The Gospel According to John Wayne

John WayneOne of the unique aspects of being human is the role stories play in our lives and have played as far back as the human story is told. Stories inspire, enlighten, connect, delight, warn, admonish and surprise. We need them with an urgency that resembles hunger. Not merely entertainment, stories can save lives or turn us into killers.

In 1955, when I was thirteen, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see a photo exhibition that has haunted me ever since. Its theme was “The Family of Man.” The curator, Edward Steichen, brought together a vast sequence of photos that not only asserted but demonstrated that, for all the diversity of culture, skin color, local economy and development, varieties of religion and differences of clothing, we are indeed one human family bound together in love, pain, labor, awe, anger, gratitude and death. I bought the exhibition book and have hung onto it through many moves, returning to it ever since as if it were a Bible without words. Taken as a whole, the collection has as its golden thread the radical us-ness of being. It helped me understand that beneath our separateness is our unity. It’s about the “our” in the Our Father.

Among the images that I especially love is one of an old African storyteller in a fire-illuminated hut. We see him at the top of a circle of young people, boys and girls who are listening to the old man with absolute attention and wonder. The storyteller’s eyes are wide open, his mouth a perfect O, his eyebrows arched high into his forehead, his hands raised above his head, all ten fingers outstretched. If he were telling the story of Jesus’s life, this might be the moment when the disciples discover the empty tomb.

story teller - Nat Farbman (small)The photo is an icon of the power of story telling.

“In traditional African cultures, not even the chief or the healer is as important as the storyteller,” Joseph Donders, a Dutch priest who had spent much of his life in Africa, once told me. “The survival of the tribe from generation to generation depends on stories, but only so long as the stories reveal truth. With truth-revealing stories the storyteller becomes the guardian not only of his actual audience but of those not yet born. This is because, in times of crisis, people are guided not by theories or principles but by stories. True stories are life-saving, false stories lead toward disaster. Stories are proven true by the test of time. An old story that has been told for centuries and has been tested in many times of crisis can be regarded as true.”

“The testing of stories,” he added, “requires the passage of many generations. In fact two thousand years is about right.”

Our conversation led us to consider the question of what was the most basic story in the modern world. We quickly agreed that, in its purest form, it’s the western movie and decided to call it the Gospel According to John Wayne. (Not John Wayne the man, who may have been as nonviolent as Gandhi, but John Wayne the actor in the gunslinger roles he often played.)

At that the core of the Gospel According to John Wayne is a good man with a gun defeating bad men with guns.

The story needn’t be set in the Old West. The core elements adjust to any setting: rural or urban, past or present, or a Star Wars future where distances are measured in light years. The Gospel According to John Wayne can also be the Gospel According to Luke Skywalker or the Gospel According to Clint Eastwood. The moral is the same in any case: We are saved by deadly weapons and the courage and skill of those community defenders who wield them.

In the classic Western version, it’s the story of men who are evil to their core threatening decent people in a newly-settled town in the lawless West in which there is a battered saloon at one end of the street and a newly painted church and school house at the other. Endangered by pathological killers, the well-being of the townspeople depends on the courage of one brave man and those, if any, that he is able to rally behind him. The iconic scene is the gunfight on Main Street — one man with a gun facing another man with a gun and both pulling the trigger. There is sometimes a prefatory scene before the shoot-out in which we see the reluctant hero open a drawer and grasp his revolver, a weapon he once put away with the hope of never using it again. He is not, such scenes make clear, a man of violence but now there is no alternative. He straps on his holster, inserts six bullets in the gun’s chambers and walks out the door knowing he may be dead within the hour. In fact he survives. Goodness triumphs. It’s the men who love killing whose day ends in coffins.

It’s far from an ignoble story. There is real courage in it — the readiness of an honorable man to risk his life to protect his defenseless neighbors from wicked men whose death we who watch the film cannot help but wish for and, once it happens, welcome. If only briefly, it seems the world has been made a safer place.

The big problem with the Gospel According to John Wayne is that it hides from us the troubling fact that there is no such thing as a completely evil person — also the uncomfortable fact that there is no such thing as a completely good person.

