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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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Why Not Rather Be Wronged?

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This is something that is really hard for me to write about because it cuts so close to my own natural proclivities. My wife and my children know that I speak the truth when I confess that I am defensive. I easily bristle at slights, often even when they are meant as jokes or completely unintended. I know rationally that such defensiveness betrays insecurity and an ego that is easily wounded, that my guard goes up because I do not want to appear vulnerable, but despite my best efforts, I can’t seem to remain open and affable when berated or insulted. Nevertheless, I continue to strive against defensiveness.

Jesus was not defensive. In fact, it would be hard to find anyone more mild-mannered while facing his harshest critics. After Jesus accused his detractors of being children of the devil—harboring in their hearts the same antipathy toward life and truth that characterizes the devil—they said to him:

“Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

John 8:48

To understand the full impact of this insult, we need to put it in more contemporary terms. In calling Jesus a Samaritan, the Jewish leaders were questioning the legitimacy of his birth as well as his racial purity, something they regarded as very important. In effect, they were calling his mother a whore and claiming that he was not really Jewish. “You are a half-breed bastard,” we might say today.

Likewise, in calling him demon-possessed, the Jews were questioning his mental stability. They were calling him crazy, or, more politely, mentally ill.

Jesus carefully frames his response in a way that patiently answers their charges while preventing them saying he is self-aggrandizing. It is a very delicate matter to claim to be God’s unique son in a culture where such claims are regarded as blasphemous! Jesus defends himself without being defensive. Later, of course, he faces much worse: insults, blows, torture, and an ignominious death. He says nothing in his own defense but suffers cruelly and unjustly for a purpose greater than his own life.

His followers quickly gain a reputation for the same kind of attitude. When they are beaten, they rejoice (Acts 5:41). When they are put to death, they pray and forgive (Acts 7:59-60). When they are imprisoned, they sing (Acts 16:25).

It is in this context of a willingness to suffer rather than fight back that we must understand Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians in I Corinthians 6:1-11. The believers in Corinth were taking disputes to the civil courts instead of resolving them among themselves. In our litigious and rights-obsessed culture, this seems only fitting. Why shouldn’t we go to court and involve lawyers to resolve disputes? That’s how we avoid bruises and bloodshed. But Paul has no quarrel with the civilizing influence of the courts. His concern is for the unity of the church, and what he finds is a willingness to assert individual rights against that unity. The unity of believers is so paramount that it takes precedence over our own sense of injury. “Why not rather be wronged?” he asks. “Why not rather be cheated?”

This same impulse to privilege personal justice over collective unity has done great harm throughout Christendom. Where I see it most in the online world is in comments from Christians defending some supposed biblical point of view with all the condemnation and vituperation they can think of. Whose purposes does that kind of behavior serve? It is not loving toward the one with whom they disagree, nor is it attractive to those outside the faith. When we fight—for conflict is inevitable—let us do so with vigor but also with grace and love, as those who value the bonds of Christian intimacy above our own righteousness.

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