Author Chris Hedges (left) bears a striking resemblance to author Christian Bauman's father (right).
1. First, let me say this
This is—perhaps—the saddest song I’ll ever sing.
2. What we look like now
The author photograph on the cover of Chris Hedges’ first book is a color snapshot of a serious man wearing glasses and a leather jacket who bears a startling resemblance to my biological father. The parallel doesn’t go far past first glance—Hedges has fine, blond hair and although sunken-eyed like a Bauman is otherwise healthy-looking in a way my father hasn’t been for ten years or more. Indeed, the personalities of the two men are of such an extreme that less than five minutes in the company of Christopher L. Hedges and any passing thought of Bruce F. Bauman doesn’t just fizzle but is sharply extinguished like a cigarette dropped in a glass of cold water. Still, after Chris and I met for the first time, when my wife asked what he looked like, I didn’t answer, just pushed the hardback of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning across the kitchen table to her. She opened the back cover to the leaf, and her eyebrows went north.
“Wow,” she said, glancing up at me, then back down at the picture. “He looks like—”
“He sure does,” I said.
Brenda knows my father from just the one brief visit he paid to us almost ten years ago, and a handful (small handful) of snapshots. But her first reaction to Chris’ author photo mirrored my reaction when I first met him, at the Full Moon Café in Lambertville, New Jersey. I was on lunch break from the day gig I had at the time, rushing into the restaurant where I had agreed to meet him, out of breath from half-trotting six blocks. He was the only customer there. I bent down to ask and verify his name, and pulled out a free chair, all without paying attention. So as I sat and really saw him for the first time, I had to pretend not to stare as we passed niceties. Chris Hedges sat across from me a possible ghost, a man who could have been Bruce Bauman’s blond-haired younger brother in an alternate universe.
Chris Hedges does not, I should point out, look like me. Chris looks somewhat like my father, very much like him in this one photograph. And I am clearly my father’s son. But Chris and I walking down the street—or, as has since happened, pictured next to each other on a lecture flyer—would not draw an assumption of relation from passers-by. There is too much of my maternal grandfather in my genes, and age is inflating me puffily in ways neither Chris nor my father are or could ever be.
In fact—to continue this digression—when the poets Gerald Stern and Anne Marie Macari threw a party for Chris Hedges just about this time two years ago, to celebrate the publication of his fourth book (American Fascists), Stern (who, of course, has met neither my father nor a picture of him) proved that out of context of my father, there is no physical similarity between Hedges and myself.
“Chris!” Stern yelled down the hall, over the heads of party guests.
“Which Chris?” I yelled back. Hedges was standing four feet behind me, signing books.
“You!” Stern waved an arm for my wife and me to draw near. Gerald Stern is delightful; pale and stooping with age, but bright-eyed, vociferous, opinionated, and gesturative. I knew him through occasional lunches with Hedges at Ennis’s Deli but not well and had not seen him in a year or three.
“Hello, Jerry,” I said. “How are you.”
“Chris Bauman,” he said, and grabbed my arm. “You know who you look like?” Pulling me in, he turned to the man next to him. “You know who this guy looks like? Just like, exactly?”
“I’m sorry?” the man said.
“This guy here,” Stern said, giving my arm a little shake. “This Chris Bauman here. You know him? He’s a writer. You know exactly who he looks like?”
“Who’s that, Jerry?” I said.
Stern paused a moment, leaned back for a verifying look, then said, “Paul Giamatti.” Stern let my arm go and clapped his hands together. “You know that guy? That actor. You know him? Paul Giamatti.”
“From the wine movie,” I said, and Stern clapped his hands again.
“That’s the guy!” Stern turned to his friend again, hooked a thumb at me. “Looks just like him, doesn’t he?” Stern was grinning like a mad poet. Which he is. So there you are.
The friend smiled at me and my wife. I let him off the hook by speaking first.
“It’s good to see you again, Jerry,” I said. “That’s a helluva spread you’ve got laid out for us in the dinning room. Cook it all yourself?”
“Ha!” Stern said, snapped his fingers and gripped my arm again. “Paul Giamatti. Is that his name? I’m not sure. But I’m telling you—a dead ringer.”
The last (and only other) time anyone compared me to an actor it had been Steve Buscemi. I didn’t see it, but took it as close to a compliment as my looks are ever likely to elicit. But Giamatti? I didn’t know what to say to that. Not that there’s anything wrong with Paul Giamatti. I just don’t look like him. I’m pretty sure.
