"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It was only a matter of time. Thursday Night Club proved more popular than expected, and a noisy, animated all-male table for 20 could hardly go unnoticed in the middle of Zio’s Italian Kitchen near downtown here.
The small, conservative city at the base of Pikes Peak supports 80 evangelical Christian ministries and more than 20,000 GIs. It has emerged as a national center for Christian evangelism, particularly since Focus on the Family moved its massive operations into town. The sleepy city of 320,000 is surrounded by military installations: the Air Force Academy, the Army’s 7th Infantry at Fort Carson, two Air Force bases, the U.S. Space Command and NORAD, a small underground city inside hollowed-out Cheyenne Mountain, which monitors North American skies for the start of World War III.
The Denver Post recently dubbed it the “Vatican of Evangelical Christianity.” After Colorado’s infamous anti-gay Amendment 2 campaign was mobilized from here in 1992, gay activists labeled the area Ground Zero.
Thursday Night Club kicked off in a small restaurant in February, moved up to Zio’s in March, and the visible location immediately troubled the soldiers in the group. It’s a pretty butch crowd for a gay dinner party, but the civilians occasionally break into high-queen eruptions, provoking minor shudders in the rigid major seated next to me. Weeks later he will confide it took several shots of whiskey to draw him out into public that first time. But his appearance didn’t provoke a court martial or an investigation, and he’s been a regular ever since.
New men just kept coming out on Thursday nights, and by late March it was growing impossible to escape the curious looks. After weeks of good-natured gawking, an earnest old lady finally leaned over from the next table and asked what brought all these men together.
“Such variety!” she cooed — black, white, military, civilian and, most strikingly, ages ranging from early 20s to late 50s. One of the soldiers described them as “an eclectic mix of old queens to young military guys.”
“I’m so curious what drew you all together,” the old woman continued. “What one thing could you possibly all have in common?”
They chuckled about it briefly, then someone yelled “Promise Keepers!” referring to the conservative Christian men’s group headquartered 70 miles north, near Denver. The table exploded in laughter, but they never did give her a legitimate answer. Nobody pressed them any further, not that night anyway.
The next week they moved to Amanda’s Fonda, an offbeat Mexican restaurant favored by students, grungers and bohemians.
Army captain Brett worries about getting caught, but lately he’s more focused on the price of hiding. “I kind of regret that I missed my youth in the gay world,” he says. All those boyfriends he never had — they slipped right by while he was consumed holding up the straight front.
He doesn’t have to put up much of an act. Tonight the strapping 6-foot Filipino towers over the table, reaches out to greet late arrivals with arms like Sylvester Stallone. His deep, hearty laugh booms over the conversation. The soldiers are easy to pick out even without the buzz cut; their military bearing gives them away, the swagger as they approach the table.
Brett always pictured himself married by now. The Army encourages its officers to settle down early, and he never expected to get out of his 20s single. Most of the captains at Fort Carson are busy raising families, some are already onto their second marriage. Brett just turned 36, and he’s never even been in love.
He looks around the table at his two best friends in Colorado, staff officers like himself, just a few years behind him. Drake is a big, brash Army captain, with a quick wit and a sharp tongue. Captain Alex is a quiet Marine, thoughtful and analytical, clearly the intellectual of the group. He carries himself like a Marine, agile and fit, but not tall or beefy like the other two. Yet for all their differences, Brett is single, Drake is single, Alex is single — between the three of them, they can count exactly one serious boyfriend in their lives.
But then they haven’t really been at it that much of their lives. Like most of the gay officers they know, they didn’t come out to themselves until their late 20s, heavily invested in their military careers before they grasped their need to violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Long before they dreamed of dating men, they dreamed of leading them into battle. The profession of arms. Over and over the phrase was drilled into their hearts at the academies, at Officer Candidate School and ROTC. They repeated it back with the reverence of a Trappist monk uttering his vow of silence. The earliest and noblest vocation, the same sacred calling that drew Alexander, Charlemagne and Caesar. Pope John Paul II traces his line back 2,000 years to St. Peter; Brett, Drake and Alex were taught to gaze back several thousand further, past the Hyksos, past Hammurabi.
