Elliot’s Story—Fiction by S. Blair Jockers
Looking back, I realize I had a serious crush on Joe. People didn’t think that way in 1949, but I should have figured it out the day he told me he was leaving Pensacola as soon as his enlistment was up at the end of the year.
“I’m sick of the Navy,” he said. It was June, and we were eating grilled cheese sandwiches together in front of the PX. “I’m outta here, off to Montana, someplace like that.”
I knew I would miss Joe but was afraid he might not miss me. I wanted him to stay, but for some confused reason, I didn’t understand then, thought it was better he was leaving.
We met at NAS Pensacola in February 1947, on the first day of my first job. We were punching out on the time clock at the base’s north gate, and when I told him I was a newbie, he immediately took me to a bar nearby for a welcome-to-the-nav beer. I was only eighteen and got carded, so ended up sipping a pop while Joe talked. He was raised in New Orleans, played shortstop on the all-city junior baseball team there, drafted in 1943, re-upped in 1945. The high point of his navy career was maintaining the aircraft that downed three hundred Japanese planes in the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” during the Battle of the Philippines in 1944.
On his baseball-sized bicep, Joe had a tattoo of a Hellcat, the plane flown by The Blue Angels in aerial shows at parks and fairs, and wore a Bronze Star pinned to his uniform, the true sign of a genuine hero. When I asked if I could read the back, he turned the medal upside down and I leaned close to see: Awarded for Heroic or Meritorious Achievement. I smelled his Aqua Velva aftershave too, which was nice.
“What’s your story?” he asked.
“From Apalachicola originally. Now I live with my mother in an old pile downtown. My father was killed at Dunkirk and I wanted to join up right after I graduated, but there were too many sailors still enlisted from the war, so I got a job on base instead.”
“I don’t mean that, Ace. I’m asking if you’ve ever been laid. You look like you just started shaving last week.”
“Shit yeah,” I said.
Joe must have known I was fibbing, because he slapped my back and laughed one of his big old laughs, and from that moment on, we were friends. We went to movies at the Highway 90 Drive-In; drove around in his father’s 1939 Hudson while he bragged about his latest conquest of a horny, small-town girl, and I basked in his glow. I told him I was sick of “pussy soda pop,” so he got me a fake ID and we started going to bars in Pensacola Beach.
Sometimes I had strange feelings around him, like when he drove with his shirt off, one arm draped over the driver’s side door, and I found myself staring at his muscles and the tufts of hair in the middle of his chest. Or when he changed into his bathing suit behind the car door at the beach and my mind went totally blank at the sight of him naked. Or when he hugged me at the party my mother threw for my nineteenth birthday and my underwear tightened up.
I started figuring things out that night Joe told me was moving away. When he dropped me off at home, I slammed the car door and walked inside without saying goodbye. I ate the fried chicken and biscuits my mother left in the oven, and took a shower, then sat in my favorite chair in the parlor and drank a pop while I read the Pensacola Journal. Below the fold was a story about a federal government report that called homosexuality a mental illness and documented what the report called “sex perverts” being fired from jobs in Washington.
What if I do have feelings for him, I remember asking myself. That doesn’t make me a pervert. I chugged the pop, threw the paper in the trash, and went to bed.
After his enlistment was up, Joe didn’t move right away. He wanted to be a mechanic for one of the commercial airlines, but he was having trouble finding the right spot. On June 25, 1950, North Korean troops surged over the border into South Korea, and the Korean War began. Joe was the only person I knew with a television, so I went over to his trailer to watch the news report.
The reception was bad, so we sat on a porch he built off the side of his trailer. He opened a wooden ice box and pulled out a tall jar of Hurricanes, a rum and fruit juice drink from New Orleans.
“How’s the job?” he asked. “You still on base?”
“Yeah, busy, with everything happening in Korea. They’ve been sending me to Point Magu out in California to set up a records system for training Seabees out there. Paperwork never ends…”
“I’d get sick of sitting at a desk all day.”
