THE MAGICAL STRANGER: a Son’s Journey into His Father’s Life (Harper; May 14, 2013; $27.99), the deeply moving new memoir from New York Times Magazine contributing writer Stephen Rodrick, takes readers deep into the lives of a military family shattered by a father’s death.
Rodrick’s father, Peter Rodrick, was a U.S. Navy pilot and commander of the prestigious VAQ-135, the Black Ravens, when he was killed during a crash in the Indian Ocean on November 28, 1979. His fatal mission, precipitated by the Iran hostage crisis, could arguably place him as among the first group of casualties in the War on Terror. But, for those left behind back in Whidbey Island, Washington, the historical significance of the death of this husband, father, and protector was secondary—the devastating loss and sacrifice hit home on a much more personal level and changed their lives forever.
To Stephen, his father was “brilliant and unknowable, holy but absent, a born leader who gave me little direction. Peter Rodrick was one of only 4,000 men in the world qualified to land jets on a carrier after dark. And he was an apparition, gone two hundred days of the year from when I was six until he died.”
He was thirteen when his father died, and his world was never the same. Even before his father’s death, Stephen was a handful, testing highly intelligent but doing poorly in school. He yearned for his father’s attention and drove his mother crazy. The life of a Navy pilot meant that Peter had been often gone for long stretches since Stephen was six. When Peter died, Stephen went farther off the rails. His relationship with his mother—who was struggling greatly with her own grief and feelings of hopelessness—grew worse. Even as the family home became a shrine to Peter’s memory, he was rarely mentioned.
Rodrick spent many years “running from Mom and Dad.” He often contemplated writing about his father, but never got far. Then, in 2009, a chance email connected him with the newly promoted commander of the VAQ-135. Returning to Whidbey Island, he met Commander James Hunter “Tupper” Ware III, who invited him to spend eighteen months with the squadron as it toured the world aboard the aircraft carrierNimitz. Traveling with Tupper to California, Hawaii, Okinawa, and the Persian Gulf, Rodrick was embedded with these modern-day embodiments of his father. He had the singular opportunity to witness firsthand a contemporary version of his father’s military life, and reports on the triumphs and failures of the Black Ravens as they endure “the routine of naval aviator at sea, vast hours of tedium punctuated by seconds of terror.”
In alternating chapters, Rodrick chronicles the emotionally wrenching story of his own family and the lives of their modern counterparts. Through the professional and personal experiences of Tupper and the pilots, he comes to a broader understanding of the sacrifices that military personnel and their families make every day—sacrifices like his own family’s long ago. Transcending the traditional memoir, THE MAGICAL STRANGER becomes a far-reaching portrait of duty and sacrifice, a penetrating and honest account of the meaning of service.
About the Author:
Stephen Rodrick is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and is also a contributing editor atMen’s Journal. His writing has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Crime Reporting, and The Best American Political Writing. He lives in Los Angeles.