[extracts from Writing Straight With Crooked Lines: A Memoir]
By Jim Forest
Like many teenagers before me, I found myself gazing at military recruiting posters. “Join the Navy and see the world” was a slogan that had immense appeal. See the world? Yes! The local recruiting office was located in the basement of the Post Office. I went in and loaded up on colorful folders with photos of ships at sea and distant ports of call.
In April 1959, age seventeen, I joined the Navy.
I felt drawn to the sea, and thus to the Navy, much as had been the case with Ishmael in Moby Dick, who “had little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore” and so sought refuge “in the watery part of the world” as a way of coping with “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.”
As things turned out, I was fated to remain on dry land. While in a sailor’s uniform, I never boarded a ship or submarine or even a rowboat. I had joined the Navy to see the world and instead saw a bit of Illinois, a fragment of New Jersey, and a great deal of Washington, DC.
Strangely enough, for someone who has spent his entire post-military life opposing militarization and war, joining the Navy was just what I needed and also excellent preparation for what was yet to come. At that point in my life, the Navy met many needs. To a major degree I was on my own, yet in a stable structure that provided for life’s necessities along with many challenges and much to think about.
My first eight weeks in uniform — June 1st through August 4th, 1959 — were spent at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (sometimes referred to by its graduates as Great Mistakes Naval Training Station) on the northern outskirts of Chicago and the western shore of Lake Michigan. My head was shaved, I learned to march, make my bed in just the right way, and to peel potatoes with assembly-line efficiency. I became adept at assembling a rifle and hitting the target, at the same time doubting I could ever shoot to kill.
While I can’t claim to have enjoyed boot camp, for me it was mainly an adventure, even a time of occasional mild mischief. For many others it was harder. I recall a few recruits in my barracks who wept themselves to sleep and two sad boys who suffered breakdowns; they were given early discharges and sent home.
I quickly found myself in a slightly responsible position. Despite being a high school dropout, as a result of test scores I was appointed “intelligence officer” of my company. This meant that I had to coach the forty or so young men in the company, especially those who were failing to check the right circle in response to multiple-choice questions that were beamed on a screen in a testing room. The problem was that a number of people in my company were barely literate. In principle the illiterate never get into the Navy in the first place, but clearly some recruiters were willing to cut corners in order to meet their quotas. Ten or twelve men in my company couldn’t answer the questions because they couldn’t read them. Remedial education was not an option — there was no time or material for a literacy program in the evenings.
Under pressure from the first-class petty officer in charge of our company (our performance reflected on him), I came up with a Plan B. It might also have been called Plan Bilko, in honor of Sergeant Bilko, the central figure in a popular fifties TV comedy who cheerfully swindled both his senior officers as well as the Army itself. Before being marched into the room where the closely-monitored tests were given, with a competing company filling alternate rows, I was able to place myself at exactly the right spot in line to sit at a front-row-center desk from which several people seated further back on either side of me could see how I was holding my pencil: if I held it straight up, this meant the answer was A; if I held it horizontally to the left and right, I was signaling the answer was B; if I pointed it forward, check C; while covering the pencil with both hands meant D. Several pre-assigned people who could see my pencil replicated the signal so that everyone in the company, no matter where they were sitting, got the message.
The only problem was that it hadn’t occurred to me that the system would work as well as it did. On the first test we took using my pencil-signaling method, the entire company got a perfect score. Apparently this was unprecedented. An investigation followed. It was finally reluctantly accepted that I, as intelligence officer, had done an amazing job of tutoring the company that week.
Surviving that near disaster put me briefly under a cloud of suspicion but without punishment. I realized I had to create a credible bell curve, high enough to put us ahead of the competing companies in the same week of training, but not so high as to set off another alarm. I assigned a number of mistakes to each person in the company, with only a few getting all the answers correct and with some variation from week to week.
The result was that the competing companies won flags for marching, marksmanship and other competitive achievements, but we got to carry the “I” flag — “I” for intelligence — as we marched down the parade field on the day of graduation while the Navy band played “Anchors Aweigh.” It was our company’s one and only flag, and we felt immensely proud of it even though it had been achieved by cheating. I thought to myself that all’s fair in love and war, and that passing multiple choice military tests fell under the war heading — an exercise in survival in battle. We had played and won a mouse-beats-cat, Tom-and-Jerry game. The officer in charge of our company was delighted we had played it so well.
In fact being integrated into military life involved learning all sorts of tricks, not the least of which was applying a certain brand of underarm deodorant pads to our shoes to obtain the mirror shine required whenever there were inspections.
Our company commander had a way with words. Here is the guidance we were given about the Navy way of taking showers, which each company of recruits did together in one large shower room. “Watch where you put your wash cloth. Do your privates last. I repeat, do your privates last. Otherwise you’ll be giving yourself a blow job by proxy.”
