When Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story and turned journalists into rock stars, Chip Brown was a student in the second class of Hampshire College, a new experimental college founded in 1970 by Smith, Amherst, Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts. Among the teachers Brown studied under was David Roberts, the noted outdoor author and climber who established Hampshire's influential Outdoors Program just as rock-climbing, mountaineering and wilderness exploration were becoming popular. With a group of Hampshire students, Brown spent 36 days in the Arrigetch Mountains of the Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. An account of the trip became part of Brown's senior thesis on nature writing as well as his first published article, a 20,000 word epic in Mountain Gazette for which he was paid a robust $175.
In 1978, Brown started his newspaper career at the weekly Homer News, the only paper in a small Alaska town of 2,500 people at the end of the North American road system, 250 miles south of Anchorage. In the fall of 1979 he left this Northern Exposure-like life in Alaska for big city journalism at the Washington Post. As a staff writer on the Metro section, Brown covered cops and schools in Maryland under the guidance of the distinguished editor and author David Maraniss, who stressed the importance of seeing the humanity of people even amidst their corruption. As a general assignment reporter, Brown covered stories all over Maryland and also wrote for the Post's Magazine and Style sections. In 1984 he spent a year on the paper's Investigations Desk writing a lengthy four-part series about the collapse of the nuclear power industry in Washington State.
In 1985, Brown moved to New York, worked briefly for the Post's Style section and then started a 30-year-career freelancing for magazines. In 1989 he won the National Magazine Award for feature writing for an Esquire story about the life of a half-white half-black San Quentin prisoner who survived the escape attempt that killed the black revolutionary activist and author George Jackson. At Esquire, Brown showed his range, delivering memorable profiles of playwright August Wilson, New-Age author Deepak Choprah and countercultural paragon Ken Kesey. He wrote on subjects ranging from opera, ballet and oil development and the parents of murdered children to dogs, antiques, golf, basketball, sleep disorders and Scarlett Johansen for over 40 national magazines including Harper’s, GQ, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair. He has had longtime contributing writer or editor stints at Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine.
Part of Brown’s quiet brilliance, whether it is a travelogue or true crime reportage, is taking us places we would not otherwise go and feeling like we are there. He’s the opposite of flashy and yet nothing is careless or out of place. He is a deliberate craftsman who is never happy unless the last line of a paragraph, section, of a story lifts the story into the air. “There always ought to be a feeling of being elevated, even exalted, by the last line” he says. “The last line of any magazine story also has to close the shop too—it has to pull down the steel shutter with an emphatic sense of finality that nothing more need be said.”
Speaking so eloquently about writing, though, it’s hard not to want to know more about how Brown works and he was good enough to oblige.
Alex Belth: How did the story come about? Was it assigned or did you pitch it?
Chip Brown: The story was assigned early in January 1993, about 10 weeks after an American sailor, Allen Schindler, was beaten to death by a shipmate in Japan. Esquire editors in those days were very proud of their ability to generate interesting story ideas — in fact, generating ideas was considered a territorial imperative of the job. On hearing a writer’s pitch 30 years ago, the first instinct of most editors was to look askance, poke holes, maybe even shoot it down completely. Editors were disposed not to buy a pitch and to hunt for conceptual weak spots like used car shoppers kicking rocker panels to flush out rust.
AB: General interest magazines like Esquire would often do long features on some kind of media sensation, kind of a view from 10,000 feet appreciation of a trial or a scandal. Was that the case here?
CB: No, they wanted me to come down from the rarefied air of 10,000 feet and glean details at sea level. It was a story with so many facets — a complex set of events and characters that ended in a murder in the military that helped precipitate a social movement. It was the kind of story that cried out for a long and granular narrative of the sort that magazines were designed for, or used to be, before the internet fractured attention spans.
AB: The structure of the story feels orchestral. Each section feels like it has a beginning, middle and end. How did you come to structure the story how you did?
