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Chuck Lazenby

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Chuck Lazenby, a Remembrance

Charles "Chuck" Lazenby
August 19, 1931 — September 17, 2009

In the years since he told his story in Inlaws & Outlaws, my friend Chuck Lazenby shared his humor, wisdom and good spirit with many thousands of people.

On Thursday, September 17th, Chuck Lazenby passed away after a long illness. He was 78 years old.

I first met Chuck in 2002 at an open call for The Bridge, an inter-generational oral history project I was working on with the as-yet-unopened Seattle LGBT Community Center.

At first Chuck seemed like an unlikely storyteller. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, he slouched in his chair, looking at the floor. At his turn, his eyes wouldn't meet mine, and he mumbled something about his story not being all that interesting and, gosh, we probably didn't want to hear it anyway.

Still, however modest he seemed, something obviously compelled Chuck to step forward and out of his comfort zone. I would find out just what that was when, one week later, we spent an hour together at the Center putting it to tape.

When we began the interview, Chuck seemed the same self-effacing mumbler with the hangdog expression. But as his narrative unfolded, so did he. There's nothing quite like being heard to build trust. And there's nothing quite like bottling up one's story for seventy years to build a sense of urgency.

You see, Chuck had been in the closet for nearly his entire adult life. Until this point, he had been managing two storylines: one for the public, and one for only a trusted few.

Over the course of that hour, Chuck gradually knit together the disparate pieces of his life and, in doing so, he shrugged off his reserve. Indeed, the joys and pain of his journey became animated in the telling and I was able to see him for who he really was. I felt myself drawn into his world and couldn't help but be humbled by the challenges he faced being out for the first time in his seventy years. While I could see that he was beginning to reap the benefits of a new life of openness, I was also aware how hard it would be for him to find a role in a community that didn't always have open arms for its own elders.

I needn't be too troubled though. Before my eyes, Chuck was carving out a role for himself; here was a masterful storyteller both willing and able to bear witness to a history of oppression most of us can barely imagine.

Two years later, my own role as storyteller taking hold, I spent a hot August afternoon taping a fuller version of Chuck's oral history for Inlaws & Outlaws, my first feature documentary.

Our interview was as relaxed and open a conversation as one can have with production lighting bearing down on a stifling set and a crew of eight lurking in the shadows. I already had an inkling of the power of his tale — as well as the subtle charm of the man. But even I hadn't realized that Chuck had come fully prepared to lay himself bare in a manner I had never witnessed before.

This time we got the full story, starting with his humble beginnings on Queen Anne, the youngest of five, a child of the Depression. Chuck told us of running away at 16 to escape the frequent beatings of his alcoholic father, and catching a bus to LA with no friends and little money. He allowed that he'd spent a few "wild" years figuring out how to survive on his own before returning to Seattle at 18. He told us of working at a coffee shop at 4th and Pike, and meeting David Asplund, a WWII US Air Force veteran and the man with whom he would spend the next fifty years.

Their relationship had its ups and downs like any other but Chuck and David devoted themselves to making it work.  When Chuck spoke of the pride he felt in building a happy home life that contrasted so starkly with his own growing up, his love for David was palpable. And as he related the indignities of closeted life circa 1950s — the twin beds and the alibis — he didn't shy from the shame or absurdity of it all.

And when, in unsparing detail, Chuck recounted what it was like to watch his lover die in bed beside him, to be widowed while in the closet — no condolences, no memorial, no community rushing in to support him, the full measure of his grief was self-evident. He told of his consequent fall into despair, of the indignity of having a funeral home director deny him the veteran's flag from his partner's casket because although he had lived with David for fifty years, "he wasn't family."

Chuck then told how isolation and grief led him to give up on himself. With the one person who truly knew him suddenly gone, Chuck resolved to end his life. One rainy night, drunk and despondent, he headed toward Mukilteo where he intended to drive off the pier. To steel his nerves, he pulled into a parking lot on the way and downed more liquor. It happened to be the First Congregational Church of Everett, a welcoming church, and, a chance encounter with those there saved him. For the first time in his life, Chuck became aware of a part of the world that didn't judge or reject him for his sexual orientation.

From there, a slow road to recovery began — a road that eventually led back to Seattle, into a community he had only been vaguely aware of and finally, here before us, into the role of proud elder and storyteller.

When he finished his tale, the room was hushed with reverence. I can honestly say it had been the most privileged two hours of my life.

A year later, Inlaws & Outlaws premiered, and my brother was in the audience. Sometime during the film, he had a startling realization when he noticed that the powerful forty-foot talking head on the screen was the mild-mannered elderly man sitting in the seat in front of him. Afterwards, he confided that Chuck's story had affected him the most; indeed, he identified with Chuck.

I was taken aback. Here was a gay man in his seventies, and my brother, a straight truck driver and jock from rural New Mexico was identifying with him. The explanation wasn't all that complicated; Peter told me that he loved his wife so much that he could understand how hard it would be to lose her after fifty years. Chuck had not only made that real for him, it gave him perspective on what mattered most — the love we allow ourselves in the here and now.

Such is the power of story — the true story we are each living out and which only some of us have the courage of living out loud.

When more and more people heard Chuck's story, strangers would come up to him on the bus or at the supermarket to thank him or shake his hand. So many offered words and deeds of kindness that profoundly moved him. He was often embarrassed — though I occasionally caught glimpses of him being secretly tickled by the phenomenon. One day he said to me, "I don't understand how people can be so kind to a total stranger." Retaining his humility to the end, Chuck didn't seem to be aware that for many of us, his sharing his story with strangers was also an act of kindness — and one of great courage.

In 2007, we began a theatrical run of Inlaws & Outlaws that happened to begin on Flag Day. At the Cinerama, many of the film's storytellers were present, including Chuck. Also in the audience was Grethe Cammermeyer.

She had arrived in civilian clothes but during the closing credits, she peeled them off to reveal a full dress uniform underneath. We had acquired a flag from Senator Patty Murray's office that had flown over the US Capitol one year prior. On behalf of all of us present, Colonel Cammermeyer presented Chuck with the flag — to honor the service of his partner, David, and to recognize, at long last, Chuck's own sacrifice. For all of us, it was a moment to reclaim some dignity from the cruelty of institutionalized discrimination — but also a chance to embrace one of our own for his own quiet heroism.

I will miss Chuck dearly for his warmth, humor and shameless manner of flirting. I will be ever grateful for all he shared with us, both by way of telling his story and by the example of his life. He had faced more pain and indignity than I could ever imagine but, eventually, he was able to rise above it all, his heart fully intact.

Chuck Lazenby is now laid to rest at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, next to his beloved David. It's only a few short blocks from where he grew up on Queen Anne Hill, but a long and remarkable journey to a place where he can truly rest in peace.

— Drew Emery

Chuck is survived by his sister Lucille Hillis, nieces and nephews, his good friends George & Cory Glisson-Munier, and his good friend and caregiver Michael Santovec.

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Chuck

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A young Chuck

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David and Chuck

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David and Chuck

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Greta presenting flag to Chuck
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