"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)
Miss Hide & Seek whisks onto the stage gracefully, a stunning blond vision in a flowing black gown. She could easily pass for a woman. Her music blasts on; she spins out, tumbles through a series of cartwheels in 3-inch spike heels and barrels straight into the dressing room wall. She picks herself up, straightens her wig and repeats the maneuver, finding her way to the very same obstacle at the opposite end of the stage. It’s one crash after another, repeated again in her next performance, but she’s truly not playing it for laughs.
Army captain Brett grumbles through the show along with his pack, a mix of military officers and civilians. He enjoys a good drag show, but nobody on this stage is ever going to challenge RuPaul. For a man born in Manila, the Philippines, raised in Seattle and stationed on three continents since joining the Army, Colorado Springs can feel a bit like Mayberry sometimes. But it isn’t the unintentional comedy that bothers them — Ginger’s miniature-football breasts popping out of her lime-green Saran Wrap tube top actually is the highlight of the show — it’s the constant repetition of the same tired routines from the same dozen drag queens, nearly every Friday and Saturday night in the only gay bar in town.
The last diva waves goodbye after last call, just before 2 a.m. The lights go down, the house music goes up and the T-shirts come off. All week they’ve been waiting for this moment, and nobody’s holding back now. Brett sidles up behind a trim young Hispanic, wraps his enormous arms around the thick, sweaty torso, arching the spine back to lower the mouth toward his lips.
And then the strangest thing happens. Straight kids pour in — hundreds of them, small-town girls and boys lined up across the parking lot and around the corner, hyped up for the hottest after-hours, underage club for 70 miles in any direction. No one appears disconcerted. Pretty soon Brett and his buddies are surrounded by swarms of young, tattooed straight couples, writhing unabashedly around bare-chested soldiers grinding in tight little gay-boy clusters.
The scene plays out every Friday and Saturday, with a handful of GIs almost always there. One wrong soldier strolling in with the straight kids could make Brett forget his painful decision to remain in the combat arms. In March he spotted a sergeant from Fort Carson prowling the bar. He kept his distance from his date all night: no close dancing, no holding hands, definitely no making out. But the sergeant was back the next week and several more times, and it has really started to piss Brett off.
“Five weeks he’s been showing up there, and he won’t make a frigging move on anyone,” he says. “I’m not moving till he does.” And months later, toward the end of May, three Air Force sergeants from Marine captain Alex’s unit showed up for after hours.
The after-hours mixed club raises the same puzzling questions as the Thursday Night Club, but ratchets up the stakes several notches. With so many opportunities available for anonymous gay sex, why would the men possibly risk this?
“Personal happiness,” Alex explains. “Optimism for meeting somebody that I can’t bear to be more than 2 feet away from. Finding a soul mate.” Sex is the easy part. Ironically, Brett, Alex and Army captain Drake feel free to revel in all the raunchy gay sex they please. They can find it online, they can find it in Denver, they can quickly stalk Hide & Seek and drag home a trick in a manner of minutes — it really doesn’t take long in a gay bar if sex is all you’re after.
Initially, sex was all they were after. They were perfectly happy with their military lifestyles and had no desire to hang out with a bunch of homos. Except for those urges, increasingly insistent urges, driving bolder and starker fantasies, which they finally had to acknowledge. All three captains put off the urges well into their late 20s. Each one finally sneaked off to a gay bar, touched a man, kissed a man, slept with a man — and eventually returned for another. They were quick, targeted missions — get in, get out, grab your prey and don’t get caught — the standard modus operandi of adult-onset homosexuality.
But once they satisfied those cravings, a whole new set of urges sprang to the surface. The captains have to struggle with the usual social challenges of adulthood — finding a satisfying relationship, developing a close, supportive circle of friends, being all that they can be on the job — from deep inside a closet. This requires a level of secrecy and deception that makes happiness in love, friendship and work virtually impossible. And, cruelly, it also makes promotion through the ranks virtually impossible.
