House of the Rising Sun
Going to Washington, DC for the purpose of visiting the Vietnam Memorial was difficult for me. I wanted to do it, but I was also forcing myself to go. I really didn’t want to be reminded of the war or of myself as a boy soldier–I was only eighteen then. I’ve come such a long way since then and so much of that time has slipped into distant memory. Only now and then do images and little memories of my time in Vietnam come back to me. The Wall, our Vietnam Memorial, has fixed those memories in black granite and I’d been conflicted about seeing it since it was built. As I walked around the grassy knoll into the pathway in front of the Wall, my anxiety intensified. I saw the black, angular monolith stretched out in front of me. I didn’t know what to expect or how I’d react. I stopped for a moment to take it all in. I looked at the brochure I was given to help locate the names and I followed its instructions. I walked along the panels of shiny blackness until I found 1969. I looked for August. With my right index finger I scrolled down the list of names until I found his. Specialist 4 Charles Lawrence, August 27, 1969.
I ran my fingers across the engraved granite like I was reading his name in Braille. I took out the slip of paper and pencil that I was given at the information booth, placed it over his name and made a rubbing of it. As I did, images of those youthful days came back to me. I thought back to the day I joined the army and how I knew from the beginning that it would be a life-changing experience. What I didn’t know and didn’t think about then was the unexpected importance certain people and events in the Army would have in my life. Standing at the Wall, gazing at his name, I began to remember and feel again what it was like to be with Chuck. I would’ve given anything to be with him again–to feel him, smell him, and hear his voice. I smiled to myself as I remembered him, who I was back then, and how we met. Touching the Wall made the memories seem to come alive and it seemed like yesterday…
I woke up early without the alarm clock, although I had set it the night before to make sure I wouldn’t oversleep. It was Friday, June 28, 1968, 05:00am and my life was about to change. I had graduated from high school on June 6th and now twenty-two days later everything in my life would be different. I was joining the army. As I lay in bed thinking about the coming day, I also reflected on the past seventeen years.
For all of my childhood successes and development, there was something unsettled underneath the accomplishments. My high school years had been good in an extraverted sense, but I still had not come to terms with myself nor had I developed a healthy sense of identity or self-concept. I felt weak and ineffectual in a dysfunctional family with an abusive, alcoholic father and a loving, but very intellectually limited mother. I was tired of being the sissy who had repressed his masculinity and surrounded himself with female friends, but who had very few male friends. I wanted to feel, look and be masculine. I had long ago lost the connection to my male self and I missed it and wanted to feel it again. Missing myself like that made me long for some kind of bond with other males. I was so desperate for it, in fact, that I had turned down a college scholarship and joined the military. I felt this existential need to be surrounded by males and rediscover the masculine part of me that I had begun to reject as a young child. I wanted to bring back the masculinity that I had so thoroughly isolated and locked away in my consciousness. The military seemed an honorable path and the perfect male environment to do that. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could succeed in the male world. I had done so well in artistic and academic worlds, but the hyper-masculine world of the military would be a greater challenge. This was my most important goal, yet I couldn’t consciously articulate it and had no one to talk to about it, not even my parents.
Mom and Dad were rather invisible to me. They were there, but we had long ago lost any emotional connection to each other. They drove me from home in Tacoma to Seattle that morning, but we didn’t talk at all about my leaving. They showed no emotion about the whole situation, but to me it wouldn’t have mattered if they had. My mother initially objected to me joining the military, but Dad said let it be. I knew instinctively what I had to do and I was following some inner, guiding force. That inner force had more authority and power over me than Mom and Dad ever did. I had always paid more attention to it than anything my parents ever said. There was nothing that was going to keep me from this experience.
I was still a child at seventeen, I realize now. I suppose I knew I wasn’t grown up, but I wanted to be so badly. Joining the military was a risky and, given the Vietnam War was raging, potentially dangerous approach to becoming an adult male. But I knew it was my destiny. I had had dreams of going to Vietnam for a couple years, but joining the Army Security Agency had also given me options that could have led to other duty stations, or, if, indeed, Vietnam then at least not in the infantry. I wasn’t male enough or mature enough, I believed, to be an infantry soldier. I had often compared myself to other boys at school who were physically and emotionally more mature than I. I always came up less in my estimation. I also knew that I was deeply drawn to those boys, but also frightened of and withdrawn from them. The military would be my bridge back to my own kind–back to my male self. That was my plan anyway. But I had no idea how it would all work out.
Mom and Dad dropped me off at the front gate of the Armed Forces Entrance and Examination Station on Alaskan Way down on the waterfront in Seattle. Dad shook my hand and Mom gave me a quick, awkward hug. It made me uncomfortable, so I pulled back as soon as I thought it wouldn’t offend her. I picked up my travel bag and waved good-bye. There were no other words exchanged between us. I walked through the gate and disappeared from view through the large, heavy doors.
After a couple hours of military bureaucracy, I was given the oath, put on a bus to Sea-Tac airport and sent to Fort Ord, California for basic training. Basic was difficult and emotionally draining, but I found I had the will and the stamina to do well enough. Although I didn’t do exceptionally well in hand-to-hand combat or rifle marksmanship (I barely passed both), I finished in the top three out of seventy-three men in the unit. I did extremely well in first-aid, the mile run, but outdid everyone in the obstacle course and the bayonet drill. The obstacle course was fun for me. I was light on my feet and coordinated and had no fear of heights that would stop me from climbing across suspended logs and other such training exercises. The bayonet drill surprised me. It was a fluke in my mind that I did so well. But the drills, with their choreographed movements and prescribed body positions, reminded me of a dance or Tai Chi. Another area in which I did surprisingly well was pugil stick fighting. Opponents were drawn by lottery and I drew someone who apparently was more frightened of this process than I. I soundly defeated him and received a top score. It was a moment of crowning success for me. I had held my own with all these macho guys and, to be honest, I was really surprised. It changed the way I looked at and thought of myself. I could feel my lost masculinity reasserting itself.
After graduation from basic training, I received my first promotion from grade E-1 to E-2. I was recognized and rewarded for performing well, although others received promotions for their leadership skills. As the unit was dismissed for the last time, I felt a twinge of sadness that all this was over. I had grown to appreciate the guys in my unit and I felt a camaraderie with them. I liked them and it was clear they liked me. It was a feeling I had never experienced before. I wondered if I would ever see any of them again, since most of the guys were going on to infantry school and I knew that they would be sent to Vietnam as grunts. I was assigned initially to the Defense Language Institute just down the highway in Monterey. I thought at first I would be studying Russian, but because I already had four years of Russian, I took the D.L.I. proficiency test and passed it. That put me in a holding pattern for a few weeks until the army could figure out what to do with me.
I was sent home on leave for two weeks, which were uneventful. I didn’t see much of my parents, because I preferred to spend time with a couple of friends socializing and passing the time in order to take my mind off the army and my family. The two weeks passed quickly and I had to get back on the plane for California. When I reported for duty at the language school, the officer-in-charge scrutinized my papers, shuffling and reshuffling through them. He furrowed his brow, twitched his nose, raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips until I felt a sense of foreboding.
“Is there anything wrong, sir?” I asked.
“Ah…no…not exactly,” he replied distantly. He finally set the papers on the desk, looked up at me and said with enthusiasm, “You’re being reassigned to Fort Devens.”
“What?” I asked with a clear lack of understanding.
“It seems you were going to be assigned to the Vietnamese language school, but the next cycle doesn’t begin for another month. So it looks like they want to give you the Russian M.O.S. (military occupation specialty) and cross-train you in another field,” he explained.
