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Being Alive and Having to Die
The Spiritual Odyssey of Forrest Church
By Dan Cryer
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 Dan Cryer
All rights reserved.
Since rules weren't imposed at home, I've always been resistant to rules.
— FORREST CHURCH
Forrest Church nearly missed his appointment with life. His parents, Frank and Bethine Church, had decided to put off having children until Frank completed his education. But thanks to 1940s-era "under-the-counter birth control that did not work," the next Church generation arrived ahead of schedule. Had birth control done its appointed job for six months longer, he would not have arrived at all.
Ever since Frank Church's youth in Boise, Idaho, he had set his sights on a career in politics. In his wife, Bethine Clark Church, he found the perfect partner. Daughter of Chase Clark, a onetime governor of the state, she commanded the connections, the campaigning skills, and the audacity to make her husband's abstract dreams a reality. He was a big thinker, an orator, a policy wonk. She was the good mixer, the spirited organizer, the gregarious hostess. So acute were her political instincts that one day she would be known as Idaho's "third senator."
When Bethine learned that she was pregnant, in January 1948, Frank was midway through his first year at Harvard Law School. The couple lived in a cramped fourth-floor walkup in Boston and commuted together to Cambridge, where she worked in the library at Radcliffe College. Despite Frank's excellent grades — he made law review by the end of the second term — things weren't going well. The winter of 1947–48, one of the most severe in the region's memory, spread a cloak of misery. Frank was so immersed in his studies that Bethine felt ignored, and Frank shot back that she didn't understand the pressures to succeed. Their discontent sometimes boiled over into quarrels. Meanwhile, the aches in Frank's back wouldn't go away. Their physician, dismissing the symptoms as the result of stress, prescribed aspirin. Eventually, because neither Frank nor Bethine was thrilled with living on the East Coast and because Frank's political future clearly lay in the West, he decided to transfer to the law school at Stanford, his alma mater.
Back in Boise for the summer, the couple moved in with Bethine's parents. To cheer them up, "Pop" Clark bought them a new yellow Packard convertible to replace another that had been stolen in Boston. Frank Forrester Church IV, whom everyone would call "Twig" and as an adult would be known as Forrest, was born on September 23, 1948. He was a healthy baby who soon beamed his smile on everyone in sight. A few weeks later the couple drove off to their new life in California, rented a small house with a garden and patio, and Frank resumed his studies.
But, as Forrest Church would later say, trapdoors have a way of opening in front of us when we least expect them. In February of the following year, Frank's increasing pain sent him to the hospital for an operation on a "strangulated testicle." Six hours later he faced an unexpected and terrifying diagnosis. He was informed that he had testicular cancer and that it had spread extensively. His life expectancy was no more than three to six months. Fortunately, after a later diagnosis of a less lethal form of cancer, doctors gave him the option of experimental X-ray therapy after he had healed from the initial operation. During the next five weeks, Frank and Bethine fought to keep depression at bay, their bright hopes beyond reach. Neither could imagine a future without the other. They resolved that if the treatment failed, they would leave Twig in the care of grandparents, fly to Europe, and commit suicide together by driving off a cliff. Once into the grueling treatment — daily megadoses of radium — Frank slogged through days of nausea and appetite loss. His weight dwindled to ninety pounds. After seven weeks, he was pronounced cured, but at an enormous cost. The doctors estimated that ten to fifteen years had been shaved off his life span. And he was no longer able to sire children.
Forrest Church had been conceived just in time. If his parents had been able to follow their original plan of waiting until after law school, he would never have been born.
According to Bethine, Frank emerged from this ordeal vowing to "play for high stakes, for the things he believed in, no matter what the cost." And she would always be at his side, urging him on, an exuberant partner on the campaign trail.
But what was the impact on their son? When Frank was first hospitalized, Bethine called on an aunt, Mabel Patterson, a hotel manager in San Francisco, to tend to six-month-old Twig. Then, during the weeks of radiation that followed, friends in Palo Alto helped with the baby so that Bethine could give full attention to her ailing husband. The pattern was set early.
For his first nine years, Forrest Church would have the luxury of being an adored only child. Unquestionably, his parents loved him, but neither was especially devoted to parenting. Their eyes were riveted on the political prize. So they frequently handed off Twig to their parents and others, who gave him enormous latitude to do what he wanted. As a result, their son evolved into an independent-minded, free-range child. He feigned illness in order to skip school, preferred the games he invented to prepackaged ones, ruled like a lord over his little clique of playmates. He dropped out of the regimented Cub Scouts and never took part in organized sports. Since most of Twig's cousins lived far away, when Sunday dinners or Christmas celebrations saw him in the company of grandparents, he held a fixed spot at the center of their world, the little kid whose cute ways could be endlessly chuckled over and applauded.
