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Once a Marine

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My dad had no choice about enlisting in the Marines. When he responded to his draft notice and presented himself at the induction center at Fort Hayes in Columbus, he found out that everyone who showed up that day would be going to the Marines. He and my mom were both young. They had been married about four years when he was drafted. My dad worked at a factory that made plastic tableware. The Korean War had started recently, and the country, as it too often does, needed young men to go to the other side of the world and fight. Dad traveled by train to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California. He arrived on New Years Day 1952. My mom followed after he finished boot camp.

My mom, still very young at the time, told her kids about waiting for my dad in a parked car outside one of the barracks one day. It was early morning, and she could see through the windows into the barracks. One young man, plainly just arisen, stood up and stretched and yawned in front of the window, stark naked.

My dad’s first deployment was to Japan. After he got orders but before he left, my mom discovered she was pregnant with their first child, my sister, Marsha. My mom returned to her family in Ohio for the birth. My dad headed to Japan. While he was on the way aboard a troop transport, an armistice was signed, and the conflict was over. No one was sure it would last, so the US kept troops at ready in Japan in case the war started up again. My dad joined a church in Japan and watched at least one atomic bomb test on some remote island in the South Pacific. He brought back a children’s hymn in Japanese which we all learned growing up. Whether any actual Japanese speakers would recognize the words, I do not know.

Dad was also stationed in Hawaii for three years shortly after I was born. His original tour was shorter, but on arrival he learned that his posting had been made permanent, and his tour was automatically extended to two years. He urged my mom to use any means necessary to join him, and she did, making the trip when I was just a few weeks old. My next two sisters, Lani and Kathy, were born in Hawaii. Lani has a Hawaiian name, and Kathy was born a minute after midnight on January first, so she got mentioned in the local paper as the first baby of the new year. Just weeks after Kathy came along, we all moved back to California. My brother Mark was born in Ohio one year and one day after Kathy, and Robin was born in California. She was an infant when my dad left the Marines and returned with my mom and his six kids to Ohio. Two more children, Michelle and Lane, both born in Ohio, completed our family.

I was proud of my dad’s Marine duty. He had awards for sharpshooting and lots of ribbons and medals whose meaning I never knew or have long since forgotten. He had slides of the atomic bomb test he supported. I remember visiting him on post one time in California and being allowed to clamber up on a tank. He worked on heavy road machinery. Maybe he worked on tanks, too.

As I grew older, however, I found that the public image of the Marines did not jibe well with what I knew of my dad. He was certainly tough enough, and he had a never-say-die stubbornness which I believe is a heritable hillbilly trait. But he avoided conflict whenever possible, and he never exhibited that gung-ho ooh-rah commitment to honor and righteousness so characteristic of the popular image of the Marines. He did not have the starched, ramrod-straight bearing. He was stoic enough, but it was a laid-back stoicism that accepted misery with patient endurance rather confronting and overcoming it. He was not a fighter except in the most metaphorical senses. I have never in my life heard him use any of the seven vulgar words George Carlin made famous. I also have never heard him say anything disrespectful of women, which is amazing considering his history and generation.

I do not mean to imply that the Marines are made up of profane misogynists. Rather, there is a certain type of hypermasculine man, given to profanity and misogyny, who fits easily into Marine culture, despite official claims to the contrary. My dad was and is the antithesis of that kind of man. He spent nine years in the Marines, but the Marines were not for him. He realized that he could be deployed anywhere in the world at any time leaving behind a wife and six kids who would not know when or even if he was coming back. He did not want to raise a family that way. So he got out. Had he stayed in, he would have almost certainly gone to Vietnam. Despite wanting to stay in California, he did not see any job prospects there. Ohio did not look especially promising either, but he and my mom both had family there, so they moved back to Ohio.

They moved into a tiny house in Five Points, Ohio, with no hot water, a hand pump in the kitchen, and an outhouse. It was little more than a shack. My dad, despite his military experience (or perhaps because of it), had a hard time finding work. His first job was door-to-door salesman for Filter Queen, a position for which he was in almost every way unsuited. I still remember him demonstrating the vacuum for us. He put a few drops of some essential oil on the exhaust filter and filled our tiny living space with a pleasant scent while the vacuum ran. He also connected the hose to the exhaust side of the vacuum, turning it into a blower, and suspended a ping-pong ball in the flow of air from the crevice attachment. I was too young to know about the Bernoulli principle. The higher air pressure surrounding the air stream kept the ping-pong ball from leaving the stream. The floating ball looked like magic. It still does.

