TOPICS > Arts

Essay: A Line to My Heart

December 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

FRANK SCHAEFFER: Before my son became a Marine, I never thought much about who was defending me. Now when I read of the war on terrorism or the coming conflict in Iraq, it cuts to my heart. When I see a picture of a member of our military who has been killed, I read his or her name very carefully. Sometimes I cry.

In 1999, when the barrel-chested Marine recruiters showed up in dress blues and bedazzled my 18-year-old son, John, I did not stand in the way. John understood these stern, clean men with their straight backs. I did not. I live on the Volvo-driving, higher education-worshipping north shore of Boston. I write novels for a living, and I have never served in the military. John’s enlisting was deeply unsettling. I did not relish the prospect of answering the question, “so where is John going to college?” From the parents who were itching to tell me about how their son or daughter was going to Harvard. At the private high school John attended, there were no other students going into the military.

SPOKESMAN: Okay, I had the rifle before you had me.

FRANK SCHAEFFER: “But aren’t the Marines terribly southern?”, Asked one perplexed mother while standing next to me at the brunch following graduation. “What a waste; he was such a good student,” said another. Another parent even suggested the school should evaluate “what went wrong.” (Marching band plays)

When John graduated from three months of boot camp on Parris Island, there were 3,000 family members on the parade deck stands. We were not only of many races, but also of different economic classes. Many were poor. Some parents arrived crammed in the back of pickups. Some could not afford the trip. We were white and Native American. We were Hispanic and African American and Asian. We were former Marines wearing the scars of battle, or at least baseball caps emblazoned with battles’ names. We were southern whites from Nashville, and black kids from Cleveland wearing ghetto rags. We would not have been mistaken for the educated and well-heeled elite gathered on the lawns of John’s private school half a year before.

My son has connected me to my country in a way that I was too selfish and insular to experience before. I feel closer to the waitress at our local diner than to some of my oldest friends. She has two sons in the corps. When the guy who fixes my car asks me how John is doing, I know he means it. His younger brother is in the Navy. At one time, the sons and daughters of the most powerful and educated were proud to serve their country.

MAN; I lost my leg in Vietnam, and I’m totally opposed to this war we’re carrying out over there.

FRANK SCHAEFFER: This changed during the Vietnam War. But the time that war ended, the upper classes, especially the most educated, seemed to have lost the habit of service.

Have we middle-class and educated Americans all become pacifists? Did we think the world had become a safe place? Or did we just get used to other people defending us? What is the future of our democracy wherein the sons and daughters of the janitors who clean our elite universities are far more willing to be put in harm’s way than are any of the students whose dorms they clean?

SPOKESPERSON: Ladies and gentlemen, the Marines of Company B.

FRANK SCHAEFFER: Why were I and the other parents at my son’s private school so surprised by his choice? I feel shame because it took John’s joining the Marine Corps to make me take notice of who is defending me. I feel hope because my son is part of a future “greatest generation.” I also feel pride. As the clouds of war gather, at least I can look the men and women who defend us in the eye. My son is one of them. He is the best I have to offer. He is my heart.

I’m Frank Schaeffer.