Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2024 by Giles Ryan

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the start of life, our identity is defined with a few plain facts — place, date, parents’ names and the family name they bestow — but at the other end of life, we are someone entirely different, with another identity created by our own acts and the paths we choose. The earliest facts of our lives tell us very little and even this little may be misleading. For example, I hold in my hand a birth certificate and a baptism certificate which state facts about how I started my life, and yet the former did not truly state the case, and the latter defined me as something I never fully accepted.

My birth certificate states indisputably that I was born in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but it would be far more accurate to say that I was born in the U.S. Army. Specifically, my birthplace was Fort Monroe, Virginia, and, like all such military places, it had a measure of extraterritoriality, but this did not extend to the registration of birth, so the Commonwealth of Virginia claimed me as its own. But the truth is that I belonged to the Army in a way that I never belonged to Virginia, although, as it happened, I passed a number of my early years in that state until I graduated college. Them I left and never lived there again.

Because of my father’s profession, I could have been born anywhere — and indeed the previous year my brother was born in New York— and so I feel free to ignore geography. My military provenance was determined by my father’s career as a soldier. He was an engineer by training but a soldier by profession; the one thing was his work, his daily bread, as it were, but the other thing, his place in the military, was the culture that defined him; indeed, this was the identity that he chose early in life and which my mother also embraced. My parents met right after the war and married in 1947 when my mother was also in the Army, and they were both in uniform when they joined hands on the altar. At that time and in the view of their generation, the Army uniform was an emphatic statement of pride. My father had entered the military before the war and on his wedding day he already had a decade’s service and would serve two decades more. He naturally assumed his two sons would follow in his steps. Why would his boys do anything else?

The other document in my hand is the official Certificate of Baptism confirming the liturgical ritual which claimed me as one more luckless, unwitting infant in the harsh embrace of the Catholic Church. Choice had no role in this, and while my mother’s Connecticut Yankee childhood spared her the rigors of the Roman dogma, my father grew up in the strict discipline of the Irish Catholic Church and he never seemed to question it, so why should his sons escape the same fate? 

Looking at these two documents together, I realize that the baptism document joins my two identities in one, because it was issued by the Military Ordinariate, the Church’s canonical jurisdiction within the Army. This single piece of paper, created within days of my birth, identified me as a Catholic and, by implied potential, a soldier. But in the following decades, I lost both identities; one was taken from me and the other I discarded of my own will.

We are each of us a physical presence: face and features, frame and strength, and the five senses more or less. The most fortunate among us enter the world with everything in good working order, and the rare, truly fortunate ones keep all this intact longer than most. My physical parts were compromised from the start because I arrived two months premature, so that my birth was, in fact, a near-death experience. I had sufficient infant grit to get through the early months, and I like to believe this was the first sign of a quality my life demanded again and again. But premature birth had permanent sequelae, enough to give a little fellow his first taste of words taken from Greek and Latin: myopia, astigmatism, amblyopia, strabismus and nystagmus, the last one effecting not only vision but also balance, so that I fall down far more than a fellow should. My mother once told me the story of how she first realized I had problems when we were riding a train somewhere in Canada, and she pointed out to me and my brother some cows in a field, which my brother saw very well. But I was compelled to ask, “Where are they? I don’t see any cows.”

By the age of four, I was looking at the world through thick lenses and still not seeing the world my brother saw. Despite this, my father had the notion that I must attempt the same things as other boys, including things that required hand and eye coordination far beyond my limits — playing baseball, boxing, and even shooting a rifle at paper targets which remained untouched by my best efforts. Perhaps he thought that if I could do any of these things, then surely the Army would find a place for me, and if there was no place in the infantry, then perhaps there was a desk-bound sinecure where my deficiencies would escape detection and my slight skills might still earn a living. I certainly wanted to make it so, for my childhood was emphatically military, a rehearsal for the life ahead, even to the point of Saturday morning inspections to check that my bed was properly made and my clothes properly folded and put away and no dust on the windowsill. 

This charade of preparation for my military life continued over the years until my teens, when an Army ROTC physical put an end to it. In 1967, with the draft providing all the young men the Army might need, the Army had no place for someone with my shortcomings. In long retrospect, I’ve come to believe that my parents never truly recovered from their disappointment, and were never certain what to think of me or what I might become. Then, just as I was coming to terms with the fact that I would never be a soldier, my parents decamped to Asia when I was eighteen, and I was completely on my own. 