CB: I always make a rough outline for any story — usually just a one-line description of a section heading. The outline is sort of like a string of poles marking the gates on a slalom course. I have to get to that gate, and then that gate. Once I blocked out the sections, I wrote them in the order of the outline. I didn’t write the end until the end. Part of the outlining process for me entails thinking about what information could or should or might be conveyed as a scene and what could or should or might be conveyed as a summary. Every magazine piece is a carefully paced mix of scene and summary. Too much scene and the writer as a shaper of the narrative disappears into unedited cinema verité. Too much summary and the thing risks becoming tediously static, more tell than show. Thank you for noticing what I deliberately tried to put across, which was a series of 11 chapters each with the arc of a story inside the larger story. As is also the case with a good paragraph, a good section of a long story should jump to a vivid start, develop crisply and then button itself up in a way that makes the reader lean forward for what’s next.
The structure of this story I can trace to something I once read by Iris Murdoch. Don’t remember exactly where but it was a revelation to me: she said you can tell a reader what’s going to happen over and over again without destroying the suspense of a story because what the reader cares about is how things happen.
I was starting the reporting of “The Accidental Martyr” nearly three months after Allen Schindler died. There was no doubt about what happened. What there was doubt about — doubt and thus suspense and tension that creates a narrative current — was how it happened. We know from the outset that poor Allen is going to be beaten to death by one of his shipmates who killed him because he was gay, but we don’t know how either of the two painfully young men converged in that awful encounter in a bathroom in Japan. And knowing that what the reader wants to know is how it happened provided the structure the story. I knew I wanted the story to end with Allen Schindler alone, unconscious, dying, and tragically unaware of his impending life as a martyr — and so that meant the logical narrative place to start was the moment right after that: giving readers the what with the expectation of the how. The structure would allow me to flash forward and backward in time because it was essentially making a giant circle, a clockwise course starting at one minute after midnight and coming around to the denouement at midnight itself.
AB: I know you have a newspaper background. What is your attitude toward objectivity? Do you feel as a writer that it is imperative for you to take a moral position, even if it is subtly expressed, in a story such like this?
CB: I think the conventional definition of journalistic objectivity is misleading and perhaps even delusional. Thought and emotion are embedded in human perception. Call them whatever you want, predispositions or biases, the point is we harbor unconscious attitudes. We are innately, wonderfully, fatally subjective creatures. To pretend otherwise is absurd. It would be like pretending not to have an immune system distinguishing your body’s cells from intruders. We discriminate hundreds of times an hour about faces, clothes, haircuts, vocal patterns, soft drinks, politics, morality, love interests and behavior. I don’t believe in objectivity, especially the kind espoused by a former Washington Post top editor who refused to vote lest he compromise his objectivity, or as I think was actually the case, compromise people’s perception of it. I prefer and aspire to the idea of “fairness.” Of being fair. Of trying to honor all the points of view not because I will endorse anything or anyone but because I want people to feel they have not been distorted by my depictions of them. I want them to believe I have made a sincere effort to understand and represent their position, daft as it may be. More pertinently for this story, I tried to put the emphasis on understanding the motives of the villains. It’s easy to demonize Terry Helvey as a mindlessly prejudiced gay-basher but delving into his background makes it harder to condemn him. Most of the vile things he did can be traced to a truly horrific childhood, proving once again that line from a famous Philip Larkin poem: “man hands on misery to man.”
In the Schindler story I tried to be guided by a sense of fairness and understanding, not computer-like neutrality or objectivity. The individual players were caught up in social forces much larger than them — victims of those forces, embodiments of those forces. The brutality of Terry Helvey reflected the brutality of a society that sanctioned and fomented and inculcated violence and hatred against gay men. That said, I don’t like to editorialize in stories, and I don’t like stories that are propelled by moral outrage rather than by compassion. I think it’s far more effective if a writer channels what moral outrage he does feel into a fierce clear-eyed marshaling of facts. If the story generates moral outrage in readers, fine, but I don’t want readers to think, “Boy that writer is really outraged by this.” I want them to see the story, not the writer. Me puffing myself up with moral indignation is counterproductive; there are probably a few places where I let the critique of the Navy tip into editorializing. I regret that. I started this story when I was 39 and it was published when I was 40 and maybe I didn’t have as tight a grip on the temptation to moralize as I should have had. I hope I have a better one now.
