“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). That was not my sense when I was young.
When in 1972 I lost my campaign for New York State Assembly, I was crushed. I was despondent, depressed. My friends feared I might take my own life.
They had told me I could not lose. It was not my skills or my youthful appeal, but my victory was assured simply because the opposition was split wide open.
All I had to do was rally voters of my own party to win. Pundits reckoned wrong. Leading the ticket, Sen. George McGovern was an anchor around the necks of thousands of small fries in his party. I sank with him.
I lost my election, my job, my savings. And I nearly lost my hope. Soon, however, the Coast Guard called me to duty. I was assigned to a lifesaving station.
We were called out on a 31-foot rescue boat. I was a 29-year-old ex-teacher. My fellow reservist, Richie, was a 27-year-old dental student from the Bronx. And our boat coxswain, Joe, was a 19-year-old “regular” Coastie.
Regular Joe gave us orders. Richie and I obeyed them. Sent out to look for an overdue sailboat, we instead came upon a capsized fishing boat. The day sailors desperately clinging to the hull were in bad shape. Richie fired the lifeline, and one of the Italians grabbed it. When we hauled him aboard, however, he said his friends were too weak even to grasp the lifeline.
Against rules, we had to come alongside the capsized vessel and clumsily drag the weakened men on board. They were scraped and scratched, but whole, and we avoided them getting gashed by our propeller. The three Italians (in New York, they weren’t called Italian-Americans) were shoved into the compartment. They puked.
A black squall quickly kicked up. Regular Joe put “balls to the wall” as the engine indicator gave us speed to return to station with our catch.
Half an hour later, the healthiest of the three knelt before Richie and me. In tears he said, “We prayed to the Virgin you would come and save us!” We reassured him we were only doing our duty.
Safe at the station, Joe ordered Richie to refuel the boat and me to clean up the barf in the compartment. When we returned to the day room, the three day sailors we had rescued were now fully recovered, joining the crew for smokes and jokes.
As Richie and I entered the merriment, Regular Joe called out, “If these guys prayed to the Virgin and the she sent Morrison and Richie, they’d better pray to another Virgin.” We all laughed—and rejoiced.
I would soon learn from reading Richard Neuhaus’ journals. His quote from Rabbi Abraham Heschel spoke to me: “For him who saves a single life it is as if he had saved the world entire.” We had saved three lives. That gave me hope.
Soon, I was sent to Coast Guard Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Virginia. Damage control training required us to enter a blazing two-story blockhouse. I was handed the nozzle, but it required a three-man team to handle the fire hose.
With our asbestos suits on, and helmets, we advanced into the flames. Ten paces ahead, left turn, ten paces further. Then right, up the ladder, lift the bar on the iron door, and step out onto the roof. Simple.
I followed orders. As I led the hose team, billowing greasy smoke fouled our visors. But our feet felt their way along the path. Up on the landing, I hit the steel bar. It didn’t open. I felt along its length in the smoke and tried to hit it again. It still would not open. My teammates bellowed their protests. Open it!
In a flash, I had a vision of the headline in the local newspaper: Three Coast Guardsmen Asphyxiated in Training Accident. I never prayed before. I prayed then, “Lord do not let me panic!”
I did not panic. I hit the bar with my right hand. It popped right open. Somewhere, there is a photo of me triumphing on the roof like Rocky Balboa on the museum steps. We three young Coasties had survived the fiery furnace.
Soon, I came to faith in Christ. They sent me to the San Francisco Bay area for duty. Studying Russian language with a tutor, I was excited when she invited me to Stanford to meet Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read everything I could find from this Nobel laureate.
I wore my dress white uniform for the meeting. I had in hand the light blue shoulder boards I wore when I was confirmed at St. Paulus Lutheran Church. I had expected only to thank him in Russian and say a simple phrase: Christos Voskreeyaycee is “Christ is Risen.” That seemed appropriate for the Easter season.
I was anticipating meeting a wizened, frail old man. He had, after all, been marched eight thousand miles when the NKVD arrested him in East Prussia in January 1945. Then, eight years in the Gulag. After his release, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. That such a sufferer would be alive at all would be a miracle to me.
No such man appeared before me. Tall, broad-chested, with a lion’s mane of slightly graying red hair and beard, Solzhenitsyn glowed. Yes. He had an aura, as one sees in Rembrandt’s paintings.
How could this be? He could not be a saint. He had murdered. He had raped. He confessed all of this in the 8,000-word poem Prussian Nights, which he composed while being marched into Siberian exile.
Wordlessly, I handed him my sky-blue shoulder boards. In Gulag Archipelago, he wrote of the epaulets the NKVD had ripped off his shoulders when he was arrested.
I could say nothing else. I was stricken as dumb as Zacharias. But he seemed to understand my meaning.
With such a blessed life, how can I not be prepared to give my answer for the hope that is within me?
Considering our blessed lives as a people, in spite of all, we cannot give up on hope. Jefferson spoke for each one of us: “I steer my bark with hope in the head, leaving fear far astern.”