Time has a way of sifting ironies. A decade and a half after he left his studies for the missionary priesthood, Washington Post staff writer Paul Hendrickson went on a search for himself and old comrades -- to remember what they were then, to discover what they are now. This piece is an excerpt from his book, "Seminary: A Search," just being published by Summit Books. "Oh, man . . . Oh, my . . . Suppose I didn't have that medal . . . You wouldn't be here, right? You wouldn't know me from a hole in the wall. I mean, I would be invisible to you. Like a hundred thousand other dudes who got themselves sent over there to be shot at by a lot of little Chinamen hiding up in the trees. Yes, sir! I am an authentic hero, a showpiece. One look at me, enlistments go up 200 percent . . . I am a feather in the cap of the Army, a flower in the lapel of the military--I mean, I am quoting to you, man! That is what they say at banquets, given in my honor. Yes, sir!" TOM COLE, FROM "MEDAL OF HONOR RAG" JUNE 1981, SAN FRANCISCO
THE TABLE, small and narrow, sits in the precise middle of the room. There is a batik over it, and two skinny orange candles rest in cheap holders on top of the cloth. The room is dimly lit and cold. Windows rattle in the wells. A knife cuts through wedges of cheese, coming out onto a china plate with a thin, small SNATT. Wet afternoon fog nuzzles against glowering panes, trying to get in, making a mockery of summer. The walls in here are bare except for one print of a storm-tossed ship.
Charlie Liteky, 51, ex-priest, American hero, comes stiffly over to the table carrying a plate. He has been working at the sink with a huge butcher knife, cutting three kinds of cheese into small, precise slivers, fanning the slivers out on the plate in neat symmetrical strips. He sets the plate between us, draws a chair opposite the table, pours wine into a juice glass and an Oriental ceramic cup. The juice glass he slides toward me; the Oriental cup he saves for himself. All of this is done in silence, with fluid grace, making me fantasize some bizarre deadly ritual I am about to be initiated into.
"I think it's the lightness of it," he says. "And the simplicity. Particularly Japanese culture. There's an intricacy and a penchant for detail; yet in the end it all comes out so simply."
The first time I found Charlie Liteky, after a year of haphazard trying, he was living in a beat-up hotel in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. He had been there for some months, I later learned. I wasn't to get out to California to see him for another three weeks, and by then Charlie had suddenly relocated. But one sunny San Francisco afternoon I took a walk down Eddy Street to see his former address. Platinum-headed ladies in ratty furs lurked at the corners, waiting to hook. In the lobby of Charlie's hotel, vacant old men sat on the other side of smudged glass, looking back at me like wax oozing figures from Madame Tussaud's.
But Charlie Liteky (you pronounce it lit-key) didn't feel sorry for himself there, in the bare-bulbed cell he rented for two hundred a month. For one thing, Charlie has never been much into material comfort. For another, there was a kind of ministry there. In a way the Tenderloin was Charlie's church. Now that he doesn't have to be a priest anymore, he is free to be the deepest Christian imaginable.
For a time, nearly three years, he had livedSee SEMINARY, G2, Col. 1 SEMINARY, From G1 by himself in a scrap-wood cabin on an island off Florida that looked out to an infinity of sea. His front yard was the Gulf of Mexico. He built a platform on the roof, and at night he'd go up there to sleep. He got in rhythm with the tides; he got conscious again of his prayer life, of scripture. He had an old truck, and he hauled people's trash, and he got by okay on the government pension that Congressional Medal of Honor winners get for the rest of their lives. One day he moved on. He said later he felt he had some responsibility for the rest of man.
I heard he was in Santa Cruz, California, with his younger brother Pat. I heard he was in Oakland, living in a community with some Vietnamese Dominican nuns he had brought over during the war. He was in San Francisco. He had gone back to Florida. I kept trying numbers and getting disconnect messages. And then late one night I dialed a number and he picked up the phone on the first ring. He was in the Tenderloin. By day he worked for the Veterans Administration; by night he was trying to write a novel. From what he said about the day job I knew the stallion wouldn't be long in the harness.
