Liar, Liar, Couch on Fire!

Kids will say and do the darnedest things. I think the earliest memory of my first word was no. Not Mama or Dada. I was told that I was a cute child, and I was a tad mischievous too. When my Aunt Sally would visit, she would often catch me in an act of trickery and bad behavior (such as grabbing buttermilk biscuits when I wasn’t supposed to) which generally led me to get disciplined. I was probably 2 or 3 years of age, and for this particular infraction, it was usually a couple of smacks on the hand as a “warning”. I would retreat in an over-sized cabinet and pout. After about 15 minutes or so, I would quietly reappear and strike again. When successful, I would enjoy my forbidden contraband! When I was again caught, the punishment went from a smack on the hand to a spanking on my young and ample behind! 

When I began to understand that my actions led to certain consequences, I changed my behavior to minimize any negative reactions. Besides, I could no longer fit into any cabinetry and the tools of discipline had also changed to reflect my age and size. No longer was the swat or a rapid- fire spanking by hand the instrument of discipline. I, we, had graduated getting a whippin’ by belt, shoe, or even worst of all, the switch. The switch was usually the preferred tool of torment when I, or my older sister, really misbehaved. Yes people, in this Black, African-American household, corporal punishment was alive and thrived! There was no time out, sitting in a corner, or the suspension of computer privileges for us like there is for kids today. My mother had her hands full as a single parent and she strongly believed in the rule, “Spare the rod, and spoil the child”. She wanted me and my two siblings to be truthful, respectful, and courteous. Not just to her, but with other adults, and more importantly, towards each other. 

Sonya 10, Latonya 4, Me 9

When my mother married another military man, we soon found ourselves leaving the east coast and heading for Texas. Having only knowledge about Texas from the handful of western shows, we thought that we’d be living on a ranch and would be riding horses to school. We were living in San Antonio, TX and attending John Tyler Elementary school. Sadly, no horseback riding for us. In fact, we actually walked to school since it was only two blocks away. Truthfully, my two sisters and I were great kids for the most part. My youngest sister (Latonya) at the time, wasn’t really old enough to get into any trouble without being provoked by either my older sister or me. With my stepfather working on base and our mother working a part-time job, we needed to carry our share of the workload when it came to doing chores around the house. This sometimes even included cooking. Nothing too extensive or complicated, something simple like Kraft Hamburger Helper or even rice.

I remember one Sunday evening my mother and stepfather had a military friend over for dinner. Afterwards, we kids were assertively requested to go outside and play with Brutus, our loving German Shepherd Husky mix puppy. We didn’t view this exile or a punishment by any means and besides, they were going to be “talking” about grown up stuff. This friend of theirs must have been a smoker judging by the ashtray and matches that remained in the living room. It smelled of something else was being smoked and it wasn’t cigarettes! With my adult experiences today, I now know that it was a little herbal delight (weed, pot, ganja…you know what I mean) that was lingering in the air! 

The next day as we returned from school, my mother reminded me and my older sister that we had a few responsibilities to take care of while she and our stepfather were at work. I was responsible for cleaning up the dog poop in the backyard and Sonya, had to watch after Latonya and cook up a batch of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese before the parentals came home to finish up dinner. I really got the crappy end of the deal with the duties, but luckily Brutus didn’t leave too much of a mess in the yard. After I cleaned up, I headed back inside the house. Sonya was with Latonya in the kitchen measuring out the ingredients for the macaroni and cheese dish. I kept my sisters company briefly as they lovingly and patiently prepared this cheesy and zesty delight.

Out of boredom, I headed to the living room where the ashtray and matches still remained. At this point, I became fixated on the matches and did exactly what we were taught never to do, which was never play with fire. I struck a match and held it in my little fingers mesmerized by the smell of the sulfur and the color of the flame. I wasn’t paying attention to how close the flame crept towards my fingers. In a panic, I dropped the match in the ashtray and turned it over on the couch to prevent the smoke from alerting my sisters. I just forgot to check to make sure the flame was really out. I quickly retreated back to the kitchen as if nothing ever happened. 

