An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us


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James fulfilled the goal his father had abandoned, becoming a priest himself. His feelings toward his father leaned toward worship as well—until the tumult of the s came between them. Their disagreements, over Martin Luther King, Jr. James, meanwhile, served as a chaplain at Boston University, protesting the war in the streets but ducking news cameras to avoid discovery. Their relationship would never be the same again. I thought of making the dash myself, to spare us all. But then I saw, on a low post beside my father, a sign with luminous letters on it.

Dad was looking at it too. John Smith. The man was military. An NCO was barking orders at a general like a drill instructor bellowing at recruits.

Again I looked for Dad's eyes, and though it seemed I found them, I could read nothing of his reaction. I was stunned enough for both of us.


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Now they shoot us. I was frozen to a spot near the rear bumper of our car. Rain and sleet pelted my face, my soaked clothing, my slimy skin, my watery bones. A shudder coursed through me, a fever and a chill at once. My father's stare made me feel sure this was my fault. I started to sprint toward the house, to retrieve the paper and apologize.

But as I was about to pass Dad, he put his hand up, stopping me. He turned, and with a low humping movement—ducking gunfire? Sergeant Smith's car was off to the side, and now I saw the bumper sticker identifying it with Fort Belvoir, an Army post a few miles away. The sergeant had remained in the shadow of the doorway, out of the weather. He held the storm door half open. I could see only his arm and the dark bulk of his body. He was a big man. I had collected at the house once or twice, but from his wife.

In the short time they'd been on my route, they'd never complained. I took a step forward as Dad bent to pick up the newspaper. He carried it the two or three steps to the door and held it out, and the man took it, saying something I could not hear.

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Then Dad was running toward me again, pumping like a halfback. I scooted around to my side, and when he leaped onto the front seat, so did I, as if we'd just pulled one off together. Our doors shut simultaneously. Dad dropped the car into gear and popped the clutch, and we lurched forward, away.

Even I knew how senior NCOs hated it when stupid punk recruits addressed them as if they were officers. Then we laughed and laughed, heads back. He slapped my leg. No, sir! I was swept up in a wave of gratitude, both that my father had not needed to pull rank on the bastard and that he'd found a way to prick him. Our over-reaction was about more than that, though, and now I know what.

The order of the hierarchy, of the universe we shared, had just been upended. Years later, in a literature class, I would learn that such reversal is the essence of comedy—and also of tragedy. But that morning, bound more tightly than before, my father and I found his near humiliation and his too sly but finally generous riposte only funny. Nothing would ever seem this funny to us again—certainly not my eventual upending of the ordered world.

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But that morning it was enough. We laughed until we got home, and then found ourselves unable to explain to the others why. Which only made it better. Catholics called it Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but to the Jews and Protestants who also took turns worshipping there, it was just "the chapel. The little white church with its steeple and clear-glass windows could have been the pride of any New England town, but this was the chapel at Bolling Air Force Base, on the east bank of the Potomac River in Washington, D.

A block to one side of it hangars loomed, and up the hill on the other side the imposing Officers' Club dwarfed the small church—a reminder of what really mattered here. On a Saturday in February of more than people filed into the chapel. The statue of Mary and the wretched crucifix were on display. The paraphernalia of a Roman Catholic liturgy were laid out on the side table and altar—the cruets, the covered chalice, the beeswax candles, the oversized red missal, which the chaplain's assistant would spell "missile.

A number were generals who had come down from Generals' Row, the ridge road along the upper slope of the base, where the vice chief, the inspector general, and members of the Air Staff lived. These were the chairborne commanders of Operation Rolling Thunder, an air war that by then had dropped more bomb tonnage on a peninsula in Asia than the Army Air Corps ever dropped on Germany.

The generals and their wives, easing down the center aisle, looked for their host and hostess and found them already seated in the front pew. They were Lieutenant General and Mrs. Joseph F. Carroll—Joe and Mary. He was the founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency , the man in charge of counting the enemy and evaluating targets in Vietnam. Today he wore civvies, but with his steely hair, fixed gaze, and erect posture, he looked like what he was. She, a staunch, chin-high Catholic woman, was in possession of a lifelong Irish dream: she was the newly minted mother of a priest.

But there was worry in her fingers as the beads she held fed through them. Her lips were moving. A bell rang. The airman at the Hammond organ and a seminary choir began with a hymn, and the people stood, joining in with a set of coughs that moved through the chapel like a wind sent to rough up the chipper happiness of the seminarians. A line of altar boys entered from the sacristy in the rear, ambling into the center aisle, leading a procession of a dozen priests wearing stoles and albs, a pair of candle bearers, a thurifer, the surpliced master of ceremonies, and, last of all, the ordained priest come to celebrate his first mass and preach his first anointed sermon.

That new priest, with his primly folded hands and his close haircut and his polished black wingtips, was I. A few minutes later the Air Force chief of chaplains, Major General Edwin Chess, by Church rank a monsignor, whom I had known since he accompanied Cardinal Spellman to our quarters for a Christmas visit at a base in Germany years before, stood at the microphone to introduce me.

I was celebrating my first mass here, as tradition required, in my parents' parish, not mine. True, I had served as an altar boy in this chapel nearly a decade before. A rotation of Air Force chaplains had been welcomed into our family like bachelor uncles. General Chess had been my spiritual director. And no wonder I'd harbored that ambition. Air bases were like sanctuaries to me. I loved them—the air policemen saluting us at the gates, the sprawling hangars, the regular roar of airplanes, the friendly sergeants in the base exchange, the Base Ops snack bar, the mounded ammo dumps amid stretches of grass on which I'd played ball.

