This essay appeared in Earthly Love: Stories of Intimacy and Devotion from Orion.
ON THE WEATHER DECKS of my naval warship, in the wilderness of the Pacific Ocean, I smoked alone. It was my second deployment, my first without Easy.
Very little signified time’s passing, save for sunsets and cigarettes. Cigarettes like scratch marks on prison walls to count the days, scars on the walls of my lungs. We didn’t get breaks for their own sake, but I found a loophole: the weather deck, where my new habit could buy a few minutes of rest.
In my smoking reverie, fellow sailors approached me with words of apprehension.
“They’ve started an investigation.”
“They’re monitoring your e-mail.”
“Cover your ass.”
“Tell everyone it’s not true.”
“You can’t possibly win.”
“You know what’s coming.”
Over the course of the first few weeks of our six-month deployment, faces from the 250-man crew would sift before me like a kaleidoscope of melancholy colors. Nauseated and dizzy from the onslaught, I inhaled one cigarette after another, leaned against the side irons, and trained my gaze on the gray sea. I couldn’t possibly know how to respond, but most of them weren’t there to listen anyway. They were characters in a drama, all playing their roles.
A southern man and his two friends stared at me, like wolves stalking a weak member of the herd, waiting to strike. They were friends of the accused man, and as I averted my eyes from them and looked toward the thrashing sea below the ship, I imagined his threats against me coming to life. Perhaps one of them would collide with me as I walked the long gangway down the exterior of the ship. A dark figure would push me into the lifelines—the retractable railings that were lowered for gun shoots—and shake my body against them, whitecap waves roiling below me like shark teeth.
“If someone were to fall out here,” I was warned, “they wouldn’t be found.”
I could hold on to few things during this period of my life, amid the chaos of faces, information, and uncertainty, and those things composed what truth I could cobble together at any given point. The truth about myself, who I was, and what happened to Easy. But one night, as I smoked and mused about feeling lost at sea, a spectacle revealed itself in the waters before me. All around, from every vantage point I could see, lights rose from the depths of the ocean. These clusters of bioluminescence glowed with neon green-and-blue sparks, rising from the deep as exploding universes. Water radiated with those solar systems, galaxies of glowing life. The cloudless sky reflected the phosphorescent emissions as stars of the empyrean inverted from nebula-like clusters rising from the sea. I sat between all splendors and felt the utter insignificance of my existence, and somehow, this signal from the sea made me feel less alone.
I sat between all splendors and felt the utter insignificance of my existence, and somehow, this signal from the sea made me feel less alone.
About a year and a half before—on the day I was given an introductory tour of the USS Rodney M. Davis and my new job as gunner’s mate—I crossed paths with a swaggering boatswain’s mate who held the coveted bosun’s pipe. He was a second-class petty officer, the second-in-command of my new ship’s boatswain department, with a joker’s smile and a few teeth capped in silver. The bosun’s pipe was a whistle, but more so, a symbol of power, and with its trill he could command his crew of seaman to do his bidding. His nickname was Easy, short for Ezekiel.
On our first port of call, the shores of Okinawa, our eyes wouldn’t stop meeting. We were soon inseparable, in large part because I’d taken up smoking. We’d light each other’s cigarettes with our own, daring, when no one else was around, to keep them in our mouths the whole time, our heads leaned in, the tips kissing.
In the luxurious foyer of a four-star Singapore hotel, he told me he would reserve a room if I stood guard by the front door. I sat in the air-conditioned lounge, trying to dry the thick sweat from my body, and I watched Easy out of the corner of my eye. My nerves were like lightning. I had no idea what I would say if we were caught. I hadn’t been granted overnight privileges, and we had to be back to the ship by 2000 hours. There was no reason why we would be spending $400 on a hotel room we’d only use for a few hours.
