Sunday, June 24, 2007

Doesn't Ask, Doesn't Tell

The New York Times
Originally Published June 24, 2007

Published: June 24, 2007

SOME mementos are more momentous than others.

In 1971, when Armistead Maupin was driving from his old post, working for The Associated Press in Charleston, S.C., to a new post in San Francisco, he stopped in Iowa to visit a friend from the Navy. Both had recently returned from Vietnam. That night a call came from the White House.

President Nixon was looking for the two men to be part of a campaign his administration was putting together to counter the antiwar protests of a veteran named John Kerry. The men would be part of a team of veterans who would voluntarily go back to Vietnam and rebuild villages — and be photographed cheerily doing so.

“Never mind that none of us could build anything,” Mr. Maupin recalled earlier this month. He was in New York to promote “Michael Tolliver Lives,” the latest of his “Tales of the City” books, the first in nearly 20 years.

For his participation, Mr. Maupin met President Nixon and was photographed shaking his hand. For years after he came out as a gay man in the liberal world of ’70s San Francisco, he was proud of this souvenir. “I would bring guys back to my penthouse shack, and they would see the picture, and all the blood would rush out of their face,” he said.

The picture was finally mothballed. But Mr. Maupin does have a souvenir of his tour of duty in Vietnam, one that stands on his bookshelf in San Francisco to this day. As an assistant protocol officer in Saigon in 1969, his first post in Vietnam, one of his duties was squiring around the wives of visiting dignitaries and officers. While taking Mouza Zumwalt, the wife of Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., to the city’s antiques shops, he came across a 10-inch-tall brass dragon and fell in love with it. “I remember thinking, this would be the perfect little mascot for me,” Mr. Maupin said.

It went along with him to a radio post at Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border. “I thought if I got sent somewhere more dangerous, my father would be more proud of me,” he said.

“I fell asleep many nights at the radio with that dragon sitting in front of me — only to be awakened in the morning by Adrian Cronauer, whose voice I got to know very well,” he added, referring to the irreverent disc jockey memorably portrayed in 1987 in the film “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Mr. Maupin’s own Navy experiences were not so worthy of chronicle. He found much more material for his stories in the burgeoning sexuality and changing mores of ’70s and ’80s California. And luckily, the dragon, which has a Mae Westian quality, sinuously standing with one flipper on a swiveling hip, has weathered every curve. Somewhat like its mortal relative, the chameleon, it managed to change from an exotic memento of war to an emblem of free-spirited Tao-quoting West Coasters.

“I like how it looks, how it stands,” he said. “It’s sort of whimsical yet rugged.”

It is also a fitting revisionist mascot for someone who had come to take pride in being gay, a preference rejected in the Armed Forces: in Eastern philosophy the dragon is celebrated as a creative force for good (the yang in the yin-yang), while in Western myth its notoriety as a cranky, flame-breathing, maiden-stealing creature is distinctly less auspicious. You’d be cranky, too.

Now, he said, “It’s a nice reminder of what a journey it’s been, and of how far I’ve come.”

As vociferous in his critique of the Iraq war and of military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as he once was supportive of Vietnam, Mr. Maupin nimbly demonstrates that it is not whether you flip that counts, but whether you come down on the right side.

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