Stern has a poem called “Dancing,” and I had a question about it, something about the sudden appearance of God at the poem’s ending I’d been wanting to ask him. I’d remembered the poem on the drive to the party, and reminded myself to ask when the opportunity arose. But my question evaporated in the face of the Giamatti comparison. “A dead ringer!” Stern said, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Huddled over mini crab cakes in a corner of Anne Marie’s kitchen, I said to my wife, “Paul Giamatti? No—right?”
Brenda mused on this longer than I would have liked. Finally, she said, “Well, maybe it’s in the eyes.” She dipped a piece of crab cake in the sauce, took another bite. “You have put on some weight.”
3. Born again
My father has been doing the opposite, weight-wise. Always a thin man, his descent into extreme slenderness has been nonetheless startling. To me, anyway. I’ve only seen him a few times in the past ten years, and I’m sure the weight loss was gradual in person. But to my eyes, startling. A thyroid something? Then something else in the belly? Along those lines; he told me and I forgot. These physical things, coupled with stress, with bigger life issues, then coupled again with a handcuffed addiction to cigarettes. None of this good for maintaining weight. To boot, in the last three years he’s suffered a series of small strokes and had a wingspan stent installed in his neck (installed? Yikes.). I haven’t seen him since the strokes, but can imagine. His third wife died about four years ago, of cancer. They’d most recently lived in South Carolina, but he’s in North Carolina now (living, it seems, with a new wife, his fourth, whom he married post-stroke; he tells me they met online). My father didn’t have much in the way of pounds to spare when last I visited him down South seven or eight years back; I don’t imagine the post-stroke diet is doing his frame any favors.
He’s young to have had one stroke, let alone two. My father was only twenty when I was born. I’m thirty-eight now, he’s fifty-nine. (Hedges, then—remember him? This is a song about Hedges—falls between us.) My father can no longer smoke, because of the strokes. To light up now would be to pull a trigger. I can’t imagine him without a cigarette. Then again, I couldn’t imagine myself without a cigarette but have been a non-smoker for a few years. So anything is possible.
When I was ten or eleven—he’d been out of jail for a year, so I guess it was eleven—my father called to tell me he’d been born again, that he was now a born-again Christian. I didn’t know what this meant, and I cried. He told me over the phone he’d become born again and I started crying, just like that. He laughed and said don’t cry. He said, “Don’t cry, it’s not like I changed. I just have Jesus in my life now. But I’m the same guy. I can still play baseball with you and stuff.”
I can’t remember my father ever playing baseball with me, so that wasn’t much help. The part about Jesus not changing him, though—what he’d said about deep-down being the same guy—that ended up being right on the money.
Although my mother’s family was Irish Catholic, my father was born Episcopalian and so I was baptized Episcopal. One of my dearest friends today is an Episcopal priest, with a parish in Philadelphia. Those two facts, though, have been about the extent of Episcopalianism in my life to date—and of Christianity in general, to be honest. Born into it, am friends with someone who practices it. As far as I can tell, that was about the extent of religion in my father’s early life, too.
Then, first, he became a Jew.
I was born in 1970. In 1971 or ’72 my father fired up a cigarette then fired up his MG and left my mother for another woman, someone he’d met while working the McGovern campaign. I met this other woman eventually, when he came back looking to visit me from time to time. Once when I was four or five years old, I sat in the back of a broiling-hot Buick while my father ran in to a 7-11 for smokes. It was summer and my ice cream was dripping down the cone and onto my hand and arm. This new woman, Joan, turned around from where she sat in the passenger seat and eyed me up and down. She wore very large, round glasses, which exaggerated anything she did with her eyes.
“Your father won’t have much time for you,” she said, “now that he loves me.” Joan spoke from a lipstick mouth. Her tone wasn’t necessarily unkind, as I recall, just matter-of-fact. “I hope you can amuse yourself,” she said.
As it turns out, I was developing an expert ability at amusing myself. But that’s an entirely different story.
My understanding is that Joan’s father asked my father to convert to Judaism and so he did. The Bruce Bauman of my childhood became a tall, tan man in wire-rimmed sunglasses with a gold Star of David around his neck. That era—the drippy ice-cream Joan era, we might call it now, the era of distant, tan, Jewish fathers, soundtrack by the Bee Gees—started when I was around four and ended when he went to jail the year I was nine.
It was my medical-student mother who told me my tan, Jewish father was going to jail. We were driving home from Somerset, New Jersey, where my step-father’s parents lived. (My step-grandfather was a Baptist minister; when you take all this and also add in the teenage year I lived in Hindu/Muslim/Buddhist India, the swirl of religion in young Bauman’s life begins to stagger the imagination. But there I go digressing again.)