Few biblical texts have more profound implications than this passage in the first chapter of Genesis: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

If so, then there are no bad seeds. Our DNA obliges none of us to commit murder. No matter how damaged a person becomes in the process of growing up and entering adulthood, all of us are born bearing the divine image and can never entirely lose it.

For John of Kronstadt, one of the Russian saints of the nineteenth century, to become aware of this was one of the main challenges of Christian life. “Never confuse the person,” he said, “formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him, because evil is but a chance misfortune, illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.” Saint John’s insight was not developed at a comfortable distance from the rough side of life — he was parish priest in Kronstadt, a port city with thousands of sailors and more than its share of drunkenness, crime and violence of every kind.

In common with ordinary Russians at the time, Saint John of Kronstadt avoided dehumanizing labels for men who had been convicted of criminal actions. They were instead commonly referred to as “unfortunates.” It was this attitude that helps explain why so few executions occurred in pre-revolutionary Russia. Those who were convicted of murder and other grave crimes were instead sent to labor camps in Siberia.

The inability to see Christ in the other is the most common form of spiritual blindness, as one of the most prominent saints of the fourth century, John Chrysostom, often stressed. “If you fail to recognize Christ in the beggar outside the church door,” he said, “you will not find Christ in the chalice.” Or as Dorothy Day put it, “Those who do not see Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.” Or as Thomas Merton wrote: “Guard the image of man for it is the image of God.”

Yet the Gospel According to John Wayne remains a compelling story — the brave lone man who puts himself in the line of fire and kills a human monster whose death is a blessing for every decent person. Moral: The community can only be protected by good guys — or good women — killing bad guys.

In the latter part of “Gone With the Wind,” a film that presents slavery as having been not so bad, the heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, returns to her family plantation, Tara, after Southern defeat. Scarlett finds the mansion intact though the crops have been burned, her mother has died of typhoid, her father is insane with grief, her two sisters are ill, and most of the (formerly happy) slaves have run off. Forced to take up labor that in better days had been done by slaves, Scarlett’s life now centers on reviving the plantation through blood, sweat and tears, even if the paradise that the Tara plantation once had been for her is lost indeed. When a drunken Yankee soldier arrives and seems poised to rape Scarlett, she stands on the mansion’s grand curved staircase, revolver hidden behind her back, then, at the last moment raises the weapon and shoots him in the face. Afterward, in shock, she says to her sister-in-law, “I’ve done murder.” To her credit and the credit of the storytellers, Scarlett uses a razor-sharp word, murder, that doesn’t mask what she has done. After pulling the trigger and seeing at close range the death she has caused, perhaps Scarlett realizes she might have aimed at the man’s legs and protected herself without becoming a murderer.

How rare is the movie in which the hero is allowed to aim for the legs or, rarer still, find a bullet-free, nonviolent solution. Film after film, the implicit message is that, in confrontations with evil, there are no non-lethal — still less nonviolent — solutions. It’s a kill-or-be-killed world, period, next subject.

[This is a chapter from Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment: .]

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book review: “Crazy for God” by Frank Schaeffer

Crazy for God
by Frank Schaeffer
New York: Carroll & Graf
406 pages, indexed, $26

Frank Schaeffer doesn’t really fit into a brief description. An American, he grew up in rural Switzerland. His parents were fervent Calvinist missionaries living in a Catholic culture which they regarded as barely Christian. Their chalet, known as L’Abri, became a house of hospitality in which a never-ending seminar on culture and Christianity was the main event. Though an Evangelical, a strain of Protestantism usually hostile to the arts, Frank’s father was an avid lover of art done in earlier centuries by, in most cases, Catholic artists — an enthusiasm that in time inspired his son to become an artist. Later Frank gave up the easel to makes films, first documentaries in which his father was the central figure, then more general evangelical films, and finally several unsuccessful non-religious films aimed at a general audience. Eventually — profoundly disenchanted with the form of Christianity his parents had embraced, and still more alienated from the shrill varieties of right wing Evangelical Christianity that both he and his parents had helped create, Frank joined the Orthodox Church, where he still remains, though no longer in what he refers to as the stage of “convert zeal.” After his son, John, became a Marine, Frank became something of a missionary for the Marine Corps, and the military in general, at the same time avidly supporting the war in Iraq in which his son was a participant. A statement I helped to write that urged George Bush not to attack Iraq was the target of a widely-published column Schaeffer wrote in the early days of that war. Now he regards the Iraq War as a disaster and has become an outspoken critic of George Bush.

