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Sailor - Soldier
Denny Meyer

In the dark late autumn of 1938 a young Jewish woman fled the heart of Germany for America.  She'd known that it was time to get out following Kristalnacht (the night of broken glass) when the Nazi government sanctioned the sacking of Jewish property throughout Germany.  The windows of Jewish-owned stores were smashed by gleeful looting crowds, synagogues were set on fire, bibles and prayer books were burned to ash, and Jews of all ages were assaulted on the streets in unspeakable ways.

My mother arrived in America as a refugee, essentially illegal, and was interned on Ellis Island, in New York's harbor, within sight of the Statue of Liberty holding its torch aloft as a beacon to those seeking freedom.  After much fussing with paperwork and a bond posted by a distant cousin, she was admitted into this land of unlimited promise. Like many immigrants, she first cleaned toilets to survive.

At about the same time a young Jewish lawyer fled Berlin, heading west through relations in London and after a long journey landing in New York.  He worked in the chaotic wartime offices of The Jewish Agency, which was frantically trying to relocate Jews out of Europe to wherever they would be taken in.  My mother came to those offices in New York desperately hoping for help in getting the rest of her family out of Germany (alas, at the height of World War II, in 1941, it was too late).  There they met and married.  I was born, just after the close of the war, to these Holocaust refugees and reared on the Upper West Side of New York City.  Every conversation there was multi-lingual, as was every child growing up there in those heady bustling days of postwar revival. In those days, in the late 1940s, the refugee community there was a hotbed of activist advocacy where every spare moment was spent raising funds for Jewish refugee rescue and relief.  Typewriters clacked ceaselessly, pounding out letters of advocacy as fast as possible.  Everyone worked day and night.  For want of a babysitter, my father schlepped me along to meetings with senators, ambassadors, high commissioners, and mandarins of every ilk.  At the age of six, I didn't have a clue what was going on; and yet, somehow I absorbed the fact that every ever-so-serious adult around me had escaped from an unspeakable hell and that American Freedom was the most precious thing that any human could hope to have.

I carried that thought with me as I grew up, outrageously gay, until I was at university at the height of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, when I saw students burning the American flag in protest. 
"It's time to pay my country back," I thought, and signed up with the United States Navy despite being doubly exempt as a student and a queer.

"You WHAT?!" my parents screamed, "You're supposed to become a doctor or a lawyer, not a gunslinger, oy vey!"  "Relax," I told them, "I'll be on a boat."

I entered the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in the dead of winter in 1968, where the Arctic wind blew night and day as we marched and marched until our, er, toes froze.  It was rough.  I was 5 feet 4 inches and weighed 110 pounds; I'd had to stuff myself with bananas just to pass the weight requirement of the physical exam (well, in college, I'd been a founder of the Great Banana Hoax, but that's another story).  Somehow, I made it through that and came out as a sailor.  True to my promise to my parents, I was sent straight to a "boat" --quite a large one in fact, an aircraft carrier.  For my first five minutes aboard, I was assigned to the flight deck crew, one of the most dangerous jobs anywhere.  A snapped arresting cable could slice you in half in an instant; raising your head to look around at the wrong moment could get your head blown off into the sea by jet wash.  Then someone noticed in my file that I knew how to type; I became a yeoman.

My mother was not a religious woman, but she thanked God that she'd make me take a summer school typing course in junior high school.   That resulted in the start of a ten-year, two-service, military career in administration.  I hated typing.

One day aboard ship, during a witch hunt for queers, my Lt. Cdr. called me in to his office and said, "Meyer, you're the only one we can be sure of (who's straight); will you help us find these people so we can get rid of them."  I grunted, "I dunno nothin' 'bout that, sir."  I didn't know whether to laugh at how mistaken he was, or cry over the anguish of having to keep who I was such a deep secret.  The reason they were so 'sure that I was straight' was that I didn't dare participate in the normal horseplay common amongst lower enlisted personnel, knowing that a momentary error would get me tossed overboard dead.  They misunderstood that caution and assumed that I was just so straight that I didn't care to mess around even for a common crude laugh.

