Tag Archives: military life

An eloquent, hard-hitting memoir of perseverance, pride and purpose

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.

To be straightforward is not to be simple.  IHeardMyCountryCalling

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.

JamesWebb-photobyHongLeWebb

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. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 17, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly, click here Florida Weekly – James Webb 1 and here Florida Weekly – James Webb 2.

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A searing, beautiful story of love, loss, and the long road to revival

Unremarried Widow: A Memoir, by Artis Henderson. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. Hardcover $25.00.

Of all the memoirs I’ve read since becoming a weekly book reviewer in 2006, this brilliant achievement is rivaled only by Kelle Groom’s “I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl” (2011). Though the books share a publisher and a theme of recovery, the strength of each is ultimately its uniqueness. Both memoirs are devastating, healing, and uplifting. Thunderstorm over Karoo landscape, Nieuwoudtville, South Africa

Unremarried Widow relates the unexpected grand passion of a fairly reserved young woman for a man whose type she would never have expected to cherish. Artis had graduated from the Wharton School of Business, spent a year in Paris, dabbled with idea of becoming a writer, and worked for a U. S. senator back home in Florida. Miles Henderson, a handsome, outgoing outdoorsman – the very picture of a Texas ranch hand – was an Army helicopter pilot. They meet in a Tallahassee bar. It doesn’t take long.

These very different people, linked by some unfathomable core connection, make room for each other’s enthusiasms. It seems easy for them to share experiences. But all is not well. Artis finds little room for herself in the role of army wife. She doesn’t fit in with the other women. She makes a few friendships, but some desires and needs of the pre-Miles Artis are undernourished. Spiritually, she’s wasting away.

Too soon, Miles is in Iraq and Artis is in some kind of suspension. Too soon after that, Miles is a casualty – his Apache helicopter having crashed, killing him and the other pilot. HendersonArtis

Too soon, Artis becomes a grieving widow – just as her mother had become twenty years earlier when Artis was a young child.

Incredibly, Artis had lost her father to a plane crash and was raised by a mother who severely suppressed her grief, ridding their home of signs that her husband had ever lived. We wonder what lessons Artis learned from her mother’s behavior, which involved refusing to talk about that tragic loss. How did this affect the mother-daughter relationship? What kind of comfort, if any, can her mother provide?

Who can judge another’s manner of grieving, or not grieving?

The heart of the book is the author’s harrowing portrait of her grieving self. Loneliness, anger, and despair are only a few of the emotions processed in the wake of her husband’s demise. Ms. Henderson describes with unvarnished honesty the tides of greater and lesser hurt that buffeted her. . . .

To read the entire review as it appears in the April 23, 2014 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the April 24 Bonita Springs and Naples editions, and the May 1 Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition, click here:  Florida Weekly – Henderson.

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