Thursday, November 11, 2010

Two Soldiers

 Posted by riot.

When I was a small child, in the elementary school years, I spent a lot of time living at my grandparents' house.  They had a big back yard full of nooks and crannies that I loved to explore.  I'd construct elaborate fantasy stories and act out parts, using the trees, patio, garage, and spaces between shrubbery as my sets.  Of course, as a kid who loved watching G.I Joe, Transformers, Spiderman, and all those types of hero cartoons, many of my stories featured guns.

I remember the first time I brought a toy gun to my grandparents' house, to lend some verisimilitude to my enactments.  I was on the patio, shooting at an imaginary enemy in a tree, when my grandfather Otto came outside and took my gun.  Now grandpa was the quiet sort who didn't seem to care much for kids and their noisy play, it's true, but he generally left me alone to do my thing, getting involved only if I tried to play around his Steinway grand.  This intervention into my back yard stories was unusual enough to bring me quickly out of the realm of fantasy, so my attention was entirely focused on him as he told me that guns were not toys, he never wanted to see me holding one, and they were absolutely not allowed in his house.

Many years passed before I could understand what it meant that Otto had been a soldier in the United States Army during World War II, deployed in Europe.  Grandpa was not in the trenches, he was part of an engineering battalion that re-built bridges as the Allied forces advanced.  Nevertheless, even from a short remove, he saw enough of war to reject its trappings entirely.

I suppose heard most of grandpa's war stories dozens of times.  There was the abandoned Nazi Youth school in which he found an orchestra room full of smashed instruments, from which he salvaged enough pieces to send a clarinet home.  He played the huge Steinway concert grand there and a German opera star, who had been reduced to working the nearby fields, would come and sing for him.  There was the time he talked an Army doctor into giving him a shot of penicillin for a touch of pneumonia even though he wasn't technically sick enough to warrant it; he argued that he deserved it as much as the dozens of soldiers who were getting the shot for venereal diseases they could have avoided.  There was grandpa's deep appreciation for a bowl of soup and a cigarette, as if any one of those could be his last.  He never told me the most gruesome stories, not directly, but somehow I always knew they lurked below, too awful to speak.

Later, when my father tried to butch me up in my teens, he would force me to go hunting for birds in the wilds of Western Kansas.  There were several birthdays when I opened my gift from him to find a shotgun or rifle.  I never felt I was being taught contradictory philosophies by my elders.  I knew, even then, that my father would probably never understand me.  I wanted to be the kind of soldier Otto was, one who abhorred the job.  I wanted to be the kind of man who couldn't stand the sight of a gun.

I met Scott at a sex party in NYC a few years ago.  We had a good time, but then I had a good time with a dozen guys that day, and I didn't think much when Scott and I exchanged information.  It was a pleasant surprise when he stayed in touch, chatting with me online during the day, and calling me now and then.  I admit I was fairly clueless that he was flirting--I have trouble liking myself at times and it seems bizarre that anyone else would like me--and I was floored when one day he said he wanted to date.  I felt like the quiet girl who was asked to the prom by the popular quarterback.

None of my friends understood why an avowed pacifist, leatherman, radical faerie, and general queer freak would want to date a guy in the military and deal with all the repression that entailed.  I certainly couldn't explain it.  My feelings about violence didn't change while I was with Scott.  I cringed every time he'd talk about kicking someone's ass, even jokingly.  I kept to myself pretty much every opinion I had about his vocation and in my mind I edited out the gun I knew he must sometimes carry at work.

But in addition to being awful and antithetical to my beliefs, it was pure wonder to have my own soldier, willing to battle for my safety and honor.  He was big, loud, confident, strong, and bombastic.  He could channel violence, yes, but he was also honorable, chivalrous, and brave.  He held my hand defiantly in every part of this big city, daring anyone to look askance.  The military had taken him in when his family rejected him and it gave him a place to earn a living, get an education, and pull himself up by his bootstraps.  He was proud of his calling and after a while I began to feel proud of his dedication, his passion, and the sacrifices he made to do what he loved.

He was so brave that he risked losing everything under Don't Ask, Don't Tell in order to include me in his life.  When one of his friends in the service asked him to be in his wedding, which was held in the military-only resort that is part of Walt Disney World, he invited me along.  His friends made sure that every person at their wedding understood that this was safe space for Scott to be with me openly.  There would be no disparagement or discrimination.  Everyone went out of their way to make me feel welcome.  On Independence Day he took me to the picnic celebration at the military base where he worked.  I was scared to death, but he assured me I could be as gay as I wanted to be--just not in his direction.  As it turned out, I had a blast.  No one said a negative word and everyone knew the score.  This bunch of soldiers and their families didn't understand anything about being gay, but they loved Scott, respected our relationship, and even seemed embarrassed that we had to be quiet about it.  I won a game of horseshoes, inexplicably, and no one blinked when I squealed and jumped up and down in celebration.

Sometimes when Scott and I would be curled up together, he'd squeeze me tight and say how happy he was to have a nerd for a boyfriend.  It was sort of weird, yes, but also endearing.  He wanted to be my protector.  It made him happy to look after a brainy, complicated, skinny guy.  Part of my mind howled at the patriarchy and high school-level roles, while most of me melted into it, feeling like the princess I'd always wanted to be, guarded by my knight.

Though I was happy and having perhaps the most open, adventurous relationship of my life, it didn't last.  Travel to Scott's home near the base required hours on a bus or train, plus more hours for him to drive and pick me up at the closest station.  For all the honor he usually mustered, there was a secretive side to Scott, little white lies and diversions that were entirely unnecessary.  These wrecked my trust.  I blame it on DADT.  Scott's life was compartmentalized and "down low" in a way that I left behind after I came out in my late teens.  No amount of bravery could overcome the military's demand that he hide his true self.  We parted amicably and remained good friends, seeing each other from time to time in our travels.

I also blame DADT for the fact that he was all alone in his home last year, between Christmas and New Years, when he passed away at 28 years old.  He had some kind of congenital defect and under stress that day, his heart stopped.  It's unfair and illogical to juggle the circumstances in my mind and thereby mete out responsibility.  I know this.  Still I can't help but wonder whether he'd be here now if the military had honored his relationships and orientation, if he hadn't needed to hide important parts of his life, if he'd simply been free to have his loved ones in his home and life.  My heart broke over again when, after his death, Scott's friends were finally able to post "gay" photos to his Facebook page and discuss the person he really was.  My soldier lover shouldn't have had to die to get the freedom that my soldier grandfather fought to protect for all Americans, queer or not.

Isaac Asimov, in his seminal sci-fi novel Foundation, wrote, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."  Wikipedia says it was derived from Samuel Johnson's famous phrase, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."  I believe firmly in the former and far too often in the latter.  Though I believe that violence is abhorrent and the need for military is heartbreaking, today I remember these two soldiers in my life, who showed me nobility in the midst of the most evil necessity.  I thank every veteran for the sacrifices they have made for this country, however imperfect its freedoms may be, and ask that they view their military institutions as yet another place where all Americans should receive equal benefit of the freedoms they fight to protect.


  1. Your story is touching. But at least you have the memory of someone who loved and took care of you. Some never do.