70: A Hand to Hold

70: A Hand to Hold

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Touched by an Angel

A Hand to Hold

When we put our cares in His hands, He puts His peace in our hearts.

~Author Unknown

“Where are you going?” my commanding officer screamed.

“I wish I knew!” I hurled back over my shoulder, and kept walking away from my duty post in Vietnam. I knew I was risking an Article 15, the military’s official reprimand, but I didn’t care. Life had bottomed out for me.

Barbed wire surrounded my base camp, so I couldn’t go far. But I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t think. Vietnam was a dangerous place for a depressed boy. Too many weapons around. Too much alcohol and too many drugs available.

I walked to the gate, stood there thinking about catching a departing deuce-and-a-half to anywhere and going AWOL, but decided against it, and walked back into the camp. With no place else to go, I just headed toward my hootch. That’s what we called the shacks we lived in.

A lot of guys fought depression in the war, but my depression was not about what was happening in Vietnam. It was about the mess going on back home.

When I got drafted into the Army, my high school sweetheart and I got engaged. Perhaps it was a silly thing to do, but it was our way of proving our three-year love for each other. I envisioned returning home to my job at the engineering firm, finishing my degree, buying that house with the white picket fence, and having kids! With the love of my life.

My family was loving and loyal. They were faithful members of the same church my fiancée attended, and life was pretty wonderful back home. I lived with the hope that as soon as I got back from the dreaded war, I could pick up where I had left off, and that was good.

Then the letters from home started carrying hints that something was amiss. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was most certainly there.

“Any mail for me?” I had called out to the mail clerk numerous days in a row, only to get the shake of his head in response. No mail. No love. No word.

Then three letters from three different people came in the same day, and I knew my life would never be the same. One was from my fiancée.

“Let’s cool it,” she said. “When you get home, we’ll see where we stand.”

Another was from my mom. “Your cousin died in a car accident taking his fiancée back to her home,” she wrote. Then, she added, “Your fiancée is dating a friend.”

And the other was from another relative. “In case no one is telling you, your fiancée is dating someone else, and your family has been asked to leave the church. Their presence is embarrassing to the fiancée.”

The thing about Vietnam was not just the 8,000 miles that separated us from home. It was the “snail mail,” as we called it. It took seven to ten days to get a letter. By the time you wrote a response and they received it, the world could change. You couldn’t solve problems with a two-week delay.

I felt so helpless. My parents had been asked to leave the church? Church was their life, their joy! And now they were asked to leave? And my fiancée was done with me? All those promises meant nothing to her? And my cousin was dead? I had nothing to go home to, nothing to hope for.

Back at my hootch, and knowing nothing else to do, I simply fell on my knees and lay across my cot. I wasn’t praying. I wasn’t sure I liked God at that moment. I just lay face down, cold as stone.

Plywood dividers separated the cots in our hootch, standing about two feet off the floor and up to six feet high. You could stand beside your bed and not be seen by your buddy next door.

Hidden by this wall of privacy, and after a long time of lying emotionless, I did what seemed right at the moment. Still on my knees, I rose from the bed, and with my eyes closed, reached one hand straight up toward heaven. The posture said I was praying, but I never opened my mouth. I didn’t know what to say to God.

In that precise moment, one of my buddies must have pulled over a stool and climbed up to look over the divider, because as I stretched up my hand, he reached over the divider and gripped it hard, like a handshake.

I was startled, then embarrassed, then angry. The shock of his touch made me gasp. Then the idea that he was watching me at my lowest moment embarrassed me. I kept my eyes squeezed shut while I counted to ten, trying to think of a way to respond to my buddy.

I was angry that he would reach over my divider and grab my hand when it must’ve been obvious that I was in some state of silent prayer. My countdown nearing ten, I decided that I would just grin, and say something dumb like, “You nut job! What’s that matter with you?” And he would probably grin, and let go of my hand, and then we’d sit and talk about two-timing girls or something.

I was calm now, and ready to face him. Then he squeezed my hand! Incredulous! I felt like a fool, but I squeezed back, and then I opened my eyes to see which friend gripped my hand.

No one was there! I still held the hand. I even squeezed it to see if I was imagining it, and it squeezed back! But no one was there!

And then, in that instant, a voice came: “If you’ll just hold onto this hand, and trust, everything back home will work out exactly as it should. Don’t let go. Trust me!”

And then it was gone. The hand, I mean. There was nothing but air.

But the air felt electric. I knelt in shock for several minutes. Then I wept. And after a short while, I rose and felt transformed.

I went back to my duty post. “Where did you go?” yelled my commanding officer.

“I had to go find something,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“Hope!” I said, and I smiled. And so did he.

Forty-five years later, I still smile because life worked out perfectly. I never quit holding that hand, even though I’ve never felt it again.

~Danny Carpenter

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