John Vega entered San Francisco State in the fall of l96l as an eighteen year old freshman. He came from Merced, California, in the central valley south of Modesto and north of Fresno. He was first generation American from Mexican American parents who did not speak English in the home. The family lived in poverty, and Johnny Mae Vega grew up minus many of the givens in American life.
If he ever felt resentment and anger over having been denied "the good things" while growing up, he never spoke of it. But he did resolve "to rise above it" and make his life a much better life than what he had known.
I first met him when he enrolled in my course in argument and debate. John was a handsome, if skinny, angelic looking young man who had a constant puzzled, quizzical look on his face. John probably had a good mind, but whatever his native intelligence, his environment had reduced his chances for success in college and in life. He lacked knowledge, acquired analytic abilities and verbal fluency. But he had innocence and ambition, and he had a nearly infallible intuition that told him how other people wanted him to relate to them.
Moreover, what he lacked in background John more than made up for in drive and determination and a sweetness of personality that caused almost everyone to want to help him.
He always carried with him a small notebook. As you spoke to John, he often grabbed his notebook and wrote words and phrases he thought were important. He flattered you constantly, not as a ploy but because he genuinely believed what he felt. When favors came his way John could embarrass you with gestures of appreciation. John spent much of his time playing catch-up, acquiring the missing information. He wanted to make at least two new friends each day. And at the end of the day he would put on his reading glasses, which he wore for effect, and read from his notes what he had written about each person.
He would read a passage, smile, and push those glasses higher on his nose before reading the next paragraph. How could one not feel affection for such a soul and want to help him move ahead in life? John, of course, was without money most of the time. Every first of the month he had to struggle to put together the few dollars needed to pay his rent for another month.
His sad meager little wardrobe was a bit of tragi-comedy. Every garment was a patched, recycled, non-fitting effrontery, and the kid's garage sale shoes were either so tight he took them off at every opportunity to massage his feet, or so loose they came off if he walked too fast.
John had some natural physical assets. He was six feet and slender and lean; he had a trim waist and a cute ass. His face was quite pretty and innocent looking, and he had the most beautiful onyx eyes imaginable with thick eyebrows and long eye lashes. Those eyes were so mesmerizing he could hold your attention by just staring at you. He had lots of very curly black hair which he wore long because haircuts cost too much. He had evolved a type of "I would like for you to seduce me" look about him.
Consciously or unconsciously he flirted with every person he met, batting his eye lashes and smiling and nodding his head like a Hyman Kaplan as he took out his pen and vigorously jotted a message to himself in his constant-companion notebook. Five minutes into my first office visit with Johnny I concluded that he wanted to seduce me and would not rest until that task had been accomplished, even though I am sure Johnny was just being Johnny and, at that particular moment was thinking nothing of the kind. As I said, he was an easy guy to misinterpret.
Gays in particular always read him as coming on to them. I recall a happening one late afternoon in the fall of l96l. John and I had been visiting in my office, and when I began to pack my briefcase to go home, he asked if he could walk with me. On our way home we were caught in a rain shower and soaked. Johnny was wearing the most awful color of purple pants I had ever seen; someone must have dyed them. And the rain caused them to leak vast quantities of purple water for several blocks, all the way to my front door.
I made him take them off before he entered my kitchen, and when he did I saw that his jockey briefs had likewise turned from white to purple, as had his white sox and his undershirt. I told him to strip and he did, revealing a monstrous unclipped dick by the way. I re-dressed him, sox, undershirt, shorts, a pair of my slax and a pair of my shoes. And I took him then and there down to the Emporium, determined to give that struggling kid, with a big heart and a big determination to succeed in life, at least some decent clothes to wear, including pants that would not run purple when they were wet.
t the men's department in the Emporium we met a sweet and concerned little gay clerk, who, true to form became quickly convinced that Johnny Vega was flirting with him, even though Johnny's eyes were twinkling at the thought of acquiring a pair of non-purple pants. The three of us chose two pairs of khaki slax and a couple of pairs of better pants for evenings. We picked out some shirts, some sox and some shorts, and Johnny decided on a new pair of shoes. We even found an inexpensive dress coat, but we decided to save that and a couple of nice sweaters he liked, for some other day. I didn't have that much money.
I left John with our purchases and our clerk and went off to the liquor department to buy some gin for Gerry Reid and scotch for myself. When I returned John and the clerk were chatting away and the boxes of clothing were ready to be taken home. The clerk by now was visibly aroused by the prospects of seeing sexy Johnny again, and John was doing his conscious or unconscious flirting and eye blinking and smiling.
We left the store and headed for Westgate in the continuing rain. At home we unpacked the boxes, and I discovered a number of items I did not think we had purchased, like two more pairs of slax, like two more shirts, like that dress coat we had put off buying and like those two beautiful sweaters we had also postponed purchasing.
