He did it one rush-hour evening, in gathering dark, 40 feet below the window of the secretary of defense. The flame shot 12 feet in the air, making an envelope of color around his incinerating body. The sound of it, they said, was like the whoosh of small rocket fire.
What made it so horrifying and awesome and impenetrable all at once was that Norman R. Morrison had a child, his own infant daughter, in his arms. Her name is Emily, and she was nine days from her first birthday. Had he poured the kerosene on her as well? That is not clear, but something far more important is: At the critical second, as the fire began climbing up from his shoe tops, where he had struck the match, the pacifist Quaker from Baltimore either tossed his child off, the way one would lateral a football, or chose to set her down on the wall beside him.
It will never be known exactly what he did, 20 years ago, late on the afternoon of Nov. 2, 1965, for eyewitness accounts vary. But in a sense, knowing that is also insignificant, because either way, Emily was saved, was led away from death in an eye's blink, in the way Isaac was led away when an angel on a mountain stayed a knife in Abraham's raised hand. The Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, grieving father and unwitting son, going up to make a burnt offering to a demanding God is a terribly difficult parable to comprehend.
In the Pentagon's front parking lot, employes on their way home to Suitland and Hyattsville gazed out from their cars as if experiencing visions. Workers, coming out the front doors of the building's River Entrance, took off running toward the ribbons of fire. "Drop the baby!" they cried. "Throw her down!"
A man in uniform tried to beat out the flames with his coat. But it was too late: Morrison, his life snuffing like a candle, had pitched off the wall and was rolling on the ground, trying to get out last words nobody could understand.
And what of the child? Well, her mother claimed her that night at the Fort Myer dispensary. They presented Emily to her wrapped up in a flannel Army blanket from which her chubby arms protruded and from which the smell of kerosene was unmistakable.
Emily Morrison Welsh just celebrated her 21st birthday. She is finishing college. She has huge, expressive green eyes and dark hair falling everywhere. She lives in a fourth-floor walk-up in a Puerto Rican block of the East Village in Manhattan, where winos urinate on cars and little kids are out late at night shouting obscenities at nervous strangers. She is -- there is no other word for it -- beautiful.
A couple years ago, she went to see a psychic.
"Do you have any memory of the first time you experienced pain and fear on a terrifying level?" asked the psychic, who Emily says knew nothing of her history.
Emily, who thought she was prepared, started screaming.
"Yes, it was when your father killed himself on a wall in front of you," said the psychic. "But it's all right now."
"What's crucial, I think," Emily is telling you, and it seems all right now, "is not whether my father had actually decided to take me with him, but whether he loved me enough, his last child, to want me there in the final moment of his life. What could be better in a sense than taking someone you love away from all this ugliness and violence, if that's the way you viewed it?"
Her bedroom window is open and a narcotic night pours through.
A little later she tells you something else: "For years people who loved me said, 'Emily doesn't remember, don't worry, there's no way possible Emily could remember, everybody knows memory doesn't start that early.' I mean, even my mother, who loves me so much, who came to get me that night, kept saying that as I grew up. 'Emily doesn't remember.' I can recall when I was about 3 or 4 crying one night to my mother: 'He didn't love us, Daddy didn't want to be with us, that's why he did it.' And she came over and said, in this real soft voice, 'No, no, Emily, he loved us too much.'
"But, you see, she never thought I knew it in a memory way. Well, I simply believed on some deep level of my being that I experienced it."
So her cells knew, if her memory didn't? "It was just in me."
The "it" would be the crying and the yelling and the flash of color and people running and the tossing off, or setting down. Maybe "it" is also the oddly sweet smell of the fuel.
Emily Welsh is working hard to become an actress, going out on auditions, waiting for calls from agents. She is 5 feet 10 and stalky as August corn. (Something silvery and approximately the size of a bass lure dangles from her left ear lobe.) One might not think right off to call her Quakerly, but that is what she turns out to be, beneath the semiglitter and the mild New York vanities. Like the two other survivors in her remarkable family -- in a way like the rest of her country -- she is just lately beginning to sort out all that happened to her 20 years ago during a war she was too young to know.
The public burning of Norman Morrison occurred in the gathering dark of a mistaken Asian war that Lyndon Johnson and all his steadfast men had lately, and mostly by stealth, made incendiary and even more mistaken. That summer, Vietnam had suddenly become a huge conflict, no longer the nice little one-column firefight everybody thought it was going to be a few years earlier. There seemed no exit now from the chosen path; 175,000 men were going in. American bombers had been raining destruction on the North since the previous February.
