The story that fuels “Bob and Jack’s 52-Year Adventure,” the documentary that headlines this weekend’s Arkansas LGBQT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer and Transgendered) Film Festival, is a simple one: Two gay men meet in the Army and live, with a few bumps in the road, happily ever after. The issues that lie unaddressed in the film’s background, however, are not simple at all. At a time when the military’s policy on homosexuality is back in the news and gay marriage continues to be a divisive issue nationwide, “Bob and Jack” takes a pass on linking its story to politics.
This will not be a problem for all viewers, and Stu Maddux, the film’s director, doesn’t think it should be. He approaches Bob and Jack’s story from a basic premise: Before you can engage in a debate about gay marriage, you have to be sure that relationships are an option at all.
“I figure the best way to address political issues is through example,” he says. “In the gay community [Bob and Jack] represent an unseen part — there are so few couples, and we’re not sure if they can work.”
The film argues that they can. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this particular relationship is how it began. Stationed in Munich during the Korean War, 1st Lt. Jack Reavley met Sgt. Bob Claunch, and the pair fell for each other. Other men in the unit detected what was going on, but Bob and Jack outmaneuvered them. In one confrontation, they sat down their fellow soldiers, told them they were placing a phone call to their commanding officer, and invited them to air out their grievances. It was a bluff — Jack had arranged for a friend to pick up his call — but the challenge was met with silence.
The scheme was a big risk, not the least because Bob and Jack stood to earn a dishonorable discharge if they were found out. Today’s explicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was the implicit norm at the time, and Bob had already encountered resistance to gays in the military when he was initially turned down by Army recruiters for what he considers a bogus “organic heart disease.” Once in Munich, though, the two were able to find their niche.
“It seemed that most of us who were gay in the military found others who were gay in the military,” Bob said recently in a phone interview.
After Bob and Jack’s service was up they resolved to stick it out together — a choice that didn’t come without casualties. Jack was married before being stationed in Munich, and his second child was born while he was abroad. The film attempts to tackle the issue, but Jack still doesn’t like to talk about it.
“I think that’s the weak link of the film,” Maddux says. “We tried to get Jack to address it. Bob actually turned to me and said it’s good for him to go through this.”
(Maddux says he talked to some of Jack’s family members during the filming process, but he chose not to include them in the documentary. He says that he didn’t want to bring anyone else into it since the couple told their story so well.)
In the mid-1950s the pair settled in remote Raymond, Wash. They each had prior experience in the entertainment industry — Jack was a dancer at MGM before his military service, and Bob had been a radio announcer at a small Texas station — so they decided to buy their own call letters.
“At that time everything was television, television, television,” Jack says. “To buy a radio station? You’re out of you’re mind! But it worked.”
KAPA played a mishmash of genres: polka in the mornings for the many Scandinavians who lived in the area, rock in the afternoons for kids getting out of school (Jack: “At that time it was difficult because Elvis Presley was making a big to-do”), and reports from their own travels around the world.
The station sustained Bob and Jack until 1980, when they moved to California to become film extras. They later joined the Screen Actors Guild and worked on such television shows as “General Hospital” and “The Golden Girls.” Today they live in retirement in Los Angeles. They have worries typical of any elderly couple — Jack had sextuple bypass surgery six years ago — but as a same-sex elderly couple they believe they walk on almost uncharted ground. They say they know of only one gay pair that has been together longer than they have. They can rest a bit easier since they live in California — domestic partnership laws there make it one of the few places in the United States where gay couples are allowed the same state-level rights that married heterosexual partners enjoy. Access to those rights, more than the institution of marriage itself, is what matters to them.
“If tomorrow they passed a law — with the altar and so on — we wouldn’t do it,” Jack says.
Bob and Jack won’t be able to make it to Little Rock this weekend, but Maddux, who as a child spent time in Pine Bluff with his grandparents, will be on hand to talk about the film and sign DVD copies. There will be 13 other films screened at the festival; several, including “Back Soon” and “Rock Haven,” are being shown for the first time.