He is tall and gangly, and he is winding his way into the chair opposite me like Rubber Man. He is not unhandsome, though age and enough stressful experience for several lifetimes have caught him. There is shrapnel in his foot. And his back is bad. And sometimes his vision mysteriously blurs for hours on end. And, too, the arthritis that slowly consumed his father over eleven years seems to be creeping in the same way on the son. Also some upper-register hearing is gone, lost to all that shelling in Vietnam. Tonight, in a Vietnamese restaurant, while Charlie and his girlfriend and I eat fisherman's soup and five-spice chicken amid a clatter of dishes and a welter of language, he will ask me three times to repeat a sentence. He will seem old.
Charlie Liteky won the Medal of Honor as a chaplain. Fewer than five men in the history of the republic have accomplished that. To read what he did, to hear it described, is to picture a man growing suicidally beautiful. The medal Charlie won has an eagle and a wreath on it, and it dangles from a rich blue ribbon. On November 19, 1968, at 1130 hours, the president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, draped it around the neck of one ramrod-straightCapt. Angelo Liteky, Catholic priest, Company A, 4th Battalion, 12th Infantry, 199th Light Infantry Brigade. The ceremony was in the East Room of the White House. There were banquets and wire stories and testimonials. ("Son," LBJ said, putting it around Charlie's neck, "I'd rather have one of these babies than be president.") Ed Sullivan's people kept calling up for Charlie to come on the show, but Charlie said he wasn't really interested. Charlie Liteky was a national hero, though later, when he had fallen from grace, and into love, literally overnight, his mama could say, "Yeah, he's the hero of this year, the bum of next."
He has hard, knuckly hands and muscular shoulders and a pair of light sockets for eyes. The lines and creases and leathery seams flow outward from the deep eyes and big bony nose. A semi-wild Lincolnesque beard grows up the side of his V-shaped chin, like patchy ivy. When he smiles, though, the smile crinkles into little affectionate grays down his face and over to his ears and across the trapezoidal jaw. He is angular as hell, with arms that don't quite know where to hang. He looks at turns like Mephistopheles, like some wizened and lecherous old Howard Hughes you might see stumbling out of the Nevada desert at 5 a.m., like Natty Bumppo the Deerslayer. When he moves, for all his growing stiffness, it is as if something leonine were moving. He has the grace of a banged-up pro.
The morning of the White House ceremony, a man from Charlie's company had gone on national television to say what his chaplain had done that day a year earlier in Bien Hoa. "When Captain Liteky went out there the first time, we knew we'd never see him again," the man said. "And by the end of that day we just knew he could walk on water." The man told how a weaponless Catholic priest, in his first time under fire, crawled to within fifteen meters of an enemy machine gun nest, flipped over onto his back, wrestled a bleeding and moaning man up onto his chest, and started digging backward, with his elbows and heels, for the landing zone. Charlie dug like that for maybe thirty yards, a horizontal scoop shovel, then stood up and dragged the soldier another forty yards to the medevac choppers. Afterward he went back into the woods for another trapped man. All afternoon he was bringing up stretchers, ammunition, water. No one could stop him. He moved upright and helmetless through fields of brightness, anointing the dying. He rose right up, like a man deranged, in full face of rockets and small arms fire, to direct in helicopters. He took off his flak jacket, and then his fatigue shirt, and threw them over the faces of blown-up comrades. The attack lasted from early afternoon until early evening, and in all Angelo Liteky, Catholic priest, saved twenty men. That night the only shirt the chaplain had to wear was his olive T-shirt. Damn cold, too.
"Secretary Resor, General Westmoreland, Distinguished Members of Congress, Distinguished Guests and Members of the Family," Lyndon Johnson began that November day in 1968 at the White House. "Our hearts and our hopes are turned to peace as we assemble here in the East Room this morning. All our efforts are being bent in its pursuit. But in this company we hear again, in our minds, the sounds of distant battle. Five heroic sons of America come to us today from the tortured fields of Vietnam. These five soldiers in their separate moments of supreme testing summoned a degree of courage that stirs wonder and respect and overpowering pride in us all."
