Stefan Templeton doesn’t just think outside the box; he lives outside it, an American hero for the age of Obama—a boundary-breaking, biracial, one-man-NGO paratrooper who drops into and does good in remote spots so hot he sometimes passes international aid organizations on their way out.
Now in his mid-forties, his kit includes an unusual skill set—basic medical knowledge, facility in several languages, experience with weapons, expertise in karate and military tactics, logistical savvy and a fearlessness born of sheer competence. Templeton flew to Indonesia after the tsunami and Sudan after the civil war. In Southeast Asia, he traded gems for life-saving drugs.
Templeton has found his Boswell in childhood friend David Matthews, who, in “Kicking Ass and Saving Souls,” has ably chronicled Templeton’s life so far, in edgy prose that leaves no doubt that any subsequent chapter could well be the subject’s last.
Templeton’s altruistic instincts first manifested themselves when he was three years old, as he and his mother encountered a fellow passed out near a London pub. His mother, who knew the man was drunk, was not going to help, but the boy insisted the man was ill, dropped by his side and patted his head until Stefan’s mother had an ambulance summoned.
The detail of some of the early accounts of Templeton’s early life, and his remarkable experiences pushed this reader’s skeptical “show-me” buttons. But in a nod to readers like myself in our post-“A Million Little Pieces” era, Matthews devotes an epilogue to sources and factual confirmation.
To his credit, while giving due credit to his friend’s achievements, Matthews does not sugar-coat his subject’s character. Templeton’s relentless do-good desires also make him deeply flawed and difficult to live with. Templeton’s wife and young child pay a price for the hero’s addiction to paratrooper altruism. He earns a kind of living from translating, but is ready and willing to leave on one of his missions with bills and rent unpaid.
If Templeton’s instincts are innate, his wherewithal and willingness to cross cultures and break boundaries was fostered by his upbringing. The son of a rich Norwegian “flower girl” and a street-smart African-American academic and Vietnam vet, Templeton’s parents split early, and the boy was yanked back and forth between the mean streets and schools of Baltimore and the castles and exclusive schools in Europe. In America, he was an odd duck, bullied in his early years; in Europe, a biracial exotic who later attracted girls—and women—like a magnet.
Templeton found his calling while on a pleasure junket with some young buddies in Latin America. He grew bored with unfocused hedonism, detached himself and strayed across the border from Colombia into Venezuela, where he lent medical aid under challenging conditions to indigenous Indians whom even locals warned were dangerous killers. I omit a hair-raising but plot-spoiling adventure.
The drama of Templeton’s life is certainly worth highlighting, but Matthews has a penchant for leading with drama and then digressing, making for confusing chronology. A tale this engrossing really requires no such literary high jinks. (Martin Northway)
“Kicking Ass and Saving Souls: A True Story of a Life over the Line”
By David Matthews
Penguin Press, 270 pages, $26