Fifty years ago today my dad wrapped his arms around me and said out loud for the first time I can recall, “I love you.” Then I turned toward the bus idling there to take me to Milwaukee where I was inducted into the U.S. Army.
With a draft lottery number of one, received a year earlier, this day was inevitable. But it arrived under a dark cloud of dread that wouldn’t lift for months.
I never doubted my dad loved me. I never asked myself if he did. I never wondered, pondered, considered, weighed or suspected his love. He showed me in many, non-verbal ways: working hard to provide for his family, being present, shooting baskets with me, including me with tasks we could do together, assigning me responsibilities like cleaning the barn or splitting the wood for our farmhouse furnace, then bragging about me to his friends when I worked beyond his expectations.
Primarily, my assurance of dad’s love and my subconscious security in my household growing up was how he loved my mother. Our dinner time was consistently 5:30, but no one sat down until dad arrived home from his gas route. He drove a fuel truck that serviced farmers in a four-county area, but he consistently arranged his days and route to be home for dinner on time.
Then mom would meet him at the door and the kids would have to sit at the table, waiting while they hugged and kissed and got all sloppy in the doorway.
Dad never fully grasped the implications of my lottery number. It didn’t penetrate his consciousness that radio announcing my birthday as No. 1 had changed the trajectory of my life. Nor did he comprehend my heart when I petitioned for and received status as a conscientious objector, willing to serve in the military, but not willing to bear arms.
To my surprise and delight, my basic training platoon at Fort Sam Houston consisted entirely of conscientious objectors of my same persuasion. We were all to be trained as medics. Logic was, I guess, if we weren’t going to carry a gun, we should run around with a target on our backs.
Religious belief was the overwhelming rationale for conscientious objection in my platoon. And not all represented religions were Christian. Consequently, our discussions were invigorating and affirming. Our attitudes were positive and our nascent friendships sincere.
Then, we graduated from basic. And our 40 men were divided among 10 other platoons of men who had just finished basic training that included weapons, and an indoctrination of “enemies” versus the right and righteous arm of the United States.
Suddenly, barracks were bellicose. An undercurrent of distrust and tensions ran through the room where long rows of bunks ran down both sides of the room, with lockers in the middle and footlockers at the end of each bunk. You never wanted to leave either open or unlocked.
One day I hung a pair of clean underwear on the hook while I showered. When I got out, mine had been taken and replaced by someone’s dirty underwear.
Discussions were not harmonious, but usually disintegrated into offensive and defensive positions on issues, especially religious and political. The most hard core guys could not wait to get to Viet Nam and “kill some Charlie Cong.”
Such was the atmosphere that debilitated my spirit one night when I walked to the bank of phones to call my dad for a word of encouragement. I know he loved me. But he still didn’t understand.
Depressed, I was walking back to the barracks to face another miserable night when my path took me past a base chapel. It was brightly lit and happy sounds were coming from it. I walked in. Why not?
There was a youth group on the platform getting ready to perform a musical. And I found a couple of my buddies from basic training there. After the musical, the youth offered to come pick up any soldiers who wanted to attend their church on Sunday.
Pretty girls populated the platform. I eventually dated one. My buddy Steve ended up marrying her sister.
Events of that night, and that group from Baptist Temple in San Antonio, opened the portal to the rest of my life which included a career among Baptists in communications, and marrying a girl I met at a Baptist church in my next station.
Fifty years ago. Today. As I’ve said many times since, it’s not something I wanted, nor would ever want to do again. But my life was set on course by having done it once.