Read an Excerpt
A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps
By FRANK SCHAEFFER and JOHN SCHAEFFER
Carroll & Graf Publishers
Copyright © 2002
Frank Schaeffer and John Schaeffer
All right reserved.
When John was newly born, his damp hair smelling sweet, the
nurse placed his long body in my arms and then, bless her, forgot
us while Genie slept. I held him until the sun set, and the stuffy
room grew dark.
John, age five: running in from the garden on a bright spring day.
"Look, Dad! I caught a snake! He's on my thumb. Look, Dad!"
A four-foot garter snake was hanging in a writhing black and yellow coil
from John's five-year-old pink little thumb. John's eyes were wide with pain
"John! The snake is biting you!"
Grinning: "That's how I caught him!"
John, age eleven, in full battle regalia, charging over the sand dunes on Plum
Island, ambushing a pack of friends: "They didn't think I'd attack through the
* * *
Dad read books to me out loud that I could have almost recited back to him
word for word, sitting hour after hour in our dusty living room. It was good to
watch Dad's eyes move on the page and twinkle when he got to the same spot
in the story I knew was going to make both of us laugh.
When I was ten Dad fired a rocket at me. It blew a hole in my shirt
and burned a patch of skin about the size of a quarter. Mom was furious
and of course I stuck up for Dad. Fireworks are illegal in Massachusetts,
but "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire is just three miles up the road and
they sold them out of the shacks and tattoo parlors that lined the streets of
Dad came back from Seabrook with a cluster of cheap Chinese fireworks,
and Francis (my older brother), Dad, and I put ski goggles on and
went into the yard to play war. We fired the fireworks out of empty bottles
at each other, thinking we'd be safe given the bottles' inaccuracy. We'd
aim in each other's general direction and hope for the best. This worked
out well until Dad winged me as I crouched under the swing set. It was a
Dad has been an artist, a candle maker, worked in discos running light
shows, a movie director, a novelist. Dad has studied more than any man I have
ever met. Our house is floor-to-ceiling books: novels, history, and tons of art
history and theology volumes all read by Dad-many full of his dyslexic misspelled
notes. I could do more math than my father by the time I was eleven
but never will read all he has or remember half of what he knows. He also does
most of the cooking in our house and is a great chef.
Dinner was Dad's forum and about more than his terrific food.
Dad: "The Renaissance was built on the artistic and cultural foundations
laid for it by the Byzantines."
Me, age ten: "Yes, Dad."
Dad: "The only 'rebirth' was that the Medici discovered the classical
learning that had always been alive and well in Constantinople!"
Me: "Yes, Dad."
Dad is the only person I've ever met who gets pissed off at something that
happened a thousand years ago, say the sack of Constantinople in 1204.
* * *
John was my youngest and I doted on him from the moment of his birth to
his last high school poetry reading. Captain of every team, sweet as a lake of
warm honey, he made the meaning of life clear.
* * *
I love my father with fierce devotion. We would do the most useless things
together just because we were together. We went fishing when we knew the
fish would not bite. We sneaked into movies we knew were going to be terrible,
because we would have fun making jokes about them later. We'd
watch some crummy movie a second time because there was one line of
dialogue we liked and couldn't quite remember.
* * *
While John grew up we were close as peas in a pod, father and son, but also
like a big brother and little brother. The first child, my smart, talented, and
forgiving daughter Jessica; my middle child and first son, bright, loyal, and
wonderful Francis are dear to me. It is not that I love John more than the
others, but he was easier. Part of it was that I became a father to Jessica when
I was only eighteen, and Francis was born three years later. Part of it was that
after having a little more experience I was more relaxed with John. I was
twenty-eight when John was born, and almost a grown-up, almost the age you
are supposed to be these days when you have a child. This made John's childhood
a rather lighthearted affair for me, at least until he went to high school.
* * *
I attended two private high schools, St. John's Prep, in Danvers, Massachusetts,
then the Waring School in Beverly. I changed schools when my
parents woke to the fact that I was failing every class I was taking at St.
