When Whippoorwills Call
Author: John Bandy
Publisher: iUniverse (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 714 pages
A 16 year old, high school dropout leaves home to avoid incarceration in the juvenile detention center. Using a fraudulent birth certificate, he enlists in the army, where he finds an extremely hostile environment. Seeking refuge in the army he discovers that he cannot run away from himself and the family "curse."
As a member of the United States Constabulary in occupied Germany at the end of WW2 where he faces the greatest challenges of his life amid the war torn ruins of a conquered nation.
The book describes in lurid detail the misadventures of the men in the lower ranks of the military establishment and the effects of their relationships with the German population. As a fraudulent enlistee, he lives in constant fear of being discovered. He is further plagued by premonition of doom by the family "curse," the result of a terrible sin committed by his maternal grandfather.
Born in an impoverished, dysfunctional family in the midst of the Great Depression, he struggles to overcome the indoctrination of inferiority and social ostracism, the result of his mother's alcoholism,
The story traces the family history from his ancestors' 19th century Mississippi plantation to the early 1950's in segregated Birmingham, Alabama.
Memoirs can sometimes be self-serving. Not this melancholy rendition of a troubled family in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 30s, 40s and 50s. Sergeant Major John Allen Bandy's "coming of age" story is as grim as any Dickens' novel. The son of an alcoholic mother and a gambling, womanizing father, Bandy doesn't gloss over the unforgiveable neglect that he and his siblings endured -- yet, his empathetic portrayal of his parents is endearing. He presents them -- and himself -- as flawed human beings struggling with obsession, addiction -- and perhaps an inherited curse.
To escape hunger, social ostracism, and the likelihood of being placed in an orphanage after his father's death in 1948, Bandy fakes his birth certificate and joins the Army at age sixteen. The image of a frightened boy, beaten by his Drill Sergeant the first night of basic training, curled up in his bunk crying for his mama is especially moving. We see him mature from a rambunctious teenaged recruit during a four-year tour in post-war Germany to a young husband and father to be on his way to Japan in 1954. The road is especially hard for the emotionally scarred, undereducated Bandy who tackles growing up like a prize-fighter taking on one challenger after another. The ever repeating theme of this story is the struggle against self-doubt that torments and sucks away ambition and discipline -- and the courage it takes to rebound after a life-delivered gut-punch.
When Whippoorwills Call will resonate with those raised in dysfunctional families. It will also move people who found discipline, self-respect, and opportunity in the Army. The fact that Bandy rises to the rank of Sergeant Major and retired from the Military, given the roadblocks he had to navigate is inspiring. That he had emotional and physical set-backs is not surprising -- yet, true to form, he went on to earn several degrees and had a second successful career as a teacher. Now he has taken up the pen.
Although overly-long and redundant in places, When Whippoorwills Call breaks the reader's heart. It's compelling reading and even when you finish Bandy's story, it nags at the soul for hours afterwards.
Reviewed by: Joyce Faulkner (2009)