AB: Actually, I thought the strength of the piece is that you take a moral position but not in a flashy, grandstanding way. Even though you recoil against puffing yourself up by moral indignation, how were you able to express your moral revulsion of the crime?
CB: The facts speak for themselves, especially the facts that point to or clarify the moral dimensions of the story. The autopsy report didn’t need any moral indignation from the author to underscore its horror. And it’s also the case that there is a class of facts that don’t appear in dispassionate accounts like autopsy reports or legal charging documents but which go the broader scope of the story — social attitudes and policies, self-serving institutional attempts to spin narratives. I truly wasn’t trying to express personal feelings of moral revulsion for the crime itself — what could be less relevant? I was simply trying to understand the sailor who committed it, the society that helped enable it, and the branch of the military that downplayed it. Given his past, I suppose it was easier to understand Terry Helvey’s fear and hatred of gays than understand the Navy’s, so perhaps that constitutes a moral stance on my part. The Navy’s fear seems conspicuously irrational today. I wonder is any writer orchestrating a story that shows the tragic and perhaps inevitable consequences of a political policy implicitly taking a moral position? Maybe the answer is yes. But the best way to make the moral argument is with facts not rhetoric.
AB: There are so many narrative threads going on in this piece, the murder, the horrific childhood of one of the attackers, the surviving mothers, the U.S. military, the activists, all in a pre-Internet media environment. How did you weigh the value of each character fairly to maintain a seamless dramatic tension instead of being overwhelmed by storylines?
CB: The characters and institutions all had roles to play, some more ancillary than others. What seemed obviously important was not to lose track of the last scene, the how of that final encounter that gave birth to a martyr. It made no sense to get bogged down in any ancillary scene or story line. I don’t think it took any special skill to remember that every story line — whether it was a consequence of the killing or a cause of it — was important to the extent only that it enabled the narrative to converge on the impact of that meeting in the bathroom. The story lines that came before and the ones that came after were only relevant because of the one that came at the very end. They were all the spokes of the wheel and the encounter in the bathroom was the hub.
AB: What kind of reporting did you do for the piece?
CB: I recently unboxed the journals I kept in 1993 to double-check my memory of where I went and when. My first interview on February 9, 1993 was with one of the dancers who had written an open letter about the Navy’s effort to sweep the gay-bashing aspect of the case under the rug. I walked to the interview because he lived six blocks from my apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A week later I took a train down to Washington DC for reasons I can’t remember, then a few days later I flew to Chicago to interview Allen Schindler’s mother. A week after that I flew to San Diego where Alan Schindler had been stationed, and then drove a rental car to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Then I flew home and turned around shortly thereafter and flew to St. Louis and drove an hour or two outside the city into some sobering cultural landscapes to meet Terry Helvey’s mother. (I still remember the motel I stayed in with a sway-back bad-chiropractor mattress and a dining room packed at breakfast with future XXXL cardiac patients spooning up eggs and bacon under a bank of cigarette smoke.)
The first week in May I flew to Tokyo and took the Shinksasen train 748 miles to the southern port city of Sasebo where I spent a lot of time studying the layout of the park with the public bathroom where Allen Schindler died. I wanted to figure out the choreography of that night, where the ambulance pulled up, how far away was Sailor Town etc. I remember being vexed not to know the species of the trees that were growing in the park, and then overjoyed discovering that one of them had a label on it, in English, enabling me to say in the story that the shore patrol came running through the camphor trees.
After Sasebo I traveled north by train to Yokosuka Naval base outside of Tokyo where the actual court martial was held. What I had sort of forgotten until I dug up my journals was not only what a smoldering mess my love life was but that I was trying to write other magazine stories at the same time as I was working on “The Accidental Martyr” — something that later I would know to be an ill-advised practice but which at the time seemed crucial to making a living and sustaining momentum as a freelance writer. It’s hard to say no when you are living hand to mouth.