“You get used to it, but I know what you mean. I’ve started back at that gym on base where we used to go in the afternoons. It breaks up the day.”
“And it shows, Ace. You used to be such a pencil.” Joe lifted his leg and touched his shoe against my thigh.
A gust of wind blew over from the creek as we passed the jar back and forth. Nuts falling from the pecan tree cracked like little bullets on the metal roof of a carport where Joe parked his new F100 pickup.
“Nice truck.” I took another swallow from the jar, started to feel its effects, and handed it back. “Remember that old Hudson? You looked great in that car.”
Joe smiled and we went back inside, but the news show was over, so we watched Joe’s favorite program instead—The Lone Ranger—about a cowboy in a mask and his young Indian companion, Tonto, fighting for law and order in the Old West.
“Big man and his friend, what about that?” Ray slurred and grinned. I was drunker than I had ever been in my life, but it must have occurred to me where this might go, where I probably wanted it to go. He had talked before about navy guys getting horny on long cruises and fooling around. During the second commercial, my head fell against his shoulder.
I woke up the next morning in Joe’s bed, both of us naked, my head resting on his chest. As the sky began to light, he woke up too, and we started talking—about his truck, his job search, his girlfriend, Tanya, and the new computer I used at my job–anything but what had just occurred. I loved feeling his chest rumble against my cheek as he spoke and eventually drifted back to sleep.
An hour later, the blazing sun jolted me back to reality and I jumped from the bed like I’d been shot out of a gun. I pulled on my clothes and rushed out without saying goodbye. That was the last time I ever saw Joe.
After leaving his trailer, I spent the rest of the day locked in my room. Whenever I closed my eyes, I kept imagining the two of us together. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept pulling at myself, hating myself. At two a.m., I yanked an extension cord out of the wall and whipped my body, then threw it down on the floor. The cuts left permanent scars on my abdomen.
My job was planning and organizing training programs, and I decided what to do next in a way I was comfortable with. I made a list:
1. Get as far away from Joe as possible, as soon as possible.
2. Never walk or talk in a feminine way.
3. Avoid eye contact with men who look that way, so others won’t notice and make assumptions about me.
4. Avoid handsome men who might make my mind wander.
5. Avoid books and magazines with suggestive photographs and themes.
6. Avoid places where men are likely to remove articles of clothing that might invite disturbing thoughts—gyms, beaches, parks, sporting events, construction sites.
7. Find a girl and get married.
8. Be vigilant, all the time, everywhere.
I met Piper at an Independence Day parade in downtown Pensacola and we got married the day after Thanksgiving. She was a secretary at Baptist Hospital and wanted a little house, a garden, kids; things I thought I could be proud of. I arranged a transfer to Whiting Field, a naval training facility in Milton, twenty-five miles from Pensacola, and Joe.
We liked Milton. It was a smaller town, and quieter. The Blue Angels were based there, and on the wall of their hanger, unfortunately, was a giant image of their mascot plane, a Hellcat, the same image tattooed on Joe’s bicep. Walking by it every day, I remembered things that made me feel dirty and disgusting, a different species than the pilots, our heroes, who worked in that very building. Despite my best efforts, I was weak, didn’t always follow the plan. I bought physique magazines with pictures of oiled-up men in thongs with soft, welcoming eyes, and used them as a tool to find release.
Around then, I read in Time magazine about a book that had just been published and was creating quite a stir. It was called Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey, and claimed over a third of American men had had a homosexual experience at some point in their lives.
Seoul was captured in March of 1951, and the Chinese joined the war. Trained recruits were in great demand on the west coast, and I spent more and more time at Point Magu. Piper was pregnant by then and wanted to stay near her family in Pensacola, so we decided not to move, and I went back and forth on transport flights every other week.
Point Magu was an hour north of Los Angeles, and when Frank, another civilian employee on base there, invited me to share the driving one weekend, I was ready for a break and agreed.