But the most memorable lesson in boot camp wasn’t so funny. During the first week of training, the middle-aged chief petty officer responsible for turning us from kids off the street into spic-and-span sailors who could march in step and change directions in a flash had us stand at attention as he told us, “The Navy owns you. In case you didn’t get that, I’ll say it again. The Navy owns you. For the hard of hearing, let me repeat: The United States Navy owns you. You are the property of the US Navy. You are owned and operated by the Navy. Have I made myself clear? We issue the orders and you obey the orders or there will be hell to pay. Any questions?” There were no questions. It dawned on me that being in the military had a great deal in common with slavery.
When I enlisted, I had signed a contract that guaranteed me, once out of boot camp, a place at the Navy School of Journalism. It turned out that the promise had been a recruiter’s carrot. In the latter weeks of Boot Camp I was told a mistake had been made — I didn’t meet the journalism school’s minimum-age requirement — and therefore I would have to choose a different vocational path. After spending half an hour looking through a catalog of specialized Navy schools, I opted for Weather School. This meant that I would become an “aerographer’s mate” working, either on land or sea, with Navy meteorologists. Was I disappointed? Not at all. By then I had met several Navy journalists stationed at Great Lakes, and I knew that much of the work a military journalist does is filling in the blanks on boiler-plate texts sent to hometown newspapers about how sailor John Jones had been assigned to serve on the USS Coral Sea — basically public relations work promoting the Navy. Meteorology, on the other hand, meant engagement in an important aspect of environmental studies.
In July 1959 I arrived at the Weather School, located on the grounds of the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, a place best known as the site of the Hindenburg airship disaster thirty-two years earlier when a huge, swastika-decorated German zeppelin had burst into flames while landing. Thirty-six people died. The base still housed several Navy dirigibles and also served as a training center for parachutists, one of whom died during the months I was there when his chute failed to open.
Far from “seeing the world,” I was less than an hour’s bus ride from Red Bank. But if the location was not exactly exotic, I felt challenged by the studies that awaited me.
Our small school accommodated about forty students for an intense, five-month program. Besides learning the basics of meteorology (what constituted a warm or cold front, the types of clouds and what they indicated, how to read and draw a weather map, how to translate weather data into five-digit groups of standard code, etc.), we were trained in touch-typing and took part in occasional military drills. The day started with inspection, all of us lined up and given a quick once-over. Following breakfast, classes began.
My one and only fistfight occurred on the Lakehurst Naval Base. Early on, a fellow student had borrowed a dollar from me but, despite my sporadic requests, never got around to paying it back. He had the job of distributing the mail, a chore with an ounce of power among people starved for letters from home. Wearing his role as if it were a crown, he was not above delaying delivery of a letter addressed to anyone who annoyed him. Within weeks everyone in our unit came to regard him with loathing.
One morning I demanded the return of my dollar. He looked at me with contempt, reached into his shirt pocket, took out a dollar bill, held it in front of my face, then let it drop to the floor. Leaving the money where it fell, I grabbed him under the arms, lifted him off the floor and hurled him against the nearest wall. It still amazes me to recall how light he felt and how easily I made his body fly across the room. He came back with his fists flying. Far from being alarmed, I rejoiced in the combat, hammering away, hardly aware of the crowd that quickly gathered around us. The fight might well have lasted until one of us had done real harm to the other, but luckily a bell summoned us to inspection. As we stood at attention outside the barracks, I remember taking great pride in his bloodied lip and bruised face. Fortunately, when the inspecting officer noticed the state of his face and asked what had happened, he told the classic prescribed lie — he had tripped on the stairs.
This battle won me a good deal of admiration from my classmates. I was immensely pleased with myself — I sensed I had successfully passed a manhood test. At the same time I was alarmed to discover what strength and deadly will I possessed when my anger was sufficiently aroused, and the exhilaration that battle can awaken. This was a side of myself that I had not previously known about.
Perhaps that encounter with my own violence was a contributing factor in the spiritual awakening that occurred in that period of my life. There had been a great deal of veiled unhappiness and desperate searching that past year, much of it centered on my failed attempt to live with my father. I had dropped out of school, returned for several months to my mother’s home, then — like so many confused kids down through the centuries — plunged into the military. I was now trying to make of myself both a sailor and a weatherman and doing well at both, but finding that neither role gave me a sense of real meaning. I sought deeper waters.
In this searching state of hyper-alertness, that Saturday night I went to see the film that was being screened at the base theater. It happened to be “The Nun’s Story,” in which Audrey Hepburn played the part of a young Belgian woman who embraced monastic life in a Flemish convent but years later, during the German occupation of Belgium, left to join the resistance movement in the uncloistered world. Between these two events the film provided a compelling portrait of a nun’s rigorous religious formation, a later episode in which her obedience was abused by a superior, and a near love affair with a physician working at the same hospital where the Hepburn character was serving as a nurse. It was a complex story that took pre-Vatican II Catholic Christianity, warts as well as bells, quite seriously. Hepburn played the part of someone wholeheartedly attempting to live a Christ-inspired life. At a key moment early on in the film a Gospel text was read aloud: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you have, give it to the poor … and come follow me. “The Nun’s Story” is about one person’s struggle to translate that sentence into her own life.