In the middle of March I had spent a week in Wyoming for a Skiing magazine story about backcountry skiing; and right after the intense, emotionally draining court martial of Terry Helvey, I got my passport renewed at the American Embassy in Tokyo and flew to the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu to spend 10 days throwing up on a yacht for a Travel + Leisure story. It was good to step away from the sorrow and the rage and the despair of everyone who had been wounded by the death of Allen Schindler, and I knew, thanks to a huge document dump the Navy had made after the court marital — released, it seemed, to counteract their tight-lipped prevarications in the immediate aftermath of Schindler’s death — I knew I had enough material to write the story.
AB: It’s incredible that a fashion magazine like Esquire was this invested in financing serious journalism. As much as this story is your creation—and the work you did with your editor —it was also made possible by the magazine’s deep pockets at the time, correct?
CB: Oh god yes. It’s very possible I went to Japan at the apogee of the golden age of magazines. There was a time when editors sent writers all over the world. I think of the places I visited on someone else’s nickel: New Zealand, China, Tanzania, Italy, the Czech Republic, Vanuatu, the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia, a dozen other places; these trips weren’t even for important reporting but just to write a travel story. It’s hard to imagine there will ever be a business model that would enable that kind of extravagance again.
AB: How long did it take to write the story?
CB: I’m guessing this story took about a month or five weeks to write. Over the years of keeping a journal, I see that I am much more liable to mark the finish of a story than the start, no doubt because the first three or four or five days (not to say weeks) of “officially now writing the story” (any story) are usually spent doing anything but writing. Everyone has their process, but I can only start writing when the tension of procrastinating becomes excruciating. As a general rule, I hate people who say they enjoy writing. It’s a recorded fact that I finished writing “The Accidental Martyr” on July 23rd 1993. The manuscript was 59 double-spaced pages probably ratcheted out of a dot-matrix printer and then hand-carried to the Esquire office which I believe was still at 1790 Broadway across the street from the Cosmic Cafe coffee shop where Esquire editors often repaired to hunt for the rust in writers’ ideas.
AB: Do you remember how it was received?
CB: I assume the Esquire honchos were happy with the piece because they put it up for a National Magazine Award in feature writing; it was one of three finalists, losing out to Darcy Frey’s story in Harper’s “The Last Shot” about inner city basketball. I found only two mentions of reactions in my journal. Esquire deputy editor David Hirshey told me he’d run into some people from the Washington Post where I used to work. He said they were “talking about it.” I had no idea what that meant. It could be the equivalent of Noel Coward sweeping backstage to praise a dreadful actress by saying: “What a performance!” The other reaction I got touched me—the Brazilian director Hector Babenco in Argentina called to say how much he liked it. I had written an Esquire story about a movie Hector had made of a Peter Matthiessen novel At Play in the Fields of the Lord. I was amazed how polite and gracious he was. Calling up a writer two years later with no other motive than to pass along a compliment. No wonder he didn’t last long in Hollywood.
AB: Did you ever hear from the military?
CB: I did hear from some of the activists who had held the Navy’s feet to the fire. And some months, possibly even a year later, I got a long letter from the captain of the Belleau Wood, Allen Schindler’s ship. He thought my portrait of the ship was unfair, gave a distorted picture of the ethos on board the ship. I had tried through the Navy public affairs to get an interview with him during the reporting and had been turned down. As is so often the case with people who decline to be interviewed but then afterwards want to tell you their side of the story and what was wrong with your account, it was too late.
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THE ACCIDENTAL MARTYR
I. THE BATHROOM IN THE PARK
HIS MARTYRDOM was subscribed where they found him, dying on the floor of a bathroom in a park in Sasebo, Japan. It was half an hour before midnight, October 27, 1992. His four countrymen in the shore patrol had come running from about 175 yards away, alerted by a seaman and a petty officer who had glimpsed part of the assault through a glass-block wall and who, ironically, had been drawn to the bathroom by what they thought were the sounds of a man and woman having sex. Two of the shore patrolmen went to search for a pair of sketchily described suspects; the two remaining turned to the sailor.
