My Queer War

James Lord

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

One
 
NOVEMBER 1942

It all began beside the war-torn sea. In Atlantic City. Truly a queer setting—out of place for an epic adventure, let alone a good venue for making a young man ready to perform the daredevil feats of wartime avaiators. Yet this second-rate, overbuilt resort had been dreamed up like the locus of a psychedelic fantasy by the U.S. Army Air Force for the basic training of would-be fliers into the wild blue yonder. All the Xanadu pleasure domes left vacant by wartime retrenchment were thought well suited for billeting transient thousands of glassy-eyed rookies. Of the derelict hotels having survived the Great Depression, not to mention the Panic of ’93, the flakiest was the Chelsea, a dilapidated pile of enthralling ugliness set at the seedy end of the celebrated boardwalk.

Along those damp and treacherous planks that dreary November afternoon slouched a sullen troop of soldiers. I was one of them: a college dropout, single, aged nineteen, and white, number 12183139, brown of hair and eye, with a straight nose, sensuous mouth, slightly protuberant chin, average of height, weight, build, unremarkable, in short, in every outward aspect.

Which was wholly to the good. Being unremarkable in that ragtag rabble of GIs, all attired exactly alike, I ran no risk of betraying my lurid, shaming, guilty secret. Never mind that by a blatant lie I’d already betrayed civic decency by putting on the U.S. Army’s uniform. But I could chalk that up to poetic license. Writing was already my good excuse for almost anything that needed excusing. Much did.

How it happened that I had become a private in Flight B of the 989th TSS was a poor joke, a joke, indeed, so furiously unfunny that it dwelt by itself as an existential black hole. Anyway, I marched laboriously against the icy winds beneath the oncoming dusk toward our billet in the Hotel Chelsea. Only eleven days in uniform then, I’d dropped out of college just three weeks before under the flimsiest of pretenses. Pretense, indeed, promised to be permanent military apparel, within which I could feast upon discontent, a disguise, moreover, expected to fool everyone but which, of course, made me misfortune’s fool.

The lobby of the Chelsea smelled of old age, sewage, and soldiers’ sweat. A slovenly sergeant materialized from the staircase and ordered us to get our asses into a room, any room on the floors above and double up snap on the spot with anybody willing, two rooks to a room, two cots, two footlockers, and no shit.

Such an unprecedented option offered a hint of potential companionship on the spur of the moment. The army experience, after all, advertised its facility for creating buddies, the happenstance of warfare famous for forging bonds between men, having, in fact, made heroes of soldiers embracing each other in foxholes while the gentle rain of shrapnel burst above them in the vivid air.

Across the smelly crowd in the hotel lobby I’d already spotted a good-looking GI lost in the middle distance, and I thought, Why not? He was wonderfully fair, features almost too fine, a Botticelli of angelic allure, tall and slender. He was apparently unaccompanied as yet by any makeshift pals, so I kept close behind on the cramped upstairs climb. When he lurched under the ungainly duffel bag into a room on the malodorous third floor, I was at his heels before a rival could crowd in.

Hopping aside from the thudding fall of his duffel bag, he flung himself across the cot beside the window. I took the place by the door and waited, companionably leaving to him the prerogative of greetings. My wait while I waited extended ever so slowly beyond titillating anticipation as he lay like a heap of oblivion, absent eyes fixed on nothing. I breathed in and breathed out for what it was worth, and evidently it wasn’t worth much, because the roommate of my optimistic expectation soon seemed, in reality, as much like thin air as thin air itself.

Eventually, however, he hawked and spit out, “This dump eats shit.”

An observation, if you like, well taken, and in accent native to the outlying reaches of New York City. Thus angelic Botticelli immediately matured into a Caravaggio boy of the streets. No overture to conversation, of course. But there I was, and I was there and had to say so. Timidly standing, tentatively taking steps in the direction of camaraderie, I held down my hand and said, “Hi. Name’s Jim Lord. Guess we’d better get acquainted.”

He squinted, shifted, scowled, steely about the gray eyes, ignoring the presumptuous hand, then at last, however, snarled, “Teves. Joe Teves.”

“Okay,” I said, swallowing the shame of hostility.

So he must have known. Known without knowledge, without understanding, yet with the sly menace of the male of the species. God knows beasts can be beautiful. And beauty can bedevil the best of precautions. Still, how, but how, could I have betrayed the lonely and loathsome self of that ghastly thunderclap of awareness in the grim dusk of October adolescence? The streak of pain vibrated also in the stagnant confine of that catastrophic hotel, the very vibration being surely what I’d come there for. For which, indeed, I’d volunteered to forsake Kierkegaard and Kafka, offering to the future an aptitude for matters of guilt.

