I joined the Navy two weeks after high school graduation in 1944. Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi was my next stop (to be inducted, starched and ironed), and then on to Camp Wallace, Texas—between Houston and Galveston—for boot camp. It was the hottest place on Earth that summer, no doubt.
Camp Wallace was thrown away by the Army and the Navy picked it up. I had in mind being on some big boat, seeing the world, but I found myself marching on broken sea shells and hot sand in sweaty clothes. Boot camp was nothing like a vacation. Two things stood out: First, they had me out of bed at 4:45am daily, and within 30 minutes, exercising and marching, “Hut two, three four…hut, hut.” Second, and by far the worst thing of all, was the sadistic dentist who performed a double root canal on me without half enough Novocaine. I thought I had surely gone to “you know where”, and I was convinced that the dentist was Satan’s first cousin. He seemed to enjoy seeing me suffer. It was the worst pain ever. Things went downhill from there.
I tell you things because when I went there, I was a kind, gentle, carefree, sweet-natured country boy who thought everyone would love me and be kind and nice. It didn’t happen. But, you know what? I came out of that hole a more mature person. It took six weeks and I came out of that camp better organized, and somewhat disciplined and trained. I could shine my own shoes and sew buttons on, peel potatoes, and march in cadence with the best of them. It was disgusting. But I “grew up” a little in Camp Wallace.
I do owe a lot to the negative events in my life, like most people. These unexpected and unwanted experiences have helped make me to be the person I am today, for better or worse. Not just boot camp, but as I look back, I have been bamboozled, bumfuzzled, bullied and much more. But all of these negatives have caused me to search, to pray, to pay attention, to accept responsibility and to grow in areas I didn’t want to grow in. I was an eyewitness to a friend who took his life. It was the catalyst that sent me back to post-graduate studies for a degree in counseling.
I could have let several experiences embitter me for life. If it were left up to me, the military would be a little less harsh and crude, but I suppose they have a reason for training people like that. Of course, I was proud to serve my country during World War II, and I did get to see a lot of the world. But Iceland and Newfoundland weren’t exactly what I had in mind. There are no palm trees swaying in the breeze. Yet, I did enjoy parts of the journey, especially salmon fishing.
It was in Argentia, Newfoundland where I began to have strange feelings about being a minister. I didn’t want to be a preacher, mainly because I didn’t feel good enough. Who was I to stand in some pulpit and try to reveal God’s Word? I’ve had to deal with a strong feeling of inadequacy and I’ve never adjusted to it completely. I said to my wife many times, “I just don’t feel adequate to be a minister.” And she would reply, “Guess what? You aren’t. But who is? All of us are less than we ought to be.” (By the way, I will celebrate 69 years of ministry on June 19th by leading the 8:30am and 11:00am worship services at First United Methodist Church on Jackson Street in Alexandria. It’s also Father’s Day.)
“When you mess up…big deal! Just admit it, fix it and move on. Other than that, life’s a party.”
I love the Psalms. If you are feeling “down”, read them. Study them. Meditate on them. The Psalmists went through a great deal of stuff and we can benefit greatly from their wisdom. For example, in Psalm 34:17-18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” There are so many uplifting and wonderful words in the Psalms.
You have to overcome a lot in this world if you are going to make it. Complaining doesn’t do the job. Wallowing in our problems can’t fix them, so blaming, complaining and feeling sorry for ourselves doesn’t get the job done. We need to take responsibility for the choices we’ve made.
There’s an old cliché that says: “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” First of all, this is not in the Bible. And, I believe it’s wrong. I have given myself more than I can handle. God had nothing to do with it. But, of course, all of our capabilities and strengths come from God. St. Paul said, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me,” (Philippians 4:13).
Listen to your “higher self”. Is your life what you want it to be? You are the only one who can do something about it. I believe in the adage: “God helps those who help themselves,” (which, incidentally, is not in the Bible either). But, it’s still a wise piece of advice.
Someone said to me once, “Henry, your plate is so full.” Yes, it is. But I’ve put most of it there. And I am learning to celebrate this because my life isn’t boring and it keeps me moving on. I have several good reasons to get off the couch.
Let’s go back to that sadistic dentist in Camp Wallace boot camp. For a long time, I carried bad feelings around with me. All I thought about for a good while was trying to rearrange his front teeth. But, when I became an ordained minister, I had to think about forgiving him. And I realized that I was only hurting myself by carrying a grudge. Jesus said, “Forgive seventy times seven.” I don’t know about you, but forgiveness is really difficult when you’ve been intentionally hurt by someone. And yet, this is the “hallmark” of a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or anybody. There is just not enough forgiveness in this world.