“So what does all this mean for me now? Where do I go?” I asked with a little desperation.
The officer handed me a packet of papers that included reassignment orders and travel orders to Boston. “You have a flight out of San Francisco tomorrow at fourteen hundred hours,” he said matter-of-factly. “As for what you do until then, I’ll assign you a bunk in the holding company, request some bedding and meal tickets for today and tomorrow and then right after lunch tomorrow come back here and we’ll get you on a shuttle to the airport.”
The officer filled out some forms, checked a roster, wrote down some numbers and handed me a card with the necessary information to get into the holding company.
“The mess hall is across the quad here, the second building on the left. Dinner is served from seventeen hundred to nineteen hundred hours. The Enlisted Men’s Club is open until midnight and the movie theater opens at nineteen hundred. Don’t leave the base without a pass and you can’t get a pass, so don’t leave the base.” His voice began to drone the information, then he continued with more rules and regulations. I stood at ease and listened without hearing. I had heard it all before and I knew the routine.
The holding company was located three buildings beyond the mess hall, so I hauled my duffle bag across the quad and through the row of World War II era barracks until I found the right one. I walked up the three short wooden steps and entered the building, which wasn’t as modern and clean as my previous barracks in basic training. No one was at the receptionist desk, so I stood quietly looking around at the pictures and miscellany on the walls until someone appeared. I knew it would do no good to explore, because they would just jump all over me anyway, if I were some place I wasn’t supposed to be.
Finally, a rather robust staff sergeant, wearing army issue glasses, probably in his thirties, came out of the back room and with a slightly surprised expression asked, “What can I do you for, soldier?”
“I’m just checking in for the night,” I replied directly. I just arrived, but there was some kind of mix up and now I’m being reassigned back East. I have a flight tomorrow at two.”
“Y’ got yer authorization?” he asked routinely.
I handed him the card the officer had given me. The sergeant stamped it and filed it away in a card file. He reached up to a large board with hooks and keys, took one down and handed it to me saying, “All I got’s an extra bunk in a two-man room upstairs. Number 22. Yer sharin’ the room with a hold-over. Yer lucky y’ got some travel orders. This poor guy’s been here two weeks already and ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
“Thanks,” I said taking the key. “What about the bedding?”
“I’ll give supply a call. Someone’ll bring it over in the next half hour or so,” he said helpfully.
“Thanks again,” I said as I moved toward the stairs.
“Enjoy yer stay,” the sergeant called out. “What we got ain’t exactly the Ritz if yer expectin’ comfort, but the bunks ain’t too bad.”
I stopped at the bottom of the stairs, turned my head to listen to the sergeant and replied, “Oh, I don’t expect much. I may be new, but I’ve learned you never get what you expect, so I simply don’t expect anything.”
“Y’ sound like a smart kid,” said the sergeant with a smile. “You should get along well in this man’s Army!”
I marched up the stairs to the second floor, followed the hallway until I found 22. I hesitated a moment because I wasn’t sure if I should knock or simply open the door with the key. I decided to knock. I knocked lightly but rapidly three times, stepped back and waited for a response. I heard someone moving around inside and then the greeting, “Come on in! Door’s open!”
I turned the doorknob and opened the door into a room about twenty feet square. I absorbed the details of the room in a matter of seconds. One side of the room had a neatly made bed, posters of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and the Monterey Music Festival 1967 on the wall, a small night stand with drawers and a wall-locker for clothes. There was a throw rug with an American Indian design on the floor in front of the bed. The other side of the room held an empty army bunk and the walls were bare. A young man about nineteen or twenty was sitting cross-legged on the nicely made bed reading a Mad Magazine. Dressed in olive drab fatigue pants, army socks and a t-shirt, he looked to be the typical young soldier. His dog tags were hanging over his chest intertwined with multiple strings of colorful hippie beads. He looked up with the realization that he wasn’t going to be alone anymore. His brown eyes beneath slightly heavier than normal eyebrows showed a momentary disappointment.
“Sorry to barge in like this, but I’ve been assigned here for the night,” I said, paused briefly, then quickly tried to reassure the guy by saying, “but I’ll be leaving tomorrow, so you’ll have the place to yourself again.”
“Ah, that’s alright, ” he said when he realized that I was sensitive to his position. “I don’t mind, really. It’ll be good to have some company for a change.”
I liked the guy instantly and found him strangely attractive. He was handsome without being too pretty or too masculine. I walked all the way into the room, set my duffle bag on the bunk and decided to walk over to him and introduce myself. I stuck my hand out and said, “Lonnie Davidson, what’s yours?”
“Chuck Lawrence,” he replied shaking my hand from his perch on the bed.
“So, the Sarge tells me you’ve been here awhile waiting for orders or something,” I said, my voice asking more of a question than making a statement.
“Yeah, they’ve been fuckin’ around for two weeks trying to figure out what to do with me,” he said with disdain. “I don’t know what the fuckin’ problem is. They assigned me here for German, then found out I’d had some German before. I passed the proficiency test and that’s created a problem. I guess they don’t want to spend the money to teach me something I already know, so now they have to decide what I’m gonna be doin’.”
I chuckled and nodded my head in response. “That’s pretty much my situation, too, except it was Russian. “Did you get a chance to request a new school?”
“Fuck no!” Chuck said with a little anger. “It’s outa my hands now. I’ve gotta do what they tell me, like it or not.”
“Well, good luck,” I said sincerely. “I hope you end up with something you like.”
“Yeah, thanks,” said Chuck with a milder tone. “Sorry for the little outburst, but the bullshit just doesn’t stop around here.”
“Yeah, I can imagine,” I said trying to sound supportive.
“What about yourself?” asked Chuck. “Where’re you going tomorrow?”
“I’m flying to Boston, ” I answered. “I’ll be stationed at Fort Devens, but I have no idea what I’ll be doing. I don’t have a new M.O.S. yet either–at least they haven’t told me.”
Chuck smiled briefly and said, “Well, that’s a hundred percent more than I know, so you’re ahead of the game.”
I nodded and flopped on my empty bunk. Just then there was a knock on the door and Chuck yelled to come in the same way he did when I had knocked. A young private came in carrying bedding. He looked around briefly settling his gaze on me and said, “Here…for you.” When you check out, just give ’em to the Sarge at the desk.”
“Sure, ” I said. “Just set them over here,” indicating the foot end of the empty bunk. The guy set them down, turned around and walked out without saying anything else. Chuck got up off the bed and shut the door.
“Talkative bunch around here,” said Chuck ironically.
“So it seems,” I agreed. I couldn’t help but notice Chuck’s masculine grace as he moved quickly from the bed to the door and back again. He wasn’t muscular, but solid with large upper arms and broader than average shoulders. His waist seemed slightly narrower than I would’ve expected, with his hips, butt and thighs so well developed. Chuck crawled back onto his bunk, crossed his legs again and seemed to wait for the metallic clinking of his dog tags to stop before he spoke.
“You going to dinner?” he asked looking up at me.
“Yeah, I’d like to,” I said, sounding more exhausted than I really was. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I’m getting a bit hungry.”
“You know, there’s a restaurant in the club where we can get just about anything we want,” offered Chuck. “The food’s boring, but it’s better than the mess hall.”
“I’ve got a little money on me,” I replied. “Shall we?”
“Far out!” Chuck exclaimed as he jumped from the bunk, grabbed his shirt and slipped into his boots. “I haven’t had anyone to talk to in over a week.”