I couldn’t imagine my father in jail. I was nine, and didn’t really know what that even meant. So I cried. I couldn’t imagine my well-dressed, Star-of-David-wearing father going to jail, whatever that meant, so I cried. All the way home in the backseat of the green Subaru. One thing I knew: I saw little of my father to begin with, and it seemed likely I would see significantly less of him now.
It was about this time that we moved—my mother, my step-father, and me—from Doylestown, Pennsylvania to Quakertown, New Jersey. In New Jersey I entered the fourth grade at the Franklin Township School. As the school year progressed I exhibited a number of serious behavior problems and my mother could not figure out why. I was such a smart boy, why would I act in such a manner?
Regardless, Bruce Bauman did his year in Graterford Prison. He rebounded well, afterward. He’d been in advertising pre-incarceration. Not long after prison he was in Atlantic City, married again, working for the local NBC affiliate. And it was down there, in Atlantic City, that he found Jesus.
Jesus, they say, is wherever you look for him. But who knew he’d be hiding out in the studios of a third-rate TV station in the armpit of New Jersey?
4. Hold for Mr. Nader, please?
When I met Chris Hedges in the opening days of 2003 he was still a correspondent for The New York Times. The year before he’d shared the Pulitzer Prize as part of a team reporting on post-9/11 terrorism in Europe. We met because he wrote a feature about me and my first novel, a nice boxed piece that ran in the Times on a Tuesday with a color photo taken at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania. (In the photo, I’m wearing a blue shirt, leaning on a stack of copies of my newly minted novel, trying to look appropriately blasé and authorial. What I was thinking was, “Holy shit, I’m going to be in The New York Times.”) Chris, it turned out, had recently moved to the area, recently divorced, and lived in an apartment just a few blocks from where I worked in Lambertville. I’d been to war, he’d been to war; I was a writer, he was a writer; I was named Christian, he was named Christopher. We got along fine.
A few weeks after the Times piece ran, I called him from my desk at work.
“I just got off the phone with Ralph Nader,” I said.
“Who?” Hedges had only a cell phone at the time. Cell phones are notoriously bad around the Delaware River, and Chris doesn’t have a lot of patience. Phone conversations with him were brief affairs, punctuated with handfuls of “What?” and “Who?”
“Ralph Nader,” I said. “I just got off the phone with Ralph Nader.”
“How’d that go?”
Not terribly surprised that a guy sitting at a desk at a small ad agency in New Jersey would just happen to field a phone call from Ralph Nader.
“He asked me to send him a copy of my book,” I said. “And to include a copy for Michael Moore, too. That he’d pass it on.”
That’s great. One copy for Ralph, one copy for ol’ Mike Moore. Routine requests here at the day gig. Just another day in the life.
“So he read the Times piece?”
“He read it. That’s why he called. Hadn’t realized you wrote it. I mentioned your book, and that you’d written the article, too. He knew your name, liked your book. A lot.”
“That’s great. Did you say anything else?”
“I don’t know—I mean, yeah. We actually talked for a while. Forty minutes or more. It was funny. He kind of went on. He told me about when he’d been in the army.”
“Nader was in the army?”
“That’s what he said.”
“That’s worth a book right there.”
“I had the same thought.”
Even through the bad cell phone I could hear Hedges chuckle. “So what else did he say?”
“I don’t know. We talked a long time. He wished me well, with the novel. Asked if I had another coming.”
The copywriter at the desk across the aisle was eyeballing me in a funny way. I lowered my voice and looked out the window.
“Nader did ask one thing specific—he asked if I had any experience with NBC gear. While I was in the army, in Somalia.”
“NBC. Nuclear, Biological, Chemical. Gas masks. The troops they’re sending over to stage for Iraq—their gear is for shit. Their protective gear. Nader’s putting together a press event—an awareness thing. He asked if I could write something, read it that day.”
It was fantastic. My country was stumbling toward war and I was sitting at a desk in an ad agency. If Ralph Nader wanted me to write a short speech, I was happy to oblige.
“Listen, I have to go,” Chris said. “But let’s meet for lunch. Come by the apartment at noon.”