What happened next really is a bit of a blur. I could still gaze in the living room from where I was seated in the kitchen. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted smoke where the ashtray was placed. When I reached the couch, the match had burned (melted) away a perfect circle on the arm of the couch. Oh, shit! My little brain was working in overdrive to concoct a viable story as I set the ashtray inside the hole, now burned down to expose wood, hoping that no one (Ma) would notice. All of this happened within minutes as I stealthily returned again to the kitchen with my sisters. Then our mother came home (cue impending doom track)! The very moment our mother stepped into the kitchen, she knew something wasn’t quite right. She asked what was burning. Being that we were in the kitchen, that would be the logical source of the scent. It wasn’t until she went to the living room that we realized something was terribly wrong. “Sonya, Junior (me), and Latonya get in here,” she growled!

The interrogation was short and sweet, “Who did this?!” We all said not me. Sonya further clarified that she and Latonya were in the kitchen and I claimed that I was there too. My mother knew someone was lying. Because no one owned up to this infraction, we were all punished. We each were spanked and sent to our rooms. I knew what I did was wrong, but was afraid of what my mother do if she knew I was really responsible. For years, even as we kids grew into our late adolescence, my mother would bring up the couch and our responses remaining the same. It wasn’t until about five years ago when we, now adult kids, were together to celebrate my mother’s birthday when the subject was again mentioned. Now towering over my mother, I proudly proclaimed admission to the deed. Yes, it was me and I was playing with matches! My mother smirked but had her suspicions. My older sister smacked me on the back of the head because she received a punishment for my refusal in telling the truth. We all laughed, and then my mother said to me, “Boy, don’t you ever think you are too big that I can’t throw you over my knee!” “That may be true, but you’d have to catch me first,” I replied.

What’s in a Name?

This piece is dedicated to a December without 31 days, a Major without a squadron, and a Doctor who doesn’t practice medicine. For those of us with different names, these designations are real conversation starters! 

What’s in a name? A question penned long ago for the romantic tale Romeo and Juliet written by William Shakespeare. Throughout my life, whenever I either introduce myself or when I’m introduced by someone else, I’m often met with a raised eyebrow, a groan of surprise, or an “Excuse me?” of disbelief as a response. For me, these reactions are sometimes comical, predictable, and slightly irritating when people hear my name for the first time. Judge Wapner, Judge Dread (an awful film), Judge Judy, and Judge Reinhold (real name Edward Ernest, Jr.) are the usual comparison responses I get. Some of the questions are equally obnoxious. Is that your real name? This is probably the most frequent and least popular question. Did your parents want you to be a Judge? If you were a Judge then you’d be Judge Judge. Ha, ha, ha. Ugh!

Don’t get me wrong. Having a name like mine should warrant attention with regard to its association with our American legal system. As a young kid growing up in Virginia and North Carolina, my family actually called me Junior. That’s because my father is named Judge too. Apparently unique names run in my father’s side of the family. My grandfather’s name was Pleasant. I guess you could say that even on his worst days, he was still…Pleasant! I think within the African American and other minority communities, as a way to honor our ancestors, an official (profession), or friend, a parent would name their child after that person. My friend and colleague, who also is a person of color, had a grandfather with the name of Doctor. I can bet that he too had his share of similar experiences when introductions are made. 

I recently asked my mother about why I was named after my father. She said that there was no historical connection other than the convenience of sharing my father’s name.

I really hated my name when I was in grade school. Some kids tend to gravitate towards others or things that are different. I won’t go as far and say that I was bullied, but in terms of the frequency, it was often. I was called whatever could rhyme with Judge; sludge, drudge, and fudge. Sometimes it was even a combination of all things rhyming at once: Judge, fudge the big fat drudge. First of all, I would consider my skin color more like a spiced cinnamon rather than fudge. Secondly, I wasn’t fat although currently my metabolism isn’t my friend. Lastly, drudge? I never even knew what a drudge was until I was in middle school. It made no sense at all. 

