An American Requiem

God, my father, and the war that came between us

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MY father: not until years later did I appreciate how commanding was his presence. As a boy, I was aware of the admiring glances he drew as he walked into the Officers' Club, but I thought nothing of them. I used to see him in the corridors of the Pentagon, where I would go after school and then ride home with him. I sensed the regard people had for him, but I assumed that his warmth and goodness were common to everyone of his rank. I had no way of knowing how unlikely was the story of his success, nor had I any way to grasp the difference between him and other Air Force generals. He was as tall as they, but looked more like a movie actor. I saw him stand at banquet tables as the speaker at communion breakfasts, at sports-team dinners, and, once, at a German-American Friendship Gala in Berlin. His voice was resonant and firm. He approved of laughter and could evoke it easily, though he never told jokes. His mode of public speaking had a touch of the preacher in it. He brought fervor to what he said, and a display of one naked feeling: an unrestrained love of his country.

A fluent patriot, a man of power. Grace and authority were so much a part of his natural temperament that I did not mark them as such until they no longer characterized him. His relationship with his sons was formal -- we addressed him as "sir" -- but there was nothing stern in his nature. He never struck us. He never thumped the table until the pressures of the age made it impossible not to. We always knew he loved us. The problem was his absolute assumption that the existing social context, the frame within which he had found his extraordinary success, was immutable. His belief in the world of hierarchy was total, and his sense of himself, as a father and as a general, depended on that world's survival. Defending it was his one real passion, his vocational commitment, and his religious duty.

The Paper Boy is a General

AND yet. One early Sunday morning in winter, when I was perhaps twelve years old, my father got up before dawn to drive me on my paper route. This was an unusual occurrence. Normally I wrestled the papers onto my red wagon, even the thick Sunday editions. I would haul my own way in several cycles around our suburban neighborhood, Hollin Hills, a new subdivision in Alexandria, Virginia. But a savage storm had moved in the night before, and now the wind was howling. Sheets of rain and sleet battered the windows. We bundled up and waited inside the front door until my distributor arrived, late, in his panel truck. Then Dad and I hurried out to load my Washington Star s onto the back seat of the Studebaker.

The windshield wipers kept getting stuck in the buildup of grainy ice, which we would scoop away as we returned from running the bulky papers up to the houses of my subscribers, Dad on one side of the street, I on the other. It was raw, unpleasant work, but that morning I loved it. Indeed, in my mind it was a game, a version of "war," which we kids were always playing then. Those dashes from our car were sorties, I thought, bombing runs, commando raids. A stack of papers -- artillery shells, mines, grenades -- sat between us on the front seat. We would drive for fifty yards, jolt to a stop, snap into action. I would lean toward Dad, pointing through the fogged-up windows. I was the navigator, the bombardier: "That one, that one." Then we'd each bolt from the car, duck into the freezing rain, splash up driveways and across soggy lawns, prop the papers inside storm doors, and then dash away as if the things were going to explode. We achieved a brilliant synchrony, a teamwork that overstamped everything that might ever separate us. Drive. Stop. Fold. Open the door. Duck. Dash. Return. Way to go! Sir!

If my father had been the commander of a two-man suicide mission, I'd have followed him -- not out of any readiness to die but out of the absolute trustworthiness of what bound us at that moment. I would have sworn that time itself could not undo it. "Neither ... principalities nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come" -- I was an altar boy over whose head Saint Paul usually sailed, but these words had lodged themselves in me -- "nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us... ." Paul, of course, was talking about the love of God, but my only real faith then was in the good order of the world over which Dad presided. Him -- nothing would separate me from him. That morning was delicious for being just the two of us.

When we'd almost finished, something hideous happened. My father had run up to a house and dropped the paper and was running back toward the car when the door of the house swung open.

"Hey, you!" a voice boomed. Even in that wind I heard the threat in it. This was on the far side of Hollin Hills, where the newer, smaller houses were. My distributor had signed these people up. I didn't know them. The voice was a man's, and it was laced with authority. "Get back here, God damn it!"

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