It’s a bit embarrassing to say one has had a mystical experience, and more embarrassing to say that what set the stage for that experience was a movie. But that’s what happened. I left the theater, went for a walk, and under a clear moonless sky, thick with stars, experienced — how to put it into words? — the presence, the reality, the all-connectingness of God, a God who somehow was aware of me despite my near-nothingness. The old question, “Is there a God?”, evaporated. I would never again begin a prayer, “Oh God, if there is a God…”
Words fail — attempting to describe a mystical encounter is like putting lead boots on a ballerina. I was both absurdly happy and deeply silent. God said not a word, and yet somehow there was an overwhelming sense of being submerged in love, an intimate love and a love that excluded no one and nothing. I had never been so overwhelmed with joy. My compass had been adjusted to true north.
Well after midnight I got back in my bunk, but hardly slept. I thought more about the film and decided that the thing to do when I got out of bed that Sunday morning was to go to Mass at the base’s Catholic chapel. Mass as celebrated in a Gothic Belgian chapel had been one of the beauties of the film. I wanted to take part in the real thing. But the real thing was hugely disappointing. The base chapel resembled a shoebox. The pre-Vatican II liturgy was said by a priest whose unintelligible Latin was whispered at breakneck speed to Mass attenders, mainly women, many of whom appeared to regard Mass as a time for saying the rosary or, in the case of the men who were there, something to be stoically endured from the back of the church. I left at the end with no urge to return the following Sunday.
Yet the sparks ignited during my midnight walk were not put out by the contrast between what Mass can be in Flanders and what, on a US military base and in many parishes, it so often was in 1959.
I had a friend in my class, one of my roommates, whom I had noticed reading a Bible that he kept in his locker. He also made use of a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I told him that I had been baptized in the Episcopal Church five years earlier and was thinking about reconnecting. We talked about the film, which he also had seen. In the weeks that followed he and I managed to find time to have conversations about Christianity, to read some prayers together on a more or less daily basis, and to follow the biblical lectionary. When I told him I would love to visit a monastery, he told me about Holy Cross, a community of Episcopal monks in the Hudson Valley near West Point. Encouraged, I wrote to the prior asking if I might come for a visit at Christmas, after graduating and before reporting for my next assignment. I received a positive response.
Early in our studies we had been asked to fill out a form indicating our three preferred assignments following graduation. At the same time we were told that the better we did with our exams, the better our chance of getting one of our three choices. Hoping I might be stationed in the Mediterranean, I put the Sixth Fleet at the top of my list and studied hard to get grades that would make my wish come true. The result was that I graduated first in my class, but far from being sent to Europe, I received orders to report to a Navy unit that worked at the US Weather Bureau (today the US Weather Service) headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC.
I was off to meteorology’s Vatican. But first came my visit to Holy Cross Monastery.
A bus ride up the Hudson
Fresh out of the Navy Weather School and following a brief visit with my Red Bank family, I set out to spend Christmas at Holy Cross Monastery. Not the least important part of the journey, it turned out, was waiting at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan for a bus that would take me up the west side of the Hudson River to the town of West Park. With time on my hands, I was browsing a carousel full of paperbacks at the waiting room’s newsstand and came upon a book with an odd title, The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton. The author’s name meant nothing to me. It was, the jacket announced, “the autobiography of a young man who led a full and worldly life and then, at the age of 26, entered a Trappist monastery.” There was a quotation from Evelyn Waugh, who said this book “may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience.” Another writer compared it to St. Augustine’s Confessions. I cheerfully paid seventy-five cents for a copy.
It proved to be a can’t-put-it-down read for me. In the bus going up the Hudson Valley, I recall occasionally looking up from the text to gaze out the window at the heavy snow that was falling that night. Merton’s life story has ever since been linked in my mind with the silent ballet of snowflakes swirling in cones of light beneath streetlights.
While still in Lakehurst, I had been reading D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which certainly held my eighteen-year-old attention — a long-suppressed book in which love-making was vividly described in almost sacramental terms. In The Seven Storey Mountain I was surprised to discover that Merton, when he was precisely my age and also on the road, in his case in Italy, had also been reading Lawrence. In the shadow of his father’s recent death, he too was on a desperate search, while having no clear idea what it was he was seeking. It was while in Rome that a mosaic icon over an altar in one of the city’s oldest churches triggered in Merton an overwhelming awareness of the presence of God and even the reality of the risen Christ. “For the first time in my whole life,” he wrote, “I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ. It was obscure, but it was a true knowledge of Him. But it was in Rome that my conception of Christ was formed…. It is Christ God, Christ King.”