When my mother remarried, I had this idea of having my name changed to pay tribute to the new patriarch in the family. My new name was going to be Christopher Odel Hughes. It had a nice sound to it. I would rehearse calling myself Chris in the mirror and even practiced writing my new name so I could get used to it. I just wasn’t aware of the amount of work needed, on my mother’s end, to make a name change happen. In fact, too many steps and forms were required and my mother wasn’t having it. It really didn’t matter anymore, because my mother ended up divorcing my stepfather not too long after they were married. Any future ideas of having a “normal” name ended when that relationship did.

After the divorce, we moved to California (CA). As a teen, I remember taking a trip with my mother and sisters to Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park, CA. After spending a day riding the park’s roller coasters and gorging ourselves on golden fried chicken goodness from Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner restaurant, it was time to head back to San Diego. But before we reached the parking lot, I popped into one of the many novelty money-sucking souvenir shops to see if they sold those mini license plates or stickers from the revolving display racks. Maybe, just maybe, I would find my name here. Sadly, in all of the options available, the name closest to mine I came across was the name “Jude”.  

Judger (Judge + Jr.), was a nickname given to me in middle school. Somehow, it also ended up on my student ID card in high school. It was like someone inside the administration at the Poway Unified School District in San Diego was deliberately playing a joke on me with my name. It took more than a full school quarter before my name on my scholastic records were corrected and teachers called by my given name. Surprisingly, some of my classmates actually thought the name Judge was pretty cool. This name, and or this title, that was often compared to courtroom shows and a bad movie, finally made me start smiling with pride. It was this pride that gave me the confidence to step on stage and start dancing in high school. After appearing in several successful productions, I won a Sunny Award! A Sunny Award is named after the high school mascot (Mt. Carmel Sundevils), and awarded to actors for quality performances. 

Here comes the Judge! From my fourth birthday on, this was a saying I heard. In 1968, comedy and soul singer Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham released a single with the same title. During the 70s, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In introduced a comic sketch featuring comic entertainers Flip Wilson and later Sammy Davis Jr. as the shuckin’ and jivin’ Judge. Now that I was living in Los Angeles, as an actor, this was my motto. I even made bumper stickers with the slogan that I would include in my actor’s press kit to agencies. I wanted to make an impression one way or another with my name even though my press kit likely landed in the garbage. Everyone says you have to have a gimmick to stick out and the bumper stickers was my attempt at doing that. 

Though the acting never really took off, my name continued and still does, cause a stir. I previously spent five years working at the Oregon State Capitol for the Governor. During this time, I was frequently addressed as Your Honor and even received mail addressed to The Honorable Judge Kemp. At the gym, I was once chastised and called an “asshole” by an ease-dropper on a conversation for having other gym members address me as my supposed title. It was only after confronting this douche-bag, that he embarrassingly apologized when he learned that Judge was actually my name. I articulate my name when I order my venti blonde latte with two pumps of chai at Buckies (not the real name). When the barista called “Jubie” (pronounced joo-bee), all I could really do is to laugh. 

Our names are more than the labels we carry with us to our deathbeds. They carry with them a sense of power, mystery, and whimsy. They can also instill confidence. Either by nurture or nature, I’ve accepted my name and wear it like a badge of honor. It’s bold, unique, and reflects my quirky charm and personality. My name is Judge Kemp (Jr.).

You’re What?!

By all American standards, my family was pretty was normal. Dad was a Master Sergeant in the US Army and Ma was the obedient wife, cook, and caretaker of my older sister and me; we even had a dog. My father and I did all the stereotypical activities expected with society’s male bonding rituals; fishing, playing sports together, and I even had my first sip of beer. One of my favorite activities however was our time at the base swimming pool. It wasn’t the refreshing waters that I enjoyed most, but viewing all the naked male frames in the locker room. Every size and every shade of man was presented before my young wide eyes.