5. Handing tickets out for God
The man who introduced my father to Jesus Christ in 1982—their mutual friend, so to speak—was a former New York rock DJ named Scott Ross. Scott had been down with Dylan and The Beatles and Al Aronowitz and all that crazy mid-60s New York dope-smoking goodness. Scott married a Ronnette (Nedra), discovered religion (Jesus Christ), and founded a Christian commune in upstate New York (Love Inn). He broadcast the radio gospel from a barn studio and kept his hair long. An up-and-coming evangelist named Pat Robertson saw Scott Ross as a way in to the kids and supported him.
My father had also started life as a DJ. Not the grand New York market like Ross once commanded from WNEW, but a more modest rocking of the airwaves in eastern Pennsylvania, stations like WEEX and WEZV. When he later made the switch to marketing and advertising he kept his hand in, filling in air slots from time to time. He taught me to run a board and to cue up a track on an LP. He was at WMGM TV 40 in Atlantic City when Ross brought his ministry there, to do a low-budget Christ broadcast. Their common radio background made them friends. I don’t know if the Judaism was still alive in my father then, if it had survived post-prison, but either way, at some point in Atlantic City Scott Ross brought up Jesus and pushed. Jesus seemed like a good idea, I guess. My father fell.
6. If you want to stop this war, you’re gonna have to sing louder than that
At the time we met, Chris Hedges lived in an apartment on York Street in Lambertville. The place was wall-to-wall books stacked on Oriental rugs and a few comfortable chairs. There was an almost-kitchen in the back where Chris made coffee in a press. I walked in bearing sandwiches from Ennis’s Deli. Chris was at his computer, typing furiously.
“You remember that thing I told you about?” he said, not looking up from the screen.
He’d told me a lot of things. “Which?” I said, cracking open my Coke.
“The book—the book based on World War I studies, about what combat is really like.”
“I remember.” It was an obscure but brilliant book by one Harold Roland Shapiro, published in 1937 on the eve of World War II, called What Every Young Man Should Know About War. In a question-and-answer format, the book attempted to dispassionately provide facts about war on a personal level: everything from What basic training is really like to What is the most painful wound I could receive to What will happen to my body if I die on the battlefield.
“I’m going to update it,” Hedges said. “Write a new version. I’ve been online with Lisa Bankoff all morning—I need to find a publisher to give me an advance big enough to quickly do the research on this thing, then whip it into shape and rush it to print. I’ll need a lot of help. Want to help? We need to get it out this summer.”
Of course I wanted to help, and agreed to right away, but that was beside the point. I did the math in my head—summer publication meant a turnaround of proposal to shelf in just a few months. Even with only one novel under my belt at the time I knew this was impossible.
“That’s impossible, Chris.”
“Why the rush?”
He halted typing, turned and looked at me.
“If we have any chance of stopping this war before it starts, we need to get this book on shelves immediately.”
I thought about that, then said, “Do you think we can stop the war?”
He stayed silent for a moment, then turned back to his computer. “No,” he said. “Nothing can stop this war now.”
To hear that thought aloud was simply awful. And once stated, immediately obvious.
Hedges was right, of course: there was no stopping this war now. George W. Bush was a fully loaded 18-wheeler with stripped brakes on a mountain highway. But Hedges had just said he wanted to try to stop this war that couldn’t be stopped. What would happen if you tried to step in front of an 18-wheeler with no brakes? Why would you do that?
Chris had an answer: “Because twenty years from now we won’t be able to live with ourselves if we know we didn’t try.”
His proposal email sent, he joined me at the coffee table and inspected his sandwich. He always got the same sandwich—the #5, chicken salad with walnuts on wheat toast. I have to admit, Karen at Ennis’s makes a killer chicken salad.
7. Stents and stories
This wingspan stent they installed in my father after his strokes is a new device, and he was one of the first to receive it. So not long after they were sure the procedure was a success, the PR department of the hospital interviewed him. He sent me the piece they wrote. I was so impressed after reading it that I wanted to go get a wingspan stent installed in my neck. My father gives good quotes.
He’s a very persuasive man, my father is. He has managed, for instance, to persuade himself that he was praying for my safe return while I was in Mogadishu. He’s quite sure of this, too. He believes it—I’ve seen this kind of belief in his eyes. In fact, though, in December of 1992, if he thought of me at all he probably would have guessed my whereabouts to be somewhere in central New Jersey. He didn’t know I was in the army, let alone in Somalia. He missed me while I was in Somalia in the same way he missed the birth of my first child: he had no idea.