“Crazy for God” is a gripping read, both candid and engaging. More than anything else, I was touched by Schaeffer’s unrelenting honesty. There are pages in which you feel as if you are overhearing a confession. Yet it’s a very freeing confession to overhear, in the sense that it allows the reader to make deeper contact with painful or embarrassed areas of his own wounded memory. The book also serves as an admonition not to create a self for public display which is hardly connected to one’s actual self.

Being raised in a hothouse of Calvinist missionary zeal, in which Schaeffer and his three sisters became Exhibit A (especially whenever their mother wrote or spoke about Christian Family Life) is not something I would wish on any child. I expect Frank Schaeffer will always be in recovery from that aspect of his childhood.

Those — and they are many — who still revere his parents (or for that matter Schaeffer’s earlier self, in the period of his life when he was a hot voice packing in the evangelical/Christian Right crowds) are furious at this lifting of the curtain.

Yet I found Schaeffer much harder on himself than on his parents, whom he sees as having been damaged, in some ways made crazy, by the burden of a harsh Calvinist theology. Nonetheless his parents emerge as real Christians whose loving care for others, including people whom many Christians would cross the street to avoid, was absolutely genuine. (I was impressed by the book’s account of his parents’ response to homosexuals who came to visit L’Abri. They were as warmly received as any other guest.)

While objecting to his parents’ theology and the distortions that it created in their lives and in the lives of many influenced by them, clearly he loves them passionately and deeply respects the actual Christian content of their lives — their “grace, generosity, love and unconditional support.”

Schaeffer’s book also reminds me that it’s one of the recurring tragedies of US history that, from time to time, various movements of self-righteous, ideology-driven Christians decide it’s time to try to impose their ideas on society at large. Schaeffer has to live with the painful memory of having been one of the key figures helping to create one of the constituencies that did the most to put George Bush in the White House in their one-issue hope that he would find ways to make abortion, if not illegal, at least less frequent. After eight years in the Oval Office, in fact abortion is no less deeply embedded in American life than it was before Bush’s election. Little if anything was done by his administration to help women who felt they had no option but abortion find alternatives.

I was touched by Schaeffer’s comments about the powerful influence children can have on their parents, far more than the children usually realize. As Schaeffer has come to understand, in reflecting on his relationship with his father, that influence is sometimes far from positive.

Schaeffer — now far more caring about the quandaries others face than he was earlier in his life — has in the process become aware that self-righteousness is often the hallmark of each and every “movement,” whether religious or secular, and whether for the unborn, for peace, for those on death row, for animal welfare, for the environment, etc., etc.

In putting the book down, I find myself profoundly grateful for where Frank Schaeffer’s journey has taken him so far, yet hope for further evolution in his views in regard to the military and how those in the armed forces are used. I take it as a given that he is aware there are men and women who died or live crippled lives in part because of the impact on their lives of several of Schaeffer’s earlier books which viewed the military uncritically and seemed unaware of how often those sent into battle — because of accidents, misinformation, panic, bad orders, or even the passion for vengeance — kill innocent people. Nor does he seem aware of the damage, often unhealable, done to those who bear responsibility for such deaths. I hope Schaeffer will give more thought to why the early Church took such a radical stand in regard to warfare and other forms of killing, accidental or intentional, and what that might mean for any Christian in our own day.

Also I would have been glad to hear more about what drew him to the Orthodox Church and what keeps him there, now that he is past what he calls the “zealous convert” stage. In his autobiography, being Orthodox is a minor topic.