By this time, my other childhood identity as a Catholic had shriveled to no more than a notion. My vestigial faith might, in later years, take me to a Christmas Midnight Mass in Taegu but only if friends suggested it, and even this was in no way a spiritual event. The Church’s hold on me had always been tenuous, and it must be confessed that from early boyhood, my scant faith had been based on fear and intimidation, which I now believe underlie all religious practice. On the subject of religion, my voice was silenced from the first grade, except for the rote responses of the Baltimore Catechism, which I prattled like any boy in a Mideast madrassa. As early as the second grade, my silent beliefs went far beyond skepticism. I still recall my indignation on learning the dogma that unbaptized children were denied the sight of god and spent eternity in limbo; the unfairness of this idea so repelled me that it still echos in my basic sense of justice —  and its absence. Of course, I never voiced these thoughts, for any such opinion would have been swiftly and severely punished with the leather strap hanging ready at every nun’s belt.

Still, my early schooldays had profound and lasting effects. Once, I saw a line from the poet Milton —  “Nothing so profits a man as a proper self-esteem.”  — and I thought, clearly Milton never experienced education in our mid-century Catholic church. The priests and nuns of my boyhood were supremely indifferent to the emotional welfare — never mind self-esteem — of the children in their care. Children unhappy for whatever reason were told that their suffering was nothing compared to the suffering of Jesus on the cross, and children so bold as to oppose anyone in authority would hear the callous warning that their little souls would suffer the torments of hell for eternity. This kind of talk will take its toll on a six year old.

But a rigorous religious education will also nurture a talent for daydreaming, and in my daydreams I had adventures and did all the heroic deeds my daily life did not allow. Whether ‘in some far corner of a foreign field’ or in some harsh wilderness, I played the hero, and there was no one there to tell me that I couldn’t do such things and never would. Everything was possible in this best of all possible worlds — my imagination. All these adventures played out in my head as I pretended to listen attentively to some droning nun, or knelt in a church pew mouthing a meaningless rosary, or went through my altar boy motions as I served Mass for a priest who still carried a whiff of last night’s whiskey. My thoughts always wandered away. 

Small wonder that I was a poor student. My grades through most of these years were indifferent, but somehow I early mastered the mysteries of English spelling, and I have always had a deep interest in the meaning and origin of words. Regarding math, however, my scant skill took me no farther than arithmetic, and, faced with algebra and geometry, I quickly abandoned hope, convinced that any higher math was a dark art restricted to an occult Freemasonry with some secret handshake denied to me. Somehow — I still cannot say how — I made the transition from high school to College and four yers later graduated with a degree in history and no notion of how this would translate into a living. 

This gave my parents one more reason to wonder what would ever become of me. In more ways than one, I disappointed them, but I would never blame them if, in fact, they felt this way. They were children of the Great Depression, and in their own childhoods suffered just as much if not far more than I. Perhaps my father’s quiet reserve was his own retreat to self-preservation, a manner acquired in a childhood whose harshness he took for the natural state of things. He certainly never retreated from life. Indeed, his three wars, spanning Pearl Harbor to Vietnam, evidenced as much engagement with the world as anyone could wish — and perhaps more. I was, to be sure, as engaged as he in the wider world, but my experience was in a different key. His Army would not take me, but the Peace Corps did, and it took me away to experiences that reworked my identity in every imaginable way. But I have written of this elsewhere…..

In later years, I made other discoveries about the misleading character of life’s documents. I met many Koreans who started life in the North and came south as refugees in the war years. When required to recreate their family records for the new government in the South, some people — many? no one knows —  altered some details of place and date for whatever advantage they might perceive.  In this way, my father-in-law trimmed a few years off his age to give himself a younger identity, and he flatly lied when reporting that his second daughter, my wife, was born in Pyongyang and not Seoul. In a more dramatic example, I learned very late in life that my maternal grandparents were no blood relation at all; they adopted my mother as an infant, and the name on her birth certificate was the name of a complete stranger. 

But what does all this matter? Perhaps these documentary discrepancies or outright falsehoods only serve to prove a truth — that we make our own lives regardless of what appears on some document in an archive. In my case, the documents which state who I started out to be missed the mark by a wide margin. My baptism never took hold, and everything I hear about the Catholic Church today — and indeed, Christianity in the wider sense — gives me no reason to second-guess the judgement of my boyhood. As for being born in the Army, on reflection I must say that while I never had the makings of a soldier and never knew that life, I never shied from life’s hardships, sought out every opportunity for adventure, and learned countless lessons never taught in a classroom. And now, on the other horizon of life, I set these things down so that my sons and grandsons, too, will know this about me and have a better understanding of my identity.

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