It’s difficult for civilians to grasp the gravity of a discharge to the true believer — for any infraction, not just being gay. “It’s an identity,” Alex says. His attraction to men, that’s just one characteristic among hundreds. “Being a Marine is a fucking lifestyle!”
Most of his life, the Profession meant everything to Brett. It’s still the most important thing, but he wonders how wise it was to make it the only thing.
Now he wants a boyfriend. Eventually he’d like a husband, though all three captains are squeamish with the term, with the concept of gay marriage. They each want a “life partner.” But Brett faced a bitter choice as he prepared to advance to major this spring. The pivotal career decision would pit his dream of a soul mate directly against the profession of arms.
It was never supposed to be a conflict. They were supposed to get married, the earlier the better. “The Army still has the concept of the command team,” Drake says, and acquiring a first lady was more or less a job requirement — advisable by captain, essential by lieutenant colonel.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” made the news regularly during the four months I spent with the captains; but it was obvious almost immediately that they had little trouble maintaining the letter of the policy. Nobody was asking, and they certainly weren’t telling. And as officers, they were largely immune to harassment.
The dirty little secret of the policy is that it never offered more than half a solution to the challenge of integrating gay men and women into the military. It attempts to accommodate enlisted gays — but ignores the central problem faced by officers.
Before the change in 1993, the chief complaints in the gay enlisted ranks were discharge and harassment. In theory, the compromise was simple: You can be as gay as you please if you just keep your mouth shut; in return, we won’t beat you up or kick you out. Fair enough if you can tolerate the closet (and if they ever figure out how to make that no-harassment promise a reality).
But the officer corps faced a different problem: not so much direct discharge, and especially not harassment, but an impenetrable glass ceiling. While presumed homosexuals are frequently tolerated in the lower ranks, even moderate suspicion will stop a rising officer’s career dead in its tracks. And officers operate under an “up or out” system: For them, stagnation equals retirement. It amounts to a subtler form of delayed discharge — after more than a dozen years invested in a hopeless career — which the policy entirely ignores.
There is one well-known defense against the glass-ceiling ejection, but it requires a staggering sacrifice. While a national debate rages on over “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue,” Brett, Drake and Alex quietly face an unwritten but parallel policy widely understood within their community: Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t fall in love.
It’s hard to grasp the intensity of the paranoia gay officers feel about exposure without actually experiencing it. Most of Brett’s buddies ran for cover the moment they discovered a journalist among them at Hide & Seek, Colorado Springs’ only gay bar.
For weeks I had failed to coax a single active gay service member to talk, despite the best efforts of intermediaries like the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), the major advocacy group for their cause. “It’s just too risky for them,” says executive director Michelle Benecke. So the first Friday in February, I drove down to approach them in person.
Like most small-town gay clubs, Hide & Seek tries to accommodate a diverse and sometimes antagonistic clientele. It has adopted a separation strategy, walling off bars and dance floors for cowboys and lesbians, a narrow alcove for pool players and a deserted basement for leathermen. The niche quarters surround a center mainstream room, dominated by a small, tacky stage lined with footlights, and projecting a wide catwalk well into the cramped audience.
The main dance floor alongside it stands idle most of the night Fridays and Saturdays, while the same small band of local drag queens performs the same tired routines. Once or twice a month, the monotony is interrupted by a male strip troupe shuttled in from Denver. No one in town seems very happy with the arrangement, but it’s the only arrangement they’ve got.
The GIs were as easy to pick out at Hide & Seek as they would be weeks later at Thursday Night Club: same high-and-tight buzz cut, same military bearing. They were laid-back, warm and inviting, until someone asked what I did for a living.
When I said journalist, most of the pack bolted, but Brett stood his ground to interrogate, a couple of buddies on either side. Who are you working for? What do you want from us? What did Jack tell you? They weren’t even buying the journalist line; suddenly I was an interloper, smuggling out classified information.