But a few years back on a Google-quest of Bauman relatives I found a mention in a small South Carolina newspaper. An organization he belonged to—rescue squad? fire department? Kiwanis?—made a donation to a serviceman’s cause. My father was the organization’s spokesman. He was quoted as saying he knew what it felt like for the families of those serving overseas, because he felt that pain firsthand while his son was in Somalia.
Truth be damned—it was a pretty good story he had, and a pretty good quote. It was good of them to make the donation.
Chris Hedges doesn’t give good quotes. He makes forceful, impassioned statements—not the same thing as a good quote. A “good quote” is predicated on either not insulting anyone or insulting someone simply for the sake of it—either way, giving the listener exactly what they want to hear. It’s the difference between being liked and just being; it’s a malady my father and I both suffer from (albeit, in drastically different proportions)—we like to be liked. That’s not Chris Hedges. In fact, Hedges has been booed off stages because the audience didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
“What’s really interesting is that I was invited with open eyes,” Chris told me, following a much-publicized incident at Rockford College in 2003 where the audience was moved to violence during his commencement address. “They invited me,” he said, “and I told them exactly what I was going to talk about. So—you know.” And he shrugged.
At the party Stern and Macari threw for the release of American Fascists, Hedges read from the book and a woman began to cry. He hadn’t insulted her, of course—this was a likeminded audience. It was the subject matter of his writing.
I have a friend who finds Hedges to be humorless. Smart and usually right, but humorless. My friend doesn’t know Hedges, though; he just knows his writings. And indeed, Chris is a very intense man. As I know well, people who have witnessed other people being killed in horrible ways tend to either head off for a small island with a large bottle of rum or they become very intense. When Hedges spoke out against the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq war, he did so with the legitimacy of someone who has dodged more combat bullets than most GIs; he speaks about abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib having himself been a battlefield prisoner of the Iraqi Republican Guard. In parallel, his book American Fascists about the blasphemy of the American Christian Right doesn’t stem from passing fancy. As a younger man, Hedges attended and graduated from Harvard Divinity—Christianity is more than solid ground for him.
Yet there’s a story he only half-told in American Fascists, and I wish he’d told the whole thing. The story is how Hedges’s father, a left-wing minister and rabble-rouser, encouraged (demanded) that Chris help form a gay-rights group on his college campus, and the quite-heterosexual Chris Hedges complied. His reward for this was a great deal of abuse from bigoted frat boys, especially one in particular who took to loudly calling him “faggot” whenever they crossed paths. In American Fascists, the story ends with Chris successfully getting the gay-rights group off the ground. But those who know Chris also know that the story has a much better ending: when telling the story in person, Chris allows the frat-boy’s oath of “faggot” to hang in the air a moment, and then adds, “It was okay, though. I stole his girlfriend before the year was out.”
8. The Reverend and the Tongues
Still, although Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity, he chose not to be ordained, and is no Reverend. My father, on the other hand, the original born-again Episcopalian Jew, is a Reverend. It says so on a business card in a stack somewhere on my desk. It said so in the obituary of my great-grandfather, Foster “Mac” Macadam. Mac died in 1989. The text of his obituary was called in to the paper by my father, without family consultation. After some heated discussion, the Reverend Bauman ended up not officiating at the funeral of my great-grandfather, but he did deliver a prayer during the graveside service. And quite a prayer it was. Reverend Bauman walked up to Mac’s casket, Bible in hand. He faced us, the few gathered mourners. He sighed deeply. Then he put his foot up square on the casket, leaned on his knee, and prayed.
But back when I was twelve, when Jesus and my father had first been introduced, Bruce wasn’t a Reverend yet. Him and the Lord were still getting acquainted. My father sent me a Bible and a copy of Scott Ross’s autobiography (Scott Free). He brought me down to the house he and his new wife—wife three, Jeannie, a huge improvement over the lipsticked “your father loves me now” Joan—were renting on the back bay in Ventnor, New Jersey, to meet all his new Jesus friends. He drove us up to Ocean City, a town I knew like the back of my hand from yearly summer vacations with my maternal grandfather—but this trip was wrapped in a very different context. It was cold, Ocean City was deserted. The Scott Ross family was living in a summer rental not far off of 9th Street. I was excited to meet Nedra, the Ronette, Scott Ross’s wife. According to Ross’s autobiography, Nedra had once dated Ringo Starr.