He was unconscious but still alive, gargling up blood. His face was so disfigured no one was sure of his race, much less his name. Patrolman Anthony Aptimes got a pulse, then lost it. He wiped the blood out of the sailor’s mouth with a T-shirt and pressed on his chest, trying to restart his heart. With each compression, blood trickled from the sailor’s mouth and bubbled out of a gash on the bridge of his nose. It would have expedited the rescue if the ambulance had been directed to come up behind the indoor swimming pool on the road that paralleled the Navy base or had parked out on the road itself. But the one landmark U. S. military personnel know along the liberty trail, which connects U. S. Fleet Activities in Sasebo to the five-dollar-a-beer karaoke bars in Sailor Town, is the Albuquerque Bridge, the suspension walkway across the Sasebo River. That’s where the ambulance was directed, and that’s why the dying sailor was moved. Two shore patrolmen, a base security cop, and Seaman Jonathan Witte slipped a jacket under his body and carried him about a hundred yards, through the camphor trees of Sasebo Park, where elderly blue-smocked women tend gardens by day and spermy gaijin romance local maids at night. He was six feet one, weighed about 180 pounds, and had blond hair. To Seaman Witte, the eyewitness who’d sounded the alarm, it looked as if the sailor’s nose had been shaved clean off his face. Witte cradled the man’s head and stared at the tattoos on his arms. When the group reached the bridge, they set the sailor down and flung the blood off their hands. A crowd gathered. The ambulance arrived. A corpsman rushed up with a breathing bag, another unloaded the gurney. The sailor wasn’t breathing; his heart wasn’t beating.
“Schneider ... ?” said a shore patrolman squinting at the military ID he’d found in the sailor’s waist pack. “Schlüter ... ?”
“Schindler!” cried Seaman Witte, suddenly remembering the tattoos. Two nights earlier Radioman Seaman Allen R. Schindler had bought him a drink in Sailor Town. He was one of more than nine hundred sailors stationed on the USS Belleau Wood under the command of Captain Douglas J. Bradt. Witte was shocked; months later the “mess specialist,” or cook, would testify that he’d been bothered by bad dreams and that he’d “smelled blood for a week” and that the mess of Schindler’s face disturbed him so much he had a hard time cutting meat.
Alerted by phone, Lieutenant Steven Skanchy hurried over to the branch medical clinic; he arrived as the ambulance was pulling in. It was ten to 12:00. The doctor ordered intravenous lines established and a tube inserted down the victim’s trachea—no simple procedure given the trauma to the sailor’s mouth and neck. Lieutenant Skanchy and three other corpsmen worked for nineteen minutes trying to get the sailor’s heart to beat.
In the haste of emergency they could make only a cursory survey of his injuries. What would become the almost talismanic particulars of the assault were compiled two days later during a six-hour autopsy at the U. S. Naval Hospital at Okinawa. The patient lying in the branch medical clinic that night had suffered at least four fatal injuries to the head, chest, and abdomen. He had eight broken ribs; fractures in the back of his skull and in the bones around his eyes; his nose was broken; his upper jaw was broken; the whole middle portion of his face was detached and floating loosely. There were bruises and cuts on the surface of his neck, head, and chest; there were bruises on his brain, on his lungs, his heart. The pericardial sac around his heart was filled with 250 milliliters of blood, enough to top off a juice glass. His liver had been turned to pulp “like a tomato smushed up inside its cover.” The impact of blows to the chest had torn his aorta; his bladder had been ripped open; his penis had been bruised and lacerated. There were sneaker-tread marks stamped into his forehead and chest. The pattern of his T-shirt had been impressed on his skin. Seven months later Commander Edward Kilbane, the forensic pathologist at Okinawa who had performed more than one thousand autopsies, would testify that he had never seen a more severe beating. The sailor’s injuries were worse than the damage to a person who’d been stomped by a horse; they were similar to what might be sustained in a high-speed car crash or a low-speed aircraft accident.
