He Wasn’t Even an American …

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Thinking kindly about Saint Paul VI

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October 14, 2018 -Four years ago, when four members of our family made a non-Catholic pilgrimage to the Vatican, we were swept along the corridors by thousands of tourists determined to see all the art and artifacts as quickly as possible. We walked fast to avoid being trampled, dodged selfie-sticks that impatient pilgrims were swinging carelessly, and didn’t get to slow down until we reached the Vatican crypt where popes are interred.

The crypt was surprisingly well-lit and we walked respectfully past the carved names of famous and obscure pontiffs. We kept walking past the sepulcher of Pope John Paul II but when we reached the tomb of Pope Paul VI we stopped.

Pope Paul was the first pope I had ever seen, and I had been telling my companions – spouse Martha and daughters Katie and Victoria – about those memories all week.

Now, on the occasion of Paul’s canonization as a saint along (with the canonization of Bishop Óscar Romero) my memories come flooding back.

I had just turned 21 in October 1967 when I visited Rome as part of a pilgrimage of single airmen led by our chaplain, Father Richard J. Kucharski. I was one of two Protestant airmen on the trip – the other was a tall, lumbering Lutheran called Moose – and Moose and I made it a point to attend all the papal events that had been arranged for us.

We squeezed into the crowd in Saint Peter’s square on Sunday morning because we knew Pope Paul was likely to make an appearance high over the square from his apartment window. I didn’t know at the time that this was a Sunday tradition begun by Pope John XXIII in which the pope makes a speech, recites the Angelus, and blesses the crowd. We joined in the cheers when the apartment window was thrown open and the petite Pope stepped into view.

Moose and I were standing by a large speaker and we recoiled when the Pope’s reedy voice exploded in our ears. We didn’t understand what he was saying but a woman standing next to us explained what was happening. “He’s going to bless the crowd,” she said. “If you have anything you want blessed, hold it up now.” Moose and I reached into our shirts and pulled out our dog tags, holding them to our noses, which was high as their chains would permit. (I had the same dog tag re-blessed in 2014 when we joined 50,000 of Pope Francis’ closest friends in a memorable mass of canonization of five new saints, also in St. Peter’s Square.)

Pope Paul’s white frock glistened in the sun and Moose and I watched him carefully. We had never seen a pope before and we wanted to sear his image into our memories. As it turned out, we would see the pope twice more before we left Rome. The most important event would be the historic mass conducted inside the Basilica by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Athenagoras I. I’ve written about that event here.

But by far our most memorable encounter with the Pope was the next day. I’ve also written about that event.

We found our way to a Vatican courtyard where the pope was receiving a smaller crowd. The tour agent told us the courtyard would fill up quickly, so we got there early and waited beneath a small balcony.

It was difficult for people to slip ahead of Moose, who stood tall and implacable, unwilling to give up his space to see the pope close-up. But a short, stout nun, followed by a half dozen school girls, pressed her large bosom against Moose’s arm and he flushed and jumped aside. The nun did the same thing to others in front of Moose and soon she and the school girls were in the front row.

Even so, Moose and I were fairly close to the window and when the pope emerged we could see the crinkles around his eyes.

The Pontiff, a fair linguist, began to address the crowd in different languages. “Français,” he announced, and when the French speakers applauded, the pope lifted his right hand to his ear and made a giggling sound. “Português,” and when persons from Portugal applauded he giggled again. Soon, he announced, “English,” and after his giggle he offered a thickly accented greeting to the English speakers.

“That was neat,” Moose said as the crowd dispersed. “We got closer to the pope than we ever get to the chaplain.” That was true, because when the chaplain mounted the pulpit, the airmen retired to their desks to drink coffee.

Pope Paul clearly enjoyed the interaction with the crowd and I was impressed by his openness. In 1967 he had been pope for less than five years. If the affection of the crowds around him, large and small, was any indication, he was still a popular pontiff in 1967.