As “Crazy for God” bears witness, life is mainly shaped by one’s parents and family, peer group pressure, and — not least — the white water of ambition. Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. I was reminded several times of one of Kurt Vonnegut’s insights: “Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be.” It’s something of a miracle that Frank Schaeffer escaped from the highly profitable world of the Television Church.

“Crazy for God” also reminds me of what a dangerous vocation it is, more perilous than mountain climbing, when one becomes a professional Christian, writing or speaking about the Gospel, Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God, making some or all of your living doing this. It’s a danger I live with too.

— Jim Forest

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book review: The Catonsville Nine

The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Reistance in the Vietnam Era
by Shawn Francis Peters
Oxford University Press, 2012

review by Jim Forest

It’s now 44 years since nine Catholic peace activists entered a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, filled two wastebaskets with several hundred draft files, and burned the papers with homemade napalm in the parking lot. It would have been a news event no matter who had taken part, but the involvement of two Catholic priests, the brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, made the headlines even bigger.

The event was one among thousands of protest actions aimed at America’s role in the Vietnam War, already several years old and destined to continue another seven years, but for many people — me among them — the Catonsville raid was a turning point in our lives. It also triggered passionate debate about the limits of peaceful protest. Could the destruction of property be called nonviolent?

The prime movers of the Catonsville Nine were Phil Berrigan and George Mische. Earlier in his life, Mische had worked for US-funded groups fostering labor movements in the Caribbean and Latin America. Phil had fought as an infantryman in World War II where his courage and leadership qualities won him a battlefield commission. As Shawn Francis Peters’s book makes clear, even as a priest engaged in the civil rights and anti-war movements, Phil remained very much the infantryman he had been years earlier. Dismayed that the peace movement was having no discernible impact on events in Vietnam, he became convinced of “the uselessness of legitimate dissent.” In his frustration, he opted for firing the cannons of civil disobedience.

US troops were mainly draftees; few young men had a longing to go to war in a country that posed no threat to the US and whose borders most Americans couldn’t find on the world map. The key role conscription played in keeping the war going led Phil to target draft board offices and their papers. (One of the Catonsville Nine, Tom Lewis, called them “death certificates.”)

Peters has written a complex, gripping account of what led up to the event, the raid itself and its aftermath. One by one the participants are brought to life — an artist, a nurse, three former missionaries (one a former nun, another an ex-priest), an Army veteran who had become a peace movement organizer, a teacher who belonged to a Catholic religious order, plus the Berrigans. It wasn’t just the Catonsville Two. The book becomes much more than the story of the Berrigan brothers and includes much more than Vietnam. Finally the impact of the Catonsville action is evaluated. While only inconveniencing the Selective Service System, many were inspired to refuse participation in the war while some whose records were destroyed never heard from a draft board again.

The trial, a remarkable drama in its own right, is in many ways the highpoint of the book. Federal judge Roszel Thomsen is shown as a man who allowed a remarkable degree of latitude in his courtroom, even permitting, on the trial’s last day, everyone present to stand and recite the Our Father. (Later, while the nine were serving their prison terms, he cut their sentences short.) Sadly, during the trial he would not permit the defendants to bring forward a “justification” defense — the argument that destruction of draft records was justified as a reasonable means of inhibiting prosecution of an unjust and illegal war. The trial has been reenacted in a play and film still being seen by audiences all over the world.

The book has its sad stories. One of the most poignant concerns Mary Moylan. Refusing to turn herself in, she spent nine years in hiding, for a time was part of the “Weather Underground,” then, weary of dodging the FBI, turned herself in to serve her long-deferred two-year sentence. After her release she returned to nursing but eventually had to give it up due to eye failure. In 1995 she died of the consequences of alcoholism. Her friend Rosemary Ruether regards Moylan as “a casualty of war” and suggests “an alternative Vietnam memorial bearing the names of all those whose lives were destroyed in protesting the war.”

