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The Carpenters Sing at Christmastime


Jeff Petrie

former Lieutenant , U.S. Navy

My partner Nick did a wonderful job at keeping my spirits up during the four and one-half months that USS Kirk had been away from her homeport of Long Beach, deployed to the Persian Gulf with the USS Ranger Carrier Battle Group.  When mail call came in, I could count on several little update notes, smiles, and expressions of love.  They were always signed "NP."

A feeling of excitement and joy filtered through the passageways of officer’s country and the rest of the ship as the realization set in that we had successfully completed our time in the Gulf. The voyage home was about to begin.  In our final port of call on the Arabian Peninsula--Muscat, Oman--we enjoyed shopping for holiday gifts, pirated music, and tokens to remind ourselves of Oman.  It was Christmastime, and among other treasures I purchased a compilation tape of all the Carpenters' holiday songs, thinking to myself that they would remind me of home during our eight-day voyage across the Indian Ocean as we made our way through the equatorial heat to Geraldton, Western Australia.

Feeling in a bit of a holiday mood, with gifts for family members in many bags, I returned from a last jaunt ashore in Muscat.  I was practically skipping in my mind when I stepped onto the ship's brow and requested permission to come aboard from the officer of the deck.  Permission granted, I walked onto the quarterdeck and past the podium where the petty officer of the watch stood.

My eye caught a glimpse of familiar writing on a piece of paper on the podium.  My mental skipping stopped.  I looked closer, trying to do so without calling attention to myself and my being nosey about the paper of interest.  It was Nick's writing all down the page of paper!  As nonchalant as I could be, I picked up the piece of paper and slipped it into one of the bags in my hand.  "What was a letter from Nick doing on the quarterdeck?!" I remember thinking to myself as I picked up the pace toward my stateroom.  Only there was it safe for me to read for the first time the letter that was addressed to me, but which had obviously been read by at least a few of my shipmates first.

As I sat on my rack and read the letter, it was painfully obvious that Nick had innocently sent me a totally incriminating letter detailing his thoughts of what we would do upon my return to California.  It was rated X, and was signed, "Love, Nick".  My mind started racing as I thought about who might have read the letter.  Who opened my letter?  And how would they respond to what they read?

I had no recourse for this federal offense: Any report to the Captain (whom I did not trust) about my mail being opened by other people would have certainly resulted in an inquiry about the letter in question.  "Can I see the letter?" he would have asked.

I popped the tape of the Carpenters' Christmas tunes into my Walkman to try to think about something else.  But my mind and imagination continued to race.  The next morning we were to leave port to traverse the Indian Ocean.

People sometimes chide me today for what was my reality during the next several days, but they did not serve aboard my ship at that time in our Navy's history: I remember being quite certain that I was going to find myself in the water in the wake behind USS Kirk at some point in the next few nights, thrown overboard by a group of my shipmates. It was certainly possible, as I heard the hatred which drove some of the conversations in the workplace during those days when gays in the military was in the news: The Democrat running for President, Bill Clinton, had promised to lift the ban. If the wrong people read that letter, I was doomed.

I remember being sad that I never got the chance to say goodbye to my mom and sister back in Washington and Oregon.  I was not yet out to them, and could not explain the significance of what had happened.  I remember during those long long watches on the bridge without another ship in sight, wondering to myself for how long I would try to tread water before sinking into the dark abyss of the Indian Ocean.  During my free time, I continued to try to distract my fears by the music of the Carpenters: "Winter Wonderland" and "Sleigh Ride" were best at shifting my thoughts to Christmases past.

Many times over the next several days I relied on the Carpenters to take me to an imaginary winter wonderland, safe at home with my friends and family. Incredibly, Christmas came and went, and we held a traditional Crossing the Line Ceremony—for which I represented the officers in the Beauty Pageant.  (I did not know whether to be happy or disappointed that I did not even place in the top three in the Pageant.  To this day that remains the only time I have dressed in drag.)

And now I come to a point in the story that words unfortunately cannot describe:  Imagine knowing that the sun was going to rise in the East, and then have it not.  Imagine anticipating the hour of noon, and then having it not arrive.  Imagine expecting the tide to eventually come in, but the water staying far out past the sandy beach.  That was the awe that I felt when USS Kirk pulled into Geraldton with me still onboard. 

Nothing ever happened.

In a strange but fabulous land at New Year's Eve, I purchased a plane ticket for Perth to get 250 miles south to a gay place for the festivities. That New Year's Eve in Perth remains one of the best celebrations I have ever had. It was also the most surreal—surrounded by Australian people like me, but yet feeling an overwhelming sense of being alone.  The hotties of Perth fought over who could speak to me, as they just loved my American accent.  I think from that experience I know what it would be like for Ricky Martin to go out to a gay bar.  It was that crazy. 

Every year at holiday time, I cannot help but hear Karen Carpenter's haunting voice over the airwaves—and I can still quite easily envision the stern light of USS Kirk fading off into the dark as I begin treading water in the last swirls of her wake.  And I recall the details of that federal offense committed against me that left me powerless, and afraid, at Christmas.

Jeff Petrie, a 1989 graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, is today the President of the only out LGBT alumni group of any United States service academy called USNA Out. Over 100 members strong, USNA Out’s members represent the Class of 1942 through the Class of 2006—all of them civilians who have little or nothing to lose by being out about their support for LGBT Naval Academy alumni. Find out more online at  http://www.usnaout.org