But his pontificate would become controversial. A year later he issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae which kept in place the Vatican’s prohibition of birth control by married couples – a decision which stunned Catholic laity who were expecting the pope to make the opposite decision. Vatican insiders whispered that Paul had indeed decided to abandon birth control restrictions but conservatives in the hierarchy talked him out of it. In subsequent years, Paul became known for his indecisiveness.

Arthur Jones, former editor of National Catholic Reporter, wrote this week that Paul was often paralyzed by “an irreconcilable duality.”

“Pope Paul VI was the kindly priest with a liberal heart and a conservative soul,” Jones wrote. “He was, when globetrotting, like Mr. Rogers, loving, open, at ease — and yet, like Mr. Rogers, never relinquishing that innate reserve. Some in the Vatican press corps dubbed him ‘Hamlet,’ pensive, hesitant, at times almost dithering, a man lost in thought who, as time progressed, displayed a sense of failure in the deep lines of sadness etched into his face.”

Paul’s wooliness made it impossible for him to impose his best instincts on the Vatican hierarchy.

“The Church-in-Rome has a millennia-and-more-long corruption virus running through it,” Jones wrote. “The disease is a constant mix of money-sex-power-privilege-and-self-protection. It is the apogee of misogyny and the old boys’ club. Many cardinals really believe they are medieval princes, capes and trains and all, that the church is a form of royal court where they can play out their ambitions.”

It is doubtful whether the reforming popes of the 1960s, John XXIII or Paul VI, could have done anything to turn that around, and today the current reforming pope is struggling against the bastions of sex-power-privilege-and-self-protection within the church. But Francis also has strong inclinations to protect the church’s reputation and it remains to be seen how much reform will be possible.

Toward the end of his reign, Pope Paul VI was reportedly discouraged and exhausted.

As I stood gazing at his tomb in 2014, I realized my impressions from my brief and distant encounters with him were these: in 1967 he appeared to be a happy, pastoral priest who thought of himself as a servant leader and was still determined to continue the reformation of the church.

Arthur Jones concludes:

Looking at him, at the lines etched into his face, this was a decent man, a kind man. A man and pope trapped, professionally, in his time, in the Church-in-Rome and the tradition that shaped him. Paul deserves we think kindly of him.”

Today as he becomes Saint Paul VI, I’m glad to remember that throughout his life, he tried in all things to be a kindly servant of Christ and the church. And I find it easy enough to think kindly of him.

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Cold War Vet: The Rainbow Days

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September 10, 2018 – Fifty-four years ago today I joined the Air Force.

Nine of us adolescents were sworn in at an induction center in Syracuse and bused to Hancock Field for the flight to San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base.

The aircraft was tossed around by heavy turbulence as it skirted a southern hurricane but I had never flown before so I thought the severe bumps were normal. One of the attractive young flight attendants was thrown off her feet and fell into the uncomplaining lap of one of my fellow recruits.

It had been a cool pre-Autumn day when we left New York, so the heat and humidity of San Antonio was suffocating. We arrived in darkness at 0430 and were quickly collected by a civilian bus driver to be transported to the training center. Several of the recruits, with New York entitlement, ordered the Latino driver to move his ass so we could get to the base and go to bed. The driver smiled and said, “When we get there, you will wish you were back here.”

The sun was rising as we filed sleepily off the bus and were met by training instructors TSGt Saxon and A1C Ellefson. Many more young recruits who had just arrived gathered with us. If we had any expectation of getting sleep that day, it vanished when the two TI’s roughly grabbed us by the arms and forced us into flight marching formation. 

The TI’s began berating us loudly, using obscenities that were unfamiliar to most of us. Most were not used to this kind of verbal abuse, but the stream of sexual and excretory invective, uttered in crude iambic meter, seemed almost poetic. In a comparatively gentle gibe, Ellefson shouted into the face of a large, lumbering recruit, “Jesus, you walk like a girl.”

For some reason the boy, who had been a running back in local high school, thought he was expected to challenge the sergeant.

“I don’t care for your attitude,” the boy said with a look that must have been intimidating on the line of scrimmage.

“What?” Ellefson said.

The boy didn’t get a chance to repeat his challenge.