Those interviewed by Peters include the women at the Catonsville draft board who struggled to protect their files and lawyers for the prosecution, one of whom sympathized with the raid. Peters has obtained and mined previously unseen FBI records that bear on the case, revealing how personally obsessed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was with the Berrigans and their collaborators.

I was press secretary of the Catonsville Nine Defense Committee and knew all of the nine, especially Dan and Phil, and so come to the book with more than a bystander’s curiosity. The narrative reopens some old wounds but also renews my compassion for who we were and why we put so much on the line, in my case a year in prison for participating in the burning of draft records in Milwaukee that followed the Catonsville action.

In the post-Catonsville period, with similar raids multiplying, I eventually became alienated from Phil, whom I saw as undervaluing forms of war protest that involved no legal penalties and for bullying people into actions which inevitably led to prison, for which not all were well prepared. (In response, Phil correctly pointed out that few soldiers are prepared for the wars in which they are conscripted to fight and often suffer much worse consequences.) Phil could be astonishingly cruel in his judgments not only of adversaries but of co-workers — his words sometimes seemed to have been fired from a sawed-off shotgun.

Even for someone like myself, very much an insider, the book has its surprises. I knew that, for a time, Phil had been on the borderline of violence, but I had no idea that, prior to Catonsville, Phil had briefly considered bombing a draft board, albeit at night when no one was present. Later on, shortly before being imprisoned for burning draft records, he explored heating tunnels in Washington, DC, playing with the idea of using explosives to disrupt work in the federal office buildings linked by the tunnels. Happily he never gave in to the temptation to speak in the language of bombs.

At the time of the Catonsville draft-record burning, novelist Walker Percy asked how it differed from cross burnings carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. Peters’s book succeeds in showing how great the contrast is, not least because at Catonsville no one wore hoods, no one was threatened, and there was no reliance on the cover of night. Acting in the full light of day, each of the nine insisted on awaiting the police and taking full responsibility for what they had done with all its consequences.

The words of Daniel Berrigan will continue to haunt us so long as wars are fought: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…. And yet the times are inexhaustibly good. The truth rules. Christ is not forsaken.”

PS During a visit yesterday with Dan Berrigan, now 91, I saw the book on a reading table next to his bed and asked how he liked it. He spoke of it in glowing terms.

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book review: The Trial of the Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left

The Trial of the Harrisburg 7 and the New Catholic Left
by William O’Rourke
Notre Dame University Press, 2012

review by Jim Forest

Appearing before a Senate committee on November 27, 1970, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover made the startling charge that two Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, were leaders of “an anarchist group” that was “concocting a scheme to kidnap a highly placed government official” and also “to blow up underground heating conduits and steam tunnels serving the Washington, DC area in order to disrupt federal governmental operations.” The group’s goal, said Hoover, was to force the end of US bombing operations in Southeast Asia and the release of all America’s political prisoners. The prominent official to be kidnapped, it quickly turned out, was President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger.

The story was page-one news from coast-to-coast and put clerically-clad Dan and Phil Berrigan on the cover of Time magazine the following week.

An indictment was issued in January 1971. Then, in April, came a superseding indictment that added the more winnable charge of conspiracy to destroy draft records; it was like accusing chickens of conspiring to lay eggs. In addition to Phil Berrigan, seven others were charged: Eqbal Ahmad (a scholar), Elizabeth McAlister (nun), Tony and Mary Scoblick (former priest and former nun), Ted Glick (a draft resister), Neil McLaughlin (priest), and Joseph Wenderoth (priest). In the revised set of charges, Dan Berrigan was demoted to an “unindicted co-conspirator,” thus not among those facing trial. When the indictment was published, both Berrigans were in prison for draft-record burning,

By the time Hoover made his accusations, the Berrigans had been steadily in the news for several years, seen as the principal leaders of “the Catholic Left,” a journalistic tag for those Catholics who had been resisting the war in Vietnam with acts of civil disobedience, especially raids on draft boards. In a three-year period, beginning in 1967, there had been dozens of such raids, the most famous of which was in Catonsville, Maryland in May 1968.

