Circa 2007, this is an interview assignment for a writing class about Dennis. His memorial page is here.
CONTENT NOTE: Description of animal cruelty, horrifying weapons of war.
Dennis Hayes was 22 years old when he was drafted into the American Army in July of 1958. For many years he told his stories of being a medic at a test station in Yuma, Arizona to family, friends and students.
“I come from a story telling people. I keep stories in my head and I tell stories with whoever would listen.”
Seven years ago he translated his stories into a one-man show called “Grolli’s Whore”.
“I met a lot of great men, great fellows, lifetime friends [in the army]. One of them is a man named Frank Grolli, who was a pharmacist. He was a very homely man, ugly. Before he left the army, Frank fell in love with a prostitute down in San Luis, Mexico. He decided to marry her and take her back to the Bronx, where he lived.”
Dennis and I sit across from each other at a dark, round table in his kitchen drinking freshly brewed green tea. The table is covered with food– grapes, cheese, crackers, vegetables and dip– from this morning’s rehearsal of “As You Like It”, which is directed by Dennis and rehearsed in his backyard. Now in his early seventies, Dennis is a heavyset man with a deep, rich voice and a habit of fiddling with his glasses or a mug, whatever is close, while he speaks.
“One of our number, a well-meaning guy [Ray Palucci], but a real weasel, decided that Frank couldn’t marry a whore. This was wrong, and [Ray] decided to break it up. Ray went down to San Luis while Frank had weekend duty and offered Frank’s woman an extraordinary amount of money, two or three hundred dollars, to sleep with him. It would be like offering someone who was absolutely poverty stricken today five or six thousand dollars, ‘Sleep with me.’ She did, and Palucci came back and confronted Frank with this.
“Frank was stricken with grief, but it was for her, not for him. He looked at Palucci after Palucci told the story, and tears were running down his ugly old face, and he said, ‘How could you do that to her? Of course she took your money, of course she did. She couldn’t help it.’
“Palucci was devastated. So was I. And Frank went down to San Luis, and he had nothing to forgive as far as he was concerned. She was the one who was wronged. And he married her, took her home.”
This story of Frank Grolli and the woman he loved is the backbone of the one-man show, which is largely improvised, allowing Dennis to meander on tangents, though always returning to Grolli. I ask Dennis about what the military tested and why.
“At the testing station we tested all sorts of ghastly things. How to kill people, biological warfare, radiological warfare, chemical warfare tested on animals mainly, sometimes on human beings. I was peripherally involved, not directly involved, as a medic. It left a deep impression on me, what our nation was like. They were testing nerve gas, which is not a gas, it’s a liquid.
“They said,’You wanna see how this stuff works?’
“So we went into a lab and they pulled a big old rabbit out of a hutch and they strapped him down on a board and shaved a patch off his chest. They got this clear liquid out, said ‘This is what the nerve gas is.’ They had a dropper, and they put a measured drop, just a drop onto the skin. Within a minute, he was dead. He went into convulsions and he was dead. I said, ‘That’s incredible!’
“Two years later when I got out, I talked to the same guy. I was saying goodbye. He was a lifer, but I liked him a lot, a chemist, and he said, ‘Hey, you know that stuff I showed you a couple years ago, Hayes?’
“I said, ‘Yeah.’
“He said, ‘We got stuff that’s ten times more powerful than that.’
“I said, ‘Why?’
“He said, ‘Ah, just because we can.’
After a pause, I interject with a question about how Dennis’s ideas about violence and human nature changed after seeing the nerve gas demonstration and finishing his two year stint. I refer back to an earlier conversation we had in which he told me about his enthusiasm to join the army and his idealistic notions of violence: he wanted to enlist after finishing high school and fight in the Korean War, but his parents made him continue his education. Once he switched his major from biology to drama (a non-essential study), he was drafted.
“When the Iraqi war started, the first Gulf War started, I started thinking about this again because I saw some of the weapons that we had tested being used, tank killers and things like that. I decided that I wanted to tell the stories of what I had seen. I knew I wanted to tell the story, but I didn’t know why. I found out through the telling, how it changed me.
“You can’t judge anyone. I couldn’t judge Frank, I couldn’t judge the prostitute that he married, I couldn’t judge gay men that I interviewed who had venereal disease, I couldn’t judge men who screwed around on their wives. I discovered through basic training and through a lot of the things that happened to me, that I was really human, really human. The veneer of civilization was infinitesimal and could be stripped off in a matter of days, or hours in some cases.”