The apartment was full of people. I was introduced all around. “Bruce’s son,” Scott said, over and over, and squeezed my shoulder each time. He was a tall man with a mustache. He was easy to like. His son was a year younger than me, and also named Christian. Christian Ross was officially the first other first-named Christian I’d met in my life. Nedra the Ronette made hot chocolate. The gathered adults smiled at me and made Jesus jokes with my father. Not Jesus jokes like “Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed walk into a bar”; rather, jokes of the saved, quips about a distant but fatherly and much-respected boss: “Boy, I thought I knew what I was doing, but the Lord finally really kicked my butt on that one.” Laughs and nods of agreement all around. I’d never even heard my father mention Jesus before (except, of course, as a barked curse), but he talked and joked with these people as if he’d been in on their secret for years.
“Son,” my father said, and I turned around. Standing between him and Christian Ross was a beautiful girl. Nedra Kristina, Scott and Nedra’s oldest child, Christian’s big sister. Dark-skinned like her mother, round eyes, long wet hair. “I’d like you to meet someone,” my father said, and introduced us. “Hey,” she said, then turned and led her brother out of the room.
“She’s just a year older than you,” my father said. “You should have a lot to talk about.” And then he rejoined the continuing adult conversation about butt-kickings from the Savior.
Chris Hedges’s explanation of religious fundamentalism in American Fascists isn’t new and earth-shattering, just placed in a modern American context. Fundamentalism plugs gaps, fills holes. Chris’s first book was called War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and he could have used a similar title for American Fascists. Religion is a force that gives meaning to the meaningless and promise to the betrayed, and fundamentalism is a salve on the raw and the bleeding. In war, there are no foxhole atheists: in the back of a truck outside Kismaayo, Somalia, on the bow of a ship entering Haitian waters, I prayed, “Jesus, please.” There are no foxhole atheists outside of war, either. With ruin so close for so many, we pray. Those who are comfortable but confused and scared, pray. And fundamentalism says—born-again Christians say—“Maybe you didn’t notice, but your prayers have already been answered.”
You look around, double-take. “No, actually, I hadn’t noticed.” You look again. “This is the same pillow on which I laid down my head, and this pillow still stinketh.”
The smile, the arm on the shoulder. “Brother, brother, brother. Your eyes are open but your heart is closed. I’m telling you: your prayers have been answered. Because you’re bound for heaven. You’ll rest in the arms of the Lord.”
Cool. Well, then. As the great philosopher Bill Murray once said, So I got that going for me.
“You sure do, brother. You sure do.”
Hold on a minute, though. “Lookee here, mister. What about all these other schmucks?”
“You know, the ones bringing me down. The man. What about the man? Is he going to heaven?”
“Most certainly not.”
“What about the Jews? What about employees of the Division of Motor Vehicles? And what about the homos?”
“Have they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior?”
“Then what do you think?”
“They’re going to burn in hell?”
The big smile. “See, brother, that’s the beauty of it all. Your prayers have been answered. You just keep your head down and do your job. Your reward is coming. And so, in a way, is theirs.”
“I like this.”
“I told you.” A big embrace. “And oh by the way: Democrats are most definitely not saved. Neither those who hold office nor those who vote for them.”
In a dark bedroom of the Ocean City apartment, Nedra Kristina Ross and Christian Ross and I watched TV. On the other side of the door there was singing and then Scott Ross’s booming voice then a different male voice. There was more singing, punctuated by shouts and cries. The Ross kids seemed not to notice. I tired to be nonchalant. After awhile, though, I had to pee.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, and rolled off the bed where we’d all sprawled.
“Don’t go out there,” Nedra Kristina said. Out in the apartment things had grown much quieter than they’d been. I could hear a low murmur of voices.
“I have to go,” I said. She shrugged, never taking her eyes off the TV. All I could think about now was needing to pee. I pulled the door open and slipped into the narrow hall.
The adults were all crammed into the living room, lights off, candles lit. Many were on their knees, some standing with arms outstretched. Everyone’s eyes were closed. The woman who was closest to me, a squat middle-aged woman with a bright blue blouse, was praying aloud, her eyes squeezed shut:
Everyone was praying, about half of them out loud. But it was weird and I couldn’t figure the weirdness immediately but then did: the woman was the only one praying in English. The rest, it sounded something like this:
“Shevena havena shevena kinssitoshevena mendilitona ashevena THANK you Jesus thank you mendilitona shevena.”
Absolute gibberish punctuated with occasional thank yous and Jesus.
Panicked, I looked for my father, found him sitting on an ottoman, his face in his hands, and then he thrust his face forward with eyes squeezed tight and belted out strings of shevenas and havenas and OhJesusthankyouLord. It wasn’t the Jesus that bothered me, though, it was the havenas. I knew for a fact that my father didn’t speak any language beyond Philadelphia-accented English.