Four other American heroes stood at nervous attention with Charlie Liteky on Decoration Day, and one of them was a black man, Spec. 5 Dwight H. Johnson. There is now a play based on the life of the late Dwight H. Johnson. It's called "Medal of Honor Rag." The play had a limited run on Broadway. Dwight Johnson had a limited run on life: Inside of four years of getting the Medal of Honor in the White House, he was dead in the war zones of Motor City USA, with his obit on the front page of The New York Times. Dwight Johnson had held up a corner grocery in Detroit and gotten himself killed, or maybe let himself be killed, in the process. The American hero had an IQ of l28, and at the funeral his grieving mama could only tell reporters how he used to run home from school just to avoid the neighborhood bullies.
I have brought with me in my bag this trip a copy of "Medal of Honor Rag." Charlie has never heard of the play, seems uninterested in reading it. "The real heroes in that war are all dead," he says quietly, jerking me from reverie. The Oriental ceramic cup is on the table, empty. His fingers are pyramided against each other, as if in prayer, or the way we used to make church steeples as kids. "The company commanders who write up these medal nominations, they know how to pump it up. I'm not saying some of these things didn't happen. I'm just saying it makes them look good, too, you know."
Take the star out of the window; the real heroes are dead.
Maybe what Charlie is trying to tell me is that his military superiors didn't bother to write up the fact that a Catholic priest once got dressed in civvies, like anybody else in that dirty little war, and made his way into Saigon, through the plastic-covered wooden shacks and cubicles of discarded cardboard, to a place where he could have sex with a whore. Only this was Charlie's first sex. He was 38 and a virgin. He used to watch guys from his company crawling through rolls of barbed wire at night to sneak into the villages to find hookers. He had to find out what sex was like.
"So here's a guy who doesn't believe in sex outside of marriage, a priest, okay? And he has his first sex with a Saigon prostitute. The priest, quote, hero, unquote, who didn't have enough pride to keep himself from paying for his first sexual experience. And you know what? I'm grateful it happened. It brought me closer to the rest of humanity."
Holy Orders Rag. Burnt incense. Break the soul with mortal sin so it can float to forgiveness. Charlie Liteky creaks forward to pour more wine into his cup. We have drifted to why and how he left the priesthood eight or nine years ago. The date has always been a little vague. He was in and out for a while, on leave, in limbo, staying with his dying mama in Florida, pumping gas, working at a halfway house for drugged-up vets in Cleveland, making candles. There had been a time in his priesthood when Charlie proclaimed he was having visions, when he felt he was going to suffer the Stigmata. Some feared for his sanity.
"I think one of the biggest problems all along was that we were never taught that our happiness was related to anything here and now. I'm not blaming anyone; it's just the way it was. I used to be separated totally from my emotions. I lived in my head. I was into this thing about working yourself out for God. Burnt incense. Well, I had to get rid of all that. I had to bury a lot of skeletons about God before I could love Him again. I had to say to God, okay, Buddy, if that's the kind of God You are, maybe I don't want to believe in You. Where are You, God? I was crying, shaking my fist. I can love a person, you see, because a person can love me back. I can't love an abstraction. I'm a lot more spiritual person now because I'm a lot more loving person. I almost died there for a while before I left the priesthood. My basic human needs were gnawing at me. It was depression in the absence of life. Finally there was the basic Christian conviction that He came to give us life. But I had no life. What is it Aquinas writes about self-mobility? If a thing is not moving . . . ? So that is what I did--choose life, move away from death."
His eyes are tightly closed; he is sitting sideways in his chair. I am longing for the thin small SNATT of the knife.