Marine captain Alex’s romantic feelings for men surfaced very quickly. The thoughtful, lean intellectual never touched a man until 1997, but within weeks he broke off a relationship with a woman to pursue the first love of his life. He played it very safe, driving all the way up from San Diego to West Hollywood, Calif., just to have drinks or go dancing. “He was the first person outside my family to say ‘I love you,’” Alex says. But he had nearly completed his assignment, and he found himself shipped out to Colorado before the boyfriend was ready to commit.
Alex attempted the same long-distance tactic in Colorado Springs, essentially setting up a 70-mile, gay-free perimeter around the city. “I completely separated my life,” he says. “Everything I did here was straight-oriented, and I’d go to Denver and it was gay. My friends here at work think I have a completely separate life in Denver.”
His first year fit the classic “slut phase” commonly experienced by gay men just coming out to themselves. “I was a hound dog,” he says. “I was just a predator. I would readily do it again, but there’s no emotional or spiritual satisfaction. It’s purely physical and I’d like more out of it.” He began looking for more, but the distance was too great a barrier. “I wasn’t finding Denver people interested in dating someone living in the Springs,” he says. He discovered a casual weekly dinner group in Boulder that he enjoyed immensely. But though he made the 200-mile round trip frequently, there was no apparent enthusiasm for commuter friendships. Early last year, his frustration drove him to a decision to make his first trip to a gay bar, dropping the gay perimeter. He ventured into Hide & Seek, stopped avoiding locals in the gay-sex chat room and eventually even initiated a Thursday Night Club based on the Boulder model.
Oddly enough, the real breakthrough came in the chat room. He met Brett there one night, hunting for sex. Brett was characteristically cautious. “He had lied to me about who he was and where he worked, and I had been honest,” Alex says of the time they met. “He had a plausible denial or some con game going to avoid detection. He was very suspicious about people and was concerned there was some criminal investigative authority out looking for people.” Alex wasn’t fooled. GIs have their own military version of “gaydar” — the stance, the walk, the bearing and, of course, the haircut — and they rarely have trouble picking one another out of a crowd.
The encounter quickly developed into a tight friendship that dramatically changed both their lives. Brett has developed into a hub of the local gay social scene, and Drake has also entered the social circle through Brett’s continuing online adventures. Drake was scoping out the Springs while still stationed at Fort Bragg last summer, and Brett then served as Drake’s entree into the community when he arrived, acting very much like a commander does for new arrivals in his unit.
Military life is inherently lonely, regardless of sexuality. Brett has relocated six times in nine years, interspersed with 20 extended field trainings and five combat or peacekeeping deployments, from Kuwait to central Europe. Traditionally, soldiers respond by bonding tightly within their units, developing a profound esprit de corps vital to the success of an army. “We tend to be very close-knit,” Brett says. “It’s totally your social circle. We’re a lot like tight immigrant groups or some religious orders. You have an immediate extended family when you arrive.”
But gays often pull away from such circles to guard their secret. “The policy imposes severe isolation by prohibiting them from forming friendships with their straight friends,” says Michelle Benecke, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “A service member plays Russian roulette with their career every time they have a conversation with a friend that straight people take for granted. ‘Hey, what are you doing this weekend? Where do you go to church?’ You can’t say MCC [Metropolitan Community Church, a federation of gay Christian congregations].”
Alex never grasped the full measure of his loneliness until he met Brett. He still speaks wistfully about the early days. “We hung out all the time together, because it was such a relief to find somebody else,” he says. “We talked about military pasts and boyfriend pasts, and optimistic futures. And it was normal, it was nice, it was like having a wingman around.” They introduced each other to entirely new circles of friends — Brett’s in the Springs, Alex’s in Denver — and instilled a mutual confidence in each other that spurred them fully into the gay social scene.
