Monday, May 30, 2011

Remembering: One Gay Soldier Who Gave His Life

We Americans are a famously insular folk, and readers of this blog in other places may not be aware that today is a national holiday in the U.S.: Memorial Day, a day set aside to remember those who have died in the nation's wars.  Steve and I are using the holiday weekend to spend some time in Minnesota, so that he can visit his mother, whom he hasn't seen since his father's funeral.  And his aunts who are Benedictine sisters, who remain constantly welcoming and affirming of us as a gay couple, while Steve's über-Catholic siblings don't welcome us.  One of them even warned us not to come home to visit his mother on this whirlwind trip. 

We've also seen oodles and kaboodles of cousins, and I'm now a bit dazed by several days of driving up and down the state.  Minnesota is a looong state, and Steve's family live at the opposite end of the state from the twin cities, where our flight took us.  An interesting drive, though, with rolling hills and small lakes giving way to sandy, higher terrain with sparser vegetation, and then ending in the flat, land-rich Red River Valley on whose eastern edge Steve's family live and farm.  Full of one tiny town after another, many of them (including Steve's hometown) featuring signs equating abortion with the decline of the nation, with the original sin of the nation, on the outskirts of town, as you enter and leave the community.  

These are warning signs.  You're meant to see them as you drive into and out of town.  They're warnings of what the nation--our nation, the underlying, hidden text reads--will become if people stop voting right.

To me, the signs are reminders of how strong remains the political outreach of those using Catholics to shore up the Republican party and to get Catholic voters to vote "right," in areas like small-town Minnesota.  I'd find the insistence on forcing the rest of the nation to accept Catholic pro-life stances on abortion a lot more compelling, if I saw a similar concern for human life across the spectrum on the part of those staging this political crusade.

But, instead, I see the opposite: I see a blind, mindless equation of American values at their crudest, at their most anti-life, with the gospels, among many of those crusading against abortion.  For example: as we drive into Steve's hometown, we're listening to a radio station playing polka music, making Norwegian jokes, and celebrating the holiday weekend with patriotic and religious songs.  The program ends with an announcement (the man doing the announcing happens to be a cousin of Steve's, a staunch German-American Catholic who, Steve and I know, has a cousin who was a Nazi soldier in Germany, with whom the family remained in contact) that, it being a quasi-sacred holiday and all, we'll finish with an appropriate hymn, "The Old Rugged Cross."

But by mistake, the announcer plays, instead, "God Bless America."  And that seems to say it all, for small-town pro-life values: American dominance in the world portrayed as divine will, civil religion tragically intermixed with Catholic and evangelical values and teachings, the cross wrapped in the flag.  Nothing much examined very carefully, as long as it's proclaimed to us by some traditional authority figure somewhere, who tells us who's the real enemy (liberals, people of color, gays, Muslims, environmentalists, "them"), and who stands on God's side (George Bush, of whom one of Steve's uncles has just made a small statue, celebrating Bush's appearance at the 9/11 site, bullhorn in hand; Republicans; the pope and bishops).

And I feel millions of miles away from all of this, culturally and spiritually.  For one thing, I have no recollection at all of Memorial Day from my childhood.  We never celebrated that holiday.  Didn't even know it existed.  

And as I grew up and learned of its existence in other parts of the country, I discovered the reason why: this was a holiday that, in many parts of the American South, was considered an imposed holiday to remember them rather than us.  To commemorate the Union dead and not the Confederate dead.

So that we substituted our own version of memorial day, with Confederate themes, which was celebrated several weeks later than the Yankee holiday--in early June.  As I became an adult, I realized that this was why the cemetery in which my mother's family have been buried for several generations in southeast Arkansas has always held its decoration day on the first weekend in June, followed by a church homecoming the following weekend.  And this is why my father's maternal family have always gathered that same Sunday in June for their family reunion, which is centered around and attached to another small church cemetery in Louisiana where many of my forebears on that side of the family are buried.

I grew up with alternative traditions, and for me, the rhetoric about God and country that comes so easy to people of faith in the heartland seems alien, something from another land, another set of experiences than those that shaped me as a child.  For me, given my formative experiences, it seems dangerous--actively so--to equate God and Christian values with patriotic values and with the aspirations of any particular nation in the world.  All of which live under the eschatological proviso, and none of which deserve divine status or idolatrous adulation.

I've been remembering already, much of May, since May is the month in which that small cemetery in which my mother's family are buried issues its annual appeal for donations.  Since it's a "free" cemetery--no one pays for plots there; if you have roots in that church community, even if you don't belong to the church, you simply have to sign up and claim a plot in the cemetery--I feel obligated to give money to the cemetery each year, to assure that it's maintained. 