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Looking Back

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Reading about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah recently, it struck me how odd it is that Lot’s wife looked back and became a pillar of salt. Commentators tend to see this incident as a direct result of disobedience to the divine directive, “don’t look back (v. 17).” They see it as a cautionary tale with the theme of immediate, painstaking obedience to God’s word. If you disobey, disaster will overtake you, and you will die. One backward glance and bam! instant punishment.

None of this sounds anything like the patient, compassionate Father Jesus revealed God to be. In fact, it sounds like the sort of interpretation the Pharisees would have come up with, turning as it does on a strict, literal understanding of the angels’ words while ignoring the sins of Lot himself, who offered his virgin daughters to a mob of horny men and left Sodom with such reluctance that he and his wife and daughters had to be dragged out of the city by the angels.

How then should we understand this story? If the fate of Lot’s wife was not punishment for her disobedience, what was it?

This is one of those stories that sounds like a myth: a capricious god, an equivocal warning, a minor infraction, an incredible metamorphosis, and a disastrous outcome. It’s not even the focus of the narrative. It’s an aside, a way to account for why Lot’s wife is suddenly out of the picture, why just a few verses later, he would get drunk and have sex with his two daughters—and why the daughters thought this was a good idea.

Let’s start with the assumption that God in this story is the same God Jesus talked about—loving, compassionate, merciful, and kind. Why would such a God destroy an entire city? There are clues in the preceding chapter.

Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous  that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Genesis 18:20-21

The two men—angels—sent to destroy the city were not the first to be waylaid by a mob for their own gratification. Other victims had cried out to God—even perhaps to other gods—and their cries for redress had reached the ears of the Lord. Ezekiel, writing many years later, tells us that the people of Sodom were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). It was not merely for sexual sins that God destroyed the city but because they made no provision for the poor and neglected the needy. It was God’s compassion for the poor and needy, for the victims of Sodom’s self-absorption, that moved God to judge the city and send agents of destruction to destroy it.

He told Abraham his plan, and Abraham, concerned for his nephew Lot, extracted a promise from the Lord to spare the city if he can find just ten righteous men within it. Unable to find even ten, the Lord nevertheless went beyond his promise by sparing Lot and his family. That is why the two angels urged Lot to flee and even grabbed him and his family by the arms and forced them out of city telling them not to linger “for the Lord was merciful to them” (Genesis 19:16).

We know very little of Lot’s wife. There is no mention of her in connection with Lot prior to his escape from Sodom. It’s likely, therefore, that he met and married her after he settled in Sodom and that she was a native of the region. She would have had friends and family in Sodom, and there is little wonder then that in her concern for them, she should turn back to see what disaster would befall the place where she grew up and where all her memories were. Did God punish this natural concern? I don’t think so.

When the angels led Lot and his family out of the city, they told him to flee to the mountains, but Lot protested. “It’s too far,” he said. “We’ll never make it. The destruction will overtake us. Look, there’s a very small town nearby. We could make it there.” The angels agree to spare the town of Zoar (which means “small”) so Lot and his family can escape. This whole conversation, however, indicates either that Lot had knowledge of what was about to happen and how swift the judgment would be, or that the destruction was already beginning and threatening to overtake them where they stood. That’s why the angel was so vehement in urging them to run for their lives and not look back.

Jesus urged the same alacrity on his disciples when he told them about the coming of the Son of Man in Luke 17:

[N]o one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife!

Luke 17:31-32

So it was not a mere backward glance that doomed Lot’s wife. It was lingering; it was delaying; it was a failure to appreciate the dire emergency of the moment. She stopped. She turned. She looked back. Perhaps the horror of what she saw petrified her. Perhaps the fire was already beginning to fall around her. Perhaps God, in one last desperate act of mercy, turned her to salt like the nearby hills before she could suffer the torment of being burned alive.

