Monthly Archives: December 2013

Don’t Ask, I’ll Tell Anyway


Greg in the middle, circa 1989

Bethanie Johnson

This is a story about Greg and I.  I’ve never told this story before because there is no way I can make it come out well.  I don’t tell it because it is painful, and because the subject is still (after all this time) controversial.  Also, I’ve held onto it with white knuckles for all these years, afraid of what would happen if I let it go.

I knew Greg my first year in the Army.  I met him at DLI (Defense Language Institute).  He was studying Chinese Mandarin and I was studying Korean.  We were in the same company because we were both “Asian Languages,” and I am pretty sure I met him at a sushi bar because we both loved sushi a lot.

I was a mess at the time.  I was a train wreck that anyone could see coming a mile away.  I was angry and defiant.  I dated lots of guys for short periods of time and I drank a whole lot.  I wasn’t unique though.  I was in really good company since I knew only one person who didn’t drink in the Army, and he was Mormon.  The only people who didn’t sleep around in the Army were married, or Greg.  At the time it was Army life.  So really I was fitting in just fine.

I met Greg and we bonded.  We loved books and sushi.  I’d come straight out of small town Louisiana and had somewhat limited access to good authors.  The library in my town where I read most of the books was a small metal building about the size of a single-wide trailer.  Greg introduced me to so many authors he loved.  We read Alice Walker together.  She lived in San Francisco at the time (he was from California), and he fantasized about meeting her on the street.  He helped me get through Dostoyevsky and Ayn Rand.  Both were long winded, but we read them together.

Over lunch and dinner in the mess hall I’d tell him about my late night carousing (he was decidedly NOT a carouser).  He worried about me.  He knew that sometimes I struggled to keep my head above water and he was compassionate when I was lost.  And that was a lot.

We frequented a sushi bar in Monterey that was pretty close to the water. Everything there seemed to be made of paper and wood.  He loved spicy tuna and plum wine.  I pretended I loved plum wine as well, though it was really sickly sweet.  I did this because Greg loved me and I knew that.  I did this because I wanted him to know it was okay for him to like plum wine.  But plum wine wasn’t really my thing.

One of those nights in the wood and paper restaurant while I was choking down my delicious plum wine, Greg told me he was gay.  I was the first person he ever trusted enough to tell.  I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  I sat there staring it him because it had never occurred to me.  I’d never (I thought) met a gay person before.  Plus, according to how I was raised and where I came from, we were definitely at least five minutes into a “very against the rules” conversation.  I very fervently explained to him about my beliefs.  What he was doing was wrong and I wasn’t sure we could be friends but I would think about it.  I said all this with a straight face and not even joking a little bit.  Looking at it now I can’t understand how I ever could have been serious.  After I said all of that, I left him there alone.

I went back to my barracks.   I tried to sleep, but my brain itched.  For a few days my brain literally itched at the wrongness of what I’d done.  This was my friend.  Greg was one of the first guys I’d met in the Army in Monterey that just wanted to be my damn friend.  No strings and no demands.  It came to me that probably his friendship with me had been tested a bunch of times (I was a messy carouser), but that the very first time my friendship was tested, when deciding whether to hit the fight or flight button during a bump in our road together, I’d punched flight and I’d run.  Once I realized this I also knew that really nothing had changed except that he told me something about him I hadn’t known before.  So I went to his room as soon as school was over the same day I pulled my head out of my ass and apologized for being such a bad friend.  I said I was wrong and that even though I was confused I loved him because he’d introduced me to Alice Walker, which meant he had good taste.

We laughed then.  We kept eating sushi together.  We discussed my carousing.  We talked about boys and books.  Eventually I took off for South Korea and left behind a good friend.

South Korea was one of the loneliest places I was ever stationed.  I’d studied with people I knew for a year before I got there, and South Korea was a brand new place with all new people, where I was stationed in a Military Intelligence Battalion inside the 102nd Infantry Division.  There were 1,000 male soldiers to every 1 female soldier.  It was a situation where there were hardly any no-strings relationships with guys.  Platonic friendships were almost non-existent and it was so lonely that no matter what kind of carousing I did, all I really really wanted in the world was a hug.  I thought of Greg a lot.  We talked on the phone.  Plus he sent the best care packages.  He sent the good chocolate truffles from the Macys in Monterey where they had the immense chocolate counter.  He sent books; a signed copy of an Alice Walker book of essays after he’d been to a book signing.  He sent me beautiful things.  I’m fairly certain those packages and letters and calls kept my head above water during what can only be described as the loneliest, darkest time of my life.