“Sarge,” Ellefson screamed to his colleague. “We gotta wise ass here!” Sergeant Saxon, a muscular man with a barrel chest, stepped over and quietly  pulled the boy out of line. He escorted him several feet away.  I couldn’t hear what the sergeant was saying but he seemed to be quietly menacing the boy, emphasizing each threat with a poke in the chest. Whatever the sergeant said. it was effective. The boy returned to the line in a more docile mood.

Somehow the two sergeants managed to get us into a formation suitable for marching. Nearby, training flights marched past us on the way to morning mess. They had had been on base long enough to be outfitted with green fatigue uniforms, which made them vastly superior to us. In our civilian clothes, we felt like teenagers playing war, which wasn’t far from the truth.  Military discipline forbade the senior uniformed troops from laughing at us, but their drill sergeant led them in a taunting marching song,

“Rainbow, Rainbow, Don’t Be Blue, My Recruiter Screwed Me, too!”

The song derided us for our multi-colored mufti. We would wear the clothes we arrived in for the next several days until the sergeants arranged for us to receive our uniforms. The only concession to uniformity was a large pith helmet that was designed to protect us from the searing Texas sun. The helmets wobbled on our heads as we marched clumsily to a barber shop where our civilian locks would be buzzed away. My memory is hazy, but I think we spent most of our first day at Lackland Air Force Base learning rudimentary marching skills. Boys who had been in high school marching bands had a distinct advantage over the rest of us.

Late that night when we finally got to the barracks – a World War II vintage building much like the one pictured – I was so sleepy I was hallucinating. It was hot in the barracks, but we were ordered to hang our clothes on hangers and slide beneath the heavy wool GI blanket on the bed. Despite the heat, most of us fell asleep immediately.

At 0500, Airman Ellefson walked between the rows of bunks.

“You people get up and make yours beds.”

Several recruits slid out of bed and began to head for the latrine, but Ellefson blocked their way.

“I said make your beds,” he said. “I know the first thing the human body has to do when you get up is take a piss. But now the first thing you do is make your bed.”

Compared to the initial shock of arriving on base, the rest of Basic Training was easy. We marched in the Texas heat, ran around a quarter-mile track in heavy brogans, polished our low-quarter shoes, ran the obstacle course, learned to salute, sat many hours in air conditioned class rooms learning military customs, and generally learned how to take illogical  orders and homophobic taunts from the sergeants with a modicum of self-respect. Most of us got through it. Millions of men and women get through it each year, and are better people for it.

I stayed in the Air Force for four years after basic training, and they were good years. So today is a day I will set aside to reflect back on basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and marvel how an event so far removed in time and space has never faded from the memories of my life.

Fifty-four years on, I no longer worry about spit-polishing my shoes. But I still won’t leave the house without checking to make sure my gig line is straight.

And with any luck, my fly will be zipped, too.

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Odyssey of a Would-Be Cartoonist, Part 7

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September 6, 2018 – Herbert L. Block – Herblock as he signed his work – was my favorite editorial cartoonist when I was growing up. I decided as a young teenager that my fall-back goal in life (if for some reason I was not elected President of the United States) would be to become an artist like Herblock.

Herblock, the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist for the Washington Post, was syndicated in newspapers all over the world, including the Syracuse Herald-Journal. The H-J was an afternoon paper and I’d snatch it out of the yellow box in front of our driveway as soon as it arrived. I’d read the comics first, set the sports section aside for my brothers, and then turn to the editorials.

The paper’s editor, Alexander “Casey” Jones, wrote snappy commentaries, once singling out my hometown of Morrisville, N.Y. as a speed trap (and he had the ticket to prove it). On good days the paper included a Herblock cartoon, and I didn’t just glance at it casually. I studied it, admiring the bold lines and black crayon shading that added a third dimension to each drawing. His drawings of Harry Truman and Joe McCarthy were instantly recognizable and I would spend literally hours imitating his technique with my own drawings of Ike and JFK.

