up and down. John sat on a couch nearby knitting, the sunlight glinting off his clacking needles. His yellow labs dozed in the next room, barking and trembling in sleep. David sat at the dining room table, occasionally muttering at his computer like the septuagenarian he is. Yarn spun out of my fingers, miraculously holding and adhering to a kind of uniformity. There’s something wholesome about making yarn that you might later knit with. It feels responsible, a full accounting for the art of the process.
We ate dinner in their little kitchen, a third chair pulled up to the table, and John moved the cribbage board to a counter. (They play a card game called Casino at breakfast, cribbage at lunch, and gin rummy with afternoon tea.) We ate steak, potatoes, and asparagus from a farmer’s market. We discussed being gay at Dartmouth, being gay in the present, being gay in the future. We talked about having kids, how I want a family but not a designer one, the kind you see gay couples make, adopting from various continents like they’re building their own UN. I want the surprise of making family, not knowing what might come to be. We talked of scientists working to make life from the DNA of two men, of artificial wombs and the theoretical independence of not needing woman to make life. “We could finally have kids in our 80s,” David said. Their refrigerator is layered with pictures of happy, smiling kids: the children of David’s children from his first marriage. John and David will never want for family.
They told me of some other family they have, that which they’ve found in students John has mentored. They talked about two Dartmouth men they knew who were out and happy as undergraduates, great advocates for gay visibility and equality, who eventually went back into the closet. One, Mike Glatze, was seemingly blissful at school and after graduation. He was a gay figure in the ’90s, dating and collaborating with his boyfriend of the time, working for XY Magazine in San Francisco and later traveling the country collecting the stories of young gay people in a magazine called Young Gay America. In the early 2000s, Mike abruptly denounced his homosexuality and became a Christian fundamentalist. He married a woman and moved to Wyoming. His story is the subject of a new biopic starring James Franco and Zachary Quinto called I Am Michael. David and John have no explanation for Michael’s conversion. David said, “I think it just shows that sexuality is a constantly changing and complicated thing.”
The other gay man they knew at Dartmouth would later marry a woman in a ceremony at which John and David officiated. He wanted kids, they said, and also had never accomplished a happy, intimate relationship with a man. Both scenarios don’t sadden John and David, exactly, but it does seem like a kind of loss or sacrifice. I wondered if these stories were a warning to me: all who are happy and gay at Dartmouth will one day reverse their feelings and backpedal into the closet.
Walking out onto their back porch, Vermont rolling up into forest and the night, the bright pinpoint of Jupiter looking like it fell off the sliver of the moon, I couldn’t imagine sacrificing this, the possibilities. Rosie and Violet, more than enough family themselves, bound in the grass, snapping at night bugs. It seemed it could be a glimpse into my own future, in five or fifty years, finding a life like theirs, a life of Friday night, a life they’ve labored to spin out, finding the happiness that comes in saying yes to the good; the good of love, the good of life.
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.