"I wanted to go someplace where strangers could tell me who I was. Because I didn't know who I was. I was in San Diego for a while. It was like stepping off onto another planet. I was just John Doe. I got an apartment off Balboa Park. The zoo was nearby. I began with long walks. Sometimes I'd talk to people, usually not. The only knowledge I had of myself was what other people were starting to give me back. And that's just as I wanted it. One of my biggest problems in the priesthood all along was that my identity had pretty much gotten swallowed up. When I got out I said: I know I have a body. I'll start there. The intellectual and spiritual parts of me can come later. But first my body. Not desires or wants. But needs. And that's how I started on the road back. From nowhere."
This has come out in soft, almost musical, streams. Now there is a quick laugh, a high, giggly laugh. It startles me. "This one time in the seminary, I woke up from a wet dream and said out loud, probably waking half the house, 'Well, God, you can't take that away from me.' "
I never really knew him in the seminary--he was too far ahead. I knew his brother Pat, who was in our seminary, too, and then later went to the Trappists. By the time I got to know Charlie, he was already a priest, and drowning in the priesthood, too, although I had no idea of that. I first met him when I was 20, in 1964, the same summer I reported to the novitiate. In the early part of that summer I had gone down to the northern neck of Virginia, where Charlie was stationed at a rural parish, to help out in his summertime Bible program. Charlie had been a priest for four years then, and it was going downhill faster for him every year. What I chiefly remember about him is the way he could mesmerize those rural Virginia kids, probably without half knowing. Father Angelo (this was his religious name) wore black knit sport shirts and black stovepipe pants and seemed to float instead of walk. Every morning Charlie drove an old yellow school bus through that steamy Tidewater countryside, collecting his kids. I'd ride along with him. Those kids practically followed this long, laconic drink of water around the schoolyard. Charlie was John Wayne without the macho. He was in his mid-thirties and wore funny wire-rim glasses, and in an ascetic way, I suppose, he was a kind of John Wayne of the priesthood. He looked studious and wasn't. I remember that he prayed a lot and kept to himself.
In the middle of that summer, I left to start my year of novitiate. A year or so later, I heard Charlie was going to sign up for the chaplaincy corps. One of the last things Charlie's brother Pat remembers saying to Charlie, when he heard his big brother was going to the war, was: "Hey, Bud, long as you're over, why don't you pick up the Medal of Honor?" I was out by the time Charlie got decorated by the president. I saw the story in The New York Times. "Jesus," I said. "Charlie Liteky."
He has never dreamed about it. It wasn't something that represented trauma for him. It just represented death. It was horrible, but it wasn't shocking, somehow. And he honestly was not afraid. All these people were crying out for help. He was there. He was healthy. He just did what almost anyone in that situation would have done. Besides, it all happened so fast, with hardly time to think, which is one reason he sometimes wonders if it was heroism at all. He's seen men--men, shit, they were boys--stand straight up on their captain's command and walk into fields of fire with an M-16. There's some heroism for you. Anyway, the first guy he came to was a medic. It looked like his leg was blown off. About halfway up where his knee should have been, there was all this gristle and bone. He had been talking to the soldier only the night before. The kid was a musician, and he said he wanted to go home and start up a rock band.
The next guy he came to had a big hole in his back. He was lying face down. He knelt and tried to pick the guy up. His name was Perry, a red-haired skinny little kid from the country. Perry was trying to breathe, but the air was just going right out of him. So he anointed him and gave him conditional absolution and moved on. That's when he saw the M-16 lying on the ground. He started to go over and pick it up and then thought: Hell, no, Ange. If a priest is going to get his in here today, they won't find a rifle on him.
Several hours later. We have moved to the front of his flat. (He has noticed me shivering and put the heat on and suggested we go into the other room, where it will be warmer.) Charlie's new pad has three rooms--if you count the bathroom, which he does, and which you have to walk through to get from the front to the rear. There are cat smells in the hall and a mad kid is next door, but Charlie figures this is the Ritz, or at least the finest place he's had in a while. He's got loads of plans for it. Last week Betty helped him paint the bedroom. Betty is Charlie's current girlfriend, a former nun. Over the years there have been lots of dead ends on female boulevard for Charlie Liteky, to use his phrase.