The trial took place in the early months of 1972 at the federal courthouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, by which time the Harrisburg Eight became the Harrisburg Seven with Ted Glick severed from the group because of his petition to defend himself rather than have a lawyer act of his behalf.

At the trial’s end, after ten of the twelve jurors voted for acquittal of the seven, the judge declared a mistrial. It was a personal humiliation for J. Edgar Hoover. Following defeat, the government dropped the case. Glick was never tried.

William O’Rourke, then a young writer based in New York (and now professor of English at Notre Dame), was one of the people who made Harrisburg his home for the period the trial lasted and immediately afterward wrote his account — in turns gripping, funny and surprising — of what happened in and around the courtroom: The Harrisburg Seven and the New Catholic Left. Forty years later, now recognized as a classic of trial literature, the University of Notre Dame Press has put the text back in print, expanding it with a substantial afterword by the author and also adding an index.

Even decades after the events that prompted its writing, O’Rourke’s book remains a compelling account of a remarkable trial in which a team of gifted lawyers prevailed; the team included former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Jesuit priest and lawyer William Cunningham, Leonard Boudin, and Paul O’Dwyer. What turned the tide in the defendants’ favor was their lawyers’ devastating cross-examination of the government’s key witness, crook and conman Boyd Douglas. Douglas, a fellow prisoner of Phil’s but with access to the outside world, had acted as Liz and Phil’s private mailman, meanwhile copying their letters for the FBI.

The government’s principle evidence was a folder of letters exchanged between Phil Berrigan (in prison) and Liz McAlister, who had fallen in love with him and whom she later married. In her desperate effort to reassure Phil that the flame of war resistance was not dying out in his absence, Liz had written to report discussion of the idea of a “citizen’s arrest” of Henry Kissinger on the charge of committing war crimes. Both Liz and Phil were beyond naïve in trusting Douglas. The ideas that made their letters such exciting reading for J. Edgar Hoover were — like so many love letters — more in the realm of fantasy than reality. In fact no plot was hatched to arrest, kidnap or detain anyone.

And the heating tunnels? It was true that Phil, before going to prison, had toyed with the idea of using explosives in heating tunnels connecting federal office buildings in Washington. There was still a current of battlefield violence running within his adoption of nonviolence. Phil had won a commission while fighting in the infantry during World War II and was at home with munitions. But the idea, like so many others born of desperation to end a war that was wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia, never got further than taking a walk in the tunnels. On FBI instructions, Boyd Douglas had sought to resuscitate the idea, offering to obtain explosives, but his offer triggered only alarm and disgust.

The high point of the trial was the dramatic reading by US Attorney William Lynch of what were meant to be very private letters between Liz and Phil. During the recitation, O’Rourke watched their faces: “Berrigan sits with his chin raised, his jaw set to resist an impending blow; he has the curiosity of a man listening to someone else’s letters. Surprise thickens his eyes. McAlister averts hers.” It was the trial of Romeo and Juliet but with a political edge.

That the seven defendants would win the trial was nothing any sane person could have predicted, yet it was a costly victory. The strain of the trial divided the seven — several of them wouldn’t talk with Liz and Phil afterward — and left “the Catholic Left” in disarray. What O’Rourke describes as “a golden age of protest” was over.

“Public opinion,” O’Rourke comments in his new afterword, “certainly noted that the trial had ended ambiguously, without vindication for either side, but the public also absorbed the message that the priests and nuns involved no longer seemed exactly like saints and had, if not abandoned their commitment to nonviolence, at least flirted with it, coming closer to the other protest movements of the time that had taken on violence as a tactic, such as the Weathermen. The paradox made visible was this: by the end of the Vietnam War the most successful antiwar protest group still standing was the Vietnam Veterans against the War. It is a long, strange war that puts up the men who had fought it as the most effective protesters against it.”

