Before I start, I want to make three observations:
1. Embalmers and funeral directors sometimes do too good a job.
2. Some people die too young, some die too old, but no one ever dies at the right time.
3. When people as old as Chris pass, sometimes no one attends the services. They’re all alone. Maybe they were abandoned in an old age home, or maybe there were no surviving family members. But look how many people came yesterday and today! That is a testament to the quality of family and friends he chose.
People tell each other stories in order to become friends, and I want to tell you a few stories about Chris’ life and how we became friends.
Chris, like many soldiers, rarely talked of his combat experience, and we were all surprised when we found that he earned all sorts of awards and medals, including a Silver Star and several Bronze Stars during his time in Vietnam. We have documents showing that he indeed earned those awards, but the stories behind them are currently missing.
Chris mentioned that he was present in Vietnam in 1968 during all three phases of the Tet Offensive, which were coordinated attacks by the Viet Cong and North Vietnam People’s Army against South Vietnamese civilians and the forces of the US, South Vietnam, and their allies. Tens of thousands of people were killed or wounded and 83% of the civilian population was left homeless. We don’t yet know the particulars of his role in the Offensive.
Something Chris did not mention was that in July 1969 he participated in capturing and holding Hill 4-11, in order to build a Fire Support Base there. The hill was located in a Viet Cong stronghold, guarded by enemy booby traps and snipers. We’re still researching that bit of history as well.
After the Tet Offensive and Hill 4-11, Chris returned to the US where he “lived in a commune on the side of a hill” for a time. That was to recharge himself before returning to the military.
It is appealing to describe Chris as “humble” for not telling us about all those medals. Yet he was anything but a humble man! Rather, this was his way of “firewalling” the experiences that earned him those medals from the sane world, thereby preserving his sanity.
While he didn’t share many stories of combat, he did explain what it was like to be a gay soldier of that era.
One time he was on leave in Saigon, and he went with one of his (straight) friends down to where the French Embassy was located. There was a gay bar there, and a line of soldiers were waiting to get in.
His friend started counting them: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. I didn’t know they let people like that into the Army.”
Chris said “13!” then got into that line.
He did say that he was out to some of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam (and so maybe all of them knew?) but he was mostly reserved. They still trusted each other - so much for unit cohesion being lost because of the gays!
|Photos from the 2/61st Air Defense Artillery yearbook, 1974|
Later, someone found love letters in his foot locker. His “superiors” gave him a choice: either leave the Army or transfer to the Army Reserves. He chose the latter, and I believe they gave him this choice because his career was so spectacular.
Even after this he still loved the Army, and indeed he loved it for the rest of his life, sometimes begrudgingly but most times passionately, and he said his only regret over the whole affair was that he would never make it to the rank of master sergeant.
Chris’ mixture of optimism and pragmatism on gays in the military is shown by those stories. He wasn’t out to change the military into a politically correct organization, he just wanted to do his job. He understood that gays are in the minority and that the world does not and must not revolve around us. He knew that the military’s purpose is to defend our country, not to act as an agent of societal change, and gays’ presence must be evaluated with that purpose as the standard.
Chris continued in the Army Reserves, helping to establish addiction support services for his fellow soldiers.
He returned full-time and deployed to Kuwait during the Iraq War. The sand in Kuwait is like powder, and it got into his lungs. He collapsed from this and was evacuated to a hospital in Germany, then sent to Walter Reed Hospital, and finally to Fort Knox.
Thus after 30 years in the Army or Army Reserves, he retired.
I met Chris early in the 1990s when I was working at a fast food restaurant across from OSU. He came in one evening and ordered two hard tacos and a medium fountain drink. We kept running into each other - at a convenience store close to where we lived, then at a 24 hour donut shop.
That meeting in the donut shop was the start of a lifelong friendship, but also the start of a strange romance!
For our first date he wanted to see a foreign film at Studio 35. He thought I would like it, but afterwards we realized we both hated it, and that we had similar “pedestrian” tastes in movies.
For our second date we went to the Indian Burial Mounds in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Our third date was in my apartment. I played “Kind of Blue,” an album by Miles Davis, for him. The last song on that album has an eerie quality to it, but I couldn’t identify what made it so enchanting. Well, we danced to that song, and the meaning came to me as a thunderclap: the song is slow, but emotionally it feels as though time has stopped, that the moment would go on forever.
