Douglas Messerli

  How ROTC Saved My Life – and Granted a Transcendent Revelation  

In 1966 and 1967, as a freshman and sophomore at the University of Wisconsin (first Milwaukee and then Madison), I participated-incredibly to those who know me well-in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). One must remember that during those years the United States was at war (an undeclared war, but a war nonetheless) in Viet Nam. My father reasoned, quite logically, that if for some inexplicable reason I was drafted out of the university or if the war were to last-as it did-after my graduation year, I would be better off as an officer.

Still an obedient son in those years, I, accordingly, took a weekly course in ROTC, first in the Army and then in the Air Force units. I certainly didn't enjoy the activities, which to my way of thinking were a bit like having to attend physical education classes. Yet, we did little, actually, that could be described as physical. Mostly we marched in straight lines of three or four individuals, while someone shouted nearly indecipherable commands. Sometimes even I was asked to command these little squadrons, which I did by trying to imitate the nearly indecipherable sounds of our older sergeant. I was fairly good at imitation-evidently. Besides, I'd done more marching, in even straighter lines, during the years of high school marching band!

One day we were handed rifles and asked to take them apart. I was terrified, but I was able somehow to dismantle the thing; but when asked to put it back together again, was completely stymied. After a seemingly interminable time, during which everyone else had managed to transform the pieces back into devices for killing, I had no choice but to hand in the parts. Nothing was said.

When I transferred to Madison, the marching seemed to stop. Maybe they reasoned that we had learned that task. Now we began to take courses-although I don't recall a single thing I was to have learned. All I do remember is that one day we were told to stay away from the protests against the Dow Chemical Company (who produced the napalm that had destroyed so many lives in southeast Asia) currently taking place on campus. [The February 1967 protests lasted for two days, during which time 17 students were arrested, and the Chancellor, blockaded in his offices, demanded their release and ultimately barred organizations such as Dow from interviewing on campus.] "You might get hit in the head," warned our instructor, "and if you were to become unconscious, all of your chances of flying would come to an end."

I hadn't heard of the protests, and immediately after class, rushed out to observe them. It was a bit boring-at least while I was in attendance-as students and faculty peacefully marched holding picket signs bearing photographs of napalmed Vietnamese children round and round the Chemistry compound.

A week later, I was called to the Commandant's office; I didn't know we had a Commandant! Had someone seen me at the protests? I was terrified. In the back of my mind, however, I suspected that this demand might have something to do with the battery of tests we had recently been administered. I hated tests with multiple choice answers. I was particularly bad-a near-idiot in fact-when it came to math and science questions. I was once told that if, instead of attempting to answer the questions posed on the Iowa Basic Skills Test in those areas, I had simply chosen to pencil in the boxes at random, I would likely gain a higher score that I achieved by trying to make sense of the questions asked.

But now, in college, I was an honors student, and by shirking most of my science and math requirements, had kept a high grand point average. Indeed, ROTC wanted me! This test, I ascertained, had found me out!

The Commandant asked me to sit, and quite sympathetically inquired whether I was feeling better.

Fortunately, I didn't dare to respond as I was tempted: "Better than what?"

"Because you must have been quite ill last week, when you took our tests?"

In the years since this incident, I am sorry to report, I have learned to be less honest than I was on that particular morning: "No, I wasn't sick. Not that I recall."

"Well, I'm afraid you must have been, given the results. I mean," he continued, apologetically, "you were quite excellent in your language skills and in history. But…well, I don't know how to put this….we have never had anyone score lower in their skills in science and math."

I was strangely relieved. "Well," I perked up, "I can assure you I wasn't ill. That's just what happens to me when it comes to math. I've always done horribly in math and science-except for Algebra. I once got a B in that!"

He was still quite sympathetic about my apparent delusion. "Well…I still presume you weren't feeling well. I mean, you're an honors student, for God's sake!"

"Yes, but I've never been good at math, and so-even though I enjoy the ideas surrounding it-I'm not good at science either. I just don't understand it, no matter how hard I try."

"You can't become an officer without it, I'm afraid. How would you fly an airplane? But-well, we don't usually do this-in fact, we never have-but, I'm willing, in your particular case, to-well….we'll have some of our senior students tutor you, and we'll be willing to allow you, as a big exception, to take the test over again."