He looked up at me as he tied his boots and said grinning, “Who knows, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”
I didn’t say anything in response. I just smiled, stood up, stretched and walked toward the door. Chuck stood up and with a couple strides caught up with me. He slapped me firmly but lightly on the shoulder and said, “Ready? I’m feeling kinda hungry.”
“Sure. I’m ready,” I said not quite comfortable with Chuck’s friendly attitude and touch. I liked him and his friendliness, but I wasn’t quite sure where it was coming from. No one in my life had ever treated me so openly so quickly. I just wasn’t sure about it. Or perhaps I wasn’t sure about me.
We had a pleasant dinner at the club, but Chuck was right, the food was just so so. We talked about our families, our lives at home and how we ended up in the army. I really enjoyed his company. We were alike in many ways, but I thought that Chuck was more animated and freely expressive than I. I was surprised to find out that I was, in fact, a couple months older than Chuck. I had thought he was nineteen or twenty, but he was still seventeen. My eighteenth birthday was on August 26th. Chuck wouldn’t turn 18 until December 31st. It gave us an additional bond that somehow had significance to us both. After dinner we went back to the room and talked for hours into the night. Finally, about two in the morning we fell asleep, but we both wished the evening could have continued. We found in each other a brotherhood and a sympathy that neither wanted to let go of. I slipped into sleep wishing I could stay roommates with him. Chuck fell asleep envious that I had an assignment and travel orders. He was beginning to feel useless as a hold-over and it reminded him of his childhood as the youngest of four and the least motivated in the pack of very high-achievers.
I learned a lot about Chuck that first evening together. He was born and raised in upstate New York in the Finger Lakes area southwest of Syracuse. His three older siblings were accomplished and successful. His oldest brother was studying law at Syracuse and his two older sisters were both at the University of Massachusetts, one working on her Masters in Mathematics the other still an undergraduate. Chuck didn’t have the grades out of high school to go to college other than a community college. This had disappointed his parents and he was now looking for his own niche in life. He was even considering the military as a career, but if he did, he wanted it to be in Special Forces or at least he wanted to go airborne and jump out of planes. The bottom line for Chuck was getting away from familial and social expectations in order to find himself and his own path in life on his own terms. I felt a kinship with him over these issues. I shared my reasons for joining the army–those I was aware of anyway–and, although, not the same, they resonated with Chuck in the same way his resonated with me. We found a powerful attraction in each other that led immediately to an emotional attachment.
The next morning, I was awakened by my bladder about eight fifteen. I got up and headed for the latrine. When I returned, Chuck was sitting up in bed looking at his watch. “We missed breakfast,” he said through a yawn.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said as I climbed back under the covers. “We can catch lunch. I won’t notice I’m hungry until then anyway.”
Someone began knocking on the door louder than necessary.
“Fuck!” exclaimed Chuck under his breath as he laid back down covering his head with the blanket. “What do they want so damned early?”
“Private Lawrence?” questioned the voice through the door.
“Yeah?” yelled Chuck. “What is it?”
“You got some orders here,” called the voice.
I quickly glanced at Chuck. He was lying perfectly still under the covers. He suddenly threw the blanket off, jumped up and swung the door open. The Sarge was standing there holding out the papers in his right hand. Chuck grabbed them and began reading quickly to himself.
The Sarge chuckled out loud and said, “You’d better git yer shit together, Private. Yer shippin’ out with this here nug right after lunch. I want this shit off the walls, y’hear? Both of ya, don’t forget yer bedding. Why dontcha bring it on down as soon as ya shit, shower and shave. I’ll be expectin’ ya.”
Sarge disappeared from the doorway and Chuck slowly closed the door behind him.
“Who’s he calling a new guy?” I asked a little offended.
“You’re just as much of nug in the Army as I am.”
“Yeah, we’re both nugs, don’t mean nothin’. The only thing that matters is that this new guy has orders!” Chuck said grinning from ear to ear.
“So, you’re shipping out with me, today!” I exclaimed somewhat incredulous that we might be leaving together.
Chuck whooped and jumped onto his bunk with both feet planted squarely in the middle of the unmade bed. “Yeah, I’m going to Boston!” he exclaimed loudly. “The flight leaves at fourteen hundred hours!”
I sat up and, putting my feet on the linoleum floor, said, “That’s my flight! We’re on the same flight! That’s so far out!”
Chuck began laughing as he jumped up and down on the bunk. “And you know what? I not only know where I’m going, but now I’m ahead of the game, because I know what I’m gonna be doing!”
“Really?” I asked. “What’s that?”
“Something called 05H school–wait, wait–let me read it, ” Chuck said as he stopped jumping. “High speed Morse intercept. What the fuck’s that?”
“Morse?” I asked rhetorically. “Must mean Morse code. Dots and dashes–you know.”
“Oh, fuck, I don’t care!” said Chuck. “I’m out of here. That’s all that’s important right now.”
Neither of us wanted to wait until we showered to get the bedding down to the Sarge. Chuck jumped off the bed and in a single bound landed right in front of me. He wrapped his arms around me and gave me a bear hug and a quick, loud smack on the cheek. Before I could say or do anything, he let go and said, “Grab the bedding! Let’s run it down to the Sarge.”
We balled the blankets and sheets together and ran downstairs in our skivvies. By the expression on his face, Sarge wasn’t much happy to see us without uniforms on, but he didn’t have time to bitch at us. We dropped the bedding on the counter at a dead run and flew back up the stairs as quickly as we had run down. Sarge just rolled his eyes and shook his head from side to side. I heard the phone ring downstairs as we got back to the room, and I heard Sarge’s voice as he answered it, but we ran into the room and quickly closed the door.
“Staff Sergeant Wilson, Company C. Yes, sir…yes, sir…right away, sir…Private Lonnie Davidson, yes, sir…oh nine-thirty, yes, sir…will do, sir…thank you, sir…I’ll tell him immediately…yes, sir…g’bye. I’ll be damned,” said Sarge to himself. “Those boys are goin’ to the same school!”
Sergeant Wilson climbed the stairs, walked down the hall and was about to knock on our door again, when the door burst open nearly hitting him in the face. His reflex was quick and he pulled back just in time.
Chuck looked startled and said, “Oh, Sarge, sorry…hope the door didn’t hit you!”
I had to stop very suddenly and nearly ran into the back of Chuck. Sarge looked over Chuck’s shoulder to me and said, “you got your school orders just come down. You gotta go to Personnel at Headquarters and pick ’em up at oh nine thirty. Don’t be late. There’s a bit of a surprise waitin’ for ya.”
“What kind of surprise, Sarge?” I asked a little excitedly.
“You’ll find out. It ain’t for me to say,” he replied and walked away down the hall. He called out without looking back, “Lads, don’t forgit your keys when you check out. I need ’em.”
I looked at my watch. 08:55am. “Oh, shit! I’ve gotta hurry!” And both of us ran down the hall to the showers. We managed a quick shower, chatting with excitement about the prospects of the day. Once out of the shower and in front of the sinks, we stopped talking to concentrate on shaving, although we only needed quickly to run the razor over our adolescent beards. As we were standing next to each other leaning over the sinks, I noticed that Chuck glanced now and then out of the corner of his eye at me. Finally, he asked, “So, you got a girlfriend at home?”
“Naw. Not really,” I answered. “I dated a bit in high school, but not seriously. There was one girl I went out with but I wasn’t in love with her. Being in the army now, I doubt we’ll ever get together again. How ’bout yourself?”
“Same here. I was going with this girl in my senior year, but I wasn’t in love with her either. We broke it off when I left,” he explained.
