I remember sitting with a friend at a table in the Eierschale, my go-to bar in Berlin, listening to Dixieland music, drinking beer and talking. It was 1963.
My friend's face was not the face of a young man out on the town. Instead, it was wracked.
He was, slowly but surely, unveiling his life of terror in the army.
He was a homosexual and one of the things we, as members of a top-secret unit, had all told the army, in writing, was that we were neither homosexual nor communist. Homosexuality, in those years, 1962-1964, was still a social no-no. But in the army unit we belonged to, beyond the social condemnation, there was also an alleged fear that the bad guys, the communists just over the Berlin Wall, might snatch such an individual and threaten to expose his sexual proclivities as a means of extracting the secrets of our top-secret unit.
But that night, sitting with my frightened friend, I didn't care about any of that shit. I was looking at a 20-21-year-old who was scared out of his wits and saw no way out ... constantly in fear of being exposed and humiliated and, who knows, perhaps jailed for having lied to the army.
If my friend's confession was a fancy way of making a pass at me, it never crossed my mind or came to anything. I had lived in Greenwich Village and had coped with such advances before. This didn't feel like a pass ... it felt like a human being who was deeply afraid.
There were a number of homosexuals in our section of the unit -- Violet Section, so named because we were the egg-heads, the ones who were too smart and therefore not considered up to manly par with Green, Blue and other, less-egg-heady sections. Not everyone and not even a majority in Violet section was gay, but a number of people were. It was something to suspect or something to know, but it was not something to talk about or quibble with: These guys could do the work we all did, sometimes better, sometimes worse ... just like any of the rest of us. Who screwed boys and who screwed girls was not the point.
I thought of my friend's wracked face today -- his pure, imaginative, paranoid terror -- as I read an Associated Press story reporting on the appearance by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullens, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Mullens argued that men and women in the service should no longer be subjected to the strictures that have guided military policies on homosexuality since 1993 -- the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" rule.
There were howls of understandable indignation in the Senate hearing room today much as there had been howls of indignation in 1948 when then-president Harry S. Truman integrated the armed services. The United States is a prurient country: If it can't get its head screwed on right about heterosexuality, what makes anyone think it should be more sensible about homosexuality? The whole matter is, if you'll pardon the pun, just too fucking scary.
But I remembered my friend's face today and hoped that, if he were still alive, he would be smiling a little.
I know I am.