04/07/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Is this a book signing or some sort of military aerobics drill? "Officers wear lots of shiny stuff on their collars," explains Cpl. John Schaeffer later, after autographing book after book for a crowd of civilians, enlisted men and officers. "Every time I saw something shiny come toward me, I had to stand up. Then I had to sit down to sign my name, then stand up again. I think I did okay, but I was very nervous."
Schaeffer, 22, is doing better than okay. Keeping Faith: A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps, the book he wrote with his dad, Frank, is in its sixth printing after just five months in stores. Faith tells two stories: why John, a Massachusetts-born child of privilege, decided to join the Marines right after graduating from a fancy prep school; and how Frank, a novelist who moved in circles he describes as "Volvo-driving, higher-education-worshipping," came to terms with a decision he did not understand. "The idea of John going straight into the Marines after high school was disheartening," writes Frank, who assumed his son, like so many of his classmates, would simply follow the preppy path of least resistance and head for college. Safe and cozy in the Boston suburbs, Frank admits he even found his son's choice a little "embarrassing. Wasn't the military there to help poor kids make something of themselves?"
Well, no. In 1999 John went through boot camp on Parris Island, S.C. The physical and mental ordeal transformed him from a dreamy, unfocused suburban teen into a tough, self-possessed warrior. Frank, now 50, went through his own change—gaining respect for his son as well as the military. "John has connected me to my country in a new way," he says. "Now that it is my son out there watching my back, I feel shame at my past condescending attitude about military service always being someone else's job. I also feel immensely proud of him."
That understanding came slowly. At first John's decision to enlist tore a rift in their close bond. "This was my last child going out the door," Frank says, "and I wanted to hold on to this father-son relationship." But while reading John's letters home from boot camp, Frank had an inspiration. "I said, 'How about we do a book together?' It started very casually." With chapters alternately written by father and son, the book turned into a form of therapy for them. "It helped John know where Dad's intensity came from," says his brother Francis, 29, who teaches at Waring, the prep school John attended. "And it helped my dad to know himself a lot better." Frank agrees. "Writing the book got our relationship back on track," he says in the breakfast room of the family home in Salisbury, Mass.
"I didn't understand why John was joining the Marines, and I felt helpless," says Frank's wife, Genie, 51. "The book put things in order for me." The volume also built a bridge between Frank—author of the novels Portofino and Saving Grandma—and his son, who had clearly inherited Frank's love of books, if not schoolbooks. At Waring, John says, "I remember skipping all my homework so I could read what I was interested in."
Other than frequent furloughs to appear on TV or go to book signings, John gets no special treatment from the Marine Corps. "He is one of the better Marines here," says Maj. Rick Rochelle, his commanding officer at the Maryland base where John has been stationed for the past year. "I wish I could clone him."
Or at least convince him to reenlist. John hasn't decided what he'll do when he gets out in August of 2004. Meanwhile he continues to write, as does Frank, who will have a novel, Zermatt, out this fall. And both spend time replying to hundreds of letters and e-mails, mostly from other servicemen and their families. The saddest come from parents who have lost children. "I don't feel worthy of their praise," says John. "I've never been in combat."
Not yet, but John has just been deployed to the Middle East. Talking about it brings Frank close to tears. "All I can say is that now that John has been sent over there, I'll do what most of the parents I've been talking to do," he says, "and that is pray a good deal and ask for the angels to protect him."
Max Alexander in Salisbury