Chapter 1: August 1993
That old, decaying brick building on that tiny Baptist campus in Southwest Arkansas looked like the front gate of Disney World. My nerves pulsated with the sounds of stereos blaring a ragged mixture of country, hard rock, and rap music from various windows across the front of the dormitory. I could hear a basketball pounding a floor somewhere inside. A strange smell wafted down to my nostrils from the highest windows of that building that reeked of freedom.
I was 18 years old—a man by legal definition—but I may as well have been waiting for the first bell of kindergarten. I knew my world was about to change, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready.
I stood on the sidewalk in front of West Hall, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of other freshman students lugging their belongings into the building from the cracked, potholed parking lot. My left hand gripped the handle of the one suitcase I brought from home; the other gripped that of my mom as my dad snapped pictures of my bewildered face.
I was an extremely sheltered child from birth until that very moment. My parents were very strict on where I was allowed to go, who I was allowed to be around, and what I was allowed to do. I had few friends growing up, and the ones I did make couldn’t stand me for very long because I was just too socially awkward to really Get It.
For a guy who had no driver’s license, no car, and had only worked a total of the three months since graduation in his entire life–oh, and only had one (sort of) real girlfriend his entire life to speak of—this was almost too much to take in.
I finally collected my senses and turned to the front door of the dormitory. I had no way of knowing in that moment that these would be the first steps of a 17-year journey from school to marriage, war, divorce, marriage again, children, war again and, finally, graduation. I only knew of the winding journey that brought me to those first steps.
I made my way through the front door, and it was as if I was stepping from one dimension of time into another.
Chapter 2: Spring 2010
I was sitting in a hotel conference room in Providence, R.I. with the 11 other members of the Unit Ministry Team (UMT) I served with in the U.S. Army Reserve. We were all dressed in civilian clothing for this trip, so no uniforms, but everyone knew who was in charge.
The command chaplain, The Colonel, was at the head of the table and all eyes were on him. He was an older gentleman with a sharp gaze that shot over the rims of his large-framed glasses and a soft, patronizing voice who loved to challenge his subordinates whether he agreed with them or not.
We were told about three days before that this trip was going to happen, but we were not told why. He liked to be mysterious like that. Actually, if you want to know the truth, he just liked to make people squirm and I’m still not sure to this day if it was a control thing or just to amuse himself. When asked why we were doing this, he simply replied, “Because I’m a colonel and you are not.”
The hotel was not an especially well-appointed one. It had the requisite furniture, but it was all upholstered in a late-1970s funk that spoke more of disco than comfort. The drapes hung like bad suits over emaciated human frames.
The meeting did not begin with a purpose statement. There was a gift basket at the other end of the table from The Colonel and he directed our attention to it.
“I see the hotel decided to gift a bunch of chaplains and their assistants with a variety of alcoholic beverages,” he said. “Though I am Methodist, I will not be partaking of any of this sort. Any of you want it?”
His eyes darted around the room, searching for any takers. None did. We all knew better.
“Very well, then,” he said with satisfaction. “Now. I’m sure you’re all wondering why we are here.”
He favored us with another probing glance, then broke out in a loud belly laugh.
“No one is in trouble. This isn’t a whip-the-dog meeting,” he said. “We already spent the money on this place for a marriage enrichment event that we had to cancel, so the hotel owed us a training session.”
All around the room, shoulders relaxed and faces loosened as we processed his sudden change in demeanor.
“We minister to Soldiers and their dependents who have suffered the unseen ravages of war,” The Colonel continued. “As you all know, the most effective way to help them confront their issues is to get them to tell their stories, but how can we do that if we haven’t confronted our own?”
Faces tensed again as he said this—including mine.
“Today we will all tell our stories,” he said. “I’m not asking for anything deeply humiliating, but I am asking for deep introspection and thoughtful contribution. And by the way, what is said here stays here.
“Vaughn, you’re up. Kick us off,” he concluded.
Though I am rarely at a loss for words, I was easily the lowest-ranking person in the room and, frankly, I was quite surprised that I was selected to start this awkward process. I nervously cleared my throat, looked around the room at my coworkers, then began with words that I would very soon regret and later realize were both untrue and unfair.
“I was born in a culture of failure…”
One entire side of the room exploded in laughter. I was shocked by this reaction, so I shot a glance at The Colonel to see if he found what I said as amusing as everyone else seemed to. He looked as confused as I was. I kept waiting for the gut-wrenching laughter to subside, but it seemed to have taken on a life of its own.
Without even raising his voice, The Colonel said, “That’s enough,” and the room suddenly went dead silent. Just like that, the fun was over. In that moment, I had to decide whether I was more embarrassed at the reaction to my words or more in awe of his steady command of everyone in the room.
As the Mad Laughers wiped their eyes and regained their composure, The Colonel favored me with a reassuring nod that encouraged me to continue.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Frank Vaughn, B.A.
Ouachita Baptist University
Class of 1997…1999…2001…2006…