Toy Soldiers and Saris
I've always wanted to be a soldier. In fact, I can't remember a time when I could imagine being anything else. It was, I think, my destiny; my path was preordained. I guess I was lucky since this tunnel vision made life easier for me. While friends flailed around in their late teens and twenties, changing majors, jobs, cities, I stayed the course. There was never any question in my mind. And I knew this at a very young age. It just always felt like some fundamental part of my being. Becoming a soldier seemed as necessary to me as fulfilling the most basic of needs. There was hunger, thirst, sleep, and then there was soldiering. Later on there would also be sex and love, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.
I don't come from a military family. In fact, though the men in my family served in the armed forces, they served only when drafted, and when their term of enlistment was up, they hurried back to civilian life. A man had a duty to his country, I was told, but once that duty was fulfilled there were far better things to do with your time than playing with guns and bombs, especially if you lived in the greatest city in the world.
That city was New York, of course, where my family had lived since the turn of the last century. I've traveled all over the world as a soldier, and I still believe that New York City is hands down the most amazing place on the planet. To grow up in New York is like being born with a special talent, like being given something extra. Rich, poor, white, black, Asian, Latin, Arab, Jew, gay, straight, and all points in between, nowhere on earth does such diversity exist side by side in such relative harmony.
And nowhere is the mix more pronounced than in Queens, particularly in Jackson Heights, where I grew up. Ironically, the area was originally developed in 1908 as a white, middle-class "restricted residential community" by a group of real estate men in anticipation of the opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909. It was meant to be a suburban escape from the increasing ethnic mix of Manhattan. The only diversity in this early Jackson Heights, before restrictions against Jews were lifted after World War II, was, oddly enough, a thriving community of gay vaudevillians who began moving in after the number 7 train was built in 1917, connecting the neighborhood directly to Times Square. Since the forties the neighborhood has morphed into one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country. When you walk down Thirty-seventh Avenue, it's like being in Shanghai, Moscow, Calcutta, and Bogota all at once. Walk a block down any main drag in the neighborhood and you'll likely hear a half-dozen languages being spoken and pass a half-dozen restaurants, each serving totally different ethnic cuisines. Though the whole world is represented, the newer residents are now primarily South Asian and Latino, and you'll have a better chance of seeing a woman in a bright sari passing an Ecuadorian restaurant serving roast guinea pig than coming across, say, a Carrie Bradshaw wannabe in her favorite Manolo Blahniks on her way to cocktails. I feel lucky to have grown up in this colorful, vibrant neighborhood. Like many neighborhoods in New York, especially those in the outer boroughs, Jackson Heights feels like a small town, a little village tucked in the great metropolis, a place where people know one another and take the time to say hello.
I grew up on Eighty-second Street, right across the street from St. Joan of Arc, the Catholic church where I went to grade school every day and to Mass every Sunday. My family was Protestant, but since the Catholic school was the best in the neighborhood, I was duly baptized and then spent the next sixteen years of my life as a student in the Catholic educational system. I have fond memories of getting up every day and putting on my uniform: the gray polyester trousers, the green jacket, the white shirt with the green clip-on tie, and then walking out the front door of my apartment building and simply crossing the street to school. The nuns still wore habits in those days and didn't think twice about smacking you one good if you got out of line.
It was in the school yard of St. Joan of Arc when it first became clear just how much I wanted to be a soldier. Like most young boys I got pretty rambunctious in the school yard, wrestling, fighting, chasing this boy or that girl, but what I loved most of all was playing war games--staging epic battles, killing spies, chasing down the enemy. On one occasion I got so involved in being a dive-bomber that I ripped my jacket straight up the back and was sent home by one of the nuns with a note reading, "Please take a moment to explain to young Jeffrey that he is not, in fact, a Stuka dive-bomber, but rather a student who needs to learn how to behave like the fine young gentleman we at St. Joan of Arc know him to be."
Once a week I was allowed to go out for lunch with my friends. I was given $1.25, which bought me a slice of pizza, a Coke, and some penny candy. My friends and I were pretty much free to explore the neighborhood after school and on weekends as long as we returned home in time for dinner. The neighborhood was tight-knit, everyone knew everyone else, so nobody really worried. How things have changed! When I think of the paranoia today, of the stress parents seem to be under, worrying about the safety of their children even when they're just down the block, I can't help thinking that I grew up in a kind of golden age. It sounds funny, since the truth is that my childhood coincided precisely with the city's fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when the crime rate skyrocketed, the city's reputation plummeted, and everyone else in the United States became convinced that New York City was one of the most dangerous places on the planet. But believe it or not, growing up in Jackson Heights in the 1970s, long before things turned around under Rudy Giuliani, I never once was threatened or felt unsafe. Who knows, maybe I was just plain lucky. Then again, I think Jackson Heights was, and is, a pretty special place.
My parents were quite young when they had me, so it was decided that I would be raised by my maternal grandparents. They raised me as if I were their own son. My grandmother was from Ohio, the daughter of Scottish immigrants. My grandfather was English, first generation. For forty years he took the subway to Twenty-third Street to go to work at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. One of my most vivid memories is of him walking down Eighty-second Street, on his way home from work. My grandmother and I made a habit of waiting for him every day on the stoop of our building. Around five-thirty he'd come into view, striding toward us, always wearing a hat and puffing on a big cigar, looking very much the gentleman, circa 1950. He had a great sense of style and a kind of old-world outlook that allowed for a healthy joie de vivre and professional success at the same time.