And a 31-year-old frustrated Quaker in north Baltimore whom almost nobody had ever heard of sat on a wooden stool in his kitchen one day and wiped his hands through his coal hair and asked his wife, "What will it take?"
Was he insane? Was he messianic? Questions that had no answers then and have no answers still.
In the South, Buddhist monks had been immolating themselves for two years, but this burning seemed vastly different. It had occurred in our own civilization, right "at the cruel edge of your five-faced cathedral of violence." Those were a poet's words a few days afterward, and the poet must have had more in mind than the Pentagon itself. (Seven days later, a 22-year-old Catholic named Roger LaPorte would set himself afire at sunrise in front of the United Nations.) In the weeks and months following, there would be hundreds of poems pouring forth. It was as if only the poets could understand this thing Norman Morrison had made with his life. One poem was titled "Emily, My Child" and was written by a man named To Huu, one of the most famous poets in Vietnam. Another, addressing Defense head Robert S. McNamara, who was inside the five-faced cathedral that afternoon, began: "Mr. Secretary, you were looking another way/ When grief stalked to your window to forgive you."
(Another poem, published in Poetry magazine a year later, played on this: "And Norman Morrison, Quaker, of Baltimore Maryland, burned what he said was himself/ He said it with simple materials such as would be found in your kitchen/ In your office you were informed/ Reporters got cracking frantically on the mental disturbance angle/ So far nothing turns up.")
There is no question the death greatly affected McNamara (19 years later, he spoke of it as "a personal tragedy for me," and he said it too quietly for it to have been false) , or for that matter, no question it affected the president. Lyndon Johnson was on the other side of the Potomac that night. Within little more than three weeks, the secretary of defense would be urging the president in top-secret memos and in conversation to consider a bombing pause. Those November 1965 McNamara memos, now fully declassified, reveal the beginning of the buildup of the man's hidden doubts. The public never knew. But one would be a fool here to make strong suggestions of cause and effect, between a man on a wall and another man's doubt beyond the wall. Too many other things were going on as well. And anyway, nobody resigned the week Norman Morrison died, the war went on, the pauses didn't work, the balloon of death kept going up and up.
But this isn't their story. In a way, it's not even Morrison's.
In the borrowed old Cadillac he drove down from Baltimore, police found two bottles of milk, half a dozen diapers, a couple pacifiers.
The ambulance drivers were the first to see that the unharmed, still-unidentified little girl had kerosene on her dress. (The dead man was being driven away in another ambulance.) What exactly did this mean? Well, what her family wants to believe is this: As her father locked her to his heart in the final embrace, and then bent down to catch color from the last streaks of the sun, Emily's clothes, like the rest of her life, just soaked clean through to his.
"Well, the facts are these," a steady-voiced, middle-aged woman deep in the mountains of North Carolina is telling you one noonday 20 years after fate handed her the strangest kind of news. She is Norman Morrison's widow, and she looks a little like folk singer Joan Baez. ("Maybe Joan Baez's mother," she says, laughing the comparison away.)
"When I received her that night, when they gave Emily to me, there was not a thing wrong with her -- not a cut or a mark or a bruise of any kind. If something had happened to Emily, I think it would have been . . . well, very difficult for me to accept what Norman was doing. But I'm telling you, her hair was not singed, there was no smell about her of burning. Yes, it's true, there was the odor of kerosene. But there were no lacerations of any kind. The next day I took her to a pediatrician, and he confirmed her condition for me."
She is straining forward in her chair. "Listen, I asked a doctor one time how long he would have lived. He said about 30 seconds. It was suffocation. The flames choked off his air. He was entering eternity. He had a call. If you believe in angels, as I do, then I think they were there. I mean, I saw his coat -- it wasn't even burned that much. It just flared up. It was an overarching thing. I kept his pocketbook for a long time afterward, you know. It was hardly touched. So maybe it took 30 seconds. And somewhere in that 30 seconds, before the flames got up high, he let Emily go."
Anne Morrison, who is married now to a man named Robert Welsh, has something of Valdosta, Ga., in her smile and in her speech, even when it is a greatly pained speech. She has remarried twice in the years that have slipped by. These days she runs a North Carolina home for people with Down's syndrome and other disabilities. She is a plain country woman with a psychology degree from Duke University. Most of her neighbors don't know her story.
"I think we should have talked about it more," she says. "I mean myself and the children. In the beginning, there was all that media. Then we were trying to get on with our lives. For so many years after his death, I was his widow. Even after I remarried, I was his widow. I think what I did was postpone the grief. Oh, we didn't know as much about grieving then as we do now."