It was an experience I immediately connected with, having had an equivalent encounter not many weeks before.
Did I get as far as that passage in Merton’s thick book while on the bus? I don’t recall. Perhaps. Certainly I got that far and much further within a day or two of my arrival.
By the time the bus stopped at the monastery gate, the snow was deep. I crunched my way down a buried driveway to the massive oak door of a handsome stone-and-brick building that I could see was linked to a church. I rang the bell but had to wait a bit, as a service was in progress. At last the door swung open revealing an elderly monk in white robes. “Ah, you must be Jim Forest! We were a little worried. Thank heaven the snow didn’t prevent your coming.” Then he led me into the church to take part in what was left of Compline. The monks — there must have been twenty of them — were divided into two groups that faced each other in the choir on either side of the altar and were singing in plainchant. I was overjoyed.
The week passed quickly, during which I took part in all the services, finished reading The Seven Storey Mountain, and was given a rosary by the prior and taught by him how to use it. He also suggested, once I was settled in Washington, that I make contact with the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
I felt so at home at Holy Cross, and at the same time so impressed by Merton’s journey to monastic life, that I began to think this might be the place to come once I was out of the Navy. The fact that it was an Episcopal rather than a Catholic monastery seemed to me of minor importance. I knew nothing about the divisions within the Episcopal Church and hadn’t given any thought to the Anglican Communion’s Thirty-Nine Articles and the fact that Church of England’s roots were in the bedroom of King Henry VIII.
Before leaving I made arrangements to return for Easter.
I never “saw the world” while in the Navy, but during the seventeen months that began in January 1960 I had the blessing of seeing a great deal of Washington, D.C. — its museums, libraries and monuments, its churches and cathedrals, its cafés and bookshops plus a few of its jazz nightclubs. I was a frequent visitor to the National Art Gallery.
I also had a fascinating job and liked the people I was working with. Within the vast building that housed the US Weather Bureau, the technology was astonishing. It was as if I had stepped onto the set of a science fiction film. Just one floor below our Navy offices a massive computer was housed within an air-conditioned glass enclosure that, using robot fingers located in an adjacent room, drew graceful isobars on large maps. It was hypnotizing to watch. Images of entire weather systems were made fuzzily visible by cameras placed on early satellites; the first weather satellite, Vanguard 2, had been launched by NASA on February 17, 1959, ten months before my arrival. (Vanguard 2 is still up there and is expected to continue functioning until 2259.) While a full decade would pass before there were photos of the entire earth, meteorologists were among the first who were privileged to see portions of our planet from above the atmosphere.
Adjacent to our suite of offices was a noisy room with sound-absorbing doors and walls in which ranks of automated typewriters churned out up-to-the-minute weather data from hundreds of far-flung locations — temperature, air pressure, humidity, visibility, precipitation, type of precipitation, depth of rainfall, wind speed and direction, cloud cover, cloud types and cloud height — all the fragments of information that, when placed on a map, make possible the creation of a portrait of how things are in the atmosphere at any given moment and provide essential clues in predicting what to anticipate in the hours and days ahead.
One element of our work had an apocalyptic edge. As a training exercise in the meteorological aspects of nuclear war, each week we drew a series of maps predicting fallout patterns at twelve-hour intervals over a three-day period if a twenty-megaton nuclear weapon exploded at noon that day over the center of Washington, DC. It was clear that none of us would be among the survivors.
Despite this doomsday reminder, I enjoyed my work and did well in the Navy. Within a year-and-a-half of enlisting, I had been promoted to third class petty officer, the Navy equivalent of an Army sergeant. I had also gotten a high school equivalency diploma, doing so with such good results that I had to take the test a second time to prove I hadn’t cheated the first time.
There were some funny moments. One of them happened on an overcast day at the end of January 1961 soon after the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. The Navy attaché at the White House called our unit seeking assurance that there would be no rain that afternoon as he was planning to take the president for a ride on the Potomac in an experimental open-top vehicle that floated over water on a cushion of air. The hitch was that the craft didn’t function well in wet weather. Several officers gathered round what was called the Weather Table and, using the latest reports from airports and other weather stations in and around the capital, quickly agreed that there would be no rain before nightfall. With that prediction to relay, the senior officer on duty called the Navy attaché to report the good news. I was close enough to hear laughter on the other end of the line. The attaché asked, “Great! Just one thing. Have you looked out the window?” That was the one source of information that had been neglected. In fact rain was falling over both the White House and the Weather Bureau. It was a cautionary lesson about the blind spots of experts. None of us had looked out the window.
The works of mercy
That first year in Washington was a time of rapid religious evolution as I sought to find my place and direction within the complex world of Christianity.
