When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by Bob Kerrey

When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir by Bob Kerrey

by J. Robert Kerrey
     
 


Bob Kerrey grew up outside Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1950s, and in his trademark style-serious, sometimes wry-he tells of his journey from that heartland to the dangers of Vietnam, to the hospitals where he recovered from his grievous injuries, and finally to the Nixon White House where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Inspired by the stories of

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Overview


Bob Kerrey grew up outside Lincoln, Nebraska, in the 1950s, and in his trademark style-serious, sometimes wry-he tells of his journey from that heartland to the dangers of Vietnam, to the hospitals where he recovered from his grievous injuries, and finally to the Nixon White House where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Inspired by the stories of biblical heroes and thrilled by the cowboy serials he saw at the movies on Saturday afternoons, Kerrey grew up in a world as safe and quiet as anywhere you could find on Earth. When he went off to college he knew or cared little about what lay beyond Nebraska, though soon his life would be changed forever. Bob Kerrey comes from a family of soldiers, and so, when the Vietnam draft loomed, he volunteered for the elite Navy SEALS, hoping for adventure and the honor of serving his country. After his arrival in Vietnam, he had to face the brutal reality of the war. In his first firefight, women and children died. His second encounter cost him part of his leg. In his year at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, he drew strength from his fellow patients, some more disabled than he, and he learned to walk again. But he had turned against the war and could no longer find solace in his religion.

A quest begins and ends this book. When his father was dying, he asked Kerrey to find out how his Uncle John had really died in World War II. It is this quest that inspires Bob Kerrey as he narrates his own personal odyssey in this remarkable and powerful book.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A haunting and ruthlessly honest memoir, not the story of a hero, but of something far more important: of a youth coming of age in a time when all the old assumptions about life were being challenged. His is a tale of triumph over adversity which provides a lesson for America in a new time of challenge and anxiety." --Haynes Johnson, author of Best of Times

"Bob Kerrey has given so much to his nation. And now more. When I W as a Young Man is a narrative of war and loss, yet life enhancing withal." --Daniel Patrick Moynihan

"This story of an American becoming a man is also a story of the country coming of age and it has these classic American virtues: candor, humility, reluctant courage. It is deeply moving and a delight." --Richard Ben Cramer, author of Joe Dimaggio