For our fourth date Chris played the first album that Flatt and Scruggs did together, “Foggy Mountain Jamboree.” I still listen to that album, and also to far more bluegrass than if he hadn’t introduced me to it. Anyone who knew him knew that this was Chris’ music!
Our relationship really took off when he brought me into his circle of friends!
Chris was 17 years older than me, and when he introduced me to his friends one of them said: “Chris, you robbed the cradle”. My retort was: “yea, and I robbed the grave.”
Chris’ sense of humor was like mine: dark and spicy.
Chris was a member of NA and AA, but he was clean and sober for at least 10 or 15 years by the time we met. While he was indeed clean and sober, he was not confident at all that he would remain so. Everybody was certain that he would stay that way except him - that confidence would only come later in his life.
We spent our first Thanksgiving dinner together with some of his friends, most of whom were also in AA and NA. I’ve never met anybody like that before! One of them told me the strangest story - she said she used to grow her pinkie fingernail really long to act as a cocaine scoop, and she followed this by demonstrating the motion. There were many other stories that evening all with the same theme.
After dinner, we were walking out to the car, and I had a flash! “Hey Chris, how many AA or NA members does it take to change a lightbulb?”
He was getting pissed at me, but he took the bait: “I don’t know, how many?”
“Five: one to put in the new bulb and four to reminisce about how good the old bulb was.”
I was in the dog house for two weeks for that!
But we kept on, through countless nights playing board games, and through some Mensa conventions, and through a few arguments, but only a few.
|Fencing with Chrismas Wrapping Paper Rolls|
Years later, our romance cooled, and it made sense for me to move to Maryland for my job.
I knew that Chris would be there at my apartment in Frederick, MD, so when I packed the boxes, I labeled them like “Books and Sex Toys” or “Silverware and Double Headed Dildoes.” The movers got a kick out of that, but Chris was not amused!
Chris got the last laugh, though! He helped me pack when I moved from Frederick over to Pennsylvania, and when I arrived, half the boxes were marked as “Stuff” or “More Stuff!”
This type of banter was certainly part of our chemistry, but it wasn’t the only part. Here’s something more typical:
Chris and I always used to drive at least an hour to some small random town just to have pizza for dinner. The particular town or restaurant didn’t matter. What did matter is that we did this together and that we enjoyed it. It was such a simple thing, and neither of us realized at the time how important those weekly outings were. For this reason I cannot tell you the name of the town or pizza restaurant we first ate at. I thought these short road trips would go on forever, and for that reason I do not remember the name of the last restaurant we ate at. All I know is that there was a first town and restaurant and a last town and restaurant, and that there will be no more such road trips.
Chris wanted to get back together with me in Pennsylvania, and we tried it, but he missed his family and friends in Columbus terribly.
|Sending Our Best from the Hospital, September 2017|
Thus our strange romance ended, but the friendship endured. My last joke to him was only a few days before he passed, and was like a bookend to the “rob the grave” joke, but it was too dark and too spicy to repeat here!
The lung problems that started in Kuwait only escalated as time went on. Sam and Janos promised to take care of Chris until his last minute, and they did so, admirably.
I’ve been trying to summarize the feelings I have for Chris, taking all these stories into account. Here’s the best I can do.
You know how people say they want somebody to “complete them?” Chris and I didn’t do that for each other. Instead, he extended me. When I was with him, I felt incredibly free, incredibly passionate, incredibly powerful, and I understood just how intense life can be and ought to be. With Chris I knew that there is a whole world of things to choose from, and if something is missing, then I can make it myself.
Besides this spirit, the most important thing Chris did for me was to invite me into his family. Sam, Janos, Bela, cousin Mary, Catrina, and John mean the world to me, as do his friends Shelly and Lisa.
It may be tempting to disengage or distance yourself at times like this, but that would be unworthy of Chris, because it would be denial masquerading as stoicism. Isolation from the memories and feelings we have for him separates yourself from the best part of yourself - your creativity, your ability to be genuine, your potential to be the best you can be. He would insist that we always strive, that we directly challenge the obstacles in life and overcome them, for if we disengage then we wither away.
As mentioned earlier, people tell each other stories in order to become friends. But what happens when one of those friends is gone? I don’t know, but maybe those stories help us reach catharsis.
I hope these stories are indeed cathartic, but also that they help us to remember Chris, for if he exists now only in our memories, then we must never forget him.
Chris, I love you dearly. Until Valhalla.
Post a Comment