“Anything processed by memory is fiction.”
—Wright Morris, in a lecture at Princeton, December 2, 1971, as quoted by Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory. Wright Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska, in 1910.
In 1851, Thomas Kerry, from the village of Trieshon in Lincolnshire, England, sailed across the Atlantic to Boston, where two years later he married Frances Reynolds, who had also emigrated from Lincolnshire. The new family pushed west, to Galena, Illinois, and it was in Galena that Thomas Kerry added a second “e” to his name, making it “Kerrey,” perhaps because the earlier spelling had the burden of an Irish connotation in a new world where, on the social ladder, the Irish were just a rung above people of color. The family grew to seven children, and succeeding generations struck out to various other points on the American compass—Manistee, Michigan; Chattanooga; Chicago; Duluth. This was an America on the move, a land where boom was followed by bust, and where, when mothers died either young or in childbirth, as was not uncommon, spinster or widowed relatives were enlisted to help raise the motherless children; refusing the enlistment was not an option. James Kerrey, the father of Robert, was born in 1913; his mother died of toxemia less than three months later, his father of a chill a year after that. A widowed aunt in her mid-fifties with grown children of her own was entrusted with the care of the infant James and of his brother John, older by two years.
According to Kerrey family lore, John Kerrey was a road rat who rode the rails during the Depression, moving from hobo jungles to, finally, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The eligibility requirements for the CCC were simple: the applicant had to be a male American citizen, unemployed, free of venereal disease, and to have “three serviceable teeth, top and bottom.” Both John and James Kerrey served as army officers in the Second World War. John was killed in the Philippines; James did not get overseas until hostilities ended. In 1946, James Kerrey, married and with a growing family (there would be seven children), after many intermediate stops in the Midwest and South, settled for good in Bethany, a suburb of Lincoln, Nebraska, and opened a lumber, coal, and hardware business. James and Elinor Kerrey’s third child, and third son, was J. Robert, called Bob, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam, former Democratic governor of Nebraska, and two-term US senator.
When I Was a Young Man is the first volume of Bob Kerrey’s memoirs. On its smooth, flat surface, it is the story of a thoroughly conventional Midwestern childhood in a thoroughly conventional Midwestern family, with thoroughly conventional Mark Hanna Midwestern Republican politics—limited government and low taxes—and thoroughly conventional Midwestern Protestant beliefs. The family worshiped at the Bethany Christian Church, where Sunday services were preceded by an hour of Bible study, and the young were welcomed into God’s…
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