Today's historic signing of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" brought to mind a story from my youth that I hadn't thought of for many years. I enlisted in the Air Force in 1971 when I was 18, and joined thousands of my contemporaries undergoing the joys of Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. I won't go into great detail about the experience, although I have many stories on tap from this period of my life. Perhaps I will inflict some of these on a future occasion. Mainly I wanted to mention the person who was my best friend during "Basic."
Roger was what is called a "Dorm Chief," for my flight, (A "flight" is the smallest unit in the AF, analogous to a platoon in the Army) which just means that he's the person that your TI (Training Instructor) designates as being in charge of the flight. He sets up the Dorm Guard schedules and other administrivia that the TI would rather not mess with. He also tends to get yelled at about the stuff that everybody else does wrong. The TI's generally assigned someone with some military background (such as High School ROTC or Military School attendance) or someone a little older than the average dewy-cheeked youth to this job. Roger fit the latter pattern. He was in his early twenties, I guess. Kind of a quiet, thoughtful guy. I liked him quite a lot.
There's not a lot of opportunity for wild parties during Basic Training, so the trainee's social life consists largely of the "bull session," conversations at meal times, hanging out at the rec area during base liberty periods, and other such exciting pastimes. So Roger and I never had anything notable in the way of revelry, just quiet conversations mostly. We were both musicians, so we would go to the rec center where they had guitars and keyboards and such that we would fool around on.
A few weeks into my stint at Lackland, I came down with a case of tonsillitis, which, in case you don't know, is a rather serious matter for an adult, and spent more than a week in the hospital. Upon my release, I walked back to my squadron feeling much better but still pretty weak in the legs. I was surprised to find Roger manning the barracks door as Dorm Guard. (The Dorm Chief, naturally, didn't pull Dorm Guard duty) I asked him what was up and he said he'd been feeling stressed out and had bombed out on the Dorm Chief gig. He was looking kind of stressed, frankly.
It was not long after my return that we were talking and he said he had wanted to tell me something. The way he said it frightened me a little because he seemed so serious and I was afraid he was going to tell me he was sick or in trouble or something. What he told me was that he was homosexual. ("gay" was not a term that was in common use at the time) Truthfully, I was so relieved that I think I smiled and said something like "Is that all?" This is not to say that I wasn't surprised. Nor can I take credit for any prior suspicion that he was gay. (What they now call "gaydar" is something I've never had any talent for.) Truthfully, I was gob-smacked by the revelation. I was a pretty naive 18 year old and had never known anyone who was openly homosexual, but, in an environment where neither one of us had been within 50 feet of a female for several weeks, it just didn't seem to matter much.
I wasn't sure at the time why he felt he needed to tell me this, but, after nearly 40 years, I think I now have it figured out. I will probably never understand the pressures faced by someone who is forced to pretend to be someone they are not, and I think he felt like he needed to tell the truth to someone. If I have analyzed his motivation correctly, I'm glad that he felt like he could trust me with the truth.
So on this historic day, when freedom in the United States has taken yet another step forward, here's to you, Roger, wherever you are.