As Easy was finishing the paperwork, the only two female officers on our ship walked out of the elevator and turned their heads, seeming to recognize him. My legs went limp. The women then turned and headed straight toward me. With no other option, I jumped out of the armchair and lunged for the nearest door. Once outside, I ran around the street and snuck back in through a side door. I found Easy by the elevators looking painfully exposed, and pulled him into an elevator.
Six hours in the bathtub together, smoking cigarettes, drinking whiskey, we forged the sex of starvation, physical passion that permeated the room with nicotine vapors. I was twenty years old.
Afterward we tried to wait for the safety of port visits, where we got better at finding hotels no one frequented, but these visits were few. One was in Brunei, a country that would soon grant the death penalty to those like us. We didn’t bother with a hotel there, but we did find our way to a restaurant bathroom. The risk of that act would take years to comprehend.
Back on the frigate, we searched for locked spaces, dark corners. We tried the boatswain’s locker at the very front of the ship, which had two watertight doors, each with eight dogs that had to be opened, one at a time. We were confident that no one could take us by surprise there. But our first time in that sweaty space, half clothed, we heard the sound of a door being unlocked. As each dog clicked open, our stomachs sunk.
“What will we say?” I whispered, squeezing his sweaty forearm.
“I don’t know,” he whispered back, looking around frantically. He pointed to the angle irons—shelflike support beams that reinforced the hull of the boat and doubled as storage space for all kinds of greasy lines and levers used for mooring the boat. “Climb into the gear locker.”
I zipped up my coveralls and climbed the bulkhead just as the first door opened. Easy pushed me upward as the second door began to click. We heard the first dog unlock, then the second. I climbed onto the shelf—feeling the anchor-chain grease smear all over me—into the rigging and tackle, and pulled piles of heavy rope over me to hide. The loose fibers from the coarse rope stuck to my greased skin like feathers.
A third dog opened. I held my breath. There was an interminable silence, and then a footstep, two, and the sounds of the dogs shutting. The intruder had disappeared, closed the first door behind him. After an excruciating amount of time, I crawled out of the gear and slid out to the smoke deck while doing my best to shake off the fibers and wipe away grease. A few minutes later, Easy joined me out there, and we stared at the dark sea night, pretending nothing at all could possibly connect us.
This became our routine—close calls and forbidden sex—although we made sure to find better spaces that didn’t threaten us with getting caught. We would meet in the dark of night, relieve each other of the stresses and silence the job required, then make our way, one at a time, out to the smoke deck for a midnight cigarette. Eventually I became the sole technician on the ship’s gun mount—a two-story cannon with a vaultlike space secured from the inside by a hulking watertight door. Like Easy’s bosun’s pipe, I carried the gun mount’s many keys on a lanyard that hung at my hip and jangled as I walked about the ship. That wonderful MK 75 would become our private apartment for the rest of our deployment.
Each of the four walls of the gun mount housed shelves that contained missile canisters stacked in rows twenty high. The revolving magazine—which resembled an enormous cylinder from a six-shooter revolver—was suspended in the center of the space, free-hanging, and housed eighty of the blue-tipped, ammunition rounds: it could empty these rounds in under a minute. Higher still, up into the second story, was the barrel housing, where rounds were transferred and firing commenced.
Inside our second home, I set up a workingman’s bookshelf from used ammo cans in a pile that rose to the overhead. The carefully arranged and lashed gunnery boxes held heaps of literature. I was deep into the transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. I found fellowship in a copy of Leaves of Grass from my father. A nurse during the Civil War, Whitman wrote poetry some considered scandalous; he could not be open about his sexuality. He wrote in Drum-Taps: “As I lay with my head in your lap Camerado… I confess I have urged you onward with me, / and still urge you, without the least idea what is our destination, / Or whether we shall be victorious, or utterly quell’d and defeated.” Like Whitman, I was compelled to serve, to stand by my brothers in arms in wartime toward peace. And like Whitman’s, my love for men was considered scandalous. While serving my country, I was legally bound to hide my sexuality.
