My family had moved while I was in the service, to a new home out in the country. I had been there a few times on leave but it still seemed very strange to be living with them again. My youngest brother and sister were babies when I left but now were grown and in school. It felt good sleeping in for a couple of days but I soon became bored with the inactivity. I started doing yard work around the house to occupy my time but every time I heard an airplane flying overhead I wondered if I would ever travel again. I had plenty of money but nowhere to go. I tried looking up old friends but most had gotten married to escape the draft and had no interest in going out for a beer to discuss the Vietnam War, which was beginning to wind down anyway and was no longer an issue with most Americans.
Severe depression soon set in and for nearly a month I stayed awake all night long watching television, afraid to go to bed, while everyone else did, because of what I might do in my sleep. In time I was able to recognize my need for getting back into life and decided to buy a car with the money I had received for my injuries. I found a big Ford with power windows, bucket seats, and all the luxuries I liked. It was an old man’s car my brother said, but it was certainly a lot more comfortable than his Plymouth Road Runner. I liked it and it made me feel good again, but there was still nowhere to go.
I finally decided to ask for my old job back. They were required by law to hire all military returnees for at least one year as an opportunity for readjustment. I had looked for other jobs in the paper but there wasn’t much to choose from and so I bought a new three-piece suit, shaved the beard I had started, and drove the nearly 40 miles to Pine Rest Christian Hospital in Cutlerville, Michigan. I was surprised to see that Miss DeWeerd was still the Director of Nursing and cringed slightly as I entered her office. I had had run-ins with her before when I was a student nurse and she had threatened to kick me out of class once because of a misunderstanding.
It was stupid really; Cheryl, Ted, and I were at the classroom, studying late for an exam and it was nearly dark as we walked back to the dorms. Cheryl had just become engaged and Ted and I were the only two male students in the class. We passed Karen, another student; on the run back to the classroom to get a book she had forgotten. After she passed, the three of us decided it would be fun to scare her when she returned and so we hid behind some bushes in the grass. Several minutes passed and Ted needed to use the bathroom and so he left. A few minutes later Karen came trotting back and Cheryl and I jumped out of the bushes and scared the daylights out of her just as we had planned. We all laughed and I went back to the men’s dorm and told Ted about it. The following morning I was called into Miss DeWeerd’s office and was accused of making out with Cheryl in the bushes. The fact that she was engaged could cause a major scandal for the school and I would have to control my male instincts if I wanted to finish the course, I was told harshly. I tried to explain to her that Ted had been with us but she ignored me.
“I know Ted,” she responded, “and he would never do anything like that with a girl.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that Ted was homosexual at the time, even though he was a little strange. I had lived right across the hall from him, in the old four-story farmhouse that had been converted to the men’s dormitory. I later even shared an apartment with him and two other guys for a few months before going into the military and had asked my roommate Larry why Ted and Mike slept in a double bed. He told me that was the way the apartment came when they got it and the two of them had volunteered to take the room. It made sense to me and I was happy that I had a bed of my own because growing up in a large family meant sharing a bed most of my life.
I hadn’t realized he was gay until I was in the military and met others like him. Every duty station I was at had a special meeting place and usually, all new people were invited, in a non-threatening way, to attend a party. I learned to recognize the invitations and to turn them down in a way that was not demeaning but left no doubt that I would never be interested. This allowed for good working conditions since in the military it was not always easy to escape your surroundings and if you had a problem with someone it could make life a little difficult.
In the beginning, however, I was naive and while stationed at my first duty station in Quonset Point, Rhode Island, home of the Essex Air Craft Carrier, I completely misread the signals and got myself into a rather scary situation. Clinton was a new recruit from a wealthy Texan family. He had more education than most of the other men and was actually interested in pursuing a nursing career after the military. When he found out I was a psychiatric nurse he became interested in knowing more about me and so we would often go out for a beer at the Marine canteen, which was off-limits to most sailors but they made exceptions for Navy Corpsmen because many of us would eventually end up with them in Vietnam.
One night I was telling him the story of my trip to New York City with another corpsman Terry. Terry was also from a wealthy family somewhere in the vicinity of Quonset Point. I knew that because on the day before our scheduled trip a man came into the front office asking for Terry. I told him he was out on a work detail and so the man handed me a set of keys and told me to give it to him when he returned. I thought nothing of it and that evening while eating, threw the keys on the table. “I wonder what my father got me this time?” he said as he put the keys in his pocket. After eating we walked out to the almost empty parking lot and there sat a brand new black Cadillac convertible. Up to that time I had had no idea what this weekend was going to be like. Terry had simply asked if I would accompany him on a double date that his father had arranged. I agreed only because I was interested in seeing New York and well okay, I was a bit interested in Donna, one of the two Waves he had also invited before me.