“That was kind of [Brett's] way of getting out,” Alex says. “He was a Net hound. He predominantly did stuff online and didn’t go out. He was very paranoid. And I think he’s eased up quite a bit in the year and a half I’ve known him. He’s not looking over his shoulder all the time. He’s not quite as concerned about being out or being seen out or doing some things that might suggest that he’s gay.”
Less paranoid, but still careful. A dinner party broke up early one night, and I rode to Hide & Seek with Brett, following Drake’s Pathfinder. Drake pulled into the lot and Brett smacked his palm against the steering wheel. “Damn! He pulls right up to the club! And he’s got that freaking vanity plate, screaming out that he’s airborne!” Brett drove around the corner and parked his truck on a dark side street.
They’re all highly active in the local gay scene now. Brett still cruises the chat rooms nearly every day, using a separate account, withholding descriptions until he’s comfortable and sending only headless photos. But that’s fearless compared with some of the soldiers he meets there: Many are still afraid to venture out in public or into Hide & Seek. Brett can’t imagine crawling back into a closet that cramped.
Ironically, the captains have begun to develop a form of the very gay ghettos Drake and Alex disdain so much. They have all reached the conclusion that they’re unlikely to find their soul mate in bed the morning after a night cruising for anonymous sex. Romantic relationships appear near the top of their priority lists, but two other themes keep recurring as they discuss their progression from predator-sluts to gay social butterflies: fulfillment of the camaraderie that drew them to military life and an emerging sense of their own identity.
“I was trying to learn what I was, and what characteristics of men I liked,” Alex says. “It’s not like growing up Hispanic and having a grandmother who teaches you about who you are and where you’ve come from. There is no Hispanic grandmother to teach you about gay culture; each one of us has to learn it for ourselves.
“Some of it has to do with how gay men deal with each other,” he says. “It’s different from the military. I know how men deal with each other in the military.”
Alex has learned a great deal about what it means to be a gay man, but considerably less about being a gay Marine. “I’m really looking forward to the day I meet another Marine in my situation,” he says. “I want to see how [Marines] have adapted to it, how successful they are, if they’re thinking about getting out or staying in, if they agree with the policy or not. How do they maneuver through the obstacles and the lies?
“I feel lonely,” he says. “It doesn’t have to do with the gay thing; it has to do with the Marine thing. How does that change being a Marine for them? Can they contain both ideas in one philosophy and one approach to living?”
Say they do find a boyfriend: then what? The captains have seen several gay peers struggle with relationships but very few success stories.
“Relationships are already difficult in the military,” SLDN’s Benecke says. “Even married heterosexuals who enjoy the full benefit of all the military support services — in recognition that deployments and military life can be so stressful for a relationship — have difficulty making it. Add to that the need to hide your relationship every hour of every day while you’re at work — it makes it extraordinarily difficult to have a healthy relationship over time.”
As hard as it is for a soldier to juggle two separate lives, the strain can be much greater for his partner, who can experience only half of his mate’s life. The captains foresee having to exclude future boyfriends from military social functions — such as poker nights and pool games — having to be careful not to walk the dog together too often or share a cart at the grocery store. “I [will be] making him go back into the closet as well,” Brett says. “He might get tired of it: ‘I don’t have to deal with this!’”
All three captains agree that their boyfriends will have to keep a separate apartment, to which they’ll be relegated from time to time. They’ll have to maintain their guard as strictly as the captains do. One false move in answering the phone when the soldier isn’t home could raise difficult questions back at the base. “Who was that guy that answered your phone? What was he doing in your house when you weren’t there?”
“Talk about isolation!” Benecke says. “The relationship has to take place in a vacuum.”
The isolation intensifies when the soldier leaves for weeks at a time for field training and climaxes during months of deployment in a combat zone overseas. Brett recalls the emotional scenes as the men in his unit left their wives for an unknown destination in the Persian Gulf War.
“I had these grown men crying!” he said. “They never envisioned themselves ever going to war.” While heterosexual wives and husbands have spouses’ clubs to support them, gay partners are on their own. Members of Brett’s platoon faced several Scud missile attacks during their months in the desert, and the panic back home sometimes rose to hysterical proportions. His buddies’ wives were looked after with care packages, visits from the family support group and occasional videoconferences with the soldiers in the field. He wonders how a boyfriend of his would have handled it all alone.
