Thursday, 11 June 2015

On Conscientious Objection

Late last night, just before going to bed, I checked out one of my ‘spiritual’ email sites (‘Golden Age of Gaia’), and there came across a very interesting article entitled ‘Jake Bridges: The Story of a U.S. Marine Corps Conscientious Objector’.  He tells a very moving story of his transition from a gung-ho Marine officer to taking a higher look at the whole picture of life on Earth.1 It reminded me of my similar journey, from university-student R.O.T.C. cadet to the same sort of space; which journey has seen me through to this day, lo, these many years later.  I went to bed remembering it well…2

It was, as I recall, the early fall of 1954, and I had just started my Junior year at Stanford University, in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.3  The Korean War had ended, tenuously, the year before, in an armistice, and we single male students had been recommended to sign up for R.O.T.C. to make sure that we didn’t have our education interrupted by a call-up.  (Though the (shooting) war had ended, there was still the Draft in place.)  It was a hot afternoon, made all the hotter in a quonset hut out on the edge of the campus where my R.O.T.C. class was held.  I remember almost dozing off, when something the Regular Army instructor was saying caught my attention.  I can’t recall if it was an air-cooled type of machine gun or a water-cooled one, but I was suddenly struck by the thought: 

He’s talking about me possibly manning a machine gun.

Bullets.  Ripping into people.

I couldn’t believe it.  Up till then, the classes were mostly about military organizational structure, and so forth: classroom stuff.  But being asked to man a machine gun was, clearly, to my mental state, something else.  For whatever combination of circumstances - my half-asleep condition, the very heat-stifled classroom, the droning of our instructor talking matter-of-factly about different kinds of machine guns - I left that class in a bit of a stupor; went straight back to my dormitory room, locked the door,4 closed the blinds, selected a classical-music LP, and laid down, with, I think, my pillow over my eyes.  I remember that I deliberately selected some Wagner - that was the only kind of sound that I could handle right then.  And by the time the LP had finished, I knew what I had to do.

Which I then proceeded to do: I sought out the R.O.T.C. counselor and asked him what would happen if I dropped out of the corps.  He was pretty nonchalant about it, said that, at that point, nothing really was likely to happen.  Whereupon I tendered my resignation from the corps, and stopped going to the class.

I had simply had it.  There was NO WAY I was about to fire a machine gun at anybody. 

There was a bit of a kerfuffle about my decision, when, some weeks later, the university’s processing people denied my ‘request’ to drop R.O.T.C.  I talked my way out of that bind.  But the whole incident set me up for my next major stop on that particular journey - the one that has carried me to this day, and time.   

It was in the middle of the winter - I think February of the next year, when my next encounter with my inner, higher self occurred.  In the interim, I had received notice of my acceptance into Stanford’s Medical School starting the following, what would have been my Senior, year (on a speeded-up program that they allowed, as long as the undergraduate had completed his/her required course of science pre-requisites).  Having accomplished my major challenge in life to that point in time - acceptance into a prestigious medical school (I had applied to a couple of others, just in case; but I had maintained a B+ average up to that point, so my chances at Stanford’s were good) - I relaxed a bit that quarter, and instead of concentrating exclusively on my science courses, took a short-story writing course.  I had enjoyed English courses in high school,5 and fancied myself as a bit of a writer by then, and decided to learn a little more about ‘the trade’.  My instructor was a professional short-story writer - from San Francisco, she had had several of her works published in various collections - and when one idea of mine began to take on a life of its own, and become more of a novella, instead of reining me in, she encouraged me to go with it, and, in effect, see where it led to.   

Where it led to was one early evening when I was having a bit of a writer’s block.  By then I had even  begun skipping an afternoon lab class to concentrate on the story (after all, I reasoned, all I had to do was ‘pass’ my remaining pre-requisites), and had found a small empty storage room in the basement of my dorm to do my late-evening typing in,  (And smoking; I had taken up the habit by then.  We writers; you know.)  I had come to a peak moment in the story,6 and couldn’t seem to get over the hump.  What happens to my character now? I thought.  And, blocked, went out for a walk.

