Living in a country at war taught the Last Song star to value the tranquillity he'd taken for granted at home.
I was 12 when my parents told me we were moving to Lebanon. I remember thinking, "Leba-who?" I had absolutely no concept of the place.
I had spent most of my childhood in Logansport, Indiana, an ideal town for a kid. It snowed in the winter and was hot in the summer. We had a park down the street with a carousel where you could get ice cream, my friends and I played in baseball games on Friday nights, and there was a mall not too far down the road. It was a very George Bailey–like existence.
But then my family moved—first to Washington, D.C., and then, in the spring of 1975, to Lebanon, where my father worked as a diplomat at the American embassy. My parents were enthusiastic about the move, so my older brother and I felt like we were off to some place kind of cool.
We landed in Lebanon at sunset, and I saw hundreds of people on their knees in prayer, facing Mecca. I immediately had that You're not in Kansas anymore feeling. At the time, they called Beirut the Paris of the Middle East. The city was on the Mediterranean, and it was so beautiful. But it seemed strange to me. The country has both a coastline and mountains, so in one day my family could go to the beach in the morning and watch people ski in the afternoon. It was a lot for a 12-year-old to take in.
That move opened my eyes. It made me realize that the world was not the insulated place I had banked on as a child—it wasn't going to be Logansport, Indiana. Not long into our stay the civil war began. We had arrived in a peaceful Beirut that spring, but by the end of the year, the father of a friend of mine had been kidnapped. During the day there were killings and bombings. And forget about the night—the shelling was constant. I would wake up and go out to the living room to find my parents and brother huddled around a little transistor radio, listening to the BBC.
At first I had no sense of my own mortality. I thought: "This is like being in a movie. I'm James Bond, damn it." For my parents, of course, it wasn't nearly as fun. But they still gave off this incredible confidence, like everything was going to be fine. The situation quickly unraveled, though, and the school my brother and I attended was shut down. We became prisoners in our home.
Before the end of the year, my family was evacuated to Athens, where we stayed for six years. But when I look back on my childhood, I think of that short time in Beirut. I know that seeing the city collapse around me forced me to grasp something many people miss: the fragility of peace. Our country is now involved in two wars and yet there is a sense—perhaps because of our geographic isolation—that everything is going to be okay. I don't take that for granted. Living overseas was a great gift that taught me a valuable lesson: Always appreciate what you've got.