Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and The United States Marine Corps
by John Schaeffer and Frank Schaeffer
From Kirkus Reviews of August 15 – “Dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny, beautifully written and deftly constructed, deeply affecting in its honest portrayal of the authors’ passions: a stunning achievement.”
PRAISE FOR "KEEPING FAITH"
"What the Schaeffers have done here is extraordinary! Yes, this is an absolutely riveting chronicle of one man's transformation into a United States Marine, but it is also a nakedly honest, funny and profoundly moving exploration not only of the fierce bonds of love between father and son, but the very nature of love itself ... THIS IS A TIMELY, COMPELLING AND IMPORTANT BOOK!"
-- Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog
"Together the Schaeffers offer a rare and accurate picture of both what it means to become a Marine and what it means to be a father and son." -- William J. Carroll, National President, Guadalcanal Campaign Veterans
"I salute the authors for their incredibly honest and personal story of one recruit's journey and the transformaion of the entire family. In a year that has been marked by the awakening of national pride, Frank and John capture the essence of how a Marine family comes to embrace our Corp's values of courage, honor and commitment." -- Mastin M. Robeson, Colonel U.S. Marine Corps
In 1998, Frank Schaeffer was a successful novelist living in "Volvo driving, higher-education worshipping" Massachusetts with a son graduated from Georgetown and a daughter from NYU. Then his youngest child -- eighteen years old and straight out of high school -- decided to join the U.S. Marines Corps. Written in alternating voices by eigheen-year-old John and his father, Keeping Faith takes us in riveting fashion through the experience of the U.S. Marine Corps: from being broken down and built back up on Parris Island (and being the parent of a child undergoing that experience), to the growth of both father and son, and their separate reevaluations of what it means to serve.
From the moment Frank realizes that among his fellow parents "the very words 'boot camp' were perjorative, conjuring up trouble youths at risk. ('But aren't they all terribly southern' asked one parent)" to John's learning that, "as any recruit could tell you by the end of his or her training, the Marine next to you is more important than you are," Keeping Faith is a fascinating and personal reconsideration of issues of class, duty and patriotism. But as John and his fellow recruits battle to make the cut -- and John's family struggles to deal with the worry and separation -- it is also a surprising, moving and wonderfully written human interest story.
SAMPLE FROM THE BOOK -- CHAPTER 3
The day John left for Parris Island I woke before the alarm went off. It was set for three a.m. I had to get John to the Andover recruiting office by four thirty. It was a twenty-minute drive. John was going from there to Boston and then on to South Carolina.
That night I did not yell at John for coming back from Erica’s at two a.m. I was so forlorn that the sight of him seemed to be an apparition when he finally stepped through the door. I was just glad to get a hug and to walk up and sit on the edge of John’s bed for a moment as he stretched out.
We left the house at three-thirty a.m. I’d promised the recruiter that I’d have John at the recruiter’s office by four sharp. When he got up John asked me if we could swing past Erica’s and pick her up.
“What?” I asked. “We won’t have time. I promised Staff Sergeant Dubois I’d get you there on time.”
“I told her she could come. Please.”
My heart sank. I felt angry, then sad, and then resigned.
“Well, if she’s coming, I’ll go get her now while you shower. Then we won’t be late,” I said.
“Let’s just get her on the way, Dad.”
“No, because if she’s not ready we’ll be late. I’ll get her now.”
“Suit yourself,” said John.
We didn’t say much and I found it strange to be in a car with this girl who’d done her best to avoid Genie and me all summer. She acted as if there was nothing that needed to be said, that the fact she’d refused to come over to our house to dinner, even once, was something normal or at least not worth mentioning.
“Good morning, Erica,” I said.
“Good morning,” Erica sniffed.
“Well, this is a sad day,” I said.
“Thanks for coming over to pick me up,” said Erica.
“Don’t mention it, glad you can come along.”
Then we were at my front door. John was hugging Genie and she was crying, not sobbing, just steady, silent tears. John was telling Genie he loved her.
When I mentioned to John that he could sit in the back seat with Erica he elected to sit up front with me. Better yet, as we pulled out of our drive and I reached over to give his hand a squeeze, John didn’t let go but enfolded my hand in his big paw, then held on as if he was four and we were on the way to the dentist.
This, I thought, is what the last twenty minutes of my life will be like. It will suddenly be over before it even seems to have started, the way John’s childhood has just suddenly ended without warning, the way we’ve arrived here early when every extra minute would have been precious, the way The Last Summer ended before we did any of the things I’d hoped to do.
By the time we pulled in at the recruiter’s office, made ghastly orange-green by the parking lot vapor-lights, Erica was melting into a smear of tear-streaked jelly in the back seat. John was sitting next to me so straight his head was firmly pinned to the roof of the car near the burnt patch where Genie, at four o’clock one Easter dawn, on the way home from the Greek Orthodox midnight Pascha service, set our car on fire with a lit candle.