You’re an informer, aren’t you? Who sent you? Jack, what did you tell him?!
“No, I swear, I’m gay!” I yelled. I patted myself down as though I’d find some kind of gay ID card, when suddenly I realized I sort of had one. I whipped out my membership card from a gay dance club in Denver. “Look, my Bent card! With my name on it. Here, check out my driver’s license.”
That calmed them down, but Brett remained wary until I joined them on the dance floor a few hours later.
I spent the next four months as a participant-observer inside Brett’s social circle, which includes several closeted gay officers and a healthy network of civilians — but very few women or enlisted men, and not a single straight GI. I became a regular at their barbecues and dinner parties, hung out at coffee shops, hiked into the mountains, slept on their couches and enjoyed dozens of rich, satisfying conversations.
Brett spent much of the period grappling with the pivotal decision of his career — “Of my life, really” — to flout the odds and pursue the profession of arms, or accept an administrative position within the Army, but outside the profession.
Brett was born in a wealthy Manila, Philippines, suburb, and dreamed of growing up to be another Gen. Douglas MacArthur. His father fanned his aspirations, regaling him with tales of the crusty old general vowing to return in 1942, and recovering the capital in three glorious weeks of battle three years later.
When Brett was 9, the family emigrated to Seattle, but retained much of its native culture. Brett was the oldest son, and to this day his father looks to him to establish the family name and produce an heir. He led a platoon through the Gulf War, proved himself under fire and later commanded a combat company in Italy.
The Gulf War gave him a quick taste of the life he dreamed of. His platoon was whisked to the Middle East on a clandestine mission: No time for training, no briefings on how to react to a Scud missile attack. They rode all night in a darkened plane, stepped out onto the tarmac unsure what continent they were deploying into. The Scud-warning alarms blasted and they scattered on the airfield. “I just remember all these people running for cover and I was thinking, where are you running? There’s no cover, there’s nothing to protect you here,” Brett said. “We were on a tarmac on an airfield — if they hit us, we’re goners. I was trying to keep them from panicking, and keep the unit together.” He held the unit together through several attacks over the next few months, donning gas masks and protective suits for anticipated chemical warheads.
But early this March, the Army sent him a CD-ROM offering another path entirely. The “Career Field Designation” form arrives once a career, just before promotion to major. After a decade of specialization, officers are given a one-time chance to select a new branch, a true fork in the road. Combat officers like Brett must finally choose between continuing in combat, or taking an operational support role that’s really quite different from “the profession of arms.”
A common civilian misconception is that most of the Army mobilizes for the battlefield in the event of war. In reality, only a fraction of the force will ever engage in combat, principally soldiers in the infantry, armor and artillery branches. The vast majority of the service focuses on feeding, supplying, transporting and otherwise supporting the combat troops. Warfare requires a parallel society, complete with lawyers, accountants, cooks and mechanics. Those branches make up the bulk of the Army, but carry little of the prestige. Most of the generals and nearly all the powerful commanders are drawn from the three “combat arms.” The problem for the professional soldier lies in the dearth of coveted combat command slots.
For an ambitious officer who dreams of leading hordes across continents, conquering evil empires, vanquishing the next Napoleon or Hitler, the Career Field Designation form is a no-brainer: He’s going to continue on his path, aiming toward battlefield general. If he wasn’t gay, Brett said, his form would have been completed in seconds.
Instead it tore him apart for months, beginning even before he received it. “Because I’m thinking about everything here,” he said. “I’m thinking about who I am, what I want to be, what I want to do, how is this going to affect my career? Everything [is] kind of converging. Ugh. This is awful!”
Col. Hagen, the Brigade Commander at Brett’s previous assignment in Italy, and a mentor ever since, was baffled at his hesitation. “My mentor was saying, ‘Why would you want to pursue operational support?’” he says. “‘You’re limiting yourself. You’ve got the capability to be a commander, why would you even consider going support?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Because I’m gay! They’ll never allow me to be a general.’”
