I am a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain. Before becoming a chaplain, I had encountered only one other military chaplain in the service. I am a U.S. Navy veteran—a Cold War “spy” from days when we routinely played cat-and-mouse games that had global thermonuclear destructive implications. We could have used a chaplain or two, but I wasn’t in the spiritual condition to seek one out then. The only chaplain I remember came around to our little hardscrabble farm in the mid-1960s. I can never forget him. And this Veterans’ Day reminds me of him and why Veterans’ Day is a holy day, at least for me.
Any car coming down that gravel lane was like a tourist from outer space, and I would rush to hide behind a big pecan tree or crouch beneath ancient azaleas to see who was coming to our “hideout.” On that day, a white car with government plates rolled down the lane. My father, a Merchant Marine officer turned naval officer from World War II, had died a few years earlier, when I was only five. He had built a small house across from Aunt Eva’s house, where I lived. His death marked the reality of my de facto identity as “that orphan boy,” as the old ladies would whisper about me in the grocery stores.
After my father’s death, Aunt Eva rented out his tiny house that she had inherited. Having lived on selling the best brown Barred-Rock eggs in Livingston Parish, Aunt Eva regarded the new rental money as a legacy of great blessing. Her first rental was to Carl and Diane. Diane was not that pretty in my estimation, but there was something strangely interesting about her. She was the daughter of our school-bus driver, which made her famous in the community. Diane had also just married her high school sweetheart, Carl, from the Live Oak School.
I remember when Carl left for Vietnam
In those days, most of our young men did not go to college or even trade school. If they graduated at all, they worked in their daddy’s turnip fields or the pulp wood industry, usually at a sawmill or the gravel pit on the Amite River. Those who were blessed and had dependable cars — no one ever had a new car but always a rebuilt one, thus the ever-present sight of engines dangling from low-hanging Live Oak limbs all over our parish — found work with a contractor at one of the chemical plants along the Mississippi River. Those were choice jobs and belonged to what we thought of as the “upper crust” of our little poverty-stricken rural community.
Yet by the time I lived what I am going to tell you, Vietnam was changing all of that. Sons of the World War II generation were increasingly leaving Live Oak School for that war we saw on our Zenith black-and-white TV. I remember when Carl left for war. I felt proud to see him go. He had his uniform on, having just returned from boot camp for a final few days of family time before being flown to Vietnam. I was impressed.
Carl may have had one stripe if he had any at all. I can’t remember. But my father’s photograph as a young Navy lieutenant was always before me as I awoke each morning. It was the first thing I saw, because Aunt Eva had placed it so I would, figuratively, have a man in the house to look up to. Thus, I loved to see young men in our country’s uniforms. That was Aunt Eva’s doings.
While I was proud of Carl, his young wife, Dianne, was not happy. Diane broke down crying, put her head in her hands and ran inside our rental house. I thought she was angry with him about something, which seemed odd to me, then, as a boy. Now I know: I know that the things that idealistic young boys find exciting can bring startling grief to realistic young women. Carl shook his head, jumped in the passenger side of this 1940s Chevy pickup, and threw his duffle bag in the truck bed. He drove off with some other boys in white T-shirts, blue jeans, and shiny black shoes piled in the back of the truck. The left-over greasers from the 1950s, unrequited and unapologetic, dangled their penny loafers and high tops amidst the gravel road’s white dust as I stood next to the little house where Diane sobbed and watched the old truck and the young men turn around the last bend in the road to disappear. And like a dream they were gone.
Diane never came out. I heard Aunt Eva and others who had gathered to watch Carl go. They were crying or praying or both that day. I sat on the front porch — a barefoot farm boy from south Louisiana — and wondered why anyone would be so sad about the chance to wear that uniform and go off to war. But I was a boy. Soon I would learn a lot. It was spring when Carl left for Vietnam and Diane ran inside the house and the neighbors cried and prayed. The dogwoods’ white blossoms and the azaleas’ lavender blooms should have made us happy I thought.
A preacher in an officer’s uniform
When that white government Plymouth came driving down the lane, it was a day when the cruel mugginess of a south Louisiana summer had turned more tolerable. It must have been just before Thanksgiving because there was talk about recipes among the women in the Red & White grocery store, where we caught a ride to shop, and where I had first heard about a drunken sailor’s orphan boy that “Miss Eva” was raising. It was on that day when Diane re-emerged from the little house my daddy had built. Something was up. Something big. Those men stepping from the government car had uniforms like my daddy’s in the picture. They looked as important as men on the news.
“Them’s officers,” I thought to myself. I ran from one pecan tree to another, from one azalea bush to another, and finally made my way, crawling on my belly, to hide under the little front porch, where the earth was cooler and moss grew beneath the uneven porch boards. Through daylight between the planks I could see that one officer had a shiney cross on his uniform. I wasn’t smart about much of anything, but I had been to revival meetings, and I knew that this man was a preacher in an officer’s uniform. But why was he coming to see Diane?
Of course, I found out. I found out when Diane fell down on the front porch and heaved tears and grieved so hard that I became frightened. I came out from under the porch and stood up. The officers, including the preacher one, looked at me but didn’t get onto me as I had expected. They weren’t concerned about any boy hiding under the porch. Everyone was focused on Diane.