“Wow! Your father must be loaded” I exclaimed in disbelief.
“It’s only a rental,” Terry responded nonchalantly, as he opens the door and pulls out a package from under the seat. “Hum, HELLO DOLLY, I would have preferred seeing HAIR but I knew he wouldn’t go along with that.”
“You mean Broadway?”
“Yes, of course, Broadway,” Terry replies as he puts the tickets back in the package and locks the door.
The girls were nearly as excited as I was when they saw the car, Donna more so than Mary. Mary was upper class and claimed to be a cousin of the then famous singer Robert Goulet. Donna was from the country and maybe that is why I was attracted to her.
We left the base with the top down, Terry and Mary in the front seat, and Donna and I in the back. That didn’t last long however because the air was damp and the girls complained of being cold. We also decided that it would be better if we didn’t sit as couples but kept things strictly on a friendly level. Mary and I traded places and that made for a more comfortable conversation as we headed for New York City.
About halfway there, Terry pulled off the Hi-way and into a Fancy Steak House parking lot. It was obvious that the people knew him there and we were given special service. “Order whatever you like, my father is paying for it,” Terry announced. When we were finished he simply signed the check and we were on our way again. Terry was no stranger in New York City either, as he maneuvered the car through traffic up to the Piccadilly Circus Hotel. We were brought to our rooms by the manager, who winked as he demonstrated the door that opened into the girl’s room, just in case. The girls were not very happy with the insinuation and after the man left Terry showed them the lock on their side and promised there would not be any problem. We showered and dressed in suit and tie and then waited for the girls. We had never seen them in anything but uniforms so when they came out in their dresses, it was a very pleasant surprise. Terry told us we would be eating at the Rainbow Room, which was interesting for me because at home I ate at the Rainbow Grill in Grandville, Michigan all the time and I didn’t realize they had a franchise in New York City.
We hailed a cab in front of the hotel and Terry told him to go to the Rockefeller Center. We entered an elevator and Terry pushed the button for the top floor. Upon exiting I realized that I was perhaps incorrect in thinking that this Rainbow Room had any connection to the Rainbow Grill back home. We were escorted to our seats and immediately surrounded by waiters. There were no prices on the menu but Terry assured us that we could get whatever we wanted. As we waited for our meal the waiter poured us a glass of wine and gave us a history of the room, telling us who had been there and where they had sat. The meal was over all too soon and we were back on the street hailing a cab for Broadway. We arrived at the theater a few minutes after the show began and the usher was a little upset with us because of it. I didn’t understand why until he brought us all the way to the front row center of the theater where our seats were located. It was Martha Ray’s first night back on Broadway after doing a tour in Vietnam and so the performers and the performance was the best it had ever been. A once in a lifetime experience for me, Terry was transferred shortly after we returned to base and I have never learned his real identity.
When I had finished telling the story Clinton asked if I would like to show him around New York since he had never been there. It sounded like a good idea to me and so we agreed to go the next weekend. Instead of a Cadillac, we took a bus but the trip there was just as exciting for me. After a day of sightseeing, we checked in to a hotel somewhere in the vicinity of the Empire State Building. I showered first and jumped into my bed, Clinton did the same and after turning out the lights we talked for several minutes about the day. There was a pause and then Clinton asked if he could come into my bed.
“What?” I responded, innocently.
“Can I sleep with you tonight?”
“Why would you want to do that?” I asked, as my heart began pounding and my eyes searched the room for an escape route.
“I’m sorry,” Clinton responded, sensing my uneasiness “I was assuming you were Gay and I obviously was incorrect. I won’t bother you, I promise. Go ahead and get some sleep.”
I waited until my heart stopped pounding first but then took his advice. He never approached me again and we were able to continue our friendship until I was transferred to a new duty station. Later I heard that he had been accepted to study nursing and would receive his commission as an officer after completion. He was the first Gay person I knew and the fact that he was open and honest about what and who he was, both shocked and impressed me. That experience opened my eyes to the fact that there were many kinds of people in the world that didn’t necessarily fit into the boxes that I had built for them and, in fact, by the time my enlistment was over I was beginning to do away with my box filing system and seeing people more as individuals.
Returning to Pine Rest Christian Hospital was strange because I was no longer naive and things, like Ted’s homosexuality, no longer escaped my attention. I had called Ted’s home after my discharge and talked to his mother. She told me that he had completed his requirements for becoming a Registered Nurse but was having some health problems, reoccurring infections, diarrhea, and fevers that had the doctors confused. She said they had not made a positive diagnosis yet but thought something was wrong with his Immune system. I told her to say hello to him and that when he was feeling better have him call me. He never did and a few years later I heard that he died.