Soon after arrival in Washington I went to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, as had been recommended by the prior of Holy Cross Monastery, introduced myself to the rector and became active in the parish. In many ways it was similar to a Catholic parish, even having an occasional evening Benediction service for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament: a consecrated wafer set in a sun-like gold monstrance was placed on the altar while those present, on their knees, contemplated this potent sign of God’s presence. Week by week, however, I became aware that, among Episcopal parishes in Washington, St. Paul’s was the sole local bastion of what Episcopalians regarded, often dismissively, as “high church,” in contrast to “middle church” or “low church.” High church was for a minority who were drawn to elaborate eucharistic liturgies and what most Protestants viewed as “empty ritual” — incense, bells, the rosary — things regarded by iconoclastic critics as “Roman” or, still worse, as “papist.”
It struck me that, no matter now hurried Mass might be in many Catholic parishes, each parish was solidly anchored in the Mass. No one spoke of a Catholic parish being “high church” or “low church.” I found myself, somewhat guiltily, slipping into Catholic churches simply to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament — the consecrated eucharistic bread — was reserved in a small tabernacle near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Somehow its presence helped raise the curtains that usually obscure God from consciousness. In that now distant time, during the day and often at night, the doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.
Negative events also played a part in pulling me away from the Episcopal Church. The most consequential was an experience at Holy Cross Monastery during my second visit there at Easter 1960. All went well until the last day, when one of the monks asked to see me in the visiting room. Once the door was shut, he embraced and kissed me with sexual passion, his stubbly unshaven face pressed against mine. I struggled free of his grasp, exited the room, and soon afterward left the monastery in a state of great confusion. Back in Washington, I wrote to the prior, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, sometimes suffer severe loneliness and have sexual longings of one sort or another which they sometimes don’t manage very well. I had hoped he would say that steps were being taken to make certain that in the future similar events would not happen to guests like myself. What he wrote instead was that homosexuality was often a sign of a monastic vocation. This wasn’t good news for me — my erotic fantasies were focused on women. After his letter, which said not a word about safeguarding future guests from sexual assault, I had no desire to return. Despite many positive experiences at Holy Cross and much to be thankful for, the milk had been soured. (Of course the same sort of thing could have happened in a Catholic setting, but in my case never did.)
Yet I still had hesitations about becoming Catholic, and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting various churches. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but I sensed one had best be Greek to be made welcome there. With my positive memories of the black church near our home in Red Bank, several times I attended services at the church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing and powerful sermons, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. Also, as much as I appreciated the spirited singing and fine preaching, it was too Protestant for me; the center point was the pulpit, not the altar.
For a time I was part of a small Bible study group that met in the apartment of an Episcopal priest whose wife, I discovered after noticing a photo on the wall, was the daughter of Bertrand Russell, British philosopher and prominent atheist. I wondered what the father made of his daughter’s Christian faith. (One of the books I was struggling with at the time was Russell’s History of Western Philosophy.)
As the weeks went by, I came to realize that the Catholic churches in which I so often stopped to pray were places in which I always felt welcomed, both spiritually and intellectually. It was time to knock on the door. One afternoon I rang the rectory doorbell of the parish of St. Thomas Apostle, in northwest Washington, and began a series of weekly meetings with one of the priests who lived there, Father Thomas Duffy. We often had our free-wheeling conversations in a hotel coffee shop across the street. For reading, he gave me an English translation of a recently published German catechism, Life in Christ, which took a thematic route rather than the cut-and dried, question-and-answer) approach of The Baltimore Catechism — “Who made the world? God made the world.” Apart from the fact that I never made sense of what were regarded as the preconditions for a sin to be mortal (does anyone ever achieve full awareness or full intentionality?), nothing we talked about stopped me in my tracks.
During those same months I had come increasingly to realize that a basic element of ordinary Christian life was practicing the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, providing hospitality to the homeless, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner and burying the dead. When the opportunity arose to do some spare-time work at a home for children whose parents weren’t able to function as such, I volunteered. For about half a year I helped out in a woodworking shop and sometimes took part in the sports program, fracturing my right arm during a baseball game one afternoon while sliding into home base. On Sundays when I wasn’t on duty, I often had the happy chore of accompanying the Catholic children at the institution to Mass at nearby Blessed Sacrament Church.
Blessed Sacrament was an unusual parish that had embraced what was called a “dialogue Mass.” Not just the acolytes assisting the priest at the altar but everyone in the church made the required Latin responses; for example when the priest addressed the congregation with the words “Dominus vobiscum” (the Lord be with you) the whole congregation responded, “Et cum Spiritu tuo” (and with your spirit). Nearly everyone present was engaged in saying and singing the liturgy, not just witnessing it.
The parish had a substantial library on the ground floor of a house next door. It was here, on a table by a window, that I first saw copies of The Catholic Worker, in fact a whole stack of them going back several years. I picked up the issue on top with a mixture of curiosity and caution — the name made me think warily of the Communist paper, The Daily Worker. But looking through the articles and the artwork reassured me. Here was a truly Catholic journal that wove together theology, community and liturgy with the works of mercy, while raising urgent questions about a social order that produced so many marginalized people in desperate need of help. I borrowed the entire stack, took the issues back to my base, and read each one closely.
