Memorial Day 2013 – Gay Veteran
My stepfather was an army veteran of WWII. I don’t remember many of the details but I know he served in Italy as a medic or a store clerk, or both. I remember he kept his uniform in the upstairs open chamber and his rifle propped against the side of that room. I don’t think he ever touched either but they were important to him. He was loyal to his country and proud of his service and wanted to be buried in the Maine Veteran Cemetery. He is. He was cremated and has a stone there.
His memorial service was held in the chapel at that cemetery. He didn’t want a funeral but I understood that it is important for the living to have an opportunity for closure, and we gathered, with no clergy as he would have wanted, the urn that contained his ashes the centerpiece of a huge wooden table at the front of the church. No flowers. There were only a few people there, family members and friends. The American flag was folded ceremoniously and presented to one of his sons, to be given to his first grandson, a very moving ceremony I’d not seen before. Before the flag ceremony and after several quiet minutes for silent reflection I read something that seemed appropriate for the occasion. After the ceremony his few friends came to talk to me and I was told in glowing detail what a sweet man and good friend he had been. I was shocked to hear this as I had only known him to be harsh and stern.
Lester E. Tweedie 1924-1988 was born to hard-working farm parents. His father raised dairy cattle and his mother raised hens and sold eggs. He was one of 5 children, the youngest son. After he was honorably discharged from the service he stayed with his aging parents and helped with the house and farm chores. The others were all gone and married. He met my mother in the early 50s and they married in 1955 when I was four. They moved from the farm town to a small fishing village on the coast. He worked in a hardware store as a clerk in a larger town 8 miles further north on the sea.
Lester had a secret that he knew from the time he was a small boy and kept until he was 50. He came out as a gay man in the 70s, and became an activist to try to bring about understanding and change. He wrote and published many letters and articles in one of the two largest newspapers in the state. For all of his courage and self-affirmation he was evicted from his church, banished from his community, lost his home, lost the good will of most of his family members. He and my mother divorced in the late 70s.
His coming out must have been a huge relief to him for when I reunited with him in the 80s he was a happy man. His life motto was “so little time, so many men”. He moved to the largest city in Maine in the southern part of the state when he left the village. He gave up his car, got a motorcycle, rented a house with a yard and white picket fence. He walked all about the city and became healthier than he had ever been before, even losing his arthritis. He got a job at a marine hardware store, and when he died I discovered he had deducted ten years from his age on some of his work-related papers. He spent a fair amount of his non-working time cooking and entertaining men friends; how he got the reputation of ,being sweet.
In late January of 88, at work, he dropped a heavy box of anchors on his head and back. After several trips to the ER where he was told nothing was wrong, his partner called me to come and help. He had cracked his spine during the accident, and was found to have a form of meningitis. He ended up in the hospital where he stayed until he died on March 10.
There is so much more to tell. But today I am celebrating his life, his freedom, his spirit. I know he would be very happy and proud to see how far gay rights have come in Maine in just a few decades. Not only in Maine, but in the military, in the boy scouts, in several other states and throughout much of the world. Perhaps one day children will not have to suffer or feel different, will not have to keep life damaging secrets, and will be able to live their lives proud and happy and free.
Today I honor the man who was the only real father I had, I forgive him for the pain he caused me while he was trying to do what he thought was the “right thing” – be married, raise children, work hard, devote all free time to improving your church with your volunteer labor. I am proud of him for always doing what he felt was the best and “right thing” to do. Most of all I celebrate him and honor him for finding a way to live FREE and HAPPY, and to be HIM. My hope is that I might be able to further the understanding of his family members who are left so they will be proud of him and pass that pride through the generations. Blessed be.