by Noel Smith
Baptist Bible Tribune Found and Editor 1950-1974
Editor’s note: So many in our Fellowship have shared the experience of watching our young men and women respond to the call of their nation, especially these past 10 years since 9/11. I thought it appropriate to honor them and their families by publishing this personal memoir from Tribune Founder and Editor Noel Smith detailing his own experience in 1954 as his son Charles left for active service in the United States Navy. It was written in a time when you traveled by train and bought a bridal ring set for $300, but the narrative holds up very well because of the writer’s skill, and because the issues addressed, love and loss, transcend generations.
He left this morning at 3:10 on the Frisco for Philadelphia, and the Navy. He had been in the Reserves.
He is 19, and tall, with big feet, and big hands. He has no brother, no sister, and his mother was buried last June.
Like all these 19-year-olds, he has his own notions as to what constitutes true comfort and pleasure. The Navy gave him transportation from Springfield to Philadelphia; day coach from Springfield to St. Louis, and an upper berth from St. Louis to Philadelphia. I said to him: “I’ll pay the difference and get you a roomette in the Texas Special’s New York car; you can get in it here at Springfield and not get out until you get to Philadelphia, and you can go to sleep when you leave here and sleep as long as you wish.”
“I don’t want a roomette. I want to take the day coach and change at St. Louis. I want the upper berth. I like an upper better than a roomette; it’s more comfortable.”
There isn’t too much you can do for these 19-year-olds — except to keep up the allowance, with regular supplements thereto, and keep the gas tank filled. Why go to a good hotel for a steak supper when you can go to a drive-in and get a glorified hamburger in a basket. It’s better. A hamburger is healthier. It doesn’t take you so long to get served. You don’t have to be dressed up; it’s more comfortable.
A 19-year-old is not a theory; he is a reality. He is not an explanation; he is a revelation. A 19-year-old doesn’t operate according to somebody’s plan; he operates according to the impulse of the moment. If the plan says up, he says down. If the plan says north, he says south. If the plan says hot, he says cold. If the plan says round, he says it’s better square. Why spend good money to ride in a train or bus when you can hitchhike. Hitchhiking is better; it’s more comfortable, it’s faster, and it’s safer. What’s the use of putting a suit on a hanger when you pull it off? It’s cheaper to have it cleaned and pressed every time you wear it; and if you are going to have it cleaned and pressed, what’s the use of hanging it up? What’s the use of putting up your clothes when you are going to bed? What difference does it make? You are going to sleep anyhow, aren’t you? What difference does it make how a room looks when you are asleep? A home should be a comfortable place.
A 19-year-old has his own ideas about how the world should be run.
Anyhow, he’s gone now. The Pennsylvania’s Penn-Texas has now got him to Indianapolis. In a few minutes it will pull out and head for Dayton, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and — at 5:30 tomorrow morning — Philadelphia. He is bareheaded, sports shirt, yellow sports jacket, and pumps. He has no excess baggage — a small zipper bag and a shaving kit. He won’t be much of a burden to the porters.
And everything is orderly in this apartment now. The radio is blaring out no ball game. No shoes are in the middle of the floor. Every one of his suits is on the hanger and in the closet. Every shirt is clean and in his dresser drawer. Tonight he won’t open my door and apologize for being out so late. Tomorrow he won’t ask “Have you got any loose change in your pocket?” He will leave no ring in the bathtub, and he will leave no more tracks on the floor.
Yes, everything in here now is orderly. Everything is in its place. There is no noise. It is so deeply quiet that the monotonous drips of a faucet are measured, clear, and distinct — like the tones of a funeral dirge.
And he left all his possessions — only he would take the yellow jacket, the sports shirt, the small bag, the smaller kit. Not too much to take away.
And we may well be grateful that these American 19-year-olds do not operate according to somebody’s plan. If they did, the military services would certainly be up against it. Say what you will about them, these 19-year- olds, with a week’s notice, will leave their studies, their homes, their girls, their sports — leave everything and take up a heavy cumbersome Army, Marine or Navy bag and permit themselves to be herded about all over the country. And always they are smiling and cracking jokes, and always they are willing to stop and help somebody in trouble. In the restaurants and dining cars these lonely fellows are the pleasantest, the easiest to please, the most grateful. If they operated according to plan, they never would have thawed out the frozen Korean mud with their own blood. They never would fly a plane through the fiery heavens with the cool, detached courage of an eagle prevailing against thunder and lightning and rain and hail. If they operated according to plan, they never would crawl on their backs through mud and barbed wire, while shells scream and burst their hot hatred upon them. If they operated according to plan they never would exchange the ball park for the crater field.