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Walcutt Road Memories

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When I was in second grade, our family moved to a huge house on Walcutt Road in Hilliard, Ohio. The house was actually a dilapidated mansion. There was a long carriage drive made of cinders that made a loop from the road to the house and back to the road. Steps led from the front door down a paved walk to granite columns where there had once been a gate. You could still see the rusted hinges attached to the granite, and one granite block, faced and polished like a tombstone, had a date carved in it.

Behind the house was a crumbling swimming pool, half filled with broken concrete, masonry blocks, and twisted metal—detritus from someone else’s life. Rainwater collected in the bottom of the pool and made an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. There was a covered walkway between house and garage and a mud room where you could take off dirty footwear. We kept a bag of dog food there, and each of us kids sampled it from time to time. It was crunchy, and the dogs seemed to like it.

A concrete veranda ran all along one side of the house with French windows opening on to it. We used to ride our tricycles (and sometimes even bicycles) on that veranda. It also made an excellent surface for drawing chalk hop-scotch squares.

Inside the house was grand. The French windows opened into a great room that ran the length of the entire house. Dividing the French windows on either side was a huge fireplace, and on the floor above it was a smaller fireplace in the master bedroom, a room we children were forbidden to enter without special permission. One end of this room had floor to ceiling bookshelves with a window nook between them and a window seat. A spent many a lazy afternoon on the seat reading. The other end was at the front of the house and opened off the entryway. We used to put up our Christmas tree at that end, huge trees that nearly brushed the ceiling covered with colored incandescent bulbs and metal icicles. Some of the lights were designed to blink, and we kids would lie on our backs under the tree and watch the changing colored patterns of light they would cast on the ceiling.

The house had a huge basement with a concrete floor. We kids used to roller skate down there. The laundry room was also down there with a door that opened out at the back of the house where the defunct swimming pool was. Mom had a wringer washer. It had a wash tub with an agitator, but after the clothes were washed, they had to be taken out and run through the wringer to squeeze the excess water out. Then she would put them in a basket and take them out and hang them on a clothes line to dry.

We lived there only three or four years, but the house and the time we spent there assumed mythic proportions in our collective memories. Mom loved that house. Though we were renters she felt it was hers in a way no other house ever did. My parents liked it so much that when the owner decided to sell, they tried to buy it. Dad went to the bank and applied for a mortgage. He was a laborer, working maintenance in a factory, with a wife and eight kids. The bank told him that he could not afford a mortgage. He pointed out that the payments would be less than he was already paying in rent. The bank was immovable. A short time later someone else bought the place, and we had to move. We packed up all our goods and moved to a small house on Alum Creek near Groveport.

On the day we moved we took almost all our furniture, kitchen goods, and bedding, but we left behind our clothes, books, and the piano for the next day. We were moving in January. The house had a fuel oil furnace, and the new owner wanted to make sure it was ready for them to move in, so he had the fuel oil tank topped off. My dad had had the tank filled several times before and knew that the fill gauge was broken. Unless you were careful, you could overfill the tank, and the overflow would spill onto the basement floor. That is what happened that night. When the furnace turned on, the spark lit the spilled fuel oil and started a fire. The house was destroyed. We were able to salvage a few possessions from the rear of the house, but most of clothes and books were lost. We kids lost all our Christmas presents. We also found, before we went back to get things that might have been spared, looters had stolen everything of value that hadn’t been damaged by smoke or fire.

My mom took the loss especially hard. It wasn’t just the loss of the house and our things; it was also the way people we didn’t know behaved toward us. The Hilliard community, hearing of our loss, collected clothing for us. We got bags and bags of used clothing, most of it unusable. My mom went through much of it, snipping off buttons and ripping out zippers because she hated to waste anything useful, but she finally gave it up and threw away whole bags of other people’s cast-off clothing because it was unfit for any use but rags. I think this experience left her soured on the charity of other people for a long, long time. She saw that many people, perhaps most, were capable of giving possessions they would otherwise discard as useless while congratulating themselves on their own generosity. How tempting it is to give without feeling the price! How rare the person who insists on sacrifice!

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