In the fall of 1964, I completed the first phase of my Air Force Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The second and final stage of basic would continue at Amarillo Air Force Base, Texas, where I would also attend the Chaplain Services Specialist tech school.
Our flight trainees received assignments to various Air Force tech schools during the fifth week of training at Lackland. Airman First Class Elihu Ellefson, our training instructor, read the assignments to us as we stood at parade rest in front of the barracks. Until that moment, I had been a perfectly invisible trainee. Ellefson changed all that.
Reading off our names in alphabetical order, Ellefson elicited both groans and sighs of relief as he announced various assignments. Some would go to Air Police Training at Lackland. Others would go to jet mechanics training in Illinois. Some would be trained as file clerks, and at least one other would be sent to language school to serve as an interpreter.
When he got to my name, Ellefson looked stunned. He took off his hat and threw it on the ground.
“Jenks,” he said. “Chaplain. God damn.”
My fellow trainees looked at me with curiosity. Actually, I was not going to be a chaplain but an enlisted assistant to chaplains, who were commissioned officers. But nobody made that distinction, and for the first time in five weeks, everyone seemed to know my name.
“Chaplain! Jenks! God damn!” Several airmen, still at parade rest, broke ranks to echo Ellefson’s reaction. Later, airmen smiled at me and shook their heads. I sensed they jumped to the conclusion that I was “religious,” which was a peculiar concept to most of them, or gay. I did my best to fade back into the crowd of basic trainees, which was usually easy, because we looked alike with our shaved heads and baggy green fatigues. But guys who had never noticed me before were now remembering my name.
One or two nights before we were bused out to our new assignments, the flight was given a final patio break. There were several outdoor break areas strewn around the base that included benches and soda machines so trainees could have occasional respite from relentless marching. I looked forward to the patio breaks as a chance to indulge in the two main pleasures allowed us, namely, smoking cigarettes and drinking Dr. Pepper (two unsavory habits I broke years ago).
On this last break we were finally allowed to shed our heavy fatigues and wear our special tan summer uniforms that the Air Force dubbed 1505’s. As I sat down on a bench, an airman I had never seen before sat beside me. He seemed to know who I was, perhaps because he had heard rumors I was going to be a – God damn! – chaplain.
I never did get the young man’s name. He was tall and deeply tanned, the stubble on his head was black, and I think he would have described himself as Chicano.
We exchanged light talk about the steamy warm weather in San Antonio, how glad we were the Lackland phase of basic training was almost over, and what might happen next.
“I think,” the airman said, “that if I still don’t have a girlfriend when I get out of the Air Force and finish college, I might become a priest.”
“That’s good,” I said. Actually, I had similar plans to become a Protestant minister, which, of course, would not be complicated by celibacy.
“But it’s not easy, believing all that stuff,” the young man said. “That’s why I’m always glad to read about miracles that science can’t explain.”
He began listing phenomena about which I hadn’t thought a lot or had already dismissed as trickery: the plaster Madonnas whose eyes seemed to brim with tears, the statues of Jesus with hands apparently oozing with blood, or the unearthing of long-dead saints whose bodies had been perfectly preserved.
I shrugged. There was nothing in my Protestant experience to help me evaluate these spectacles.
“These miracles give such an oomph to my faith,” the airman said, drawing deeply on his cigarette.
I lit up a Lucky and we sat quietly for a few minutes, wreathed in blue smoke and the heavy Texas air.
“But it’s not easy,” the airman repeated. “Look at the Ten Commandments.”
I didn’t need to look because I had already memorized them as part of a Junior High Sunday School exercise at the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y. The church had promised us new bibles if we could recite from memory the Decalogue and three other scripture passages (specifically excluding “Jesus Wept”) during our Sunday morning assemblies. We memorized verses from the King James Version and the new gift bibles were Revised Standard Version, which changed all the words, so some of us thought it was a gyp. But I still had in my head the Ten Commandments, albeit with a Medieval cadence.
A Squadron Bell signaled the end of the Patio Break. The airman took one last drag on his cigarette and tossed it into a red-painted butt can.
“You know,” he said sadly, “I’ve already broken all but two of the Ten Commandments.”
I tossed my cigarette into the can and tried to think of something wise to say. But when I turned to say goodbye he had already disappeared into the darkness. I never saw him again.
When I got back to the barracks I climbed into my upper bunk and waited for Airman Ellefson to turn off the lights.
I started to wonder – and I have been wondering ever since – which two of the ten this young man had never broken.
I assumed he had never killed, so I concluded he was safe from the perils of the fifth commandment.
But what of the other nine? Which had he never broken?
I began to realize it was a claim I might not be able to make. Even at 18, I had often acted as if the One God did not exist. I had certainly taken the Lord’s name in vain. I had slept in and ignored many a Sabbath. I had often disrespected my parents. I had stolen dime comic books from the local drug store. I had coveted my best friend’s English bicycle and exquisitely detailed model train set. At 18 I had no opportunities to commit adultery, but I knew I had lusted in my heart. And I wasn’t so sure I had escaped the injunction against killing if that included the small game that I shot at with my .22 rifle. Later I would learn that some theologians, including Martin Luther, said that the commandment not to murder meant that “we neither endanger not harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”* I could not be sure I had lived up to the exacting command to not kill either.
So what kind of saint had I encountered on that patio on a hot night in Texas fifty-five years ago – a young man who actually believed he had kept two of the ten commandments?
I never saw him again. Maybe he did become a priest. Maybe he’s a bishop or cardinal somewhere. Maybe he’s teaching young seminarians about the strident requirements of the Ten Commandments.
Then again, maybe he ended his short life in Vietnam, as so many did in that era.
The strange thing is, out of all the young men I marched with, bunked with, showered with, and chowed down with in basic training, he is the one I remember most vividly.
I think of him every time I read the Decalogue.
He reminds me that God’s standards of moral comportment are high.
“God threatens to punish all who break these commandments,” Martin Luther wrote. “Therefore we are to fear his wrath and not disobey his commandments.”
But Luther also wrote, “God promises grace and every good thing to all those who keep these commandments. Therefore we also are to love and trust him and gladly act according to his commands.”*
God has set high standards for our behavior, but God’s love for us is not conditional on whether we are able to behave ourselves.
In fact, all of us will find this impossible at many points in our lives.
But even when we despair at the depth of our sinfulness, God’s love and grace remain unconditional.
As I think back on that young man I knew for one short hour in my life, I wonder if he has reached the same conclusion.
* Luther’s Small Catechism