Saved by Seminary


“Help me!” I prayed, “or we’ll be shot.” And then unexpectedly Brother Call’s seminary lesson came to mind.

Brother Call, my senior class seminary teacher, never knew it, but he was literally responsible for saving the lives of five young G.I.s in the steaming jungles of Vietnam. I’m sure that when he taught that heartfelt lesson on Joseph Smith in the Liberty Jail, he had no idea just how far it would reach.

By the first anniversary of my graduation from high school, I had already been in the military five months. It was 1967, and the war in southeast Asia was raging.

One terrifying day, I found myself and the four others in my patrol creeping across an opening about 300-yards wide. The only cover we had was a darkened sky and some low grass and weeds. The grass was so short, in fact, that we couldn’t even raise ourselves up on our elbows. For more than five hours we had to inch our way across that wet, muddy rice paddy. The only thing I could see for those five wet hours were the soles of Buddy’s worn jungle combat boots.

It was maddening. The enemy knew we were there. Every few minutes, without warning, they would spray the area with machine gun and automatic weapon fire. The bullets were so close I could almost see them whizzing by and hear them in stereo. To us, the real definition of relief was when the next round of ammunition actually sounded farther away than the previous round.

I couldn’t help but remember a World War II movie I’d seen in high school, where the enemy set a similar field on fire, burning the American G.I.s in the process. Though I was absolutely terrified, I was also grateful for the mud, the water, the green grass, and the ever present drizzle that kept us fireproof.

Our greatest objective during that little mission was no more than to just keep moving—no matter how slow it might be—and to stay totally quiet, so as not to give away our position.

But suddenly, two hours into the mission, Buddy was attacked by severe claustrophobia. This “abnormal dread of being in close quarters” gave him a seemingly uncontrollable urge to jump up and run, screaming, toward the other side of the clearing. He never would have made it and surely would have given away our position, making us easy targets for the enemy. It was up to me to keep him calm and quiet. I instantly offered up a prayer for help. I had nowhere else to turn, and I had to keep him calm. All our lives depended on it.

That’s when Brother Call’s lesson began to have its effect. It was the only thing that came to mind. I saw him standing in front of the class, with fervor and conviction, teaching us about the Prophet Joseph Smith and his friends spending those horrible six months in the Liberty Jail. It was a 14-foot square room with no sanitary facilities, no showers, and very little fresh air or light. And the Lord told Joseph that he should not despair, for “all these things shall … be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).

Then, quietly, in a whisper calmed by the Holy Ghost, I talked Buddy through the most awful day of his life. I told him about another day, long ago in my hometown, when I sat almost uninterested on the back row as Brother Call relived the Liberty Jail story with me and 32 other seminary students. In his beautiful high tenor voice, Brother Call sang, “… if Christ should come tomorrow, what would I do? What would I say?” And on and on.

As I retold it, I realized that that Church history class was saving my life, and the lives of four others as well. We found ourselves at that moment no worse off than brother Joseph and his friends in their cell. I had never before, or ever after, whisper-sung a song like the one Brother Call sang. But in that watersnake-infested paddy I had to do it that day.

And Buddy whisper-cried. And so did Sam behind me—only able to see the soles of my boots, but feeling the soul of my being.

Lives were changed after that terror-filled day. Complaining ceased. A true camaraderie developed. Christianity became a major factor in everything we did. Buddy and Sam never joined the Church, but I feel they owe their lives to it. They learned a great deal about Joseph Smith that day, and they learned how much the Lord loves us. And the Holy Ghost bore witness to their spirits that what they heard was true.

All of those hours of seminary, which I estimate to be at least 600, paid off that day in the jungles of Vietnam. As a high school student, I never would have believed how important they would one day be.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ondre Pettingill