I’m not sure where or when I got the idea, but at some point in my childhood I asked my mother what "homosexuality" meant. "Well, honey," she said, pausing, "that’s something sailors do."
"Like Daddy?" I asked. My father had been in the Pacific in World War II, and his sailor hats and dress uniforms, pressed and hanging in an attic chest, held for me the greatest fascination.
"No, no," she quickly clarified. "Sailors who make a living of it," or words to that effect. Later I learned that "venereal disease" too was "something sailors get": again, "not Daddy"; those others, who spend endless stretches at sea, a lifetime of manly togetherness punctuated by ribald Crossing the Line ceremonies and visits to raffish ports of call. For the longest time I had no idea what maritime life involved but that it was wrapped in sex and secrets.
Eric Massa, 50, was a Navy man for twenty-four years. A Catholic, like me, growing up at the same time as me, when the church didn’t speak to its children of sex, let alone homosex, he followed in the footsteps of his daddy, also career Navy, and married like his daddy, had children like his daddy. On those long stints at sea he’d grasp the tired flesh of fellow sailors, offering "the Massa massage." If former shipmates are to be believed, he once rousted a sleeping junior officer by pawing the man’s privates. He climbed up into the bunk of another sleeping mate and tried to "snorkel him," meaning he either smothered the fellow with cock and balls or wanted to blow him, possibly both. Massa was drunk, naturally, and nobody reported a thing.
The ex-shipmates who are talking now claim they feared retaliation then, and maybe that’s true, but a cousin of mine who spent years in the Navy and Marines once remarked that it was common as rain to discover guys on ships canoodling in closets. Maybe it all just didn’t seem so big a deal until Massa, now former Congressman Massa, went on TV to say that while in hindsight inappropriate, there was nothing at all sexual about his groping, wrestling, tickling, tussling and salty-talking with his young male Congressional staffers, with whom he also roomed. Certainly nothing gay. "Why don’t you ask my wife, ask my friends, ask the 10,000 sailors I served with in the Navy?" he shot back at Larry King. It was the shot too far.
To those who may have missed this version of March Madness, Massa is the center of Washington’s latest sex scandal. Retired military and a lifetime Republican who quit the party over the Iraq War, he fit the Democrats’ ideal candidate profile and in 2008 won a traditionally Republican seat in upstate New York. Republicans began plotting almost immediately to oust him, but Democrats weren’t happy with Massa, either. He supported some of the president’s priorities but blasted others, regarded Rahm Emanuel as the "son of the devil’s spawn" but was surprised that any of that should bother anyone. In February one of his male staff complained of sexual harassment. There had been a wedding, Massa had danced with a bridesmaid, and afterward, boys being boys, the staffer suggested what Massa could do with the woman. "What I really ought to be doing is fracking you," Massa retorted, ruffling the young man’s hair and laughing. Massa was drunk. Of course he was.