“I’m not much worried about it,” I continued. “I just turned eighteen and I’m not ready for all that yet.”
“You a virgin then?” Chuck asked a little too directly.
“Ah, that’s kinda personal don’t you think?” I asked a little too defensively.
“Sorry, man,” Chuck said. “It’s no big deal, y’know. I’ve never had sex with anyone, either. Kissed a little, but that’s it.”
I was feeling a little embarrassed talking about sex, but I found it engaging that Chuck would just come out and say he was a virgin. “I don’t have any experience, either,” I admitted.
Chuck smiled weakly, and after he had finished shaving, rinsing his razor and drying his face he said, “I didn’t think so.”
I stopped, looked over at him and asked, “What, it shows?”
“Forget it. It don’t mean nothin’,” Chuck said walking towards the door. “It doesn’t show.”
I was feeling a little guilty for being so closed when he was so open with me. I finished quickly at the sink and said, “Wait up. I’m done here, too.”
Chuck stopped and waited. When I got next to him he reached out and put his hand on my upper arm just below my shoulder. “I’m sorry, Lonnie, I didn’t mean to be nosey. I like you and I want to be friends. Ah,I was just trying to be open and honest.”
“I know. It’s ok. Really.” I said letting his hand rest on my arm. “I’m just on the bashful side and I know there’s no need to be, but…we can talk about anything you want. I’m just used to being evasive.”
“Ok, then,” Chuck said smiling and nodding his head. He glanced at his watch and exclaimed, “Jeez, we better hurry!” We rushed back to the room, dressed and all but ran to Personnel.
Chuck decided to accompany me to Personnel. I thought it was nice that he wanted to. He sat on a bench outside the office and waited while I picked up my orders. When I walked out of the double doors, I had a huge grin on my face.
“What?” asked Chuck with anticipation.
“Oh, five, eitch,” I answered enunciating each syllable slowly and very drawn out.
“You’re shittin’ me!” Chuck exclaimed. “You mean we’re going to be doing the very same thing in the same place?”
“Looks that way,” I said with satisfaction and a small grin.
We walked out of the building and all but danced our way back to the holding company barracks. The ocean breeze was cool, but not cold and the air was very clear. Autumn was just around the corner and you could feel it. I took a deep breath and looked all around and said to Chuck, “It’s a good day.” He just looked at me and smiled.
Back at the barracks, Chuck packed his things into his duffle bag after carefully folding his shirts, t-shirts, underwear and fatigues. We had to dress in our Class A uniforms to fly on military status. We helped each other straighten our ties and button buttons to get it all just right. We had both learned this ‘getting it just right’ in basic training where recruits were given ‘gigs’ or demerits for any slight infraction of the dress code. I suddenly removed myself mentally from the scene and realized I was fussing over Chuck. I smiled, my amusement self-contained, as it reminded me of gorillas grooming each other. I felt a growing affection for Chuck and happiness that he would accept my help and offer me the same attention. We stood there facing each other, only momentarily looking into each other’s eyes. Looking too long became immediately too intimate and we both had to divert our eyes down to the other’s uniform jacket.
When we finished, I commented, “You look smashing in uniform, my friend.”
“Maybe, but I wish we could wear civvies,” Chuck responded. He reached around the back of my collar to smooth it out one last time and said, “I have to admit, you look pretty damn good yourself.”
“Come on. Let’s go eat lunch,” I suggested patting him on the chest. “I’m hungry. By the way, do you have anything to read on the plane? I get pretty bored sitting there for hours.”
“So, you think sitting next to me will be boring?” Chuck teased with a glint in his eye.
“Never!” I exclaimed with a smile. “But just in case, I wouldn’t mind having something to read.”
“OK,” Chuck said apparently satisfied with my answer. “There are books and magazines down in the recreation room. We can pick some up and bring ’em with us…no one’ll care. But they have magazines on the plane, too, you know!”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Come on, let’s go!” And we walked off together to the mess hall.
I felt the unison between us as we walked across the quad. I became briefly aware of the fact that we were walking in step, but quickly dismissed it from my thoughts. We turned and glanced at each other simultaneously, completely aware of each other’s feelings, but not willing to say anything or make it a mutually stated fact. The emotional relationship that was developing between us was to remain for the moment non-verbal. Our brief glances were enough to communicate the truth. Nothing else was necessary.
Chuck and I flew to Boston together that day, signed into the new company at Fort Devens, Massachusetts and settled into our assigned barracks in a compound affectionately known as “Ditty City.” Each barracks had a name and we were assigned to the House of the Rising Sun, named after the popular song by the Animals. We didn’t have rooms in the barracks, but rather just cubicles created by the lockers arranged in such a way as to allow some personal space. Chuck and I selected an empty cubicle and moved in. We had to wait for two weeks until our code class began. In the mean time, we were selected for office duties and luckily not for KP or other drudgeries often reserved for young soldiers with time on their hands. Each day brought a closer bond between us and I was quietly thankful that we had been assigned to a company where we could actually share the same space.
After two weeks we were allowed to start our basic code classes. Schooling in Morse code was not particularly interesting for either of us, in spite of our previous anticipation. Our typical day lasted six hours with an hour for lunch. Most of those hours were filled by screaming Morse code at an instructor who demanded ever louder decibels of the chorus. If he felt a particular soldier could yell even louder, but wasn’t putting his soul into it, the instructor would place a garbage can over his head and make him scream into it. Or he might also make him stand holding a typewriter with arms outstretched and screaming ditties until the poor soldier collapsed. Chuck and I were both disgusted by the instructional methods, but, of course, were powerless to do anything about it. I vowed to myself that, as soon as I had memorized the alphabet and numbers, I would work to get ahead of the game copying the code as fast as I possibly could. If I could get ahead of the game (a.k.a., AOG). I would have some free time in the afternoon away from the madness.
Both Chuck and I succeeded in becoming AOG and were soon at the top of the class of sixty men. Chuck wasn’t as fast as I was, but managed to stay AOG more often than not. When he didn’t, that meant, of course, that he had to stay in class for the full six hours a day, five days a week. On the other hand, I soon had almost every afternoon and Friday off, because I was learning to take code so much faster than the others. In fact, I was soon known as a ‘super-ditty.’ Chuck didn’t have nearly as much free time, but enough so that we often were able to spend some private time together in the afternoons. We’d go for long walks in the forested areas of the base, shuffling through the colorful fallen leaves of autumn in New England.
Life in Ditty City was an ambiguous experience. On the one hand, I really enjoyed spending so much time with Chuck–essentially living, working and playing together. On the other hand, military life was becoming annoying and I was having a difficult time maintaining my enthusiasm for spit-waxed floors and spit-polished shoes, buckles and buttons. Chuck, on the other hand, was a military version of Little Lord Fauntleroy. He actually enjoyed the spit and polish, salutes and billeted living. I often felt lucky, in that, without Chuck as a cubicle mate, I wouldn’t have been fastidious enough to pass inspections. For Chuck, however, it came naturally, and sometimes, I believed, a little compulsively.
Other guys in the barracks gave Chuck a hard time about his penchant for neat-and-clean. You can always count on compensatory behavior in a group situation like this, just to balance things out. Often they would mess up Chuck’s tightly made bunk just to irritate him and make him do it over again. Well, if he loved it so much…
No one ever bothered me about anything. Not to my face anyway. I had learned how to hide myself in a group in such a way as to be completely unobtrusive and unremarkable. This particular talent I owed to my family and school situations, where in both cases, being noticed often brought abuse. I was a master of survival strategies like this. In particular, I was very adept at blending in quietly with the character and texture of the group without sacrificing my individuality. I wasn’t leadership material at all, but I was always competent at what I undertook, and cooperative, although I never hesitated to complain now and then, when a complaint was warranted. But, in general, I was the perfect team player.