I'd entered the Navy just at the start of the transition from the 'old Navy' to the 'new Navy,' under Admiral Zumwalt. They were looking for kids with brains who could handle technology, electronics, and those damned typewriters.  I advanced quickly, amidst the new breed of sailors, and became a Petty Officer Second Class (E-5) in less than four years.  After the carrier duty, I was assigned to a combined NATO and Atlantic Fleet headquarters in Norfolk, VA.  Nearly every enlisted person there was a yeoman working every day in dress whites amidst a sea of flag officers from around the world.  It was never ever mentioned, but quite a few of us clever yeoman were gay.  Who else could keep those white uniforms clean, crisp, and pressed?  Please.  I loved the Navy; who could have known!

In Norfolk, I first worked in a multi-service central files repository that maintained regulations and instructions from all the U.S. services.  This was in pre-computer days when we kept and updated millions of printed pages in huge loose leaf binders on floor-to-ceiling shelves that filled the office from wall to wall.  Each of us had a specialty; mine was Naval Instructions.  When a call came in requesting a particular instruction, I could reach to the shelf behind me, without looking, and pluck the particular binder before the requestor had finished saying what he wanted.  You don't get medals for that sort of thing, but we were still proud of our efficiency.  Every single soldier, sailor, marine, and airman in that office was queer.  Our Chief, a mild mannered married fellow, knew what was going on; he'd personally selected every single one of us for the ability to do the job.  And he was a loving mother hen to us; if someone seemed to have been about to loose their composure and be a bit obvious, he'd simply arch an eyebrow, as if to wordlessly say, "Tsk, hey, control yourself, Mary!"

 During this time my big scare came when I underwent a routine security investigation for a clearance.  One day I was called into carpet territory by two agents in suits.

They told me that, "In the course of the routine investigation for your clearance, we have received information that you are a........ "

I died a thousand deaths; "Oh My God!" I thought in horror, "They found out! I'm done for!"

Without pause, the fellow finished the sentence, "..that you are a .... user of marijuana."

"OH IS THAT ALL!"  I wanted to shout, I wanted to laugh and cry and jump up and down.  But, in my mind I saw my chief arching his eyebrow at me, and kept my cool; I simply looked genuinely perplexed.  That was the end of that, nothing came of it.  But, my heart thumped out of control for the rest of the week; and to this day, some 40 years later, I remember that tormented moment as if it had been yesterday.  All that because of an anachronistic ideology of bigotry.

When I got back to the office, my chief looked at me, wanting to know what that was all about.  I said, "Oh someone in the barracks must have told them that I smoke weed."  He saw how rattled I was, he knew what I'd been terrified about; he pursed his lips and his eyes twinkled.  I knew what he was thinking, "You wet your panties, didn't you?"

My next assignment was at a CAG (Carrier Air Group) headquarters controlling helicopter squadrons up and down the east coast from Maine to Louisiana.  Aside from falling in love, that was the most wonderfully exciting time in my life.  I had my own flight suit; we flew around the country constantly.  The officers I worked with were helicopter cowboys who lived to fly.  They respected me and relied on me to keep things running smoothly.  This was the rare reality of recruiting posters that portrayed a young sailor doing a serious job in a military helicopter hovering over a ship at sea.  It was every boy's, and every girl's, dream of adventure.  I loved it!

On weekends, I'd go to New York to visit my latest love.  Sometimes my commander would fly me up in a helicopter and drop me off at Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn.  He didn't ask what I'd be doing, and I didn't tell.  That was a pity because in a small cohesive unit like that we were like family.  But, I had to keep a secret that he wouldn't have cared about at all.

Ultimately, that was why I didn't reenlist for a second tour in the Navy that I loved so very much, a Navy that wanted me to reenlist.  I needed to be able to live freely.

Well, I needed to work and I got a job as a DAC (Dept. of the Army Civilian); administering the reserves; they only hired veterans with an admin background.  As it turned out, it was a dual status, civilian/military position.  You had to join the unit you were administering, in case they were ever activated.  And so, I continued my military career in the U.S. Army Reserve.  I was with the Army Reserve for more years than I had been in the Navy; I achieved the rank of Sgt. First Class (E-7); and yet, in my heart, I'll always be a sailor.  Anyway, its a good thing that I have no interest in football.