Johnny was as surprised as I was and quickly assumed I had told the clerk to toss them in anyway. I had assumed that Johnny had told the clerk to add them anyway, and I felt ashamed even thinking it. I grabbed the charge bill and looked at it. And I discovered that our sweet gay salesperson had made Johnny a present of those added items and had, as a matter of fact, not even charged me for all of the original items.
Startled, I asked Johnny what he had done to the clerk to elicit such generous and needed gifts. "Nothing," said John, "Except we have a date for Friday night." John threw his arms around me and cried and thanked me over and over again for being so good to him.
Johnny wanted to make up for past lost time growing up in poverty in the central valley. He wanted to learn as much about life as possible and learn it as quickly as possible. He was particularly interested in gay life, since he claimed he knew nothing at all about it before he came to San Francisco State and he found it fascinating.
We spent three hours one evening talking about gays and gay culture and what gay sex and romance and love were about. John concluded that he had always been gay and wanted to try gay sex as soon as he could find someone who wanted to do it with him, learn as much about life, especially the gay life, as quickly as possible. To what degree Johnny was gay or straight or just oversexed, I never knew for sure, though I was convinced at the time that he was essentially gay and easily aroused by men. He had never dated in high school, girls or boys. But he did have strong sex drives, and satisfied them by jacking off daily. One thing for sure, his experiences with me and the Emporium clerk and the clerk's friends at a party John went to the following Friday night, gave him a quick and apparently satisfying introduction to the gay world and sex with others.
A couple of weeks after the Emporium incident, Johnny dropped by one evening when I was home alone. He wanted so much to have sex with me, he said, so that I could teach him just how to have sex with other guys, like the people he met at the party given by the Emporium clerk. He had put off those fellows that night because he didn't want to try gay sex until he knew he could do it and do it well.
I cared for John very much, but I
was not sure he was ready for sex with me. But I was curious about that big dick
of his and I was horny, so I agreed that we would initiate classes preparing
John to be a good same-sex sex partner.
During the course of sex that evening I noticed that he winced with pain every so often. John had not been circumcised, and he had an exceedingly tight foreskin. Each time that foreskin was forced back from over the head of his big shaft, there was pain. And since any sex activity, by hand or insertion into a cavity, caused that foreskin to push forward and backward like a piston, John experienced pain while having sex.
I sent John to a physician friend of mine in Stonestown, Norris Fellows, and Fellows arranged for John to have out-patient surgery at a nearby hospital.
On the day of surgery, Mike Schramm took John to the out patient facility, and I picked him up that evening and kept him overnight at my place. He had a quick recovery from the circumcision, and his new dick was back in action within a very short time. No pain; no problems.
When he was recovered sufficiently to have sex for the first time with his renovated equipment, he wanted me to be the first partner. We did only hand and mouth, and he had a wonderful and long orgasm, the best of his life, he reported. Johnny was on his way to success!
He thanked me in every conceivable
way for giving him a new life. And, indeed, Johnny fairly quickly became
obsessed with having gay sex. He had the new equipment; he had mastered the
technique; there was no restraining him.
But then he heard the original cast recording of Meredith Willson's, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and he fell in love with the song sung by Tammy Grimes in that musical play about a poor lower class, uncultured, uneducated person who defies the odds and makes a success of her life through drive and determination and an unwillingness to settle for life's seconds.
That song, of course, was "I Ain't Down Yet," and John Vega memorized the words and made them his call to arms, his rallying song, his new found philosophy of life which was to inspire and propel John into success he had only dreamed of. The spunky and determined up-by-my-boot straps John Vega would sing:
"I hate that word "down;"; I love
that word "up;"
For almost three years Johnny Mae
gave it his damndest. He passed all his courses; he debated in intercollegiate
tournaments; He wrote papers he had never believed or even hoped he could write.
He acquired friends he had believed impossible to acquire. For those years
Johnny was indeed up "where the talking was, up where the joke was going on."
John was tempted to measure his successes and status in life by the quality and cost of the car he could drive. When in l963 he finally reached a Jaguar and a sugar daddy who bought him a motorcycle, he believed he had succeeded in reinventing himself.
However well John's ascent was going, he never forgot his roots nor his friends. He stayed close to me, and to Ralph, and to Mike Schramm. And he never stopped thanking us, still blinking those long eye lashes and smiling that mischievous grin. And he never stopped talking about his circumcision and what a difference that had made in his life. He would hug and kiss me and say, "Here's one for the Clipper."
But every play must have a finale, even musicals about people who deserve good things and love life very much. John Vega's upward trip, unlike Molly Brown's, never reached the top.
John's hope and quest for "something better, cleaner, shinier" tragically ended the wrong way on April 9, l964, when he crashed a motorcycle into the railings while driving down Upper Market Street in San Francisco. He died that night at age twenty-one, without ever reaching that "house with a golden stairs" that his favorite song had promised him.
Mike Schramm was at the hospital
when John died. His last words to Mike were, "Don't let them forget me."