My roommate, needless to say, never became my friend, much less a buddy, barely an acquaintance. Good looks went bad in a hurry. Botticelli, Caravaggio all mutated almost overnight into Hieronymus Bosch. As we became ensnared in reciprocal contempt, such words as were spitefully breathed back and forth had only to do with mops, washrags, and the danger of dirt. He promptly found a flock of pals with whom to chew the fat, numbers like himself from the wrong side of the Harlem River, none of whom even offered me a cigarette. Anyway, I didn’t smoke. How gladly, however, I’d have nursed a clandestine bottle of Four Roses.

At my hateful college I used to carry a pint around the campus in a paper bag. This earned a scolding from the dean and worsened the sniffiness of classmates whose scrutiny I’d hoped to divert from inner affliction and focus upon the outer distinction of one who dared to live with a difference. This was no good, and rather worse than that, so I consequently hated the college and everyone in it with a passion almost equal to the loathing I’d felt for myself ever since that terrible twilight. Walking back to the prep school dorm after my piano lesson, with Beethoven’s Rondo resonant still, along the cement sidewalk strewn with dead leaves, I suddenly saw like an appalling sunburst, fatal and final, that what I really wanted to do with the good-looking boys whose best pal I longed to be was not just horsing around in the locker room but doing freely with them in bed after lights out everything I had always till then been compelled to do in solitude with myself. In short, the creature I’d suddenly seen was that abnormal, that abominable thing called a homosexual, a loathsome mistake of nature, a cultural criminal whom any feeling person would naturally put in prison. So I vowed I’d never, ever succumb to the vile desires roused by those football-playing jocks and their curly-haired cheerleaders.

You might think that to wake up gay is no big deal. If you’re straight, you certainly would. But be the spoiled son of a creationist family, whether in Memphis, Montevideo, or Madras, and your wake-up dream is a nightmare of hopeless craving to get into the pants of a pretty sailor, and you’re doomed to a lifetime of disgusting torment. Mind you, I’m talking about a Massachusetts prep school in ’38. Nowadays everything’s supposed to be okay; congressmen and ambassadors boast of boyfriends. And yet . . . parents in Dallas, Dijon, or Dar es Salaam hardly hope that their kids will grow up to live in sin with same-sex partners and maybe—even day after tomorrow—would disown them if they did.

It was all very well to hate college and despise those alluring fraternity brothers in their varsity sweaters. But how the hell was I going to get out of there? The fix—and its suppositious remedy—were of a character to confound the authors of Either/Or, The Castle, and then some. I sat down at my university desk in the windy, irrational recklessness of that October 1942 and wrote to my parents a letter that I thought both purposeful and tricky, leaving at the same time, I felt, no loophole for the trick to be turned on me, suggesting, intimating that maybe—maybe!—it might be worthwhile to ponder the possibility that I might volunteer for the army, in the uncertain interim leave college so as to peacefully think things over. And wasn’t I already a writer, after all, my senior thesis at prep school having, indeed, been a biography of Beethoven? Oh, yes, I was already a writer, needing to learn how words can make fools of those who set out to toy with them. Meaning’s not meant to be the plaything of understanding. The trick was promptly and fatefully turned, while I’d thought myself an ingenuous young fellow out of some story by Thomas Mann, a Tonio Kröger-to-be.

Mom and Dad wrote by return mail, approving and praising my manly decision and idealistic self-sacrifice at this time of peril for our homeland. So I had unwittingly made ready for a future that would turn out to be the lunatic destination of my dearest dreams.

That overcast morning, Thursday, November 5, 1942, I plodded alongside my proud father to the United States Army recruitment center on Lexington Avenue in New York City, prepared to go through with the military make-believe no matter what it cost. Nor did the nitwit eventuality of risking one’s life in defense of the nation provide an instant’s pause. So I went inside to sacrifice my liberty, not to mention the pursuit of happiness, in order to combat infamy and evil throughout the world.

The fitness inspection for this noble purpose took place amid a joshing and jostling crowd of stark-naked rookies-to-be. The lavish vision of so many penises might have been exciting to a homo. It wasn’t. Disturbing, rather, and alarming. Malaise begotten by ice-cold fear of excitement’s danger. After the hypodermics and the rude, crude medics, the rectal plus the genital intrusions, show your teeth, fingernails, metatarsal arches, blink your fucking eyes, take a deep breath, and you’re face-to-face with the ultimate question mark of manliness: a blasé, believe-it-or-not lieutenant psychiatrist says, “Do you like girls?” Or prefer confinement in a federal penitentiary for the remainder of your unnatural life, sexual leprosy not wanted, queers unfit to honor the flag of their forebears. And I, to tell the truth, had known a couple of likable girls, so I said, “Yes. Yes, sir.”