Like Whitman, I was compelled to serve, to stand by my brothers in arms in wartime toward peace. And like Whitman’s, my love for men was considered scandalous. While serving my country, I was legally bound to hide my sexuality.
Though I can’t say that Easy and I were always discreet. One night the two of us fell asleep atop a yoga mat on the deck below the bookshelf. Like all the ship decks, it was made of nonskid material: hard and sharp to give traction to sailors walking in rough seas. But we’d found such comfort in each other that we slept well through that night, our only full night together, waking to the sound of the reveille bells. Fear flooded the space as we both clamored to dress ourselves. Easy quickly headed to the smoke deck, and I followed shortly thereafter.
A time or two, people seemed to notice that Easy and I would smoke at about the same time every night, but we always blew them off. We play video games together, we’d say, like a lot of other guys did at night. No one ever asked which ones. No one ever pointed out that I didn’t even have a video game console in the gun mount.
But eventually I’d had enough of hiding, and on my social media page I decided to change my orientation to “gay.” In so doing, I had transgressed the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. For that brief moment, I felt unanchored to other people’s ideas about love, expansive and oceanic and free.
A LOT BACK THEN was not asked and not told. Inside the lower level of the gun magazine were heaps of used ammunition canisters filled with trash. Once every few weeks, in the shadow of night, my supervisors would take us to the gun mount and line us up in a chain gang that extended down the hatchway ladder and out the starboard bulkhead door, each man within arm’s reach of the other. From there, we’d throw our waste overboard and watch as the canisters floated at first, then slowly filled and sank into the dark waters.
We used pike tools to poke holes into metal ammunition canisters; any splash they made was muffled by the noise of the waves. Oily rags, solvents, chemicals, perhaps even used paint canisters. A wreckage of trash trailed behind us like flotsam from shipwrecks. I imagined the canisters never reaching the seafloor, but instead piling on underwater ridges of trash mountains from decades, perhaps centuries, of dumping—an unseen, underwater wasteland. Everything seemed so backward. Loving Easy was punishable by discharge, but throwing trash overboard was standard practice. I felt like the debris I threw out to the sea. Our supervisors called it night ops.
Loving Easy was punishable by discharge, but throwing trash overboard was standard practice. I felt like the debris I threw out to the sea.
Night ops were a regular part of being on deployment, especially when a port visit was canceled and the ship began to overflow with trash. Our ship had a plastic waste compactor that turned the myriad plastic refuse into giant disks, which were easily stowed away. But what of the rest? What of my legacy on the waters I traveled? Like the trash, I felt disposable, easily discarded, and began to see how our society floated on this concept of expendability. On the smoke deck, my hands stained with chemicals, I marred my lungs again and again with the markings of containment, hoping to forget. At some point Easy would appear, his greasy forearm resting on mine as he took the cigarette from my mouth, lit his with it, and gently put it back between my lips. He’d leave his arm next to mine as we leaned against the angle irons and looked beyond the ship that stayed us. In resignation, I threw my used butts to the sea.
IN THE FINAL MONTHS of that first deployment, I was hit on by another sailor. Easy revealed that this man had molested him in his sleep. He made me promise to never tell anyone. The sailor also threatened my life if I spoke about it. But once we returned to our homeport, the JAG lawyers called me in for questioning, and I told them everything I knew. They said they’d heard similar stories and were starting an official investigation. A court-martial began, and with it came a series of inquiries into my relationship with Easy. As gay men, we could not change our designation of dishonorable; we were the military’s refuse. Our new classification—and my broken promise to Easy—pulled us apart.
I began my second deployment without him and with an investigation ongoing. The court-martial had not yet been scheduled, but its certainty worried me constantly, like a dark storm visible on the horizon. We sailed south, toward Central America, the Pacific Ocean reflecting an incessant, scorching sun. I was often the only sailor at the top of the ship, surrounded on all sides by a blinding landscape of glimmering water and light. When I had first arrived, I enthusiastically climbed on top of the barrel of the gun mount and rode it like my grandfather rode broncos in Montana. Now the greatest effort I could command was leaning over the barrel as though over a fence that divided my life.