Chuck was also a team player, but he stood out. That had both good and bad consequences. It was often bad, in that the other guys would target him for teasing. Yet, the brass also saw leadership potential in him and consequently promoted him to squad leader. At first, I was devastated, because it meant he had to move into his own squad room and away from me. I didn’t know about it at first, because I had gone home for Christmas leave and when I returned I found Chuck’s locker empty and his bunk stripped. I was in shock. I quickly ran to my squad leader, Bill Hamlin, and knocked on his door. Luckily, he was in. When he opened the door, I suddenly realized I didn’t know quite how to ask about Chuck. I was obviously disturbed, but I didn’t want him to see that. So, I just stood there with my mouth half open.
“Davidson, what’s up?” Hamlin asked, looking at me with a slight impatience.
“Ah…I just got back from leave,” I started somewhat hesitantly, “and, anyway, ah, I noticed Chuck’s locker is empty and his bunk is stripped. Just wondering where he went.”
“Oh, right,” Hamlin said nodding and gesturing towards the stairs. “He’s upstairs in the squad room. Forester shipped out and Lawrence was promoted to squad leader, so he’s up there now.”
“Oh! A squad leader?” I said clearly a little taken aback. “OK, thanks.” And I turned around and went to the stairway. I walked upstairs and knocked on the squad room door. I waited nervously, hoping Chuck was there. The door opened and Chuck was standing there in his fatigue pants but no shirt.
“Lonnie!” he exclaimed. “You’re back.”
“Yeah, um, I just got back,” I said a little awkwardly. “So, you’re a squad leader! How ’bout that?”
“Yeah, hey, come on in. I don’t have much time, but I’m glad to see you,” Chuck said moving to the side to let me in.
“Thanks,” I said and walked past him through the door not looking at him.
“I should’ve called you or sent you a letter telling you about this,” Chuck said apologetically.
“Naw, why?” I asked. “I was only gone ten days, so…it’s just…a bit of a surprise, that’s all. I’ll probably have to get a new cubicle mate now, right?”
“No, not unless you want one. I can make sure no one moves into the cubicle, though.” Chuck assured me.
“Actually, that’d be great!” I said. “Besides, the floors are so spit-polished, I wouldn’t want anyone walking on them. I’ll keep the newspapers down so the floor won’t get smudged.”
“That’s good. Thanks,” said Chuck. “Listen, um, I have to go. There’s a squad leader meeting in fifteen minutes and I gotta get dressed.”
“Oh, sure. Ok.” I said awkwardly moving towards the door. “I’ll see ya later then. Bye.” And I walked out the door feeling a bit rejected. Chuck stood in the doorway for a few seconds, but didn’t say anything. I stopped briefly, looked at him and waved. He just nodded. Ten days at home and suddenly everything felt different. We weren’t cubicle mates anymore and he had to be a squad leader, which meant we weren’t going to be able to spend nearly as much time together as we had over the last three months. I missed him already.
Both Chuck and I had finished basic code and were waiting for our advanced code class to begin. Each day I’d go to the bulletin board to check but I never found our names. For some reason, not even the duty rosters had my name on them–that was probably Chuck’s doing. I had learned early on that you never volunteer for anything in the army, so I kept quiet about not having detail and spent the days relaxing, reading and going to the club to listen to music. Chuck was busy with his squad duties and I assumed had no time to get together with me. Although it bothered me, I didn’t want to bother him, so I stayed away, hoping he’d come to see me. He didn’t. I had no idea that other men would notice the situation.
One evening walking into the mess hall for dinner, an acquaintance sitting at a nearby table caught my attention and asked rather loudly across the room, “Hey, Lonnie! Where’s your sister?”
The realization that others noticed Chuck’s absence made me blush. I also recognized that the guy’s tone of voice was not accusatory, mean or otherwise rude. So, I smiled and said, “She’s a squad leader now…I’m sort of a widower, don’t you know!”
My self-deprecating sense of humor gave everyone who heard it reason to laugh. The guy decided to keep the joke alive and said, “Well, I don’t see you wearing black. What, are you cruising for a new cubicle mate?”
“Naw,” I replied. “I’m not up to training a new one.”
“I can dig it,” he said nodding his head and shoulders at the same time. “Well, tell that sister of yours when you see her that she could at least lower herself a little and come eat with the rest of us peons. After all, we can’t let her forget her humble origins!”
“I’ll do that,” I replied. “Bon appetite.”
The guy raised his water glass and said, “To the House of the Rising Sun,” and I responded in kind. I thought the guy’s little speech was very interesting. I had almost been afraid of being rudely teased about it all, but the guy didn’t sound as if he was teasing. The exchange between us was congenial and humorous. I left the mess hall feeling in a better mood than when I went in and resolved to go to the squad room to visit Chuck.
When I arrived at his door, I simply walked in without knocking. I considered it, but I thought Chuck would not be upset by it. Sergeant Todd, the hulky black company duty sergeant, was sitting there with him going over the next day’s duty roster. They both looked up at me with a startled look. I motioned with my right hand that I’d wait outside until they were finished. Chuck looked at me and nodded his head in agreement, but never said anything.
Sergeant Todd left after about five minutes and Chuck said, “Come in, Lonnie. What’s up?”
“Just thought I’d come by and see how you were doing all isolated here in your squad room,” I answered.
“Isolated, maybe,” said Chuck,”but not alone. Todd’s in here ten times a day always wanting something. Sometimes he’s a fuckin’ nuisance.”
“So, uh, how do you like it in here?” I asked hoping to get a conversation started.
“What’s to like,” said Chuck looking directly at me. “I don’t have anyone to talk to anymore in the evenings. You haven’t come by since you’ve been back from leave…” Chuck’s voice drifted off and he didn’t finish his thought.
“Well, I thought you’d be too busy with everything and I didn’t want to disturb you,” I replied feeling a little like maybe I had screwed up by not coming by.
Chuck looked slightly dismayed and said, “I haven’t seen you for over a week. I thought you might not want to hang around me anymore now that I’m a squad leader…politics…the guys…”
I suddenly felt Chuck’s isolation and walked closer to him with body language that wanted to express my condolence. “Chuck, I don’t care if you’re squad leader. I really thought you were too busy doing what you have to do. I didn’t want to get in the way and maybe cause you problems,” I said with a slightly apologetic tone.
“I missed you,” said Chuck quietly without looking at me.
“Really?” I asked surprised. “Then why didn’t you come to see me? Why the guilt trip?”
“Ah, it’s OK. Don’t mean nothin’. I never meant to lay a guilt trip on you. I just thought you’d come around sooner, that’s all,” Chuck replied. “I was afraid our friendship was over. If it isn’t, let’s forget it, OK? It was just a misunderstanding.”
“OK. Forgotten,” I agreed. “I definitely don’t want our friendship to be over.”
There was a moment of silence while Chuck put his notebook and papers away. I watched him and I could tell he was feeling uncomfortable, maybe a little shy.
“So, now what?” I asked.
“Well, what are you doing this evening?” Chuck asked with a certain enthusiasm and a smile as he planted himself in front of me, feet slightly apart, and his hands on his hips.
“Nothing special. Just hangin’ out. Why?” I asked.
“You want to go get a beer and listen to some tunes?” invited Chuck.