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Remembering My Brother: Richard Forest

Dick on the railway 6 Oct 2011
Dick riding the rails — photo by Beth Forest (click on photo to enlarge)

(for a memorial service to be held 26 October 2013)

By Jim Forest

Remembering my brother, I recall a little boy, half-a-head shorter than I was, almost hidden in a cloud of steam while a train pulls into the southbound track of the Red Bank train station just as the sun is setting. It’s sometime in the late 1940s. Dick is gazing up in silent awe at the huge steam engine and the two powerful men who share its cab. Our ears are still echoing with the wailing hoots of the steam whistle that seconds ago announced the train’s impending arrival. Now there’s the shrill noise of the brakes as the tall steel wheels pull the commuter-loaded train to a shuddering halt. No kid at any circus — no saint in the midst of a mystical experience — could be more enthralled than my brother. I’m fascinated too, but my attention is partly held by my steam-wrapped brother who, in his state of pure amazement, is just as astonishing as the train.

At that period of our young lives welcoming the train is a ritual. Dick is probably seven, which makes me eight. Monday through Friday, with our Aunt Douglas, we meet the train that brings our Uncle Bob back from his bank job in Jersey City.

Red Bank Station - JF drawing
Red Bank Station (drawing: Jim Forest, 1966)

My guess is that Dick’s linkage with trains goes back to when he was four and the three of us traveled via the rails from our former home in Denver to Jersey City where we were met by Aunt Douglas and Uncle Bob. It was our move to Mother’s hometown, Red Bank, following her divorce. In fact we must have had some sleep, but I have the impression Dick and I were awake every inch of the way, our noses pressed to the window glass making islands of condensation while watching the ever-changing view: farms, houses, horses, cows, trees, rivers, fields of corn and wheat, gullies, huge clouds, lightning storms, cloudless skies, train stations, blurred villages, fast-passing towns, snap-shot glimpses of people in their homes, all the while the train rushing relentlessly forward, the steel wheels beating a sweet jazzy music out of the tracks. Even long after sunset, it was a constant visual adventure, better than any movie. Is there a finer way to see the world than from a train?

Dick’s marriage to trains took root in childhood and lasted until he breathed his last, seventy years of age. While Dick was allergic to religion, perhaps he wouldn’t object to me saying that he was a devout member of the Church of the Sacred Stream Engine.

Richard Forest - drawing by Jim Forest
Richard Forest in train yard tower (drawing made in 1966 by Jim Forest)

Eventually be became a lawyer and was, by all accounts, an excellent one, but I think the job he had enjoyed most was the one he had before he passed his bar exam — the years when he worked for the railroad running switching towers. When we were both young men, I made a drawing of him in command in one of them. It was an October day in 1966. The tower windows gave a sweeping view of the train yard. Close at hand were the long levers that were used to slide the tracks below us into the right positions as engines and freight cars moved back and forth. It was a demanding job that required being wide awake every minute and which allowed no errors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man happier in his work.

I never had the chance to see him in court but I have no doubt he was equally at home in that environment. God knows he loved talking about it. As did everyone who knew him, I heard no end of stories from him about many of the cross-examinations he conducted of witnesses who weren’t inclined to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Reviewing the e-mail Dick and I exchanged over the last quarter century, I found one courtroom story of the sort my brother relished. It comes from a U.S. District Court in Texas. Let me share with you the extract from the transcript he forwarded to me:

Lawyer: So, Doctor, you determined that a gunshot wound was the cause of death of the patient?

Doctor: That’s correct.

Lawyer: Did you examine the patient when he came to the emergency room?

Doctor: No, I performed the autopsy.

Lawyer: Okay, were you aware of his vital signs while he was at the hospital?

Doctor: He came into the emergency room in shock and died in the emergency room a short time after arriving.

Lawyer: Did you pronounce him dead at that time?

Doctor: No, I am the pathologist who performed the autopsy. I was not involved with the patient initially.

Lawyer: Well, are you even sure, then, that he died in the emergency room?

Doctor: That is what the records indicate.

Lawyer: But if you weren’t there, how could you have pronounced him dead, having not seen or physically examined the patient at that time?

Doctor: The autopsy showed massive hemorrhage into the chest, and that was the cause of death.

Lawyer: I understand that, but you were not actually present to examine the patient and pronounce him dead, isn’t that right?