Yes, they have left their shoes in the middle of the room. But that isn’t the only monument they have left behind; in Europe and Asia thousands of them have left plain white crosses sticking up out of the scarred earth, gazing pensively toward the silent, mysterious skies. And for doing so they received no banker’s pay, nor a teacher’s pay, nor a carpenter’s pay; they received only what they were told they might have. Theirs was not to reason why, nor to make reply.
Why did they do it, and without complaint? Because they operated by impulse as the circumstances of the moment dictated. They had neither the time nor the inclination to sit down and reflect on how things should be; on the inequalities, the inconsistencies and the injustices of the world. Why bother with all that? It takes too much time, and it does no good anyhow. If you are going to be killed, you are going to be killed — inequalities and inconsistencies or no inequalities and inconsistencies. A 19-year-old is not so hot when it comes to wasting time trying to reason out everything. He had rather spend the time writing to his girl.
I didn’t exaggerate last night, when we were having our last talk— and prayer — together, when I told him that he had been a good boy. He has. I have sometimes wondered how he could be so stubborn and opinionated; and then, I would happen to think who his daddy was. And I have wondered at his apparent lack of a sense of responsibility and perspective, at his lack of emotional discipline. And then — I would reflect on myself when I was 19.
My knowledge of myself at 19 has balanced his account, with a few credit vouchers to the good. He is better at 19 than I was at 19. It has taken me a long time to concede that. I have never told him. (I have a suspicion that all along he has had his own ideas about it.) And here is the rub: the chances are that your boy is better at his age than you were at his age.
I have in him much to be grateful for. I never smelled a drop of liquor on him. I have never heard of him doing a mean, dirty thing. He says that “if the Lord should come today, I am ready.” He is a child of many prayers, and was so before he was born.
A few weeks ago he got in one morning about one o’clock. Regardless of what time he came in, he would always come into my room before he went to his room upstairs.
“I am sorry that I was out so late tonight.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s one o’clock, that’s what time it is.”
“Well, it’s too late to do anything about it now.”
“Well, if you knew about the thing, you would wonder that I even got here at one o’clock.”
“The mess; it’s a mess; were you ever in a mess like that?”
“Well, I have been in a good many messes, but I don’t know whether I have ever been in a mess like yours or not. What kind of a mess is it?”
“That girl has got another fellow hot on her trail. I have been edging him out, but he is still in the running. The whole thing’s a mess, I tell you.”
He had turned the light on and was standing in the middle of the room.
“What am I going to do in a mess like this?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to get rid of that other guy, and I don’t have long to get rid of him.”
I didn’t tell him that I was grateful that he had enough confidence in me to come into my room at one o’clock in the morning and talk to me about the most delicate and sensitive experience of his whole life.
“Now, I am going to be perfectly frank with you. You have come to the most important experience in your life since you were saved. I don’t know of but One who can help you and make everything come out right. If you will be earnest and sincere with God and ask Him to help you, He will make everything come out right — for you, for the girl, and for your rival. You want everything to come out right for all three of you.”
“Well, I’ll go upstairs and do it.”
“No, just kneel down here beside the bed and we’ll pray together.”
He repeated none of the vain repetitions of the heathen. And he wasn’t abstract and formal. His mind was concentrated. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he told the Lord what he wanted, in the awkward manner of a 19-year-old.
Two weeks ago, he came in another morning at one o’clock. This time he didn’t apologize.
“You know what I am going to do?”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m gonna marry that girl, that’s what? Do you reckon I can get her a ring? How do you think I can do it? Guess you could help me a little? I want a good one for her. What do you think about $300; think that would get a good one? Think I could get one that good?”