When the calls began coming See MORRISON, C12, Col. 1 from Washington that evening about 6, Anne's first thought was: He's walked into the Potomac. Yes, that's it, Norman has walked into the Potomac with Emily. Nobody said anything about burning. The man on the phone just said "some kind of protest."
A Newsweek reporter was the first to reach her -- and choked on the words when he realized she didn't yet know. Even the people at the hospital stopped short. "They didn't tell me he was dead. I think they wanted me to make a positive identification. Finally someone told me three quarters of his body was burned."
A couple days later came this letter addressed to Emily from a woman in Troy, N.Y.: "By holding you he made his point; by dropping you he spared a life to continue, carrying his name, to work for peace. Honor his acts, and love his memory. No medals for Norman Morrison could reward his death as you can, living."
"What I felt," says Ann, "was that if he really wanted to do this with his life, then I'm glad he succeeded. That may sound horrible, but what I mean is I wouldn't have wanted him to go through life with those kind of burns or the terrible feeling he had failed at what he felt was called for at that moment in history."
North Vietnam, anxious, you might callously say, to cash in on the spectacular American Fire, issued a stamp with Morrison's picture on it. Ho Chi Minh himself cabled Anne and invited her to Vietnam. North Vietnamese supply drivers, making their way southward, were said to paste small likenesses of Norman Morrison to the dashboards of their trucks.
Today, when Morrison's name -- if not his act -- is almost universally forgotten in the country of his birth, Vietnam still venerates him as the highest kind of hero. He is known all over Vietnam, not just in the North. In museums of the North, there are memorials to him. The name Emily Morrison has a special reverence there, too. Emily is thinking of going over with her older sister. It would be a part of putting things to rest.
One wants desperately to find clues to the inexplicable. On the day Norman Morrison died, he received in the mail his regular subscription copy of I.F. Stone's Weekly. In the paper was an account, reprinted from Paris-Match, of American bombers devastating a French priest's village near Duc Co, after the Viet Cong had already been through. "I have seen my faithful burned up in napalm," the nearly out-of-his-mind priest in the story told a French journalist. "I have seen the bodies of women and children blown to bits. I have seen all my villages razed. By God, it's not possible. They must settle their accounts with God."
Two days later, her world still in stop-time, Anne found in the mailbox outside her brown-shingled house on St. George's Avenue in north Baltimore a letter her husband had written to her. The letter had a Washington postmark, which meant Morrison had made sure to stop off on his way to death to drop it in a box. (This tiny fact alone, suggesting a seeming presence of mind, might argue for a man far less insane than the one pictured in subsequent news accounts.) The letter, which has never fully been published, began: "Dearest Anne: For weeks, even months, I have been praying only that I be shown what I must do. This morning, with no warning, I was shown as clearly as I was shown that Friday night in August, 1955, that you would be my wife. Know that I love thee but must act for the children of the priest's village."
The letter also said this, with a chilling simplicity: "And like Abraham, I dare not go without Emily."
Anne Welsh reveals this and then says, with a small little slap at her palm, "Oh, he had been thinking of shooting a hole through his hand, or maybe a couple fingers off. He had talked of it, yes, with certain friends. Oh, I don't know, we're entering a realm of faith here, aren't we? He was so terribly impatient. If he looked on any of this rationally, I think he felt something needed to happen that would speak to people's hearts. He told me once -- oh, maybe a year before he died -- that in terms of the movement of history, sacrifice for the common good, even martyrdom, was sometimes necessary. 'The world doesn't need many martyrs,' I remember him saying. 'But they need a few.' "
He had another expression. "Anne," he used to say, "the world had a lot of good nurserymen. But not enough peacemakers." Norman Morrison, everyone says, had a gift for making things come up out of the ground.
What kind of a man was he?
He was tone-deaf -- and loved polkas. (Couldn't sing for beans but he could wriggle his ears beautifully to the beat.)
He could fix anything with his hands.
He suffered hay fever and allergies.
He wore a beret at a mildly rakish angle.
He owned a secondhand bicycle and loved the stock market. (Never owned any stock.)
He bought his suits for $2 and $3 at Friends rummage sales.
He could drive you to distraction with his intensity.
He was cryptic, syllogistic, inward. He was a man for whom the words got in the way. Most people live at the level of the Old Testament, he liked to say. Eye for an eye.