Soldier Boy

Among my friends, this is known as
'The Dukakis photo'

Don't Worry, it wasn't loaded

I was generally not allowed near weapons, I couldn't shoot and I was left handed.  I was an admin tech.  When it came time for me  to "qualify" they would clear the range for the sake of safety; the range officer "assisted" me, the shell hit me in the face despite the shell deflector, and then I was driven back to the office.

By the time I was a Sgt First Class, I had a great deal of responsibility that I'd grown into over the years.  I was expected to be a leader, and to keep things running smoothly.  I had a large office in which to coordinate the training schedules and payroll for some two thousand personnel.  And I had to be prepared to calmly "make things happen" because some young officer had said, "Can do!" without bothering about the details.  This, at times, required the sergeants' common mastery of the art of "relocation" in which certain urgently needed supplies were "moved" prior to the convenience of completion of all the proper paperwork.  Relocation required absolute trust between sergeants who were determined to "get the job done" without blinking or hesitation.  Being straight or queer, black or white, male or female, made no difference at all, of course.  We were professionals who solved problems; the misplaced properly dated paperwork was always found without fail within a day.  They didn't give medals for that either; and it was a lot less fun than flying around over big blue waves in a Navy helicopter.  At that time, my "Pride" was devoted to efficiently carrying out my duty to my country, just as it has always been for any NCO proudly serving as the backbone of the armed forces.  We calmly carried out orders while at the same time taking care of our subordinate troops.

In the Army Reserve there were gay people everywhere, enlisted and officer.  We knew who we were, our gaydar worked just fine.  But the mutual paranoia we shared, of never daring to say a friendly word, was disturbing, disgusting, and unnatural.  But, there were some funny exceptions, funny for the fact that our queer culture was so deep in the closet.  The woman who ran another unit, in the office next to mine, was a butch lesbian; but to the dull witted straight reservists she was simply a tough sergeant not to be messed with.  One weekday a reservist was outside working on his motorcycle.  At one point he came in and jokingly asked her if she happened to have a particular wrench that he needed.  Without blinking she said, "Oh I think so," and pulled the huge greasy tool out of her large purse.  I nearly choked to death trying to keep from laughing my ass off.  After the reservist left, I started to giggle.  She looked at me deadpan and said, "What?"  For the rest of the day both of us kept bursting into hysterical laughter every time we looked at each other.  Even then, we could not dare acknowledge the shared queer cultural humor.  All she said was that she'd been working on her car that morning and brought the tool with her in case she needed it again on the way home.  I mean, where else but in your purse would you put a greasy wrench, right?

Eventually after ten years of combined service, I decided yet again not to reenlist.  Emerging gay freedom was just outside the base gates; and I now had a long term companion whom I loved deeply.  As a senior NCO, I simply could not any longer bear leading a double life.  When I left the Navy, as a mid-level Petty Officer, I simply had wanted to be free.  When I left the Army Reserve, as a senior NCO, it was more because I simply could not bear being dishonest any longer.  I took the respect I had from superiors and subordinates very seriously and it just felt dirty living a lie.  Outside, I could be open and do things like go shopping with my lover without having to worry what an employer or co-worker might think, because outside it simply wasn't any of their business in the large cities where I later lived.

Now, I'm an old disabled man who can only wonder what it would have been like to serve a full 20 years as an openly gay man in our armed forces.  Hopefully, young people today wont have to wonder much longer.  Last year, at SLDN's grand Lobby Days Dinner in Washington DC, a reporter asked me, an old gay vet, if I'd go serve in Iraq if I were asked to.  I hefted up my cane, and in a warbling voice squeaked, "Yeah, Make my day!"  I was only half kidding; without any reference to how I feel about the current war, I've always been ready to serve my country and still am.  That is no different from all those patriotic American volunteers serving now, be they gay or straight.