When he was young and looking for a little direction, our writer turned to the Navy. There, he found many more questions than answers.
“Photo via Flickr”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/kodama/70370860/
My first year in the United States Navy, I let another boy give me a blow job. Of course we were caught. If we hadn’t been caught, this wouldn’t be a story. I probably wouldn’t even have remembered the night in question.
This was in San Diego, over thirty years ago, and we had been drinking. As far as oral sex goes, it was disappointing. He was young and inexperienced: a quiet, doe-eyed boy, big as an ox. We had met earlier that year at a naval training facility in Connecticut, just before receiving our fleet assignments. I didn’t like him, but I didn’t dislike him either. I knew his name was Fear. In the military, everyone goes by their last names. I don’t even remember his first. When we parted ways in Connecticut, I had no idea we’d meet again.
Chief among my problems was the knee-jerk way in which I responded to authority.
After training, he had gone on to the fleet, while I had been temporarily assigned to a recruiting office near my hometown, a small mill town in Pennsylvania. I was supposed to visit the local high schools in my dress whites. Choice duty they probably only gave me because I was seventeen. My mother had to sign papers so I could enlist. But I never appeared at a single high school event that summer. I’d like to say this was because I didn’t want to be used as a tool for the man, but the truth is I was scared. The thought of talking to a room full of students terrified me. I had been thrown out of high school three times: twice in my junior year, and then again as a senior. Chief among my problems was the knee-jerk way in which I responded to authority, although I would not have been able to describe it this way at that time. If I couldn’t articulate my problems, I knew I was deficient in ways that most students were not. I also understood that most adults—particularly the recruiting officers who were now my peers—did not suspect how lacking I was. I could not bring myself to visit any of the school events the recruiters had organized because I felt certain those students would see right through me, past my crisp starched creases and glossy black shoes to the little boy hiding inside. So I stuck with my own hometown crowd who were celebrating the onset of summer, or their own high school graduations, by shooting heroin instead.
I joined the fleet late in August.
Flying into San Diego, I knew I had missed movement of my newly assigned boat, a serious offense in its own right. But I wasn’t too concerned: I had come up with a pretty convincing lie. On the tender, a First Class Yeoman named Thompson took my packet of orders. He shuffled through the paperwork and said he thought I might have missed my ship’s movement. I launched into my innocent boy routine—the surprised gasp of the astonished, the agonized wringing of hands. I offered my story, and then paced the tiny space, my forehead growing moist. I had only been chipping heroin, but despite these nominal amounts, I found myself irritable and restless, which I am sure only added to the illusion I was trying to convey. Thompson did just as I had hoped he would: In a commanding voice, he told me to relax. To sit down. He would take it from here. Thompson was the yeoman for the Pacific Seaboard’s entire submarine fleet. I felt pleased that my little ploy had gotten the better of him, but it would cost me dearly in the months to come.
I eventually got a room in the barracks and waited for new orders.
In the base cafeteria, I ran into Quish, another sailor I knew from Connecticut. He had thin, dark hair, with a thick white strip that hung in his eyes. He was stationed on a boat out of Hawaii but was in San Diego for training. He seemed pleased to see me, and with his thick Boston accent, invited me over to his room to drink. I readily agreed. As an afterthought, he mentioned that Fear was on his boat and in San Diego for the same training.
“You remember Fear?” he asked.
I shrugged. I had a vague idea who he might be.
Quish considered this for a second or two. His barrel chest heaved as he inhaled through his mouth, the way big men sometimes do. “Come by tonight,” he said. “Maybe you’ll remember when you see him.”
There is something about witnessing an act of homosexuality that so wounds and incenses a certain type of man, he cannot be reasoned with.
Later that night, I found myself alone inside a small office.
After pounding on my door at 4 a.m., a pair of burly MPs had brought me here, a small building in an unfamiliar part of the base. We’d driven over in a dark sedan. The MPs quietly murmured amongst themselves in the front, me in the back. The sky had been dark, the cool air thick with the smell of the sea.