After a while I convinced myself I was good enough to send some of my cartoons to the Mid-York Weekly which covered small town news from its main office in Hamilton, N.Y. I drew a picture of JFK but the president’s features were too regular (except for his mop of hair) to capture a good caricature. I had better luck with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. I drew Rocky grinning beatifically while sitting on a pedestal that was crumbling beneath him. It was a good enough likeness I said to myself, and I borrowed a brown envelope from my Dad and sent the cartoons off to the Mid-York editor.

About a week later I received a call from the paper’s editor, Tony Combopiano, who asked if he could come to see me. Hamilton is eight miles from Morrisville so Combopiano was not adding a lot of time to his day. I said, sure, when, and he said, now, and I said sure, and I wished I had showered that morning.

Tony Combopiano turned out to be a bit of a cartoon himself, a petite, twenty-something man with black curly hair and a prominent nose on which were perched thick horn-rimmed glasses. I don’t recall that we shook hands before he sat down on our living room couch and pulled out the Rocky cartoon I had sent days earlier. At first I thought he was going to yell at me about it – a natural reaction given that I was 16 – and he did take a few seconds too long to hold it in front of my face.

“I’d often thought it would be nice to include a cartoon with the editorials but we never found anyone with this kind of talent,” he said. If I had been older I might have called B.S. because there were scores of talented artists at Colgate University and even in the college on the hill in Morrisville. But these talented artists had no compulsion to send cartoons to the Mid-York Weekly, so I nodded and blushed.

The deal we worked out was that Tony would call me every Friday with a cartoon idea and I would draw it and mail it to arrive in the editorial offices before deadline the following week. Tony offered me $10 per cartoon, which seemed exorbitant to me so I didn’t presume to negotiate.

Friday came and went with no call so I wondered if he was going to use my Rocky cartoon along with an editorial suggesting the governor’s popularity was waning. But no cartoon appeared in the Thursday paper and I began to wonder what was wrong.

Tony did call the following Friday. “Are you familiar with the Central New York arterial proposals?” he asked.

I inhaled and then swallowed. “Uh, not really.”

“You know,” he said, talking fast, “All this talk about putting in new roads to make it easier to get from the small towns to Utica but no one has said anything about make a direct route from Hamilton to Utica.”

I knew I was being silent too long.

“I see,” I said. But I didn’t.

“I’d like to write an editorial about the need to decide this. Can you get a cartoon in the mail by Monday?”

I hesitated again so Tony tried to re-explain the issue in greater detail, possibly even reading lines from his draft editorial.

“Okay,” I said.

This was my first realization that the cartooning business was not going to be as much fun as I thought. I could feel the panic in stomach as I sat down and began to draw. Each draft cartoon was worse  than the one before. Finally when it was time to walk to the post office on Monday morning, I slipped a drawing into a brown envelope and sent it off. It was pretty bad. Tony did print it adjacent to his editorial (which I found completely opaque) and I did get a check for $10 in the mail. But there were no more Friday afternoon calls from the editorial offices of the Mid-York Weekly.

I didn’t stop cartooning altogether, and happily the chaplains I served under in the Air Force began noticing my drawings and started using them in base publications. I continued cartooning during my angst years at Eastern Baptist College and had a ball. I’ve written about this odyssey in earlier blogs, and they can be excavated from the links that accompany this one.

I never bothered to save a copy of the cartoon I did for the Mid-York Weekly, which was drawn sometime in 1962 or 1963. I considered it an abortive effort and a lesson learned.

This afternoon I was hiding in air conditioning from the late summer heat, poring through old papers and magazines and building tall piles for recycling. I picked up a small, yellowing booklet held together by rusty staples and opened it to see if it was worth saving, I saw immediately it was one of my grandfather’s self-typed genealogies of the Jenks family so I decided to keep it. As I set it aside, a yellow piece of paper cut with pinking shears from an old newspaper floated onto the dining room table. It was the old Mid-York Weekly cartoon.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Grandpa Jenks clipped every newspaper item that mentioned the Jenks name and preserved it for genealogical research. I knew there was a stash somewhere of clipping about weddings, military service, obituaries, births, even Uncle Bob’s letters to the editor. It made sense Grandpa would see value in a grandson’s cartoon, even if the grandson couldn’t see it.

