US Navy Memories II

Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell: Never Tell

“We have…Settled into a region called “don’t ask don’t tell” and it is hard, I imagine for people who have not experienced this to understand the weight of silence and how the absence of language can feel like a death”

Daisy Hernandez, A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir

Soon after I arrived at the dispensary for my tour of duty, another physician bachelor was added to the roster. That made eight of us, for a small dispensary, yet we were busy. There was a culture of hard work and no griping. I have no idea how it got started, but the result was that I never felt as if I were going to work when I got up in the morning. We had a good time.

The recruit and I had a lot in common. He had attended a Midwestern Med School; had trained at the same hospitals that he had been to as a student; loved music; and seemed to have a permanent smile. We bonded immediately. Soon we were inseparable, to the point where we were known as the twins.

I did not have a brother. To have a kindred soul, a bachelor, dropped on my lap, was like attending a never-ending summer camp full of fun and games. He had lived in France for a year, and I had taken two years of French in college. Within two weeks we were attending the monthly meetings of the Alliance Francaise in the Tidewater area. One day I asked him how he came about to live in France.

“The language always sounded like it would be fun to learn it. I saved enough money to take a year off during college. I just boarded a plane and went to France.”

No job? Did not know anyone? Where did you live?

“I went to a small town outside Paris. I knocked on somebody’s door and asked if I could live there. They said yes.”

You spoke no French?

“Just oui and adieu. You learn in a hurry.”

Soon I learned that this is the way my new friend did everything. He was a world-class gymnast and diver in college. He knew everyone in the US Olympic diving team. He just showed up for diving practice one day, and they took him in. He did not decide on medicine until late in his college years. He just showed up for an interview, without an appointment. He got in.

In the same fashion he learned how to play the guitar; how to surf; how to cook. I was in awe of the guy. Much more so because he thought that I was an interesting person to talk to and be with, which surprised me, because… Who could match his resumé?

Within two weeks of his arrival all my evenings were taken with something that he had dreamed up. He went to the local university and volunteered to teach their gymnasts. One day a week he took me to their gym and tried, futilely, to teach me how to do cartwheels and backflips. There were art movies, and concerts, and a dozen new friends per week.

How do you meet all these people?

“I know where to go.”

This was my first inkling that my best buddy was gay. In those days there was a national network of gay men and women. There were places where you were welcome and could meet people, and everyone seemed to know where they were located. My friend was good at socializing. He had met a Who’s Who of interesting people who lived, under the shadows, in Tidewater.

The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy for the US military came much later. In the early seventies we were at war and doctors were needed. There was no way that my friend would be turned away. In other words: We hate who you are, and we think you are a terrible person, but we need you, so come work for us. And by the way: never ever let us see who you really are.

This double standard made for difficult situations. I was an eligible bachelor officer: there were dozens of requests for me to go out with someone who was a niece to someone else who lived next door to a third person who worked with me. My friend was experienced at avoiding these invitations. Soon people stopped asking him to go on blind dates.

I asked my soon-to-be first wife to move in with me. My evenings with my friend were limited, but not by much. For me it was a perfect existence: I could go out and have fun and have someone to come home to. I became overconfident, and I asked my live-in girlfriend to marry me. I told my friend of my decision.

“You are marrying her?”

He began to cry. It should have been a warning to me, that he could see the incompatibility that was not evident to me.

We continued to be close through our service time. We visited each other after we left the service. One day I received a postcard from a foreign destination. It was a photo of the US Olympic Diving Team. My friend had traveled overseas. He planted himself in front of the Olympic Village. When the diving team came back from practice, they spotted him. They were able to sneak him into their dorm, where he slept and ate like a king until the competition was over. So much like him: you show up for the Olympics with no hotel reservation… And it turns out OK.

He did not stop trying things. He spent a year in Paris, with the Opera, learning how to dance with the ballet troupe. He did more surfing. He developed an interest in “natural” medicine and founded a practice that blossomed. Thirty years ago, he wrote to me. His partner had died of AIDS. He was heartbroken, but healthy.

He died long ago. I do not know what from. I did not find out until much later. He was, by far, the most “alive” person I have ever met. Caring; kind; welcoming to all. A good doc with excellent training.

Hard to believe that a person like this was forced to live in shadows half the time. As if you were dead for 50% of your existence.

The weight of silence; the absence of language that felt like a death.

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