Back in my college days, my youth, and days where the memories are still rich even now; my friends who had fought in Vietnam called it a soldier’s breakfast, coffee and a cigarette. I have fallen into the habit of smoking a bit now and again, fallen from grace if you wish. The taste is still sweet; the memories' crystal clear from our carefree youth filled days, as I breathe in and out the steel blue smoke of youthful memories, memories of that self from long ago.
One old friend from afterwards, David, who served in Vietnam in an Infantry Army Ranger Company, told me a story once of his time in Vietnam, and a vision of his childhood pet when he woke from a drug hazed dream. Induced, he thought; by some Thai Sticks, he smoked that evening with some of his Ranger Company mates.
His dog Max that he had grown up with, a white German Shepherd, was barking urgently in front of his bunk bed, running back and forth in warning, wanting him to follow and go somewhere desperately. Max was so persistent. My friend was finally forced to get up from his deep sleep and go outside, like a walking dream. So, my friend David, followed the vision of his dog out of the bunker where he had been sleeping.
Just outside, Max suddenly jumped out of the sandbag bunker and immediately went into a pointing position, in the distance, on the edge of the jungle, they saw pin points of light flickering, dim and then bright again. David knew instantly it was the enemy smoking. They were trained to look for such signs. Viet Cong Ghost Soldiers his Ranger Company called them, because they disappeared like ghosts, the light of their cigarettes glowing in the darkness as a warning, a call to combat.
He picked up and emptied his M16 in that general direction, in to the darkness of the jungle night, not knowing for sure what or who was out there, other than the enemy. He knew there were no patrols from their camp out at night. An alarm was raised all over the camp; other guns fired in defense, an attack averted, and his Ranger Company saved that night, by a dream, a vision, a childhood pet, a dear old friend.
The next day in the early-morning light it was clear that a significant military force had been in place. A few bodies left behind. Upon returning home from Vietnam many months later, my friend learned that his dog Max had peacefully died that identical night, at close to the same time he appeared by David's bunk. And in a final act of friendship and loyalty came to warn him thousands of miles away, from Brazosport, Texas, to the jungles of Vietnam.
I believed the story then, wanted to believe it because it has all the right pieces any compelling story has to tell. I'd like to believe now still. I'd like to know; as you do I'm sure. How Max knew that David needed his help, how he found him even, went to him. We can ask. I think the answer is found in love's power to transcend time and distance and our own imaginations.
Then again, perhaps it’s only an Urban Legend, an old military ghost story of sorts, told by soldiers anywhere, from any side, from any war that is waged. Still, it must make you wonder what connections, there are between two such close friends, a loyal childhood pet and the man he once protected as a child, and how we are sometimes blessed. It’s all a mystery, life, love, death, our intuition and imaginations. What do we know?
I'm not sure why I'm sharing this story now; perhaps I don't want it to be lost. It's a compelling story, a haunting tale at many different levels. It's a bit odd even that I formed such close friendships with these military men who served in Vietnam.
We may have dated some of the same girls. Many times we would stay awake all night slowly sipping on good scotch and looking hard at life. These veterans of war taught me how to hold my liquor, and in the process, we talked for hours, sharing stories with one another, this is just one of those stories.
You see, when I turned 18 years old, back when there were still Draft Boards. I asked for and was almost granted a conscientious objector status. It wasn't easy getting that classification back then; you had to answer a lot of extremely hard questions. You had to be deeply convincing. I had help from my father, himself, a WWII veteran and a Methodist minister; he went with me to the interview.
He even had some of his seminary professors and clergy friends who were COs’ help me understand the process and what I would be asked. As it turned out, the Draft Board gave me two choices, take a college deferment or immediately begin serving two years of voluntary service as a CO in some capacity, usually in a hospital. I decided to take my chances with the college deferment instead, and two years later the military draft ended in the United States.
I can't say that I feel the same way now, that I'm a pacifist today, so many years have passed. I've never been tested under fire or in any other violent situation when I had to defend my own life or protect the life of another. Few of us have, unless they have served in this capacity.
There is an extraordinary honor to be found in serving your country, in being a peacekeeper. It is a sacrifice for the greater good. I do hold all life as holy, to be sacred, and pray for an end to such conflicts and war, for a better world. At their very best, this is what soldiers do, they protect the weak and the innocent. They act as peacekeepers, they help protect the sacredness of life.
The point of my story is this; the mysteries of our interconnections with one another are astounding. We need to pay attention to them. Can you begin to imagine the angels watching over you even now, as Max watched over my friend David?
Our own angels are out there you know, in many forms, found in complete strangers walking along the street at times, unseen or unknown directly, but known I believe at some level of the self, many levels.
Love calls out to us, moving through and across our many selves, through our lives and the years, through time and mystery and death. These interconnections arise out of our relationships with others, with all life and through life.
It is life at work, and something more I think, Śūnyatā-Dependent-Arising-InterBeing in Buddhism; or in more theistic faiths the Holy Spirit, the Great Spirit, God as Spirit if you wish, as the Ultimate Divine Mystery at work within the world, calling us into a relationship with one another. It's something we need to awaken to, a key truth, maybe a final truth; an enlightenment that helps us to understand this mystery.
One final thought, I lost contact with David over 40 years ago when we went our separate ways, after those early college years. For all, I know, he's out there living life, and I trust that something in him may remember our nights of conversation and scotch, the stories we shared. If he is, I want to wish him the best. I hope he has had and is still having an enjoyable life.
Saint Julian Press
Ron Starbuck is an author, poet, the Publisher-CEO of Saint Julian Press, and an Episcopalian.
Paul F. Knitter
Thich Nhat Hanh