Recently, in our priesthood quorum meeting we were discussing prayer and its role in our lives. We spoke of various places and attitudes of prayer. And eventually, the discussion got around to our own personal experiences with prayer.
Though the Lord had answered my prayers hundreds of times, and though my testimony of prayer has always been extremely strong, my thoughts turned instantly to an experience I had had at basic military training camp in San Antonio, Texas, in 1968.
My air force training group was assigned to Barracks No. 1019. It was a typical two-story military building with double doors at each end, windows on both sides. It stood among a hundred other buildings just like it, all painted white.
My assigned bunk was on the upper floor toward the back. When you got to the top of the stairs, you faced the training instructor’s office on the right, the latrine on the left, and a dark wood floor straight ahead.
The foot of my bunk stood alongside thirty other beds just like it. My footlocker was at the head of my bed. I slept on the bottom bunk.
Sleeping on the bunk above me was William E. “Willy” Wilson, short, strong, black, raised in America’s south, deeply religious, a great friend.
From the first day in the camp I felt the need to pray more than usual. But I wondered if I would be able to kneel to pray in the barrack room.
The first night I waited patiently for the lights to go out. At 9:00 P.M. they shut off automatically, controlled by a timer in the training instructor’s office. They came back on at 4:45 each morning.
At about 9:20 P.M., I quickly and quietly got out of my bed and fell to my knees in prayer. I asked God to help me find a way to have my prayers without any interruptions.
Though we were all supposed to be in bed, many of the men continued polishing their army boots by flashlight or writing letters by the light of a cigarette lighter. Many just talked.
After praying, I would gently climb back into bed, careful not to disturb Willy.
I did that each night for about a week.
On the first Sabbath morning, we were allowed to sleep until 6:00 A.M. At a few minutes past 6:00, as I sleepily sat on the side of my bed, still trying to wake up, our training instructor, Sergeant Bradbury, came into the room.
He sternly called out, “Does anyone want to go to church today?”
“Yes, sir,” I called out. Total silence came over the barracks, upstairs and down.
“Come into my office, Fish,” he quietly ordered.
That first week, we had all learned never to volunteer for anything. Now I had.
“You made a mistake,” Willy whispered as I walked past him.
In the sergeant’s office I reported, “Airman Fish reporting as ordered.”
“Relax,” he said. “Sit down.” I did as I was told.
“What religion are you?” he asked.
“Latter-day Saint, sir,” I replied. His face had a puzzled look.
“Mormon, sir,” I explained.
“Oh,” he half smiled. “I have a good friend who is a Mormon,” he said half apologetically, as if to seek my permission to say that. I nodded in agreement.
“Do you know where your church meets?” was his next question.
“No, sir. I don’t.”
Opening his desk drawer, he pulled out a camp directory and showed me where to go. He also gave me the name of the camp chaplain, whom I called from the sergeant’s office. He was most helpful. “Priesthood meeting starts at 9:00,” he told me.
After getting all of the necessary directions, I gently hung up the telephone and Sergeant Bradbury said, “You are free to go. Be back by 6:00!”
When I was halfway back to my bunk Sergeant Bradbury spoke again, where all could hear. “Except for Fish, you are all confined to barracks, except going for meals.”
When I returned from church that day, I was greeted by the other men with sarcastic remarks.
“Hi, chaplain,” one remarked.
“How was God today?” another asked.
I just tried smiling and kept walking toward my bunk. I could see Willy lying on the top bunk reading.
“Like I said,” he greeted me, “you made a mistake.”
That was the first time in my life I had ever been told that going to church was a mistake.
I changed my clothes and marched to supper with the group—though only Willy would sit with me.
We spent the rest of our Sunday evening reading, writing letters, and doing other things.
Following my regular procedure of the past week, at around 9:15 I climbed quietly once more from my bed and in the darkness slipped to my knees. As usual, the regular barrack room noise continued.
Barely had I begun praying when a very familiar voice shouted clearly, “Quiet! The chaplain’s praying.”
It was Willy.
The noise on the upper floor of Building 1019 instantly stopped. Many of us would soon be assigned to the fighting in Indochina. I came to realize that we all felt a need for the comfort that comes from prayer.
By general, respectful agreement, I spent the next six weeks, promptly at 9:15 P.M. each night, standing at the foot of my bed and offering a two or three minute prayer in behalf of all of the sixty men on that top floor in Building 1019. And during those few short minutes of prayer, it seemed as though we were assembled in a sanctuary, far removed from military affairs and procedures.
At the end of each prayer there were always some quiet “amens” and many louder “hallelujahs.”
But it didn’t matter. As I stood there those forty nights, being the “voice” for many, we all prayed to the same God. And he had answered my prayers.