I thought about it for a moment and I wasn’t sure what Chuck’s motivation was. I definitely wanted to spend some time with him, so I accepted the invitation. “Sure. I’d like that.”
Chuck grabbed his hat and coat, took me by the arm and we headed for the club. We walked in silence through the cold New England air. Neither of us knew what to say. I felt the intense feelings being with Chuck again and it made me uncomfortable. I figured Chuck was probably feeling the same way and didn’t push for a conversation. It could wait until we had a few beers and dissolved the inhibitions. We ordered a pitcher, put a few quarters in the jukebox and talked for a couple hours. I felt we had reconnected and wasn’t quite so depressed about the changes. After finishing the pitcher, Chuck walked me back to the barracks. Our tongues were looser and our hearts more open, which made the return walk less tense. I huddled up to myself in my fatigue jacket to counter the cold winter air.
“Are you cold?” asked Chuck with concern.
“A little,” I answered.
Chuck reached over, put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer. “Is that better?” he asked looking directly at me and smiling.
I looked at him and smiled back. “Yeah, that’s better,” I said. I moved my right arm around his waist and we walked back to the barracks. It felt so good to touch him, but it made me really uneasy at the same time. We separated ourselves as we walked in–instinctive reaction. All the guys were lying around listening to radios and reading as we walked down the center aisle. A few looked up and greeted us as we walked by.
There was a manila envelope lying on my bunk. I picked it up, opened it and pulled out the papers. They were my orders for the advanced school and a new company assignment. I read them and handed the papers to Chuck without saying anything. I had to move to the new company by the next morning. I hadn’t been back to my cubicle all day, so I didn’t know, and it was already nine o’clock. Moving would be a logistical problem.
“What am I going to do tonight?” I asked myself out loud.
“Lonnie, why don’t you just forget it for tonight. Shove your stuff in your duffle bag and we can sort everything else out tomorrow sometime. We’ll take just a few things to the new company right now and you can sleep in my room tonight. I don’t mind,” Chuck offered.
“You don’t have an extra bunk in your squad room,” I reminded him. “What would I sleep on?”
“You can sleep with me in my bunk. Don’t mean nothin’. There’s enough room for two,” he said with a smile.
“OK, if you say so,” I said. The thought of sleeping next to Chuck suddenly gave me a small anxiety attack, but at the same time, I felt an unexplained excitement. I had to calm myself down. It actually occurred to me that our friendship was going places that I had never anticipated. Sleep with him? I wondered if he was actually asking me to have sex with him. I chastised myself for even thinking the thought and then completely dismissed the idea. I just didn’t think it would ever happen. I glanced at Chuck and he was almost staring at me. It made me a little uncomfortable.
“You want to help me with this stuff here?” I asked Chuck.
“Sure,” he said. “What do we start with?”
“How about just the footlocker?” I suggested. “I could use the help carrying it. The other stuff I can get tomorrow or whenever.”
We hauled my footlocker across the center grounds over to the new company. Afterwards we headed back to the squad room and got ready for bed. It was nearly ten o’clock and I would have to be up with Chuck by six. I nervously sat down on the perfectly made bunk, although I hid the nerves enough to act at least somewhat casually. Chuck just as casually began undressing. I was suddenly torn as to whether to watch him or divert my eyes. I decided to get up, turn my back to him and get undressed myself.
“Do you want inside or outside?” Chuck asked as he pulled his pants down revealing white cotton briefs instead of the army issue boxers.
“Oh, I don’t know as I care,” I answered unbuttoning my fatigue shirt.
“OK, then, I’ll sleep on the inside, that way if it gets crowded you’ll be the one to fall off the bed,” he said jokingly.
“Sure, make me the fall guy!” I responded. Now we were both down to the cotton briefs. Neither of us liked the olive drab boxers. We always wore ‘civvy skivvies’ as we called them. “OK, you have to climb in first, if you’re sleeping next to the wall.”
Chuck pulled back the wool army blanket and white sheet, slipped between the covers and slid over to the wall as far as he could. I turned out the light, then sat down on the bed, swung my feet up and slipped under the covers. Chuck pulled the sheet and blanket up to our shoulders and said good night. I rolled over facing away from him and said my good night. There was a very awkward silence between us and I couldn’t fall asleep. We lay that way for a while until Chuck put his arm around me and cuddled up close behind me. I became very nervous and didn’t move.
“This is nice.” Chuck commented quietly then paused before continuing. “Isn’t it?”
I still didn’t respond. I just lay perfectly still staring into the dark. I was terrified.
Chuck was quiet for a moment then asked, “Are you ok?”
I didn’t know what to say, and it took a moment for my thoughts to form into an answer. “Yeah, I’m OK,” I said quietly, almost whispering.
“Lonnie…,” Chuck paused. I knew he wanted to say something else but was reluctant to say it. “I can’t explain this,” he continued finally. “But I think about you all the time. I was so scared that you didn’t want anything to do with me when you didn’t come around after your Christmas leave. Tell me honestly. How do you feel about me?” Chuck asked in a very serious tone.
I rolled over, faced him and asked, “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” answered Chuck looking very deeply into my eyes.
“Well, I like you and, yeah, I was worried you wouldn’t spend time with me anymore after I came back from leave,” I said somewhat avoiding the issue Chuck was raising. “I guess, I felt like you didn’t want to be around me anymore. But how do I feel about you?” I stopped, not sure how to say what I felt. I was scared to say it, but the words came out anyway. “I love you.”
I couldn’t believe I said it. My whole body became tense as I imagined that he would get up and throw me out of the room. “Oh, sorry, man,” I said morosely. “That just came out and I, uh, I, shit, Chuck, I’ll just go, if you want me to.”
He smiled very sweetly, though, and asked, “Is that what this is? Love?”
“What? You’re asking me?” I asked in amazement that he had virtually no reaction. “I’m so scared and confused about us. I really have no idea what I’m feeling. Love is the only word I could think of. You don’t seem too upset I said that. So talk to me. What are you feeling about us?”
Chuck moved his head closer to mine and gently kissed me. My head was spinning and my heart was pumping, but I kissed him back. His touch was electrifying.
“That’s how I feel,” he said. “I love you, too. I know, we’re not supposed to feel this way about each other. I’ve never felt this way about another guy. We’re soldiers, right? Or is it just that one of us isn’t a girl? I don’t know, but somewhere inside of me, I’m not afraid of these feelings for you, just what others will think–and especially what you think. I was scared of you. I wasn’t sure how you’d react, if I told you how I felt.”
I embraced him and said quietly, “I couldn’t say it, either. I wanted to so many times. It was hard keeping it all inside. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to say. But now that we’ve both said it, what are we gonna do? How do we do this here? We can’t say anything to anyone, can we?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” said Chuck seriously. “But if we’re careful, we can blend in. There are a lot of guys out there who have good friends–you always see them together.”
“Yeah, but are they…,” I stopped because I didn’t know how to name it. “Are they like us?”
Chuck laughed slightly and kissed me. “Maybe, but we’ll never know,” he said with a smile. “Let’s just be together the way we are and with a little discretion we should be ok.”
His words comforted me. I kissed him again and the kiss unlocked the passions and feelings we had. We made love to each other that night, as well as we knew how, given our lack of experience. Afterwards, Chuck started giggling to himself. I asked, “What’s so funny?”
He looked mischievously at me, then began singing a parody of the Animals’ song, “There is a house in Ditty City, they call the Rising Sun. It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy. Thank God, I know, I’m one…”
I laughed, put my head on his chest and we fell asleep in each other’s arms. I really was in love.