Today, I realize that this poor man, stuck as a military representative in the most unforgiving of outposts outside of Berkeley, was speaking to me in a kind of code. He was trying to tell me, without coming out and saying it, that he and the mysterious upper-classmen of which he spoke, were going to pump me with the answers.

I was still an innocent, however, and all I could see ahead were long hours of being drilled with imponderable calculations and strings of meaningless numbers cornered into what I perceived as a division sign with an attached check mark. The radical root of so and so is such and such. I knew that no matter how I might desire it, my mind would never take it all in. "I believe you can do it," he said, in a voice that sounded as lovingly positive and sadly mislead as my father's, "and I'm going to give you that chance-if you want it!"

"Well," I squirmed, "I've just never been able to assimilate numbers."

"Or, perhaps, if that becomes your decision-I'll give you a day to ponder this-it may that ROTC is not right for you…."

"What!" my inner mind protested, was I being told that I didn't belong? I'd never been told that about anything-except perhaps for fraternities, which I had no inclination at all to join, and sports, in which I had no interest. Wasn't I officer material? My uncle was, after all, a three star general at the time, well on his way to a fourth star!

"If you choose not to take this opportunity," he continued, "I suggest you might see a psychiatrist-about your mental block regarding math."

"Mental block!" I nearly cried out loud. "Psychiatrist!" No one in my family had ever even seen a psychiatrist-or talked about one. It was an inconceivable subject, absolutely something not even to be considered unless experiencing a nervous breakdown-and no one in my family of nearly 100 first cousins had ever come close to that. I didn't have a mental block! I was simply stupid when it came to math! What was this man talking about?

"Yes," I meekly agreed, "what you suggest about tutoring me is probably the thing I should do."

"But I want you to think it over," he kindly spoke, sounding more and more like my insistently kind and completely wrong-headed father. "Let me know by tomorrow, if you can."

I carried a mountain of confusion with me back into my little room in a boarding house across from the University of Wisconsin football stadium. For some reason, I recall pacing in circles in a room I did not inhabit-the room of an overweight and-reportedly-wealthy Filippino who seemed to sleep night and day without attending classes. I wonder why I picture myself in that slightly larger room as opposed to my little corner cell. Perhaps it was the gravity of the situation that demanded-at least in my imagination-more space. All I recall about my actions was the circling. I circled and circled, seemingly unable to focus on the issue at hand. Circled and circled-both in body and head. Why was I taking this all so seriously? I wondered even then. It seemed, suddenly, such a very important decision-a matter somehow of life and death.

Then something within me snapped. Was I having a nervous breakdown after all? No, I felt good, my mind felt free. And everything seemed to make sense. I saw my life so very clearly for the first time. I remember it now, another circle around the room while I spoke to myself outloud: "You do not believe in the military, do you? You don't like the war in Viet Nam. You aren't even a Republican! You don't believe in your parents' political values." I was amazed. Yes, it was true. I was a Democrat, maybe even a radical, certainly a Socialist. When had all that happened?

I circled another time, and more came out of my astonished mouth: "You don't believe in God. You've been going to church just to sing in the chorus, but you haven't liked the ceremony for years. You don't have your parents' faith, so why do you pretend to yourself that you believe in religion like you do? This has got to stop!"

What was happening to me? I was somewhat frightened, but I was even more relieved.

One more time round the room was necessary. My voice was quavering by this time, afraid of the words issuing from it: "And you're not ever going to get married. You don't like sex with women. You're gay. Admit it, you're gay!"

I stopped. I was floating, felt as light as air. So this was what so many writers-Faulkner, Welty, Woolf-had written about. I had just had, I suddenly understood, a very special experience. I had undergone a vision, a transcendent vision. I would never be the same. I lay down on the bed.

A little later I rose and went downstairs to call my father. He was terribly disappointed with my decision to drop out of ROTC. I think he cried; perhaps I did. I didn't tell him about anything else. I too had learned how not to say what I really meant.

A few days later, I visited the university psychiatrist. I was nervous.

"What seems to be the problem?" he asked.

I could hardly speak, but finally came out with it in a trembling voice, "I think I'm gay."

"What makes you think so?"

"Oh I just feel it. I know."

"Have you had sexual relations with other boys or men?"

"No," I answered, slightly embarrassed of the truth.

You must remember that it was 1967, and I was attending one of the most liberal campuses in the country.

"Why don't you try it, and see if it's something you like-if you really are gay," he calmly suggested. And I did.

Los Angeles, May 13, 2005