3/15/2011 | Share this article: View CommentsRepentance and Reunion
By Ex-Pastor Dan ~
There’s nothing quite like the sounds a WWII era Willy’s Jeep makes as it squeaks and squawks along a dirt road (really a glorified trail), mile after mile. Usually the knobby tires would whine a high-pitched wail as we drove into Can Toh village, on pavement. Out here, the roar was a much lower octave, slightly muffled by the 3 inches of dry, red powder that used to be clay, and would be again, after the next monsoon struck. “Oh God, don’t let it rain today! We’ll never get Chaplain Vin all the way to An Xuyen province if it starts raining.”
It was funny how my mind worked. All of my thoughts seemed to be framed into silent prayers. I guess that came from being told my whole life that God saw all, and heard all; even our thoughts were open to his constant monitoring! My mom had pounded that into my head and Brother Mac had reinforced it with a thousand sermons on the topic, e.g. - ‘Pray Without Ceasing’; ‘Let Your Conversation With God be CONSTANT!’ and the coup de grace, ‘Always be Ready for the IMMINENT RETURN OF CHRIST!!’ Nothing was more important than your thoughts. You didn’t want to be caught with ‘BAD THOUGHTS’ when the Rapture hit – you’d be a goner – straight to HELL, do not pass GO, do not collect $200.00!
I was an Arminian and as such I knew that I could lose my Salvation at the drop of a hat. Calvinism (and its cousin – Eternal Security) was railed against from Brother Mac’s pulpit. As teen-agers we were constantly backsliding and RE-committing our lives to Jesus. Sunday Nights were reserved for Salvation and Recommitment messages. Be it Brother Mac, a traveling Evangelist, or one of us young preachers; Sunday night was the Big Show where the Gifts (of the Spirit) would Flow!
God how I missed those Sunday nights!
POW! THUMP, THUMP, THUMP……. “What the Hell!” I whirled around in my make-shift, gunner’s position. I jerked my M-16 up to focus on sightlines along the bush, off to the northwest. “Doug, Padre, what was that? Are you O.k.? Are we hit?” Doug was wrestling Chappy (nick name of our God Squad jeep) to a wide spot off to the right of the road. We all jumped out and Doug and I scrambled under our only source of protection. Unfortunately Chaplain Vin was about 75 lbs. overweight, with most of that concentrated around his considerable mid-section. Even if there had been room for him beneath our carriage (which there wasn’t), he was 6 inches too thick to force his way under. He laid there - red face, white hair, green fatigues – wriggling his body into that dry, red soil. Sweat poured from his temples and dripped off of his ears, forming little red mud balls as they ‘poofed’ into the floury dust.
As we lay there, huffing and puffing - sweating and sweltering, I thought, “This man of God is human and scared, just like me and Doug.”
I couldn’t leave him there, exposed. I was the Chaplain’s Assistant and as such I was his bodyguard. He had no weapon; I had the only weapon in our possession. It was up to me to be the soldier. Doug was a PFC and I was a Spec 4, so it was my responsibility to take care of this little band of heroes. “Oh God, you know I prayed for traveling mercies before we left Can Tho. I know that Thy blood has covered us and will take us safely to our destination. Please help us! Help me to do the right thing. Forgive me of my sins! Forgive me for my anger with Thee! I repent of my rebellion against Thy will! I plead the blood of Jesus, the blood of Jesus….COVER ME WITH THY BLOOD! OH GOD I’M SO SORRY FOR MY WRETCHED SINS! MAKE ME PURE AND READY IF THIS BE THE HOUR OF MY DEATH!”
After what seemed like an hour (more like three minutes) of silence - except for Chappy’s slight radiator hiss - we slowly inched our way out into the open. Doug and I crawled around our little over-heated vehicle and checked for damage. Chaplain Vin had raised himself to his side and was visibly praying as he fingered his onyx-beaded Rosary. “We have a Flat Tire!” Doug yell-whispered. “Tire’s fucked! Dan, Padre, haul your asses over to the bushes and cover me while I fix this son-of-a-bitch!” Doug’s tongue had lost its salvation and reverted back to a hard-ass, cussing infantryman, and I had never heard any words that ever sounded so sweet and comforting! “Come on Padre,” I said, as I helped him up to a crouching run. “Move your ass, keep your mutha-fuckin head down, the shit’s about to hit the fan!” The profanity poured forth from my mouth like I was speaking in tongues. I was not in control, I was in another dimension. A spirit had taken over control of me (at least my lips) and it felt fantastic! “Shit, shit….fuck! Holy fuckin Shit! Doug, you’re a God Damned Angel!” “I’ve got you covered, you son-of-a-bitch!” “Jesus H. Christ! Pray Padre, PRAY! I’m going back to help Doug!”
It turns out that we had taken an AK-47 round to the left rear tire. It had lodged between the rim and the inner tube, after the tire exploded. I had undoubtedly been the target of a Viet Kong’s bullet as we bounced along the dirt trail, headed south. Due to the rutted road and the billow of dust that we were kicking up, my intended assassin never had a clear shot, but of course that’s not the way we explained this outcome; it was a God Damned Miracle! Jesus had covered us with his blood of protection. We were in the palm of his mighty hand. I was back in God’s good graces. That ‘miracle’ would go with me for the next 20 years. It sucked me back from the edge of doubt’s crevasse and secured me to the Faith of my childhood. God still loved me. He hadn’t forgotten about me. He still had work for me to do. He would reveal his will to me…..in time.
