1: Who Is Jim Ward?
A recent MTV documentary called me “the granddaddy of thae modern piercing movement”, in case you were wondering who I am. Maybe that gives me sufficient credentials to write a bit every now and then about the history of modern piercing and how it has evolved into what it’s become today. After all I helped create a lot of that history.
Even if you never heard my name before, maybe you’ve heard of the business I started back in 1975 called Gauntlet. That business provided an outlet and a means for me to make the world aware of the wonders of piercing.
In the months to come I’d like to tell you something about your roots. The modern piercing movement didn’t just suddenly happen. It evolved, and part of that evolution started with me. Not that you’re interested in my whole life story, but a little background to put it all in perspective wouldn’t be out of place.
I was born in the bleakness that is Western Oklahoma six months before Pearl Harbor. Looking back on it much of my childhood was just as barren and desolate as the landscape.
I couldn’t wait to escape. In the back yard of one place we lived, there was a beat up old trailer with wooden slat sides and flat tires that had long ceased to be roadworthy. I remember often climbing up to the top and looking out at the distant two-lane highway and longing to follow that road anywhere just so long as it was away from the desolation of small-town life.
My parents were childhood sweethearts who eloped and secretly married shortly after they graduated from high school. The year I was born they both turned 21, perhaps a bit young to undertake the responsibilities of a family. Seldom was the rod — more often the belt — spared. They thought this would build character and assure that I wasn’t spoiled. Instead it resulted in a fearful, timid child indoctrinated with Presbyterian guilt. Years later in therapy I remembered being told, “We punish you because we love you.” Translation: punishment equals love. Not difficult to understand how S/M became rooted in my psyche!
Fifth grade was my last school year in Oklahoma. My teacher was Miss Newman, a horse-faced old maid so uptight she considered “fanny” a dirty word. What I remember most vividly from that year was an incident involving one of my classmates. His name was James and he was an impish kid with a knack for getting into mischief. He and several others were in the boys’ restroom during recess one day. After finishing at the urinal he turned and demonstrated for the rest of us how his penis got bigger and harder when he stroked it. Whether or not he had any clue what that was all about I’ve no idea. I was simultaneously appalled and fascinated. Something told me this was naughty and sinful and that I should pray for him.
My family moved to Colorado just in time for me to hit puberty at age eleven. Growing up in a very religious household where the subject of sex was hardly ever discussed left me totally unprepared for what was happening in my body. My mind kept flashing back to that day in the boys’ room when James had played with himself. Inevitably I had to try it myself. It felt so good I didn’t want to stop. Suddenly and unexpectedly the most incredible sensation swept over me, and, with an uncontrollable spasm, white fluid shot from my penis. Don’t ask me why, but I called that white stuff cultured piss. In retrospect it seems amazing that the whole experience didn’t freak me out. Perhaps the guilt and shame and the fear of discovery were more powerful, so powerful, in fact, that I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone.
Once the intense, guilty pleasure of masturbation had been discovered, nothing, despite my greatest efforts, could stop me from doing it for very long. Prayer didn’t help. Memorizing and reciting bible verses didn’t help. Not quite understanding why, I began to develop crushes on some of my classmates, the young men who worked as church youth counselors, and on the newly appointed youth minister. Before his conversion, one of the counselors apparently had been something of a bad boy and had gotten into trouble. He had a tattoo on one forearm, and I found myself strangely attracted to him. I wanted desperately to be close to all these guys, to please them, to be noticed by them, to…? There was an undefined longing for something for which I had no name. It was agony.
Do comic books still contain those ads for Charles Atlas where the cartoon bully kicks sand in the face of the “97-pound weakling” only to get his comeuppance later when said weakling becomes a buff bodybuilder? The ads usually included a large photo of some muscle-bound hunk. In spite of the fact that I lacked any knowledge of the mechanics of sex, I frequently locked myself in the bathroom or the basement and jacked off looking at those photos and fantasizing myself naked and bound and forced in some vague way to please my tormentor.