He received the designation form in March and put it away until May.
The bachelor whispers are the first problem to surface. No matter how straight Brett walks and talks, his happily married peers can’t help noticing the infrequency of a woman on his arm.
They kid him about it frequently. “The other day CNN was broadcasting Pride,” he says, referring to the gay Millennium March on Washington in April. “And some of the guys were like, ‘Hey Brett, man, Pride!’” “Yeah, I was there!” he says he shot back.
He’ll typically disarm them with cracks like, “You know me: I like boys,” or “I’ve been trying to get you to go out with me, Hank.”
It’s the only way to deal with it, agrees Alex, the bookish Marine captain. “Someone will make a joke about being gay or some kind of deviant behavior, and I’m like: ‘Hey, that doesn’t count! Everybody does that in college.’”
The banter actually reduces the danger, they say. If they were ever confronted publicly, they would be well-practiced in defusing the issue; and a persistent accuser who refused to play along would find himself out of step with convention.
So far, none of the captains has had to face a direct accusation, but they’re sobered by the possibility. Drake is characteristically brash and animated: “No one would ever approach it like, ‘Hey, are you fucking this guy?’” he says.
It’s hard to picture anyone confronting the big, blustery Army captain so boldly. But he softens as he describes his deceptions, contemplates what might really be running through their heads. He scrounges up a date whenever he can for official functions, shows up stag perhaps 50 percent of the time. It’s a better showing than his buddies Brett and Alex, but is it good enough to keep the straight guys fooled? “Certainly the lesser of two evils is to have your peers know about it and no one say anything, than to have them confront me with it and force my hand,’” he says.
Brett and Alex echo the same deep sense of foreboding. Alex is reflective, as always, but he seems strangely unprepared for the eventual encounter. “I don’t know how I’d handle it if someone ever did ask me,” he says. “I’d want to plead the Fifth, but I wouldn’t know how to delicately do it.” Considering their elaborate subterfuges — which Alex refers to as his “counter-surveillance techniques” — it’s surprising to hear they wouldn’t simply deny it. They seem to despise the deception almost as much as they fear the exposure — and they hope to draw the line at outright denial.
“That’s the worst part of it, the sneaking and hiding,” Drake says. “I chose this life because of the honor, the integrity and the ethics of people I’d be working with. Yes, we really do believe this shit. It’s not just something you make up for recruiting. It’s really a matter of life or death for us. The unfortunate reality was I didn’t realize what was going on with me sexually at the time.”
But Drake and Alex shock me with their own ambivalence about the right of gay men and women to serve openly in the military. “Until you see man-to-man couples walking down the street hand in hand in Colorado Springs, it’s not going to happen in the Army,” Drake says. “I don’t think you can separate the moral from the gross.”
While Brett finds “don’t ask, don’t tell” ridiculous, Alex comes down somewhere in the middle — toward Drake’s side of the middle. “I wish we could get everybody not to be homophobic, but that’s not the reality,” he says. “It’s better left undisclosed.”
But he’s frustrated by some of the policy’s implementation — particularly the arbitrariness of activities deemed to be “telling” — and disgusted by continuing investigations. “The witch hunts are ridiculous,” he says.
Yet they all agree that lying and deception about their sexuality are profoundly disturbing because the essence of their role as officers is to lead by example. “My conflict is, it’s hard to be who I am,” Brett says. “As a leader, as a commander, you have to enforce the rules. Any rule” — including the underlying rules in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) outlawing just about every form of gay sex. Brett realizes he’s breaking the law each time he slides into bed with a man, regardless of Congress’ 1993 law exempting him from prosecution for his crimes so long as he keeps his mouth shut.
The same UCMJ provision includes seldom-enforced language banning oral sex between a husband and wife, a double standard that frustrates Brett terribly but does nothing to diminish his own ethical dilemma.
“It’s hard to be standing in front of people and acting like I am not [gay], and at the same time, having to enforce the rule” he says. “You have to set the standards, and that’s a big conflict for me … If you can’t stand in front of your people, and act as that person, then you’re a fricking hypocrite.”