But Betty might be the right woman at last. Last week Charlie went down to a Japanese trinket store and bought her a $4 ring. Gave it to her and said, "Betty, this represents my desire to enter into an engagement with you. When you feel like putting it on, I'm here. I'll get you a real one later." Betty got Charlie to sign up at Arthur Murray for dance lessons. The image of Charlie trying to learn the mambo amuses me. "Just the other night a thought hit me," Charlie says now. "If Betty is really the one, and I marry her, I can never go back." He means go back to the priesthood. Despite the fact that he is laicized, that fantasy has long hung around.
He spraddles on his bed and plows a hand through his hair. He takes a drink from the Oriental ceramic cup. I am seated a few feet away from him, by some crates rigged as end tables. The bed Charlie is on isn't a westerner's bed. It's a futon, which is layers of compressed fabric resting directly on the floor. Since Vietnam, futons are about all Charlie wishes to sleep on. Tonight his futon will be bed for both of us.
The room is neat and spare. There is a rack of gray shelving holding a few books, some postcards, a miniature chalice, pictures of his parents and brothers and nephews. The photos rest on a terrycloth towel, smoothed out. All of Charlie's family are dead now, save for his brother, Pat. The most arresting picture in the gallery is of Charlie himself. It was snapped somewhere in Vietnam, under canvas tenting. Charlie is in fatigues, scratching a sockless ankle, looking deep and gaunt and poetic. He almost looks emaciated. Charlie doesn't look like a priest in the picture; he looks like a dogface. When he said Mass in Nam, the chaplain never wore vestments, just a stole around his neck. He said Mass on jeep tops, on crates, anything he could find for an altar.
The day before the decorated priest went back to Vietnam for a second tour, he met a woman named Julie. Julie was the sister of one of Charlie's longtime friends from Florida. Charlie and Julie talked for hours and ended up spending the night together, although Charlie says he refused to have "genital intercourse." The next morning he left for Vietnam. When he got "in-country," to the staging area where thousands of GIs were always coming and going, he hunted up a Franciscan chaplain. He said he wished to go to confession, he had committed a sin with a woman. The Franciscan threw back his head and roared. "You poor sucker," he said. "You're going to be over there a whole damn year and all you'll be thinking about is her." Then the priest said he was leaving Vietnam to return to the States: he was getting married. Not too long afterward Charlie made a tape recording and sent it to his mother and his brother Pat. He told them all about the wonderful woman he had met and fallen in love with on his last night in the States. Mrs. Liteky was sitting at the kitchen table when the tape came. She put her head in her hands.
On his second tour in Vietnam, the hero-priest discovered there was an unofficial policy in his brigade that if you could verify three enemy kills you would get an in-country R&R. Charlie went to his battalion commander and demanded to know if it were true. The commander hedged. Charlie went to the general of the brigade. He said he couldn't participate in such an environment, that it was tantamount to making bounty hunters out of soldiers. He said that if the policy were not changed immediately, he would resign, and that if his resignation were not accepted, he would write a letter to every newspaper in the United States, spilling the beans. The general roared up from his desk. "I'll be goddamned if I'll sit here and let you threaten me like that, Liteky," he said. "I don't give a good goddamn what you won."
Charlie wrote to the Chief of Chaplains in Washington, D.C. Before long there was a special helicopter waiting to take him to Saigon to have dinner with Gen. Creighton Abrams. Abrams had earlier decorated Charlie with the Distinguished Service Cross between a row of armored vehicles. Now he was commander of all U.S. forces in Southeast Asia. Abrams's quarters looked about like any other senior officer's--from the outside. You went through a passageway from the street and emerged into Xanadu. The general had any kind of music Charlie wished to hear. Charlie asked for show music. Over dinner the general said he was appalled to learn of such brigade policies. He seemed genuinely disturbed. "We are all pressured in this war, son," he said quietly.
These days the ex-priest and ex-war hero is a dove. Charlie attends anti-nuke rallies. He works on committees trying to organize peace demonstrations. The other people on the committees don't know he won the Medal of Honor. "I'm just the guy in the denim jacket. Because that's all I am, really," he says. For a long while, even Betty didn't know he was a hero.
