I never imagined that the war in Vietnam would make any positive contribution to my preparation for ministry. Oh, perhaps learning to rely on God for protection was a form of preparation. Or the endless, boring nights of scanning the perimeter — hours alone to talk with God. That enhanced the intimacy of our relationship. But it certainly wasn’t like going to seminary where learning was purposeful and focused. Yet there was one thing I learned that, strangely, would prove to be helpful in later years in the inner-city. It didn’t come from any actual military training. Rather, it came from direct front-line experience. It was learning to tell the difference between the sounds of friendly and hostile fire. During my first few hours in an active war-zone I remember learning to discriminate between the sounds of in-coming and out-going mortar rounds. My survival depended on it. I learned from the reactions of other GI’s around me — one minute smoking and joking over the background noise of out-going mortar fire, the next scrambling for cover at the distinct discharge of rounds coming our way. I learned, also, to discriminate between the staccato crack of the Russian made AK47 rifle and the rapid pop-pop-pop of the American M16. Learning these sounds taught me when to duck. In time I was able to tell if enemy engagement was coming my way by listening to the distinct sounds of artillery fire, rocket explosions, land-mine detonations, and varieties of small arms fire that resonated in the jungle around me.
The accurate identification of various weaponry sounds, while vitally important in a war zone, had little use to me after my discharge from the service. Although, when I moved to the city I was able to discern rather quickly the difference between a firecracker, a car backfire and a pistol shot. But these almost unconscious discernments were for the most part inconsequential. My battlefield instincts largely disappeared into the murky void of unpleasant memories. Or so I thought.
It wasn’t until I recently brought my new bride into the city that I realized just how much my wartime instincts continued to serve me. Over my 35 years of urban living, loud sounds had become to my senses mere background noise, scarcely noticeable except for the occasional report of stray pistol shots a bit too close for comfort. But for Peggy, who has lived all her life with the songs of birds and crickets in a peaceful suburban world, these city noises were very disquieting. Frequently, booms or bangs of various sorts interrupted our evening walks. “What’s that?” she’d freeze in mid-stride and clench my hand tightly. “Just a truck backfiring,” I’d reassure her. Or a firecracker, or boards slamming against the floor on a construction site, or a nail-gun. So many new sounds for her to learn. Most harmless, of course, like the target practice at the nearby State Highway Patrol shooting range or Joe, the cop who lives behind us who sometimes test-fires his 9mm Glock handgun. Nothing to be concerned about, I have told her repeatedly. Still, these sounds are most unnerving until one’s senses acclimate. Peggy has yet to experience the city versions of 4th of July or New Years Eve revelry when firecrackers pop, bottle rockets whistle, and unchecked barrages of gunfire erupt from the housing project, not hostile fire but hundreds of rounds aimed skyward that must come down somewhere. It’s best to stay inside those nights. And then, every once in a while, there is an exchange of hostile fire, the culmination of an angry confrontation or a retribution of some sort. That’s when you want to stay low, if indeed you have the time to take evasive action. But this is rare.
The city is certainly not a war zone, I hasten to clarify. I am slowly persuading my new bride that it is actually a wonderful place to live, with friendly neighbors, a community garden, convenient shopping, great food and entertainment. And on our side-street, insulated somewhat from the traffic noise of the main thoroughfare, you can also hear the songs of birds and crickets — once you learn to filter out those other louder noises. I’m noticing that Peggy isn’t seizing my hand quite as often these days. I think that’s a good sign.