Havena shevanashevena he said. ThankyouFatherthankyouthankyouFather.
In and out of this spooky language, the language of the father, somebody’s father.
Completely forgetting my need to pee I crept back to the bedroom. Nedra Kristina anticipated my question. Again without taking her eyes from the TV she said, “Were they speaking in tongues?”
“Tongues. It’s called that.” She got off the bed and turned off the TV. “You pray and pray and pray and the spirit enters you and you speak in the Lord’s language.” She said this as if reciting a grocery-shopping list. “You guys want to go walk on the beach?”
9. Who Art In Heaven
As Hedges predicted on the day he said we needed to stop the war, we didn’t stop the war.
The redux version of What Every Young Man Should Know About War did come out, and in the ridiculously short time-span he planned. Chris put together an impressive team of grad students and veterans to build the book. It was a mammoth amount of work for us to pull that off, and the final result was everything we’d hoped for. Didn’t matter. Simon & Schuster changed the title to What Every Person Should Know About War, a seemingly tiny change that did the book no favors—suddenly the title and the content didn’t jibe. The book wasn’t mean for “every person,” and wasn’t structured that way (it’s a book-length FAQ, clearly talking to those considering enlistment). It was released in the heat of invasion, 2003, and to say the publisher “soft released it” would be kind. Our lists of data and facts meant very little. What every young person should know about war was right there on TV: war is hot—war is a rush.
Myself, I took Ralph Nader up on his offer. On a snowy night I put my daughter Kristina in the car and drove down to the National Press Club in Washington to talk about how poorly equipped we’d been in Somalia and Haiti, and what the likely results of that level of preparedness would mean to casualty levels in the heat of extended urban combat in Iraq. Ten of us talked that day—a congressman, a handful of veterans, experts in chemical warfare. Washington yawned, rolled over, and turned up the volume on the war porn. Back home, I made the rounds of media—CNN, public radio, Air America. I typed my message anywhere online I could get people to listen to me, from Atrios’s Eschaton political site to Neal Pollack’s blog. But the war porn thrummed across the airwaves and bandwidth of the nation, deadening all other signals. The friends I still had in the service sent me anxious email from the desert; I read them, then stared out the window on long, late afternoons.
It is six years later and the war still goes on. Change is coming, baby, and I do believe that—but perhaps it is only the veterans among us who noticed that a young PFC died in Iraq yesterday, his chest exploded open. Hurry up, change.
At the time, my mother didn’t tell me why my father was going to prison. I was nine, and either never thought to ask why or I did ask, was rebuffed, and moved on. The result was the same: I didn’t know what crime had led to his conviction. An insinuation grew, though, over time. One that conveniently fit my growing understanding of my father. The insinuation was one of a “hand-in-the-cookie-jar” crime. It made sense to me, and was relatively easy to swallow, so I swallowed that insinuation whole. That’s what kids do.
There finally came a point in early adulthood when I did ask. It occurred to me that I’d never just flat-out asked so I flat-out asked. I asked my grandmother, my father’s mother. I was soft-sold an answer. Part of an answer.
Only part of an answer or no, soft sell or no, this story didn’t even remotely match the hand-in-the-cookie-jar insinuation. This was something else entirely. This was not easy to swallow. This was awful.
This was rape.
“But,” my grandmother said, “you and I both know your father.” (At the time, I still sort of believed that.) My grandmother lit a cigarette, sipped her black coffee, then quickly told me a story about a woman at a drunken party and a dark upstairs bedroom. The woman was a friend of big-glasses Joan, the then-wife. My grandmother laid in hints of poisonous marital dysfunction, overtones of a set-up. She breathed and said, “Something bad happened that night, and it was your father’s nature multiplied by alcohol that put him in a bad situation, and for that irresponsibility he paid the price in jail. But you know as well as I do that he couldn’t have really done that.”
This was one of the last conversations my grandmother and I ever had. My grandmother is a difficult person, and shortly after this I just stopped talking to her altogether. But this tale was remarkable because it was the only time I ever heard my grandmother defending her son. Although I was in my early twenties at the time, I wasn’t old enough to understand yet that in fact it wasn’t my father she was defending. Again, though, her spin on the story made sense to me, so I swallowed it. After a big meal like that I needed a smoke, so I took one of hers, and smoked it while she prattled on.