And he got one. And put it on her finger. Told her that he would come back and put the other one on the same finger. If they acted according to plan, she would never be married to a tall, awkward, black head with big feet and big hands. But she stays right with him, and he can’t keep from grinning at her. Did you ever see a big-footed 19-year-old grinning at a girl on whose finger he had slipped a diamond engagement ring? If you have, you have seen something strangely appealing.
Hydrogen bomb? What can I do about the hydrogen bomb? I want to take that tinted picture you have on your desk and give it to her; you can get another one; that one up there on the wall with me in cap and gown will be all right for you — won’t it?
All the qualities of these 19-year-olds do not come out in what they say and do. They think more than they talk. He has never mentioned his mother to me since she was buried last June. But one night he had a friend in the library. I heard him say:
“Maybe you would like to look at my scrapbook. It’s upstairs; I’ll go get it for you. Mother made it for me.”
He didn’t talk much to me yesterday. And at the depot this morning at 2:30 he couldn’t think of much to say. He kept looking toward his girl and grinning. “Goodbye, daddy.” That was all he needed to say. I understood. That was all I could say to him when I kissed his cheek. That’s about all any of us can say. We always think of a lot of things we are going to say; but when the time comes, it’s, always, “Goodbye.” And then, when the train pulls out, and you get in the car to go back to the lonely house —
So far as my family are concerned, they are all dead but Charles — and he’s gone. I sit here in the deep silence at the end of the road. My thought trails back into the mysterious years and, like a star, falls here and there upon a cherished scene. It seems but a few days ago that he was born on an August night. I stood beside a great oak on the lawn of the country home. It was a night sheened in silver, great and quiet, and wonderfully beautiful. In a nearby bush a nightingale was sending forth its lonely broodings. There was the smell of late corn in the basins and of freshly cut hay. It was a night of deep quiet and peace; and in the house he had been born and was asleep, and she was relaxed and composed, and there was a soft smile on her face and contentment in her clear voice. All was well.
Here today, it doesn’t seem real — all the years that have come and gone, with all they have brought and carried away. It seems that I was tired, and lay down and went to sleep — and dreamed it all. The years are all gone; they have carried away all the forms and faces. Suddenly everything has become still. I keep listening for somebody to speak — but nobody does.
I wonder why I can’t put out to sea today, to be borne into sunset, and beyond — where the years have carried all the forms and faces? There must be more work for me to do. There must be other roads to travel. It may be that I have yet a long way to go. I do not know. If so, I have no complaints to make. I shall do my best. Here at the end of this road, I believe with all my heart that God’s ways are right and just and good. He hath given, and He hath taken away and — I believe — He will restore, in His own good time, all the years the locusts have eaten.
But here at the end of the road, I am not altogether alone. All the principles that I have defended and advocated since I began the journey are standing with me now. I am conscious of that. If I had to start all over again, I should defend and advocate the same principles. Except for minor details, I should not deviate at a single point. I have preached that money, influence, prestige and power should not be the decisive standard of right and wrong. I have preached that a black man’s child should have the same opportunities under the law that my child has. … I believe that New Testament Christianity is right. I have always defended a long front and drawn to myself a lot of fire. I have been right.
I am going straight on to the end as I have been going, as long as God wishes to give me the strength. I know that the years have not been without fruit. I know that the things I have defended and advocated have taken root and that they will bear fruit, if the world stands, a thousand years after I have left the scene. And all because the providences of God take care of the truth. A cup of cold water given in His name will quench parched lips a thousand years after the giver has come into the land where there are no parched lips. For two thousand years the widow’s mite has been bringing streams of gold into God’s treasury; and still it flows on, like the river of water of life flowing from beneath the throne of God. I believe in God, and I believe in the efficacy and permanent results of truth.
And so now, if I knew that I was to put out to sea at midnight, I should be happy, and I should spend the remaining few hours getting everything ready. I should not worry about trying to get my righteousness ready, or about any good resolves, or regrets. He is my righteousness, my Way, my Truth, my Life. I should take my standby text and press it close to my heart: “Him that cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out.” That is all I should need. I should put out to sea with that. That would be my ticket and it would be honored by God himself. I believe that.
But if He wishes me to remain a 100 more years, and every hour in storm, I shall not complain. He doeth all things well. He is too wise to make a mistake, and He is too good to do wrong. Blessed be the name of the Lord!