Aunt Eva must have seen what was happening. I saw her, at about 70 years of age, leap from our front porch and run across the meadow that separated the houses to get to Diane. She raced up the steps and onto the porch and then fell down on top of Diane and held her — saving her from something, it seemed. The preacher officer put his hand on Diane and Aunt Eva. He bent over and prayed, and he read some Scripture as the other one bowed his head. I knew all of this was about Carl, but I could not imagine what I would soon hear: Carl was dead. He had been shot in a firefight in Vietnam. He had been there only a month or so, they said. “He died for his country,” they said. But Diane just kept crying, and Aunt Eva held her and would not let her go until Diane’s mother and father, the school-bus driver, came down the lane in the school bus. They took her away in that bus, down the same lane where Carl was taken just a few months before. Dust kicked up the same way. They disappeared, and suddenly all the noise of the horror stopped. I just looked at the porch. Aunt Eva wept on the steps.
Looking at Vets a whole new way
The funeral was at the Methodist church, and they buried Carl in a flag-draped coffin. Diane didn’t cry anymore. In fact, I don’t think I ever heard her voice again until years later when, remarried, she greeted me at the Red & White grocery store. I was about 15 years old then. She was with her new husband. We looked at each other, and Diane smiled and said, “Mike, you are growing up, boy.” But behind the smile and the compliment there was a day we would both remember.
On Veterans’ Day, I remember. I remember Carl and his young teenage bride, Diane, and her pain. I remember how life changed. I remember how I could never look at my father’s picture the same way. I remember that the war movies I loved to watch on that old black-and-white Zenith changed for me after Carl’s death. Everything changed. A young man had gone off to war and did not come back. I was told that Carl died and that every soldier, sailor, Marine, airman, and guardsman in that war from our little community went off to serve our nation and to keep us all safe. I began to look at the old World War I vets at our country chapel in a new way. They were not just old men in khaki pants and Sunday white shirts with khaki cowboy hats chewing tobacco between services. Aunt Eva told me that they were heroes and had saved the world. I would later think that way of my father.
Years later, after I served in the Navy, after I was called out of a prodigal journey of sin, the sailor’s orphan boy came home to Jesus Christ. Christ saved me—saved me from the pain of memories of a confused young orphan boy. He saved me with images of my father’s picture and of Carl’s death and Diane’s grief and that “preacher officer” seeking to bring healing to an irredeemable moment. And so, when God called me to preach, I knew that I would have to serve my country in some way — for me, it has been as a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain.
Showing honor to whom honor is due
I have been on front porches like that chaplain from my youth. I have read the Word and preached the Word to young men who should have been working on their daddies’ farm but who lay wounded in hospitals, or in coffins before me. I have also conducted funerals of soldiers whose hearts were too heavy with what they had seen and minds too dark to go on thinking or living. I have done so as a reserve chaplain because I always wanted to minister to ordinary folk, too. I knew I wanted to preach and minister in the local church. I have combined the two callings in this way and will never regret it.
Each Sunday nearest Veterans’ Day, I would always take time in the announcements to read from Romans 13 about “showing honor unto whom honor was due.” I would ask our organist or pianist to play the service songs of each of the Armed Forces branches and for veterans to stand as they were played. I would ask them to stand for those who also served but did not come home. I always reminded them to play for the Merchant Marines, too. At the conclusion, as all were standing, I asked that we go to the Lord to pray for these and give thanks for all who would imitate Christ Jesus and serve and sacrifice so that we could be free.
It all sounds corny to some. To others whose theological convictions would not even allow an American flag in the sanctuary, I was told that I was confusing the kingdoms. I respected them then as I do now, but I told them I had convictions, too. I told them that none of those who served and gave their lives as service men and women were confused about which kingdom was which. None were confused about the horror of war or the childish idealism that caused little boys to salute Marine privates as they came in dress blues on those days to sit in the pew next to their wives, mothers, daddies, and little sisters. They knew: Jesus is Lord. His kingdom is pure and holy and lasts forever. We serve because there is sin in this worldly kingdom. But Christ is the captain of our salvation, and we will serve our nation, our people, in some way, as a pale but earnest imitation of His life and death on Calvary’s cross. In this way, we will bring His kingdom’s values and vision to this poor kingdom where evil still exists.
I thank God for those who served and returned, and for those who didn’t. I ask God’s blessings on women like Diane. I think of orphans like that orphan boy that I was.
I still have that photograph of my father. And I still have the memory of that day when the chaplain told Diane that Carl had been killed. And I still have the memory of old WWI soldiers in my mind, spitting Red Man and quietly talking about faraway places and forgotten fields that no one could see but them. And I think of these things and thank Almighty God for our veterans. I thank God for those who served and returned, and for those who didn’t. I ask God’s blessings on women like Diane. I think of orphans like that orphan boy that I was. And I think that Christ is glorified, at least in my heart, when I hear the Navy hymn sung by voices that have been there, in the air, in the land, and on the sea:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.
This Veterans Day, I will remember again. For it seems to me to be a holy day when mortal men and women remind us of the service and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
2013 © Michael A. Milton. All rights reserved.