Frank Schaeffer is the author of the novels Portofino, Saving Grandma, and the sequel Zermatt, which will be published by Carroll & Graf in October. The son of Presbyterian apologist Francis Schaeffer, Frank has now written a nonfiction book with his own son, John, titled Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps. The book has been receiving attention from several quarters (including Oprah Winfrey's TV show), and is number 30 on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list.
What is it that people are connecting to in this book?
This book tells the story of a guy who lived in the Volvo-driving, higher-education worshiping Northshore Boston. It tells the story about a family who had never imagined one of their kids going into the military. My older son went to Georgetown, and my daughter went to New York University. John wanted to go into the Marine Corps right out of a swanky private school. I had never served in the military, and, to be frank, the children of the members of my economic class—white, educated, '60s-generation types—usually don't serve, at least not around here in Massachusetts. We leave military service to other people's sons and daughters.
Why do we assume that Chelsea Clinton or Jenna Bush aren't going to volunteer for the military, whereas it doesn't surprise us if we hear that the guy who works down at the gas station has a son in the military? In World War II everybody did the heavy lifting, not just the less-educated echelons of the society.
I guess what people are connecting to with Keeping Faith is a personal story about a father who loves his son and the son who loves his father fighting all through the last summer. The kid was at home. I didn't like his girlfriend. I didn't want him to go into the Marines. We had all kinds of trouble. So I was learning too, not only about the Marine Corps, but something about my son and how to respect him.
And, of course, people are connecting because of 9/11. We wrote our book, by the way, before 9/11. After 9/11 and now Iraq, anything to do with a kid in the military is pretty topical. My son has been deployed; he's out there in the Middle East now, so I'm getting some sleepless nights. You put all that together and all of a sudden we've got a book that's selling very well.
Everybody can understand a book like this after 9/11. Why did you want to write it before it became so marketable?
John, my son, began to write me some very descriptive letters from boot camp. After he left boot camp, he went on to Fort Huachuca in Arizona, where military intelligence people are trained, and we started trading e-mails. After a few months of this, I said, "At some point I'm going to use this material in a book, whether it's a novel or something else." A little while later I said, "That's crazy. We're writing this book now. Let's just keep going and treat it that way."
But the real reason that we wrote is really simple. It was my way of keeping track of my boy. I did not want John to go slipping into a world of which I knew nothing. So I wanted to come up with a project, any excuse, whether it was trading e-mails or writing a book, to stay very close to him. Our last summer together was a rough time. Part of this story was just our attempt at restoring our relationship.
You talk in your book about one of your rougher times together. After you cooked a very special meal, he didn't show up. By calling Erica's house, you found out he was having dinner there instead.
With John leaving that summer I just went out of my mind. I called the father up and said that I hoped that while John was over there that nothing was going on. I didn't want John getting his daughter pregnant.
This is really the first conversation you've had with this guy, right?
Exactly. That evening, my wife, Genie, said to me, "You called Trip and told him you thought John might get Erica pregnant? Are you out of your mind? How can you insult him that way? John will never speak to you again."
"Of course he will," I said.
"The only reason you're so angry is because he missed your rosemary chicken," Genie said and smiled.
"Maybe that I feel lonely," I said.
But part of the reason you felt this way was because of your own background at this age.
When I would talk to him as a teenager, what I really had to tell him was "Don't do what I did." When I was 17, and my wife was 18, I got her pregnant with who turned out to be our beautiful daughter, Jessica.
And this happened at L'Abri, right?
Yeah, right in the middle of a big Christian ministry there. God bless my parents, they neither judged me, censored me, tossed me out, or made me embarrassed. They just were very loving and took Genie in. We got married and everything had a happy ending, although there were a lot of big struggles because we were just kids having kids.
In the book I talk all about that in the context of wishing that I had my Dad back. He died in 1984. I want to say, "Hey Dad, I guess this is payback time. You know, I got Genie pregnant, and John has joined the Marine Corps without my permission." The funny thing is John has been an absolute model citizen. I was getting somebody pregnant, and he was going off to defend his country. Which kid would you rather be raising? So I look back on my own life and realize this guy has actually done the right thing, whereas I was just giving my parents nightmares.
When I went down to Parris Island and saw him graduate, it was honestly the proudest moment of my life. I felt very small and kind of alien to all the selflessness around me. I really felt that I was unworthy to be standing so casually on the ground that these guys had trained on and into which millions of gallons of sweat had soaked.
So you found your views about the military changing?
I really started look at my own connection to my country differently. I feel completely different about it. I'm connected through John. I can look the men and women in the eye who defend us, because my son's one of them. It's a kind of reconnecting with the national fabric of our nation in a way that I'd never experienced. And now I look back and I say, "Man, you know, you were an isolated, snobbish kind of a guy, weren't you?"
Now you see the country very differently than did your father, who was pessimistic about Western culture.
I actually feel that America is an amazing country. There's a lot going on in this country that I have a terrible sense of disapproval of, whether it's abortion on demand or a lot of things like that. But on the other hand, through having John in the Marine Corps and kind of hooking into my own American roots of grandparents and great-grandparents who served on John's side, you know, the question is, What's the alternative? Who would you rather have as the great power in the world right now? France? China? Saudi Arabia?
I guess having John out there defending us while we sleep really has made me much more kind of level-headed in looking at what the alternatives are. My sense is that, warts and all, the world is fortunate that we are the ones wielding this terrific power right now.
How has having a son in the Marines changed your prayer life?
Since John has been deployed to the Middle East, something interesting has been happening to me in the mornings. In the old days, I used to wake up and then pray because I'd remember to pray. But I actually wake myself up already praying. I actually have woken myself up praying. My deep concern for his safety and the safety of the people he's with has translated into real dependency on God and grace because there is nothing else to look to.
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