All too soon it was obvious to Lieutenant Skanchy that no one at the branch clinic could do anything to retrieve Radioman Seaman Allen Schindler’s life. At nine minutes into the new day, the doctor pronounced him dead.
II. THE SAILOR'S MOTHER
HOW MANY TIMES had she told the story—at candlelight vigils and fundraising dinners and television interviews—and each time it wasn’t simply the death of her son she was describing but her own emancipation from blind faith in authority and religious prejudice. Yes, she still thought it was a sin what gay men did in their bedrooms, but so was adultery—and people weren’t being banned from the military for that. She was forty-seven years old, once divorced, once widowed; a woman with a florid face, short strawberry-blond hair, and an armchair figure. She worked as a bookkeeper in a Salvation Army church. Home was an hour south of Chicago in the ripsaw blue-collar town of Chicago Heights, where she’d been raised and where she raised her four kids and where life was only incrementally richer than in the days of the Depression, when people shot robins to get a little meat for their marinara sauce. Her house was close to the tracks. You had to shout when the trains passed.
They were Navy down the line, her family. In the only picture she had of her father he was in his Navy uniform—she was born after he came home from the war in 1945; he died when she was five. Frank Hajdys, her second husband, had survived the sinking of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. As for her oldest son, Allen, third child after Kathy and Barbara, the portrait on the living-room wall showed him standing proudly in his sailor’s uniform. She’d seen him graduate from boot camp in November 1988; she’d displayed the souvenirs he sent back from distant ports—African masks, Australian boomerangs, kimono dolls from Japan.
What she would say over and over again is that Navy mothers know what it means when dress blues come knocking. She’d been sitting in her nightgown, cutting needlepoint crosses from a sheet of plastic, and suddenly a Navy chaplain and a casualty-assistance officer were standing there under the pressed-tin ceiling, regretting to inform her that her son had been assaulted in a park and was dead. But it had been just twenty-four hours since she’d talked to Allen on the phone! He’d call once a week when the ship was in port—she’d talked to him for eight or nine minutes. He was in good spirits; he said he was being discharged soon and might be home by Christmas. There must be some mistake!
The body arrived at O’Hare Airport on November 4, escorted by a petty officer from the USS Belleau Wood who had been on the ship only four days. The Navy had advised Mrs. Dorothy Hajdys not to open the casket. When she had the lid lifted at the Steger Memorial Funeral Home, she saw the uniform, the hat embroidered with his name ... but there was nothing familiar about the face, and the eyes ... were over where the ears should be. Close it now, her brother said.
The next day during the wake she kept staring at the box. How do I know that’s Allen in there? One hundred and fifty people attended—family, neighbors, grade-school teachers, members of the Bloom High School band who knew Allen when he played the sousaphone. He had been a C student mostly; he’d taught swimming; he’d played football; he’d gone to proms; he’d sold kisses for a dollar to benefit a charity. He’d worked at a local pet store. Everybody knew he was nuts about animals. When he joined the Navy—travel, adventure, money for college under the GI bill—his mother inherited four turtles, a dog, a white duck, a rabbit, and two hundred garter snakes. And if that wasn’t enough, after his first year in the service he FedEx-ed her a Chinese crocodile for Mother’s Day.
Even the father who had turned his back on Allen came to the wake, at Dorothy’s instigation. They had divorced when Allen was four, a split the boy took hard and blamed on his mother until Christmas 1981, when she took him to his father’s house and Allen Schindler Sr. slammed the door in his son’s face. After that, whenever a form asked for the name of his father, Allen Schindler Jr. wrote deceased.
As the wake was winding down, Allen’s sister Kathy asked Dorothy if she could open the coffin again. She wanted to look for her brother’s tattoos. So the coffin was opened again, and they rolled up the sleeves on the stranger’s uniform. All that week every time the phone had rang, Dorothy’s heart would gallop, expecting it was Allen calling to say, “Mom, I’m not dead.” On one arm were the inky outlines of a shark and a tiger, and on the other, the insignia of the USS Midway. There was no doubt now.
