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But insecurity lurks behind the bravado. He is obsessed with his own virility, volunteering sometimes-excruciating examples of his potency, even explaining the intricacies of sexual function -- and how he is still able to function -- after prostate surgery. He talks about women in misty tones, as if conjuring scenes from a Barbara Cartland novel. "Bernie has always cared about and been sensitive to how he is perceived by women," explains Arthur House, a Hartford, Connecticut, public-affairs consultant who has known Barker for 55 years. "Women are one of his motivations. The other is that he's just a free spirit and fun-loving guy."
House tells a story of how, on Barker's 16th birthday, they were tooling around Long Island Sound in a speedboat. House was dozing in the back while Barker was at the helm. "He got a birthday card from a girl who was important to him, and he wanted to read it," House relates. Barker had told House he wanted to read the card somewhere romantic and waited until they were out on the water to open it. "He put the boat on autopilot while he was reading the card," continues House, "but he wasn't paying attention to where he was going. We ran right into a breakwater in Long Island Sound. The boat was totaled, but no one was hurt. When you think about it, Bernie's actually a really lucky guy."
Born into a "comfortable, but I wouldn't call us wealthy" family in Terryville, Connecticut, Barker spent his childhood divided between his father's home in Terryville and his grandparents' house at Giants Neck, Connecticut. His father, a licensed pharmacist, worked for Barker's maternal grandfather, Clarence Chapman, managing Chapman Machine Co. Though Barker's parents divorced when he was six years old and his mother moved to Florida, Barker stayed in Connecticut and was raised by his stepmother and father, who continued to work for Chapman.
At age 19, in 1959, Barker enlisted in the Navy, sailing to Europe and earning certification as a communications specialist. He claims that while stationed near Cannes, France, he became involved with a famous French actress (whose name he can't recall) and had lunch with Jack Lemmon. He also tells a funny story about going AWOL while his ship was in port in Norfolk, Virginia. He and a buddy had plans to meet up with two young ladies in Virginia Beach, but when their superiors forbade them to leave the ship, they sneaked out. Hiding their clothes under a rock, the two took to the water, planning to swim about six miles across a naval yard and up to the beach to meet the girls. Only Barker's buddy didn't make it. Assuming his friend had drowned, Barker swam on, had a "fantastic time" with both girls, and bummed a ride back to the ship on a speedboat. When he went to retrieve his clothes and saw that his were there but his friend's were gone, Barker realized his friend hadn't drowned after all but had simply become tired and turned back.
With communications training from the Navy, Barker gained an entry-level position at a missile tracking station on San Salvador Island in 1963, a claim several of his friends confirm. After that, he worked a variety of office-management jobs through the 1970s, eventually settling into a career as a real estate broker in Kissimmee and Orlando. It was then that Barker's affair with strip clubs began. He started dating strippers and strip-club waitresses instead of "normal" women, whom he says he finds fussy and overbearing. Barker lavished flowers, candy, gifts, and expensive meals on the girls in the clubs. He says he visited the strip clubs every day and counts a former Orlando strip-club waitress among his closest lifelong friends.
"I guess strip clubs are a comfortable place for him," explains Donna Luzzi, who met Barker in 1977 when she was waiting tables at the Dollhouse in Orlando. "I guess he just likes to be around women. In a regular club, you have to try to pick someone up to talk to them. In a strip club, he can just talk to the girls, and they trust him."
But by the time Luzzi met Barker, the 37-year-old real estate broker was getting bored and desperately needed a challenge. So, an accomplished swimmer since his teens, he set out to beat the world record for the longest swim. Barker wanted to swim from Key West to Miami, 130 miles, in a cage made from PVC pipe and chicken wire, designed to keep out mako sharks and Portuguese men-of-war. But one week before he was to try, a ski-boat propeller lacerated his foot, causing him to need 30 stitches. Still, he tried to make the swim on schedule but failed. The Orlando Sentineland the Key West Citizen printed articles about Barker's attempt. The Citizen quoted Barker as saying, "I've always thought I could do something like this, and I'd just like to try. Everybody's got some kind of fantasy.... I want to try to set the world record."
After that disappointment, he gave up his swimming dreams and settled into the late-'70s disco scene. "He loved discos," recalls Luzzi, noting that his love carried over to include disco fashions. One day while window-shopping, Barker recalls, he saw a pair of platform shoes with goldfish swimming in the heels and bought the shoes on the spot. But on the first night out in his new shoes, he learned a grisly lesson: Goldfish die in the bustle of the Hustle. He was talking to a pretty lady at the bar when he noticed she was staring, horrified, at his feet. Dead goldfish were floating around in his shoes. He had to empty the fish out in the bathroom and dance the rest of the night, sans poissons. That experience didn't cause Barker to stop wearing the fish shoes, though. He just started making pit stops at the pet shop. "I'd buy a few extra goldfish before I went out at night and leave them in a bag in my car," Barker recalls. "Every two or three songs, I'd go out to the car to change out the water and the fish."