My friend Paul Wolf joined the Army after college. He was a couple of years ahead of me. Looking back, I’m still kind of clueless why he latched on to me the way he did. I know why I took to him. He didn’t put up with the usual theater department crap. He wasn’t interested in the offstage drama everyone was creating. He just wanted to do theater and have fun. All-nighters toiling over design projects. Mr. Pibb. Bruce Springsteen. Working on a scene for acting class with him as Benvolio to my Romeo - which somehow resulted in us getting drunk, jumping a train, me not knowing how to get off said train, and winding up with in the infirmary overnight with a concussion. When Paul graduated, my world got a lot less interesting.
We wrote a lot to each other. Then suddenly the letters stopped coming. I was starting to wonder - not if something bad had happened to him, he was stationed in Germany in the 1980s, the world was a different place. I began to wonder if he just wasn’t interested in my friendship anymore. My other friends were agonizing over their complicity at this point because they all knew something I didn’t. Paul was coming to visit, and he wanted it to be a surprise. So when he just sauntered into the scene shop one day while I was working there, my face must have been seven different kinds of hilarious to watch. It was probably the only time in the history of that theater department that everybody managed to keep a secret. I ran over to him, practically leapt at him, and gave him one of the more strenuous hugs I’ve ever given another human being.
It was, without a doubt, one of the nicest things anyone’s ever done for me.
I was still closeted at the time, even to myself. Not that I was any good at denial, I just clung to it as a strategy because that’s what I’d always done. My devotion to Paul, and its reciprocation, was an acceptable outlet.
Halfway through the visit, I was already feeling the tug of how it would feel when he’d leave to return to Germany again. My friend K Snodgrass wisely said, “You can miss him when he’s gone. Don’t miss him while he’s here.”
That’s a line that has managed to wend its way through pretty much every incarnation of the script.
Paul served his time, met a German girl, got married, went to medical school. I have no idea where he is now. Or K. Which pains me.
The idea of a surprise visit with co-conspirators as a romantic gesture in a play, with military overtones, made its way into my creative psyche. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military seemed like the perfect obstacle to a relationship. It was only after I started to meld the two, and spend time in the world of these characters, that I began to really feel it, and get angry at the hypocrisy, and the waste.
A Chinese poet from the 8th century, Wang Chien, wrote something I ran across in first developing the script that became “Leave.” Reading it over again recently, I was stunned at how much more timely it was today than the day I first read it. I can only hope some scrap of mine makes this much sense to someone after 1200 or 1300 years...
Wang Chien - "Hearing That His Friend Was Coming Back From The War."
“In old days those who went to fight
In three years had one year's leave.
But in this war the soldiers are never changed;
They must go on fighting till they die on the battlefield.
I thought of you, so weak and indolent,
Hopelessly trying to learn to march and drill.
That a young man should ever come home again
Seemed about as likely as that the sky should fall.
Since I got the news that you were coming back,
Twice I have mounted to the high wall of your home.
I found your brother mending your horse's stall;
I found your mother sewing your new clothes.
I am half afraid; perhaps it is not true;
Yet I never weary of watching for you on the road.
Each day I go out at the City Gate
With a flask of wine, lest you should come thirsty.
Oh that I could shrink the surface of the world,
So that suddenly I might find you standing at my side!”
Something else I ran across at the time, and that also sticks with me, was a quote from the 20th century poet Audre Lorde...
“Your silence will not protect you.”
It’s been a long road for me and the characters of Nicholas and Seth. Another part of the journey reaches an end tonight at the Bryant Lake Bowl. But at this point, I know better than to think it’s over. As long as “don’t ask, don’t tell” remains in effect, the story isn’t the period piece I once hoped it would quickly become. Until then, the story still needs to be told.