That was almost fifteen years ago. Very recently, I was driving home late at night, thinking of my father’s issues and of my own issues, his sins and my sins, and of the hard luck of circumstance. I was turning that all around in my head, when a thought came to me. A single thought I’d never considered before, which is beyond silly because the second the thought came to me I knew it was true.
“He did it,” I said to myself. No soft sell. No extenuating circumstances. Just this: he did it.
I drove on, feeling the blood under my skin. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Nothing changed. At least, not in the way I expected it to. If anything, what I felt was a very odd relief.
My father doesn’t call anymore, like he did when I was a child—even then he didn’t call often mind you, but occasional calls nonetheless, calls of information more than anything: this is where I am, this what I’m doing, this is what’s changed, this is who I believe in now…talk to you next year. The advent of email made even these calls superfluous. Likewise, the older he gets, the less he cares to tell anyone his doings.
When my father does email, what he usually sends are large-group prayer requests. Prayers for himself, sometimes, if he’s about to have some procedure, although usually prayers for others. Prayer requests for people I don’t know, friends of his from high school getting their own stents, that kind of thing. He signs these emails jointly, using both his and his new wife’s names. I’ve never met this fourth wife, who—in his usual style—he talks about as if everyone has known her for years. I don’t know if the prayer requests really come from both of them, or if he’s just signing her name. I’ve had blood parents signing the names of disinterested step-parents my whole life; I hardly notice anymore. Much like I hardly notice these prayer request emails. They land in my inbox—I see my father’s name attached and for one brief second my heart surges, I don’t want it to but it does, that hated mini rush of longing and hope that this will be the time he has something to say, reaching toward me for real, but of course not, don’t be silly, it’s an email, it’s a group prayer request.
Sometimes I scan these emails and delete and sometimes I just delete and maybe occasionally—like once a year, maybe—I might hit reply and say “I hope this all works out for you” and then hit delete. I wonder at these times if this is what God feels like—our Father, who art in heaven. Is this what God is like? Hung over in the morning at his celestial desk, scanning foxhole missives with chin in hand—lobbing back the very occasional “hope this all works out for you,” then delete, delete, delete.
In Gerald Stern’s poem “Dancing” he remembers his home in Pittsburgh in 1945, where he’d dance with his parents in their small apartment on Beechwood Boulevard to the crackle and popping swing of the AM radio. The sweat of their dance flies from his stanzas, the mad joy—but then Stern remembers the European Jews across the ocean at that very moment, pulled in a different puppeted dance, the sickness of legs forced to move against will and nature, carrying yourself to your doom. This poem of Stern’s that begins with such intimate twirling love takes a sharp and immediate black turn, and then ends with a wail:
Oh god of mercy, oh wild god.
I don’t know exactly what Jerry Stern meant there—the question rose in my throat at Hedges’s book release party, but then dissolved in the lightness of cocktails, smoked salmon, and the Giamatti comparison—but I know how I read it. I read those two lines as two lines. Separate and distinct lines. One a prayer, one a definition.
Oh god of mercy—I know that one, that’s the foxhole prayer.
Oh wild god—that’s the definition.
This wail of horror from Stern’s pen, pleading to a forgiving god—oh god of mercy—if he be there. And knowing—oh wild god—he may not.
Oh wild god who will have His war—oh, but that’s the obvious thing to say, and really it’s not His war. War doesn’t feed our god, war feeds on itself, snarls and consumes its own tail and grows with the chewing. War is neither of god nor for god, but neither is it abhorrent or an affront to the Great and Terrible Oz—don’t pretend such a thing. Hit your knees for the god of mercy, but your prayer itself may be the only mercy in the joint. Hit your knees for the god of mercy but he is no more interested in your war than he is interested in putting foreign and ancient words into your mouth, don’t flatter yourself. Oh fundamentalist, hit your knees but know that it is not a question of belief in god, it was never a question of belief in god—your belief, your faith, oh ye of overflowing faith—hit your knees because the question really is: does our father believe in you? Hit your knees and tremble because you may not like the answer.
I was raised by a step-father who believed in no god at all, no magic, a rational universe—which, to me, is a sign of having very little imagination. It is, in fact, the same—exactly the same—extraordinary lack of imagination that causes others to clutch their Bibles white-knuckled like a tourist clutching a New York City subway map—this, this here, this is the way to go, the only way, it says so right here and oh god of mercy I hope it’s true because I don’t want to be stuck here after dark.
Who art in heaven? Oh wild god, our father, hallowed be his name, who long-ago resigned Himself to the ridiculousness of it all. He sits chin in hand, delete delete delete—I hope this all works out for you.