Imperiled

Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says, ‘This is the real me,’ and when you have found that attitude, follow it.

~ William James

I’ve recently felt the desire to once again dabble in writing fiction. I’ve written some short stories in the past, culled from scribblings upon the backs of envelopes or the scrawls upon Post-It notes, and I remember with great joy the feeling of accomplishment. Some of my characters are memorable to me, for all their idiosyncrasies and wanton altruism – a sort of incongruous harmony, if you please.

The sort of characters that just might – I fancy, in my more congratulatory moments – make Andre Dubus proud.

The short stories of Andre Dubus have inspired me for over a decade, ever since I first picked up his Selected Stories and devoured it like a kid does Gummi worms or sugar-coated breakfast cereal. I relate particularly well with the father figures created in “A Father’s Story” or “Killings,” which became the 2001 movie In the Bedroom. Their tenacious ambiguity, in the name of devotion, strike me as genuine. Authentic. Each walks a path that rings true, even if far from ordinary or acceptable.

So I plucked it from my shelf, intent on reading it again. To inspire me.

As I did so, I also took notice of the adjacent book, a collection of essays titled Meditations from a Movable Chair, penned by Dubus before his death in 1999. This one, I hadn’t read as thoroughly, instead having only skimmed through it on occasion.

Big mistake, for here is the motivation behind the man and his work. The frustrations and joys of being real, of doing what he loved even when no one noticed. The stuff that shaped the stories. And one essay, titled “Imperiled Men,” struck me as particularly timely.

In the essay, he recounted his days as a marine lieutenant aboard a US aircraft carrier in the western Pacific during the early part of the 1960s, where he and his men were assigned the task of guarding the ship’s cache of nuclear weapons. At the heart of the essay is his recollections of a man known only by the acronym CAG, a commander with an Air Group assigned to the carrier to run training missions in preparation for bombing raids over Moscow. CAG was a decorated pilot, having flown missions during WWII, and Dubus shares how excited he felt when, during a stop at Iwakuni, he would have a chance to walk with him through the Hiroshima memorial and pick his ear, how “I would walk with him, and look at him, and his seasoned eyes and steps would steady mine.” But CAG had been called back aboard the carrier and missed the trip. Only later did he learn what had prompted CAG’s detainment . . .

That night I . . . climbed to my upper bunk, and slept for only a while, till the quiet voice of my roommate woke me: “The body will be flown to Okinawa.”

I looked at him standing at his desk and speaking into the telephone.

“Yes. A thirty-eight in the temple. Yes.”

I turned on my reading lamp and watched him put the phone down. He was sad, and he looked at me. I said: “Did someone commit suicide?”

“CAG.”

“CAG?”

I sat up.

“The ONI investigated him.”

Then I knew what I had not known I knew, and I said: “Was he a homosexual?”

“Yes.”

He told me two investigators from the Office of Naval Intelligence had come aboard that morning and had given the captain their report. The investigators were with the executive officer when he summoned CAG to his office and showed him the report and told him that he could either resign or face a general court-martial. Then CAG went to his room. Fifteen minutes later, the executive officer phoned him; when he did not answer, the executive officer and the investigators ran to his room. He was on his bunk, shot in the right temple, his revolver in his hand. His eyelids fluttered; he was unconscious but still alive, and he died from bleeding.

“They ran?” I said. “They ran to his room?”

Ten years later, one of my shipmates came to visit me in Massachusetts; we had been civilians for a long time. In my kitchen, we were drinking beer, and he said: “I couldn’t tell you this aboard ship, because I worked in the legal office. They called CAG back from that boat you were on, because he knew the ONI was onboard. His plane was on the ground in Iwakuni. They were afraid he was going to fly it and crash into the sea and they’d lose the plane.”

All thirty-five hundred men of the ship’s crew did not mourn. Not every one of the hundreds of men in the Air Group mourned. But the shock was general and hundreds of men did mourn, and each morning we woke to it, and it was in our talk in the wardroom and in the passageways. In the closed air of the ship, it touched us, and it lived above us on the flight deck, and in the sky. One night at sea, a young pilot came to my room; his face was sunburned and sad. We sat in desk chairs, and he said: “The morale is very bad now. The whole Group. It’s just shot.”

“Did y’all know about him?”

“We all knew. We didn’t care. We would have followed him to hell.”

Timely?

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is in the news once again, though you might have missed it with that slick in the Gulf perhaps justifiably dominating the headlines. A few years ago, I had no idea what Don’t Ask Don’t Tell meant, nor could I have spelled out the havoc this ambiguous amalgamation of policy and law has reeked upon so many willing and able-bodied individuals. I’m changing that. Amidst my weak attempts at fiction, and once again devouring Andre Dubus, I am also reading Nathaniel Frank’s Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, and Steve Estes’ Ask & Tell: Gay and Lesbian Veterans Speak Out. In the former, Frank sums things up in a way that makes sense:

By defining conduct as including a statement of status, and defining a statement of status to include any indication that one may have a “propensity” to engage in homosexual conduct, the military was able to get around the legal objection that they were targeting people for who they were and thus violating the constitutional rights of gays and lesbians. And by insisting that the policy does not punish people for being homosexual, only for engaging in homosexual conduct, the government implies that anyone who is fired under the policy has willingly chosen to break the rules. In reality, the policy targets same-sex desire itself, and bans what gay people, by definition, do, while allowing straight people who engage in occasional gay fun to go right on serving. It is no more conduct-based than a rule that bars people from praying to Jesus – this is what Christians do, just as having sexual relations with people of the same sex is what gays do. Is banning people for praying to Jesus any different from banning Christians? Is a restaurant that bans creatures who bark not a restaurant that bars dogs? Is a policy that bars people who engage in homosexual behavior not a policy that bars homosexuals?

I’ve also found this to be interesting reading. It states that “Success in combat requires military units that are characterized by high morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion.” I can buy that. However, it also states that “The presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.”

In this day and age, how are these two statements compatible? Are we, as a nation, no longer willing to grant people the benefit of their integrity? Maybe I’m naïve, but it seems to me that a great majority of those who sign up and qualify for military service, are ready to die for This Great Nation of ours – for you, and me – are also willing to not let their “propensity” for certain sexual activities, whether of the straight or gay nature, get in the way of achieving the goal they’ve set for themselves. Show me the instances where those in the military have failed to do so, and I’ll be willing to bet that the sexual activities engaged in run the gamut of experiences, not just those of a homosexual nature.

To be clear, I’m not saying that conduct unbecoming should not be punished. If harm has been done, then let the consequences be meted out. But the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy is something altogether different, for how can one be justifiably punished for simply being who they are? Normal people. With normal desires and affections. I know a few homosexuals. And, trust me, they are normal. Not in a boring sense of the word, but in a one of us kind of way. And I trust them. They have my back, in more ways than can be imagined. They might even take a bullet for me.

On this Memorial Day, we are asked to remember those who have served. Not only those who are currently serving, but also those who have lost their lives, their limbs, and their livelihood. In doing so, let’s not forget those who have had distinguished military careers derailed as a result of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. And those like CAG, who even before such a policy existed were called back aboard the ship and given a choice no one in our military should have to make.

It’s time . . .