Sometimes the innocuous choice jars deeper currents in the mind. Such is the case tonight. I happened to pull a dvd out of my collection which was still in its wrapper despite having been on the shelf for years. I had seen the movie before but I tend to add movies I know to be good if I come across them at bottom prices even if I won’t watch them for a while. Kind of like buying a bargain book you know you won’t read at least for 6 months.
The movie choice was And The Band Played On based on the book by Randy Shilts which historically traces the fight at the CDC to find the HIV virus and the struggle it was to make the public aware of what it was facing. Randy Shilts was a great cultural writer who wrote a bio about Harvey Milk and who would later die from HIV itself. I don’t know why I picked tonight of all nights to watch this movie. Maybe it is because AIDS Awareness Day was Saturday and subconsciously the subject was in the back of my brain or it could be an item I learned over the weekend about a female doctor I use to know years ago. I can’t say for certain except a lazy Sunday night seemed like the good time.
As a piece of history the movie is excellent. So easy now to forget how the Gay/Lesbian community was initially blamed for the disease or how blood banks and organizations like the Red Cross refused to test blood donors because they didn’t want to be out the expense which in turn caused the death of thousands of people who received transfusions. Time has made the fact it took President Reagan until 25,000 Americans had contracted the disease to even mention it by name seem like ancient history. I had first hand experience with that sort of denial years and years later when I did an interview with a minister I knew about how the changing epidemic had impacted churches. When I said I wanted to ask about AIDS, he refused to say the word and spelled it out instead in a whisper, “You mean A -I -D- S?” He was a denominational leader.
The images of a Rock Hudson, probably the first major movie celebrity to die of AIDS, being wheeled across a tarmac with oxygen tank on a stretcher as he landed back on American soil where he wanted to die is stock footage now in a news archive.
Like I said the innocuous jars deeper currents. When most people I know talk about how others in their lives have died along the way I usually hear about cancer, heart attacks, car accidents and the like. For me the answer is usually suicide, murder, and yes quite a few AIDS victims. Almost all of them having gotten the disease after the facts about it had gone mainstream.
It is a deadly disease and I have always been a little bewildered that more of us haven’t died from it. After all, everyone is human and god knows we’ve all had unsafe sex at some point in our lives though few of us will ever confess to the moment. I read over the weekend how infection rates are growing again with a new generation.
I watched the movie and recalled the girl who contracted the disease from a dirty needle. She was a tattoo artist. I fondly thought of one of my first short stories based on the image of a different lady who was only 16 when she got the disease or the lady horse rider from Texas who was only a couple years older. There was the neighbor who died at a friend’s apartment down the hall from mine who was bitter about dying so horribly and young in his 20’s. His family disowned him so people had to donate cash for the burial. The middle-aged guy who I could tell wasn’t feeling so good the night we started chatting in a pub. When I pressed the issue of what was wrong he told me. I don’t know why he told me but he did. Maybe he was tired. Tired of the struggle. He was dead 24 hours later. I suspect I was one of the last people he spoke to on this side of the veil.
I have friends who have operated AIDS operations overseas. My father even was recognized once by a foreign government for his assistance. Very different for a friend of mine who became an activist after he caught the disease although as he spent more and more time in hospital the activism dwindled down. I can’t forget the skinny runt a lesbian couple I knew helped out for a while who had more parole violations than you could list. But at that point I don’t think it mattered to him. I laugh now as I recall the 3 a.m. brawl he almost started in a Waffle House when he flipped a pimp off. If I hadn’t been there all hell would’ve broken loose. As it was, he was dead within the year.
The list could go on. Like I said deeper currents . I always liked the title And The Band Played On. I should apologize for the grim post. I guess I was just recalling a few of the voices who aren’t singing along anymore.