My future was in the hands of Commander Bradbury, a man I knew nothing about. Though the trial centered around Easy’s abuser, my role as a witness was based on the credibility of my testimony, and this invited investigations into my character. I had now officially broken the law of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. My commanding officer was required by law to discharge me, and the decision of how to do so would be his alone. When I was summoned to appear, it was not at the CO’s quarters, where business was normally conducted, but at the office of the command master chief, the highest-ranking enlisted man on the boat.
I arrived at the door, which was adorned with the golden knotwork of boatswain mates, and I knocked three times and stated my rank. I stepped into the room and saluted with the usual decorum. Master Chief shut the door behind me. The room shrunk to a point of vibrating suffocation.
“I think you know why you are here,” the commanding officer said.
“As long as I’ve had command here, I’ve heard of your outstanding reputation. You’ve never been in any kind of trouble, and you’ve grown to garner the respect of the crew.”
He seemed to walk a winding cliff over the course of his monologue, and I followed his every word, trying to read into what the decision would ultimately be.
“But this impasse is not beneficial to our cause,” he went on. “These recent developments have an obvious impact on the ship as a whole. I say this so that you understand the position you have placed us in.”
Pinpricks of fear raced down my spine as I waited for him to finish his thought.
“With that said, we thought it appropriate to deal with this issue immediately and not drag it out through the deployment. In our eyes you have represented the Navy’s core values with unswerving devotion. Even in the midst of hardship, you’ve upheld our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment.”
I could not speak. There was a smile in his eyes as his face maintained its stoic facade.
“That concludes our meeting, Petty Officer,” Master Chief said, extending his arm toward the door.
We stood, and I saluted the command master chief. He looked me directly in the eye, and an expression that reminded me of my mother passed across his gaze, as if I were his own, of the same blood. I did an about-face and headed for the door, but then I heard his voice behind me: “One more thing, Petty Officer…”
I turned back around and saw a look of authority once again on his face.
“No more ‘friends.’”
I LOCKED THE GUN MOUNT’S door behind me and collapsed to the floor in the same place that I’d held Easy that one long night. Thoreau’s words from Civil Disobedience came to me from my bookshelf as I lay alone on that nonskid: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once.” The shame of my idealism, my insistence on truth, was the reason for Easy’s absence. It was the reason we were caught. But Easy was violated, not only by the accused, but also by a law that stole his identity, his love, and even his rights as a victim. I could not abide the injustice. I had to act.
LATER THAT NIGHT on the smoke deck, I held a cigarette in my left hand and kept the open pack in my quivering right, ready to light up the next in anxious succession. I’d survived that day, but a few weeks later I would be flown from Panama for the court-martial. Suddenly, instead of relishing the smoke that filled my lungs, I began to choke. In the center of so many forces beyond my control, I realized that smoking was one of the few things I could command. In that moment I didn’t know that it would take me years to quit the habit, and so many more beyond that for my lungs to heal. Or that, like the scars on my lungs, oppression is written in the body, so deep that it can be passed through our DNA.
The ship surged through the black waters, spreading great clouds of chartreuse light and marking our path with the tail of a comet. The bioluminescence offered me some solace, an understanding that my CO had offered me a chance to heal, if I could see the years through. The cigarette burned to the filter, leaving a long branch of ash in its place. It singed my fingertips. I raised my hand to throw it overboard, but stopped. I turned to the tin can I’d seldom used and tossed the butt onto the small pile of ash. Closing the open pack in my right hand, I lost myself to the marvel of lights below.
Lance Garland spends his days fighting fire in Seattle, climbing mountains in the Pacific Northwest, and sailing the Salish Sea. He’s written for Outside, Backpacker, the Seattle Times, and The Stranger.
Read more from Lance about the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell here.