In the wake of the decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan, I’ve decided to repost this review I wrote of Frank Schaeffer’s book, Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and The United States Marine Corps. Frank co-wrote this book with his youngest child, his son John. I discovered Schaeffer about 20 years ago, when I was hanging out on a messageboard dedicated to people who had attended Pensacola Christian College. Schaeffer was raised in Switzerland by two famous missionary parents, and he had written a trilogy of very entertaining novels about the experience. Someone on the PCC board recommended them, so I read and loved them. He’s also written many non-fiction books about religion, some of which I have read and reviewed for Epinions.com.
Schaeffer had no experience with the U.S. military when his son, John, decided to join the Marines just before 9/11. He wrote several books about his son’s military experience, as well as a great novel called Baby Jack. I wrote this review for Epinions in February 2004. I believe John has since left the Marines. It appears here as/is. I see by visiting Frank’s Web site that he’s written a new book about Trump. Guess I’ll be downloading that one, too.
First off, let me preface by commenting that Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and The United States Marine Corps (2002) by Frank Schaeffer and his son, John Schaeffer, is a wonderfully honest and poignant book. Frank Schaeffer, an author of three novels (two at the time this book was published), is the father of three children. His older two, daughter Jessica, and son, Francis, had done what all of the other kids in Schaeffer’s social class had done and, after graduating from private high schools, gone off to private colleges.
Youngest son John had always been a good athlete and a talented writer (he specializes in poetry and aspires to one day own a bookstore and write for a living), but he was not a good student. Nevertheless, Frank and his wife, Genie, had always assumed that John would follow in his older siblings’ footsteps and go to college, if not for academics, then for athletics. Instead, John decided to join the Marines, an entity that was totally foreign to the Schaeffer family. John Schaeffer wrote that he was not particularly concerned with what his parents thought about the direction of his life, although he did listen to what they had to say and respected their opinions. He had joined the Marines without consulting his parents. I got the feeling that this decision really hurt Frank Schaeffer’s feelings, especially when he pictured his boy coming home in a casket, draped with an American flag.
Frank Schaeffer confesses that he had always felt particularly close to John because his youngest boy had come along when he was “supposed to have children”. The elder Schaeffer became a father for the first time at age eighteen. His second child arrived when he was twenty-one. John was born when Frank was fully twenty-eight years old “almost a grown up”, he says. He got to enjoy his youngest child. I also got the sense that he shared a sense of adventure with John as well as writing talent. Frank Schaeffer grew up the son of American Calvinist missionaries based in Switzerland. He didn’t learn to read until he was eleven years old, vacationed in Portofino, Italy every summer with his three sisters. Schaeffer chronicles his experiences in his novels, Portofino and Saving Grandma, both of which I have read and reviewed on Epinions.com. Frank Schaeffer enjoys cooking, and his son John loves his father’s Tuscan pizza. Frank enjoys his youngest son very much, but I got the feeling it went beyond the fact that they were merely blood. It seemed to me that they were also very good friends.
This sense of friendship was apparent as Frank and John Schaeffer wrote about how they spent their last summer together before boot camp. John had a girlfriend named Erica whom Frank did not like. Frank found Erica cold and distant. She didn’t want to spend any time with the Schaeffer family and Frank felt that she was taking his son away from him, especially since there was precious little time left before boot camp would begin. And this is where the honesty of this book comes in. Readers begin to read about situations in which Schaeffer behaved in ways that may seem, quite frankly, embarrassing. Many people would not want have wanted to admit to admit to some of the behavior that Schaeffer writes that he exhibited in the face of losing his son to boot camp. He comes across as, well, a father hen facing an empty nest.
And then when John starts basic training, we get to read about Frank’s angst at never hearing from his son and the constant letters that he sends his boy. We also read from John’s side as he experiences life on Parris Island– the constant harassment that he suffered as a Marine recruit– the abuse that others suffered, especially those deemed “Fat Bodies or Diet Trays (overweight recruits)”. John’s letters home are painfully short with one or two lines of information and maybe a request or two. He asks for Power Bars and Gatorade, which Frank gladly sends on several occasions. The treats get stashed in a foot locker for the drill instructors to eat or dole out to all of the recruits. Some of the recruits get no mail at all, but John gets a lot of mail– mostly courtesy of his father. He actually gets punished for this a few times.