In the three or four times I have gone to visit Charlie these last few years he has never offered to show me his medal. But he has it somewhere; I asked him. "I just haven't had the guts to throw that thing in the river yet. I don't know why."
Holy Orders Rag. Burnt incense. He is telling me about the drowning of his brother Jimmy. Jimmy Liteky, middle of three sons, drowned on September 26, 1959, nine months before Charlie was ordained to the priesthood. Jimmy was the Liteky brother who didn't go away to the seminary. He had a new car and a new job and a new fiancee' and a freshly minted degree from Florida State. And he was such a fine swimmer, a natural, just like his big brother Charlie. It made no sense he could die this way. Maybe he hit a rock, or a log; nobody knows. He dove into the Santa Fe River that Saturday afternoon and didn't come up.
Charlie didn't find out until the next morning. He had been in the seminary chapel alone the evening before thinking about his family and how lucky he was that no real tragedies had ever occurred. When the superior of the house came to tell him, Charlie knew immediately that his father had died. But it was Jimmy.
He left for home. Grappling hooks were already skimming a dark, murky river in north Florida for the eyes or legs or water-blue fingers of a lost boy. Below the chemical riffles, divers labored. They had found nothing. For two days the divers searched. Charlie wanted badly to go down with them, but his mother wouldn't allow it. Then, toward dusk of the third day of searching, Charlie and two others went out in a rowboat. Everyone else had come in, had said it was no use. Charlie was determined to give it one more try, for his mama's sake, who was sinking deeper into grief: Why can't they find my son?
Charlie and his fellow searchers put their boat toward the point of the island that Jimmy had dived for three days before. They let themselves drift in the current. The boat was drifting past the little green island, and Charlie was standing up in the bow, peering down into the dark waters, saying to himself, Come on, Jimmy, goddammit, come on, when--suddenly--Jimmy appeared, just surfaced, right in front of him, clean and beautiful and smiling, with a gash over his forehead and his arms outstretched. It was as if Jimmy were trying to climb into the boat. The body seemed to want to rise right up out of the water into Charlie's arms. Charlie grabbed for Jimmy, and then the smell was nearly overwhelming.
At the funeral Gertrude Liteky, the boys' mother, had her first heart attack. And the boys' father, Charles Liteky Sr., the old, hardened, and bedridden Navy chief, the King Lear of this family, said only this: "God took two of my sons. Now he's got the third."
Charlie has told me this story, without interruption. None of it, not even his father's words, arouses passion in him. It is as if the story is too stark for passion. Now he talks of his father.
"He was in the Navy thirty-three years, and then he got medicaled out. He had one name: the Chief. He was chief of the deck on the aircraft carrier Hornet in World War II. One day the cable that catches the planes when they come in snapped. It whiplashed around the deck and caught the Chief in the spine. He went to the ship's hospital with multiple injuries. They couldn't keep him there very long. When kamikazes sank the Hornet, the Chief went into the water with everybody else, although not before he had climbed into the cockpit of a burning Zero and cut the label out of a Jap's glove. He wanted a souvenir.
"None of us could live up to him. He spent the last eleven years of his life flat on his back in a special bedroom. His arthritis, and complications from the spine injury, had crippled him. And right there in that hospital bed next to my father was a .38. It wasn't just being in bed. He couldn't drink because he had an ulcerated stomach. He was in terrible pain all those years, I think. He had had a prosthesis on his hip, and it had broken. But he gained some wisdom, I think. I got him to make some recordings for the blind. He worked eleven and twelve hours a day at it. He taped the entire Bible and then started in on other books. That's the way he was. My father had a wonderfully rich and resonant voice."
Charles Liteky Sr., the Chief, died on St. Patrick's Day, 1966. He was propped naked at the sink, shaving, when his heart stopped and he fell over dead. It was a year and a half before one surviving son would win the Medal of Honor, a decade before the other would proclaim his homosexuality.