John's. It was April and I hadn't done an assignment since January.
* * *
St. John's Prep had a chapel with a life-size, suspended, crucified Jesus with no
cross, as if he'd been nailed to something invisible and was floating in outer
space. We sent John there, surreal spaceship-Jesus notwithstanding. John was
a track star. I was so proud of him.
Some coach must have been covering up for John because the first time
Genie and I heard about his lack of schoolwork was a late-night call
coming from an irate teacher asking why John had done no homework for
more than ten weeks. John had always hated school, but before high school
he cruised along, his quick wit keeping him a step ahead of his teachers'
and my wrath.
John wrote a poem in junior high about his first day in first grade; it pretty
well summed up all of John's feelings-and maybe a lot of other boys' feelings-about
they made me go to school in cinder blocks and concrete
I could not run anymore
my feet they bound in Velcro shoes
and they forced me to sit and play with toys
the other children were excited
happy to be growing up at last
I could not see outside unless I went up on tiptoe at the window
John and I almost came to blows over his failure to work at St. John's. Right
after that teacher called we stood toe-to-toe in his trophy-cluttered little bedroom.
It was the fact that my son had lied that so infuriated me. For three months he'd
answered "fine" when I asked how school was going. John was towering over me,
practically daring me to take a swing at him. He stood unflinching, fixing me with
a defiant stare as I yelled. That night I set some sort of record, even for me, a perennial
"screamer." I bellowed at John for over three hours.
I didn't care about his missed work. Crap! I'd hated school-ran away
from a British boarding school at fifteen, just his age. It was the fact that John
shut me out that made me livid. After I stopped yelling, we sat on the edge of
his narrow bed in the dark. When I put an arm on John's rigid shoulder, he
did not respond for a long time.
* * *
Dad and Mom sent me to St. John's because of the sports program. (Dad
denies this.) I was playing a lot of sports in town and at my middle school,
so they thought this was a good idea. The typical St. John's parents wanted
their sons to either get full sports scholarships or to go to very exclusive colleges.
It was a school of "jocks and nerds." There wasn't much middle
ground. I hated it.
The Waring School in Beverly was also a place for the children of ambitious,
mostly wealthy parents. But it was not a sports school. All the ambition
was centered on academic work and getting into top colleges. Dad begged
them to take me after I begged him to get me out of St. John's. I did my begging
after his yelling stopped, after we finally made up.
My brother and sister had attended the Waring School and loved it. My
school work at St. John's had been a mess, but I wrote poems and that counted
for a lot in a school where the cafeteria is called the "Victor Hugo Room." I
did okay there. The headmaster, Peter Smick, was very kind to me, and I had
one great teacher, Charlotte Gordon, who encouraged me to write more
poems, including this one about Dad.
short and powerful
with a limp where
he has been
a light effects
man in a disco,
painter, film director,
and a writer.
self educated; didn't learn
to read until
he was twelve
In contrast to my sister and brother I never had any particular aspirations
to study beyond the point that would let me get through the test at
hand, if that. I was more interested in the books I was reading outside
class. Sometimes I'd read all night until it was time to get up for school.
Then I'd be too tired to go. When it came to reading, Dad was my accomplice.
As long as I was reading he'd let me stay home "sick," at least from time
* * *
While still at St. John's, John joined the cross-country track team almost as
a lark. After one or two practices he went from the anonymous pack of
about fifty to one of the chosen seven freshman team members. I asked
John why he always came in seventh out of his team in both the practices
and the meets, why he didn't finish stronger, didn't sprint at the end when
I knew he had the speed and stamina to blow the runner in front of him
off the map. (He was also on the track team as a sprinter and competed well
in both state and national events.) About a month into the cross-country
season, John finally got sick of my badgering him and explained why he
was holding back.
"Dad," said John as we drove home from St. John's one evening, "the
reason I don't sprint past Forbes is because he's my teammate."
"So?" I asked, "I see the coaches screaming at you to pass him. You've got
to compete against each other or you'll never beat the other teams."