Drake actually faced the hypocrisy of enforcing that rule as a company commander in North Carolina. He discovered a gay porn magazine in a soldier’s locker during a barracks inspection. In reality, possession of the magazine isn’t even grounds for an investigation, but Drake thought it might be, and immediately consulted his first sergeant. That’s when he learned that the soldier had just discussed his sexuality with the first sergeant, believing he had been outed by a peer. The fear proved false, but his statement put him in clear violation of the policy.
“I wanted to ignore it,” Drake says. “I was conflicted on two points: One, I wanted to follow the rules, and two, I wanted to do what was best for my unit. He’s a hell of a good soldier, and his soldiers would kill for him.”
He finally decided to ignore the incident, with his first sergeant’s blessing, and the soldier is still in the force. He says his own status and his sympathies for the soldier’s plight were never even a consideration. “I totally divorce myself from it as soon as I put my uniform on,” he says. “I know that’s hard for people to understand.”
But did it jar him with a sobering reminder of his own shaky position?
“As a gay man, it doesn’t bother me, because I understand that every decision I make has certain repercussions,” he says. “I’m comfortable being a gay service member, knowing I’m protected by the policy. It protects me from anyone walking up and asking if I’m gay. If anything, it gave me greater respect for the policy. The onus relies squarely on the commander. I chose what was best for my unit.” He does, however, regret that the Uniform Code of Military Justice still makes sodomy a crime.
He also regrets that homosexuality provokes a corollary problem: No officer’s wife to advance his career. Straight female officers also complain about the first lady requirement, but the role can be played by a willing officer’s husband — it just has to be played by someone.
“Officers are expected to participate in unit-sponsored social events, to which they are expected to bring dates and wives and husbands,” says SLDN’s Benecke. “And participation in that social milieu can be as important to promotion as an officer’s competence.”
The first lady tends to perform practical functions, like hosting social events and supervising the family support group, which can play a major role in unit morale. But her key role is played behind the scenes, working the highly influential spouses’ grapevine.
“They socialize, politicize — some of them are very political in trying to help the husband’s career,” Brett says. The conventional wisdom holds that an officer can coast to major on performance alone, but by colonel it’s highly political.
Even if the spouse is a poor first lady, it’s crucial to present the picture of a “Command Team,” he says. “It’s an image they’re trying to portray. They expect battalion commanders to be married.”
“It’s not denying, that’s not what it requires at all,” Benecke says. “Basically, this policy requires people to establish affirmatively a heterosexual image. And if they do not put forward that image, they will come under suspicion, and will find themselves running into a glass ceiling.” Bottom line, it’s get a wife or give up general, Brett concludes. Probably give up even colonel. “You need to,” he says. “You’ve got to have a spouse, a Command Team.”
Brett has temporally defused the marriage problem by playing the cultural card. He wants to please his father by accepting an arranged Filipino marriage, but he’s never quite had the stomach to go through with it. Every year or two, Dad flies in a candidate from Manila to grace his arm for a formal military ball, and for years Brett made a legitimate effort to court them. Several years ago he struck up an engagement. He had every intention of marrying her, but pulled out at the last minute. His sincere struggle — played out semi-publicly — has provided the perfect alibi for bachelorhood. And nothing straightens up a gay risumi quite like an engagement — Brett figures it alone bought him at least a couple years.
But he’s had quite a few years already.
Drake and Alex have no comparable alibis. But Alex may have the best out of all: He might still happily marry a woman one day. “I go back and forth,” he says. “Sometimes I think I’ll end up with a guy. Eventually I will make a choice.” He never acted on his gay urges until 1997, and it’s been mostly men since then, but he still feels attracted to women. He scoffs at the notion he’s just going through a bisexual phase, but some of his friends believe it’s only a matter of time until he settles down with men for good.
