My Son, the Militarist

For two people so different, life is an uncertain truce

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I had been to parties here before -- a slightly stuffy, pleasantly scruffy London flat with worn leather on the chairs, Kurdish rugs on the floor, and etchings of worthy ruins on the walls. It looked like a grown-up version of Cambridge 'digs,' and most of us looked like middle-aged versions of the Cambridge undergraduates we had mostly been -- now pundits and publishers, writers and actors, what the British call the 'chattering classes.' Both my sons were with me on this trip, 16-year-old Alex out with his guitar and the punks of Piccadilly Circus, 19-year-old Tim somewhere in the adjoining room in Harris tweed. I recognized the man crossing toward me, glass in hand, as somebody I vaguely knew -- first name Jeff (or Geoff), last name lost. I remembered he was witty, articulate, an impassioned campaigner for free speech; my kind of person. So I was glad to see him headed toward me.

He charged a little purposefully, though, his look heated. 'I've been talking to your son,' he said, and set his glass against his chin. 'My God, how do you stand it?'

My stomach clenched around its undigested canapes. Shame, defensiveness, and rage (I am responsible for my son; I am not responsible for my son; who are you to insult my son?) so filled my throat that I could not immediately speak. The free-speech champion offered me the kind of face, sympathy and shock compounded, that one offers to the victim of mortal news.

'I manage,' I managed presently, and turned on my heel.

I have never run into Jeff again, but I credit him with the defining moment, when choice is made at depth: the Mother Moment.

Let's be clear. I live in knee-jerk land, impulses pacifist to liberal, religion somewhere between atheist and ecumenical, inclined to quibble and hairsplit with my friends, who, however, are all Democrats and Labour, who believe that sexual orientation is nobody's business, that intolerance is the world's scourge, that corporate power is a global danger, that war is always cruel and almost always pointless, that guns kill people.

My son Tim, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative but social liberal, shares these attitudes of tolerance toward sex, race, and religion. His politics, however, emanate from a spirit of gravity rather than irony. Now 33, he is a member of the Young Republicans, the National Rifle Association, and the United States Army Reserve, with which he spends as much time as he can wangle, most recently in Bosnia, Germany, and the Republic of Central Africa.