Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Brick in the Wall

Every incident in our life is a brick in the wall of who we are, and it is interesting, especially for a writer, to stop to examine them carefully every now and then.

On going through my A World Ago blog ( , a compilation of letters written to my parents while I was in the Navy so very long ago, I realized that there is one letter missing, and since it dealt with one of the more memorable incidents of my checkered military career—my very reluctant trip to a Naples brothel—, I really can't let the story pass.

So, come with me back in time once more, back to my days aboard the great grey hulk of the grand old aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ticonderoga, anchored in the Bay of Naples.

I was somehow "elected"…how or by whom is lost in the mists of memory…to accompany three of my shipmates from the Commissary Department to go ashore and find a location for our Division Christmas party. (I know there is a letter in the blog dealing with the party itself.)

Upon getting off the liberty boat and beyond the guarded perimeter of Fleet Landing, we were immediately surrounded by the hundreds of always-present "guides" eager to assist American sailors find various forms of wholesome entertainment. We somehow settled on one to whom we explained our mission: to find a restaurant to host our party. He packed us all in a cab and headed off up into the hills to a place he had in mind—one from which he obviously received a hefty fee for bringing in business and, after half an hour or so, we'd made arrangements for the party.

On the way back into the city, the guide asked if we would like to make the acquaintance of some "beautiful women" he knew of.

I'd anticipated—and dreaded—something like this ever since we got off the ship, since I was with three red-blooded heterosexual sailors. "Sure!" my buddies agreed enthusiastically. I just sat there, wishing I could somehow open the door and throw myself into oncoming traffic. But I was trapped.

Our guide gave directions to the taxi driver, who took us God-knows-where, and pulled up in front of the door to a house which was indistinguishable from the solid row of identical buildings which stretched off endlessly in both directions. The guide urged us out of the taxi, which then took off, leaving us…and particularly me…on a strange street in a strange part of a strange city.

I was numb with dread. There was no way in hell I was going to join in the coming festivities, but to let my shipmates know I would rather shoot myself than engage in heterosexual sex could result in something I could not even bring myself to contemplate: being exposed as a "queer", thrown off the ship in disgrace, given a dishonorable discharge and shaming my parents and relatives…being gay in the Navy was (and is) definitely not a good thing.

But back to the story. The guide knocked on the door, which was opened by a typical, drably-dressed Italian woman anywhere from 40 to 60 years old, who looked us over without reaction and stepped back allowing us to enter. We found ourselves in a medium-sized room I assumed to be a combination living room and parlor. I don't recall seeing any indication that there were other rooms, but I'm sure there were. In the center of the room was a large, heavy wooden table on which the woman had been ironing clothes.

There was a plain sofa against one wall, and on the opposite wall a rocking chair in which sat an old man, rocking back and forth, smoking a pipe, and paying us not the slightest bit of attention. A young boy about nine years old played with some sort of toy on the floor. After looking up briefly, he, too, ignored us.

The guide urged us to sit on the sofa as the woman returned to her ironing. She had not spoken, and did not speak, a single word. When we were seated, the guide told us he would go round up the girls and bring them back, and without another word, he left.

And there I sat, surrounded by three ravingly heterosexual United States sailors, one nine year old boy, one 40-60-year-old woman, and an old man in a rocking chair smoking a pipe.

Deathly silence. The boy played, the woman ironed, and the old man rocked and smoked. Some time later…I have no idea how much later, since my stomach was in my throat and I was fervently praying for death…our guide returned. He was followed in by six women of mixed ages and sizes, including, inexplicably, a dwarf.

They walked in the door, smiling at my shipmates (I, unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, neither knew nor cared if they smiled for me), and walked completely around the table, twice: merchandise on display. Our hostess ironed, the boy played, scooting out of the way to allow the girls to pass him, and the old man smoked and rocked, totally oblivious.

One by one my shipmates made their choice and got up and left. "How about you, Roge? Pick one." "I will," I said, lying through my teeth. "You go ahead." We agreed to meet back in front of the house in an hour.

After my three friends had left and I declined to make a selection from the remaining girls, they also left.

And there I sat. Alone. In Naples, Italy. In what was not a whorehouse but a staging area. Alone and utterly invisible to the woman ironing and the old man smoking and rocking. The young boy, however, showed some interest and soon came over to me, as though I were some endangered species in a zoo. We soon engaged ourselves in a game of "what's this?" exchanging English and Italian names for things like "nose" and "finger" and "shoes".

And the time passed. And passed. And passed. And finally, when I could stand it no longer, I got up and left and somehow made my way back to the ship.

The next day I ran into one of my companions on this little adventure. "Have a good time, Roge?" he asked, grinning.

"Great," I said. I lied.


The above is an excerpt from Dorien Grey and Me (

(picture: The Fleet's In by Paul Cadmus.)

No comments: