LGBTQ families can be unconventional and might seem weird or threatening to people who don’t understand them. Case in point? As a young man serving in the US Air Force, I fell in love with a sexy Army helicopter pilot. After a torrid affair, we settled into a life-long relationship. I dare you to read this story, learn about our lives, and still believe that LGBTQ people threaten civilized norms and family stability.
I think I fell in love when he whipped his helmet off. Shorn hair danced around in gusts stirred up by the helicopter rotor. Sun glinted off mahogany strands, bleaching them fox red. Clean sweat soaked into his leather flight jacket, stirring up a musky cologne I could smell even over fuel and flightline.
I ripped my eyes away, but I’m sure he caught me staring.
He says I didn’t make a fool of myself, but I’m not sure I believe him. I know I held his eyes for a while before I tore my gaze away and turned to go.
I whirled around. Had he really called out? To me? “Yeah?” I stuttered, more than a little in awe of him. “Everything OK?”
“You got time to run to the O Club with me? I sure could use a cold one after all that. I don’t really know anybody here on Tempelhof. Hate to drink alone.”
Don’t sound too eager! I urged myself. Play it cool!
I motioned in the direction of the main entrance. “Hell, yeah! Love to! Come on!”
He ran his fingers through his damp hair and grinned at me. “Wicked. I need about 15 before I checklist out and hand the Huey over to my crew chief. Meet me at the bar? Unless you wanna stay and help…”
That’s how Don entered my life —
My army helicopter jock, later state trooper, then trauma specialist RN, and possibly the most fascinating person who was ever briefly my lover.
Even standing there on the flight line, knees weak from hero worship and admiration of his stunning strength and beauty, I had no idea what was coming later that evening.
Years after, I told Don’s son Stevie that I fell for his dad when we were still up in that Huey, overflying East Berlin just to prove to the Russians that we could. That’s what Don’s unit did. They took pictures too, especially over the Soviet Oranienburg airfield located conveniently (for us) just inside the BCZ.
“I about pissed myself,” I told him at the bar, brave after my third Berliner Kindl pilsner. “When that MI-24 came sprinting at us? Guns all bristling on its wings? I thought all hell was gonna bust loose!”
He chuckled, listening more than talking.
“Seriously! Then we got so close I could see the pilot’s face. And you just saluted and waved at him. You got balls, man.”
My face heated up. Did I really just talk about his balls?
“Well, you know,” he said, Boston accent charming me, “I do this four days a week. I’m used to it. It gets tense sometimes, but they wouldn’t let us haul along guests like you if it was too dangerous.”
I thought about the little “Junior Officer of the Quarter” plaque I was definitely not going to hang on the wall in my apartment. The helicopter ride — and meeting Don — was my actual prize.
“But it’s not totally safe, you know,” he continued, lifting an eyebrow. You heard about what happened in 84?”
“Four MI-8’s surrounded one of our birds, tried to force it down. Got pretty scary. Pilot thought he was gonna get shot down or crash — one.”
“Oh, my God,” I said, more impressed with him by the second, trying not to stare at his bulging biceps and swollen pecs. “And you do this every day? Wow!”
He threw my legs over his shoulders effortlessly, like I was a rag doll.
I wriggled reluctantly out of his strong grip and kissed him hard and deep before I told him what the problem was. “Um, Don. Listen. I really don’t do that. I mean, you’re the hottest guy I’ve ever been in bed with. Seriously. But, I just hate it. It hurts too much.”
He moaned and nibbled my earlobe a little, running calloused hands up and down my body. My back arched, and then I melted into him.
“OK, baby,” he breathed. “You’re in the driver’s seat. I’ll stop any time you tell me to. But let me try? I don’t think you’ve ever had a patient enough lover before.”
He was right. I never had.
Don was the first seriously skilled, consummately considerate lover I ever had. I learned more about hot sex from him than from anyone else in my life. We spent the next year meeting up a couple times a week for universe rocking rolls in the hay.
I’ve never been much of a bottom. I’m still not. But my knees would try to buckle, and my skin would crackle with electricity the moment I caught sight of my helicopter jock in his flight suit.
“I love you,” I whispered hot into his ear.
It was the night before he rotated back Stateside. “You know that, right? We never say it to each other. I need to say it.”
He pinned me into the mattress and devoured me — kissing, sucking, stroking, caressing — any part of me he could reach. “I know. Of course we love each other. We always will. I always will. You can depend on that. You can count on me. Forever.”
He pulled out of me for the third time at about three in the morning. If I’d known that was the last time Don would ever be inside me, I don’t think I could have taken it.
I drove him to Tegel and hugged him goodbye at the departure gate. We couldn’t kiss, of course, no more than we could let anyone in the world know we were lovers. That had to be our secret.
The phone rang in Manhattan with the news three years later.
Lenny called me from the kitchen where I was roasting a breast of veal for us. “Long distance! You know a guy named Don in Boston?”
I picked up the handset and put it to my ear. When I heard his voice, my knees wanted to buckle again.
“Jim? Is that you? I wanted you to be the first to know. Are you sitting down? I’m getting married!”
“Oh my God, Don. Really? To a woman? For real?”
“Are you mad at me? I mean, I know you’re with somebody now. I love you, man. I hope you know that.”
“Is she beautiful?”
“She is! You’ll meet her soon. You have to come up. Bring your guy. Please?”
Is that how life is supposed to work?
Is it weird that Don and I became closer than ever after he married? We were never lovers again, but we became the kinds of friends that legends are made of. Lenny and I went to the wedding, and it was a lot easier than I expected.
I liked her. I couldn’t help myself. I should have known Don wouldn’t have fallen for anyone less than wonderful.
They had two children before the car crash took her and the older boy, the accident that almost drove Don to suicide. I flew to Boston and stayed for as long as I could manage.
I got used to taking the shuttle on weekends. We cleared a bit of property in Maine with chain saws and machetes, sleeping under the stars, pouring concrete the next summer, building a cabin, Don working his way out of his black grief very slowly.
He was my family. We do that, we queer people. We choose our families. Our families are voluntary. Maybe they’re stronger for that. I don’t know.
I know when my own child came along, Don was the first person I’d call for advice. Our boys became close friends. Don and I would lie back on the bank of the river where they were swimming, watching to make sure they were safe, remembering Berlin.
I’d think back to the moment he pulled that helmet off, and I’d lose myself in dreams.
Want another story about Don and our chosen family?
James Finn is a long-time LGBTQ activist, an alumnus of Act Up NYC, an essayist occasionally published in queer news outlets, and an “agented” novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to email@example.com.