The old Standard Oil Station in Osceola seemed an unlikely location for the boy’s childhood, given what eventually happened. Although I could be wrong about that. In those days, gas station attendants fixed cars, pumped gas, changed oil, and wiped their hands on rags that were washed and rewashed. The old man who ran this station did it all. And the boy learned to do it all.
“I got my love of cars from my Dad. My first job at the station was loading a coke machine with those little six-ounce bottles.”
And the love of cars only became more intense as the boy aged.
“I’ve always been fascinated with Cadillacs. Got my first in 1982. I’ve travelled to Berlin and Amsterdam for Cadillac shows. To me, a car is a work of art. One day when I die I’m going to be cremated and have my ashes scattered at Willis Cadillac.”
Apparently next to his Cadillac Allante.
Teaching middle school students instrumental music in small town Iowa for over fifty years also seemed an unlikely career for what eventually happened. Or, again, I may be missing the boat. Young people do cause you to rethink the universe year after year. They keep you nimble, open to change, flexible about the future.
“My niche is teaching middle school. Either you love working with middle school students or you go insane in two weeks. They are a different breed. They go brain dead when they get into junior high.”
The boy relished this challenge. After “retiring” in 2000 from teaching at Osceola, he continues to teach part-time at Valley High School and Valley Southwoods and perform instrumental music in Des Moines. This is a boy up on his toes, ready to go.
“The last concert I was in, a young couple came up, and the girl said, ‘Can I ask you something? How long have you played clarinet?’ And I said 61 years. ‘Wow.’ She got all embarrassed and started to say, ‘Are you that old?’”
And all those students over all those years are a source of joy to the boy.
“One of my former students is now on staff at USC. Clarinet. She was a fantastic player. She could have studied with the janitor and done great. She wrote and said I gave her the self-confidence to do what she did. That means a lot.”
And then there is the boy falling in love late in life. Normally a time to settle down, take it easy, rest your feet on the balcony of your Florida condo — not to do what the boy eventually did. Then again, maybe I’m wrong about that also. Courting is a complicated dance at any time in life.
“My husband, Larry Hoch, was a middle school math teacher from New York. We both started coming out at the same time and met in a chat room. This was in 2000. We started e-mailing, and then we started talking on the phone. And then right around Christmas he asked what I thought about him coming out to Iowa. My first thought was ‘oh my god.’ Panic City.”
The boy survived. A couple of years later, he and Hoch were united in a civil union in Vermont. That he was gay was a minor blip in his world, he claims.
”When I started coming out in 2000 to friends and family, it was about fifty-fifty. Some people said, “You are? Really? So what.’ And the others said, ‘Yeah, we knew it. So what.”
And that should be the end of the story.
But then life took an unusual turn. The group pursuing a case for gay marriage in Iowa contacted the boy and wanted him and his partner to be parties to the case.
“We were what we called the old fart couple. There were six couples and we were the oldest by far. We decided we would do it.”
Soon followed an avalanche of media exposure for what became known as the Varnum case. Press conferences, interviews, stories. The boy’s life was on display for one and all.
“It’s been a great experience. Right after the first press conference we only had one ‘you’re going to hell’ type letter. That was it. I’ve had so many former students contact me telling me it was great. We would do it again.”
David Twombley, the nearly 74-year-old boy, is surprised where life has taken him. He is not brave — leaning in to emphasize this point. He does not know where the courage came from to stand up for gay marriage — shaking his head at me in quiet disbelief. He doesn’t know why all the excitement didn’t give him a heart attack — laughing at his good fortune to be alive.
He is truly dumfounded.
“None of this is my personality,” he tells me with a wry smile.
So what is?
“I love the line in Auntie Mame — ‘Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.’ That’s kind of been my philosophy. You have to live.”