In time the burden I was carrying became unbearable, and I finally sought counsel from the church youth minister. The moment was painfully awkward, and I don’t remember how I expressed what was troubling me and I don’t recall everything that was said. I do remember Rev. Bill telling me there were three kinds of sexual expression: between a man and woman, between two men (for some reason he didn’t think to include two women), and masturbation. His mention of male/female sex elicited no response. It’s possible mention of the male/male thing made me pale or blush. I don’t know, but it probably wasn’t difficult to see how uncomfortable I was when he got around to masturbation. His counsel was low-key, and frankly I don’t recall much about it. He did take the time at least to enlighten me on the basics of sexual intercourse.
Soon after this talk with the youth minister I had one of my first sexual experiences with another person, Rev. Bill. One night we found ourselves sitting in the darkened church talking about something. Rev. Bill put his hand on my leg and slowly moved to unzip my fly, reach inside my pants, and begin to play with me. I was nervous and found it difficult to get erect, but I didn’t want him to stop. I reached over and began to fondle him. This mutual masturbation continued for a little while until he excused himself and said he had to go to the bathroom. A few minutes later he returned and it was clear that the encounter was over. We had one other such experience the following summer at church camp.
I lost contact with Rev. Bill. His proclivities eventually got him into trouble. He ended up marrying a woman some said was old enough to be his mother — I don’t recall if he ever had a child — and moved to a church in the Seattle area. Some years later I learned he had died of AIDS.
As my high school years were drawing to a close, I became increasingly hostile to the religion of my family. My best friend, with whom I had done some sexual experimentation, was an Episcopalian. I began going to church with him and eventually became a member.
The Episcopal Church was in a little tourist town called Manitou Springs. Across the street from it was a very nice little gift shop that didn’t sell the usual tacky souvenirs. Instead it was a place to find beautiful local crafts plus fine china, glassware and the like. John, the owner, was quick to spot a young gay man, and discovering my lack of experience, set about introducing me into the local gay community, such as it was in 1959. I worked for John that summer and was taken under the wing of a kindly older gentleman named Frank who introduced me to the various expressions of gay sex, at least the non-kinky variety. I was beginning to discover myself.
For several years after high school graduation I bounced back and forth from one school to another trying to find a vocation, but was so emotionally fucked up I couldn’t stick with anything. The mid-to-late 60s found me in New York working in various design-related jobs. Two things were noteworthy about this period, for they would have a significant bearing upon the establishing of Gauntlet. First, I took a number of classes in jewelry making. Second, I discovered the world of gay S/M and piercing.
From the onset of puberty my masturbatory fantasies always involved S/M. When I jacked off I would frequently experiment with various kinds of bondage. I also discovered that intense nipple work was a big turn on and began experimenting with all kinds of clamps.
The year was 1967, and I was living in Brooklyn Heights in an ancient brownstone apartment building at the foot of Joralemon Street known to the local gays as Vaseline Flats because of the sexual orientation of many residents. From my bathroom window I could look down on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the East River.
A few blocks away on Montague Street, two gay guys, Steve and Marc, had opened a small bookstore. A friendship developed. As we became better acquainted, they disclosed that they were members of the New York Motor Bike Club, a group of gay men into leather and S/M. Here was my opportunity to explore that side of my personality that I had kept secret for so long. I felt much like I did when I discovered I was gay and that I wasn’t alone. There were others who shared the same drives and longings.
In the mid-60s the gay S/M scene was nothing like it is today. Things were far from codified. No one had ever heard of safe words. It wasn’t even clear whether wearing ones keys on the left meant you were a top or a bottom and vice versa. On the East Coast it was said it meant you were a top, but if you were from the West Coast it meant you were a bottom. The bandana color code was still several years in the future. Just how much actual S/M was going on is hard for me to say. In my own experience what passed for S/M was mostly rough sex with a little role playing and bondage thrown in on occasion.
The “leather boutique” where you could outfit yourself and your toy collection was also some time away. One afternoon I took the subway to Delancy Street, one of New York’s Jewish neighborhoods. This was hardly the place I would have expected to find a motorcycle jacket, but someone from the motorbike club had given me the address of a tiny clothing store where I could find one at an extremely low price. A very orthodox looking merchant waited on me and helped me find a jacket that fit.