I found the description of the basic training fascinating. My husband has often told me tales of training, but he didn’t enlist and he’s in the Army. It was interesting to read another point of view. I also used to live in South Carolina, which is where Parris Island is located. I was living there when John Schaeffer was in basic training. In fact, he wrote of having to be evacuated for Hurricane Floyd. He didn’t mention the storm by name, but I know that was the storm he was referring to because it had the distinction of causing one of the worst traffic tie ups in hurricane evacuation history– and it never even really struck land.
I also found John’s stories of the Marines doing what they could to get their fellow recruits through the course inspiring. He wrote of one recruit who developed double pneumonia right before the final 52 hour test, called the Crucible. There was talk that the recruit would not be allowed to take the test. The other recruits, unbeknownst to the sick one, split up the heavier contents of his pack, and carried his load for him. The Senior Drill Instructor said he would get him through the Crucible if he had to carry him through it himself. In fact the recruit played the injured recruit during the Crucible whenever the test called for an injured recruit, and he ended up passing and becoming a Marine.
We are also treated to several scenes where drill instructors dispense fatherly advice coated in profanity. For instance, they tell their recruits “not to get married and buy a bunch of stupid crap for Suzie Rottencrotch” the minute they get out of basic training– instead they should hold off until they make rank and can afford it. They also advise their recruits that there will be plenty of sex to be had once they are Marines and a lot of women will want to “nail them.” But they shouldn’t try to “bang sixteen year olds” because they could go to jail for that in the Corps. And they add, “Fer Chrissakes, don’t get any of ’em pregnant!”
Interspersed within these inspiring stories are John’s poems, stories of life at home in Massachusetts, and Frank’s yearnings to hear from his son. At one point in the book, John writes home to tell his parents that he has decided to change his job once he gets out of training. The job change means that he will add another year to his contract. Frank is angry about this change of events and scolds his son for not consulting him first, or at least talking to the one person the family knows who is a Marine. Frank’s reason for being angry is that the training will require John to move further away from him for a longer time. Originally, he would have trained in the DC area, but his new job would require him to go to Arizona and then Florida. He wrote an angry letter to his son about this development and then got in a fight with his wife… more embarrassing scenes that one would think might be too embarrassing to include in this book. But that’s what makes this book so good. It’s quite honest and Schaeffer shows his very human side. Incidentally, my first reaction to this scenario was that Frank Schaeffer was really in for a rude awakening. Service life is all about frequent moves and going wherever the government decides to send you. I’m sure Frank Schaeffer knows all of this now, though. And I’m sure he’s allowed his son to grow up and distance himself a bit.
As it turned out, once John graduated from basic training, he completed some training in North Carolina, then he ended up spending eighteen months in Arizona while he waited for his security clearance. He had left for Arizona four days after meeting Mollie, a woman to whom he really felt attracted. This part of the book was interesting, as John wasn’t doing anything in particular but waiting. It was a time in which he proved his allegiance to the Corps, since he had injured his foot and had to have surgery. He had the chance to leave the Marines, go to college, be with Mollie. He stayed in, went to Pensacola, and became an exemplary example of a Marine, just in time for September 11th, 2001. According to the back jacket, John Schaeffer is currently serving in Maryland.
As expected, this book does do some bashing of the other services, especially the Army. As the wife of a Soldier, I found myself getting a little annoyed at the generalization that all Army Soldiers are slobs. But then again, I know that the Marines have the toughest physical standards of all of the services. I know they take exceptional pride in their appearance. I’m also an Air Force daughter and I used to hear my dad bashing the Army, too (though not quite as much as this book did). I also found myself laughing aloud quite a lot.
This is a great book and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as much as I have enjoyed Frank Schaeffer’s novels. I read passages of it aloud to my husband, who also wants to read the book now that I’m finished. If you have a loved one serving in the Armed Forces, especially if he or she is a Marine, this book might be a worthy investment of your time.
Frank Schaeffer has written two follow ups to Keeping Faith, Faith of Our Sons, and Voices From The Front.
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