What there was, aside from grief, was the mystery of his death. For six weeks the Navy had told Dorothy next to nothing. Every morning she awoke with more questions. What was the fight about? What did Allen do to provoke such violence? She knew that two weeks before his death he’d been to see the ship’s lawyer. What was that about? Was that connected to his death? The letter from Captain Bradt had clarified nothing. On November 23, Dorothy wrote to Senator Paul Simon asking for help; Kathy mailed letters to all the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and to president-elect Clinton. Dorothy contacted her newly elected congressman. She’d always been a passive, quiet person, not one to speak out. Now she was furious; she wasn’t going to let anybody shut her up. She was having bad headaches. She’d been advised not to talk to the press, but when she started talking to the press, the headaches went away.
On December 6, she received a long-distance call from Rick Rogers, a reporter for Pacific Stars and Stripes. He said that he had heard the murder might have been a gay bashing. Dorothy had known since June of 1990 that Allen thought he was gay; at the time she thought he was confused, just going through a phase. The next day she received a call from Captain Stephen D. Marchioro in Japan. The young Marine prosecutor was handling the government’s side of the courts-martial in Japan. Three times she put the question to him, the same question she had asked the dress blues who came to her door and the petty officer who had accompanied the body. Why, why, why had Allen met with a military lawyer? Captain Marchioro finally acknowledged that Allen had disclosed that he was homosexual and was in the process of being discharged from the Navy.
That was the day, coincidentally, that condolences arrived from acting secretary of the Navy Sean O’Keefe. Given the truth the Navy was so reluctant to reveal, the letter could not have been more ill-timed or its cant about solidarity and common cause more galling: “Although our Navy is large, there is a special bond among its members in the common cause of defending our precious freedom. We are proud that Petty Officer Schindler chose to be one of us ... ”
Now, six months after her son’s murder, she is climbing the podium in a ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D. C. How things have changed since that awful evening in October! She who had never met an openly gay man before Allen’s death, whose impression of gays was based on Klinger in the TV show M A S H—she’d been invited to address the black-tie gala of a top gay lobby, the Human Rights Campaign Fund. In the past six months, she has testified before committees and conferred with legislators; she’s opened an AAdvantage account with American Airlines and racked up thousands of frequent-flier miles traveling to rallies and vigils and press conferences. Her entertainment lawyer has signed her to a $100,000 deal with Quest Productions; the producer is a gay man. She has an $8 million civil suit pending against the Navy. She has redone her hair, and people are telling her she should run for office. She is effective and sought after because she is direct and plucky and unpretentious; her speech is still sprinkled with double negatives, but her words carry the weight of irrefutable sacrifice.
“The reason the Navy said they didn’t tell me my son was gay was that they didn’t know if I could handle it,” she will say. “They thought it might hurt me. What gave them the right to decide that? How could they hurt me any more than they already had?”
Tonight she is following Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Barney Frank, but she isn’t nervous giving speeches anymore. In two days she will address the biggest gay-rights demonstration in history—upwards of a million people. She is planning to wing it as she is winging it now, standing before the $500-a-plate crowd of mostly gay men. She tells them she knows Allen is up in heaven saying, “Go for it, Mom!” They have tears in their eyes. They are better off, better dressed, better connected, higher classed, more powerful, more refined; most of them can probably name all the operas in the Ring cycle. But they are moved by her devotion, which stands in such contrast to what many of them have experienced in their own families; moved by a mother who does not hang conditions on the love of her son.
When Mrs. Hajdys finishes her speech and is about to step down from the podium, she sees that the actress Judith Light, who is the evening’s willowy mistress of ceremonies, is also beaming at her with tears in her eyes. Mrs. Hajdys is too new to fame not to be thrilled about a B-list blonde from Who’s the Boss? and she lists toward the microphone again.
“You know, when I was in New York I met Tony Danza,” she says and then points at Judith Light. “Now I want to meet her!” If the ex-soap star is surprised at the light-speed mood change, she finesses it. She smiles, rises, and opens her arms; the whole room roars as the women embrace.
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