Dad realizes military isn't reserved for other people

March 26, 2003|By SUSAN REIMER

WHEN JOHN Schaeffer shocked his family by joining the Marines straight out of his New England private school, his father, Frank, had to deal with a pair of disagreeable reactions.

There was his own: His son was inexplicably rejecting higher education, something the family worshipped and his two older siblings had embraced.

Then there was that of his neighbors: One of the parents at John's school called for an investigation to make sure this kind of thing never happened with another student.

On Sunday night, Cpl. John Schaeffer of the U.S. Marine Corps departed for the Middle East, and his father is dealing again with an unpleasant reaction.

"I feel as if I just got punched in the stomach," Frank said from his home in Salisbury, Mass. "I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me."

Frank Schaeffer is an author and a screenwriter, and he processed his son's surprising enlistment by writing. He asked John to join him in the project and the result is the highly acclaimed Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps.

Written in alternating voices, John chronicles the crucible process by which the Marines made him one of their own, while Frank contemplates what it means to serve, and what it means to love.

The book is a revealing exploration of duty, class and patriotism from two distinct points of view. But it became, frankly, not much more than a tidy little human interest story when Frank got word that his son would be sent into battle.

"My feelings are raw and real," said Frank. "I walk around feeling like I've been punched. I wake up at 3 a.m., sit bolt upright and remember that he is gone.

"I worry a lot, but I am proud of him all the time."

Frank can't say, if he knows, where John is or what he is doing in the Persian Gulf, except that "he will be there three or four months and he is very much in harm's way. He's in military intelligence, and let's just say it isn't a desk job."

Frank drove the old family car from Massachusetts to Washington a little more than a week ago to hand it off to his son.

"I know it doesn't make much sense, giving him a car when he is about to be deployed. I mean, it is just going to be parked.

"But it is a token. I wanted to do something. It is a vote of confidence that he will be coming back."

Frank did not understand why John chose to enlist in 1999 - and did so without telling his family. And John reveals in Keeping Faith that he wasn't real sure, either.

So Frank asked him again while visiting him on the Marine base outside Washington.

"I asked him what he thought he was doing, and he said that when he was in high school he lived a sheltered life.

"He said, `I now know how dangerous the world is, and I want to do my part to protect you, mom and my home.'"

Despite the sadness and fear of John's leaving, his father says he now feels like a real citizen of his own country.

"My son has connected me to my country in a way I have never been connected before," said Frank.

He admitted to being a snob before John introduced him to the world of military service.

"The class of people I move in all wanted to know what went wrong with John. We all had this idea that the military is for people who can't make it in life, or for troubled youth at risk. ... [We] got used to having other people protect us.

"Gradually, I learned and I changed."

Just that morning, he had taken his car in for some work and the mechanic, who has a brother who is a Marine in combat in the Persian Gulf, "put his arm around my shoulder and asked me how my boy was," Frank said. Both men understood that it was not a casual conversation starter.

The waitress at the coffee shop where Frank sometimes stops for breakfast fills his coffee cup while her eyes fill with tears. She has two sons who are Marines - one in Korea and one in combat in the Persian Gulf.

"I have a hell of a lot more in common with these people than I do with the parents of John's friends," Frank said. "When they ask how I am doing, I know they have no clue."

His wife, Genie, views him as "an amiable lunatic," Frank said. "She is the one sane member of our family. She keeps things calm. She is the rock upon which our family is built."

Because both parents work, she had to make a separate trip to see John before he was deployed.

"We are both very brittle," Frank said. "I feel like I am walking on fresh ice, afraid to fall in. Genie doesn't watch TV anymore. Every boy she sees is John."

John Schaeffer is somewhere in the Persian Gulf, in God knows what kind of danger, and the exploration of love and service that he and his father undertook in their diary - which ends on Sept. 11, 2001 - has become a testament to a comparatively innocent time in their lives.

Frank Schaeffer feels less like a man taking stock and more like one whose heart is breaking.

"On the level of compassion and empathy, this is a very tough row to hoe. But I am glad I am connected.

"I have gone through life feeling unconnected to the people who watch over us while we sleep, and I don't feel that way anymore."

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