Several books that I found in the library helped expand my understanding of Christianity — more of Thomas Merton’s writing but also G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness, and Eric Gill’s Autobiography. In combination with The Seven Storey Mountain, The Long Loneliness opened doors which have helped shape the rest of my life.
The next step was a two-night visit to the Catholic Worker. Sometime in the late summer of 1960, I hitchhiked to Manhattan, at the time not an uncommon way to travel for a young man with very little money in his pocket, and made my way to the address that I had found in the paper. Spring Street turned out to be on the north edge of Little Italy in the Lower East Side and the Catholic Worker dining room and office were located in a loft at the top of a long flight of stairs. My arrival happened to coincide with moving day — I joined a parade of people carrying boxes to the Worker’s new address a few blocks to the east, a dilapidated three-story building at 175 Chrystie Street.
One of the volunteers, Jack Baker, offered me hospitality — floor-space and a thin mattress and blanket near the front window of his two-room-plus-kitchen apartment. An unframed print of a Modigliani nude was tacked on one wall, a face of Christ by Roualt on another. The floor sagged and the air in that old, neglected building left a bitter taste. Jack was part of an outer ring of people who weren’t on the Worker staff but who occasionally helped out. Not long before, Jack explained, he had been a prisoner at Sing Sing Penitentiary. While “behind the walls” he had made contact with the Catholic Worker.
I was deeply impressed by the people I met and what they were doing: their community life, morning and evening pauses for prayer, meals cooked and served for men and women who lived much of their lives on the street, and occasional acts of protest against both racism and preparations for nuclear war. By now it was clear to me that a Christianity that was unresponsive to suffering and injustice was Christian in name only.
Returning to Washington, ideas about my post-Navy future had a new focus. Monastic life still beckoned, but so did the Catholic Worker.
One of my companions in my search was a member of the fulltime staff at the home for children, Jim Durso, a sturdy Italian from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who possessed a wonderful balance of common sense, good humor, a contagious enthusiasm for “the faith,” a no-bullshit intellect, and an eagerness to serve the community. He had only recently left a Catholic seminary, having realized not long before ordination that the celibate life would be, for him, unbearable.
Nearly every week we managed to have a meal together at which a good deal of beer was drunk while we talked theology, the writings of various Catholic authors, monasticism, the Catholic Worker movement, the classical conditions required for a war to be regarded as just, church history, the Italian-American sub-culture, and whatever else was on our minds. If ever I get access to a time machine, I’d love to go back and listen to one of those sessions of intense dialogue. Our guardian angels must have enjoyed our exchanges.
There was also the friendship with Father Thomas Duffy. After several months of instruction and conversation over many a cup of coffee, on November 26, 1960 he received me, by conditional baptism, into the Catholic Church. Jim Durso was my godfather.
This border-crossing moment was a joyous one for me, though it did cost me some inconvenience. The otherwise hospitable Episcopalian family with whom I had been lodging in a house not far from the National Cathedral, where my host was responsible for maintaining its magnificent organ, wanted no papists under their roof.
I was shown the door.
I hadn’t seen it coming, but my relationship with the Navy was fast approaching a crisis. While I was no longer considering a career in uniform and devoting my professional life to meteorology, my intention was to serve out my enlistment contract in the eighteen months remaining. My work involved nothing that needed absolution. Events in Cuba changed all that.
The suite of rooms used by our Navy unit included a small television studio that was connected to the War Room of the Pentagon, officially designated as the National Military Command Center. Standing before a circular, rotating map of the northern hemisphere, twice a day one of the officers would present an overview of world weather developments, then answer questions from those at the viewing end. During the late winter and spring of 1961, I was aware that the questions often had to do with the weather in and around Cuba. Though I had read about the recent Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro, I gave the matter little thought.
In that same period we had a visit from senior officers of the Organization of American States, each in the gold-braided uniforms of a particular Latin American country. I was given the chore of entering the conference room to bring in coffee from time to time. I became aware that Cuba was an item on their agenda but failed to sense the political earthquake that was about to occur.
On April 13, 1961, 1,400 paramilitaries under CIA direction set sail for Cuba. Two days later, eight CIA-supplied bombers attacked Cuban airfields. The next day the invasion force landed at Playa Girón, the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban army’s counter-offensive, led by Fidel Castro, quickly resulted in a Cuban victory. On April 20, the invaders surrendered.
Only after the failed invasion did I connect the dots. Despite the immediate denial by President Kennedy that the invasion was a US undertaking — initially it was blamed on unaided Cuban exiles — I knew the Navy, and even our tiny unit, had played a role in it. It made sense — the timing of military beach landings is best planned with an eye on the weather. (To his credit, within days Kennedy reversed his initial denial, regretting what had happened and admitting that the invasion was planned, organized and funded by the CIA with US military involvement. He lamented having given the operation its go-ahead.)
