Photographs of My Father
The Amnesty of John David Herndon
Though the events discussed in these two books took place more than six years apart, they give the impression of dealing with different aspects of the same circumstance. Both are concerned with the catastrophic effects on the lives of Americans of opposition to American policy. The Reverend Robert Spike was the director of the Commission on Religion and Race of the National Council of Churches and a casualty in the same struggle for civil rights that claimed the life of his colleague Martin Luther King; while John Herndon is a largely unschooled Appalachian who deserted the US Army in Germany and fled to France rather than be sent back to Vietnam for a second tour of duty.
Paul Spike’s book is the more extra-ordinary of the two. A distinguished clergyman who is murdered in a motel room in a city to which he had gone to dedicate the United Christian Center at the state university, under circumstances apparently arranged to suggest that he had been making homosexual advances to his killer, inevitably leaves his son a considerable literary heritage. The way in which Paul Spike uses it in this tragic work demonstrates clearly that this was the least of his heritage; he has been fortunate in his father, in spite of the horror of his loss. That horror is the greater because until its climax the story of the Spikes seems so ordinary.
Of course, it was not ordinary, for the courage and devotion shown by Robert Spike have never been common in any society. But their household routines and the values that governed their daily lives as revealed in Paul Spike’s narrative are upper-middle-class clichés; no novelist would any longer dare to furnish his account of a character’s adolescence with episodes like young Spike’s experiences at a second-rate boarding school for boys in Pennsylvania, his finally successful efforts to get laid, his analysis, even his father’s comment—somewhat out of character, but very much in role—“You know, Paul, I think now you are eighteen, you should be on your own. I think one of the worst things I could do would be to give you too much help.”
The family lived in a house of the right sort but on the wrong side of Tenafly, New Jersey, from which Robert Spike commuted to his post as Commissioner on Religion and Race, apparently without any sense of irony. Paul Spike sometimes assisted him in his work without becoming really interested in it. He flew down to Washington on the air-shuttle to bring his dad a suitcase of fresh clothes, exulting in being so grown-up; and the Spikes went together to the Executive Offices in the White House on what, for it though not for them, was very minor business; Johnson wasn’t there, even Moyers wasn’t there. It was 1965, and whatever influence the Commission on Religion and Race might have had with the White House had been forfeited by Hubert Humphrey’s …