He eventually finished school and was sent to Fort Lewis Washington.   By then he’d come out to a lot more people who didn’t want him to be gay.  Especially his parents.  From his parents he received a sort of all-out rejection.  They didn’t even want to hear it.  We were also living through the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy in the Military, so Greg wasn’t even allowed to be publicly gay.  At Fort Lewis he decided to “pretend marry” a girl; another friend he’d met and charmed.  I thought this was a bad idea (him being gay and all), but he felt a crazy amount of pressure to conform.

My long year in South Korea eventually came to an end and I came back to the States to be stationed at Fort Ord.  I spent a week wandering the streets of Monterey, hold up in a hotel trying to readjust to American life and how different it was.  I’d let Greg know I was coming back, but he’d been oddly silent in the weeks before I got to the states.

I showed up to my new post at Fort Ord, and had been there less than a week when I got the news that Greg, of all people, shot himself.  I couldn’t get my head around that.  My friend Fran called to give me the news and I was stunned, but also not.  I was stunned because you think your friends will always be with you even if that isn’t true.  Also I was stunned because Greg was the least violent person I knew, and I just couldn’t imagine him pulling the trigger on himself.

I was not stunned because Greg was good.  He was sweet and funny and kind and sensitive.  He’d trusted people with who he was…he’d braved it, and people stomped all over the feelings of this funny, sweet, sensitive person because they had “feelings and opinions” about his way of life.  All he really really wanted was for the people he loved to look at him and say, “I love who you are.”

What I will not forget about him.  What I will never forget, is how he let me be his friend again after I’d been one of those very people.  He forgave me for being a bad friend. He set the example for the kind of person I wanted to be someday, someone who loves and forgives.  It was the lesson of my life.

Christmas Tree

I found this tonight in a pretty old journal (old being about 8 years ago).  I wanted to share it with some old friends.


I’m finding it difficult to take down my tree this year.  At night I want to leave it on and curl up next to it like a cat that finds a warm spot.  I love to turn out all the lights and watch how the tree lights the darkness.  

My tree isn’t fancy.  We didn’t cut it down.  We got in on sale at Target on our way home from Thanksgiving in Knoxville.  We drove over the mountains and stopped in the village of Chimney Rock.  We filled up there on scaling rocks on the river and breathing in the cold, damp air.  That’s about as filling as anything.  I paid too much money for a Chimney Rock ornament and we started our journey towards Charlotte, through mountains, then hills, then the gentle rolling that finally gives way to the Piedmont.  For me that trip home from Knoxville is the beginning of Christmas.  there is a month of school left still, but everyone seems ready for winter hibernation.  This year there was no Christmas trip to Mississippi, just us.  Madison asked, since it would be just us, could I please get a big tree.  A real tree?  Well no, we both have a mirriad of allergies as well as a radiator in every window.  But we agreed on a full sized tree.  We put it up that same night and added our own lights and decorations.  Our ornaments tell the story of our family; where we began.  Our Christmas in the blue house before Madison was, is represented by the bird and cat.  they were both somehow hijacked from my friend Wendy.  The painted wooden cat with red scarf and the tiny feathered robin that clips to a branch, perches really.  There are ornaments from Madison’s Dad.  A clear plastic energizer bunny, the origin of which was never quite known.  Moose (Meese?), in various poses and colors, purchased in Juno, one of the places where my x husband resided on his path that eventually intersected mine.  There are the remains of the ornaments I purchased in the dead of winter in Cheboygan, when the snow piled up in late October and I worked at a Hallmark store.

Eventually Madison came and I joined an online mom’s group.  We did an ornament exchange each year.  There are a few from China, one sparkly, handmade, sequinned globe.  and among my favorite, the cotton blossom angels sent from a friend in Florida.  There are ornaments I made with Madison and several she made for me.  Last year she made us a delicate paper angel tree topper which this year decorates the kitchen atop a wine bottle filled with lights.  Over my years of working with children, I’ve received so many.  My two favorite stay with us year round.  A red metal cardinal in flight generally hangs from the fireplace and a map of the world globe hangs on a nail from the cabinet in the kitchen.  Madison’s discovery this year is that those wonderful family photo cards are great ornaments themselves.  And so my nephew Matt rests between two branches, a santa hat at a jaunty angle on his head, and our friends from church, dressed in summer white, peer at us from their snowflake card.

I’ve seen trees festooned in the smart Southern regalia of white magnolia flowers or stylishly dressed in red poinsettia blooms, but I prefer our tree.  The one that spells out our history in colorful, mismatched ornaments and reminds us of the love and riches our lives have contained so far.  an old snowman, purchased during that long Cheboygan winter, says it best.  Draped between his two stick hands on a string of twine, four letters spell out hope.  Somehow this odd and mismatched past points in the direction of a future that is made up mostly of the brightness of a hope that lights the darkness.