When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir

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9780156027434: When I Was a Young Man: A Memoir
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Bob Kerrey's much-acclaimed and fascinating memoir tells the tale of a young boy's life in Nebraska, his journey as a young man into the dangers of Vietnam and the hospitals where he recovered from grievous injuries, and finally to the Nixon White House, where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
As much a story of the American heartland at mid-century as it is a story of a man who rebuilt his life after it was wrenched awry by war, this "astonishing, wonderful book . . . is a distinguished example of that classic American genre, the tale of lost innocence" (Time).

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About the Author:

Bob Kerrey, former governor and then senator of Nebraska, is now president of New School University. He served with an elite Navy SEAL team, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is the father of three children and lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON in the spring of 1954 when I was ten years old, I discovered my father had a brother. My parents, brothers, and sisters were out. I was home alone, a rare and exciting moment, made more exciting by my mission to find a storage room where my mother kept items too important to throw away. My goal was to find a wooden chest that a year earlier I had helped carry into the basement.

I had followed the box's movements from smaller house to larger house during the eight years our family grew from the four small children who arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1946 following my father's discharge from the U.S. Army, to the seven children who lived there now. My father's entire name-James Henry Kerrey-was stenciled in black on the top of the faded olive green box. It had leather handles on either end, a brass-hinged clasp that held the lid closed, and, fortunately for me, it was not padlocked.

Our new house was built on three levels. Upstairs were my parents' master bedroom and two other bedrooms for my sisters. In the basement were four smaller bedrooms, a large bathroom, and a recreation room for my brothers and me. In between was the entry level with spaces used by us all: dining room, music room, living room, laundry room, and an office.

Under the stairs going to my sisters' and parents' rooms was a crawl space where the green wooden chest was stored. That day I carried a chair down to the basement and placed it below the wooden doors that hid my treasure. As I opened the doors, my heart beat fast from the fear I might be caught and the excitement of discovering the secrets inside the box. I pulled a string that switched on a single incandescent bulb and climbed into the closet, moving things around so I could reach what I presumed was a war chest full of bloody memorabilia.

As I opened the lid the smell of camphor filled my lungs. On top were brown wool army jackets, trousers, and shirts. I pushed the uniforms aside, hoping to find souvenirs from some great battle. There was nothing of the sort. No pistols or muddied boots or a jacket with a bullet hole surrounded by the bloodstain of a fallen comrade. No battered helmet marked by too many days on the head of a weary soldier.

Underneath the uniforms I found a bayonet, but the blade looked as new and unused as any hardware knife in my father's store. I found hats, which were too large for my head, and four envelopes of pictures marked Iowa, Florida, Chicago, and Japan. I went straight for the one that said Japan. Inside were three-by-three-inch black-and-white images like the ones we took on our summer vacations. Men in uniforms stood in front of a metal building with a rounded roof. I recognized my father's smiling face, looking young and happy. I saw odd-shaped houses and strange, misshapen plants, and in one, a twisted, melted glass bottle. But nothing in the box lived up to the delights I had imagined.

Just as I was beginning to lose interest, I opened a large folder that held an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white photograph of the head and shoulders of a man in a white uniform. He looked just like my older brother John, tan and handsome, with dark thinning hair combed straight back. The resemblance was so strong that I decided to take the picture with me when I left the basement.

After dinner that night I waited for my father to go into his office, where he and my mother shared a desk and a set of filing cabinets. The room was always cluttered with broken chairs, torn clothing, and discarded toys. My father often made phone calls from this room after supper. My mother used it late at night when we had gone to bed to pay bills or make entries in a black book that held the income and expenses of their lumber, coal, and hardware business.

I stood in the doorway until he finished making a call. Then he turned and asked in a kind voice what I wanted. With the photograph in my outstretched hand, I said, "I found a picture of a man this afternoon. It looks like John." My father looked at the man's face and his expression grew sad and worried. "It isn't your brother John. This is my brother John. He was killed in the war." Before I could ask any questions, he said, "Where did you get it?"

When I answered truthfully his face reflected something I had never seen-a mixture of anger and pain. In that instant I thought he might either cry or shout at me. He chose anger. He rose and walked quickly past me and out the door, yelling, "You kids leave my things alone. Leave them alone." And he was gone. I stood as if I had been turned to salt like Lot's wife. I could not move; I could only stand there and cry. My mother came into the office and asked me what had happened. When I told her, she said gently, "Your father had an older brother named John. He was killed ten years ago. Your father doesn't like to talk about it. Please leave his things alone." Which is exactly what I did.

Copyright © 2002 by J. Robert Kerrey
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the workshould be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
www.HarcourtBooks.com

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