I held the clipping for several minutes trying to decide if it was as bad as I remembered it. The old paper was fragile so I decided to scan it to make it part of the permanent record. My record, anyway, as a would-be cartoonist.

Looking back on my would-be cartoons, it seems to me that the angrier I was, the better the cartoons. My Air Force cartoons were relatively benign, but my college cartoons were sometimes vicious. They were drawn in the late sixties and early seventies when I was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore: Vietnam, racism, assassinations of the Kennedys and King, tin soldiers and Nixon coming. The angrier I got, the better I drew.

trumpcolorzigI had put aside my India ink pen for several years, possibly because I thought of the Clinton and Obama years as relatively bi-partisan and usually hopeful, at least compared to the years of Vietnam and Watergate.

In the past couple of years, however, I’ve been mad as hell again in the face of a disastrously incompetent administration in Washington led by an inept, cruel, amoral, racist, sexist clown.

I know that kind of anger isn’t good for my blood pressure. But perhaps my cartooning will improve.

_____

After I wrote this today I tried to get in touch with former Mid-York Weekly editor Tony Combopiano to give him a chance to comment. Just missed him: http://bit.ly/Combopiano

Memory eternal, Tony.

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One That Harry Got Right

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September 4, 2018 – I was curious what President Truman was doing on my birthday, 72 years ago. I found this remarkable statement written on September 4, 1946, decrying the evils of discrimination and the harm it does to our people and to our nation. The President wrote to thank Charles G. Boldt, chair of the American Veterans Committee, for his support of a commission to open educational opportunities “for all able young people.” Some historians say Truman was right on all the big issues and wrong on all the little ones. This was a big issue, and he was right.

Dear Mr. Bolte:

I appreciate your favorable response to the establishment of the National Commission on Higher Education and welcome your support of its work.

I am keenly aware of the fundamental problem of discrimination in education to which you have called specific attention, and of the broader problem of intolerance which this discrimination symbolizes. Those who sincerely desire to see the fullest expression of our democracy can never rest until the opportunity for an education, at all levels, has been given to all qualified Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, national origin, sex or economic status.

It was with this principle very clearly in mind that I asked the members of the Commission to consider “ways and means of expanding educational opportunities for all able young people.” I am pleased that the Commission, in its first meeting recently concluded, has decided to deal specifically with this problem. I am sure that the members of the Commission will spare no effort in devising methods for eliminating existing barriers of discrimination affecting educational opportunity in our institutions of higher learning.

We have only recently completed a long and bitter war against intolerance and hatred in other lands. A cruel price in blood and suffering was paid by the American people in bringing that war to a successful conclusion. Yet, in this country today there exists disturbing evidence of intolerance and prejudice similar in kind, though perhaps not in degree, to that against which we fought the war.

Discrimination, like a disease, must be attacked wherever it appears. This applies to the opportunity to vote, to hold and retain a job, and to secure adequate shelter and medical care no less than to gain an education compatible with the needs and ability of the individual.
Very sincerely yours,
HARRY S. TRUMAN

[Mr. Charles G. Bolte, Chairman, American Veterans Committee, Inc., 1860 Broadway, New York 23, N.Y.]

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A Cold War Veteran

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August 25, 2018 – This week I had another one of those Jungian dreams in which I am still in the Air Force.

In the dream, I am dressed in baggy fatigues, wearing a one-size-fits-all combat helmet, standing wearily in front of an F4C Phantom fighter jet. The aircraft is fully uploaded with tactical nukes (this being a dream I trust I’m not compromising national defense secrets). I am holding an aging World War II vintage M1 carbine. And, although the angry looking Phantom seems quite capable of defending itself, my orders are to protect it at all cost.

I always wake up before these orders are put to the test and, oddly, I never think of these dreams as unpleasant or nightmarish. The only thing remarkable about them is their tenacity.  I have not been in the Air Force for 50 years. My last day of active duty was August 23, 1968.