“It’s the worry,” Benecke says. “Every military spouse worries, and the worry [for gays] is exaggerated because they can’t be plugged into the support channels that exist for straight people. Nor are they usually listed on any of the official forms that the military would use to contact the next of kin.” Peacekeeping deployments vary widely in the danger they pose, but six months away from home can strain a relationship regardless of any physical threat. During Brett’s deployments, soldiers were given free “morale calls” to lift spirits during the mission, but also to maintain shaky marriages for the long haul. The calls were made on Army lines, which can be monitored, so he couldn’t have risked calling a boyfriend, he says. And public phones weren’t available in several of the war zones in which he has been deployed. Military e-mail is often available, but it’s also open to Army surveillance.
“The access is limited and conducted in public,” Benecke says. “Everyone knows that you’re not married, so who the heck are you calling [to say 'I love you']?”
A particularly depressing moment for gays in a serious relationship tends to be the arrival home after deployment or training. “All the wives are out there screaming, ‘Oh, honey!’ and the kids are running up to them as they get off the planes or the buses,” Brett says. “And you’re like, ‘Well, I have to see mine at home.’” It may seem like a minor matter to a civilian, but gay service members bring it up repeatedly and emotionally. “It’s a big deal when you’ve been away for a long time, or you’ve been to war and come back,” Brett says. “No one’s here to welcome me!”
But if the loneliness and deception are particularly acute when these gay officers are overseas, it’s with them stateside, too. After all, they spend most of their time with straight service members, and even as they’ve begun to find happiness in the gay social networks they’ve developed and to seek boyfriends, they can’t afford to undermine their straight fronts. Brett, Drake and Alex balance their gay and straight worlds differently — Brett has become an isolationist, Drake’s a juggler, Alex is somewhere in between — but all three are having a hard time feeling comfortable with the emotional trade-offs of their choices.
Drake wasn’t at Hide & Seek the night I first watched the straight kids pour in. He was out with his buddies from the post. He’s constantly juggling the two groups — maintaining two separate social worlds, like a bigamist with one wife resigned to the arrangement. It’s gays one night, military buds the next, some nights ducking out early from the straight night at the pool hall to hit last call at Hide & Seek.
Brett doesn’t have any buddies at Fort Carson. He tried juggling for three years in Italy, but couldn’t stand the constant lying or the threats of exposure every time a buddy asked a routine question about what he’d been up to. With no buddies, there are fewer questions. So he gave up juggling when he transferred to Fort Carson and implemented isolationism, the second strategy popular among gays in the military. He made a conscious decision before his arrival to distance himself from his work mates and spurn any potential friendships.
Alex represents a somewhat murky middle ground between the other two strategies. He began a switch to isolationism a year ago, after having already developed several close relationships at Peterson Air Force Base. He loosened those ties by convincing his work friends that he found Colorado Springs stifling, and shifted all his free time to Denver, routinely spending three to five nights a week up there.
But the constant questions of his juggling strategy still dog him — “What you been up to? What did you do this weekend?” — requiring an elaborate fictional life. “I have to be careful,” Alex says. “I have to be guarded when I come back from a weekend and start talking about where I’ve been or what I’ve done.”
He has spent enough time in Denver’s straight clubs to swap them with the gay bars; dates and tricks are converted to feminine counterparts. “I try to keep it as close to the truth as possible, because if I have to retell the story, I’m not going to stumble over things,” he says. “If some guy has a broad chest, she’s got a rack. A guy named Clay becomes Claire. Everything else pretty much stays the same.”
Eventually Alex came to miss bonding with his straight buddies outside of work, so he reverted to a mild juggling strategy this spring. “You can’t be an isolationist everywhere you go,” he says. “It’s stifling, oppressive; you’ve completely compartmentalized yourself.” He’s also trying to prepare for a very different situation at his next assignment. He’s moving on at the end of April and doesn’t foresee the same freedom he has enjoyed for the past two years.