Air Force bases were a realm of mine. I grew up a prince, a would-be flyboy, absolutely on the side of everyone in blue. But now? Perhaps in November of , when below my father's third-floor window at the Pentagon a thirty-one-year-old Quaker named Norman Morrison set himself on fire. It took a couple of years, but by October 21, , I was standing on roughly the same spot below my father's window. No self-immolator, I only chanted anti-war slogans—and I dared do even that only because tens of thousands of others stood chanting with me.

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I was sure it would never occur to my father that I was out there, and I was careful not to isolate myself from the throng. He never saw me. While in the seminary I had embraced as an ideal Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and poet. Only months before my ordination he and his brother led the infamous raid on the draft-board offices in Catonsville, Maryland. On their side? Compared with the Berrigan witness, my anonymous participation in Washington's tremendous anti-war demonstrations was the height of timidity.

In secret I had taken the stainless-steel model B bomber that was my prize for that ROTC award out to a ravine behind the seminary and hurled it, the napalm machine, into a fetid swamp.


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I remember its gleaming arc as my version of the gods dispelling in midair—their annihilation, not ours, as Wallace Stevens had it, "yet it left us feeling that in a measure, we, too, had been annihilated. I had had dreams about the war, about flying airplanes in it, but my puerile fantasy had become a nightmare. Once, I dreamed of crashing a jet plane into my parents' house on Generals' Row. But it was all a secret, and not just from them.

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When, only a few months before, General Curtis LeMay, a vice-presidential candidate, had put a savage warmongering on display, I could not square my shame with the near worship I had felt for him as our next-door neighbor at Bolling in the early sixties. That was a secret too. I dreaded the thought that my fellow protesters might learn who my neighbors were, not to mention my father. In public, standing alone, I had never declared myself on the war. But what did it mean to be alone? I was two people, and considered independently, each of my selves seemed to have integrity, but this was belied by the fact that I could not bring them together.

For the longest time I could not speak. And now? What to my father surely seemed a proper obeisance had become to me the secret cowardice of a magnum silentium. He had reason to take for granted the reliable decorum of my first priestly performance. But my mother, with her worrying fingers, had reason to be anxious, for she had learned never to trust the arrival of a dream, even if she could not quite imagine how it might shatter. Despite my clerical draft exemption, or because of it, mounting the tidy pulpit of that pristine war church felt exactly like conscription.

On our side? The chief chaplain's words had hit me like a draft notice, and I felt as naked as any inductee before my well-clothed brothers, friends, and neighbors; before a few of my fellow seminarians, hardly peaceniks; before beaming chaplains and generals; before my parents; before—here was the deepest feeling—the one-man congregation of my father. I could no more look at him than at God. I remember looking at the other bright, uplifted faces. One was my brother Dennis, who before that year was out would be a draft fugitive.

Another was my brother Brian, who before Dennis returned from exile abroad would be an FBI agent, catching fugitives like him. I remember the beveled edges of the wooden lectern inside my clutching fingers. The Scriptures in front of me were open to a text I had chosen myself, departing from the order given by the liturgical cycle. And I remember:. A mystical vision? The prophet Ezekiel in an epileptic trance? Yet news accounts not long before had described just such a scene in the valley below a besieged hilltop called Khe Sanh.

William Westmoreland had proposed using nuclear weapons to break the siege. Casualties had mounted; 10, men had been killed in a matter of weeks. That carnage was in my mind when I, presumptuously, chose Ezekiel's text. Dry bones: the metaphor rang in the air, a double-edged image of rebuke, cutting both ways—toward the literal Southeast Asian valleys of the dead and toward the realm of crushed hopes about which some of us had never dared to speak. It was as specific as I dared get—or as I needed to. Others in that congregation may not have felt the dead weight of that word, but I knew my father would, and so would the other generals.

He served as a chaplain at Boston University from to , then left the priesthood to become a writer. A distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University, he is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast. Reviews Review Policy. Published on. Flowing text, Original pages. Best For. Web, Tablet, Phone, eReader. Content Protection.

Read Aloud. Flag as inappropriate. It syncs automatically with your account and allows you to read online or offline wherever you are. Please follow the detailed Help center instructions to transfer the files to supported eReaders. More related to the Vietnam War. See more. Remains: Non-Viewable: A Memoir. John Sacret Young.

When John Sacret Young's cousin, Doug was killed in Vietnam, Young learned that the remains of every Vietnam casualty fell into one of two official categories: Viewable or Non-Viewable. He also discovered that such categories applied to how his New England family faced its own history. Doug Anderson. An award-winning poet highlights the vibrant history of his generation in a farewell to Vietnam, the chaotic sixties, and their long aftermath. Beginning in , in the pre—civil rights South filled with tobacco and war stories, he recalls the difficult childhood that propels him into service in Vietnam.

In , having returned home deeply shaken by his experience as a combat medical corpsman, Anderson plunges into the heady freedoms and excesses of the sixties. His downward spiral—through booze, substance abuse, and sex—brings him dangerously close to a total breakdown. Finally, in a return group visit to Vietnam in , he meets with former enemies now become writers and poets. Solo: My Adventures in the Air. Clyde Edgerton.

When Clyde Edgerton was four years old, his mother took him to the local airport to see the planes. For the boy, it was love at first sight. Eighteen years later, she would take him to the same airport to catch a flight to Texas for Air Force pilot training. Edgerton tells the story of his lifelong love affair with flying, from his childlike wonder to his job as a fighter pilot flying reconnaissance over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Now, decades after the Vietnam War, he looks back at his youthful passion for flying, at the joy he took in mastering it, at the exhilaration—and lingering anguish—of combat aviation. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places.

An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us
An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us

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