The odd thing about this particular dream is that it invokes memories of something I did relatively rarely during the three years I spent at RAF Stations Bentwaters/Woodbridge, England, from 1965 to 1968. But out of all the things I did in the Air Force, this seems most evocative of actual Cold War duty.

I was 18 and had one stripe when I arrived at the Bentwaters chapel in late January 1968 to take up my duties as a Chaplain Services Specialist. The NCO in Charge was Master Sergeant Ray Williams, a genial Mississippian whose personal objective was to protect the hard spit shine on his low-quarter shoes. There were three chaplains. Lt Colonel John Donnelly, the senior chaplain, was a plump, bespectacled man with a healthy patch of steel gray hair who liked to have his blue uniforms cut from expensive gabardine wool. Major Lou Evans, whose gut protruded several inches over his belt, was almost too short to qualify as an Air Force officer and he often scowled when taller airmen stood to acknowledge his presence. The Catholic chaplain was Captain Leo Lyons, a genial white-haired man who possibly evolved into Barry Fitzgerald when he retired.

There were three other airmen, one who arrived only a month before I did, and I was by far the junior member of the chapel staff.

“You know what that means,” Ray Williams told me, folding his feet beneath his chair so I wouldn’t accidentally step on his shoes.

“What does that mean, Sergeant?”

“Call me Ray. And it means the squadron will have little odd jobs for you from time to time. Have you ever been on KP?”

Of course every airman who matriculates through military training had spent many long days on Kitchen Police, sweating while washing dishes, pots, and pans for three meals at a GI dining hall. At Bentwaters and Woodbridge, every airman with two or fewer stripes pulled KP once a month.

“The other is Augmentee Guard,” Ray said. “When the wing goes on alert, there aren’t enough Air Police to handle the expanded security. That’s when they call out the clerk typists – people like you – to help out.”

“Okay,” I said, a little too eagerly. Actually, it sounded like fun.

I spent the following three weeks orienting myself to work in the chapel. This included setting up altars for Protestant or Catholic worship, typing chapel correspondence, counting and depositing chapel offerings, preparing worship bulletins, filling out forms and reports, and even typing the chaplain’s sermon. It was not onerous work and, looking back, the job limited my contributions to the long twilight struggle of the Cold War. It was wonderful experience for me long before I knew I was preparing for a lifelong career as a church communicator and journalist. It’s hard to consider it a sacrifice for my country.

February is cold and the days are short in Suffolk, England, and I was usually in bed before 2300 hours, grateful for the warm GI blanket. One Saturday night it seemed I had just placed my head on the pillow when a shrill announcement shrieked through the barracks public address system:

“ATTENTION. ATTENTION. THIS IS THE EMERGENCY ACTION OFFICER ANNOUNCING A CUT-BATE EXERCISE, WHITE DELTA ALPHA, FOR THE 81ST TACTICAL FIGHTER WING. ALL PERSONNEL REPORT TO YOUR DUTY SECTIONS IMMEDIATELY.”

Five decades later I can quote that announcement verbatim and I still have no idea what it meant. It was a cryptic proclamation of a war game in which the base – and probably other bases in the U.K. and Europe – would respond as if war was real.

It was Sunday morning so I assumed my duty section was the chapel, and I began to pull on the blue slacks of my uniform. But my roommate, many months senior to me, interceded.

“No, no, no,” he said. “What are you doing, Mate? Put on your fatigues. There’s a GI bus waiting outside.”

I quickly pulled my fatigues out of my laundry bag and was still hopping into my pants as I followed my roommate out the door.

The bus was already filled with sleepy, grumbling GI’s, all senior to me in rank and all veterans of many earlier alert exercises.

“They always do this on goddam Sunday,” said one.

“Pearl Harbor was attacked on Sunday,” said another. “They’re always fighting the last goddam war.”

“Where’s Kimmerling?” asked a third. “He was still in that pub in Ipswich.”

“Sarge already sent a truck for him,” someone explained.

The bus had only a short distance to get from the barracks to a large Quonset hut on the edge of the flightline. The hut was filled with a half-dozen GI bunks draped with blue wool blankets. We filed off the bus and looked for places to sit on the beds.