"I was spoiled by freedom, so it became my watchword," Forrest Church observed near the end of his life. "I did tend to get my way ... That gave me a sense of exceptionalism that carried through to a kind of renegade quality, a kind of bad-boy quality that never turned into being so bad that you get into trouble, but into being a maverick. Since rules weren't imposed at home, I have always been resistant to rules ... Now, what does that lead to? It leads to someone who is irrepressible and irresponsible, someone who is creative and not very disciplined unless the discipline is associated with the act of creation. At which point I become absolutely focused."
* * *
Character, they say, is destiny. But one should never underestimate the power of destiny's sly first cousin, sheer luck. In one of those random oddities of history, both Frank Church and Bethine Clark could trace their ancestry to the Mayflower. Centuries before their families made their way to Idaho, they helped found an English colony in Massachusetts. John Howland, a young indentured servant, was the lucky one. He nearly botched his transatlantic voyage of 1620. Foolishly venturing out on deck during a fierce storm, he was swept into the sea. Fortunately — for Forrest Church's destiny — he managed to grab a trailing halyard and was hauled back onto the ship. When his master died a year later, Howland was granted his freedom and, probably, a share of the estate. He married Elizabeth Tilley, who had endured the Mayflower passage along with her parents, John and Elizabeth, as well as the pestilence that struck them down that first harrowing winter. The enterprising Howland went on to become a merchant and one of Plymouth's foremost citizens. Blessed with ten children and a prodigious eighty-eight grandchildren, the Howlands established Bethine Clark's American line.
Frank Church's American forebears sprang from the union of Richard Church, who arrived from England in the 1630s, and Elizabeth Warren. Like Howland and Tilley, Elizabeth's father, Richard Warren, had been one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact. Richard and Elizabeth Church's son, Benjamin, would win fame during King Philip's War of 1675–76 as "America's first Indian fighter." More than most of his peers, he respected his tribal neighbors and learned from them, including their unorthodox military tactics, and vowed to treat them like human beings. Nonetheless, when confronted with the body of King Philip himself — known as Metacom among his people — he ordered it drawn and quartered, in revenge for the chief's alleged misdeeds. Philip's head was later placed on a palisade of Plymouth's fort, a warning to Native Americans of the price of rebellion against English domination.
However storied or morally ambiguous the colonial beginnings of the Churches and Clarks, the Clarks could claim a far more substantial recent heritage. Bethine was from one of Idaho's leading Democratic families. Chase, her father, rose from the posts of state representative, state senator, and mayor of Idaho Falls to a one-term governorship during 1941–42. President Roosevelt later appointed him to the federal district court in Boise. Barzilla Clark, Bethine's uncle, had been mayor of Idaho Falls and governor during the thirties. In the same period, Bethine's cousin D. Worth Clark served two terms in Congress and one in the U.S. Senate.
After studying law at the University of Michigan in the opening decade of the twentieth century, Chase Clark set up a practice in Mackay, a rough-and-tumble town in eastern Idaho where barroom quarrels often erupted into fistfights. Here he met and married Jean Burnett, a quiet eighteen-year-old whose father owned a meat market. Clark's everyday clients were ranchers and farmers embroiled in disputes over land and water rights. More lucrative fees came from his corporate clients, the Empire and White Knob copper companies. By the late 1920s Clark was well off, his legal earnings supplemented by substantial investments in land and stocks. The Crash of '29, however, took most of his wealth, though he did manage to hang on to Robinson Bar, a dude ranch in the Sawtooth Mountains that would prove seminal in Forrest Church's early life. In any event, the Clark family moved to Idaho Falls and started over.
Jean, a teetotaling Presbyterian, eventually became head of the state's Woman's Christian Temperance Union. No self-righteous, axe-wielding Carrie Nation, she was, according to her daughter, "never harsh or unforgiving of those who drank." She had, in fact, an open heart toward the down-and-out. As an elderly woman, she even spoke warmly about the bordello madam whose compassion for girls in need of medical help or an extra dollar was legendary in Mackay. The gentle, forgiving Jean would be as frequent a caretaker for the young Forrest Church as his own mother.
In 1909, Jean had given birth to a boy. But the infant lived less than a day, and she nearly died, too. Consequently, as Bethine's birth approached fourteen years later, the Clarks drove to Salt Lake City in search of more sophisticated medical care. Jean Bethine Clark emerged safely into the world on February 19, 1923. She would be a beloved only child. "Because [Pop] had always wanted a son," Bethine wrote, "I became his boy and companion as well as his 'princess.' Pop talked with me about everything, which was unusual for a father and a daughter in those days ... [He] thought no dinner table discussion was much good without a great roaring conversation of taboo subjects — religion, politics, or one of his law cases — everything except sex."
As for her eventual husband, Frank Church III was born in Boise on July 25, 1924. Nicknamed Frosty, he was a frail child, continually fending off attacks of bronchitis. His father, Frank, owned a sporting-goods store and then a small apartment building, while his mother, Laura, minded the two boys, Frank and Richard, who was nine years older. Laura was outgoing, her husband emotionally remote and unsmiling. Solid, cautious middle-class citizens, without high aspirations, they nonetheless produced sons whose ambitions took them far from Idaho. One would become a U.S. senator, the other a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and career military officer.
