Any long time readers of this column know that I am a Christmas-loving atheist. Imagine my joy to find that there’s a huge holiday event happening this month.
The Woods Campground will host a special Christmas in July weekend July 19-21, and I had a chance to speak to Tom Schneider, a camp regular who took the Best Christmas Display award six times before retiring his crown.
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.
TS: I was born in Minersville, which is up in the coal region, but we moved to Allentown when I was 9 months, so that’s what I consider my hometown. I’m from a small family, just one sibling. My dad ran a machine in the local factory. I’m 68, so my parents are both gone now, but I still live there. I’ve lived in the same house for 40 years now. I used to work at a printing house down in Coopersburg but I’m retired now. It wasn’t a very exciting job, but it helped pay the bills.
PGN: So were you like “The Office”?
TS: No, I was out in the warehouse doing the shipping and packaging. [Laughing] I worked on my feet all day long, so it’s nice to be able to sit down now.
PGN: You commit long term.
TS: Yes, I worked at the warehouse for — years. My husband Bob and I have been together for 37 years and married for three.
PGN: Wow, that’s a long engagement!
TS: Well, Bob had been previously married, and he couldn’t find his divorce papers! In Pennsylvania, you have to provide proof of the divorce before you can get married again. He’d given his documents to his ex-wife when she needed them in a hurry, and she misplaced them. They didn’t know which county they were filed in so we had a terrible, terrible time trying to find the paperwork. We finally got a copy and were able to get married.
PGN: How did you meet?
TS: At the Stonewall in Allentown 37 years ago. I was walking through the crowd and bumped into somebody. When I turned around to see who it was, I thought, “Ooh, who’s this?” And then I found out. We actually didn’t go home right away, we met up for a few dates before we went home and uh… [Laughing] had any real fun.
PGN: I’m sure you made up for lost time.
TS: Oh yeah, of course. Now at our age, we’ve slowed back down.
PGN: Was the Stonewall in Allentown the first gay bar you ever went to?
TS: Yes, well, it was the only gay bar. Wait, no, there was an older bar named “Rubes,” but the Stonewall was the bar to go to. They actually had a little Stonewall that they’d built inside the place. This was about 1970, and they only had a jukebox where you would feed in quarters to play music. It’s been remodeled several times and now they have an upstairs, which is called the Moose Lounge. It’s really nice. I was still living at home and wasn’t out to my parents, so it was awkward trying to sneak in and out. But back then to meet anyone, you had to go to the bar. And trust me, that place was hopping back then. There was always a huge crowd. I hear it’s changed. Well, the whole world has changed. People don’t go to the bars anymore to meet people.
PGN: I hear you. I talk to young people all the time, and they don’t feel the need to go to gay clubs to feel safe. They can hold hands or meet people in most spaces.
TS: Yeah, we couldn’t do that. You would have not been served or could have been escorted out if you showed any PDA in a straight place or worse, been beaten up. I think the drinking laws and the crackdown on drinking and driving and stuff has changed the bar scene too.
PGN: Good point. I know I got into a lot of places underage, and it wasn’t a big deal. Now, people are afraid of losing their license or being sued. What were you like as a kid? Nerdy? Athletic?
TS: [Laughing] I’ve never been athletic in my life. I always tell Bob not to throw things to me because the only thing I can catch is a cold! I played games with my friends in the neighborhood, but I was the only boy so that didn’t help things. My dad never pushed me to play a sport; he wasn’t really a sports man himself. I think he took me fishing once and neither of us liked it.
PGN: Tell me your three favorite toys growing up.
TS: I was born in 1951, so things were a lot different. I had toys but not many of them. I had a robot that I loved; I was really into Lincoln Logs. And I had an electric train; I actually still have that boxed somewhere.
PGN: Are you a packrat?
TS: Not really, I can throw things away, but I’m also sentimental. My husband is really handy; he can build things and fix things, where I break everything I put my hands on. He doesn’t like me around any electronics because they usually don’t work once I’ve touched them. I always want to throw out his stuff, and he tells me, “Don’t throw out any screws! I may need them!” Even though he has 10,000 other screws! But I have a lot of T-shirts from 40 years ago that I just can’t throw away, so I can’t complain, but he’s worse than me. He doesn’t know what a trash can is.
PGN: What do you do that makes him crazy?
TS: I’m a worrier. I worry about everything. I’ll lose sleep over nonsensical things.
PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?
TS: Not very far. When we were little, we took a trip out west. My grandparents were with us so there were six of us in the car. We traveled for two weeks and got as far as Salt Lake City, Utah. Bob retires next May, so we plan to do some traveling then.
PGN: What does Bob do?
TS: He repairs and delivers major appliances: washers, dryers, etc.
PGN: What do you do for fun? Are you into gardening, snowboarding?
TS: I don’t garden much at our place in Allentown. It’s a small Victorian, and the lawn is about the size of two cars parked side by side. It takes longer to get the lawnmower out than it does to cut the grass. But we have a place at The Woods Campground, and that’s another story. I’ve already put in about 300 plants this year. I have two large gardens I plant in, here, at the campground. It’s fun that other people get to see and appreciate it. At home, my yard is fenced in, so Bob and I only see the garden when we go to the garage for the car. Not to mention the fact that I’m only [home] two days a week anymore, the rest of the time, I’m here.
PGN: You’ve been going to The Woods for some time now I gather.
TS: We’ve been here since the first day they opened. This had been a kid’s campground before, so we even helped with the cleanup when they were changing over. We’d been members of an LGBT campground in New York for 17 years. So we’re old hands at doing this.
PGN: What does your site look like?
