Autopsy of War: A Personal History

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9780312654962: Autopsy of War: A Personal History

On the outside, John Parrish is a highly successful doctor, having risen to the top of his field as department head at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Inside, however, he was so tortured by the memories of his tour of duty as a marine battlefield doctor in Vietnam that he was unable to live a normal life. In Autopsy of War, the author delivers an unflinching narrative chronicling his four-decade battle with the unseen enemy in his own mind as he struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Parrish examines his Southern Baptist childhood and the profound influence of his father, a fire and brimstone preacher turned Navy chaplain, while offering a candid assessment of the "God and Country" ethos that leads young men to rush wide-eyed into war. He describes the unimaginable carnage and acts of cruelty he witnessed in Vietnam, experiences that shattered his world view leaving him to retreat from his family upon his return stateside. Living virtually homeless at times, he visited veteran shelters and relived the horrors of war in a series of harrowing flashbacks as he dealt with suicidal thoughts. The author writes honestly and probingly of his episodes of infidelity and battles with sex addiction. Readers follow his steady journey toward recovery and his professional contributions in the field of medicine and technology, as well as a joint program with the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital to aid returning veterans. Perhaps most poignantly, Parrish speaks of his quest to discover the identity of one particular solider in Vietnam he could not save?and whose memory has haunted him ever since.

Autopsy of War is a soul searching memoir that is both an intensely personal narrative and a universally relevant trip through the world of war and recovery.

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About the Author:

JOHN A. PARRISH, M.D., is the CEO of the Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT); the CEO of the Red Sox Foundation-Massachusetts General Hospital Home Base Program; and Distinguished Professor of Dermatology and former department head at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. He is the author of 12, 20 & 5: A Doctor's Year in Vietnam.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1
 