We Orthodox believe it is a blessed thing to carry a lit candle home on Easter, as a token of the flame that miraculously appears in Christ’s Tomb in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem each Pascha. The Holy Fire lights the bishop’s cluster of candles without aid of human intervention. The flame is then passed hand-to-hand to the thousands of pilgrims who come from all over the earth to participate in the resurrection in that sacred place. In a reenactment of what is happening in Jerusalem, in each Orthodox Church, the priest emerges from the altar in the darkened sanctuary with a single lit candle. Then, we worshippers, armed with unlit candles, pass the flame of faith, life, and hope from hand-to-hand. After a few moments, the church, pitch-dark an instant before, is ablaze with light. Faces glow with joy. Sleepy children are woken up just in time to stare wide-eyed at all the dancing points of flame and light their candles.
It took several years of Greek Orthodox Easters to get the hang of transporting open flames in moving cars. (Keep the flame low! Heat rises! Do not hold your flame up so that “the early commuters can see our nice candles.”) In 1990 our family had to learn the unusual skill of lit-candle-in-automobile-transport the hard way when, after falling in love with the liturgical life of Christianity’s most ancient body, and to the consternation of my mother, I converted to the Greek Orthodox Church. (Genie and the three children joined me, in their own time over the next few years.)
“Converted” is the wrong word. I became Orthodox to embrace the fullness of faith in a mystical, less rationalistic way than provided for by the dry Calvinist fundamentalism of my childhood. In any case, John was the only one of our children to grow up in the Church. (Francis was a teenager and Jessica about to start college when I began my pilgrimage.)
John loved our church, the bright icons, Father Chris, the welcoming Greek men and women, the candles and incense -- “You even get to play with fire here!” -- and asked to serve at the altar the second Sunday he accompanied me, before we had even joined.
John served at the altar from nine years of age until the Sunday before he left for boot camp. Watching him Sunday after Sunday draped in his gold and white robe (until he outgrew it and was given a plain dark blue one), back straight, tenderly assisting a mother with her baby, as she and the baby were served Communion, carrying the tall golden cross in the various liturgical processions, keeping the censor lit and pouring forth its smoky gardenia bouquet, was one of the profound joys of my life. Knowing that John would no longer be at the altar made his last Sundays all the more poignant…
John’s hand had gotten colder as we drove. I tried to block out Erica’s sniffing sounds coming from the back seat as I willed my son to be safe, to be comforted, to do well in his quest. A horribly brief moment later I was in the office and the time for regrets was done.
There was another recruit there. He looked like I felt, doomed, sick and pale. The deathly neon in the office was perfect for picking out his night-of-the-living-dead pallor. Both boys were in simple clothes, stripped down for this, their last journey as civilians. They had one little bag each. The rules were strict: no tobacco or personal effects, nothing but the clothes on their backs. The Marines would strip their recruits down when they arrived at Parris Island and give them everything they needed from their military issue socks up. John’s bag had the family pictures he was allowed to bring and a prayer book.
I looked at John as he shook Staff Sergeant Dubois’s hand and thought, “what is John trying to prove? The last Schaeffer to wear a uniform was my grandfather on my father’s side and he’d been in the US Navy.” There were no American flags around our home, no eagles above the mantle.
“Why do you want to do this?” I asked more than once during our Last Summer. “I don’t really know,” John answered. Sometimes he’d say, “I want self-discipline.” At other times he’d mumble he didn’t know what he wanted to study or that he was sick of school. He was mostly mute on the subject and looked slightly hunted when pressed to explain. The way John came to the Corps, sidled up to it, became mesmerized by the Marine idea, reminded me of the character played by Richard Dreyfus in “Close Encounters of a Third Kind.” I thought of the scene where Dreyfus carved the shape of a mountain in mashed potatoes after somehow getting the “message” of what the mountain -- to which he was being mysteriously drawn -- looked like.
Even when he spouted reasons right out of the recruiter’s handbook -- self-discipline and pride for instance -- I could tell John wasn’t convinced. He wasn’t lying either. It’s just that something bigger than he could explain had seized hold of him. The best answer I got from John, was, “I just do.”
tired, I could sleep for days.
holding two hands
my father next to me and Erica behind,
all fading into dirty parking lot dawn
on the way back to a different life than what I want
with warm beds and writing and study.
not what I want.
I never understood how my father was so calm when he took me to the recruiter’s office that night. I think that maybe he had resigned himself to the fact that this was an inevitable landmark for both of us. Dad was silent almost the entire way to Andover, making the occasional remark and reassuring me that he would write. At the end there was a hug and a handshake.
“I’ll miss you, boy. I’ll write every day.”
“I love you, John.”
“I love you, Dad.”
The Marines don’t let recruits call home, let alone allow parents to visit. Letters are the only means of communication until after graduation from boot camp. If a man has not gone through Parris Island himself there is no point of reference to his son. John might as well have been headed for Tibet.
After I dropped Erica off I drove home alone. It was dawn but the overcast kept the road dark. I lost my way twice on a road I’d driven a thousand times. I had never experienced pride and fear as one emotion before. “Oh, Lord Jesus, please protect my boy and bring him safe home again!” was all I could think as I peered forlornly into the gloom while trying to remember where I lived.
FRANK SCHAEFFER is the author of two novels, Saving Grandma and Porofino, the latter of which has been translated into eight languages. He and his wife live in Massachusetts.
CORPORAL JOHN SCHAEFFER is stationed in Maryland.
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