My next stop was a Western wear store where I purchased a pair of Levi’s, a pair of Wellington boots, and a black cowboy hat. Having grown up in orthopedic shoes I expected the boots to be uncomfortable, but to my amazement they weren’t. With my purchases in hand I could hardly wait to get back to my apartment. I immediately took off all my clothes, put on the boots and jacket, and jacked off in front of a mirror, the feel and smell of the leather fueling my lust. It felt like a rite of passage. I was finally becoming myself.
About this time I read a magazine article about a man who had made an extensive sea voyage. To mark the occasion he had had his ear pierced. Reading this article triggered something in my psyche. I simply had to have an ear pierced. It didn’t matter that it was 1967, and most men didn’t wear earrings. This was just something I had to do.
The New York Motorbike Clubhouse was a storefront near the foot of Christopher Street, a short distance from the docks and the leather bars. With Steve and Marc’s sponsorship, I joined NYMBC and made friends with a number of the members. One of them was a man named Ron. Ron had been a merchant seaman and had the tattoos to go with the profession. Even his earlobes were tattooed with stars, in the middle of which were piercings. His tattoos and pierced ears turned me on, and led us to share some sexual exploits. We ended up as good buddies. It was natural that when I made the decision to have an ear pierced, I asked Ron to do it. One weekend we got together and Ron pierced my ear with a large sewing needle. With a bit of maneuvering he was finally able to insert a small gold ear stud through the piercing. It was done.
At the time I was working in a decorator showroom that sold tacky pictures and statuary to interior designers. Naturally I was concerned that my pierced ear would not be acceptable to my employer. Still I had to leave something in the piercing for at least six weeks until it was sufficiently healed to be able to leave it out through the work day. Every morning before I left for work I would carefully clean the piercing and put a Band-Aid over it. If anyone asked I could always say I cut myself shaving. No one ever asked. At the end of six weeks I would take the stud out before going to work and insert it again when I got home. The piercing healed and is with me today.
For several years nipple play was something that I found highly erotic. I’ve no idea how it even came about, but at some point I began fantasizing about piercing my nipples and wearing gold rings in them. It was a fantasy that never ceased to turn me on, but I was afraid to actually admit it to anyone. One Saturday afternoon I even attempted to pierce my own nipples.
An ex-lover of mine was a watchmaker. He had a small tool box filled with various materials that he used in his trade. Among them was a small roll of thin gold wire. I snipped a few inches of it and from it fashioned a couple of small gold rings about 3/8" in diameter. Although I filed the ends so there would be no burrs or rough edges, they still had no closure and were way too thin for the job. At the time I had no way of knowing this was important.
That fateful Saturday afternoon I took the gold rings, the cork from a bottle of wine, and a push pin and soaked them in a small dish of alcohol. After cleaning my nipples with some of the alcohol, I pressed the cork against one side, the point of the push pin on the other, and taking a deep breath forced the pin through and into the cork. It hurt, but not that badly. By this time I was sweating and feeling a bit light-headed. After lying down for a few minutes, I recovered enough to proceed. It would be necessary to remove the pin to insert the ring. When I did, the wound began to bleed a little, but fortunately not enough to be a problem. The difficult part was trying to maneuver the round ring through the straight hole. This took several harrowing minutes, but I finally succeeded. All that remained was to do the other nipple. Somehow I managed. It was a testimony to my determination that I finished. But soon afterward I freaked out a bit at what I had done and removed the rings. By the following morning, were it not for the pleasurable tenderness, I would not have known what had happened the previous day.
But the fantasy of pierced nipples would not go away. Finally after a few weeks I gathered up my determination and my trusty makeshift tools and repeated the ordeal. This time I left the rings in place, though I was very closeted about having them and carefully removed them before going to bed with anyone. After sex I would get dressed, go to the bathroom, and reinsert the rings.
At this point in my life I had never seen or heard of anyone with pierced nipples even in the pages of National Geographic. That was soon to change. One weekend night I went to the Village to hang out at the NYMBC. Standing shirtless by the bar was a hunk of a man. Even in the subdued light there was no missing the glint of gold on his muscular chest. His nipples were pierced. I learned that his name was Fernando and that he was something of a local legend. Though I was never fortunate enough to enjoy the intimate pleasure of his company, he at least let me know that once again I was not alone.
Next: From New York to Hollywood