The morning began with a start, when Sergeant Todd zealously opened the squad room door at ten to six and filled the room with his overly alert energy. His gaze fell upon our two eighteen year old bodies soundly sleeping with overlapping legs. I woke up first, saw Todd standing there and gently pushed on Chuck’s shoulder to wake him up. I nearly panicked realizing my morning hard-on was resting against his leg right in the Sarge’s line of vision!
“Hey, Chuck, it’s time to wake up,” I urged him pushing his shoulder, trying not to sound frightened.
Chuck moved his leg off of me, looked up to see Sergeant Todd, hands on his hips, looking down at us lying there naked on the bunk.
“I can come back later, if I’m interrupting anything,” Todd said with a smirk and a suggestive smile.
Chuck sprang out of bed and said, “No, Sarge, you’re not interrupting anything. It’s not what you’re thinking!”
“OK, man, whatever you say. Ain’t none o’ my business anyway,” Todd said glancing at our naked bodies with an expression that made it clear he knew what had gone on. He then turned and walked out of the room shutting the door behind him.
“Oh, shit!” exclaimed Chuck, rubbing his hand over his crew cut head. “I didn’t think he’d come in to wake me up.”
“You think he’ll say anything?” I asked nervously.
“I don’t know,” said Chuck with a sigh of resignation. “He’s cool, but how cool?”
Climbing out of the bed I asked, “We could be in trouble, couldn’t we?”
Chuck smiled, leaned forward and kissed me. “I don’t care,” he stated firmly. “What are they gonna do, send us to Nam? We’re goin’ there anyway, right?”
“Right,” I said sarcastically. “Wait! You sure we’re going? How do you know? And what about our top secret clearances?”
“Well, we’ll go to Nam with or without a clearance. What difference will it make?” he said trying to make me feel better. “Don’t mean nothin’.”
“Is that your answer to everything, ‘don’t mean nothin’?” I asked a little annoyed.
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Todd saw us naked together on the bunk. We’ll just have to deal with it,” he said with resignation.
“But we were just sleeping when he came in,” I said hopefully.
“Yeah, but we both know why, and I’ll bet Todd does, too,” responded Chuck.
I looked at the clock and said, “God, I gotta go. I’ll see you at dinner time.”
“OK, maybe,” Chuck said without looking at me. “I may have to have dinner with Todd and the company commander. More planning. It ought to be pretty interesting meeting with Todd.” Chuck’s eyebrows rose slightly and he gave me a quick, goofy little grin.
“Well, let me know how he reacts and what he says,” I responded. “I gotta check in to the new company and start that advanced class today, but I should be back then after I eat tonight.”
Chuck opened the locker, pulled out some clean fatigues and started dressing.
“I hope my orders for school come in soon,” he said. “I don’t want to be around Todd any longer than I have to. Once my advanced class starts, I’ll probably have to move companies, too, so I won’t be squad leader here anymore. What a relief that’ll be!”
“Chuck, none of the other squad leaders had to change companies when they started the advanced class. What makes you think, you will?” I asked looking seriously at him.
“I don’t know. I’m just hoping, I guess,” he answered looking over at me.
I got up, sighed with some frustration, and got dressed. After all the good feelings the night before, I was suddenly feeling disappointed again, and a little scared. Once I was dressed and had my boots tied, I hugged Chuck and left him to his squad duties. He kissed me quickly as I walked out the door heading for my new company barracks. I was a nervous wreck thinking about the damage Sergeant Todd could cause us, but we never heard a word about it. Todd never mentioned it again and he never barged into the room again either. I often slept with Chuck in his squad room. My cubicle in the new barracks became nothing more than a show place for inspections. I kept all my stuff there, but most nights I slept with Chuck. We learned to make love to each other, exploring and experimenting on each other’s body. We had no guidelines, no preconceived ideas about same gender sex, no concept of any standard, typical approach to sexual pleasure. We just did what came naturally and it profoundly transformed us both. I fell more deeply in love with each night in the House of the Rising Sun.
The advanced code school lasted four weeks. Chuck got his assignment the week after I did, so we weren’t in the same class, but he did stay in the House of the Rising Sun and wasn’t transferred as he had hoped he would be. He had no problems with Todd, though. We both did very well in the advanced school, although there was reason to believe that’s not what one was supposed to do. Rumor control had it that the super ditties were the first to get allocated to Vietnam. Those with less skill were often assigned to Germany, Turkey or Ethiopia. It didn’t pay to do really badly though, because they supposedly sent you to the Aleutian Islands. Even Vietnam was preferable to the frozen rock and wasteland in the Bering Sea. All of that turned out to be simply inaccurate rumor. My whole class was block allocated to Vietnam. So was Chuck’s, although I didn’t know it at the time. When the instructor read the allocation, my body went a little numb and I began to grieve silently. I had thought of this possibility from the beginning, but in the back of my mind I truly believed I’d go elsewhere. So much for my wishful thinking. Now I had to tell Chuck.
After class, I immediately went to see him. He wasn’t back yet and his door was locked. I leaned against the wall and waited for him. I heard his footsteps coming up the stairs about five minutes later. He knew something was up when he saw me standing at his door.
“Hey,” he greeted me as he unlocked the door. “What brings you around now?”
I waited until we were inside the room and the door was closed before I said, “We got our assignments today,” and then paused before continuing. “We’re all going to Vietnam.” Chuck reacted with a sudden turn of his head in my direction. I could see that he was visibly shaken, as was I. He put his arms around me and held me for a few moments. I wanted to cry, but my body and mind were still numb and I couldn’t. Chuck then revealed what he had already heard a week earlier.
“I probably should have told you, but last week I heard Todd say the next four cycles of the advanced school were being block allocated to Nam. At the time, there were so many rumors going around, that I thought it best not to add to the confusion,” he said.
“So, you’re going, too, then?” I asked.
“Yeah. I think so,” he replied.
“It’s alright, Chuck,” I said quietly. “I guess I’ve always known this was inevitable. We’re shipping out in two days. I go home first for two weeks, then to Presidio San Francisco for a month for more training. I’ll be leaving for Nam on April 28th.”
We both sat there on the bed and said nothing more. After a while I lay down and said, “I’m tired, Chuck. I need a nap.”
Chuck took an extra blanket and tucked me in saying, “You sleep, hon. Just rest for a while. We’ll get used to the idea soon enough.” Then he quietly sat on the recently requisitioned new bunk, knees up, feet flat on the bed and he leaned back against the wall. I watched the tears run down his cheeks as he wept silently. I shut my eyes and tried to drift away. Suddenly, we could hear soldiers coming up the stairs. Their noisy boots clomping against the floor seemed to sharpen his focus and I could see him shake off the emotion. I looked up and smiled at him. The look in his eyes was tender but filled with worry. He smiled weakly and said softly, “sleep.” I knew he loved me and I felt an overwhelming sadness knowing that I was leaving. He sat there on the opposite bunk and just watched me as I fell asleep. I wanted him to be there when I woke up.
I got up early in the morning on the day I had to leave. Chuck was driving me to the airport in Boston to catch a noon plane to Seattle. Everything was fine all morning long. We got done what had to be done; I dressed in my Class A’s, checked out of the company, got all packed and crammed my duffle bag into Chuck’s car. We were both upbeat and animated on the trip into the city. I was looking forward to flying as I always did and I simply wouldn’t think about my final destination–couldn’t think about it. Once we arrived at the airport, I checked my bags and still had about fifteen minutes before boarding. The two of us sat quietly in the waiting area watching the people and only now and then glancing at each other.
