How A Mortal Sin Was Erased

Even though we were in the same room as each other, I never met C.D.B. Bryan. He was at Penn State with his mother, Katharine, the widow of John O’Hara, to dedicate the opening of the O’Hara study early in 1975, an event I covered for the Centre Daily Times. After all, O’Hara and I went way back, although I had never met him either, hadn’t even been in the same room with him.

Years later, after Bryan had published Friendly Fire, I caught up with him via the telephone and tried to lure him to Penn State. I was, at the time, in charge of getting judges for the Katey Lehman Writing Contest and I thought Bryan would make a good judge. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it work but it was then that I learned that he had been at the dedication of the O’Hara study.

I used the phone call to apologize for a mistake I had made with his name. Perhaps to some it would be a venial sin, but in the newsroom getting someone’s name wrong is a mortal sin and I had carried the burden of this sin long enough.

I confessed that I had cited him in a essay or a book somewhere (I can’t find it today) and referred to him as O’Bryan. Maybe it was the O’Hara connection that made me do it.

He laughed. He told me that his sister had gotten him personalized pencils as a gift and they bore the name C.D.B. O’BRYAN. She never noticed the error and so my mortal sin was instantly reduced to a venial sin, my penance done for confessing, erased from the Book of Sins.

I took notice of Bryan with the publication of Friendly Fire, a book about the skepticism of an Iowa mother after the death of her son in Vietnam. Friendly fire comes from your friends, not your enemy, and the soldier’s mother could not grasp how her son had died. She suspected foul play.

What held my attention was the way Bryan told the story. A mystery, the book is written in the conventional third person for the first two-thirds of the pages, as we follow the parents—and primarily the mother—dealing with the mystery of their son’s death and how the mother evolves into an anti-war advocate.

And then Bryan shifts—unwillingly, he says—to the first person because he has to tell us what he learned from his investigation of the soldier’s death. The shift is jarring, but as you read on, it works. The story is no longer about the soldier’s death, but what Bryan learned in his investigation. The shift makes sense.

Bryan wrote several books in his lifetime, but the author of his obituary in the New York Times last week said his career was distinguished by Friendly Fire. I would agree. I still have the book and would urge anyone interested in good nonfiction to read it and study Bryan’s methods. They’re still good today.

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