Drake faces the most constant questions, as he’s fully engaged with his work buddies, splitting his social life nearly 50-50 between the two worlds. But he thought he was safe in Denver, until a disturbing incident the last weekend of February, just a few days after our combative lunch interview in Brett’s kitchen.
A tough-looking guy accosted him on the dance floor at the popular gay dance club Tracks 2000. “Who the fuck are you?” the guy yelled. “I know you, and I know you’re in the Army, too!” That was the end of his career, Drake figured; there’d be no Career Field Designation form to worry about in his future. He recognized the face but couldn’t place it until the guy cracked up.
Drake was only mildly relieved to recognize Jason, his best friend from their lieutenant days in the mid-’90s, giving him a hard time. “It scared the shit out of me,” he says. “Things that involve morality — or someone’s perception of morality — you just don’t know until it’s tested.” Jason had left the Army and had come to Tracks with his girlfriend; Drake was dancing with a date. “And the dude had a hand on the back of my neck.” “Are you here for this?” Jason asked.
“And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God! He knows! He knows!’” Drake says. “Well, I guess so,” he answered. “You caught me.”
Same with them, Jason said: great music, great dancing. And then he stepped back a foot — literally and figuratively — and took another look at the situation. “No fucking way!” he yelled. “Are you guys … partners?” And then he was laughing again, hugging Drake. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Jason said. And then he took another step back. “You have got to get out of the Army!” he said. “And make yourself happy!”
Brett occasionally betrays misgivings about the all-gay, all-the-time social world he has constructed for himself, but he’s not about to return to juggling. He has doubts about how long a hefty gay social calendar can be successfully juggled. SLDN’s Benecke concurs. “Straight friends are not stupid,” she says. “A concerned straight friend is going to notice that the gay service member is cutting them off at a certain point, and will want to know why. The safer path is to be an isolationist, obviously — but that has its costs as well.”
Like command. Combat command requires total immersion in the lives of your soldiers, Brett says. “You have to spend every waking minute [with your unit]. You’re a mentor, you’re a leader; you’ve got to spend your time with the troops and their families. You give up your life to be a [combat] commander. I really believe that.”
Juggling would be difficult if Brett became a combat commander, but isolationism is of course out of the question. He’d be unlikely to ever receive another combat command if he aroused suspicion by pursuing a full- or even half-gay life.
Drake and Alex have plenty of time to tinker with their strategies. Majors never command, so they’ve each got five to eight years of staff time before they make battalion commander. Unfortunately, Brett’s Career Field Designation form was due by the end of May. He had to decide whether he could beat all the odds and stomach a return to juggling — with a much heavier emphasis on the straight side than the three are enduring now. But if he chose the combat arms and failed to make colonel — whether because of suspicion or confirmation of his gay identity — he’d be forced into early retirement.
But a self-imposed exile to the support services could accommodate a decent amount of juggling, maybe even a mild form of isolationism. “I’m not taking my dental staff into war and having them say, ‘Fight!’” Brett says, imagining a hypothetical operational support role. “I am the commander of the 24th Dental Group! You’re in charge of accountants, or intelligence agents who sit behind a desk and gather intelligence. That [combat] cohesiveness doesn’t exist in those administrative jobs,” he says, so being gay wouldn’t detract so much from his leadership.
Perhaps more important, suspicion of his being gay might not disqualify him from attaining the positions necessary for advancement. “With fighting troops, you’re supposed to exude masculinity and machismo and all that,” he says. “To know that you’re a homo will detract from that. I think that’s one of the fears of the higher-ups. Support commanders are not the ‘Follow me!’ kind of guys. They can get away with [appearing gay] because they’re administrative commanders.”
He could get away with it, but what’s the point? He dreamed of sweeping through the Philippines like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, not bustling around a New Jersey accounting office with a stack of insurance forms.