As a volunteer I was privileged to choose among the army’s prestigious outfits the one in which I’d be most honored to serve. I said, “The air force.” A sergeant callously recorded my choice on a piece of paper, as if no daring defiance of gravity were called for, and that was how I set out upon everyman’s career in space. Anyway, I’d never been up in an airplane. So I was made ready for basic training as a wearer of wings. This was basic, in point of fact, to survival. Not entirely physical but very psychic. You were about to be manufactured as a numbered machine wearing a uniform, marching up and down, back and forth, around and around, here and there, fast and slow according to instructions for the futility of the function and not meant to be a state of being, snap to it or you’re dead on your feet. Teves’s ilk loved it. I was at its mercy, of which there was none.

My nemesis was a beer-bellied gorilla named Sullivan, slave driver of the parade ground, a regular army master sergeant. This ape was called Bathwater Sullivan because a marcher’s slightest misstep brought forth jungle roaring: “Keep in step, you clumsy motherfucker, or it’ll be your bathwater.” Personal hygiene being odorously negligible for the simian sergeant, one wondered. Had this demented primate been traumatized by an overdose of H2O or was he merely a bestial Bible Belter obsessed by John the Baptist’s bathtub? The unwashed sarge, in any case, was a certifiable shit with a savage aptitude for bullying, fortified by the flair of a born-again sadist for spotting the rookie most vulnerable to vicious ferocity. That from day one was me, and smelly Sully fell into the implacable habit of marching immediately beside me, bellowing his ape-man orders into my ear. TotheleftMAACH. TotherearMAACH. TotherightMAACH. RightleftrearMAACHand-MAACHandMAACH. And onthedoubleMAACH till your flat feet burn on the griddle of last year’s pancakes, and every footfall falls into the furnace of fatigue, while Sullivan shouts, “Lift your lousy legs, Lord, you piss-poor fuckhead.”

Out of every hour of torment, however, ten minutes’ blur of rest were allowed on the perimeter of nothingness. Virgil granting Dante an instant of surcease. No good to me, however, as I crouched apart from my platoon on the freezing slough of despond, often failing to stifle my malaise, stop the swell of tears, while such craven lack of backbone got laughed at by virile trainees glad to sneer at the absence of grit. And in the quagmire of self-pity stood nobody to turn to to console the feckless stumbler. Worse still was the fear that my lamentable lapse of restraint might betray to sturdier men-at-arms the guilty presence of a pansy weakling in their midst. So I had to be careful. This called for a devious bent, which I cultivated.

Marching was not the only initiation to the rudiments of hell on earth, though thanks to Bathwater, it became the most personal. There was plenty to make physical abjection pass for fun. From black dawn to blacker dusk. Starting with socket-wrenching calisthenics before you woke up. Prone on your belly under acres of barbed wire, you wriggled beneath make-believe bullets whizzing in the machine-gun breeze six inches above your butt, sergeants screaming, “Eat that dirt, you stinking cocksuckers.” And you choked on it. Then climbing the walls of splintered planks prepared to rip raw your fingernails, sprawling on the far side onto frozen mud before you could dream of hoisting your carcass hand over hand up aching ropes into some kind of nonexistence. After the firing range your shoulder was bruised black and blue, eardrums drumming to deafen the afternoon. And none of that lunatic drill had the least fucking thing to do with flying. You were enslaved by the unfeeling earth and the cruel inhumanity of the watching ocean.

Worse was the gnawing solitude. In the midst of backslapping soldiery, in the mess hall, the toilets, shower room, out-of-doors and in, no one spoke to me, met my eye, agreed with my glance, or pretended I was anything like everybody else. Maybe that was the rightful consequence of my knowing I never would be. Still, one might have expected even as a desperate gesture of mutable fellow feeling that Teves would sometime speak of something more companionable than the sheen of dust beneath my cot. He never did.