Bookish Alex feels an extra sense of isolation, stationed at Peterson Air Force Base, hundreds of miles from the nearest Marine base. He’s also quiet and reserved among strangers. He barely spoke at Brett’s barbecue where we first met, but days later he invited me into his home for an interview. The Dallas Wind Symphony swept through his tastefully understated apartment, wafting serenely through Gustav Holst’s “Moorside Suite.”
The next week he hosted a dinner party of a dozen close friends — all gay, a mix of military men and civilians — at his apartment just outside the base, and Brett invited me along. The discussion crackled with dissension on gay issues, especially marriage, gay culture and the separatism within “the community.”
Drake and Alex are frankly hostile toward liberal gay activists, and take a dim view of the isolationism of gay ghettoes. Brett isn’t exactly waving a rainbow flag, but tends to sympathize with those leading the gay-rights charge. Alex and Drake have only been out to themselves a few years, and some of the guests believe they’re still in a transitional phase, a view they clearly resent. Their frustration peaks at what they see as the homogeneity of accepted “gay culture,” which Alex calls “part of the Wal-Martization of America.”
While they enjoy the company of gay friends a great deal, Drake and Alex feel little affinity for the swishier elements of urban gay culture — particularly in contrast to the aggressive masculinity of the military life they enthusiastically embrace. Their discomfort is probably exaggerated by their sense that they’re one false move away from hurtling straight from military culture to the exclusive company of gays.
They look around the living room at the most frustrating symptom of their quandary: They’re discussing it exclusively with other gay men, a requirement imposed by the culture they embrace, which constantly threatens to eject them.
As the group sits around the fireplace debating gay life and gay politics — and it’s a diverse group despite being all-gay — it’s clear that while many of the debaters have significantly greater gay experience, Alex proves better read than anyone on one gay issue after another. He quotes liberally and effectively from an eclectic collection that spills out of bookcases stacked from living room to bedroom. Kerouac and Camus look down on Bill Buckley and Bill Bennett; Kierkegaard and Nietzsche nestle snugly around Dennis Miller.
But he has to scramble to the rear of the apartment to retrieve a passage from Michelangelo Signorile’s “Life Outside.” The gay collection is hidden away in a storage closet, piled in among combat gear, field guides and a stack of manuals on Marine Corps doctrine.
Drake only faced his sexuality two years ago, but he bears no illusions about turning back. He has no hope of an arranged marriage or falling in love with a woman. He’s contemptuous of gays who have resorted to the sham-marriage option. “I could never stand in front of God and everybody and take that oath,” he sneers.
That’s unfortunate, because of the three captains, he’s the one dead set on making general. He struts like a field marshal already: big, bright, and aggressive, with a trenchant wit he’s not shy about wielding. He’s completed two stellar combat commands, intuitively grasps the politics and plays it with the best of them. Nobody doubts his ability to earn the general’s star — except perhaps the gay officers who share his secret.
Drake meets Brett for lunch frequently, and happens to call one morning while I’m visiting, around the end of February. We’ve hit it off socially at Brett’s barbecue and Alex’s dinner party, so he agrees to a lunch interview, with Brett sitting in. Drake suggests a restaurant downtown, Brett rolls his eyes. Drake is extremely intelligent, but mildly reckless in Brett’s view: The interview will be conducted in private, he insists.
Brett and I run out to the Safeway on the corner for lunch meat and fruit. Most of the Carson GIs take advantage of the lower prices at the commissary and the PX, but Brett lives downtown, miles from post, and he’s eager to avoid off-duty contact anyway. One less chance for casual encounters with his peers, who might strike up a conversation, get to know him outside of work, suggest he join them for a couple of beers or a game of pool.
Drake elaborates on his opposition to open gay service while Brett fixes the sandwiches. “It’s too indoctrinated in our Judeo-Christian tradition,” he says. “People will always think they’re better than you.”
The reality, he says, is that most of the troops would be comfortable with most of their gay peers if they knew who they were. The military generally attracts “butch guys” regardless of their sexuality, he says. Yet he’s pessimistic about overcoming the ingrained images of gays in the service. “The stereotype is nothing but group showers and boots in the air,” he says.
