birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Chrysophobia

I watch the new Star Trek: Discovery show on CBS All Access. As soon as it airs Sunday nights I discuss it online with a group of friends. Monday mornings at work, we rehash Game of Thrones over breakfast. Hey, did you catch Stranger Things? What about that S-town Podcast? Only in Alabama, amiright?

When anyone brings up Orange is the New Black I change the subject.

Bush the first was still in office in January, 1992 when I signed my enlistment paperwork. “You aren’t gay or bisexual, are you?” My recruiter asked.

“Hell, no!” I lied. He checked the appropriate boxes on the form. I repeated the lie when I took the official oath and joined the Navy at Miami MEPS a month later. Six months after that, I was a Hospital Corpsman stationed at Camp Lejeune, NC. Even though I was in the Navy I spent the rest of my career with the Marines, who don’t have their own medics. I had traditional Navy summer whites and winter blues, and also Marine fatigues, but rarely wore them. I worked in ICU at the Naval Hospital.

By the time I was stationed at Naval Hospital Okinawa, another Marine Corps base (although the island was also home to the Air Force, Army and Coast Guard), I’d traded the ICU for the ER. My uniform was a paramedic jumpsuit. Bill Clinton had implemented Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and for once I had something to not tell about and for the military brass to not ask about. Officially I lived in the barracks, but in fact I lived off base with my boyfriend.

We’d been together about half a year when I decided it was time to start coming out to people back home. It was scary, but after several false starts I wrote to my sister, thinking she’d be the safest person to start with. A month went by with no answering letter. I wondered if she’d been the best choice, after all.

I was working the overnight shift in the ER. When my tour ended at six, I went headed to the chow hall but was stopped by Commander Herbert. “Hold up, HM3. You’re needed on the fifth floor. Room 510.”

“What’s in room 510?”

“NCIS.”

Two agents waited for me, a man and a woman. The woman, shorter thin to the point of anorexia, was in charge. She left her desk and pointed to the couch. I sat, and she joined me. Nothing adversarial, just a couple of pals. Her blonde hair gave way to black roots, reminding me that everyone in this office dealt in lies. She introduced herself. She was a civilian. The man remained standing. Imposing. Arms folded across his chest. He was military. A lieutenant. She cut to the chase. “Petty Officer Byrd, are you homosexual?”

My sister had written me back the same day she got my letter, but it was delivered to the wrong post office box at the hospital. Instead of taking it to the mail room to be put in the correct box, the person who received it in error opened it, read it, and turned it in to the C.O.

And now here I was, after being on duty since eighteen hundred the night before, and having been up for several hours before that, my worst nightmare coming true. I was nervous. My stomach cramped. I had enough presences of mind to say, “You’re not allowed to ask me that, and I’m not allowed to tell you.”

She shook her head and extended her hand to the Lieutenant. He reached to the desk, grabbed some papers. Handed them to her. I strained to see what they were. She glanced at them and handed one of them to me. It was a fax of the form I’d signed in the recruiter’s office. She said, “You enlisted before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. You were asked, under oath, if you homosexual. You said—” she glanced at the paper—“ ‘hell no,’ and signed a paper legally attesting to that statement.” She handed me the paper. “Do you deny it?” Without giving me a chance to answer she showed me another paper. I didn’t recognize it. “At the military processing center in Miami, you were asked again if you were homosexual. You swore, again under oath, that you were not. Do you deny it?”

I tried to speak but my throat was like sandpaper. My stomach cramped again. I prayed I wouldn’t shit myself, sitting next to her. I shook my head. She said picked up a copy of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and opened it to bookmarked page. “Do you know how many years in the brig you get for fraudulent enlistment? What kind of job do you think you’ll get with a dishonorable discharge on your record?”

I found my voice. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I croaked.

The Lieutenant said, “Better get used to shitting in front of a cellmate, faggot.”

I didn’t get a dishonorable discharge. But I was confined to the brig for three weeks, not for fraudulent enlistment, as punishment for not giving up names of other gay and lesbian sailors, airmen and marines. Twenty-one days of wearing the same orange jumpsuit. On Sundays we traded it in for a clean one. My JAG appointed lawyer couldn’t keep me from being discharged, but he made sure the discharge was honorable.

People ask me if I hated military inspections, ironing my uniform, getting creases just right, shining my shoes until I could see my reflection in them. They cringe at my “war stories” of getting blood, vomit, and grey matter on my scrubs or jumpsuit. “If that had happened to me, I’d never be able to wear that again!” I still wear scrubs around the house, and it’s been twenty years since I’ve been in the medical field. I’ve put on jumpsuits for different physical activities, or do it yourself projects. When I see photos of me in my Navy uniform I feel only pride and nostalgia.

But you’ll never catch me wearing orange.

First of Many

The Gap!