It seems every generation has their wars; some are just more obvious than others.
I’ve been reading a biography of the poet Siegfried Sassoon and studying the British “War Poets” of the First World War. Stories of young men struggling with the realities of war and trying to reconcile them with the peaceful, conventional world they were fighting to preserve. Many of them were young men trying to reconcile their sexuality with the roles they were raised to play in a world that was fast disappearing.
In theory, my generation had no wars. We were too young for Vietnam and too old for the first Gulf War. I remember being in my early teens when the Vietnam War ended. I remember being outside as fireworks exploded and everyone tried to make merry over the fact the Paris Peace Accords had ended a war no one had really wanted by then. I remember my neighbor, whose son had safely survived the conflict, hugging me and saying: “I’m so glad you won’t have to go to war. You are safe. We can all get back to normal.”
But some of us would have our war. Partially external and partially internal. In many ways, it would be a guerrilla war against our own people. It would be the War on AIDS, the war for equal rights and the war on our own self-expectations.
I know this is tenuous and dangerous comparison to use, but the one commonality in all wars is that young men die- many of them needlessly. The young learn about death and loss before their natural time. And their world and their perception of it is changed forever.
And young men bond, as they struggle to find their place in the new world, in ways that their friends and families, who are not veterans of the conflict, will never understand. They build a comradery that only fellow veterans of the same conflict can share. Whether the veterans die from the conflict and its consequences or survive to face more mundane, but no less tragic young deaths or live to a ripe old age, they are always comrades who fought the same war.
As I read about these young men in England during World War I, I can’t help but find a connection to my youth and the young men who fought the good fight, but are no longer here to swap stories and share remembrances of times past, over cocktails, at reunions that never came to be…
The other thing all young men have in common is that they always think there will be a tomorrow….
Dennis. The center of our High School group. We all revolved around him like young planets around a shining star. Funny, audacious, fearless, brilliant- determined to find himself on his own terms even if it meant leaving us behind.
He was the first to go and in so many ways the hardest to lose. We had drifted apart and never had our final reunion. I wrote him a letter and mailed it the week he died, not knowing how badly he was doing. I thought there was still time….
After 20 years, I still recall the sense of devastation, the sense of unfairness and absolute, unfocused anger I felt when I heard of his death.
Buddy. Sweet, funny, crazy Buddy. The only one of us better at compartmentalizing his life than I. We had a kinship of conventionality that fought with our own best interests. In our youth, we tried to fit into a mold that neither of us could really make work. He went to Hampden-Sydney and I went to Washington and Lee. We shared the unique journey of young gay men who went to College at all men’s schools and thus had a shared understanding for that special world. He could ultimately shed that role easier than I. But Buddy was in the theatre. And he could act almost as well as I could when called upon to play a conventional role in real life.
I remember the last time we spoke. My phone rang one Saturday afternoon and I answered wondering who the hell could be calling me from South Carolina.
I said “Hello.”
“Scott? Buddy here. I was just listening to French Operas and vacuuming when I suddenly just had to speak to you. How are you?”
That was Buddy. We had not spoken for several years, but picked right up where we left off. In fact, we moved our friendship forward. We were more honest, less oblique, than we had been in the past. We were older, braver and more comfortable in our own skins- something no one who knew us well would have said 10 years earlier.
Buddy and Dennis were much braver and more impatient than I was when we first knew each other. They moved forward in their journey while I was still trying to avoid the war. Still trying to play my intended, inherited role in a pre-“Will and Grace” world. Still being a contentious objector to the conflict. Not fully trusted because I had not yet committed to the fight.
But at least Buddy and I caught up with each other. We were both happy. We made vague plans to see each other and get together soon. He was more real and grounded than I had ever known him to be. I thought he was really going to be okay and that we could be new, old friends building on our old foundation…
Within a month he was dead. An accident.
I can’t explain how much that final conversation meant. We talked of Dennis, we talked of how we had moved forward and how silly we had been in our youth. How things that once seemed so important didn’t really matter….
I miss Dennis and Buddy to this day. We were young and frivolous together and we came from both the same time and started in the same place.
We had come out under fire with the spector of AIDS hanging over us every moment as we struggled to find ourselves. We were small town, middle class boys trying to find our way in a world that was more complex and changing faster than we ever anticipated.
Being Gay had gone from “the love that dare not speak its name” to being shouted in the streets of New York, San Francisco, Washington and in the halls of Congress as the Gay Activists and members of Act Up fought to save us all from the neglect of the government under Ronald Reagan and the very public hate disseminated by Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
We were in a war whether we chose to be or not….
I wish those boys were still here. I would love to have the chance for us to talk again and catch up. The chance to share our journeys and express our shared thoughts on how our middle-age was so different from our youthful expectations of aging. Probably, so much better than we could have ever imagined it would be back when we were fighting the fights of the 1980’s and 1990’s…
There were others who crossed my path during the war years- and far too many of them are also gone. Andre, the Black drag queen who wanted to be a Virginia Prep. Gorgeous, Carlton, with his unique joi de vivre who adored Judy Garland more than a queen twice his age. Sweet, funny Gene who’s appetite for life was more than his body could take…
We were all Comrades in Arms and fought a war with ourselves and with the world that only other Gay guys with a similar, small town Southern backgrounds could understand. Our families and other friends would never be able to know our journeys to the same depth that we could share among ourselves. Those safe on the home front never can fully understand the world of the soldiers in the trenches.
And we all shared a special secret. That we were all a little damaged by our war and always would be- however hard we tried to pretend we weren’t.
Our war was not in the trenches of France or in the streets of New York, but in the living rooms, kitchens and paneled basement dens of the South. With people who could never understand why we were different and that even “tolerance” isn’t the same as “acceptance” and certainly isn’t love. People, whose hearts and minds we always hoped to win…
And our war was also with ourselves-fighting to reconcile who we truly and natural were with the ideal of what we were raised to think we should be…
We comrades shared so much, even when we weren’t physically together. But when we were together, in those brief fleeting moments between battles, we could tell our tales over cocktails with the style, wry humor and the self depreciation of other veterans of other conflicts.
Thank god, I have my partner who shares the same journey and has lost comrades of his own. I think the fact that we both came from the same place, in so many ways, is one of the things that bonds us.
And we could host one hell of a party if the guests were still available….
If I could gather all these guys together today, the energy would be too much for any room to contain it. It would explode.
But then, it is a law of physics that you can’t create or destroy energy. It only evolves….
And I know we are all still a part of the same shared energy.
The war stories of our big city brothers and sisters have been told by many. But very few tell the war stories of those who survived the war on the small town, Southern front.
Maybe that’s why I’m still here.
To tell our stories….