Two Journeys to
One Wondrous Life.
I had never skied in flat Nebraska, but skiing became a lifelong activity after I first encountered it in Anchorage, Alaska, during World War II.
I was with VR 5, an air transport squadron based at Sandpoint Naval Air Station on Lake Washington in Seattle. We also had bases in Anchorage and on Kodiak Island. Our mission was to transport supplies and arms to our troops based on the Aleutian Islands. Our infantry, including Heinie, my oldest brother, were stationed on Adak Island. The Japanese had occupied Attu, the island nearest to Japan, which was the only American soil they would occupy in World War II. The infantry who were preparing to storm Attu and take it back were based on Adak, just to the east of Attu. The push to drive the Japanese from Attu Island was one of the bloodiest in the Pacific, with the majority of the Japanese committing suicide. My brother, fortunately, survived.
The remoteness of the Aleutians fostered an illegal and profitable bootlegging business. At the time, only officers could have hard liquor, enlisted men could have only beer, and wine was unheard of. So some of the crew, including officers, would buy rotgut in Seattle, and the price would go higher the farther out on the chain it was purchased. One hundred dollars was the norm on Adak, where Heinie, my brother, was stationed.
When I visited Adak, I would always take Heinie and his mates really good booze. I would also eschew the comfortable enlisted quarters to stay with him and his buddies in their crowded and smelly Quonset hut, where we would party into the night. The latrine was a distance away, and the snow on the permafrost surrounding the hut was always yellow.
I had just graduated from Whittier High School, and rather than wait to be drafted, I had enlisted in the navy.
I’ll never forget the evening of my departure from the Lincoln, Nebraska, train station, on my way to boot camp. That afternoon, my mother had placed the sixth star in our front window at home. That was my star; the others were for my two older brothers and three brothers-in-law. A seventh star would be added several years later for my younger brother Speck, who would be drafted into the army just as World War II was ending.
Since our first language growing up had been German, Speck was quite fluent. He spoke an eighteenth-century version, since that was when our ancestors had left Germany and last spoken the language. Speck would become an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials.
Speck, along with the rest of our big family, went with me to the station for our goodbyes. My steady girlfriend, Mary Claire, would also be there.
As the long troop train, filled with volunteers, lumbered into the station and waited at the platform for us to board, my thoughts were not at all on this awesome new adventure. Instead I worried that my father and everyone else in the family would kiss me goodbye, a show of affection that I’d learned wasn’t shared by all families.
Mary Claire’s family status was far above ours. They were what we called the “country club” set in Lincoln. When visiting her home, I noticed a huge difference in their interactions among family and friends. They were much more subdued on meeting than in our big, boisterous family. Kisses in the Phillips family were mere pecks or brushing cheeks. Men, I was certain, would never kiss other men, even their own sons. Our family was more like the film
My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Well, my father did kiss me on the mouth, as did everyone else. However, I had worried needlessly. Mary Claire’s first letter to me at Farragut Boot Camp in Idaho said she was touched and happy to have seen that genuine, emotional show of affection from my family.
Several months later, I would get a Dear John letter from Mary Claire. She had fallen for a major at the Lincoln Air Base, and they were getting married. I sent her framed picture back to her with a teary note to say how sorry I was. In reality, however, I was totally relieved. I would soon find out that there were many more guys like me, not only in the navy but in all the armed forces. Gays were aware of the lack of tolerance for homosexuality during World War II. If someone found out you were gay, moving up in rank was no longer an option. You were stuck at your current level or demoted.
Our long train trip took us to a hastily built boot camp because there were not enough facilities to handle the crush of recruits. It was named Farragut, for the admiral who famously had said, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” in Mobile Bay during the Civil War.
Most summers when we were young, my mother would send her three youngest—Abbie, me, and Speck—to Uncle John’s farm near Cozad in central Nebraska, where we would work in the fields. This would get us out of the house in Lincoln for the summer and give Uncle John three extra sets of hands to work on the farm.
My favorite part of those summers was skinny-dipping in a clear and cold spring-fed pond with a diving board. There I developed a huge crush on Bill, a neighborhood boy who was several years older. He was a hunk, tanned and muscular. He would have me climb onto his back, my arms locked around him on the diving board and my genitals pressed against his sweaty, warm back. I would usually get an erection, and then I’d have to swim around on my stomach for a bit in the icy water until it subsided.
My time swimming with Bill lasted only a couple of summers, and I was always sad when it was time to go home. In later years, as Bill grew into a handsome young man, we remained friends, but I was jealous of the high school beauties who flocked around him.