It was after 10 at night, I remember, and was cool enough that I put on a jacket, but not so cold as to need mittens.  Just meaning to get out of the basement for a bit (a nice little bit of symbolism, that one, eh?), I found myself being drawn to go over to the Amphitheater.  Stanford has a nice-sized one, in a grove of trees off to one side of the campus proper.  A short distance from where I lived, in my Independent Men’s dorm,7 it seemed a nice, quiet, secluded place to sit down in for a bit, to get myself sorted out.  What I wasn’t quite prepared for was how dark it was there.  With no lights on in the grove, and the street lights having been left behind, I had to ‘feel’ my way through the screening trees to get inside to the (naturally-tiered) seats.  ‘Feeling’ that I was about halfway up the amphitheater from the stage space, I sat down, for a ‘spell’.

My first thought was, Gee, it’s dark in here.  Couldn’t see a thing.  It was just me, and the huge expanse of sky overhead.  Wall to wall stars. Not a cloud.  No moon, as I recall.  Just - me, and the enormity of the universe.  My next thought - I remember clearly - was: ‘How small and insignificant we are in the vast scheme of things.’  It felt to me as though I were in the bottom of a deep, deep well.  And then the next thing I knew was the feeling that something very large came pouring into me from that vast expanse - 

whoooOOOSH - 

that knocked me on my back, and sent a charge coursing through me like an electric current - over and over - and drove me into tears.  And I mean, sobbing.  

That lasted for I don’t know long.  Five minutes?  Ten??  Two???  And then I felt myself calming down.  And I sat up.  And I remember that my left-brain, science student kicked in, and I tried to figure out, Now what was THAT all about??

And as if in reply, the idea came to me - a gentle, clear, somewhat loving message - that

‘the universe has Purpose. And that purpose is Good.’

And that message has been with me ever since.  

Overriding all short-term evidence to the contrary.


It was only the next year, when I was living in New York City - home to ‘the largest public library in the Western world,’ I had figured, which drew me there, for some concentrated study on What Is It All About - that I came across the moment of 

‘the challenge’. 

It had been a bit of a challenge to just up and quit school - to the consternation of my friends and my mother.  But I was so clear that I had to go and find out capital-t Truth that that was, really, no challenge.  The real challenge came when my country sent me a note, in the midst of my personal studies, that opened:


I was being summoned by the Draft, to two years of military service.

So: How did I feel about that?  About ‘the military,’ and all??

I’ll save you that telling.  Just to summarize, that I decided that, though I could not go into the military proper - by then I really had no enemies on the planet; I had only fellow pilgrims on The Path8 - I understood that, until we can get around and talk to each other behind the screens that we throw up against each other, as it were, and ‘talk it out,’ you need to be able to defend yourself, and your family, and your country.  So I chose to go into the Army as a c.o.9

So, just to say, Jake:

I know whereof you speak.

And I wish you well on your journey. 

Into the realm - the higher realm - of Duty.  Honor.  Country.

The Far Country, that is.


1 And I want to say right here and now that the Marine Corps dealt with this sort of matter with a lot of integrity, in asking the applicant for release from his/her military officer contractual obligations to answer a series of very honorable questions, testing his/her sincerity of belief.  I was touched by the care and consciousness given to such a situation.  Well done, U.S. Marine Corps.  

2 I may have told aspects of this story before, in these pages. But there are always new readers.  And a story worth telling is worth telling more than once...  

3 And I could be wrong about this; it could have been that early summer, and thus the tail end/last quarter of my Sophomore year.  (We were on the quarter system, not the semester system.)  The exact detail is not important to the telling of this story. 

4 I can’t remember if I put a note on it telling my roommate to come back later, or just knew that his schedule that day was going to give me some space; which I sorely needed right then.

5 And got an A in my Freshman English course at Stanford.  From an instructor whom I found inspiring; who, at the end of the school year, quietly asked me to see him briefly after, whereupon he gifted me with a copy of the Collected Works of John Donne.  Which stayed with me through many a change in my life over the succeeding years. And from whose ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ Meditation I carried in my wallet a copy of a passage.  Earlier in the meditation than the better-known part, it read:
   “The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.”
   Little did I know, at the time, I was about to have my minute in life.

6 It was about - what else - a young doctor, who has a major challenge confront him.  That was where I was at in the story.

7 Unlike most Stanford ‘roughs,’ I never joined a fraternity.  Another story.

8 It's called achieving 'unity consciousness,' I understand now

9 In the c.o. category I could have chosen - my country allowed me to choose - to go a) to jail for two years; b) to work in a hospital; or c) into the Army as a Medic.  I chose the latter option.  Spent two years in Korea (after the war there).  And came out determined to help make the world a better place - a place that I could live in.  
   And keep my wits about me in the doing.

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