Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembering: Thanksgiving in Exile

Memphis, Tennessee - Nov, 1960

I boarded the bus in Bainbridge, Maryland still wearing the dress blue Navy uniform that had just been stripped of all of its' rate stripes and insignia. The command officers had planned to strip them off in front of the whole recruit training staff, but in the end decided that I didn't yet have enough rate to make an impression.
So, here I was headed for Memphis, Tennessee where some of my friends from boot camp were stationed and had a small house off base. I couldn't go home as the humiliation was too great. Six months before, my parents had watched me graduate from boot camp as Honor Woman of my company, meaning that I was considered to be career material.

Then I was retained as a physical training and water safety instructor as, at that time, I had completed two years of college as a Health and Physical Education major and also had my Red Cross Water Safety Instructor certificate.
I had joined the Navy after two years of college, as my mother was threatening to put me in an institution after having found out by breaking open a locked box of letters, that I loved a woman at college. I was dragged to our family doctor and to our minister, both of whom suggested that I be separated from my love.
Then someone that I had been at college with showed up in one of the recruit companies and she started the rumors.
I was confined to the barracks for about a month in lieu of the brig. At the time being gay was a crime.

I was taken to the Navy psychiatrist and all I remember was that he administered the Rorschach test as at the time being gay was considered a mental illness.

It wasn't long before the investigation began and I was interrogated daily regarding my relationship with a woman at college who had been my first love. The Navy interrogator was a very persistent man and I was a still shy 20 year old. I just needed it to stop, so finally admitted to acts that to this day I don't know what they were as I didn't know the words for things then and was much too embarrassed and shy to even consider asking. There was a female officer present, but she never said a word throughout the entire ordeal. I guess she was only there as a witness. They searched my room, looking for whatever evidence would convict me of the crime of being gay. All they found was a cheap paperback that I had bought at a drugstore, I don't know the title. It was some sordid tale of women that are always available and that give people the wrong impressions of the "gay lifestyle".

I had planned to finish college through a program that the Navy had at that time and go on to become an officer. But now I was facing the loss of a second career choice.
Somewhere I had heard that if I went to the chaplain that things would go easier. I swallowed my pride and told him that I wanted to change and I succeeded in getting a general discharge under honorable conditions. Most service women in my situation received either undesirable or dishonorable discharges.

I arrived in Memphis on Thanksgiving day. My friends were on duty, so I found my way to the house and the only thing in the refrigerator was some leftover stew. That was my Thanksgiving dinner that year and the beginning of the almost half century exile from my family of birth.

The Israelites spent forty years in exile in the desert, ostensibly to learn something. What was I being led to learn?