I was profoundly naïve about the US role in the world. Despite my parents’ left-wing views, in that period of my life it never occurred to me that my government would seek to overthrow other governments. I knew nothing about the US role in arranging regime change in Guatemala and Iran. Back in 1952, age eleven, I had worn “I Like Ike” buttons in support of Eisenhower’s presidential campaign. After Eisenhower won the election I had sent him a photo of myself proudly holding a paint-by-numbers portrait I had made of him and was thrilled to receive a note of appreciation signed by the president on White House stationery. Eight years later, in 1960, I was strongly in favor of Kennedy’s election. From an apartment just a mile from the capitol building, I had watched his inauguration with pride and soaring expectations. I was deeply stirred when Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” For all the nation’s flaws, past sins and unsolved problems, I was passionately proud to be an American.
US culpability for the Bay of Pigs invasion hit me like a torpedo. I felt implicated in a collective sin. When I read in The Washington Post that a daily silent protest was taking place in front of a CIA building in southwest Washington, and that Catholic Workers were among the participants, I decided to take part. It turned out to be a life-changing event.
After work and out of uniform, I joined twenty or so people carrying placards that bore such texts as “There is no way to peace — peace is the way” and “Nonviolence or Non-survival.” The climate of the silent protest was prayerful. We were on one side of a wrought iron fence, beyond which was a wide green lawn leading up to a mansion that reminded me of the Tara plantation in “Gone with the Wind.” This wasn’t the CIA’s headquarters, but CIA director Allen Dulles plus other senior staff had offices inside. The demonstration was sponsored by the Quaker Peace Center, the War Resisters League and the Committee for Nonviolent Action, with Catholic Worker involvement.
I had no sense that I was putting myself or my job in the Navy at risk. As I say, I was naïve. Freedom of speech, freedom to dissent and freedom to protest peacefully were principles at the core of American identity. I took it for granted that those rights belonged to everyone, those in military service included.
I noticed that two or three men in suits inside the fence were taking photos of us. It amused me that they were using cameras with telephoto lenses. No one in the demonstration would have objected to close-up photos. Any of us would have been quite willing to identify ourselves and explain why we were there.
A few days later I was summoned to the office of Captain Cox, our unit’s commanding officer, and found him so angry that his hands shook. He had a hard time assembling a sentence. On his desk were several eight-by-ten, black-and-white photos of the demonstration in which I was clearly visible. “Is this you?” “Yes.” “How dare you! How dare you give support to enemies of the United States?” “I wasn’t supporting any enemies,” I replied, “I was protesting the invasion of Cuba.” Captain Cox was speechless. Previously he and I had enjoyed an excellent relationship, but after that day the only communication we had was when he handed me a letter from the Office of Naval Intelligence ordering me to report for an interview.
In preparation for that meeting I was required to fill out a detailed security questionnaire. One of the questions was: “Are there any incidents in your life which may reflect on your suitability to perform the duties which you may be called upon to take?”
I read the question with dread, realizing that I could not find a way to answer honestly in a manner that would be acceptable to the Navy. Getting back to the base along the Potomac where I was then living, I went to the Catholic chapel to pray, read the New Testament and think. Skipping supper, I must have remained there until midnight. For months I had been aware that the serious application of Catholicism’s just war doctrine would condemn any modern war, if only because non-combatants had become war’s main casualties. Also how could any Christian, in or out of the military, promise automatic obedience to each and every future order? I thought of the many Germans who justified their obedience to the demonic demands of the Hitler regime with the words: “I was only following orders.” I thought of Anne Frank and the Holocaust and all the obedient soldiers who herded captives into concentration camps and gas chambers. But at the same time I was apprehensive about what would happen to me if I failed to commit myself to unqualified obedience. What would my colleagues think? How would they treat me? I was wading in fear, struggling not to drown in it.
The simple wisdom of a Russian proverb I had encountered as a child while contemplating the Family of Man photo exhibition in New York came to mind: “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.” It was a relief to realize that my task was simply to tell the truth and let the consequences take care of themselves.
Finally I composed this paragraph:
“I would have to refuse to obey any order or fulfill any duty which I considered to be immoral, contrary to my conscience or in opposition to the teaching of my Church, as a Catholic. It is highly conceivable that there are duties that would be imposed on me during war time which I could not accept. Though I would participate in the actual and just defense of our country, I would not assist in any attack or war effort which necessarily involved the death of innocent non-combatants. I would obey no order in conflict with my convictions.”
On May 11, I passed through the doors of the Naval Intelligence Service and spent most of the day in a narrow interrogation room being aggressively cross-examined by two Navy officers while magnetic tape traveled from reel to reel through a recorder. It was a scene not unlike ones I had seen in countless crime movies. There was even a large one-way observation mirror built into one wall, though whether anyone was watching from the other side I never discovered.