Since his father was a devout Catholic, young Frank began his formal education at a parochial school. But after enduring too much bullying from stronger boys, he was allowed to transfer to a public school. Gifted with a bright mind and an inquisitive nature, he began to thrive. While his peers stuck their noses into comic books, he pored over the newspaper. In 1938, he responded to a request from the Boise Capital News for essays on the proposition "Should the United States keep out of foreign troubles?" Following in the footsteps of his Republican hero, Idaho's Senator William Borah, he wrote a polished brief for isolationism. The newspaper's readers may have been astonished to learn that the author of this essay was a mere fourteen-year-old, but the Churches were not. Discussions of this sort were an everyday staple in their household. At this young age, Church vowed to duplicate Borah's achievement as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. Senate. Thoughtful, outgoing, and chatty, Frank developed into an outstanding debater at Boise High School, leading his team to the state championship. In 1941, as a junior, he triumphed over 108,000 contestants to win the American Legion National High School Oratorical Contest, in Charleston, South Carolina. His reward was a four-thousand-dollar college scholarship. Back home at Boise High, his feat paid off again. The skinny nonathlete was elected student body president over the star quarterback.
By now Frank differed markedly from his father. Frank Sr. was a lifelong Republican who voted Democrat only once, for FDR in 1932, and regretted it ever after. "I learned all about the Democrats so I could argue with Dad," the senator once noted. "I ended up by converting myself." He also cast aside his father's Catholicism. According to his older brother, young Frank "questioned everything." In this light, the church of Rome seemed too dogmatic, run by "self-righteous people" who were "wrong about a lot of things." His father's shopkeeper world was altogether too small to accommodate Frank's emerging worldview and ambitions. Looking back, he thought of his father, according to Forrest, as "a very dear and sweet man, a kind man," but too cautious, too conservative, too averse to risk.
Frank Church and Bethine Clark were hardly an inevitable match. He grew up Catholic and Republican. She was a Presbyterian and a Democrat. In this era, differences like these could be insurmountable barriers. But by 1940, when they met at a high school government convention, his Catholicism was behind him and her commitment to Presbyterianism was tepid at best. Both were avid supporters of the New Deal. Her family moved to the capital in January of the next year, as Chase Clark took over the governorship. Bethine, a senior, was a newcomer to Boise High, where Frank was a year younger and a junior. But given his growing stardom and their mutual interest in politics, the age difference hardly mattered. She was drawn into his orbit, and he into the heady world of the Clarks. Soon both the Clark and Church households were gathering places for Frank and his buddies. Bright, ebullient Bethine, the only female, was treated like "one of the boys." Almost every Sunday evening the gang would join the Clarks to eat leftovers, bask in the glow of the governor, and discuss state government or the war in Europe.
Although Frank and Bethine dated, their relationship was as much intellectual companionship as romance, and both went out with others. Following graduation, Bethine attended Boise Junior College. For several years thereafter, distance kept them apart. When she went east to the University of Michigan, Frank headed west to Stanford. He spent only two quarters there — long enough to establish himself as the university's ablest debater — before resolving to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1942. For most of his tour of duty, Lieutenant Church served as an intelligence officer in Southeast Asia and China. Meanwhile, Bethine majored in sociology, honed her sculpting skills, and acted in plays. Letters flew back and forth, more chatty than flirty. Bethine found a steady beau in Ann Arbor, then one who attended West Point. While still vowing his devotion, Frank nonetheless suggested she not "wait for him," whereupon a heartbroken Bethine became engaged to the cadet. Frank heard the news while home on leave and acted with military dispatch. He countered with his own proposal, and his sweetheart accepted immediately. "I think we both realized like a bolt of lightning that we had always loved each other," Bethine wrote. After graduating from Stanford with honors in political science, Frank Church married Bethine Clark on June 21, 1947, in an outdoor wedding at Robinson Bar Ranch. The next stop: Harvard Law School.
* * *
After Stanford and Harvard, the Churches had to readjust to life in the provinces: Boise in the 1950s was a decidedly unsophisticated place. The city attracted politicos, lobbyists, and bureaucrats as the state capital, but aside from that base, it was little more than a largish town. In the 1950 census, its population was just over 34,000. It had no dial telephone service until July 1952 — to make a call before that date, you had to call an operator — and not a single television station until November of that year. It could boast of no universities and few cultural amenities. Moreover, town fathers and business leaders resisted industrialization. Instead of factories, Boise had several corporate headquarters: Morrison-Knudsen, the construction giant that built the Hoover Dam and other vast projects, and Boise Cascade, eventually a multinational empire, but then a timber company.
Excerpted from Being Alive and Having to Die by Dan Cryer. Copyright © 2011 Dan Cryer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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