My first memory of my father is seeing him in a white dress military uniform, standing at the pulpit in his church, parishioners fanned out before him and looking up in adoration, as he spoke of sin, Jesus, and love. I was four, perhaps five years old.
War frames my earliest memories, and war was a major force that lifted my extended family from the poverty and ignorance of the Deep South in the years surrounding the Great Depression. By the time I began school all the men in my extended family had “gone to war.” I would follow them. Service in the military was the single event we all shared that determined the future course of our lives.
My mother’s father was an itinerant farmer in Tennessee, and although he never served, during World War I he left the farm to work at a munitions plant in Spring Hill, just south of Nashville. There he learned a trade, becoming a brick mason, and earned a steady wage for the first time in his life. Soon after the war ended, so did his job. In 1923, during the Florida building boom, he hitchhiked to West Palm Beach to look for work. A year later, he sent for his wife and four children: the identical twins, Jack and Earl, age ten; Claude, age six; and my mother, Lucile, who was still an infant.
They took the train to Florida and arrived with no possessions except the clothes they wore and moved in with my grandfather in one room of a boardinghouse. The three boys slept in the attic, and my mother slept with her parents. My mother’s strong-willed mother, my grandmother Mama Blair, worked as laundress, secretary, bookkeeper, or housekeeper, raised four children, and saw that they went to church. Staying just ahead of bill collectors, the family moved a dozen times over the next five or six years. The day after they fled one apartment to avoid overdue rent payments, the building was destroyed by the 1928 hurricane. My mother’s father did not often have steady work. When he did, he usually left most of his paycheck in a bar.
The twins never enrolled in school in Florida. Instead, they worked various odd jobs to help the family. Handsome, charismatic, and athletic, they became motorcycle policemen in the winter and in the summer played semipro baseball. In 1942, when the twins were in their late twenties, both boys and their younger brother, Claude, were drafted. Soon afterward my grandfather got drunk and left home for good.
Claude was the good boy. He joined the Boy Scouts, helped rescue victims of the 1928 hurricane, got involved in the church, and stayed in school. He graduated from high school as president of the student body and valedictorian and lettered in four sports despite working twenty hours a week with AT&T, first as a lineman and then in an office job. Even though he had no military experience, AT&T arranged for him to be an officer in the Army Signal Corps. He thrived in the military, eventually becoming an intelligence officer. In between military stints he returned to AT&T and simultaneously earned a law degree. Recalled to the service during the Korean War, he left active duty in 1953 as a major and rejoined AT&T. In rapid sequence he became vice president in charge of the Telstar Satellite Program, then president of Ohio Bell, president of Pacific Northwest Bell, and finally president and chairman of the National City Bank Corporation. He died at age ninety-seven. The headline of his obituary in the Palm Beach Daily News referred to him as “bank chairman and veteran.”
The twins, Jack and Earl, received formal training as military policemen and, although both had stateside assignments, were separated for the first time in their lives. After the war, they returned to the Palm Beach police force and reunited, their reputations enhanced and burnished by their service for their country. They always worked together and provided security for the growing number of extremely wealthy and powerful residents with winter homes in Palm Beach, families like the Woolworths, Rockefellers, Astors, and Kennedys. The Blair twins were very close to the Kennedys, especially Joe Sr. and, before he was killed in World War II, Joe Jr. On more than one occasion they acted as “watch-out” or helped provide cover for a Kennedy when he cavorted with a married woman.
To show real class, one could display the twins as “security” for very small dinner parties, and the rich and famous often planned social events around the availability of the Blair brothers. Standing next to their shiny giant motorcycles on either side of a mansion’s front entrance, they were treated more like guests than workers. Increasingly, however, they acted as private detectives and personal secret agents, cultivating contacts to arrange anything legal or illegal for a growing list of clients.
Eventually they bought a large hotel and started a rental car business as a legitimate front for one of Palm Beach’s largest gambling and prostitution rings. For decades the twins were powerful enough to keep major rental car companies and organized crime out of Palm Beach. A small band of men without last names was always around when needed, and Mama Blair was hired as a bookkeeper for a gas station they operated on the rental car lot. Executives from all over the United States and Europe could place discreet phone calls to one of the twins and by the time they arrived at the West Palm Beach airport whatever they wanted would be waiting: a car, a driver, women, hotel rooms, drugs, other entertainment, and gambling options. When clients were returned to the airport, their bill would be scrubbed to simulate a business trip, or there would be no paperwork at all showing that the client had ever been in Palm Beach.
My father, James Parrish, grew up in the poverty, ignorance, and bigotry of the Deep South in Sylvester, Georgia. His mother bled to death when she delivered her third child. As was the custom in his clan, his father, also named James, an alcoholic who occasionally worked as a fireman, actor, salesman, or barber, married the sister of his deceased wife. As the oldest (age five) child, my father assumed responsibility for the care and feeding of his family and tried to protect his two younger siblings from their genuinely evil stepmother. Doing odd jobs and stealing, my father provided the only steady source of food. He worshipped his father, who was most generous, attentive, and loving when he was sober and working and was dramatic, entertaining, and demonstrably affectionate when he was drinking. His frequent binges lasted days or weeks.
Crawling under porches and going through trash to find cigarette butts, my father began smoking at age six. He also joined his father, and further bonded with him, in binge drinking by the time he was ten years old. Because Prohibition started when my father was six years old, the liquor he made or stole was not only illegal but sometimes downright poisonous. During binges he would sometimes be deathly ill.
He went to school just enough to keep the truant officers at bay but forced his siblings to attend regularly and do their schoolwork. He swept streets or cleaned buildings before school, stocked groceries after school, and worked in a drugstore in the evenings. Although he was tough and easily provoked, his strong work ethic endeared him to his growing list of employers.
His father died when he was thirteen, and he became the official head of the household.
After school one day, to defend his brother from harassment, my father took on the school bully, who was two or three years his senior and considerably bigger. He beat him so severely that classmates pulled him away. For money or any reason, he could fight anyone anytime and most often won by sheer will. At 130 pounds, five feet nine inches, he was the starting offensive center and defensive nose guard on the high school football team. His teammates called him “pissant.” After his siblings’ needs were met, my father spent his time drinking, smoking, moving with a tough gang, and chasing girls. Secretly he was sleeping with at least one older married woman.
The summer after he finally graduated from high school, he had his first serious depression and suicidal thoughts. He was awarded a football scholarship to a small college but was too drunk to matriculate.
To get closer to one particular girl, he attended a Southern Baptist church and was soon “adopted” by a deacon who took particular interest and, by overpaying him for odd jobs, provided enough money for my father’s siblings and stepmother. My father had long talks with this man, began to attend church regularly, and became close to the fire-and-brimstone preacher. After a powerful conversion experience, my father was “saved from sin” by the grace of Jesus Christ and committed his life to God’s will. He stopped drinking completely, stopped volunteering for fistfights, and left his gang to be in the church community. His church mentors and hard work made it possible for my father to become the first of his generation to go to college, attending Stetson University, a Baptist school in DeLand, Florida. He was elected president of the student body, not because of his athletic prowess or classroom performance but because he was an effective orator, giving speeches at school events, civic organizations, churches, and anywhere else he was invited. He met and fell in love with my mother, a gentle, quiet, attractive classmate who had a part-time job playing saxophone in a local dance band. She gave up her music because my father associated it with sin—dancing and alcohol.
They married, and after graduation he earned a doctor of divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, studying and practicing oratory by preaching at local churches. My older brother, James, was born while my father was in college; I was born during his years in the seminary; and my sister, Mary Blair, was born while he was the minister of a small church in Florida. He claimed to be in ecstasy when he ...

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