Ghosts of An Xuyen
It took us several hours to complete our journey to An Xuyen Province. Major Wilcox was the only American left in this region. He was in charge of ’Vietnamization’- a process of turning all military operations over to the Army of Viet Nam (ARVN). This poor guy was haggard and exhausted. He had a look in his eyes that was haunting. He was twitchy and unkempt. His whole countenance exuded surrender & dejection. He had had it! He was done, finished, burned out. He tried to fall at the feet of Father Vin, but of course the dear old priest would not allow that. He caught him under the arms and lifted him into a big bear hug. “God Bless you Major, Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph it’s a long way down here!” Chaplain Vin covered the embarrassing moment as if it were his everyday greeting. “Let’s have a drink and talk a while before we hit the sack.”
“VIETNAMIZATION IS A TREMENDOUS SUCCESS! THE ARVN HAS BEEN COMPLETELY TRAINED AND IS NOW READY TO TAKE OVER ALL OPERATIONS IN THE COUNTRY!” Major Wilcox seemed to gain some steam as we talked into the night. He told of his frustration with how the war was going. He felt alone and was angry at how his reports continued to be changed by his superiors. He would send a report up to the battalion that would say: “VIETNAMIZATION IS NOT WORKING – IT IS A TOTAL FAILURE – THE ARVN WILL NEVER MAKE IT 3 MONTHS WITHOUT U.S. INVOLVEMENT.” The brass at the battalion level did not want that message to go to Saigon so they would change it a little bit to read: “VIETNAMIZATION IS WORKING SLOWER THAN WE WOULD LIKE – WE NEED MORE TIME TO HAVE A SUCCESSFUL TRANSITION – THE ARVN WILL BE ABLE TO TAKE OVER SOON.” The generals in Saigon were under the gun to get us out of Viet Nam (President Nixon was pushing hard) so they would send a completely re-worded report back to the White House which read:
“VIETNAMIZATION IS A TREMENDOUS SUCCESS! THE ARVN HAS BEEN COMPLETELY TRAINED AND IS NOW READY TO TAKE OVER ALL OPERATIONS IN THE COUNTRY!”
The ghostly look in his eyes had turned to fire as he spoke. He ranted and raved and spit and cussed - until he finally ran out of gas. With a “please forgive me Father” he wandered off to his tent and fell into his rack. That was not the first time I had heard an Army Officer talk like that. That kind of speech was spreading throughout the officer’s corps. Everyone was frustrated and beginning to realize that this war was futile and would never end with ‘an honorable peace’ (as Nixon liked to say). It was 1972 and things were changing. Back home, the ‘peace and love’ and ‘bra burnings’ of the 1960’s had turned into ‘anti-war marches’ and ‘flag burnings’. Viet Nam vets were being spat upon in airports and bus terminals. They were called ‘baby killers’ and ‘war-mongers’. The chants of ‘Kill a Commie for Christ!’ had turned into ‘You’ll rot in Hell for what you’ve done!’ I just wanted to go home!
The Can Tho Army Airfield Chapel held two HUGE surprises for me when we returned. As we rolled up in front of the building we could hear loud rock-n-roll music coming from behind, where our hooch (barracks) was located. Doug and I grabbed our gear and headed through the chapel and out the back door. As we exited the church I was met with a view that I have never forgotten. There was a completely naked young woman dancing right in front of our hooch door. As the music came to an end, the soldiers yelled and cheered as she disappeared into our room! It seems that with us not there for the week-end, our living quarters had been turned into a dressing room for the local rock band and ‘strippers’! The open area (quad) that was surrounded by the chapel, our hooch, the comm-room and the basketball court, had been turned into an outdoor nightclub! I was aghast yet strangely titillated! I had never seen an adult female in the nude (at least not live and in person). I had sneaked looks at Playboy magazines when I was younger, but I was still a virgin, I had never seen anything like this! Of course we were the ‘God Squad’, so we had to show indignation. “HEY, WHAT’S GOING ON?”
The crowd scattered faster than cockroaches when the light is turned on. It was like a scene from a soft porn comedy; naked women running while trying to put on their shoes. Guitars twanging, cymbals crashing, screams and laughter ….and at least a hundred shouts of, “Oh Shit, it’s the Chaplain!”
The second surprise was in the form of a letter. My early out had come through! I was enrolled in the spring semester at Ventura College and would be released from active duty on December 22, 1972. I would be home for Christmas and would start my sophomore year at college on January 21, 1973. It was over! I would be home in two weeks. This time it was for good. No more coming back to Nam. I had passed the test. I had run the race, I had finished the course – “henceforth, there was laid up for me a crown of righteousness.”
God was good. He loved me and I loved him! He had forgiven me and received me back into fellowship with himself. We were re-united… and all was right with the world!
NEXT TIME: GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS