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 capitulation to Johnson the year before when he withdrew his support from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge of the regular delegates to the Atlantic City convention. Paul is much more interested in whether Harvard will accept his application for admission (it doesn’t; and he goes to Columbia, which comes off as badly in his account as in most others of the time) than he is in politics.
But someone, somewhere in politics, has apparently become interested in the Spikes. Photographs of My Father opens with an account of young Spike’s return from a vacation trip in Europe that later serves as a leitmotiv. At Kennedy, like many other long-haired seventeen-year-olds, he is taken into a private room and searched by plainclothes customs men. But the comments of the customs men are unconventional:
“Medicine. I got those in Spain. Antibiotics.”
“You ill, kid?”
“I had a bad fever for a couple of days. Went to a doctor. He gave me these.”
“So what kind of ‘antibiotics’ are they?”
“Jesus Christ! That’s the strongest antibiotics you can get. Chloromycetin!”
“Well, my parents were there. My father actually went to the drugstore and bought them. So…”
The cop shakes his head. “Do you know what I would do if a doctor ever gave these pills to my kid? Punch him right in his mouth! Punch his mouth! Your father ought to know these are the strongest antibiotics you can get.”
“I was really sick.”
“Boy, so was this doctor.” He laughs…. “You smoke pot, kid?”
“No.” “You’re as full of shit as a Christmas turkey!” He picks up the pills. “What are you doing with these antibiotics?”
“I told you.” He shakes his head, tosses them up and down in his hand. Then he starts to stare at me as if he is running a movie in his mind of punching me in the face. He stares very hard.
“Okay. Get your stuff and get out of here.” He tosses the pills. I catch them on the rebound off my chest. Turns his back and says to his partner, “What kind of a father has this kid got?”
Photographs of My Father does not, in fact, answer this question; Robert Spike was not, apparently, a vivid man and Paul does not pretend to a writer’s calling or gifts; he writes because the story must be told. Whatever the answer may have been, it was temporary. On October 18, 1966, Spike was bludgeoned to death in a Columbus, Ohio, motel. Some gay pornographic magazines and a list of “suspect” bars, which, if they exist, would be a tribute to the cultural diversity of that dour city, were found in his room. Thereafter, Columbus police opened their interrogation of people who might have information about the case by asking first if they had known that the Reverend Mr. Spike had been homosexual. Nevertheless, they picked up a suspect, who had been breaking into local churches and robbing them, and who confessed. Then, two weeks later,
Suddenly, murder charges were hastily dropped. The defense lawyers had discovered that this man who had “confessed” to the killing had been a patient in a mental hospital during the month of October, the month of the murder. The mental hospital was in Washington, D.C.
So the matter rests, officially, today. The important question, of course, is neither who murdered Robert Spike nor whether he was sexually deviant by the standards of Columbus, Ohio, but whether he was slain in order to terminate his energetic efforts to promote the rights of blacks. At the time of his murder, he was cochairman with Walter Reuther of the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty, which was investigating charges that had been brought by the Office of Economic Opportunity, under Sargent Shriver’s direction, against the Child Development Group of Mississippi, accusing it of misusing government funds. The group had been widely praised for successfully mobilizing local people and for its courage in cutting through red tape to meet the needs of starving children. It was now threatened with dissolution and possible prosecution for doing so. Members of the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty, including Spike, had just returned from Mississippi where they had conducted their own investigation of the OEO charges and found them groundless.
Two days before his murder, and less than a week before the CCAP report was to have been released, Robert and Paul Spike met for dinner in New York for what was to be the last time. Paul Spike quotes his father as saying: “The administration’s case is based on nonsense…. The CDGM staff is being railroaded…. This one in particular is the dirtiest fight I have ever been involved in…the dirtiest fight of my life. I feel like taking three showers a day, it’s so dirty.” He said that Sargent Shriver—“one of the nastiest men I have ever met”—had concluded a shouting scene with him by saying, “The FBI knows all about you, Reverend Spike.”
Paul Spike, by then, was aware of his father’s bisexuality, having been told of it by one of the Reverend Spike’s less admirable colleagues who was attempting to seduce him. After responding with shock which would seem ludicrous in a less tragic story but which was wholly in character for the kind of young WASP Paul Spike was at seventeen, he had discussed the matter with his father and come to accept him. He observes, “If my father is bisexual, this has no importance for me. What matters is that I have not been betrayed. He still loves me. This is not the crucial danger either. Even more important is that I do not betray him.”
Whoever murdered Mr. Spike, then, might certainly have had prior knowledge of his Achilles loin, and exploited it to give the appearance of scandal by leaving the pornographic magazines and list. Granted his frame of mind two nights before, and the value of what was at stake in his struggle to save the CDGM, no other explanation seems plausible. Only a fool, certainly, would have invited a stranger into his room for amorous dalliance—much less to swap magazines—in the teeth of such a warning as Shriver is said to have inadvertently given him. There remains, of course, the possibility that the whole ugly tale is fanciful, and that Paul Spike is given to paranoid fantasy. He did, after all—like Thomas Eagleton and Daniel Ellsberg—formerly receive professional assistance from a psychiatrist.
Without meaning to put it down at all—and until they finish few readers will—there is less to be said about The Amnesty of John David Herndon. The book, which is just half as long as Paul Spike’s brief memoir, covers only a week in the life of its protagonist, from Tuesday, March 14 to Monday, March 20, 1972, though a running account of Mr. Herndon’s earlier life is of course provided to set that week in its context, and an epilogue informs the reader of what has happened to Herndon’s case up to press time. It is a straightforward account of the effort of Mr. Reston and two colleagues from “Safe Return,” an organization that calls itself “a committee in support of self-retired veterans,” to establish a test case for amnesty for deserters from the US armed forces during the Indochina war.
The political judgments expressed in the book are direct, sharp, and explicit; and though Reston and the others, too, encounter some flak from the American embassy and the French police, apparently CIA-directed, in the course of their enterprise, it does not faze them. Reston is seven years older than Paul Spike, wrote speeches for Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and was himself an intelligence officer in the US Army at the time Robert Spike was murdered. He does not seem to be a cynic, but nothing—certainly, nothing about his country and its politics—surprises him any more.
John David Herndon was selected as the subject for this test case from among three possible deserters known to Safe Return because he was the only one who had actually served in Vietnam. The others had deserted when ordered to go there; but Herndon had served his first tour of duty. Born in 1947, in Monongah, West Virginia, he enlisted in the army when he was seventeen as an “airborne, unassigned” for a six-year hitch, but was in fact assigned to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade as soon as he finished basic training. The 199th was not airborne, except for the twenty-eight hours it took it to get from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Bien Hoa Air Base in October, 1966. Disillusionment began at once:
We assembled out there on the airfield, a few thousand men, and General Westmoreland gave us a nice big speech that I didn’t care too much for. He got us together and said, “O.K., men, you’re all over here to spend one year. Now, some of you are not going home, and a lot of you are going to end up in the hospital, but you’re over here to do one thing and that is fight!” And then some colonel got up there and said, “And we do like big body counts!” That was the end of the ceremony.
Herndon’s experiences in Vietnam were comprehensive: he observed electric torture used in the interrogation of prisoners of his own brigade; accidentally killed a little Vietnamese girl in crossfire, and was court-martialed for it, even though “Some MP ran out, found her identification, ripped it up, and then listed her as a ‘confirmed kill,’ a VC kill, because she didn’t have no identification.” The charges were dismissed.
On January 31, 1968, Herndon was wounded by rocket fire that killed twenty other men in the same truck. In the hospital, Herndon received the Army Commendation Medal, and was sent back to the United States for more extensive surgery. A year later, after his recovery, he was sent off to the 509th Infantry Airborne Mechanized Brigade in Germany. He had married just one month earlier. Six months after arriving in Germany, Herndon learned that he was again to be sent to Vietnam. He deserted and fled to France.