I was presented with two choices: “cooperate” or be sent to the brig, the Navy term for prison. “Cooperate” meant not only answering questions about the demonstration I had taken part in — I was more than willing to explain what I knew about it and why I was there — but to become active with groups that organized such protests and report what I heard and observed to the Naval Intelligence Service. My family was also on the agenda. Many of the questions put to me centered on my Communist father. The word “spy” wasn’t used, but it was clear that this was what I was being invited to become. Otherwise the brig. “If it’s one or the other,” I said, “I’ll take the brig.” I was surprised how easily the declaration exited my mouth. The fear that I had been struggling to keep at bay evaporated. It helped me to recall that my father had been imprisoned and not only survived the experience but enjoyed telling stories about it.
Only later did I realize that what exactly I would be charged with wasn’t explained. In fact, so far as I was aware, there were no Navy regulations that I had violated, nor was I told of any. Nevertheless I took their threats seriously, having no idea what might be possible. My attempt to explain my religious motives and Catholic teaching regarding war seemed to baffle the interrogators, who may well have been Catholic themselves. They seemed convinced that only those driven by left-wing ideology would take part in such activities. “Can you name one Catholic bishop who agrees with you?” they asked. “Any bishop,” I replied, “can tell you about the Church’s just war requirements.”
All in all it was a nightmarish encounter, but at the end of the day, having rejected their proposal “to cooperate,” I told them I would apply for an early discharge as a conscientious objector. I was asked to put in writing what I had said and agreed to do so, as long as I could make a carbon. I still have my copy, all twelve pages. I left the Naval Intelligence Service building feeling stronger and freer than when I had walked in.
I was amazingly fortunate. The next morning I discovered that the director of a Quaker-linked group called the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, George Willoughby, was speaking that night at the Quaker Meeting House in Washington. I attended his lecture and talked with him afterward. He told me chapter and verse what the Navy’s regulations were regarding early discharge for conscientious objectors. My parish priest, Father Thomas Duffy, a graduate of the Vatican’s prestigious North American College in Rome, wrote a letter testifying that I was active in his parish, was a member of the parish choir, and affirming that one could be both a faithful Catholic and a conscientious objector. On a visit to the Catholic Worker in New York, I had learned from Dorothy Day that there was a theologian on the faculty of Catholic University in Washington, Father Robert Hovda, who had himself been a conscientious objector before entering the seminary. Using university stationery, Fr. Hovda wrote a supportive letter for inclusion with my application for discharge. He also loaned me several books that treated war from a theological perspective. Even my military chaplain, though bewildered that I had such “an unusual conscience,” backed me up, crediting his support to a street-corner encounter he had had many years earlier with Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin.
Significant support also came from within my unit, most notably from my executive officer, Commander John Marabito, a devout Catholic who had almost been ordained a priest but instead opted for marriage and ended up with a career in the Navy. “Jim, I know you’re sincere,” he told me, “but I have to tell you I never heard a word about conscientious objection during the years I was in seminary. Can you give me anything to read that would help me understand your views from a Catholic point of view?” Providentially I had with me one of the books Father Robert Hovda had loaned me, War and Christianity Today, and gave it to him, explaining that the author, Franziscus Stratmann, was a German Dominican priest who had been condemned to death by Hitler’s regime for his anti-war activity but managed to escape into Switzerland and survived the Nazi period.
The next morning, while having a quick breakfast in the Weather Bureau cafeteria, I noticed Commander Marabito approaching my table, a broad smile on his face and his right hand extended. He shook my hand vigorously while saying, “Jim, I read the book last night and I just want you to know I’m proud of you, very proud, and I will back you up.” Which he did. Given the ire of Captain Cox, who regarded me as having betrayed both him personally as well as the nation, I’ve often wondered if Commander Marabito sacrificed promotion to captain as a result of his support. Captain Cox may have seen to it that his executive officer paid a higher price than I did.
Originally worried about the possible hostility I might face within my unit, I was astonished at how much support I received from my colleagues. While a few superficial relationships went into the deep-freeze, the rest of my co-workers remained friendly. Working one night in the enclosure where our unit received and sent weather data, Captain Cox paid an unexpected visit. As he stepped into the code room, he found all four or five of us singing the black spiritual, “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.” We stopped instantly but there was no taking back what he had heard.
There was one other official expression of military backing for my discharge, though its author was hostile to my views. I was sent to the Pentagon for an interview with a Navy psychiatrist. Arriving at his office, instead of saluting him I made the mistake of reaching out to shake his hand. He refused a handshake — the border between officer and enlisted man had to be maintained. The meeting that followed was chilly. All I can now recall about it are two sentences from the report he filed: “Forest admits to having had nightmares as a child…. It is recommended that he be discharged from the Navy as expeditiously as possible.”
In June the discharge was approved. Within a day of permission being given, I was “processed out” and was on my way, at Dorothy Day’s invitation, to become part of the Catholic Worker community at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality in New York.
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