The fool’s gold of poetic license wasn’t the only palliative for self-pity. There was music too, melody, harmony, the metronome of solace. In one of the raddled ground-floor rooms of the Hotel Chelsea stood a decrepit upright piano, a moldering Mason and Hamlin, with its battered stool, a downcast survivor of prosperity’s shipwreck. Still, it wasn’t too disastrously out of tune to play, only two keys, both black, missing. I delighted in this dishonored instrument, resorting to it with a soulful sense of deliverance whenever at liberty and alone, which was seldom. The piece I was happiest to return to even in the wretched setting of the Chelsea was the easy, early one by Beethoven, the Rondo in C Major, the very same I’d been practicing that fatal afternoon when I saw beyond the dead leaves on the sidewalk the hideous homosexual leering at me. But even that sickening awareness of Beethoven—himself a soul beset by suffering—brought the clement idea of salvation. Alone at the keyboard though I may have been, the jangling didn’t go unheard by other inhabitants of the hotel, who sometimes peeked in to snicker and sneer. Soon enough, indeed, they would be inspired to make a mockery of both Beethoven and his incompetent interpreter.

A mimeographed order on the Chelsea bulletin board directed Flight B to show up in toto two days later at 10:00 a.m. in the huge convention hall.

When I was there, seated up front, it looked like every last GI in Atlantic City must have been present, a couple of thousand talking heads at least. The poop was that we were in for a lecture about the thrills of combat from some bombardier having recently loosed tons of TNT onto enemy submarine pens. He was late. The cloying emptiness of the stage was aggravated by the pitch-black presence of a concert grand piano. So an NCO got up in front of the microphone and said we’d have to wait, advice received with groans, but by way of placating restive troops he ordered some soldier, anyone able would do, to get his ass up there and play that piano.

“Come on,” he barked, “gotta be some kid out there knows how to tickle the ivories.”

Nobody spoke. Silence devoured the hall. Standard operating procedure in the army: do nothing, say nothing, see nothing, hear nothing, and, above all, volunteer for nothing. I slithered in my seat.

The NCO insisted.

Then my compassionate companions from the Chelsea started clamoring, pointing me out, shouting, “Here’s the one, here’s the one, Lord, Lord, Lord.”

“Okay, kid,” cried the NCO, “get your friggin’ ass up here. Let’s hear ya play.”

Sick, stumbling, stage frightened instantly out of my boots, I got to the stage and to the piano, the Black Death, a Steinway, a beauty, and sat down while the fighting man audience clapped like a single pair of diabolical paws preparing for the kill.

And what magic deus ex machina could mere music in extremis provide? The Rondo, its melody reviving the ghastly afternoon of the dead leaves? But nobody out there would know. And the multitudinous squirm of impatience had already begun to stretch its sinews.

Beethoven then, the man whose music had made musicians conquerors. C major. I put my fingers to it, very, very pianissimo and a little more largo than necessary, but the instrument—no matter how I did—the instrument was a genius. And anyway, I could have done worse.

The first snarl from the jungle public came quickly, the deadly growl in the huge throat rousing to a roar of ridicule, angered expectations furiously slavering for the finish.

The NCO beast came from behind, dragging me back by the armpits, snarling, “That’s no music.”

Instant hatred knocked the stuffing out of me, stumbling backward off the stage, every soldier under that odious roof jeering, the entire hall in a turmoil of mockery.

I fled to the exit, burst onto the boardwalk, the wounding ocean wind in my face, and ran for all I was worth to hide my humiliation in the Hotel Chelsea.

Teves sauntered in in time for chow, drawling with derision born in the far Bronx, “Some piss-poor excuse you are for a horse’s ass.”

Punishment was forthcoming. By running away without leave from the scene of disgrace, I’d technically been AWOL. The posted penalty: KP duty continuous for an eight-day week. Police, kitchen or no, was a putrid euphemism, meaning solitary confinement in the hotel’s cellar oubliette, condemned to peel a hillock of ice-cold potatoes never to be diminished by sloppy slicing with a dull knife, supply replenished by night. A foulmouthed PFC brought down tepid slop on a tin tray. And to keep the convict at hard labor, a corporal occasionally came along at the end of a nauseating cigar and observed that I sure was meant for better things, and the MPs’d be glad to tickle my gonads with a pair o’ pliers, what the hell!, and he’d spit on the floor.

My only companions in the potato penitentiary were the cockroaches that darted in an endearing ballet around the monticule of peelings built by my incompetent handiwork. ’Twas meager alleviation, to be sure, of imprisonment’s misery, frozen tubers freezing my fingers, dullness of the knife nicking chapped and reddened hands, flecks of blood on the dead vegetables. Oh, I deserved nothing better!

All in all, I doubtless did deserve to be punished, because Beethoven could only have been booed by such a benighted audience. The deaf composer of course would not have heard the roaring of the rabble, though even on his deathbed he raged against indignity and shook his fist toward the coming of the night.

Excerpted from My Queer War by .
Copyright © 2010 by Estate of James Lord.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.