And as I give, I remember my mother and brother, both buried in this cemetery, along with my maternal grandparents, three great-grandparents, two great-great grandparents, and numerous other aunts, uncles, cousins buried in the cemetery.  I also remember, each May, my grandmother's death on May 23 in 1968, several days before I graduated from high school.  I remember my grandmother with great devotion, because of all she meant to me as I was growing up.  She was a strong, upright, tender woman who also had a fierce streak that frightened my brother.

But not me, for some reason.  I saw the fierceness as the external shield for the inward tenderness and inner strength: the way in which those virtues communicated (and protected) themselves in her interaction with others.  And so I remember, each May, all that my grandmother did to shape me as a human being from the time I was born--born with, so I'm told, a slightly misshapen head, since the doctors feared that labor was taking too long, and used forceps to pull me head-first from a womb I apparently intended not to leave, causing my skull to be somewhat lopsided when I emerged into the world.  So that my grandmother spent the first weeks of my life literally shaping me, carefully kneading my skull back into the seemly round shape of a well-tended child.

Steve and I are remembering this weekend in another interesting way, as we celebrate our idiosyncratic Memorial Day.  One of the cousins we visited yesterday has, over the past several years, generously shared with Steve some five or six photo albums and scrapbooks that her mother meticulously put together over the years.  Because the cousin is 87, the photos, newspaper clippings, prayer cards, and so forth in these albums go back quite a ways.  They're treasures for family historians.

And as Steve photographed and scanned all of these albums over the past year or so, we made a curious discovery: one of the people commemorated in the albums is an uncle of the cousin who owns the albums, who died in World War II.  He's not directly related to Steve, since he's on the French and not the German side of this particular family.  And he was, it's clear to Steve and me as we look at the photos his sister kept of him, a gay man.

A gay man who left small-town Minnesota before the war to go to San Francisco with a friend.  So that many of the pictures in the album show him in his San Francisco life--at the beach, with several other handsome men (and always beside him the same handsome man whom the sister carefully labels "the Virginian" in each photo).  Or sitting in a convertible, top-down, beside the Virginian, in whimsical drag, scarf carefully arranged in Grace Kelly style, demure white gloves.

Just because.  Because, it's clear from many of the pictures, this was a young man who loved life and loved to have fun, who had himself buried in sand on the beach, with tiny little legs formed from the sand to match a full-sized body. 

A man who was an accomplished amateur painter, who did paintings for some of the churches in his community in small-town northern Minnesota before he left for San Francisco.  (This is a theme not new to me.  My sister-in-law's uncle was a gay man who left small-town Arkansas for San Francisco in a slightly later period, in the 1950s, who painted a stunning mural of Christ the Good Shepherd for the baptistry of his childhood church in Arkansas.)

Yesterday, when we visited the elderly cousin so that Steve could return to her the albums she had loaned him, he asked about her uncle Enthyeme's art work, and she rummaged around and brought out a number of paintings he did while living out west.  They're wonderful landscapes in vibrant colors, with witty little touches that go along with the too-small legs of sand and the natty white gloves.  For instance, Enthyeme hides his initials in tiny details of the landscape, so that you have to search the whole painting to find them.

And here's what we were able to tell his niece, who knew that he had died in the war, but didn't know the details, since her knowledge comes from one final, censored letter he sent his sister, saying that he was on the front lines: when we saw his pictures in the photo album and wondered who he was, we did a bit of online research and found he died in the landing at Anzio.  And that he's buried in a military cemetery there, whose tombstones have been photographed and are online.

So that we could retrieve a photo of the tombstone and share it with Steve's cousin, who had never seen this photograph and wasn't sure where her uncle was buried, or even where, precisely, he was killed as a soldier.  And, strangely enough, the very day we did this online research and found the photo turned out to be the day Enthyeme died.

And so we're remembering today: one soldier who left no wife and children behind, who was drafted after he'd begun a new life as a gay man (of this we're certain from the photos, though it's not something anyone in Steve's family has ever said to us, or may even know) in San Francisco.  A young man full of fun and talent, with his life ahead of him.

Who gave his life for his country, because he was called into action, despite the fact that the American armed services pretended for far too long that gay men could not make adequate soldiers.  Or were a threat to the coherence of a military unit.  Or posed a danger to the country because they could be blackmailed.

Enthyeme gave his life.  And we're determined to remember, because the pictures we see of him in the albums Steve has now copied, and the paintings of his we saw yesterday, remind us that this was a life well worth remembering.

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