I Heard My Country Calling, by James Webb. Simon & Schuster. 400 pages. Hardcover $27.00.
Alluding to another writer’s warning, Mr. Webb cautions those who meet him (or read his works) against understanding him too soon. People have been understanding him too soon for half a century, perhaps ever since he showed up as a plebe at the United States Naval Academy in 1964. Perhaps even before that. A versatile, complex man, James Webb has seemed easy to classify, to pigeonhole. In part, that’s because of his sometimes off-putting straightforwardness: he’s the guy who’s often disputing your certainties.
Looking back, Mr. Webb draws a broad picture of his forebears – the Scots-Irish folks who settled and built communities in the middle of America. He details a few generations leading up to his immediate family, whose roots are in Arkansas. It’s a story of working hard to get by, toughness, religious faith, and surprising isolation from mainstream metropolitan culture and enterprise. Small towns in Nebraska, Texas, and Missouri; back roads; modest ambitions; and no patience with pretension. However, his father’s two year assignment to RAF Henlow in Bedfordshire, England was an unexpected, horizon-widening experience.
James Webb senior, a self-taught engineer, pulled himself up to positions of respect and authority in a long Army career that climaxed in the race for space between the U. S. and the Soviet Union and the missile defense system program. James senior didn’t offer his young namesake much praise, constantly challenged him to bear hardships without complaining, and taught him how to box. He also taught his son, by example, what duty means and why sacrifices are necessary.
Love of country was in James Webb’s DNA. It still is.
The family’s vagabond life at the whim of duty assignments was aggravated further by the father’s penchant for moving from house to house even during a short-term posting. Such doings make it hard to form friendships and impossible to have educational continuity. The Webb children were over and over again the new kids in town or on the army base. On the other hand, they learned to know their country by adjusting to different slices of it over and over again. These were not your ordinary Baby-Boomers.
Young Jim is thrilled to receive an NROTC scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he has a ragged but exciting freshman year before gaining a recommendation and then acceptance to join the U. S. Naval Academy class of 1968. Mr. Webb’s chapter on his USNA experience is the best short treatment of Naval Academy life during those years that one is likely to find. Midshipman Webb enjoys being tested, hates the “Micky Mouse” stuff, rises to one of the highest positions in the Brigade of Midshipman before graduation. Excelling in the humanities and leadership, he is marginal in the technical curriculum. . . .