A retired Navy officer who was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt on 9/11 was among the parents who spoke out against book banning at this week’s school board meeting in Martin County, Florida.
“Religious fanatics, who wouldn’t even let women be educated, flew planes into the World Trade Center and my Pentagon,” 54-year-old Wess Rexrode said. “I spent the last decade of my naval career fighting religious fascism abroad. I never thought I’d have to fight it right here in the United States of America.”
Rexrode was speaking specifically of those who used a new Florida law to have 92 books banned from the county’s public school classrooms and libraries. Books by Jodi Picoult and Toni Morrison were removed following an objection filed by a member of Moms for Liberty who had not even read them.
“I urge you to think about what a book ban means and use transparency,” Rexroad told the board on Tuesday.
As the father of a 14-year-old in middle school, he added, “I don’t need anyone else telling my son what he can and cannot read. I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself.”
He explained to the board that he had learned in his own childhood the importance of this particular freedom.
“I grew up in rural South Carolina, and books got me out of the trailer parks,” Rexrode said. “My parents trusted those educators and the librarians to let me read what I needed to read.”
Later, Rexrode told The Daily Beast that his mother had given him a set of encyclopedias for Christmas when he was 4.
“I think she paid in installments,” Rexrode said. “I just remember being happy, left alone with my encyclopedia. I was fortunate to be able to read early.”
His parents had parted ways, his father having returned from the Vietnam war what Rexrode describes as “broken.” His mother had struggled to raise him alone, managing to make the payments for the volumes that enabled her son to venture wherever his wonderings took him.
“That started a love of reading that I didn’t even know existed,” Rexrode recalled. “And then when I got into school, school was always easy for me.”
His mother remarried when he was 7 and he then had four stepsisters and stepbrothers who got him playing sports.
“Not that I was that good, but at least I played,” he recalled. “I still had my books. And I remember my mom’d drop me off at the library and leave me alone. Back then, they trusted teachers and they trusted librarians.”
He started out with books about sharks and snakes. He then ventured into fiction.
“And just that curiosity, learning new words,” he said. “And it sort of carried over into English and literature class.”
But he had not figured his life would take a trajectory other than that of a typical country boy.
“Back then, you just got outta high school and you went to work,” he remembered. “I go along and I’m in high school and I’m in the college prep classes, but it’s still not really registering with me that I was gonna go to college until I did very, very well on the SATs going into my senior year. And then I just started getting inundated by colleges. And I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll go to college.’
He added, “I didn’t really have any blueprint for how that was supposed to work, but I wound up getting pretty much a full scholarship to Clemson.”
When he arrived at Clemson, he told himself, “I’m outta my league…this is the big time.”
But, he said, “I did okay. I got an engineering degree and then that catapulted me into the nuclear navy. The Navy had a nuclear propulsion officer candidate program for, you know, science and technical majors with a certain GPA.”
“My philosophy is, ‘If something goes against my beliefs, I can’t do that.’ But increasingly we’ve seen a lot of, ‘If that goes against my beliefs, YOU can’t do that.’ And I’m sorry, but that’s not America.”
— Wess Rexrode
In the Navy, Rexrode began to add real life experiences to his virtual journeys through reading.
“You’re out of your comfort zone in your hometown where you’re surrounded by everybody and people,” he recalled. “There’s New Yorkers and there’s Californians and midwesterners and southerners and Alaskans and just everybody. And you learn to learn from different people’s backgrounds and different people’s perspectives. And you’re all sort of like in the same boat together. Literally.”
After 9/11, Rexrode was a supervisor for the crew that kept the US Theodore Roosevelt underway for 159 straight days, bringing the war to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The mission seemed to be shared by all of America.
“We were at least united then,” he recalled.
Nine years into our longest war, in January 2010, Rexrode retired. His son was 2 as Rexrode settled down in Florida and took a job in commercial nuclear power. He became a single dad after his marriage unraveled. He settled into a busy routine of work and picking his son up at school and making dinner. He read Goodnight Moon to his son at bedtime until the boy aged out of it. The boy then became more interested in gaming than in books.
“It’s a different era,” Rexrode said. “We didn’t have the internet. He has to follow his own path. I look at my job as a parent as putting up the guardrails. You can’t protect him from everything.”
Last month, Rexrode began hearing that a nationwide surge of book banning in the name of protecting children had reached Martin County.
“I started remembering what books meant to me and how they helped me,” he told The Daily Beast.
And the whole notion of deciding what other people’s kids can and cannot read seemed a manifestation of domestic fascism that is too much like what he had spent a decade combating.
“My philosophy is, ‘If something goes against my beliefs, I can’t do that,’” he said. “But increasingly we’ve seen a lot of, ‘If that goes against my beliefs, YOU can’t do that.’ And I’m sorry, but that’s not America.”
He had hoped to join other parents in speaking out against the book banning at a school board meeting on March 21, but he was delayed by his immediate parental duties. There was an overflow crowd by the time he got there.
On Tuesday, Rexrode arranged for a friend to pick up his son at school. And this time, Rexrode arrived in time to speak. He quoted Admiral Hyman Rockover, who was known as the father of the nuclear navy.
“Admiral Rickover said a questioning attitude was the key to success,” Rexrode said.
Rexrode continued, “I want my son exposed to different ideas and different viewpoints so that he can learn to think critically and not be force fed somebody else’s opinion. We’ve all been exposed to different opinions. It makes us better, makes us stronger.”
“Diversity has made me stronger. And I didn’t sacrifice 21 years of my life to stand idly by while religious fanatics and other fanatics try to impose fascism on my country,” he added.
He ended by saying “Remember the Little Rock 9,” referring to the nine Black teens who integrated an Arkansas high school in 1957.
“If those kids could endure a year of people spitting on them and hating them just to go to school, just to get an education, our kids can deal with a little uncomfortableness from Jodi Picoult or Tony Morrison.”
Rexrode allowed that he had been nervous when he stepped up to speak, although he had routinely given briefings in the Navy.
“You’re in front of a bunch of people you don’t know, but it was just like, ‘Well, if I don’t say it, who’s gonna say it?’” he recalled of the school board meeting.
Once he was done, he said, “I felt good. I’m like, ‘Okay, I think they need to hear it.’ They had heard from a lot of teachers, obviously, and parents, but not from someone like me with my background and perspective.”
In these divided times, he had invoked the too brief unity following 9/11.
“I’m not right or left,” Rexrode told The Daily Beast. “I think for myself, and my oath was to the Constitution, not a political party. I just want what’s best for America.”
He added, “I think my patriotism and my intelligence and my work ethic and my bonafides, I guess sort of speak to themselves. So then people typically have to debate me on the facts, instead of attacking me personally, which too many times a lot of debate these days devolves into.”
But on that night, the busy life of a single dad did not allow him to stick around for any after-meeting discussion.
“I had to leave and come home and feed my kid,” he reported.