Alex will never face a Career Field Designation form. The Marines are a specialized service more heavily organized around the infantry. But he has a more immediate dilemma ahead. Alex relocated during the last week of April to a short, temporary assignment. Then he’s off to a duty station, the absolute reverse of the freedom he has enjoyed here: tight quarters, tiny community, with everyone knowing everyone else’s business. “Any [homosexual] contact with anyone is unthinkable,” he says.
So how does he plan to behave, how does he expect to cope? He echoes the themes Brett and Drake keep repeating about their futures: “I don’t know. I don’t live in a hypothetical world, so I don’t know what I’ll do. It’s irrelevant now. Military training says we don’t worry about what we can’t change.”
Drake happily seconds that sentiment. After years of feeling terrified of exposure, he faced one of the worst possible scenarios at Tracks this February, but the would-be disaster proved a turning point in his personal development.
Jason was so supportive that Drake has come out to one straight friend after another since February. “I’ve got six straight friends that routinely go to hockey matches and baseball games and stuff and I’m like their …” He pauses, searches for a way to describe it. “I’m like their queer buddy.”
Since that incident, Drake has spent nearly every weekend with Jason and his girlfriend, and has developed a whole new sense of identity. “They’re the first straight friends that I’ve ever been out to,” he says. “Being with them and being honest with myself has really helped me come to terms with who I am and accept the fact that maybe I am capable of being in love and maybe I’m just adult enough to make it work. It’s a goal. I never had a goal before that involved my love life.”
In April, these friends inspired him to pursue a dormant long-distance romance that had sizzled briefly after a trip to the West Coast last Fourth of July. He has made several trips back this spring, fallen head over heels and lined up his next duty station for the man’s hometown. “It’s the first time it’s ever happened to me,” he says. “And it’s really funny too, because it’s all I think about. It’s pathetic.”
Just before Memorial Day, Drake casually mentions in a final round of follow-up interviews that he has gradually let go of the general’s-star dream. “I would love to make general, but I will never be married and there have only been two nonmarried modern generals,” he says. “I don’t think general is a possibility, but I do think I’ll be a colonel.” He says it so nonchalantly, it’s hard to believe he’s the same blustery guy on the verge of belting me for suggesting the danger over lunch at Brett’s last February.
He lets out a good belly laugh at being reminded of how heated our discussion grew. “I think being acknowledged and accepted has given me pause,” he says. It “has kind of mellowed me out a little bit, to become more accepting of myself and less of a ‘Fuck them all, I’ve got to prove something.’ I will have proved something to myself every time I get promoted and every time I get to a point where I didn’t think I was going to be.”
He has even begun to let go of the idea of “the profession of arms,” though he says that’s strictly based on a profound attraction to a new specialty he began experimenting with last year, not because of his private life. “I could be sort of leaning toward this specialty, but my heart is still in the combat arms,” he says. He says he has “a lot of soul-searching to do” before his own Career Field Designation form is issued.
Suddenly, the man dead certain of every significant goal appears lightheartedly open to serendipity. “I remember when we first started talking, [I was saying,] ‘Hell no! I may be at a crossroads, but by God, my turn indicator is on and I know where I’m going!’ Now I’ve sort of got my hazards on. I could go either way. I have no idea,” Drake says. And he seems absolutely content with the unknown. “Who knows, they may somehow change the gay thing and I’ll be the Army’s first gay general,” he laughs. “I have time on my side right now.”
But in all his reassessments, one position remains absolute. He dismisses Jason’s advice to leave the Army out of hand. “I can’t imagine another way of life,” he says. “It gives me a total sense of purpose. It is why I am.”
Brett can easily imagine civilian life. The military’s esprit de corps is important, but it’s hardly his priority. It’s the profession, not the organization, he’s dying to hold onto. And it’s still possible — all he has to do is marry a mail-order bride, steal away for anonymous sex when she can’t satisfy him and kiss off all the friends who understand his predicament.