Doctor: No, sir, I did not see the patient or actually pronounce him dead, but I did perform an autopsy and right now his brain is in a jar over at the county morgue. As for the rest of the patient, for all I know, he could be out practicing law somewhere.

I only wish I had recorded some of my brother’s accounts of his own courtroom exchanges. Many of them were every bit as funny.

Because I’ve lived in Holland the last 37 years, I saw less of Dick than I would have liked, on average just two of three times a year, but one of the treats for me, when back in the U.S., was asking him about recent courtroom events. It was like turning on a radio and listening to a comedy show with my brother doing all the voices. He was a down-to-earth, no-frills New Jersey boy who could have been part of the cast of “The Sopranos.”

He loved certain movies and television shows. He seemed to have memorized the scripts for both. I think his most beloved TV show was the Archie Bunker comedy, “All In The Family.” Even when he was laid low in the hospital, suffering considerable pain and feeling like a prisoner, there were times when he could recite substantial chunks of scripts, and also had a large collection of brief exchanges and one-liners. One of these was Archie Bunker saying, “You’d better start mixing toothpaste with your shampoo. You’re getting a cavity in your brain.” Also from Archie Bunker, “Whatever happened to the good old days when kids was scared to death of their parents?” His favorites films included “The Godfather” and “Doctor Strangelove.” Possibly his favorite line from “Doctor Strangelove” came from President Merkin Muffley as played by Peter Sellers: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”

In contrast to our parents, both of whom were passionate social activists, I wouldn’t call my brother a cause-oriented person, though he was sometimes enlisted by our mother to do pro bono work in her battles with local politicians. He hated war and was dead set against capital punishment. One of my treasured memories of Dick is his declining to shake the hand of a certain governor who had authorized a number of executions and who was standing in front of Dick with his hand extended and a smile on his face. My brother said, “Sorry, Governor, but I don’t shake hands that have blood on them.” I’m sure the governor, if he is still alive, thinks about that brief encounter from time to time.

As I mentioned, Dick hated war. He managed to avoid participation in the Vietnam War and spoke out against it with his usual vigor. Yet he loved guns and had a collection of rifles. For much of his adult life, he was a devoted member of the National Rifle Association. For years one of his hobbies was to bait me into ranting against the NRA. Much to his amusement, I always fell for the bait like a bull chasing a red flag. One year I begged him, for the sake of my blood pressure, not to mention the NRA any more. To my astonishment that was the end of our semi-annual argument about guns.

Like so many of us, Dick had a hard time finding the ideal marital partner. At last he met Adele and married her in the spring of 1997. This not only made him a happy man but also greatly lengthened his life. It was Adele who managed to help him lose weight, a thankless job as my brother, when in the presence of food and soft drinks, was a man without brakes who wasn’t notably appreciative of anyone else applying the brakes on his behalf, even though, after his first heart attack, he knew that major weight loss was an absolute necessity. It wasn’t easy, but Adele was persistent. And it worked. My guess is that Adele added a decade to his life.

Let me close by recalling one of my favorite memories of my brother. Nancy and I live on a narrow lane in one of the oldest parts of a small Dutch city named Alkmaar. Not only is there no traffic but not that many people walk by, probably under a fifty a day. As home is our principal work place — I’m a writer, Nancy is a translator — we’re there most of the time. When someone passes by we often notice. During our coffee break one morning 25 years ago we happened to see two people passing by. I said to Nancy, “They look just like Dick and Beth.” She agreed. Neither of the two stopped at our front door, but not long afterward there was a knock. I opened the door and there stood Dick and Beth! It turned out that Dick had made a last-minute decision to ride some trains in Europe and invited Beth to join him. “Sorry to come unannounced,” Dick said. “It was all last-minute. And it’s in secret. You must not tell Mother. She doesn’t know I’m here”

I never did find out why Mother was not to know. Both of us were a great many years past the age when one sought parental permission for any undertaking. It’s one of the family mysteries that will go unanswered.

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text as of 14 October 2013
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