I heard people in the rooms outside the tiny office, but the blind on the door window was drawn, and I couldn’t see who was out there or how many. The metal desk in front of me had file folders and forms strewn across it. There was a torch lamp. Stacks of thick dark blue binders were piled along one side of the room.
The pain in my back had mostly subsided, but to keep from aggravating my sore body, I sat up in my seat and waited for whatever would happen next. Although I was in the thick of trouble, I felt weirdly calm, which I couldn’t explain. I felt as if I were watching a story unfold, even though I knew this was my story, and these events were happening to me. In walked two men in rumpled dark suits and thin, loosened neckties. The stocky one sat behind the desk and introduced himself as an agent of the naval investigative service, which he told me was the NIS. He flashed an identification card and badge from a little leather holder. His partner unbuttoned his jacket and leaned against a file cabinet. He held a paper cup of coffee in his hand.
I had a terrible taste in my mouth from drinking earlier that evening, but I didn’t feel the least bit intoxicated now. In fact, my mind seemed to be in some hyper-aware, vigilant place. I was thinking how strange it was that I felt so composed when I noticed that my knee was working itself like a piston. I willed my knee to stop, to match the calm exterior I wanted to present.
“Did you visit the Sperry’s infirmary earlier tonight?” The agent behind the desk asked. The USS Sperry was the tender moored to the pier. He held some paperwork that I realized was probably from the doctors on the tender.
“I did,” I said. No point lying here.
“Why?” he wanted to know.
“I got into a fight,” I said.
“A guy in the barracks named Quish,” I said. I went over all this with the doctors, so I was sure it was in his report. What wasn’t in his report was this: Right after the fight with Quish, I had raced to the Sperry. Not because I was hurt—although I did get the worst of the fight—but to try to weasel out of the mess that I knew was about to go hot. My goal was to get something in writing that offered me some amount of plausible deniability. Quish was to be my main opponent, and this time I wanted to put up a better fight.
“Why were you fighting?” the agent asked.
My voice stuck: this was the sixty-four thousand dollar question.
“You should ask Quish,” I said. “He started it.” This was true.
Quish had hammered with his fists on my barracks door. I wanted to go out there and calm him down. Play it off like he was drunk. Like he had certainly not seen what he thought he had seen. But there is something about witnessing an act of homosexuality that so wounds and incenses a certain type of man, he cannot be reasoned with. And if he cannot be reasoned with, you should certainly not attempt to lie to him. But I didn’t realize any of this at the time. I opened the barracks door to boldly assert my innocence and Quish promptly bowled me over. I would have taken a beating, but Fear came out of the closet (literally) and saved my ass.
Watching those two titans crash around the room was like watching one of those old Japanese monster movies from the sixties. For such a quiet boy, Fear knew how to defend himself. Quish soon retreated to his end of the hall, screaming, “Faggots! Goddamn, fucking faggots!”
“Why do you think you were fighting,” the agent asked.
The doctors on the Sperry had not pressed this issue. This was my first inkling that things had escalated, gone from bad to worse. This was no more than six hours after Quish saw Fear and me through the barracks window, and the barracks fight that followed.
“He was drunk,” I said. “We had been drinking.”
A big sigh from the agent leaning on the cabinet. “Show him,” the agent said to his partner. He straightened and sipped his coffee.
“Just show him,” he repeated.
“Hold on,” the seated agent said. He sounded annoyed. He cocked his head toward his partner, holding out his hands palm up. “I got this. I got it.”
Placing his hands on the desk in front of him, the seated agent leaned forward.
“You,” he said to me, “are a homosexual.” He paused here for a beat. “And we do not allow homosexuals in the United States Navy.”
I was shocked at his blunt accusation.
