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I Heard My Country Calling: A Memoir

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James Webb’s mother grew up in poverty-stricken cotton fields of Eastern Arkansas. She did not finish grade school. His father was the first in many generations of Webbs from the Appalachians of Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to finish high school. He enlisted in the Air Force the day after Pearl Harbor, flew bombers in the war and later the Berlin Airlift. Jim was an Army brat who attended nine different schools, and who “missed his Dad so much that he would hide underneath a table weeping when he came home.”

Webb’s account of his childhood, his stern but kind father, loving mother, granite granny, and assortment of stubborn aunts, siblings, and cousins is a tremendous saga. His four years at Annapolis are bone-chilling and triumphant. His assignment to the jungles of Vietnam as a Marine is dangerous (it is the setting of his much-praised Fields of Fire) and the source, he writes, of “feelings that will never go away.”

He was 24 when he returned to go to work for the Secretary of the Navy. He would go on to law school, reading, learning, writing excellent books, becoming the youngest ever Secretary of the Navy, and then a U.S. Senator, an office he relinquished after one term to write this book.

His father, who was eventually a colonel in the Air Force, earned a college degree in middle-age and worked on some of the most sophisticated weaponry of the Air Force. He resigned when Jim, lieutenant in the Marines, was sent to Vietnam. He was, as Jim writes, now the one left behind to miss his son, as his son had missed him all his life.

In James Webb’s words: “The child becomes the father. And the father shudders with justifiable fear at the wondrous terror of the very thing his example has encouraged. And so this book is a love story—love of family, love of country, love of service. It is a story that takes place during a remarkable period in American history. And in its subtext it constantly asks and answers a couple of pervasive questions: What are your obligations to your country, and how does one become a leader? What challenges, physical, emotional and ethical, shape that journey? And most importantly, how does one who lived through that journey in this particular way assimilate those experiences, setting aside the easy seduction of bitterness, and instead passing down their lessons to the generations who follow?”

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