Publishers Weekly
Kerrey, former Nebraska governor and senator, is currently president of the New School University. He opens this moving autobiography by recalling his idyllic Nebraska childhood. At 10, he discovered that his father had a brother who'd disappeared during WWII. Years later, Kerrey promised his father he would uncover the truth about his uncle's death. "As I searched, I discovered many things I should have known before and many I wish I had known." He traces the family's history and details his own postwar childhood of church sermons, nights alone in his tree house, movies, music, paper routes, baseball and bicycling. As a University of Nebraska graduate pharmacist, he was employed at Iowa pharmacies. In 1967, at Officer Candidates School, he made the "difficult decision" to become a frogman; while training at Coronado Bay in California, "I thought the navy had sent me to paradise." At age 25, Kerrey arrived in Vietnam. Only weeks later, he was seriously wounded, losing part of a leg, and he spent a year recovering at Philadelphia's naval hospital. Kerrey explores his doubts about accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor "I knew that many men got nothing for bravery far greater than mine" and concludes with the results of his investigation into the mystery of his uncle's disappearance. Kerrey's deceptively simple writing style has great strength, and he presents his personal memories against the larger backdrop of antiwar protesters and other events of the period. Although the Vietnam missions fill only 30 pages, an army of readers will embrace this inspiring story, and many will eagerly await future chronicles of Kerrey's later life. B&w photos not seen by PW. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A Vietnam War veteran, former senator from Nebraska, and current president of the New School University in New York City, Kerrey has written a deceptively simple yet powerful memoir. Prompted by a desire to discover the fate of an uncle who died mysteriously in World War II, Kerrey finds himself forced to confront his own life. He focuses on his tour of duty as a young navy SEAL in Vietnam and his recuperation from a serious leg wound. In response to recent public charges that he ordered his men to kill civilians, he blames himself explicitly for approving the mission and implicitly for not ordering a cease-fire when he saw that women and children were caught in the crossfire. (He does admit that his memory may well be flawed.) Kerrey concludes with a powerful dream in which he meets his dead uncle, who also made a bad decision, one that led to his death. In the dream, Kerrey confronts his own guilt. While some might find Kerrey's style a bit ordinary, its very straightforwardness and lack of flourish add to the power of the work. Highly recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/02.] A.O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, IN Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An affecting memoir of youth in the Cold War-era American heartland and life and death in Vietnam. Former US senator Kerrey, now president of the New School, inadvertently stirred up controversy last year when news came out that he had been involved in a Vietnam War incident that left women and children dead. Kerrey's subsequent account of events was sometimes a little vague and did not always line up with other versions. "The story told in this book-though the most important details remain the same-is different than the one I first told," he writes in an afterword, "and even today I would not swear that my memory is 100% accurate." Cynical readers may wonder why his memory of that life-changing event, in which women and children were cut down in a crossfire between Vietcong soldiers and Kerrey's detachment of Navy SEALs, could be dodgy when, early on, he writes of being able to recall "with absolute clarity" 40-year-old moments on a Nebraska high-school football field. Be that as it may, his account of that fateful night in the Mekong Delta forms the dramatic heart and most newsworthy portion of his rueful memoir, which otherwise sounds familiar notes about patriotism turned to disaffection in the corrupt confusion of Vietnam. When he declares that not only those civilians but also "the young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night," Kerrey isn't being maudlin; he in fact came close to dying soon thereafter from grievous wounds received in an action for which he would be awarded the Medal of Honor. It's another strange twist in a war that, he holds, ended in failure largely because American strategists were too concerned with containing communism and not concerned enough withbuilding a democratic society in Vietnam. Of particular interest to veterans, and certain to attract still more discussion.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780151004744
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
06/06/2002
Pages:
288
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


