zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

The Journey, post 2: The Zigzag Begins

Sometimes it takes a nudge from a friend to help us wake up and be honest with ourselves.  Sometimes it takes a 2×4 upside the head.

I will never forget the first time I got the 2×4…

I am a baby-boomer.  I grew up in Los Angeles during the decades of the 1950s and 60s.  The 60s was my “coming of age” time.  I turned 13 in 1961 and 21 on a firebase in Vietnam in 1969.  A month after my thirteenth birthday, my dad died.  My life changed dramatically from then on, as surely as our nation did in the 60s, one trauma after another:  civil rights and civil unrest, free speech, free love, cheap drugs, the assassinations (Medgar Evers, President Kennedy, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Bobby Kennedy), Vietnam, the anti-war movement, My Lai and Kent State—people dying in living color on the 6 o’clock news.

In 1968, I was in my second year of college, studying history and puzzling over Vietnam.  President Johnson had said he could “see the light at the end of the tunnel,” but by that year, the light looked more like an oncoming locomotive.  (Remember the ‘credibility gap’?)  I was drafted and reported for training not long after Bobby died on June 6th.  The ideals and hopes of my generation seemed to fall to the floor of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. alongside Bobby.  In January, 1969, I went to Vietnam, became a mortar gunner in an infantry company, and was wounded six months later (June 10th) at the Battle of Iron Mountain.

That day for me was the capstone of the decade.  The next morning, I lay on a hospital bed thinking how I almost really died.  A mortar round had landed inches away—the thwack of a 2×4 upside the head, but the shrapnel went mostly everywhere else.  On that bed I had a lot of time to think:  After the round landed everything around me seemed deathly quiet, and I was alone forever waiting for someone to come.  The Chaplain, Max Sullivan, came in answer to my call … What if it had been…?  Would I have gone to heaven?  Was there a heaven?  Did God even exist?  And Jesus … was he real or just another cosmic Santa Claus?  Honestly?  I didn’t know.

Back in “the world,” (the U.S.) life seemed safe again, although before I got out of the army, I began hearing about a hamlet called My Lai and realized that my company had been on its periphery.  What had they done?  I never heard anything while I was there.  I’d seen a lot during my six months, but I just couldn’t believe Americans were capable of such things.  Was this America really the land of my heroes?  What else was coming?

Michelle and I married in 1970.  Our life had “only just  begun.”  But God had a way of `following through after the 2×4.  A close friend began presenting a radical new take on what it meant to be a Christian.  I had assumed I was a Christian.  I had gone to church most of my life, sat in the pew, sang in the choir, been active in the youth group.  Church just didn’t seem all that relevant to my life.  My friend Andy’s life reflected something different, something real that I couldn’t fathom, and he was changing.  He told me Jesus was changing him…

Skeptical?  I had known Andy since the day we had introduced ourselves, cap guns in hand, shooting at each other across the street.  We were both in 3rd grade.  By high school, we had done a lot of drinking and some drugs and other stupid stuff.  (We had ditched together the day JFK was shot, so I know exactly where I was at that moment).  Andy dropped out of school, became a locomotive mechanic.   And now…

I had known many genuine Christians, none of whom I wanted to be like, fanatics all.  Andy, however, was my “BFF” though he hated school, didn’t mind getting in trouble (or so it seemed), didn’t like to read.  Now he was devouring the King James Bible, giving up smoking and other things “for Jesus.”

My world was turning upside down, sort of like ‘Nam, only different.  This was my friend, not the scary old man on the soapbox in Pershing Square (Downtown L.A.) breathing out hell-fire, not one of those youth leaders who passed out guilt trips while you sweated on your knees waiting for high school group to be over.  I knew Andy was genuine: for all his “flaws” (he didn’t like books much, which, to this self-styled “smart” kid, seemed like blasphemy) he was always the real deal.  I had been phony for much of my life, an expert in cover-up.  My school-hating friend challenged my thinking.  The challenge set me to applying my training in history to Jesus’ life, especially the resurrection.  It dawned on me that, if the resurrection was true, then the rest was as well … another 2×4.  As I began to see the evidence pile up, I knew that I was coming to a choice: I was afraid of looking like an idiot, but if I turned away, I would be choosing to be an idiot.  Finally, Andy gave me a book called Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  (Yes, he read books, too!)  Lewis had been an Oxford don, a classical scholar, a world-renowned certified smart guy.  Lewis made me think, too.  He offered a choice about Jesus … either a liar, a lunatic, or just what he said…

How could I know for sure?

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3 thoughts on “The Journey, post 2: The Zigzag Begins

  1. Carmen on said:

    Hi Walt, I enjoyed reading the first ‘installment’ of your saga. Since I have responded in haste (and even nastiness – at times) on another Blog we are both following, I’ll take my cues from the wise and diplomatic writers there and make a valiant effort to temper my responses on yours.

    I am always interested in any account of the Vietnam conflict. As you know, Canada was not directly involved but some from here volunteered to go – we know one personally and he came back physically unharmed but emotionally scarred. In our rural Nova Scotia High School there were 2 or 3 ‘draft dodgers’ who came to teach. I graduated in ’75 and can remember long-haired men (at that time in our conservative area they stood out!) and the tone of conversations about these guys – it wasn’t favourable. Of course, years later one wondered if they might have done the proper thing.

    My other connection to your story was the bit about Andy. The expression, “People come into your lives for a reason” came to mind. I must confess that I can’t really identify with that kind of ‘passion for Jesus’ but I can admire his (and your) zeal and obviously, as Martha would say, “it’s a good thing”.

    Looking forward to the next chapter,
    Carmen

  2. Carmen on said:

    Oh dear Walt, I just re-read my comment above and now realize that it may have been insensitive. I can’t imagine how anyone who came back from that HELLISH conflict would feel about draft dodgers but I can’t think that it would be good. I certainly meant no disrespect to you; I’ve tried to remove my comment but it looks like I can’t do it. Another lesson learned. . .humbly, Carmen

    • Have no fear, Carmen. While finishing up a history degree and getting a teaching credential, I worked for a vocational rehab company. I was in the office a lot and got to know one of the ladies who worked there quite well. After a couple years, we were chatting one day and we traded stories about what we did in the 60s. She was an anti-war demonstrator. I think I spoke first: “You know what? We were both victims of that war.” We just hugged, and were always fast friends.

      That war tore our nation apart in more ways than we’ll ever understand. It was a confusing time. I don’t begrudge those who ran off, nor even those who spit at us. Some of men I fought with had a hard time forgiving such people, but I don’t. Even Jane Fonda has had some second thoughts about what she did back then. It was a bad time all around, and we’re still reaping the whirlwind….

      Always feel free to express what you think. 🙂

      Walt

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