In 1964 I was five years old. Young Americans were dying in South Vietnam. Every night on the evening news Walter Cronkite told how many were killed and wounded. If I remember right they had a little graphic in the corner of the picture with a running casualty count. For thirty minutes a night immediately after dinner Dad expected us to be silent while he watched the news.
My dad was an officer in the Army. Our car had an officer’s sticker on the front bumper. On the base the traffic officer always saluted our car. We had privileges at the officers club. I especially loved the pool but it was meager compensation for the separation, loneliness, and fear we would have to endure when he would go to Vietnam.
One afternoon my Dad drove out into the country with me to practice shooting his pistol. It was a powerful weapon. It blew big chunks out of the telephone pole. Dad said since he was a chaplain that he would not be in as much danger as other men and that he would probably never have to use the gun.
One Sunday afternoon on base they announced a movie in the basement of a hall. We were bored enough to attend. I think my parents thought it would be cartoons or a classic movie. Instead our afternoon diversion would be a documentary of Vietcong tactics and traps. It was frightening to me. One of the things they filmed was a trap where they would dig a hole in the ground and fill it with sharpened bamboo rods smeared with cow dung and pointing up. They then covered the whole with straw and grass. When a soldier would step into the hole the bamboo stakes would penetrate the combat boots and the dung would ensure infection in the wound.
One of the boys in our church, an eighteen-year-old that seemed larger than life to my five-year-old view went off to the war and never came back. All these things clouded my heart, troubled my mind and added to my fear. Every night before I went to sleep I wondered if my Dad would be safe.
It was forty-two years ago, but I remember very clearly the night my Dad left for Vietnam. We drove to the bus station in South Bend, Indiana in my grandpa Shipley’s International. On the way I sat next to my Dad. My Dad’s hair was shaved close. He was handsome in his uniform. He walked toward the bus on a platform, stopped before getting on, knelt down and hugged me to himself and kissed me good-bye. He told me, “I love you, Buddy.” I could feel his whiskers. I could smell his pleasant familiar fatherly fragrance. I had a dark fear I would never smell it again. I wondered then how long it would be until my Dad would eat a treat with me at night, tuck me into bed, and pray with me again.
Every night we watched the news while Dad was gone. I wondered if my Dad was one of the casualties. Every night I lay in my bed and I missed him. I longed for him. At Christmas time he sent gifts home, but we had to celebrate without him. Mom was pregnant with my brother Kevin at the time.
A lot of Dads didn’t make it home alive but my Dad finally did. He would live to tuck me in bed and kiss me goodnight hundreds of times more. On winter nights we played chess until bedtime. In the spring we played basketball in the drive and tossed the baseball. On summer afternoons we went to the dump and shot the BB Gun into the river for hours together. He helped me deliver newspapers on winter mornings. He coached me through life, my first job, young love, savings accounts, oil changes and college. He even mentored me into ministry. A boy has a powerful longing for his father. Without a father only God himself can make up the difference.
Pray for Fatherless America. Look around for a boy who doesn’t have a father and draw him into your life. If you are a Dad, know how important your calling is. If your Dad is alive, thank him for all he has done. Honor your father. If he was not what he should have been it will do your soul good to honor him anyway to the best of your ability.
Riverfront Character Inn
March 12, 2006