I didn’t think of myself as a homosexual, even though this was not the first time I had had sex with a man. I didn’t even use the word homosexual. I said faggot, or maybe queer. If I was trying to be diplomatic, I might have said homo or fag.
When I had been in high school, I hustled gay men, even though I knew there were more lucrative ways to make money—ways that didn’t come at such a high emotional cost. If I’d stolen hub caps or spent an afternoon shoplifting, I didn’t spend endless hours agonizing over what those behaviors really meant about me. As an adult, I would realize that I continued to hustle because I liked the attention, power, and money. But I especially liked to be feted by men, probably because I longed to bond with the men in my family—my father and older brothers—and rarely succeeded.
When my boyhood friend—let’s call him Smack—first suggested hustling, he did so by taking me aside and asking if I’d ever had a blow job. Yes, I lied, even as I felt the blood rushing to my face. We were in the apartment of a man who distributed bundles of the local afternoon paper from the back of his Ford station wagon. He was in the back room, a balding man, with a greasy wisp of a ponytail and a mouth filled with twisted teeth. Smack saw through my lie and started to snicker. I assured him that, Yes, I had, even as I grew embarrassed by the whiny tone of my voice. Smack swallowed his laugh and whispered, Homos give the best head. I loved the low conspiratorial tone of his voice, loved the idea of receiving a secret from him, of being in his confidence. He had already quit school. He was good with his fists and one of the first to walk around our small town with his shirt off at the start of May—ribs, boney shoulders, and curly brown crown. Without naming any names, Smack assured me that this was what everyone did. I felt my resolve wane. Homos give the best head.
I called out a mutual friend’s name—Smack solemnly nodded—and then I called out another. He leaned toward me, brought his lips to my ear.
Everyone, he whispered.
This turned out to be a lie. Smack and I were the only ones hustling gay men.
Before I agreed to go into the room with the paper delivery man, I wanted to ask what it might mean for me to have sex with another man, especially if I weren’t—I would have stumbled over what word to use here, and queer is probably the word I’d have settled on, had I been able to finish asking. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t figure out how to pose the question. So instead, I asked Smack about the paper deliver man’s mangled teeth. Would it hurt, I wanted to know.
Smack just chuckled.
My confidence was born of the only thing for which I felt certain that night: I was no queer.
The agents were talking to me, but I wasn’t paying attention. Looking down, I noticed my right leg pistoning again, but this time I didn’t attempt to make it stop.
“I’m not homosexual.” I had to choke out this word. “I’m not.”
The agent sitting at the desk stopped talking. The man standing chuckled, tossing his coffee into the trash, cup and all.
“Quish says he saw you having sex with…” The agent looked into the folder in front of him. “Fear,” he said.
“That’s a lie,” I said. I spoke with confidence. Of course, I was lying here, purposely ignoring the act. My confidence was born of the only thing for which I felt certain that night: I was no queer.
“Quish is lying,” I said.
The agent sat back in his chair and sighed.
“What does Fear say?” I asked.
I felt certain Fear would back me up. With Fear and me against Quish, we were certain to win. The agents exchanged a glance. Seeing this look pass between them, I felt emboldened. “Get Fear in here,” I said. “He’ll straighten this out.”
“Fear’s gone,” the agent said.
I leaned back in my seat, confused.
The agent looked at his watch. “Right now Fear is about half way to…” He leaned forward and checked the paperwork. “Michigan,” he said.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“We do not allow homosexuals in the United States Navy,” the agent standing said. “Fear was a homosexual.”
“You,” the seated agent said, “are a homosexual.”
“No,” I said, although even I knew I didn’t sound too convincing.
The agent at the desk tugged out a sheaf of handwritten paper on a yellow legal pad and passed it over to me. When I asked what it was, he told me that Fear had written a statement. I saw the big loops of Fear’s penmanship, neat and precise. I knew the agents were watching me. I shuffled through the pages, but I didn’t bother to read the words. I wondered what I would tell the people back home. I felt a sort of sick awareness growing in my gut. I thought about facing my father, my brothers. I thought about Smack, who would probably laugh at me. I had intended to use the military to turn my life around but had always imagined that the change of course—the about face—would happen in due time, that it would simply overtake me and somehow sweep me off my feet.