From a very early age I’ve known that I was gay. I just didn’t know what to call it. Maybe the feeling stemmed from my expulsion from nursery school for biting? This wasn’t my finest of pre-scholastic moments, but it’s true! Was this a future sign of rainbows, glitter, and red dresses? Probably not, but I did have an issue with biting. I chewed on everything from my headboard and footboard of my bed, to the aluminum blinds in my bedroom window. Once, I even bit my mother. This was a HUGE mistake. She bit me back, forever curing me from any future behavioral nibbling…at least as a child.

In grade school I was shy and kind of different. Not outer worldly different like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, with his pointed ears and amazing intellect, just different. From all outward appearances, I looked like any other African American boy my age at John Tyler Elementary School in Hampton Roads, Virginia. It was only when I was around certain male classmates that I would feel anxious and strangely giddy. Jeff was one of those classmates. He had strawberry red hair, freckles, and an infectious laugh. My little heart ached when we weren’t together. Movie time was my favorite part of class because it gave me a chance to sit next to my favorite classmate. In the dark we felt free and didn’t have to worry about judgment or opinion. I don’t ever remember what films were shown, but I do remember holding hands with my special friend!

With my parents divorced, my mother moved my two sisters and me to San Diego, California. I was a teenager and my feelings for guys remained the same. This wasn’t “just a phase” as some people then and now still might suggest. I attempted to conform to the “norms” of the hetero world and even had a girlfriend but that relationship felt awkward and made me more aware of my sexual identity. I was also now old enough to be aware of the cruelties, and horrific names that were being psychologically branded on guys like me. Being a young black male was difficult enough, and in our conservative suburban neighborhood of Rancho Penãsquitos, this “queer” nuance I was experiencing was something I had to keep to myself for the time being.

My mother was and still is a very social person. She used to love to go dancing and would frequent a gay disco called Dillion’s. Here she made friends with several gay men and women; many would later become family friends. One such friend, Mark B., was in his early 20s and was just adorable. He had blonde hair, pale blue eyes, and a big mustache (think Magnum PI). Mark was always invited over to celebrate birthdays and holiday meals. I don’t think he had any family of his own in town so my mother sort of adopted him into our family. He was a sweetheart and my older sister and I secretly had a crush on him. I think my mother knew it too but then one day Mark stopped coming around. We later found out he moved to San Francisco and was never heard from again.

So at sixteen I decided it was time to come out. It was early in the evening and my mother was in the kitchen doing dishes. I slowly approached her and quietly told her that I thought that I might be gay. In my mind, time stopped and I could hear my heart literally pounding in my chest. She continued to wash dishes and without missing a beat, asked me to explain why I thought I was gay. I think my words to her were something like,’ because I really, really, like guys. That answer wasn’t sufficient enough so she asked me to write her an essay entitled, “Why I Think I’m Gay”. In my essay, I explained to her that I had been aware of my sexuality since I was in grade school and though I had had a girlfriend, it just didn’t feel right and I remained infatuated with guys.

I was the only male in an all-female household. My mother thought the lack of a masculine influence or her gay friends may have contributed to my admission. So she suggested I speak to her church friend Wayne. Wayne was gay and about 15 years older than I. Finally I could speak to someone who could understand my situation. Wayne allowed me to speak freely and in depth about my awareness and the occasional physical confirmations that my dreams would produce; things I couldn’t tell my mother. Wayne confirmed to my mother that I was indeed gay and the rest is history.

I was fortunate to come out to someone that embraced me with love and compassion. Many young gay, lesbian, and trans-gendered children are sometimes abandoned for living or disclosing their truth. Luckily, there are amazing LGBTQ role models such as Michael Sam, Lavern Cox, Ellen Degeneres, and George Takei that have broken down barriers of race, transphobia, and homophobia by living their truth.