I became a Christian at age six in Ramona, Kansas, while listening to a record for kids played by my mom encouraging children to "accept Jesus as your saviour."
My brothers, aged five and three and a half, also "accepted Jesus as our Saviour." I have always been aware of the presence of the Most High, but the idea of being "saved" seemed like "icing on the cake" to a six-year-old, and I was baptized in the Overland Park Gospel Chapel when I was about twelve.
We moved to Immanuel Mission when I was ten. That was a challenge. I was so small, maybe eighty-five pounds; you were about six feet and one hundred eighty pounds at twelve years of age, speaking perfect Navajo and advising me to "stand up for yourself" in the face of the Navajo guys. The determination to "stand up for myself" got me into the lifelong habit of physical training and individual sport.
I don't remember you getting into any fights with the Navajo guys. You were like a handsome prince to us adoring little kids.
I went away to school in Stonybrook, New York, then to Atascadero, California, for a couple of years, then back to the Mission for my senior year to commute daily to Shiprock High, about sixty miles one way.
At Christmas 1966, I went with Greg to a youth conference at Wheaton, Illinois, where I listened to Tom Skinner and was inspired to read Watchman Nee's books. We flew in Paul Wilson's Cessna from the Mission to Kansas City and then took a bus with the Kansas City kids to Chicago.
I was going to go to college after high school but thought I should get the army out of the way. I had gotten a scholarship to the University of Arizona, but at the back of my mind was my mom's quoting the bible: "Will you sit at home while your brother goes to war?"
I remember sitting with my dad after visiting the recruiter in Farmington and him saying, "Well, I guess you're sort of wondering if you can do it…"
I said, "Yeah," but thought, "That's not it. Ma says it's my duty, and I just want to get it over with."
Maybe he was referring to my volunteering for Viet Nam. I had read a book about it and thought that we (the United States) shouldn't be there, but I, being young with no experience, would check it out for myself.
Basic and the first part of AIT was uneventful, but things started changing on the bus ride back to Fort Gordon outside Augusta, Georgia. I had gotten a letter from the "Assembly" at the Mission to introduce me as a believer to the "Assembly" in Augusta so that I could partake of “the Lord's Supper." Through the south, I talked with a nice white guy for quite a while, trying to get a handle on the racial thing in the south. In summary, he ended by saying something akin to "we have different ways of doing things; they like being with their kind, we like being with our kind. Simple as that, nothing bad or ominous." My first attendance at that Augusta Assembly was still a shocker, though! I asked the colonel teaching us young enlisted guys Sunday school, "Hey! Where're all the black people?" He said, "They like going to their own churches." Of course, I understand why each prefers their own churches, but then "I smelled a rat!" I got that people were different, but I didn't understand why Christians of whatever race didn't go to church together. I decided then and there that I was never going back. "They obviously don't know what they are talking about or don't care!"
I was beginning to think more seriously about my future and was considering applying to army higher education but then decided to wait till after Viet Nam. I had applied to airborne, but as I got closer to the end of my course, I thought: "why do I need to go airborne? I'm already going to Viet Nam! That should be good enough." ( I took a paragliding lesson in Canada later at age forty-five. I loved it but thought, "I've got three kids; who will look after them if I die?" The funny thing, the guy who gave me a lesson died while paragliding. His son, who took over the business, died while paragliding a few years later.)
Anyway, on leave before departing for Viet Nam, I met Jackie. She was going to Shiprock High and was a friend of Jeff's. Also, on that leave, Greg and I got into a bad car accident at Beclabito Trading Post when we tried to avoid a horse on our way to skiing at Purgatory. We ended up in Farmington hospital for ten days. My back in the lumbar region has bothered me ever since.
I arrived in RVN at the tail end of the Tet offensive, so I got a quick introduction to rocket and mortar attacks. I was posted to a helicopter gunship support unit at Củ Chi, 25th Infantry Division, where I, a radio teletype operator, ran a small phone exchange for the company.
It didn't take me long to realize that guys in the bush were "re-upping" for six more months in-country to transfer to my unit to be gunners. In short, I was sitting at a ringside seat on how an empire does war.
My friends, the gunners, tended to be southern Californians who decorated their flight helmets psychedelically and smoked copious amounts of "grass, weed, dope".
They’d often say, "The first thing I'm going to do when I get back to the world is to drop acid and go to Disneyland!"
The funny thing about the southern California guys was that they were the ones acting out their rage in the free fire zones. It didn't matter if they delivered newspapers as kids and were eagle scouts. As one of them said to me, "I know it’s wrong, but I do it anyway." My best friend was from Rio and was an admirer of uncle Adolph, and even he remonstrated with the valley boys.
The valley boys were contradictory. They would go to Vung Tau, party on the beach with people they were convinced were VC intelligence, have a wonderful time, then go back to murdering their peasant countrymen in the free fire zones- just because they could.
I worked a split shift in the commo bunker in the middle of the company area. Flight ops to my front, pilots and other officers to my right, enlisted on my left. My day was 1200-1600hrs, break and 2400-0400 hrs. Weird!
I didn't have to do KP at that time, so I rebuilt the bunker myself. It took a lot of sandbags and was quite large.
When I got off at 0400, I would visit my friend at the officer's club where he was manager. We would smoke herb and listen to the stereo. As you might imagine, the sound was unbelievable. At that hour of the night, of course, it was closed. No one ever called us on it.
A unique advantage to my shift was that the NVA or VC usually only fired salvos at the flight line at night, and I was already in the biggest and strongest bunker. All I had to do was sound the siren.
Things went well for quite a long time. I read copiously from the USO library. I did the electrical wiring of the hooches (barracks). I climbed poles and did lineman work in the company area. I wired up the lights on the poles around the pool. We made a pool in the middle of the company area from a huge fuel bladder for the aircraft so the pilots could call the nurses down from the hospital. Really. It seemed like as long as one did his job, things were great.
However, after many months the mood of the company started to change. Martin Luther King was assassinated, as was Robert Kennedy. The democratic convention had been a disaster. The mood of the soul brothers began to change. I asked one of my friends, a black guy, how come you're back from LBJ (Long Binh Jail) so soon? He had been busted for possession of grass, and the penalty was six months in jail. He was noticeably shaken. He said, "they burned the whole place down!" I said who? "The inmates. The commander said: I could understand if you took it out on the bulls, but you burned everything, even your own stuff! All the personnel records were burnt, so we got sent back to our units.”
Singing soul songs with the brothers eventually petered out. It had been one of my favourite things- finding an abandoned building, taking a boom box and some herb (usually a long metal saltine tin filled to the top) and singing. It was great.
Differences started showing up more. The black guys that hated whites got much more surly. The hustlers came out in the open more, and things like valuables from foot lockers were more often stolen.
And then we got a new company First Sergeant.
To be continued…