He was the son of an Erie, Pa., dentist -- an intense, demanding, driven man. The father died when Norman was 13.
Norman had a philosophy of what he called "the guided drift." He used to joke that there sometimes seemed more drift than guide.
From a paper he once wrote: "Without the inspired act, no generation resumes the search for love."
Anne and Norman had lunch together on Nov. 2. It would not be precisely accurate to say she had no hint. But not in her wildest fear did she think of this. Husband and wife talked about the filthy war and the burning of the French curate's children and finally Anne changed the subject and told her husband she wanted a suit for Christmas. It didn't have to be a new suit, any old suit would do.
At 3 p.m. she left in the family's Volkswagen bus. "I'm going over to school to pick up Ben and Tina," she said of the two older children. "Back in a jiff. Will you take care of the baby?"
Norman nodded. Shortly after, he left for Washington. He had the gallon jug of kerosene in an old plaid picnic bag. Emily was in the car seat in the back. He was wearing the sport coat he had bought in Scotland, maybe the one piece of clothing he ever spent a little money on.
The next day, the older children had to be told. Tina, the second child, was 5 and just beginning to sort out how the moon and the stars and the air and all our lives are webbed. When her mother told her, she said, "Oh, I understand, Daddy has gone and now his love can spread."
Her brother Ben was older by a year, the only son, the eldest child. Ben didn't say anything. The next day he hid in the garage. They called and called but couldn't find him.
Ben is dead now: bone cancer at 16. For three years he struggled against the disease. Nearly his last words were to Tina: "Oh, God, I don't want to die."
Tina Morrison lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. She goes by the name of Christina and has kept her father's name. She, too, is a beautiful woman, all angles and edges, rail-thin, 25 years old, a sort of New Age person with her father's unmistakable Scotch jaw and a smile that slips up on you unawares. She hasn't found her true vocation yet. "Healer," she says. She also says this:
"I didn't get angry at Norman until just lately. There was never any context for being angry. You don't get angry at a dead person -- what's the point of that? I couldn't talk to my mother about it. I think I was afraid of her feelings, I think we were all afraid of each others' feelings. Don't you understand we've been waiting for 20 years for someone to come around and ask us these questions."
She thinks a lot of what her father did was motivated by fear and frustration and his own need to be approved. "This is what I know about him as a person. I really see these two strains in him: this unconditional love of humanity, the desire to serve, to give; and this very frustrated, approval-seeking, frightened, angry man who had never really dealt with his own pain, his own ego-seeking consciousness. My mother told me he used to make Ben recite math tables at the dinner table. That was a terrible thing to do. He scared the poor child to death. But his own father had done it to him."
None of this is said without softness or compassion, nor is this:
"I think the main thing I got out of his death back then is, 'The world is unsafe, the world is mean, the world is not okay.' That things can happen to you at any time; that you can come home from school and be told that your father is dead, and not only dead, but that he killed himself, and for this weird reason. What I have done since then is a whole lot of emptying, not refilling, not yet."
There was a time when neither surviving daughter told playmates about their father. It was too embarrassing. They used to make things up, say he died in an accident. A couple weeks ago, on a damp Sunday night, the two sisters sat side by side at the Stony Run Friends Meeting on North Charles in Baltimore and participated in a 20-year memorial service to their father. (Their mother was unable to come but sent a letter to be read.) Stony Run is a fine old wood-and-stone place, shaded by 100-year-old trees, sitting back on a sloping lawn. The Meeting traces its roots to 1672. When Norman Morrison served as Stony Run's executive secretary, which is a bit akin to a ministerial post, he made $6,400 a year.
Emily and Christina held hands that evening. Other people all around them cried, but they didn't, not until the end anyway. An elderly woman told a story about a silent vigil at Norman's wall on the first anniversary of his death, in 1966. Some Quakers had come down from New Jersey, and others from Stony Run joined them. Every once in a while, on Nov. 2, 1966, a man in a white shirt on the third floor of the Pentagon, right above the wall, would come to the window to gaze out. He was silhouetted. The man in the white shirt came back to the window two or three times in an hour.
He was said to be the secretary of defense. ("Nah," old colleagues of McNamara will tell you. "Couldn't have been. Guy's never been a window-gazer in his life.")
Emily and Christina were the last two to speak at the 20-year service.
"I could think of a thousand reasons not to get on that train and come down here," Emily said.
"Norman's gift grows in love and strength, thank you, Lord," Christina said.
If Norman Morrison, unknown American, has a monument, perhaps it is that he made his family think he didn't die in vain.