Chuck finally broke the silence, saying, “I’m going to miss you, y’know. You better write.”
He leaned forward in the chair placing his forearms on his thighs and folding his hands together. He didn’t really look up at me, but briefly glanced my way. I had been doing fine until that moment. Suddenly, the reality of where I was going and for how long, the fact I was leaving Chuck behind and wasn’t sure when we’d see each other again, sent me into emotional oblivion. I put my head in the crook of my arm and sobbed. Chuck sat up and put his hand on my upper back and patted lightly. It didn’t help. His touch only intensified my emotions.
“Lonnie, I’ll write every day, I promise. I’ll call you at home before you go to San Francisco, ok?” he reassured me, but I could hear his voice cracking with emotion.
At that moment the boarding procedure was announced and I had to leave. We stood up together and I wiped my eyes with my uniform sleeve. As Chuck turned towards me, I reached out and embraced him, resting my head on his shoulder. He reached around and hugged me with the full extent of his arms and the tears poured down his cheeks. We stood there together crying, neither wanting to let go.
Chuck whispered in my ear, “I love you…don’t ever forget that.”
I tightened my grip on him and responded, “I won’t. I love you, too.” Then I pulled myself away and without looking back walked up to the attendant and presented my boarding pass. I walked down the ramp into the plane in an emotional daze, not fully conscious or aware of anything outside of my grief. Once inside the plane, I found my seat, sat down and leaned against the side of the cabin, placing my wet cheek against the coolness of the window. I never even noticed when the plane took off. I just sat staring into the sky for most of the flight. I knew I might never see Chuck again. It was just a feeling, an intuition, but the wound created by this separation was so deep, that I could feel it touch a core of my being where there was no time or space, where it was all one and I could see the past in the future and the future in the present. And my future was without Chuck.
I wrote to him just about every day from mid-March until I got to Vietnam on April 28th. After that, I was so busy all the time, that I could only manage a letter every few days. Chuck came to Vietnam three weeks later, but was sent to Cu Chi down south. I was way up north near the DMZ. We continued to write and every now and then talk on the phone. The last telephone conversation we had was on my birthday, August 26th, 1969. Chuck had sent me a tape of the song “House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals. After I listened to it, I went to the MARS station, which was a communication center, to call and thank him.
“Chuck?” I asked when I heard his voice say hello over the phone.
“Yeah? Lonnie? Did you get my present?” he asked.
“Got it. I just wanted to call and say thanks. It was great,” I said.
“Well, Happy birthday!”
“Thanks! The tape was a nice present ,” I said.
“I’m glad. You know, I’m also glad you called, ‘cause I’ve been thinking. I can take R and R at the end of November. We can meet in Sydney for the week. You wanna do that?” he asked.
“Yeah I wanna do that! That sounds great,” I exclaimed. “Maybe we could time it for Thanksgiving. I’ll put in for it right away.”
“OK, I will, too. I can’t wait to see you again. It seems like forever,” he said with a tinge of sadness.
“I know, but November is only three months away,” I offered. “It’ll give us something to look forward to here, y’know?”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Then his voice became very quiet and I could hardly hear him. “I need to be with you, Lonnie. I love you so much. I’m goin’ crazy here.”
I looked around the office to check out whether anyone was listening to my conversation, but no one was. “I love you, too, Chuck. Let’s just save it for Sydney, ok?”
“OK. I gotta go, Lonnie,” Chuck said. “I’ll call you next week sometime, alright?”
“OK, til then,” I said and the line went dead.
I walked back to my barracks thinking and fantasizing about our future together. I imagined we would live together somewhere after the military. It was my 19th birthday and I felt on top of the world. After that day, however, the letters stopped coming. Two weeks went by and I hadn’t received any letter from him. I was depressed and worried. I couldn’t understand why he had stopped writing, so I called again. The company CQ (charge of quarters) answered the phone.
“328th Radio Research, Lieutenant Miller speaking.”
“Lieutenant, I’m trying to get a hold of Charles Lawrence. He’s a Spec-4 05H in your company. Can you give him a message for me?” I asked.
“Lawrence? Oh man, I’m sorry, no. He’s not here anymore. We got hit pretty hard on the 27th and he and two other guys were killed,” the CQ informed me. “Their barracks took a direct hit.”
The news took my breath away. I couldn’t breathe. My whole body went into shock. My hands trembled. I managed to choke out a thank you and hung up. I walked back to my barracks struggling with my confusion and emotions. He’d been dead nearly two weeks and I hadn’t known. I had never felt such pain in my whole life. When I got there, Big Mike, one of seven bunkmates in the barracks, was the only one there. He was a nice guy from Texas, about six foot five and overweight, thus his name. He took one look at me and knew something was terribly wrong. I crawled onto my bunk, curled up into the fetal position and cried so hard my stomach hurt. Big Mike walked towards me, but I shook my head no. He nodded and left the barracks. I cried for hours and every once in a while one of my bunkmates would come in, see me, and leave again. I finally fell asleep from exhaustion and didn’t wake up until the next morning in time to go to work.
Guys asked what had happened, and I just explained that a good friend had been killed in Cu Chi. It took me about a week to feel somewhat emotionally stable again, at least enough to interact with my friends and acquaintances in the company. Those who knew Chuck and me at Devens understood why I was so distraught and they were very supportive. It wasn’t long before the word was out and I found out there had been a lot of speculation back at Devens about my relationship with Chuck. Most guys had figured it out.
As the guys in the 330th found out, some scoffed and talked behind my back; called me queer. I heard it, and although it bothered me, I was able to ignore it, perhaps even forgive it. Over time, though, some guys cared enough to ask me about Chuck and what had happened. Actually, that pleased me. I wanted to talk about him and I’ve always been grateful that many of the guys let me do that. I often lay on my bunk, reread his letters, listened to the tape of House of the Rising Sun, and lost myself in the memory of his warmth and affection. It took a while, but I was finally able to move on.
I went to Sydney for R and R and imagined Chuck was still with me, and I had a good time. I still missed him, but it was OK. Life was still good in spite of my devastation over his death. Yet I knew that my life would never be the same without him. I knew that I would remember him for a very long time…
The memories and the grief of those youthful days were renewed by the stark, emotional nature of the Wall, and I started to cry like so many other veterans there. I fell to my knees with my head down, one hand on the black granite, the other holding that little piece of paper with his name on it. It’s the only thing I have of him other than the few letters and my memories. And though I still grieve, I don’t regret. I learned about the goodness of human relationships no matter what form they take. I learned how to love and how to make love. The military itself trained me to be a soldier, but my love for Chuck taught me the courage to take that seemingly impossible first step that broke through the social and cultural conditioning, my fears and inhibitions, and allowed me to make love to him. I suppose you could say that my liberation from those conventions and inhibitions did ruin me as the boy I once was, but it also released the masculine self that I had so long ago rejected and repressed. Through my military experience and relationship with Chuck, that masculine self, so long hidden, had indeed emerged and become a man. I had come back to myself after all. I had found my masculine self, just as I had wanted, but admittedly not quite in the way I had intended. As I walked away from the Wall and back into my life, I realized Chuck Lawrence was still with me, not just as a memory, but as a part of my self—a part of my very being.
I never got over Chuck’s death. Not really. I still miss him after all these years. I’ve never forgotten what he looks like, even though I have no picture of him. Every now and then I even get the faint scent of his body, but I don’t know where it comes from. He was my first love–my first passion–and I don’t know how to forget him.
There is a house in New Orleans they call the Rising Sun. It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy. And God, I know, I’m one…