TS: We have a 40-foot trailer with a deck. She’s a rock. It’s soundproofed with double-paned glass, so when the young guys decide to have a golf cart parade at 2 a.m., it doesn’t bother us. And even though our site is near the dance club, we don’t hear a thing. We have a screened-in porch, which the cats and I absolutely love, and a garden shed and a ton of flowers and plants out front. It’s a different world when you come here, especially coming from downtown Allentown where it’s noisy and crowded. It’s noisy here too on the weekends but joyful noise. During the week, it’s quiet and peaceful. I like both worlds. I like the quiet, and I like watching the men coming in — that has never changed. [Laughing] I’ll never stop cruising the men. It’s a fun place. They have a great pool, a wonderful restaurant. The owners have a good philosophy of putting money back into the place and constantly improving it. They just put about a million dollars into expansion.
PGN: That sounds great! It sounds like there are a lot of special events happening.
TS: Always. As I said, it’s quiet now, but come tomorrow there’ll be 600-700 people here for Mardi Gras. There’s also a wonderful dance club to go to after the parties. It’s got laser lights and a phenomenal sound system.
PGN: And you’ll be celebrating my favorite holiday soon. How did Christmas in July get started?
TS: It was in July the very first year of the camp and Bob said, “You know this weekend is the unofficial Christmas in July. Let’s put up our aluminum tree!” So we put the tree up and lit the color wheel and threw some lights on the awning. The owner was walking by and said, “That’s right! It’s Christmas in July! Nice tree!” and the next year it was on the schedule. So I don’t know if we had any influence but… anyway, the next year we took The Point, which is the area they let me take over and put up a spiral tree, and covered the ground with white fabric to make it look like snow. We also put out some oversized ornaments. We put up stuff at our site too: a tree on the deck and large ornaments. Every year it’s grown, and now I have about 200 oversized ornaments suspended by fishing line, a nine-foot tree on the deck and several spiral trees, reindeer and more on The Point. We won the award for Best Campsite Decorations six times, so this year, I’ve told the camp that we’ll still decorate but not to include us in the competition. It was getting ridiculous. We want other people to have fun with it too. It’s not fun or fair if no one else gets a chance.
PGN: Jumping back, when did you come out?
TS: [Sighs] Well, my hand was forced by my parents, and it wasn’t a pleasant thing. I was living at home and I would go out to the bars because that was the only way I knew to meet people. I would purposely not stay out too late, but even coming home at midnight to 1 a.m., my mother would stay awake until I got home. They never said much but one day I got home from work to find our minister in the living room waiting to talk to me. I never liked that man anyway, and he started to grill me on where I spent my time and who I was hanging out with. He never came outright and asked me if I was gay, but I was so angry that the next day I moved out. [Laughing] Which I’m still surprised at because I am not a brave person. They must have really pushed my buttons. It was hard because my dad said, “OK, you can go, but if you do leave the key.” That really hurt me.
PGN: Where did you go?
TS: I went to my sister’s. She was newly married but said you can stay here as long as you need to, but I wasn’t going to burden the newlyweds, so the next day I found a furnished room to rent. [Laughing] It cost me $23 a week! That was a long time ago, and it was never discussed again, even after we reconciled. Later they accepted both of my boyfriends like they were their own kids, but we never, ever said it out loud. It wasn’t the best situation, but it wasn’t the worst. I’ve certainly heard some horror stories.
PGN: Did you tell your sister?
TS: Yes, she said she knew. I was with my first boyfriend for eight years and have been with Bob 37, so I guess I like to stick with things for a long time. Those two are the only lovers I’ve ever had and both were treated like family. On Bob’s side, he was married and has kids and grandkids, and they treat me just the same although I never got to know them until after his mother died. Apparently she was born-again and totally against everything, so I wasn’t able to meet them until she passed.
PGN: Wow. Ever been discriminated against?
TS: I don’t feel like I ever was. When I worked at the printing company, everyone knew Bob and there was never a problem. And even before that, I worked for S&H Green Stamps — how’s that for old! — and I don’t remember ever feeling uncomfortable there either. I’ve been very lucky.
PGN: What’s on the agenda for this afternoon?
TS: I’m going to the pool. I’m not supposed to go until later in the afternoon because of the sun. Skin cancer and all that. [Laughing] The first time I went to the dermatologist he said, “Did you go out in the sun much as a child?” and I said, “Look at my age! I’m from the era when your parents would send you outside, and I’d stay out all day riding my bike or swimming. Of course I was in the sun as a kid!”
PGN: And they’d put baby oil on you…
TS: Baby oil and iodine. And send you to roast.
PGN: I understand the campground is clothing optional. Will you be opting to go sans wardrobe?
TS: [Laughing] I think I did about 95 percent of my Christmas decorating naked this year. It depends on my mood. I tend to go au naturel during the week more than the weekend. The younger folks tend to be more conservative when it comes to nudity. Some don’t want to do it in front of their friends, but other groups don’t really care. I’m kind of jaded. I’ve been in this kind of atmosphere for 30-something years. I understand it must be a shock for someone here for the first time. Feeling aghast, being fascinated, overwhelmed, overjoyed — it’s different for everyone.
PGN: Are there many women who attend?
TS: It’s mostly men, but we get some women as well.
PGN: I may try to get there for Christmas in July.
TS: You should! It’s a different world here; it’s like fantasyland. It’s the world we wished we had where everyone can just be free and have a good time.
PGN: SisterSpace weekend is like that for women.
TS: Yeah, it’s what you make of it. If you want to sit in your tent or cabin by yourself, you can. If you want to party all night long and meet people, you can do that too. You can go to the bonfire on the weekends; you can go to the disco; you can come for the quiet during the week or wait for the wild weekends. It’s a little bit of nirvana. We hate when we have to leave here and go back to reality!