All in a rush, I came to the usual conclusion: No, I think. Fuck you.
“It’s a lie,” I said.
I hadn’t really understood the stakes earlier, but now I was terrified, blinking to keep back the tears. I joined the Navy to become a man. This thought seemed so ridiculous I made an unbidden snort, even as I fought to stay in control of myself. I had no way of knowing that I was about to take my first few tentative steps toward manhood. I was about to be forced into tearing off the mask I had worn through high school. About to stand naked before the adult world and acknowledge who I really was: a heterosexual male who struggled with authority, an indiscriminate rebel who had a weakness for a little good head.
I exhaled noisily.
I realized the agents were waiting for me to speak. I supposed they wanted me to say that I was homosexual. And then I realized, I was thousands of miles away from everyone I knew, my entire family and all my friends. In a land filled with strangers, I sat with two NIS agents who thought they had my number. I looked at the agent standing by the file cabinet, the agent sitting behind the desk. I had always imagined a therapist would be the kind of person who’d tell me that deep down I am gay. These agents didn’t look half-qualified. On whose authority could they tell me what I am? When I thought of it in terms of authority, the decision was easier to see. I could feel my blood rising all of its own accord. All in a rush, I came to the usual conclusion: No, I think.
I took a deep breath, my eyes narrowed.
Earlier in the week, I had been watching afternoon TV in the lobby of the barracks. One of those old detective shows from the seventies was on—Cannon maybe? Columbo? The detective confronted a criminal with a sheaf of paperwork and the criminal looked at it, and then threw it to the floor. “Dis reads like a comic book,” he said.
I tossed Fear’s statement onto the desk and glared.
“This reads like a comic book,” I said, trying to scowl convincingly.
Together both agents sighed as one.
They told me that I had just chosen to do it the hard way. This was true, for it was 1979: long before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or the current swell of popular support for allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces. I will discover that it will take the better part of a year to sort this out. During this time, I will find some champions, in particular a young Lieutenant Junior Grade who will help me get a lawyer and deal with some logistical issues. But I have already made some powerful enemies—Thompson and Quish—and I’ll make a few more, before the year is through. As I await the outcome of my military tribunal, my father will grow suddenly ill, waste away, and die. By then he will have discovered that I was using heroin on my visits home, and he will want to discuss it with me. Because the stigma of heroin addiction was less damaging than the stigma of having sex with another man, I will shame myself in the last days of his life by thinking, “Even if Captain’s Mast goes bad, at least Dad will never know what happened to me in the Navy.” To cope with my father’s death, my mother and most of my siblings will grasp the mantle of fundamentalist Christianity that sweeps the nation at the time. On emergency leave visits that winter, I will think of Anita Bryant and her ongoing campaign against homosexuality. You can never go home.
It would be years before I stopped using drugs, even longer before I came to some understanding about my sexuality: But from this experience I learned what it felt like to be an outcast, to come face-to-face with my fears about the kind of man God made me to be. I would eventually be allowed to remain in the Navy, but the submarine base in San Diego was a small community, and like all small communities, word traveled fast. On any given day, half the base wanted to kick my ass—while more than a few of the rest wanted to blow me. I can remember summertime in San Diego, lying in my bed in the cool of the night. Hearing a knock on my barracks door, I would get up and reach for the doorknob, never really knowing which way it would go—proposition or fistfight—until I came out into the hallway light.
Tim Elhajj’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from the New York Times, Brevity, Sweet, The Yalobusha Review, and others. Tim is currently working on a memoir (tentatively) titled, Dopefiend: A Recovery Memoir in Twelve Parts. You can find out more about Tim from his website, Present Tense (past imperfect).