The miles passed and a world slipped away, and it was late afternoon when we entered the land of livestock. Somewhere between Brenham and Navasota, as we turned off the dirt road into Live Oak Resort, I expected to see the naked people in the distance, like a herd of grazing cattle.
This was early last week, just as the national convention of the American Association of Nude Recreation was getting under way. About a thousand nudists would soon descend on Live Oak, but now the club was occupied only by important nudists, who were conducting their important nudist business. The meadow was barren, and so the photographer and I got out of the truck and opened the office door.
You cannot prepare for an experience like this: Generations of good home training shouted shut that door, do it quickly -- leave naked people to their naked business. But I was propelled onward by something even stronger than home training: my duty as a reporter. I pushed past the woman licking envelopes, beyond the grandmother answering the phone and the old man who was just kind of hanging out. And then, bending over the copy machine, there was my siren, the naked public relations lady.
Georgia Brown's breasts waggled as she shook my hand, but she was the first naked woman I'd ever met who wasn't smiling at me. I had been invited here, and I told her I came in peace, not as a conqueror of a defenseless people but as an explorer of a (very) foreign culture. I told her it was an opportunity for anthropology. She didn't believe it. The public relations director of AANR put on a shirt and met me armored, thread for thread.
"We're not trying to cover anything up," Brown said without a trace of humor, but she couldn't let me wander freely among the natives. Instead, she escorted me across the green meadow, beyond the pool where the people lay like white seals and into the clubhouse to a seat at a round table.
One by one, the village elders were led out, until we were sitting there -- the hippo, the rhino, the poodle, the ostrich and I -- trying to answer the great question:
Why is it important to get naked?
There was in fact an original naked man, according to AANR literature, and his name was Kurt Barthel. A German immigrant who arrived in 1929, Barthel was astounded that Americans kept their clothes on, and he "resolved to change that situation."
Barthel and his wife quickly located three other daring men and their daring wives, and together they went to an isolated spot outside of New York City. There, "on Labor Day of 1929, North American social nudism was born."
Exactly what Barthel and his naked friends did that day the pamphlet doesn't say, but soon afterward, Barthel began encountering trouble with the law. For greater fun and more protection, he sought to enlarge his herd. After he formed the American League for Physical Culture, getting naked became a sophisticated thing to do. Barthel's nudism involved exercise and diet, but by the time his group became the American Association of Nude Recreation, nudism was just about the body. As the AANR practices it, it involves nothing more than taking off your clothes.
"The nudist philosophy is simple," according to an AANR pamphlet. "Being nude is being natural."
But this isn't wholly true. In different times and places, maybe naked was natural, but now it is an awkward way of life. In order to live openly naked, nudists make a decision to go behind walls. Inside, etiquette requires them to carry towels to sit on, so their hands are seldom free. Since they typically abandon nothing of modern life except their clothes, they're also forced to make accommodations for wallets and keys. And there is nothing else to do when frying bacon or power-mowing the grass: The nudist puts on his clothes.
Despite the hardships of the life, AANR's membership has doubled to 50,000 in the last ten years. They say if you like skinny-dipping, you'll like living naked. The nudists are courting the skinny-dippers because if they could just unite, they'd have a voting bloc of about 40 million. Some people vote their pocketbooks, but nudists vote their genitals. "To guard against infringements of your rights to enjoy nudism," AANR keeps lawyers on retainer. In the monthly Bulletin, AANR offers a "Government Affairs Update" on nudist issues.
By definition, we are dealing with superficial people here. Their only bond is their absence of clothing and their determination to stay unclothed. Nudists just want to be left alone, which puts the naked public relations director in the position of promoting and defending them. The more nudists there are, the more likely nudists will have their peace. Georgia Brown calls in the media to attract nudist recruits. Quickly, because nudists just want to be left alone, Georgia Brown shoos the media away.
"Definitely not a boring job," she said. Even through her shirt, I could tell her breasts were waggling again.
The women sat on one flank in the way that cows do. Squeezing between tables to find his chair, an old man brushed his hairy rear past their faces, in the way that cows do. Most of them were well beyond 60.
"I suspect he's naked under his clothes," a retired schoolteacher said about me.
"Oh, he's a nudist all right," the salesman agreed. "He's just undercover."
They stared at my cotton shirt and cotton pants; I stared at their white chest hair and sagging breasts. Honestly, I never felt out of place. I felt instead that I was among people who were out of place together. They seemed such solid citizens, not rebels at all but people who had always tried to be okay -- to say and do and wear the right things, to fit in. Then one weird day, they woke up naked in a zoo, telling a reporter it was where they belonged.
"Where else can you go and have everyone say hello to you?" asked AANR President Leonite Moore. "This is the only place in society that I know of. It's instant camaraderie."
To have friends, all you have to do is get naked. Almost immediately, though, it was clear there was a shortage of beautiful people in the nudist colony. Almost everyone walking by was fat, and a good portion were obese. AANR's statistics said that 92 percent are over the age of 35; most of these were over 50. There were some who were comfortable in their skin, and then there was that oxymoron, the modest nudist. Without towels or jewelry or hats, the children playing Ping-Pong seemed more honestly naked than anyone. The men were a brazen lot, with pendulous swaggers and gold chains around their necks. One otherwise hairless man seemed unaware of the black tuft just above his rear. Another gentleman, with Egyptian eyes tattooed on each buttock, winked with each step.
"So can we formally say hello?" said a naked woman, jiggling as she flung open her arms to a naked man. But unlike the men, there were many women who kept themselves concealed. They wore skirts or towels around their waists. Most of those around the table concealed their breasts with elbows. ("It's cold in here," one of them said.) If the men were like lumbering bulls, these women were timid cats, licking their paws.
"My wife thought I was one of those perverts, you know?" said Nate Kates, AANR's president emeritus. That was 38 years ago, when he began displaying himself. Her feeling about her husband didn't change until he took her to a club. Then she began displaying herself, too.
Almost always, it's the man who takes his wife to the nudist colony. In many ways, it seems a nudist colony is still a man's world. At Live Oak, the walls are decorated with pictures of nude women. In contrast to the genuine articles walking around, the women in the pictures are not fat.
"The only time I've ever seen an erection, the man was asleep," said Kates, but he confessed that a man becomes a nudist for what he thinks he might see. A woman, on the other hand, enters a place where fine clothes and firm figures are not to be found, and she disrobes as a respite from trying to please men. In this way, they delude each other: Men gaze at women who have rendered themselves sexless; women believe the nudist lie.
"It's not about bodies," said Roslyn Scheer, AANR executive director. "It's about acceptance, a way of life."
A union organizer said her stress melts away as her clothes drop to the floor. When her body is naked, she can be free of her body, she said. Without clothes tugging at her, it doesn't matter that she's overweight. She feels young inside; it doesn't matter that she's old.
Sitting beside her, I grew accustomed to her deflated breasts. Around that table, I memorized everyone's endowment -- not with lewd purpose but because they were there. I knew which men swung low and which were Napoleonic. Later, they would have their nude skating party, their disco dancing, their unrestrained games of volleyball. I dearly wanted to watch, but Georgia Brown said I had to get naked, or I had to go. So I had to go.
"We look forward to seeing more of you," the safety inspector said, wearing only a smile.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.