Somehow, when Charlie Liteky feels successful or gets secure, he bolts--people, attachments, jobs. "I have this need to terminate things," I remember him saying once. He didn't say more. The world would doubtless call the need prodigal, or worse. God knows, Charlie seems to have a perverse genius for squandering things, especially his success. Maybe it's because he feels he doesn't deserve an earthly reward, or maybe it's because he feels he was never loved enough as a boy. I can't figure it out and I doubt if he can. His mother was a suffering Monica, people have told me, a selfless, good woman of great religious belief. She loved her husband and sons above all else in life, but she nearly always took the side of her domineering husband against her boys. Charlie has never come right out and said it, but I think he feels his mother held back from him at critical moments. "I was 43 before I realized that my whole substitution for love when I grew up was a high achievement in sports," he told me, but there he was talking about his father.
When he was 11 or 12, Charlie ran away from home, stealing thirty bucks from his mother's pocketbook, riding a bus in stages (so they couldn't track him) from Fort Lauderdale to Norfolk, sleeping all night in the north under drydocked boats or streetcars. He ran away because of a terrible fight he had had with his father. He locked himself in the bathroom and his father busted down the door. His father got him down in the bathtub; Charlie can still see that big, angry face over him. After that he got his Palm Beach suit from the closet, stole the thirty dollars, took off. He stayed away two weeks, but he didn't miss Mass.
At length his father located him. "He got me on the phone and said, 'If I sent the money would you come back? Your mother is very sick.' He didn't say, 'I want you to come back.' Or, 'I love you, boy.' He just said, 'If I sent the money would you come back?' He picked me up at the depot in the middle of the night. The depot in Fort Lauderdale was far out in the country then, and all during the long, dark drive home we barely said a word. But after that night something shifted. He was kinder toward me. We got into sports together."
You can glance at Charlie Liteky for five seconds and see an old jock. In high school--at Robert E. Lee in Jacksonville, a Florida athletics powerhouse--Charlie became a standout in any sport he tried. There was a basketball hoop in his backyard, and he turned it down so that the ring faced him. He tied a triangle target, made out of rope, in the center of the ring. He would stand all afternoon in one spot, firing footballs at the bull's-eye. Eventually he could hit the middle of the target, even when he put the hoop to swinging. Already, a boy was punishing his body to chasten his mind. The body will quit on you, his father had taught him; the mind will see you through. Coaches began to groom Charlie for the quarterback's slot at the University of Florida. He was sent to a Florida junior college for further grooming. But by then the nudge, or tug, or whatever it was, came. Charlie said he was leaving for the seminary. There are people who will tell you now that had Charlie Liteky kept up football, he would have made all-conference, maybe All-American. Charlie thinks that's absurd.
At the seminary, Brother Angelo could throw a football seventy yards. No lie. Someone would hike it to Charlie, and everybody on his team would go out for the pass. Brother Angelo would dance in the backfield, eluding his captors, then heave the bomb at the first seminarian to reach the end zone. It was only pickup football, but legends like that die hard. The other morning I called one of Charlie's old classmates and he said, "Ange was the sort of guy who never knew he had it. We'd be sitting there in the rec room and he'd say, 'Hey, fellas, this Saturday, what do you say we . . .' And the next thing you knew six guys were standing around him."
I have heard people call Charlie Liteky the "superstar." They haven't any idea where he is these days, what he's up to. But he's the superstar. Charlie loathes that word. "Enough of it is just a medal talking," he says. "You know, these primal scream people scream, but I don't think they know where to go from there. I had to be willing to forgive, not only in the past but in the present."
I remember standing on a street corner in San Francisco one night. Suddenly Charlie said, "This is my old neighborhood, Paul. I got knocked out in a bar right down the street. It was five to two by my watch and the bartender says: drink up. I guess I had had a few. 'Whoa, buddy, it's not time yet,' I say, and the next thing I know I'm out on the sidewalk and somebody is trying to kick me in the groin."
Charlie Liteky, superstar.