1
ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON in the spring of 1954 when I was ten years old, I discovered my father had a brother. My parents, brothers, and sisters were out. I was home alone, a rare and exciting moment, made more exciting by my mission to find a storage room where my mother kept items too important to throw away. My goal was to find a wooden chest that a year earlier I had helped carry into the basement.
I had followed the box's movements from smaller house to larger house during the eight years our family grew from the four small children who arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1946 following my father's discharge from the U.S. Army, to the seven children who lived there now. My father's entire name-James Henry Kerrey-was stenciled in black on the top of the faded olive green box. It had leather handles on either end, a brass-hinged clasp that held the lid closed, and, fortunately for me, it was not padlocked.
Our new house was built on three levels. Upstairs were my parents' master bedroom and two other bedrooms for my sisters. In the basement were four smaller bedrooms, a large bathroom, and a recreation room for my brothers and me. In between was the entry level with spaces used by us all: dining room, music room, living room, laundry room, and an office.
Under the stairs going to my sisters' and parents' rooms was a crawl space where the green wooden chest was stored. That day I carried a chair down to the basement and placed it below the wooden doors that hid my treasure. As I opened the doors, my heart beat fast from the fear I might be caught and the excitement of discovering the secrets inside the box. I pulled a string that switched on a single incandescent bulb and climbed into the closet, moving things around so I could reach what I presumed was a war chest full of bloody memorabilia.
As I opened the lid the smell of camphor filled my lungs. On top were brown wool army jackets, trousers, and shirts. I pushed the uniforms aside, hoping to find souvenirs from some great battle. There was nothing of the sort. No pistols or muddied boots or a jacket with a bullet hole surrounded by the bloodstain of a fallen comrade. No battered helmet marked by too many days on the head of a weary soldier.
Underneath the uniforms I found a bayonet, but the blade looked as new and unused as any hardware knife in my father's store. I found hats, which were too large for my head, and four envelopes of pictures marked Iowa, Florida, Chicago, and Japan. I went straight for the one that said Japan. Inside were three-by-three-inch black-and-white images like the ones we took on our summer vacations. Men in uniforms stood in front of a metal building with a rounded roof. I recognized my father's smiling face, looking young and happy. I saw odd-shaped houses and strange, misshapen plants, and in one, a twisted, melted glass bottle. But nothing in the box lived up to the delights I had imagined.
Just as I was beginning to lose interest, I opened a large folder that held an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white photograph of the head and shoulders of a man in a white uniform. He looked just like my older brother John, tan and handsome, with dark thinning hair combed straight back. The resemblance was so strong that I decided to take the picture with me when I left the basement.
After dinner that night I waited for my father to go into his office, where he and my mother shared a desk and a set of filing cabinets. The room was always cluttered with broken chairs, torn clothing, and discarded toys. My father often made phone calls from this room after supper. My mother used it late at night when we had gone to bed to pay bills or make entries in a black book that held the income and expenses of their lumber, coal, and hardware business.
I stood in the doorway until he finished making a call. Then he turned and asked in a kind voice what I wanted. With the photograph in my outstretched hand, I said, "I found a picture of a man this afternoon. It looks like John." My father looked at the man's face and his expression grew sad and worried. "It isn't your brother John. This is my brother John. He was killed in the war." Before I could ask any questions, he said, "Where did you get it?"
When I answered truthfully his face reflected something I had never seen-a mixture of anger and pain. In that instant I thought he might either cry or shout at me. He chose anger. He rose and walked quickly past me and out the door, yelling, "You kids leave my things alone. Leave them alone." And he was gone. I stood as if I had been turned to salt like Lot's wife. I could not move; I could only stand there and cry. My mother came into the office and asked me what had happened. When I told her, she said gently, "Your father had an older brother named John. He was killed ten years ago. Your father doesn't like to talk about it. Please leave his things alone." Which is exactly what I did.

Copyright © 2002 by J. Robert Kerrey
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the workshould be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
www.HarcourtBooks.com

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What People are saying about this

Paul Fussell
In this fascinating memoir, Bob Kerrey delivers his version of a traditional American story which beautifully dramatizes his struggle to be honest with himself.  This painful exercise of memory results in a work of classic status.  I hope it will be widely read -- and understood.
— Paul Fussell, author of Doing Battle:  The Making of a Skeptic, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the  Second World War and The Great War and Modern Memory
Daniel Patrick Moyniham
Bob Kerrey has given so much to his nation. And now more. When I W as a Young Man is a narrative of war and loss, yet life enhancing withal.
Haynes Johnson
A haunting and ruthlessly honest memoir, not the story of a hero, but of something far more important: of a youth coming of age in a time when all the old assumptions about life were being challenged. His is a tale of triumph over adversity which provides a lesson for America in a new time of challenge and anxiety.
— Haynes Johnson, author of Best of Times
David Halberstam
Bob Kerrey has always been one of the most intriguing of our public figures--independent, winning, yet distant and unpredictable, always slightly out of reach.  This memoir, exceptionally well-written, helps explain the man.  It is not so much a hero's celebration of his youth as it is the anti-hero's lament for the loss of it.
Joan Didion
This is an astonishing book, an extraordinary American document, written with a directness and honesty and gravity that offers hope for the country that produced its author.
Richard Ben Cramer
This story of an American becoming a man is also a story of the country coming of age and it has these classic American virtues: candor, humility, reluctant courage. It is deeply moving and a delight.
— Richard Ben Cramer, author of Joe Dimaggio

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Meet the Author


Bob Kerrey, former governor and then senator of Nebraska, is now president of New School University. He served with an elite Navy SEAL team, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is the father of three children and lives in New York City.

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