“Don’t get comfortable,” a stocky staff sergeant said as we milled around. Sergeant Saxon was not a large man but his huge dimpled jaw and Claude Akins baritone gave him an aura of authority. “Fall in outside.”

We formed a line and Saxon gestured us toward a long row of M1 carbines leaning against a wall. “You will each give me your ID card and I will give you a weapon and a clip of ammo in exchange. You will get your card back when you return the gun. If you lose the gun, I keep your card and your ass is grass.”

Still sleepy, we each picked up a carbine.

“Keep it pointed down, goddam it and sling it over your shoulder,” Saxon shouted.

A blue pick-up truck appeared out of the darkness. I was standing next to Saxon and he slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Get in.” He slapped the shoulders of four airmen standing behind me. “Get in.” We climbed into the back of the truck and sat roughly on the cold metal floor. Saxon jumped in with us.

The truck lurched forward and we moved toward brightly lit parking areas where fighter jets were being feverishly attended by perspiring airmen. As we approached one jet I could see the airmen were attaching an ominous looking long white tube to the bottom fuselage.

Saxon glanced at my name tag and shouted, “Jenks!” I looked at him quizzically and he waved a notepad in my face. “Jenks!” he repeated. “Get off!”

I jumped off the truck as the GI’s working on the jet turned to look at me.

“Guard this aircraft,” he said in his gravely Claude Akins voice. “The enemy will do anything to keep us from launching it. Guard it with your life.” He scribbled a note in his pad and the truck rumbled off to another brightly lit parking area.

The mechanics surrounding the jet lost interest in me and went back to work. As soon as the pencil-shaped tube was secured to the aircraft, a sergeant with seven stripes on his green sleeves walked around it. “Okay, then,” he said. Another truck drove up and the mechanics jumped aboard.

The bright lights were suddenly extinguished. It was so dark it took my eyes several minutes to see that the jet was still standing there. I hoisted the carbine to my shoulder and stood awkwardly. What was I supposed to do? Stand at parade rest? March around the airplane? Hide in the bushes so I could catch any interlopers by surprise? I continued to stand. And stand. The sun was rising four hours later when Sergeant Saxon’s truck returned with my relief. It was Kimmerling who had been carried out of the Ipswich pub. He staggered to where I had been standing and stared dumbly at the plane with red rimmed eyes.

This was my first experience with Augmentee guard duty so I remember it in considerable detail. I would pull this duty about once a month over the next two years until I earned my third stripe. I taught myself many ways to pass the time when mighty jet fighters looked to me for protection. I wrote rock songs in my head. I repeated Bob Newhart monologues aloud, once attracting quizzical looks from a groundhog. I fantasized about Julie Christie and Jane Fonda (years before she became Hanoi Jane). I taught myself how to sleep standing up.

For most of the time I was in the Air Force, I worked at a desk in a chapel, setting up altars, typing Sunday bulletins, organizing airmen’s pilgrimages to Rome or to the Armed Forces Retreat Center in Berchtesgaden Germany. It was good experience, and working with chaplains of many denominations prepared me well for my future career as an ecumenical bureaucrat. It was a great time of my life.

But nothing in the chapel really seemed like Cold War duty. The only time it felt like I was on the front lines of that struggle was when I was facing down fighter aircraft with my little M1 carbine. It was then that I felt I was doing my part to prevent the spread of the Evil Empire. It was then when I felt I was giving to the Air Force more than it was giving to me.

And now that 50 years have passed, I think I can be forgiven for boasting:

I never lost an airplane.

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Curtains for Ananias and Sapphira

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Acts 5:1-15
 (NRSV)

Ananias and Sapphira

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.  “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?  While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us[a] but to God!”  Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it.  The young men came and wrapped up his body,[b] then carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”  Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 

“The story aims for gallows humor, but we read Acts in a different place today. Our familiarity with religiously sanctioned violence makes it difficult to laugh, even if we understand that this scene may not be offered as serious, definitive theology.” – Matthew L. Skinner, Lutheran theologian.

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