Charlie told me, the last time he worked for the Veterans Administration, that he intended to pay off some debts and get his teeth fixed and then move on. "Then I'll do whatever it is I'm supposed to do." The next time I saw him he had moved on. When he left the VA, his coworkers gave him a small party. Charlie thanked them and then got up and said quietly, with his supervisors standing there, that no one in the building looked happy to him. Jobs like this dehumanize people, grind a man down, he said. Charlie Liteky has long borne strange gifts to authority.
A priest from my old religious congregation once shared with me a letter Charlie had written him. The priest's name is Jim O'Bryan, and he is Charlie's closest friend in religious life, mainly, I suspect, because he allows Charlie the space he must have. Father O'Bryan's great gift and genius is that he is nonjudgmental. At the time of the letter, Charlie had left the priesthood. Jim O'Bryan lay critically ill in a California hospital with an aneurysm. No one expected him to make it. (He did, though, and Charlie's prayers are probably not the least of the reason). Charlie's letter to his friend began: "Dear Jim, I'm up extra early today after seeing my brother off to an early flight to Santa Cruz. The early morning silence is so conducive to prayer and reflective reading. I am not one to hold on to anything or anyone anymore, but that doesn't mean I'm immune to the pain of loss. If you go home before I do, God, how I will miss you. Just the mention of it brings tears of loving friendship to my eyes, which is so beautiful for someone who has been so emotionally sterile for so long."
Jim O'Bryan showed me that letter and then told me a story. Once, when he and Charlie were young priests and assigned to the same mission in New Jersey, he spilled his guts to Charlie. He was in a depression and needed someone to talk to. Charlie secretly tape-recorded the conversation, which took place in Charlie's bedroom. The next week, when O'Bryan came in to talk again, Charlie got out the recorder. He said he had something he wanted O'Bryan to hear. He put on the tape--and started laughing. O'Bryan was furious. He felt humiliated. "I think he was trying to tell me, 'I don't need you, O'Bryan, or anybody else.' But I felt he was wrong. I worked on him hard. I felt he needed me as a friend. I used to tell him, 'Liteky, I don't know what it's about, but I see all this rage in you.' " Jim O'Bryan thinks his friend Charlie is on a strange search for sanctity, not the kind that will get put into stained glass in a cathedral. More the sanctity of being. There is a key to the mystery of Charlie Liteky, Jim O'Bryan says. If it could be found and turned, a fundamental mystery might be solved. But the key has never been found. And so a hero wanders, an ex-priest roams.
"I just have never clung to this life," I remember Charlie saying one night. "I'm not anxious to die, but I look forward to that moment when I can get away from this violence, the cruelty, the uncertainty of the world. I think I'll be happy to go home when the time comes."
A futon makes a surprisingly comfortable and roomy bed. In the wet blackness of a San Francisco summer night, a man lying beside me reaches for the Princess phone, punches out seven numbers, and a recording comes on in clean quiet to tell him it is 4:l8 and that the weather in the Bay Area should be clearing today. The dial glistens in the dark like muted lights rising from a pool. Charlie Liteky replaces the phone, turns noiselessly on his side.
I saw Charlie again a year later, in the spring of 1982. The night before, there had been a showing of "Medal of Honor Rag" on TV. Charlie had watched it and followed along with the play script I had given him. He was writing every day and had finished seven chapters of a novel about a priest in Vietnam. He and Betty were still unresolved about marriage. He had brightened his place, though it didn't have any real permanence about it. The wild kid still lived next door, and Charlie was giving the family whatever rice and potatoes he had left over at the end of every month. We talked all afternoon and into the evening. He made a dish called Beggar's Chicken, in an earthen pot he had soaked in water. He chopped some greens into minute slivers, and stirred some fried rice, and then the two of us stood opposite one another at a counter and ate. As it began to get dark Charlie sat in a window. After a while he got up and lit a candle. He said that were it not for his relationship with Betty, and some friends he had made at a local Catholic parish, and a certain inertia, he doubtless would move on. He didn't know where, though.