Virginia Beach in the 1960’s was a genuinely exotic, if earthbound, destination long before exploding into the garish paved-over Virginia Beach of today. Even with incursions of asphalt and neon it resembled such pleasant gray-shingled venues as Cape Cod or the Hamptons. It was a stage set for indolent pleasure; and to me, a young Army photographer on special Navyduty, the Beach and environs were a field of rewarding if hard-fought sexualconquest – if you were a mixture of brazen, monumentally patient, or just plain lucky.
A particular episode from those callow military days remains vividly with me because it shamed me into a kind of epiphany on how to fairly treat others. One evening while hitching back to my barracks from a visit to Virginia Beach’s raffish boardwalk, I allowed myself to be picked up by a distinguished middle-aged gentleman cruising along in a Mercedes. One thing led to another and the driver, Ken, invited his clean-cut, sexy passenger to join some “special” weekend guests at his beach house along a fancy stretch of Atlantic Avenue.
In those days, the town’s ocean-front lanes were chocked with picturesque, pseudo-rustic hotels, guesthouses, and family compounds, some behind privacy walls, others beguilingly open to denizens of the boardwalk. These places were redolent of rocking chairs, white summer curtains, and old Southern black housemen, and their fair-haired preppy clientele who mingled warily, if at all, with the local beach bums, military guys, and droves of sorority girls whom I, for one, barely noticed.
To me, Ken’s plan seemed too good a time to turn down, but maybe I should’ve. Dropping me at the gateway to my billets, all the while snobbishly nattering about the officer grades of various gay acquaintances, Ken mentioned that he himself was a retired Naval commodore – then pointedly asked me my rank. Caught off-guard, annoyed, and frankly feeling upstaged by his supercilious tone, I answered without serious reflection. Rather than admit to being only a private-first-class, I nonchalantly averred that I was a lieutenant – but wondered almost at once what made me say that.
Party night came and I arrived by cab. Ken’s housemates included Jack, a handsome but curiously feline-looking Marine captain who could act gruffly macho or snippily effeminate on cue, and Jack’s grizzly bear of a lover, Norm, a genuine Army lieutenant who seemed a dummy but was tolerated for attributes below the belt.
Drinks and dinner at Ken’s rambling wicker-stuffed cottage was a chaotic affair, fraught with high-pitched giggling, second-hand smoke, and Barbra Streisand soundtracks. A bevy of gay male guests came and went, curious to meet Ken’s new pet as I realized I was being perceived. That night I obligingly slept with Ken, then rolled away into my corner of the vast waterbed as soon as I could, botching the perfect time to tell him that I was merely a private. My youthful naivete had not yet grasped that social barriers between men almost always disappear in the sack, at least for a weekend.
Rising early to avoid a reprise, I escaped to the kitchen for Bloody Marys with Jack, according to whom the whole Navy was a fruit salad. He gleefully rattled off the names of famously suspect British and American admirals, each with his revolving harem of favored swabbies or Marines.
I began to almost enjoy his company, when the dour Norm and prissy Ken were not around. For Saturday lunch Jack treated a whole crew of buff, likable guys— and me— to spritzers and club sandwiches on the sun porch of the tatty old Cavalier Hotel, a Virginia Beach landmark from the Gatsby era. Hideously remodeled (jalousies, gold-veined mirrors, chartreuse linoleum) the room was virtually deserted except for “Them fags,” as the somnambulant, slovenly waitresses audibly referred to our table.We cared not! (Today, as I write, the refurbished Cavalier is five-star posh hotel.)
That evening our whole gang, minus Jack and Norm, trooped to downtown Norfolk for an expensive waterfront feast— paid for by Ken— then onward for drinks to a drag-show bar on sleazy Granby Street called Miss Kitty’s, its wizened owner thoroughly resembling her “Gunsmoke” namesake. The Shore Patrol often barged in there, looking for unfortunates who might go into a gay club in uniform.
At Miss Kitty’s, Ken got drunker and drunker. I couldn’t face another bedtime session with my now odious host, so I impetuously left the bar with a complete stranger who pressed hard against my thigh and, by way of introduction, breathed the name Jimmy hotly into my ear as he pulled me out the door. Rescued! By just the sort of lithe young knight I should have been with in the first place.
Just out of high school and aiming for the Navy, he lived with his mother at the beach, and while driving slowly back there we stopped in a secluded park to make love in the back of Jimmy’s mom’s old Plymouth. I plunged in but Jimmy, despite his sensational overtures, seemed something of a novice, also guilt-ridden.
Oh he knew what to do, reaching under the seat for a little bottle of baby oil. My chivalrous deliverance— messily consummated— was short-lived, like all Virginia Beach encounters. There was no way I could go home with Jimmy, and neither of us had the cash for a motel room.
When we pulled into Ken’s circular drive to say farewell, the headlights revealed my shave kit and little overnight bag on the front steps, hastily packed by persons unknown. Bewildered yet relieved – liberated! – I climbed out to collect them just as the porch lamp flared and out slithered Jack, clad only in bikini briefs.
“Well, Private,” he minced, trying to get a good look at Jimmy, “what brings you back?” Apparently a tearful phone call from Ken had alerted the household to his pet’s defection. “We called your unit’s Orderly Room tonight, and they had no record of a Lieutenant Dunham… Don’t worry, we did not get you into trouble. Norm, by the way, has thought all along that you weren’t officer material.”
“Well, I’m sorry, Jack… I guess I’ll be going,” I replied, squarely meeting his gimlet gaze.
“Yes, you surely will, and you should have thought better of poor Ken. Goodnight and goodbye!” he snapped, slamming the door and extinguishing the light.
Poor Ken, that stuffy ass! Still it was a humbling experience. I confessed the entire fiasco to Jimmy who, despite fretting that he had to get up very early to drive his mother to Mass, shepherded his orphaned companion back downtown. He stroked my neck tenderly, in a darkened parking lot, then dropped me at the Trailways depot.
During the three-hour wait for the first bus to base, I had time to repent of telling thoughtless lies and ingratiating myself, out of boredom, to people I detested. Somehow ever since, I have lived a truly charmed life!
Byron Dunham is a retired journalist, and a National Magazine Award-winning writer of gay fiction. Under the pen name Steve Dunham, his work has been published by Alyson, Haworth Press, Gay City, Bruno Gmunder and Genre Magazine. A native of Ohio, educated at Kenyon College and Northwestern University, he lives with his longtime architect partner in Chicago and Skidaway Island, GA.