"Yeah, they yell at me but I'm not going to beat Forbes in practices."
"But why? I see everyone in the pack trying to beat you."
"Look, Dad, I'm on the team so what does it matter where I finish in
"It matters because you need to do your best."
"I will in competition."
"But why do you hold back? I know you're holding back!"
"It's a three-mile course, Dad."
"Dad, if I knock him into seventh place he'll get cut if somebody in the
pack can beat him. I won't get cut because no one in the pack can catch me
and they know it. By pacing him I help him, you know, push him and keep
him on the team so he won't get left behind."
* * *
On weekends I drove around Salisbury and Newburyport for hours looking
out the window for something to do, stopping at the same Dunkin Donuts
at every pass to get another cup of coffee. I'd smoke a few cigarettes in the
parking lot with the same townies who had been there last time I came
through a half hour before. I sat on the boardwalk that ran along the Merrimac
river, with "The Boys," my old friends from eighth grade, if any happened
to be around. Occasionally we'd make half-mile forays downtown to
see if anything was "happening yet."
When I ran the cross-country course near our school, through a maple
wood in November, it was as if the trees were on fire around me. I ran surrounded
by burning trees. Cross-country was a sport I tried because I
didn't want to play soccer anymore; ten years was enough. My father came
to all my races both at home and away. He was the only parent who never
missed a meet.
As a spectator sport, cross-country is about the most boring thing that
anyone could ever stand to watch without going into a coma. A pack of
runners take off from the starting line and disappear into the trees. They
run an obscure course, often through hilly woods on a nearly invisible
"track" that they can follow only because they walked it before the race.
The spectators see nothing more than the gap in the trees where the runners
About fifteen minutes after the first runners run into the trees the lead
runner emerges out of the forest and dashes to the finish. Over the course of
the next eight minutes or so all the racers stumble in, some vomit, and then
all jog around slowly to keep from seizing up.
That's it! That was all Dad saw, runners disappearing into fiery trees,
then nothing for a long time until we reappeared in the distance and vomited
from exhaustion. After the race, often a two-hour drive from home, I
had to ride the team bus back to school while Dad followed alone in his
old Ford Taurus.
running on paths
cut into tree-lines
avoid puddles that will make shoes slow
tired now but more tired still at the end
acid filled muscles start to seize.
only the man in front pulling and the man behind to push.
* * *
We moved to America from Switzerland in 1980. I was twenty-eight, married
with two children. Genie was pregnant with John.
I was born in Switzerland to American missionaries. I grew up in a
chalet on the edge of a Swiss village. I was the youngest of four, the child
of Protestant fundamentalists. Mom, Dad, my three older sisters, and I
were outsiders. The villagers resented our foreign presence, not to mention
the invasion of their pristine alpine community by the American young
people who flocked to our mission.
My parents, distrustful of the Swiss, and perhaps overprotective of me ever
since I had polio-I wore a leg brace home-schooled me until I was eleven and
illiterate. Then they sent me to boarding school in England in a last-ditch effort to
"do something about that boy." After graduating from Great Walstead, a wonderful
English boys' "prep-school" (primary school), I was sent on to a dreadful
British boys' "public school" (a private high school) in Wales. That was the school I
ran away from.
I went back to the mission and hung out. My compassionate parents did
not force me to return to Wales. I did schoolwork at home with various tutors
and learned a lot, mainly about the sixties, pot, and generally doing nothing
useful, from the students and back-packing hippies passing through.
* * *
I got tired of high school before I even started. Then came the realization that
I did not want to go to college right away and that I didn't identify with too
many of my college-bound fellow students. I didn't like the direction of my
personal life either.
I felt that after graduating from high school, and with no firm idea of
what to do with or at college, I was going to continue the whole saga of
drinking all weekend, occasional pot smoking, only doing work when I had
to, only getting a job when I realized that I was going to have no money for
Excerpted from KEEPING FAITH
by FRANK SCHAEFFER and JOHN SCHAEFFER
Copyright © 2002 by Frank Schaeffer and John Schaeffer.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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