As a little boy I was in awe of him. He was the most generous, kindest, smartest man in the world as far as I was concerned. Two or three times a week, sitting on the stoop with Grandmother, I'd notice a brown paper bag at his side as he approached, and I'd stand up and rush to meet him, knowing that the bag held a gift for me, usually a toy soldier or tank, a toy gun or knife, or later, a Matchbox car or one of the Hardy Boys books. It didn't take long for me to amass a huge collection of soldiers and tanks and artillery with which to stage epic battles alone in my room.
My grandfather read voraciously, four or five books a week. I owe my love of books to him. He made time every week to sit down and read with me. He'd bring me books from the Hardy Boys series but also books about history and war, books about monarchies, flags, baseball, dinosaurs. I loved adventure stories the best and truly believed that one day I would have adventures of my own, that one day I'd be just like one of the brave, heroic figures I was always reading about.
My grandparents came of age during the Depression and, like many of their contemporaries, they remained cautious about money for the rest of their lives. But they were never too frugal to help out a man down on his luck, to do the Christian thing when called upon, and in one particular case, literally to give a man the coat off their backs.
One day in January the three of us were on our way home when we passed a homeless man lying on top of a small stack of cardboard in front of the delivery entrance to the neighborhood Genovese drugstore. It was bitter cold, and he was poorly clothed for the weather. His legs were exposed, and the skin on them looked thick and dried and cracked, like the hide of an elephant. What's more, his legs were covered with sores and scabs. He'd fashioned himself a pair of shoes out of old newspapers, cardboard, and rags. He just lay there, unmoving, but awake, I think, lost in his own despair, I assumed. It was the middle of a weekend afternoon, and the street was busy with shoppers. People rushed by without even looking at the man, not an uncommon reaction even now in New York, but more so then since the fiscal crisis and the resulting cutbacks in social services had exacerbated the homeless problem to the point where regular New Yorkers had little choice but to become immune to such a ubiquitous sight.
On this particular day we, too, simply walked on by. No one spoke about it, and soon we were back in the warmth of our apartment. While pulling off my coat, I rushed to the kitchen to find something to eat. "Where you going?" my grandfather asked. "I'm hungry," I said. "Hold on," he said. "What do you say we go back out and get a slice of pizza?" As much as I knew I'd prefer a slice of pizza to almost anything my grandmother had in the kitchen, I hesitated because it was almost time for the latest episode of Lost in Space
, and I really didn't want to miss it. "Come on," my grandfather said, as my grandmother handed him the winter coat he hardly ever wore anymore. He was still wearing his regular coat, so I was a little confused. Maybe he was getting it dry-cleaned, I thought. I guess the end of the story is obvious. On our way to the pizza parlor we passed the homeless man again, and my grandfather stopped and said, "Here you go, pal," then set the coat down next to him. "God bless you," the man said, quickly laying the old overcoat across his body like a blanket. My grandfather didn't say a word, just kept walking, but he must've seen me looking at him because after a few minutes he turned to me and said, matter-of-factly, "If you can do something good for someone, Jeff, do it. Chances are it will come back to you."
Not long after this incident my grandfather died, leaving a big hole in the lives of my grandmother and me. He suffered a stroke while he and Grandma were in the Catskills. He lingered in the hospital for several weeks. When I went to see him, he appeared thin and drawn, the light in his eyes dimmed, though he seemed to make an effort to be cheerful and upbeat for my benefit.
I was twelve years old when he died, and even at that age I sensed, in the vague way that children know things, that our family was different, though nothing was ever explained to me. His absence made this difference suddenly seem more pronounced. My grandmother took impeccable care of me, but I felt deeply lonely with my grandfather gone. To this day, even though I had him so briefly, my grandfather's warmth and personal philosophy has been the most profound influence on my life.
Twenty families lived in the six-story apartment building in which I grew up. Everyone knew everyone else. I was often enlisted to help an older resident move a bureau or a sofa or to help someone bring laundry up from the basement. The other residents in turn kept tabs on me, gave me advice, asked about my grades, encouraged me in every way. In the evenings the hallways were always filled with smells of cooking: pot roast, curry, pasta sauce--a melange of ethnic cuisines prepared in an effort to keep the bond alive with the home country. In the winters the radiators would hiss and knock, and the aroma of food at dinnertime would be even stronger. Coming out of the cold into the overheated hallway filled with the smell of home cooking was the best welcome in the world.
After St. Joan of Arc I went on to Archbishop Molloy High School, which I hated. I don't think it was the school itself, it was just the idea of school, period. An indifferent student, uninterested in extracurricular activities, I cruised along in neutral, unsure what I wanted, unsure of myself. I hung around the neighborhood a lot, and went to an occasional school dance to meet girls from our sister school. But I felt awkward and clumsy at these and began to feel different from other people for the first time in my life. A chasm was beginning to open up, though I didn't know it at the time, separating me from the rest of the world. So much has happened in the last thirty-five years, and in the last ten years alone, that it's easy to forget just how difficult things were back in the seventies for young gay men and for gay boys. That's not to say, of course, that life is a cakewalk for young gay people today, but I'm not sure I even knew the word gay
in 1979, when I was fifteen.
Like most teenage boys I did, however, know the words queer
. When I was about thirteen, I got into the habit of hanging out in front of the building with a group of neighborhood boys, most of them older than me. I wanted to be cool. One summer afternoon we were out in the street playing stickball when a guy from the neighborhood went by on roller skates. He was in his early twenties, I guess, and seemed to go everywhere on his skates, usually in tight cutoffs and often shirtless. He had a perfect body. Looking back now, I feel pretty sure he was gay, though who knows? What mattered was that he was perceived that way by the super's kid from my building, who felt compelled to spit on the ground as he rolled by and yell, "Queer!" with so much disgust in his voice that I jumped a little.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Major Conflict by Jeffrey McGowan, MAJ, USA (Ret.). Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey McGowan, Maj USA (ret.). Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.