He describes his future so passionately, so vividly, that it’s hard to believe he doesn’t see the contradiction. One moment he’s describing his rapid ascent toward general, minutes later a completely opposing picture of “wedded” bliss.
He acknowledges he’ll have to sacrifice much of his gay life to continue advancing up the chain of command. “I’ve chosen to put my personal life aside,” he says. “I’ve purposely sort of squelched my private life because of a sense of higher purpose.”
Yet soon, he’s bristling at the thought of sacrificing the life partner he’s still intent on finding. “I don’t want to die an old, sad fag without a mate,” he insists. “The kind you always see in the coffee shop knitting and talking to himself. I don’t want to be that guy.”
Brett calls us to the table for lunch. He’s whipped up a savory pasta salad to accompany his stuffed baguettes, carved the pineapple into steeple-shaped strips easily separated from the rind into bite-sized triangles, and laid it out sumptuously on a banana-peel platter. “Brett, this is spectacular!” Drake says. “I thought you were just making sandwiches.” Sooner or later, a gay gene had to turn up somewhere in the group; Martha Stewart, I wouldn’t have expected.
Brett ladles out generous portions of chunky clam chowder, and I force the issue of Drake’s contradiction. Drake seems to suggest he will attain his two goals sequentially, but the math is incompatible. When do you picture yourself hooked up with a lifetime partner? By 40, for sure. If it hasn’t happened by 40, chances are it never will, he says. And what’s the age generals pin on that first star? Late 40s. So, if you sacrifice until general, you’ve sacrificed for forever?
He’s not happy. He looks about ready to vomit, or possibly slug me. But Drake’s a sharp guy: He knew the visions were irreconcilable, and acknowledges it with only a minor hesitation. He may be forced to abandon his profession somewhere down the road, he says, but suddenly offers a very different reason.
“I would give up my career rather than bring shame upon the organization that’s been so good to me,” he says.
Shame? He seems a bit surprised by his own statement. “Shame in the sense that the media frenzy would be embarrassing,” he says.
We talk for several hours, but it only takes a moment before he’s speaking candidly about the obstacles ahead. “I think captains can get away with having a roommate, but majors can’t,” he says. “If you have a roommate anywhere in your 30s, you’re [gay]. I have to admit I always suspect that.”
The truth is, Drake’s just playing it by ear, hoping for some kind of miracle. He’s nearly 15 years from general; the world could change dramatically in that time. Maybe. “I don’t anticipate doing anything about it for a while,” he says.
Brett listens attentively through most of the interview, interjecting a thought only occasionally. He contemplates his own options aloud after Drake returns to work. Brett’s got a much easier out. He really does want to please his father — he might have married a stranger regardless of his sexuality.
That fiancie several years ago — did he love her?
“It was somebody I thought I could fall in love with,” he says. “She probably felt the same way. I didn’t think that was totally unrealistic. To marry somebody who your …” He breaks off. It’s clear from earlier conversations that he was about to invoke his father’s wishes, but he shies away from acknowledging it in certain moods. “… who comes from a good family,” he continues. “A good education, all that stuff. I could grow to love her. That’s sort of my cultural upbringing.”
And she was also his last chance of straightening out, he admits. He had only recently begun experimenting with men, terrified he might not be able to stop. She might have put an end to it, and in the end that’s why he called it off. The gravity of the wedding vows forced him to face the truth, and then there was no going back to women. If he married now, it would be a complete sham: to please his father, to produce an heir and to save his career.
The appeal is tantalizing, he admits, but the gravity of the deception appalling. He had thought he sabotaged the marriage option two years ago, by coming out to his father. But he could only bring himself to acknowledge “gay-leaning,” and the partial disclosure just provided Dad additional incentive to step up the pressure.
By the time the Career Field Designation form arrives in March, Brett is split 50-50 on giving in to a mail-order bride.
Wednesday: Brett makes his decision.
Dave Cullen is a Denver writer working on a memoir, "In a Boy's Dream."More Dave Cullen.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)