The Accidental Martyr (sample)
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.
They were two sailors on an uneasy ship. One became a killer, the other his victim. What drew them together on an autumn night was rooted long ago in a fear and revulsion that still haunt the American psyche.
Including an interview with the author by imprint editor Alex Belth.
About The Stacks Reader Series
The Stacks Reader Series highlights classic literary non-fiction and short fiction by great journalists that would otherwise be lost to history—a living archive of memorable storytelling by notable authors. Curated by Alex Belth and brought to you by The Sager Group with support from NeoText.