We checked into separate rooms in a hotel off Hollywood Boulevard, then Frank asked if I was up for an adventure, and I said sure, so we drove to a neighborhood between Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles called Silver Lake.
Frank parked on Sunset Boulevard across from a bar called The Black Cat. The place was packed with men talking to each other over loud music; some with shirts partially unbuttoned, showing off muscles and hairy chests. The Black Cat was a homosexual bar, the first I had ever been to, and I felt like I was suddenly inhabiting a different planet. So many men, just like me!
When a man in the drink line smiled and introduced himself to us, Frank winked at me and went to the other end of the bar. The man was dressed in a business suit with his collar unbuttoned—an accountant at one of the film studios. The thing I remember most, believe it or not, is the feeling of his lips brushing my ear as he stood close, his tailored beard touching my neck, hand in the small of my back. He had to go after a few minutes, so we kissed and he gave me his telephone number on a matchbook cover.
As Frank and I left, a young kid on the sidewalk out front handed me a flier from a group called The Mattachine Society. It described a legal case involving a local man, Dale Jennings, who had recently sued the police for entrapment, and won.
“It was he-said, he-said,” the kid told me. “No other witnesses. This means we’re innocent until proven guilty, finally. Homo sex might not be legal, but it’s a lot harder to prosecute now, in California anyway.”
If the legal system acknowledged, even in a small way, that I wasn’t evil or disgusting or perverted, did that mean I was just a regular person, that I didn’t have anything to be ashamed of? It was exhilarating to consider, but as we walked to the car, I remembered what I was returning to, in Point Magu and also Pensacola, where Piper was waiting, pregnant with my child. When Frank and I got in the car, I sat in the driver’s seat, balling like some fool, pounding my head against the steering wheel until blood crept down my forehead.
Frank took me in his arms. I had made my first gay friend.
On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed with a recognized border at the 38th parallel. The previous fall, when I returned to Pensacola on one of the transport flights, I told Piper the truth and she wasn’t surprised. “You light up like a bulb whenever you talk about Joe,” she said. And she’d found my magazines, too.
We divorced amicably. I arranged a permanent transfer to Point Magu and found a studio apartment in Ventura, the first time I’d lived alone. A couple of years later, I got a job at a computer company in Los Angeles and moved there. I regularly sent money to Piper for our daughter Misty, though Piper’s new husband forbade her from having any contact with me.
I dated men on and off over the years, but still felt dirty and disgusting, deep down, and my relationships never lasted very long. I was lonely, hung out at bathhouses, and tested positive for HIV in 1984. I never got AIDS, unlike several of my friends who died that first year—usually alone. I was one of the lucky ones but often felt like I didn’t deserve to be.
Then, in 1986, I met Arthur and my world turned around. “I didn’t give you a choice,” Arthur likes to say. “You were mine, and that was that.” I was over fifty then, but still had trouble thinking of myself as a real man, a man who was capable of happiness, so Arthur sent me to a therapist who said rules about who can do what with who are getting less strict, and people aren’t condemned for who they love so much anymore.
That’s true, of course, even more now than it was back then. Young gay men these days have an easier time coming out than I did. There’s still a lot of shit up in my noggin that keeps me awake nights—how disappointed my mother was when she found out about me; the meanness I showed to boyfriends over the years, hating myself for wanting them; the bitterness and resentment that my career flattened out in my thirties when my bosses realized I wasn’t going the way of the straight and narrow. Misty died in a car accident a few months after graduating college in ‘72, so I never got a chance to meet my only child.
Even at my age, some days are better than others.
But there’s always Arthur. Things are fine when it’s just the two of us in our little bungalow, him tending his garden out back and me playing with my beagle named—you guessed it—Joe.
Maybe someday we’ll all be a little more like Joe, a happy warrior who loved who he wanted to love and was loved right back.
Blair Jockers grew up in the South and loves to write about it. He was a finalist for the Allegra Johnson Prize at the UCLA Writers Program and earned an MFA at the University of California, Riverside. Blair lives with his husband in Palm Springs, California.