In France, he was well treated and lived luxuriously for seven months at “a Quaker conference center called the Château de Charbonnières.” But, though he had considerable opportunity even for foreign travel, he found this life dull. Meanwhile, his wife, whose allotments had stopped when he deserted, had started divorce proceedings that could not be completed until he returned to his unit. In the interests of his ultimate freedom he did so in April, 1970, and was sentenced to four months at hard labor in the Mannheim stockade, forfeiture of $360 pay, and a bad conduct discharge. Unfortunately for him, he was denied this last punishment, at least at that time.
When he got out—in five months, rather than four:
He was informed that the Board of Review had suspended it; that Major General Elmer H. Almquist, Jr., the convening authority, had refused to sign it; and that he was to return to duty. His first sergeant said further that due to the bad time he had pulled in the Long Binh and Mannheim stockades, he had over a year of service left, and that he was headed back to Vietnam.
This time, he made his desertion stick, and headed back to France.
Exile for a refugee, ill-equipped with education or language or technical skills, is a never-ending battle for survival. For John Herndon, essentially Appalachian in temperament and outlook, the time from August 1970 to the gray evening that Tod Ensign and I arrived at his apartment in March 1972 was a scramble for a pittance to live on, being chased from one job to the next, struggling with the French language, contending with the ambivalent feeling among the French people and French bureaucracy toward desertion, socializing with French and American intellectuals and anti-war activists who would pick him up and drop him, descending into heavy drink and bumming, hitting bottom with a suicide attempt—all softened only slightly by his authoritarian relationship with Annette.
The last reference is to a kindly young woman, half French and half American, with whom Herndon had been living, and whom he treated contemptuously. After his return to America she wrote Reston that she did not want John back. Though he had begun to miss her, he was unlikely to return soon, in any case. The intervention of the three young men from Safe Return changed his life, as intended, if not quite in the way intended. Cool and knowing, they shepherded him briskly through the labyrinth by which he was to return home without passport or military orders, openly and after having informed the American authorities, avoiding arrest in Europe which would have resulted in his return to Germany and the loss of the well-publicized test case they sought.
In less than a week, John David Herndon was back in New York, though of course again under arrest. Three weeks after that, he was free. The army, though it misrepresented both Herndon’s service and medical records, and attempted to spirit him away to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, beyond the reach of Safe Return’s lawyers and out of sight of Senator Gravel and Congressperson Abzug whom, among others, Safe Return had interested in the case, suddenly abandoned its opposition. It did so with breathtaking simplicity. It merely signed the bad conduct discharge it had held suspended for two years. If the question of amnesty reaches the American courts, it will have to use as its instrument some deserter other than John David Herndon who, his long ordeal ended, is reported by Reston to be enjoying an active life in the war resistance movement, appearing on lecture platforms and holding his own against hecklers on phone-in shows.
As the book ends he is on his way to Augusta, Georgia, to help plan the legal defense of the very deserter who, living with him and Annette for a month in Paris, had precipitated Herndon’s suicide attempt by the disorder in which he had plunged their lives and the callousness with which he had used them. A triumph, then, certainly; but not over the chosen adversary.
In summarizing John David Herndon’s life so briefly, I have made it sound even choppier than it does in Reston’s book; but it has been a choppy life, which is very much to the point. Where Paul Spike’s life, as he recounts it, gives the effect of elegant, old-fashioned wallpaper—horses and huntsmen jumping fences, perhaps—on which an ominous stain has suddenly appeared, John Herndon’s life showed very little pattern—though a great deal of courage—until Reston and his colleagues taught him the elements of political survival. Herndon has lived like a billiard ball: tough, responsive, almost indestructible, but never imagining until his safe return that he might shape his own life. Apparently, he does this now.
In spite of their tragic substance, both these books are profoundly reassuring to persons who, like myself, have grown sick at heart hearing popular tales of the great acquiescence of American youth in the political climate of the Seventies. The resistance, it seems, is alive, no longer naïve, and very angry; it is Haldeman and Ehrlichman who are dead, politically. And unshriven. As the floodgates open it is the freaks and resisters who have found higher ground, and this time not only morally, but perhaps politically as well. A partial victory, and doubtless transient as such things are; but it warms the heart.