The choice is clear: He can let go of any chance at a soul mate, a life partner, or else let go of his lifelong dream. And he doesn’t have Drake’s luxury of another year or two of soul-searching. May 31 was the form-completion deadline, and in the end he made his decision a few weeks early.
“What happened was, I was sitting around one lazy Saturday afternoon, and the stupid CD-ROM was sitting on my desk staring at me,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Fuck, I’ve got to do this! I might as well knock it out.’” He popped in the CD, logged onto the secure Web site and froze up at the keyboard. “I sat there, stared at it for a while, and then I finally started filling it out,” he says. “When it came to actually sending it off — to this is my final answer — at that point, I was like, ‘God, I hope I am doing the right thing. And I hope I’m going to be happy with the decision that I’ve made.’ And that was it.”
He didn’t call his dad or his mentor, Col. Hagen; he didn’t tell Drake or Alex or anyone else. He went to the gym and pumped up his arms. “Just normal business,” he says. Monday morning, he walked into the office and told his commander. That was the first time he actually said it out loud. “Anytime you’re thinking about something, but you don’t finally put it on paper, or something where it can be read by everybody and understood by everybody, that’s when it really hits you,” Brett says. “It’s sort of like coming out, when you vocalize it, and you say, ‘I am gay.’ It’s like that big final step.”
We went clubbing in Denver the next Friday night, started with a leisurely chat over dinner, and he was his usual bubbly self. He didn’t mention it until the next afternoon, when I happened to ask him about it over coffee. How did he finally make the decision? I asked.
The sham-marriage possibility was the first to go. “I sort of eliminated that option because it boils down to being honest,” he says. “I don’t think I could do that. It would be different if I did it before I knew [I was gay], and then you discover it, but it’s a totally different story, knowing.” And after months of agony, the final debate took only seconds. “My realistic side totally took over,” he says. “I came to this very clear realization, like, Who am I kidding? I cannot pursue that [combat] side. It is not realistic.”
Brett will never be MacArthur, but at least he can remain in the Army for the time being. “My profession is changing,” he says. “The ‘want’ part of me was really gunning for [combat].” Instead, he sees himself transitioning from soldier to bureaucrat. “That’s a big change.” He called Col. Hagen a few days later to tell him about his decision and tried to convince his mentor that he was just playing it safe. “Is it worth it to risk the next 10 years trying to pursue [the combat] goal and have nothing to show for it?” he asked. “I have good opportunities to still have a successful career on the support side.” That analysis did play a role in his decision, but it certainly wasn’t the decisive factor.
Col. Hagen just couldn’t make it all add up. “He goes, ‘Well, that makes sense,’” Brett says. “‘But I just don’t understand why you would want to do that. If you’re going to make the Army your career, wouldn’t you want to give yourself the best opportunities of being a general?’ And I go, ‘Yeah,’ and I’m thinking, ‘I’ll never be married. I’m not going to get married just for the sake of my career.’ You need to. You’ve got to have a spouse.”
I ask him the painful question. “So you gave up your profession as a soldier to be gay?”
His head drops. “I guess. I guess you could look at it that way.” He trails off, then perks up with a laugh. “But I’m still a soldier, because I’m still defending my country, I’m still in a uniform.”
He laughs some more, then grows more reflective. “I still think it’s honorable. But [it was] not my original intent. It was my original intent to be a soldier, to stay a soldier, but, hey, something changed in my life.” And he notes that this can happen to people who aren’t gay, too. “It may be that, hey, you have a family, and you’re more devoted to your family so you want to get out of that [combat] role, or you’re going to get out of the military, period.
“Lots of things. People go through changes in their lives. As they mature, value systems change. At one point your military career was everything, but now you realize it’s your family. And for me, now, it’s like, yeah, at one point, the military was everything, but now I’m a little concerned about my life and my personal well-being and my personal happiness. And that’s more important to me than being a general. And that’s the bottom line.”
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)